The Interview: Defying the naysayers and Overcoming Shyness through solo travel with Ambreen Ajaz.

WW:  Ambreen so great to talk again. You know when we met in Turkey  ...that was what gave me the idea of interviewing women that I meet on the road and sharing their stories. You were my inspiration!

Ambreen: Aaaah thank you!

WW: So why don't you start by telling me about you and your background. 

Ambreen: Ok I am 40 and a half years old, to be exact. I was born in Pakistan in a city called Lahore inJanuary 1975 and I had my schooling here and education and then I started working for a bank and I did that for five years, Then I moved to a telecoms company in Pakistan - so I worked there for 7 and a half years. Then in 2012 we moved all of us to United Arab Emirates.

From there I worked as a consultant for 6 months then joined a bank for 2 years. After one and a half years my family decided to move back to Pakistan. So  I was living there alone for 6 months and decided to take a vacation to Turkey. When I came home I decided to move back to my family in Pakistan. My former employees offered me the same contact with the same package back home, so I winded up everything in UAE and moved back to Pakistan.

WW:  So you moved with your mum and your sisters is that right?

AA: Yes but because of visa regulations we couldn't get a permanent visa for my mother so she had to move back, back and forth, so but because of her age she decided she wanted to get back to her roots in Pakistan. So my sisters decided they would also come back with her and they move

WW Why did you decide to go back and join them?

AA I'm a very family oriented person. And although I had a dream of living in my own apartment and living a very independent life when I started to living in the city by myself  I missed them a lot and they said they missed me. So for emotional reasons I decided I should come and be with my mum. 

WW: I remember you telling me about the first time you decided to travel by yourself. Could you tell me some more about that, was that Malaysia?

AA: No it was Thailand and I did that in 2010. Travel is my passion i have a lot of countries on my list to visit and I was totally confined in my work environment for three consecutive years. I never had a break and a tough budget and finally I decided to myself "I'm going!  if I have to go alone i'm going alone!" 

  So I decided to take some time off. And everybody said "No you won't be able to handle it, blah blah blah" and they discouraged it but I decided to ignore that and go head anyway. That was the first trip and now I'm very confident I can go anywhere. Then I went to sri lanka and dubai alone, and then turkey where i met you!

WW: Yeah! When you decided to go to Thailand why did you choose Thailand first? 

AA: It was more feedback from my work colleagesu, they said it was very cheap, has beautiful landscape and i would love the shopping. But i'm not a very much a  shopping freak so I chose it because it was cheap and beautiful, but then I did end up doing a lot of shopping also! 

WW:  Haha well why not!?  and tell me what kinds of things people said to try and discourage, you... was it your family or your friends?

AA: Both of them.  They were like: "no you will meet people and they will kidnap you and they will steal your passport and hold onto it."

They scared me so much that everytime I went out alone in Thailand i used to lock my passport in three locks and hold the key in my pocket. I thought "I can lose everything but I can't lose my passport!  But they told me all sorts of things: 

  • people aren't trustworthy
  • I don't know the language, how will I communicate?
  • I will not be able to bargain because I've never done this by myself before so i'll loose a lot of money 
  • I will bored
  • It's not a place to go alone

But I just said:

No I'm going.

WW: I think you told me that  your brothers were on the phone the night before discouraging you and that although when you were there you weren't you didn't always have a great time you always told them you had an amazing time... did I remember that right?

AA: Yes when I decided to go to Thailand, they said I shouldn't be moving ahead. The situation in Pakistan is that women should always be tagged along as someone's companion and not go out alone so they said  "we are saying it for your security you shouldn't do it, you don't know who you will be coordinating with and finding your hotels."  So we had an argument about it before I went to turkey also.

They weren't happy, they said "no we are not happy about this, but its your life" and I said " Yes I've taken a decision, I'm old enough to do what I want to do with my life so i'm doing it!"

WW: Good for you! But then what was the reality like when you were in Thailand travelling by yourself?

AA: Actually the first day I went to Phuket first instead of Bangkok and then when I landed  the customs stopped me and checked my luggage and it took them hours although it was just one suitcase. I was so scared I was praying that they wouldn't put me in jail.  Then finally they give me clearance and said sorry.

But when I met the tour I was going to join and the lady that picked me up I felt very relaxed. 

 I really enjoyed having the time to myself, the places to think and relax, no one to question me "why are you doing this, why are you going there?"

I could stay in the hotel or go out, it was totally my discretion so I thoroughly enjoyed that!  Because these things really don't happen like that over here (Ambreen lives in Pakistan.) You have to be compliant to a lot of other people's requests and wishes also. 

WW:  Tell me about that because I don't know so much what it is like to be a woman in Pakistan.

AA: The culture is you live in a joint family system and the way that women are being brought up is that you always have to be comply to some elder. Either the siblings, the husband, the mother, the brother, the father. Women are not considered competent independent creatures here. Also the security situation is such that there's too much dependence on especially the male side of the family or the elder part of the female family. There are too many restrictions, you can't stay late out after 10pm or go alone to certain places.  You have to be accompanied or someone has to come and drop you or pick you, you can't go to certain bazaars alone. So it's quite confined. You are always looking to someone for permission. Someone has to give an approval to "can I do that?" 

It's not totally free like it is in Thailand or Turkey. In Turkey one night I just decided I would stay in all day in the hotel and relax. It's not like that here you have to force yourself to do tasks that you don't want to do.

But it's improving, now I see a lot of girls doing this. In 2010 it was unimaginable that single women would be travelling to other countries abroad but now I see a lot of colleagues in my office planning and visiting trips to places like Europe and I am very impressed that things have changed so quickly in the last four or five years.

WW: And why is that is it to do with a change in government?

AA:  I think its a lot of things. I think its to do with the media and the awareness is there. And also a lot of people like it because its become a kind of status symbol they see someone else has visited a place and they want to go too. I'm sorry to say that, but that's the reality. Wanting to brag about it, "ooh i'm gong to UK, i'm going to Europe' so its like the age we are in. Social media and the cultural changes, people are studying abroad so the youth are getting independent.

WW: When you were in Thailand and Turkey by yourself, what did you do to feel safe? Apart from padlocking your passport three times! Was there anything you did to help you feel more safe? 

AA: I used to pray before I went out from my hotel. You know we pray five times a day (Ambreen is a Muslim) and the early morning prayer I used to pray in my hotel before I left for the day. In Turkey i wasn't very scared but the day before I was leaving my friend told me "you have to be careful about people in Istanbul because they are very scary and they attack single women," So i was wondering "How come I feel so confident if this is going on, and then I remembered reading some articles on the plane about women being raped and murdered whilst going hiking. So I got really scared, but then I thought to myself "come on you are not a coward!" so I used to pray in the morning and then  - normally i'm not very friendly just because i'm a very quiet person so i don't talk to people easily but i thought i would talk to people because i realized if i kept myself confined to a corner then there would be no one to come help me because no one would know I was in trouble, so I should get along and mingle with people and make friends. So I made a lot of friends in turkey. 

WW: I think that's a really great point, because one is more vulnerable if one's by oneself but if you have at least one other female friend you're safer.

AA: And also i got a local SIM and that I didn't do in Thailand and was always worried about how I would get in touch if i needed to. But in Turkey i had a local SIM and so i could be in regular contact with my friends and family back home. I thick its important if you are alone to be connected back home with somebody, so i could tell them "i'm going on this tour or staying at this hotel>"

WW: It's interesting isn't it because of course we have to be safe and to protect ourselves but if you read all of the bad things that happen we'd never leave our room! 

And i don't think its representative of the majority of experience as well. Sometimes terrible things happen but that's not the general experience in a place.

AA: Yes and when people want to scare you they only tell you the experiences that are scary rather than tell you about the positive experiences and I believe if you are feeling like that then you raise that kind of instinct in other people who then might try to attack you. if you are not confident enough people can tell you that. So its the aura that you exude also, the feeling that you have inside. In Thailand in the late evenings I wouldn't go out of the hotel in case someone would kidnap me, whereas in Turkey i did the opposite.

One day in Turkey I was really scared, but i appeared very confident and i was traveling on a public bus where no one knew English and I sat on this bus and knew that in 3 hours I would reach my destination but for some reason the bus took a different route and i didn't get there for 6 or 7 hours.  I messaged to my hotel and said tha this person was supposed to come and get me but its gone this time and i don't know where i'm going, they then called my phone and spoke to the bus conductor and found out where it was going and then they reassured me that we were safe and just going a different route. 

WW: So you ended up where you were going?

AA: Yes just 7 hours later

WW: You know I don't know if you remember this but i'm half Turkish, my father and his family are all turkish, and this sounds like a joke me and my mother would make - it just sounds like a very "Turkish" experience,e you think you're going one way and it turns out you're going another, you're told its going to be 3 hours but it ends up being 7 but it all works out fine in the end! (laughs) 

But great also that you could have that communication.

WW; Have you learnt anything about yourself? Having had the freedom to travel by yourself? 

AA: Yes. I used to think that I was not very brave. But it turned out i can handle a lot of tough situations on my own and previously I was not very confident, and in Pakistan I didn't go anywhere by myself. So i thought If i was in a situation that I would not been able to handle it, but there have been incidents in both places which if I hadn't been in them I wouldn't have realized that i do have the confidence to handle things. I am a brave person and I do have courage. Basically I was always a very shy person and I figure that If I am in a situation where it will benefit me i have the confidence to talk to people and introduce myself and to ask for help. I've also learnt how to communicate. Before I used to confine myself by saying "oh no i dont want to talk to people i don't know" I was very and i realized that if i talk to people they are very friendly.

WW: that was very my first impression of you that you were lovely, warm and friendly.

AA: And after you i met a girl from Argentina and she was very friendly also and we had lunch and shopped together and she said "oh you are so friendly!" `and i was patting myself on my back and saying "good job." So I  learnt that it's ok to talk to people and to trust people, i had a wrong impression that people are always going to bring you harm and that's not the case.

WW: Talk to me more about your faith and your spiritual faith. You are muslim and you mentioned it briefly, is travel accepted as part of your religion? 

AA: Generally its been laid down, we've been asked in our religion to go and explore the world because its been created by Allah and its so beautiful so if we have the means we should go and discover it. But for women its mentioned if possible they should travel with someone close. But its not mandatory or a compulsion that you cannot then go. So it's very much allowed and very much to  move ahead and see the beauty that Allah has created in the world. And i must say that every time I visited a new place in Turkey I couldn't help praising "Wow" Literally there is so much in the world that I get to see and it's really helped me settle my beliefs we have the world as a good thing, its not a bad thing and not that we are not supposed to enjoy the world It is there and it has been created so beautifully by Allah for us to appreciate. 

WW: what is the expression that you said? And what does it mean?

AA: Subhanallah - Alive and pulsate. 

WW: and you talked about praying as well,

AA: Basically as part of our religion we are not supposed to stop praying but there is some relaxation of the rules when we are traveling, we can shorten the prayers or we can combine some prayers. Like we pray 5 times a day, one is early mooring before the sun rises, one is afternoon and one is afternoon, and one is late evening when the sun sets and before midnight. So when we are traveling we can only pray three times by combining the early morning, then afternoon and then i used to combine the evening and midnight prayer. In Thailand I didn't pray as regularly but in Turkey I prayed on time and regularly every day. 

WW: Do you have any other places you want to visit?

AA: Yes I really want to go to Italy, London and South Africa. In shallah. 

WW: What advice would you give to other women wanting to travel for the first time by themselves?

AA: I think they should be more open to it and the most critical thing is opening to communication. A lot of time you don't realize what will come your way but if i hadn't been open to communicating with people then I wouldn't have received so many of the tips and info and help that people on my travels gave me.  So its very important that you free yourself from your worries and open to yourself to communication with outhrs.

WW: And what about for people still building up the courage? 

AA: I think they should just go ahead! And when they are planning don't look into the negative side of places because its a very small portion of an experience, and when you are trying to build up courage people will always try and discourage you so just believe in yourself and keep up the faith and I think that everyone will see that its the best thing that they could ever done. It frees you from so many worries and opens you up as a person.

WW: Thank you so much Ambreen - I agree!