Wednesday, 6 December 2017

The Believer

You may have read about her in one of my earlier posts, but I felt that my mention of her was too short and her impact quite large. So a post dedicated to her was necessary.

Who is Nimisha? 

She isn't famous or well-known. A regular woman you might say. But it is the regular women with the stories that connect to us the most, I feel. I hope you agree....

So, where did I leave off in my last brief mention about Nimisha? Ah yes, we were sitting in her car driving towards a get-together of sorts. I was there to learn more about her work and its impact after all. 

As we were driving, she pointed to a loud argument under the expressway, which by the way I likely hadn't noticed or accepted as part and parcel of life in India. Not her. She asked if she should turn back to help them. I said yes. A quick u-turn, smooth parking, and she was right in the middle of it all. Listening to each side intently, nodding her head, taking a moment to speak. 

Minutes go by, and the end result? Smiles and a dissipation of the argument. When she returned to the car, I asked her whether she would return the next day and whether she thought she had made a difference. A practical person, she responded that she may not have. 

Nimisha....

A person who is confident in her love for herself. Refers to her childhood with a lightness, and describes herself as an adorable, attention-seeking child. Close to 40, and confesses to her unconditional love for her sister and brother. 

With a father who was a good businessman and an entrepreneur, she was always interested in starting a business venture and applying her creativity to develop and grow it. However, circumstances did not allow this as she came from a patriarchical family. 

She was still very close to her father and instead built her background in child development and psychology.... Her teaching career began with her offering tutoring to children outside school hours and although she wanted to open a formal coaching class, she couldn't help worry about those who would not be able to afford the classes. 

She never started the coaching business but instead began volunteering at a school for the visually impaired and was shocked to find no blackboard. Lol. Then, moved to a school for the hearing impaired and then an orphanage, finally ending at Jumbish, an NGO which ran a public school. A life-long teacher, this is where her heart finally fit in.

The need to help others has permeated through to other aspects of her life too!

In fact, she has even written a biography about someone she met with cancer who wanted others to learn from his experience and avoid chewing an Indian tobacco equivalent called panmasala which is known to cause cancer. The book, Achanak, was impactful and led to many quitting the habit.

Nimisha's favorite quote is a prayer:

Tera tujko arpan kya laage mera...
I have nothing of my own
Everything is given to me

So every day she practices to give all back to nature and the world. And although she has no advice for others based on her experiences, she hopes that the work she does passes on the message automatically. Her words, "My life will be my message". 
Is your life your message? I hope it is, even if it is just for yourself!

Wednesday, 22 November 2017

4 tips on travelling solo in Asia


In my last post, I talked about my top 5 suggestions for travel in Asia.

This post gives specific tips for how you can visit thiese and other countries that you may not be familiar with, or for which you may need refreshers. Some of this information is similar to my blog post on How to Plan a Trip, but a reminder never hurts!

My tip 3 tips for travelling solo in Asia:

1. Arrange your flights

First things first, you can either arrange a round trip to one destination - which may be cheaper. Or multiple one way trips if you plan a multi-city tour. My best piece of advice for multi-stop trips?

Use Google to find the best days (i.e. cheapest days) to fly on. For that, you will need to use the following phrase "(starting city) to (ending city) flight fare". And, you will only be able to check one flight at a time. But, the savings will be well worth it!

2. Pick your local mode of transportation

After you research your top destinations on Google, Lonely Planet, and Trip Advisor, you try and grab a map from the airport. What's next? How do you get there?

In Hong Kong, I preferred trains, while in India, I felt more comfortable using the app OlaCabs and justdial.com for intercity and intracity transportation.

In some cases, like in Siem Reap, Cambodia, rickshaws are the only available and reasonably priced option, if you have done your research on prices.

Or, you can book a hotel tour, like in Malaysia which helps you see an entire city within a day.

3. Pick your accommodation

Listening to stories of how Couchsurfing is misused in some countries, I preferred the safety of hotels in India, which you can find through goibibo.com or makemytrip.com.

In other countries, you can do what our parents did - ask an agent at the airport for the best area to find hotels, reach there, and ask around for the cleanest room and reasonable prices. But, what if you have heavy backpacks or bulky luggage?

As I wanted to save time, I asked for suggestions from a trustworthy travel agent, or used booking.com for Asian countries outside India. I focused on the ratings, prices, and always reviewed the negative comments. Then selected my best option, and booked it online.

4. Rest-play balance

When I have had a hectic few weeks, I always find I need a week to rest. Otherwise my knee starts cramping, my breath gives away, and I fall prey to the evil cold!

Tune into your body and its signs. If you are travelling solo, listen to what your body wants to eat. In the heat, I prefer salads and curds, or juices. In the cold, I prefer noodle soups, and then of course my body tells me if I want a local delicacy like mango shakes in India, or dumplings in Vietnam.

If you are balancing work with travelling, dedicate a few days to do just that. Or build a routine so you do not feel like you are working more than you are travelling.



For tips on 5 essential items to pack, you can also read my other post. Oh and don't forget to roll your clothes - your body will thank you for it!


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 booking.com. 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 - booking.com.

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 expedia.com 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