Wednesday, 8 November 2017

4 Places to Visit in Asia

While I was able to visit most of the places that I set my heart on in Asia, there is never enough time to do everything you want. Sometimes, it is because work takes priority; sometimes because health does; and sometimes because family does. But I am grateful for visiting the countries that I did!

Here are 3 places I would recommend you to visit in Asia:

Rajasthan, India

Forts, palaces, deserts, and wait lakes?! Yup, Rajasthan has all that and much more.

Start from Jodhpur, India by visiting Mehrangarh Fort and the hidden queen's stepped well. The Fort is so huge that you may need days to really experience every nook and crany of it with due appreciation. In fact, I would also recommend going up the Fort to the Mata's temple. Remember to remove your footwear before stepping up the temple!

Next stop, Udaipur - If you take a flight, you will land by a lake. Then take a taxi to the City Palace. In the early morning light, the quiet and solitude you experience around the Palace is refreshing.

Then, Jaipur - A different vibe altogether with busy streets that were wide enough from generations ago, to accommodate the increasing city population. Every few blocks, you will be able to find good eats, yummy local curdy drinks, and fascinating historical buildings like the Hawa Mahal.

And, if you would like to, Pushkar - You will find many tourists here visiting the Bathing Ghat. But beware those who ask for money in exchange for prayers. My recommendation - stay aloof and focus on the ghat itself as the sun sets behind the buildings in the city. If you are interested, you may even take a few minutes in the day to visit Hanuman Gali, named after a popular Hindi TV show.

Inle Lake, Myanmar

My favourite experience in Myanmar was the boat ride along Inle Lake, known for its fishermen who row the boat with one foot while using their hands to hold their coned nets and catch fish.

Taking the bus to the Lake was an experience in itself. On a top of the line VIP bus, served by an usher, provided fresh snacks for the night journey, and surrounded by earphones with which we could watch our own private movie on the seat in front of us. And, a reclining chair. Wow!

Once the bus stopped at the village close to the Lake, the next 10 minutes were spent in a private car, and the car (when requested) took us to a local service provider for boat tours.

As I sat in the boat, I covered my head with a scarf, to shield my eyes from the sun. We passed floating farms with cows and chickens, houses on stilts with clothes hanging outside to dry, and tufts of green dotting the lake. We also visited tourist centres where we could buy souvenirs, not my thing!

Soon, I was told I could lay on my back, while the boat drifted on the water. How could I refuse?

As I slept there facing the sky, I could see the clouds. And, each time the boat passed a fenced gateway, the water level would drop, and the boat would take a small nose dive into the water.

The best moments in life are in nature, silent, feeling fresh waves and a beautiful breeze.

Lantau Island, Hong Kong

Hong Kong is built for tourism you could say, with its transportation pass (Octopus Card) that allows you to access trains and buses, pay for food, and even jump the line at tourist attractions.

With a handy dandy tourist map from the airport, all you need to do is select where you will be visiting and take off to a nearby station. Then follow the train map that is pasted at the top of every door on the train and find your way to the train station closest to your destination.

In fact, I highly recommend staying at Beepackers; although the bathrooms in reasonably-priced hostels in Hong Kong can only fit one toilet seat and you must learn to shower over it. You will have fast access to the park close by, the harbour, and the station which I recommend you take to see the Big Buddha. Along the way, stare out the windows as you near Tung Chung station - you will be able to see tree stumps jutting out the waters, ship yards, and green islands.

Hong Kong was one city that proved that it can be a natural hub too!

Siem Reap, Cambodia

Cambodia is known for Siem Reap, and Siem Reap is known for Angkor Wat. But did you know that Angkor Wat is part of a temple complex that also contains Angkor Thom and other temples.

Grab a map from the payment centre the day before, pay for your visual identification, and plan an early start the next morning. Arrive at Angkor Wat before sunrise and pick a spot within the temple to watch the sun rise in the distance. Make sure you have your day rickshaw ready to take you to the next temple - Google what you should be paying for a day rickshaw drive (do not trust the drivers).

You will be amazed by faces of the Buddha on the sides of the temples, large elephants carved into the bases, and the vastness of the temple complex is incredible too. Remember to carry multiple bottles of water with you, as you climb each temple!

Of course, there are also other places I would recommend that you visit like

Sri Lanka - a train ride is the best way to do this; Vietnam - to the stepped farms and national parks in the North; and Malaysia - to the Chinese temples with red lanterns showering wishes over your head.

But, the above three places gives you desert, lake, and green for the perfect trifecta!

Thursday, 26 October 2017

How to Plan a Trip

This blog has been a long time coming. I guess it was the perfectionist in me that didn't want to miss any tips for you, and also the possibility I'd be called out if I did!

As I have been providing tips over the past year to close friends and family though, there are some tried and tested checklist items that I can share with you.

I hope you can share your own checklists in the comments section as well for those of us who are embarking on their first, fifth, or tenth trip!

What to think about when planning a trip to an unknown destination:

1. Anything specific you'd like to experience?

If, for example, you are going to the Serengeti, you may want to look at what you may see in different seasons during the safari. Point in case - a wildebeest migration in Tanzania takes place at a different time than one in Kenya. The dry season may have less foliage so animals may be more visible but what kind of animals do you want to see?

On the other hand, are you more into active traveling? Cycling tours, snorkeling and scuba diving, skydiving, hiking and camping? If so, you may want to check out popular routes and see whether you want to be on a well populated hike through the city or are comfortable alone. If so, you will also want to inform others where you will be and when in case of emergencies. 

You could also group different countries together as a package such as some  countries in Asia. Or, if in Europe, stop over in Iceland coz it could be free on Icelandair on the way to the Americas. 

Finally, do you want to visit a place that will soon restrict the numbers of travelers such as Barcelona or Machu Picchu? Or that you've heard may change how its cities are built such as Cuba.

You can use other travel bloggers stories and Lonely Planet guides on Google to help you decide!

2. What kind of weather would you like to travel in?

If you're going to the Sahara desert or Rajasthan in India, summer days may be very hot and winter nights cold. Are you prepared for this? Does the weather matter or can you take some extra clothing and reflective blankets to bake the cold at night in your tent?

3. How much are you willing to spend and what is your luxury threshold?

Can you afford a trip to Antarctica on a ship or would you rather go to Iceland or Alaska on a cruise? Would you prefer to sleep in a tent in a safari camp without fences and hot water or do you want a hotel room with doors and windows?

If you're not on a tour package and don't know anyone you can stay with, book in advance using Or you can visit the tourist office at the airport if your landing airport has one. In some situations I wanted to fly by the seat of my pants, and I searched for hostels during my layover, but that is not a guarantee if you're traveling during tourist season and hate surprises! Ergo -

The other aspect of finances is related to your flight - Google the reviews for your airlines before booking and Google used to also show the approximate price on different dates in a calendar. Then use a website for flight booking that you're sure will give you a good rate - sometimes it's the airline's website itself. At other times it could be or another search site.

4. What are your absolute no-nos?

Where would you feel safe? If it is in your own home and need, let us rephrase the question! How uncomfortable can you accept feeling? 

For me, I am fine with a hostel in countries like Australia or a riyadh or hostel in Morocco, as long as it has no history of bed bugs and I have read reviews about the safety of the neighborhood and the reasonable cleanliness of the rooms (dirt is fine by me depending on how it got there!).

I also looked at how far it was from the attractions I wanted to see and whether I could get there easily, low money, safely.

But, I prefer tents on safari tours and calling excursions of course, and hotels or known family/friend's homes in countries on the African continent and Asian subcontinents. Why? I learned from close friends of a few sour apples in the couchsurfing bunch that are not easy to notice or pick out!

Know your pet peeves!

6. The three landing tips I can't live without!

When I land I look for three main things. It helps to limit the overwhelming anxiety of how to explore a new place, sometimes without knowing the language! - How will I get to where I'm staying? Where can I buy a cell phone sim? Do I have enough money?

The first question about how to get there can be sorted in advance by googling how others travel in the city you will visit and how much it should cost/ how to negotiate/ what do cabs there look like and how to know they are actually valid taxis. In India, the airport may have a country where you can book government taxis. In fact, if you are nervous, you may want to print a sheet of quick language words and phrases you can use right away. Also, print a Google map route to help you feel at ease. But how to get around can also be answered by an airport tourist office and they should have a map of tourist hotspots - double win! Some airports may even have free shuttles that drop you close to where you want to go like in Hong Kong! Still scared - Google cab prices in advance, keep a language sheet, print a route map. 

For the second question about cell phones some airports allow you to buy a sim while for other cities you need to get into the city to find one. A cell phone with data is key - you will be able to Google translate, Google maps, Google restaurants, Google tourist destinations, call emergency lines, get access to lost travel documents you should have scanned and emailed yourself in advance. Do not travel without a phone!

Lastly, don't forget to convert your money at the airport and then mostly in the city at a recognized (cheap) currency rate exchange office. Check out the currency rates on Google in advance to see how much you're willing to lose of the exchange rate isn't fair and how much you need to get to your residence before searching for a local exchange office.

Although this blog does not detail the logistical preparation once you plan your trip and before you land in your chosen destination, some tips for your information - look at insurance based on your age and countries you will be traveling to, do you need to put a hold on your health card, informing your credit cards about your travel stops, finding a credit card that doesn't charge for out-of-country payments, taking an e-copy of travel docs and taking photos of expensive items you are carrying with you, do you need vaccinations and does your current health insurance reimburse you, create a financial plan for your trip, apply for travel visas in time, prepare a comprehensive packing list you will use to buy missing items and forever onwards use for all trips (depending on what's relevant of course on the list), download the apps that you will need such a weather and maps, and create a family/friends whatsapp group to keep in touch and share your daily memoir!

If you have any questions or would like to add some tips, please respond in the comments below!

Saturday, 14 October 2017

The Sea Mom

The stories of certain people require their own time in the spotlight. 

The story I share today is one that I have wanted to share for a long time now; of a mother I met in Antarctica. She was my first story on my first trip during my year of travel. 

I watched her daily, over the 12 days I shared with her on a ship. Always on the ship's bow, searching for wildlife, in the cold winds of the Antarctic. 

Natural for her probably, as I later learned she was a marine adventurer from a young age. I could not help but want to find out more about her story!

That wintery December on the way back from Antarctica two years ago, Gail sat in front of me, past the table, giggling with nervous anticipation, "I'm not so sure about this now". She is handed a certificate immediately afterwards congratulating her on her night of outdoor, under-the-sky camping on the Antarctic peninsula. An experience that is unparallelled!

Gail begins talking with her son, Dominik, about our conversation the previous night. We had talked about technology and its influence in disconnecting us from nature. As she was travelling without technology at the time (as was I since there was no network), we both connected with each other about the value of travelling technology-less and experiencing whatever is out there.

A single mother who wanted to be a nurse and ended up in teaching; the bigger story in her life is that of her marine adventure - her years-long travel doing odd jobs and finding herself. 

Gail has a love of sailing. In fact, right after I met her in Antarctica she planned a sailing trip to Cape Horn, to reach there on her birthday. Years ago, in her 30s, she had taken a much longer marine trip when she decided to respond to her friend's email by planning to sail from England to NZ.

At that time, like many people at differing stages in life, she was at a point in her life where she questioned herself asking, “Is this all there is? Is this what I want to do for the rest of my life?”. Knowing she wanted to make changes but not knowing to what, there followed a long process of how, what, and where?

It was during this process that a letter arrived out of the blue from New Zealand from a college friend, and she suddenly knew it was where she wanted to go. The next question was how....?

Get on a plane and go...? Not really… Flying from one world city to another...? It was the journey , the journey is from where new beginnings can come.

She thought about what she liked to do (sailing). She collected a couple of charts, talked to a few friends, and mapped out her route to NZ. Once she found out that a boat needed to be delivered from England to West Indies, she sold her car, wrote a will, stashed her 4-month savings, ignored the words of those who felt she was being irresponsible, and set off on her journey...

A physically and mentally taxing journey of nearly 2 years....

As she set off, she shared a boat with two men and recounted how awkward it was, although one was polite and the other not so much. Nonetheless, she was on a journey and sailed across the Atlantic.

The uncertainty of facing the unknown was most acute at the first arrival point after leaving home - an island in the West Indies - a totally unfamiliar culture and new to being alone from the security of home. Many months later, she landed in NZ and felt like she was home. 

For her, in hindsight, the fear, trepidation, and uncertainty of tomorrow became easier as the months went by. There were difficult times but on refection she says she learnt to have a faith and trust in tomorrow.  As I sit there listening to her, I think about the courage she had to do what she did. She says that when you are younger, you can adapt to new situations. And I agree. 

After all, that is the reason I decided to take a year travelling alone around the world while I was still in my early 30s. Gail's story was remarkably similar to mine, waking up to a different story every morning, in new cultures I may not fully understand, and still adapting to new situations while experiencing the physical and mental struggle associated with responsible and respectful travelling.  

Yet, her story is much bigger than mine. Setting sail across the Atlantic, living on a boat, working odd jobs along the way. 

Gail is now a single mother to Dominik, now a young man likely with his own story.

When I spoke with her on the morning on the way back from Antarctica, Gail talked about an Argentinian pharmacist she met right before her trip to Antarctica. A cyclist who travelled by bike up to and past Istanbul – another story that is impressive in its own right. 

Gail talked about how the pharmacist travelled by cycle with a small stove. Her meal consisting mainly of rice, and her hospitality in offering tea to Gail and Dominik when they met were something to be admired. A sentence or two about her own journey would not be able to capture the difficulties that this cyclist must have faced on her trip; still persevering and optimistic to achieve her goal.

Gail has continued to travel to India, Spain, Ireland, France, Chile since I last saw her. And she plans to "set sail' again to somewhere in Africa next.

Over the years, she has not only sailed, but she has taught and worked on sheep farms - her personal, new-found passion. She and others like her prove that age is an overrated number. And, she recognizes "people out there (are) taking on (the) challenge of the unknown (all the time)".

Gail is one of those sea moms who has faced challenges of the unknown, and inspires those younger than her to dream big or go home. A force of wind that noone can stop… 

The trip she took in her 30s was a personal journey because she was questioning her life and wanting to take a new direction... It was a physical journey where she experienced some of the most beautiful places on earth, but probably the inner changes brought about through this process were very significant that she believes have given her courage, strength, and faith in tomorrow....

From me to you on the first blog I have written since many months, I wish you inspiration to embark on your own journeys. Please stay tuned for more blogs about the people I met on my trip, my own experiences and tips travelling the world, and some general checklists that you can use for your own trips to any corner of the earth!

Friday, 30 December 2016

"To Infinity and Beyond"

A year ago, I began my year of travel in the last continent of Antarctica. A year later, I have now returned home. 2016 is now coming to an end, and it has been a while since my last "chat" with you. 

So, where have I been?

When I left you in July, some of you reached out to me asking me "Where's Asma now". It was a pleasant way for me to keep in touch with you. There were many others I left in the dark. They waited patiently till I completed my trip so they could hear my stories and share their own. I would like to thank you as well. 

In the last half year, I have experienced loss, rekindled my ability to feel small joys, and met old acquaintances. It is not easy for me to say, but after the first 6 months of my trip, I was fairly broken. Emotionally exhausted. Logistically I was a marvel and could plan a trip at a moment's notice, but compassion fatigue had set in and I needed a break.

As I reflect back on my year with you, I realize that it was not the people or the places that made my trip. It was not even the moments. It was the minute acts of kindness; the hope that there was some empathy, generosity, and bond between a stranger, a family member, and myself for a brief passing minute. 

After my trip, there was no transformative happiness and I sensed a feeling of disenchantment, apathy, and hopelessness. After all, change requires time, and my brief interactions with people were not sufficient to support or change thoughts and beliefs in a meaningful way, a way that supports kindness and compassion . In fact, some may never change.

I had hoped to inspire. But my impact is unknown, and that is okay.

The past year has been tumultuous in many ways, and I am grateful that I had the opportunity to see the world at exactly this time. It has been a time when we wonder if our differences will be recognized and understood - age, gender, race, ethnicity, religion, and political views. A time when we wonder if it is important to change beliefs as long as actions do not harm. A time when we were unsure how to help, and whom to trust as sources of information.

Is it necessary to make a difference, or is it necessary to just act differently?

The good news is - I have truly recognized the power of hope. An opiate that inspires many to form a bond with strangers, to give a compliment, to trigger an emotional reaction which brings them to make a donation, to offer a seat or a smile or say sorry for being in your way. Although it seems that those with hope may be unrealistic, living in a childhood fantasy, doomed to realize that nothing will change. It is a force that helps us live. 

This new year brings hope to those who would like to leave the past year behind. And while I may not wish to do that, I will be accepting my new life and old routine as most of the world does and dream of a future where we work to live and not live to work. This new year, I will continue my blog posts and hope to see your comments, but I will hope without expectation as I know this is a venue for me to express myself and for my hidden readers to connect with me in thought even when they remain hidden. 

In solidarity and yours very truly, one-woman-who-hopes-she-is-empowered.

I wish you a sincerely happy new year with unreasonable hope and fantasy *wink*.

Courtesy certainasthesun/Redbubble

Saturday, 2 July 2016

How to overcome your fear of solo travel

I have decided to start a new "How To" series as a way to respond to many of the questions you have asked me along the way. This is my way of sharing my tips, asking for yours in the comments below, and also a means to support your own travel dreams.

To the moon and back my fellow travelling enthusiasts!

The one question I am asked frequently is whether travelling alone is scary and how do I do it? As I have now travelled to quite a few countries, can safely say my tips are now more informed as I understand your challenges better.

But, I would like to hear from you about whether your have other tips and challenges I may not have considered.

#1. Travel with a group

Okay, let's say that you are just not ready to take on the city by yourself. Preplan a group tour that picks you up and drops you off at your home, hostel, or hotel!

Some tours even arrange for a one night stay at a hotel before your tour.

You get to meet others who may share your interests, visit the places that you would like to, and no worries about getting to and from there.

Great way to start. Just like I did!

#2. Share a room

I find that when I am in a dorm room with other active travellers, I want to explore myself.

Yes, sometimes, I seem to share rooms with travellers who prefer to stay in bed or keep to themselves. But looking outside at the sun and sky and seeing my fellow travellers staying inside is just as much a motivator for me to leave the room!

#3. Your base, your entry strategy

What's that?!!

Well, we may be all gung-ho to start our trip - we got frustrated, we know what we want to see and how, or we booked a group tour. But we are still frightened as woah!

Why? Because we aren't used to living by ourselves and knowing how to get there in a foreign city.

No worries - There are tried and true ways to find accommodation. Canada - Hosteling International; Australia - YHA; Asia - Reviewed hotels; South America - Reviewed hostels! Use or to find your accommodation, and before booking look online for negative reviews.

Make sure it has free WiFi, laundry, and a shared kitchen to save you money. And, they sometimes even help you get to their place with an airport pickup.

#4. Get frustrated

When I found it easier to depend on others rather than face my fears travelling solo, I found that my best bet was to get so bored and frustrated that I picked myself off that cozy bed and stepped out into the open.

The reason ranged from the fact that I had spent so much money to get there, or I was hungry, or noone else was available to accompany me but gave me directions to meet them somewhere at a certain time.

Whatever the reason, use your frustrations and plan an exit strategy!

#5. Plan an exit strategy and destination

My favourite exit strategies?

Google - Find which destinations you would love to visit in your tourist city. Does your city map draw you a route from one tourist attraction to another?

Arrange your transportation - Do you need a city pass that you use to pay for public transport? Do you need to get off at certain stops? Or, can you book a cheap taxi ordered straight to your door via a mobile app or your hostel or hotel.

#6. Find your biggest supporters

Who are the people (or person) in your life who support your dreams, no matter how scared they themselves are?

Sometimes it's family, sometimes friends, sometimes coworkers, and sometimes fellow travellers. These are the people who tell you - you are the champion, you got this!

In fact, they get so excited that they even research activities, destinations, and hotels for you to enjoy your trip.

One cheerleader is all you need!

#7. Ready to do it without a plan?

Once you have a bit more experience, book just one day of accommodation. You will realize flights, accommodation, and tours are cheaper found on the go. And sometimes you get the best tips from locals.

Use for hostels and reviews along the way, flights can be found by googling and choosing the best dates and airline companies, and tours can be found by asking travel desks and tour companies physically located in your vacation destination.

Sometimes friends can be a great resource if they have visited the place or live there, and sometimes Google is your best friend. I mean, I recently booked a 3-day tour the night before I had to leave for it, and I had a great time and learned a lot.

I hope these tips help you as they helped me. Please share your own tips in the comments below, and share this post with others who may find it useful.

Enjoy your trip!!!

Tuesday, 21 June 2016

The elder

I dedicate this post to my grandaunt, who has looked after us, scolded us, loved us, and spoilt us with sugary treats.

Some of you may remember that I had originally planned to leave for Australia at the end of March. With my bad health and later, news that she was also not well, I decided to extend my stay in India till June.

Seeing her deteriorate in the hospital in May - one of my hardest experiences. When I had to leave, I made a difficult choice supported by my entire family. But every step I take onwards will be in her memory.

Who was she?....

I recently visited my grandaunt's apartment in Surat. As I walked up the steep steps, all my memories flooded back - of my childhood, sitting on tiny stools in the kitchen to eat, playing on the rocking horse in the adjoining room, looking out onto the streets whenever we'd hear music from a wedding party go by, running upstairs to a neighbour's to catch a few minutes of TV.

As I sat there listening to her about how much pain her legs were in and how lonely she had become, I thought back to how she would command our respect.

Don't nod your head; say yes. Clean the room. I learned how to tuck in my bedsheets from her, you know.... Even now, in her ripe age, she still scolded us about how we must learn to cook, take care of our elders, and save money instead of spending it foolishly. Oh, and take sweets from the cupboard whenever you want, ok?

Growing up, she would stand at the door waiting for my grandmother, then in her teens, to come home from school. When it was time for her to get married, she took care of her ill mother financially and physically. She took care of the house, meticulously noting down the household expenses. Soon, she was balancing her work and household life on her own, after my great grandmother expired.

But my grandmother would visit her often. And she would also travel down south to visit my uncles and aunts.

As she entered retirement, she gave up the world of work, but her personality and convictions remained the same. Respect for elders, a clean house, hard work, and meticulous bookkeeping.

But, she grew to feel that she would have benefited from the presence of a male in the household, someone to take care of duties she no longer had the physical ability to do on her own.

I will still remember her though as the family's strong voice, one with the ability to be strict till we cried, and loving too.

As she passed away today, our family is in mourning and we remember her, strong, stubborn, and loving. A champion for some of us in our hardest times.

After all, she was the first person in my family to know and support my dream of travelling the world for a year.

Even if we try we will be unable to meet her level of self-sacrifice. We love you.

The yoga teacher

Story #3 – Alefiyah Siamwala

Alefiyah is my cousin, the future of India, a jewel in the rough you could say. Her energy, her grace, and her dynamism is what I see in almost all young women in India today. How do I even begin to tell her story?! A fashion entrepreneur, a freelance yoga teacher, a photographer-in-training; these are just her current pursuits! And she has many more experiences to boot while growing up in Mumbai.

When Alefiyah was in school, she was, in her words, "a complete introvert, scared of what people would think about her if (she) dared to open (her) mouth. She did not have any friends and had very low/no self-confidence. She did not participate in competitions and was in a state of depression by the time she reached the 10th grade". These are powerful words from someone who has shown her talent and her mental strength in many ways over the past few years....

The day she left school she promised herself she would completely transform herself. When she entered college, she pushed herself to be social. Her degree also gave her a platform to speak in front of audiences. She remembers a particular speech she gave on "The Girl Child”, to which she received a lot of recognition. With each presentation and each new event she organized, her confidence grew. 

Despite her new found confidence, she had to regain herself after graduation. Today’s young women are faced with an enormous responsibility to either get a steady 9 to 5 job, or get married. But there are so many options that they forego because of these boundaries. Due to many different reasons, Alefiyah was also caught in a vicious cycle and could not find a job that she could continue. She also could not find guidance on where to turn next in her career, and relied on friends and her mother for emotional support. She stopped attending events because she would be asked what she was doing.

Today she is happy to say she is a ‘multipotentialite’. We do not need “one true calling”; it is perfectly alright if we are good at many things. In her current pursuits, Alefiyah is able to be creative, and work on her passion for fashion, photography, yoga and writing. Yoga, she says, has brought her a peace of mind which was hard to find earlier, and teaching her clients has given her a contentment no job could ever give her. She has also started her own website and blog called “Trends and Trails” and is a co-founder of an accessory brand called “Threads and Stones”.

Her advice for the younger generation, "People who matter will support you no matter what, and family will come around if you show you love what you do. Go ahead and chase your dreams, live for your passion and make sure the person you look at everyday in the mirror is happy internally as well as externally!"

The entrepreneur

Story #2 – Shamim

Two weeks ago, I sat in my aunt’s kitchen waiting for Shamim to take me to her house. An epitome of inspiration and yet one of the most humble women I have met, her energy was infectious. I watched her speak animatedly about the importance of a regular health check-up. She had returned from booking an appointment for her and her friend, even though her friend was hesitant. Fast forward 30 minutes and we were weaving through gullies to reach her home.

A two-story house with tiled floors, a tiny kitchen, cupboards lining the walls; the bedrooms were upstairs. It also had a bathroom with working sewage facilities; a rare occurrence where this house was located. All due to Shamim. Shamim is a cook at my aunt’s house and she lives in what is known as the slum area; a word I do not like using since it typecasts the people living there as someone desperate and needy. Instead I would like to say that many living here are extremely entrepreneurial. 

This is Shamim’s story.

Now separated from her husband, whom she had helped to get a job many years ago in Mumbai, Shamim is the champion of change in her household and with her community. Her husband has not spoken to her for 2 years. Yet, Shamim, a powerhouse of a woman, has managed the budget of the household, created a network of clients through referrals to homes and events, and is the manager of an informal venture capital fund that collects 5,000 Rs per month from each of 10 members and then donates a random member each month 50,000 Rs. This has helped them buy homes, fund the education of their children, and provide for many other necessities.

Shamim has studied until Grade 7 and was married at the age of 20. As she speaks about the power of education, she says that women need to know that they can be independent financially. She speaks about the desires and aspirations of young girls today and how they need to study, so they can work even after they are married; this is a significant issue in some families in India regardless of socioeconomic status.

She has advocated for the education of her two children, and her nephews and nieces. In their late teens and early 20s, they are pursuing different fields of service that will lead them to stable jobs. They speak very fondly of Shamim, her struggles, and her inspiration.

How can anyone not be inspired by a mother, a sister, and a confidante such as Shamim….

The doctor

Story #1 – Dr. Shobha Kale

I met Dr. Kale years ago when I had a case of Delhi belly right in Mumbai. I still remember her placing her hand on my stomach and diagnosing what I had right away. She left an indelible impression on my mind, as I was back to my kicking self within a few days.

My paths crossed with her this time in Mumbai, as I was seeking advice for the baby in Jodhpur whom I mentioned in my previous post. As she spoke about the resources I could contact, I realized that I could not miss the opportunity to interview her. As a woman in her 70s, still running her practice, I knew I would hear an incredible story about her childhood, and that is exactly what happened!

Born to a family of 4 girls and 2 boys, Dr. Kale grew up in a household where girls were given the opportunity to study, but boys were still the “kings of the household”. Water for the boys? Let the girls get it! Land inheritance? Boys first. But, Dr. Kale along with her sisters woke up every morning, completed their domestic chores, and then went to school. The family did not have a doctor, a huge prestige for any family in any community in India; so Dr. Kale was asked to pursue the profession. “Listening to our parents is how we were brought up”, she said to me.

Now in her 70s, she still believes that parents must guide their children, but she also speaks about families that do not support their daughters and daughters-in-law. Eat after the husband; do not talk to any men, except for the husband; do not work after marriage; why invest in a girl when she will get married eventually anyway. I even learned of stories where, if a husband is not happy with his wife, he leaves her even if she has children, and marries another woman.

As I listened to her story and the stories of many other families, I began to feel impassioned about the rights of women. These are not stories that are told, yet these are stories that exist in every family, regardless of class and level of education. And in some cases, through domestic abuse. It is a sad state of affairs when any life is not given the importance it deserves. 

I ask her what can be done; that I cannot sit passively while women around the world suffer in silence. She replies “This is how it is; it is difficult to change the system”. But, as we continue talking, her words imply that change is possible.

She is a prime example of possibility, just like many other families in India, including my own. In fact, she has also provided logistical and practical advice to many young women and men about how they could overcome their obstacles. What is special about her is that her nuanced advice is offered in the context of family dynamics, in a way that seeks to bring harmony in the household but also empower each family member wherever possible. Because of mothers like her who suffered in silence, daughters are now being provided every opportunity despite the naysayer in the family, the community, and the world.

I dedicate this story to our Doctors, our true intellectuals, and the elders of India; those who seek to amplify the good and always see the potential in every life!

Friday, 27 May 2016

5 Times I Fell in Love with Asia

My last post was filled with disappointment about the struggles people face in Asia. There were rays of hope though. And, I thank you for your words of encouragement in your comments!

As I get ready to leave Asia and move on to my next continent, I can't help but reflect on the times that I truly fell in love with this continent. So, in honour of my ancestral home, my family and friends who I will miss dearly, and the many new countries I have visited and people I have met here:

5 Times I Fell in Love with Asia

1. Travelling by myself in Hong Kong

Feeling like I could travel on my own again, experiencing the self-confidence I had lost a short while before, was empowering.

I chose to step out of my hostel; I chose where I wanted to go and problem solved how to get there; and then I walked, trained, and explored the area by myself!

Of course, I had my airport map, advice from roommates at the hostel, suggestions from close friends in India, and Google. After that, all I needed was initiative.

The few days in Hong Kong during the day were necessary for me. With my self-confidence back during the day I could visit friends at night, and really experience the city for what it had to offer - bright city lights, lush green islands, and beautiful parks with exotic birds!

2. On a private boat on Inle Lake in Myanmar

The one place I really wanted to visit in Myanmar - Inle Lake!

Taking the bus to the Lake was an experience in itself. On a top of the line VIP bus, served by an usher, provided fresh snacks for the night journey, and surrounded by earphones with which we could watch our own private movie on the seat in front of us. And, a reclining chair. Wow!

Once the bus stopped at the village close to the Lake, the next 10 minutes were spent in a private car, and the car (when requested) took us to a local service provider for boat tours.

As I sat in the boat, I covered my head with a scarf, to shield my eyes from the sun.

Soon, I was told I could lay on my back, while the boat drifted on the water. How could I refuse?

As I slept there facing the sky, I could see the clouds. And, each time the boat passed a fenced gateway, the water level would drop, and the boat would take a small nose dive into the water.

The best moments in life are in nature, silent, feeling fresh waves and a beautiful breeze.

3. When I visited the Golden Temple in Amritsar, India

The Golden Temple in Amritsar was on my bucket list for a few years (because it was on my dad's bucket list for most of my life). I had almost given up hope that I would be able to visit it, because of the social unrest in Northern India at the time.

But, because I fell sick and had to cancel my flight to Australia, and with the help of my close friend and his best friends, I was able to squeeze in a detour to Amritsar before leaving India.

Walking at night on the cool floor, watching the temple light up golden against the night sky, by a man-made pond of bright fishes, hearing the religious hymns praising all religions and humanity - I could not help but feel overwhelmed that I had finally ticked off something from my dad's list.

4. When my friend's mum showed me her ancestral home in Jodhpur

I began my trip through Asia in Jodhpur, India in January, 2016. At the time, my new friend and his family were planning renovations to their home and I was planning my route through Northern and Southern India. I spoke about how I wanted to visit all 7 continents in a year, and about how I needed to shoot videos and take photos that documented my journey.

With a twinkle in her eyes, pride in her voice, and an infectious energy, she suggested her ancestral home in Jodhpur. She hailed a rickshaw on a main street and with all my gear, we set out towards her home. As we passed each street, she pointed out the street where her husband worked, and spoke about how she would walk from her home to her parental house in her younger days.

Reaching her home, she even asked me to take a photo of the nearby well, the doors and windows of her house, and spoke about how close it was to Mehrangarh fort.

As I walked through the gates of that home, I could feel history living in its rooms.

5. Finally, loved by my family in Mumbai and Chennai, India 

As my trip was not pre-planned, I was not sure when I would be able to visit my paternal and maternal uncles, aunts, and cousins in India.

In Mumbai

When I finally arrived in Mumbai, I took off for my cousin's home to see my 2-year old niece. After her brief fascination with my Merrells, and my quick fruity snack, the three of us booked a taxi and set off for my uncle's home. My uncle - who was concerned about my trip and made sure that I had all my needs met; my aunt - who would defend my trip on my behalf to anyone who questioned.

As I met each part of my close family, I noticed how much they wanted to support me. From one of my uncles who traced my entire round-the-world trip on a large map, to my dad's cousins who opened up family albums to show me what he looked like when he was a child.

The love was palpable.

In Chennai

When I arrived in Chennai, at the end of my trip in Asia, I was given a tour of Chennai.

But, not just any tour!

Sitting on the passenger seat of my uncle's scooter - the same scooter I used to stand on as a child - I snapped photos of the college where my mother studied in Chennai, the beach where my mum used to "hang" with her friends, and the home where I was born.

I listened as he spoke about my grandfather's successful export/ import business, our family's ancestral wealth, and how he travelled in his own buggy and car when few others had them.

Despite the struggles we face daily now, to earn an income, to balance household chores, and to take care of ill family members; knowing where my mother grew up, studied, and gave birth to me filled me with a sense of history, a sense of pride about my beginnings.

As I bid adieu to Asia, I know that I will have learnt the most from this vast, largest continent of ours. Antarctica will always have my love; but Asia is home.

Stay tuned for my next post as I visit MY LAST CONTINENT - the land of the outback!

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