2014

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! 

 

END

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What's going to be your trigger to travel?

For me it wasn’t the boss who I wanted to stab in the eye with a fork (although that helped.)

It wasn’t the increasingly toxic venom with which i’d regard my blackberry before accidentallydropping it and cracking the screen. It wasn’t the “mean girl” at work who bought me an alarm clock and a princess crown as not so subtle form of passive aggressive secret santa presents.

Come January 2012 I was at an all time low. Depressed and feeling like i was failing on all fronts, I had a non existent personal life, a stress rash of excema on my back, my hair was falling out andmy skin had broken out. The brand, new, exciting role i’d taken on heading up the retail marketing team for a premiership soccer team in London had been stripped off all novelty once i’d finished enjoying making the footballers strip off ( to put on clothes forphoto shoots you understand…) 

Whilst the world and his wife was telling me how lucky I wasto have a dream job people would die for - I could only conclude that maybe God had inadvertently got me mixed up with some 22 year old boy called Dominic as I didn’t even like football that much.

In the few days I had off between Christmas and New Year I slunk away to the seaside with an old friend to recuperate. On my return I found another flurry of emails from work, they were round the clock and the fact that  I was on holiday didn’t mean a thing . I started to lie awake at night with an ever increasing sense of panic as the days ticked by  - worrying that I might never get away to do some proper travelling and pursue my dream of becoming a writer. Somehow here I was, 36, single, working a 60 hour week and living up the road from my parents. 

There was only one thing for it, i prayed to the heavens and decided to implore the great gods of the ethernet. I typed into Google: I want to quit my job and travel. And a blog article came up entitled: Why you should quit your job and travel.

Promising! 


It  had been written by a man with an even more ridiculous,  French sounding name than mine .His name was Chris Guillebeau,  a traveller and writer- who had ambitions to visit every country in the world by the time he was 35 and his blog was called The Art of Nonconformity. He’d been making plans to travel for a long time. I’d been putting savings aside for years, i’d accrued holiday and dipped my toe in the water of independent travel with a month in South America, I’d chosen my first flat to buy soley based on the fact it would be easy to let and provide a bit of extra income while I was on the road. It was not bought for the attractiveness of its location which happened to be up the road from my parents. And I was still here. 

Because I was frightened. Of everything.

I was frightened of giving up a regular income, of not being able to find work again, of being single and in my late thirties. 

 

My fearwas enforced by a media obsessed with rising unemployment figures and underlined by the mute incomprehension of my friends all of whom were either happy in careers or marriages or both and none of whom shared my passion to jack it all in and travel the world. 

I was frightened of the unknown. Not the unknown of navigating a chicken bus squashed between a little Tibetan man and a boy with a sack of raw meat - nothing about travelling the world scared me, it was all the stuff that comes before that moment that had me anxious and stuck. 

Change is frightening.  Going against the grain is scary.  Being different, doing different, wanting different from the general population at large is alienating,  difficult, uncomfortable and yes painful.  

But there comes a point when staying stuck is even more painful and as soon as I could see a way out, as soon as i had a little chink of light, the beacon of home and comfort that somewhere out there, there was at least one other person in the world who saw life like I did and I was no longer crazy or alone or on my own; it gave me the confidence I needed. The trigger to travel. 

I lost his site the same day that I found it. But it didn't matter.  A seed had been sown.  

I told my boss that all I really wanted to do was write poetry, travel the world and fall in love - lots. And that’s what i did. I packed my bags for Rio and embarked on a pitstop tour of the world, 13 countries in 19 months. 

I trusted that when i needed to i’d come across his site again. And sure enough just over a year later last July 2013 I found The Art of Nonconformity and discovered that Chris Guillebeau continued to travel and was in Southern Thailand at the same time I was. 

At the grand old age of 37 wrote my first ever fan letter, or at the least a very sincere, thank you email.  The fact that we were at that moment in time, both staring out at a similar strip of turquoise sea was in no small part because of him. 

And this July, 2014? This year I was in Portland, Oregon attending the World Dominatoin Summit a weekend of events, meet ups and inspiratonal talks set up by Chris Guillebeau to gather together remarkable people leading unconventional lives.

Two years ago it was stumbling across one man and his blog, a fellowtraveller and writer that finally helped me say no to what wasn’t working in my life, quit my job and follow my dreams and two years later because of that moment i’m able to write freelance, travel regularly and this July  reach out to not just one but surround myself  2500 other likeminded, positive, uplifting and non judgemental people. 

What’s going to be your trigger to travel? 


A Redwood Retreat, Cactus Scramble and Life Lessons with Ed

A year ago I came to Portland, Oregon for the World Domination Summit, a fabulous event gathered by the Art of Nonconformity blogger Chris Guillebeau which is just about to ki At the end I travelled down to California and visited friends in San Francisco and LA. But one of the absolute highlights of my month in the states in 2014 was when I decided on an impromptu visit to the beautiful redwoods of Santa Cruz and stayed with a lovely old gentleman called Ed in his log cabin in the woods:

“I understand that i may not always have the ability to make the right decision. However i do have the ability to  make a decision and then make it right.”

I get shivers (or “goosies” as JLO might say) as i finish the line of the paragraph in the book i’ve been given - appropriately entitled “ “The Traveller’s Gift.” 

Its summed up the magical way I got to spend my final weekend in the States making Cactus Omelettes with a life coach in the middle of the redwoods.

I always thought the more conscious I became  and the more I learn about myself the easier life would get. Hah! not so my friends. If anything there’s so much more to consider, and some days I feel overwhelmed with the unforeseen consequences and potential pitfalls of making decisions.  And none of this is particularly aided by living the life of a long term solo traveller where you are required to make a seemingly never ending number of decisions all day every day. 

Should I take the chicken bus with the 18 year old backpackers or the overnight train with the random chain-smoking moustachioed man? 

Should i risk eating the tripe being fried on a communal grill pan at the local street market or trust the man who tells me that the “special” in the “special” pizza just means extra flavour? ad infinitum…

My plan had been to spend the last two weeks of my month long sojourn in the USA  just working and living in LA. By day 5 of LA i’m bored. My glands and tonsils are swollen, my throat feels like a scratching post and my asthma is terrible. 

I’ve also remembered that the whole idea of me working becomes absolutely ridiculous anytime you put me anywhere near a beach. I’m English for goodness sake, its our default mechanism to strip off in the midday sun and lie prostrate cooking under it anywhere near water and sand.

I’ve seen a conference happening back in San Francisco and because I don’t want to be indecisive I  confirm my attendance and book a return flight form LAX to SF for the final few days of my trip.  

And then I regret it. Really all I want is to find a way to be amongst nature not sitting in a Holiday Inn in downtown San Francisco but then the shoulds begin:

You’re not on holiday anymore - you’re travelling, you should do something productive, you should network and make the most of the opportunity to meet people, you should do something useful…

I’m still not always very good at deciphering the little voice that knows best - or even sure when its the right one i’m listening to. How do I know the voice telling me to sack the conference and go into nature isn’t just fear, procrastination or laziness in disguise? The same voice that throws delayed gratification out the window and prompts me to go for bagels rather than broccoli?

The honest answer is, i’m not sure yet. But what I can do is make a decision. And then see how it feels and adjust my course if necessary. Make a decision and THEN make it right. 

I decide to miss the conference if I can find accommodation easily that fits the bill. 

Immediately on scouring Airbnb up pops a a little redwood cabin entitled Scenic Retreat just outside Felton in the Santa Cruz mountains. It looks perfect and it seems i can get there on public transport - the owner has even said he’ll pick me up from the bus station.

 

 Ed trying to figure out my life (well someone has to!) 

Ed trying to figure out my life (well someone has to!) 

It supports my other theory - that sometimes when somethings are meant to be  - everything slots into place. 

Ed, my host, has already said to give him a call and he’ll pick me up from the station.

“I didn’t know you were arriving so early, otherwise i would have picked up something better but are hot dog tacos for dinner ok?”

“Ed they sound fantastic but you don’t have to cook for me you know!”

“Oh it’s no problem, I try and treat everyone like a friend i haven’t met yet…”

And he really does.  We arrive at his little cabin high up in the hills. A cloud of blue hydrangea cluster at the front and two giant redwoods flank the entrance. The forest outside casts a dappled green gold light through the large windows in his cosy open plan living and kitchen room and around the corner there are bookshelves crammed full of motivational and positive texts. I already know i’m going to love it here.

 


Ed is also clearly the grandfather I never had with wispy white hair, grey eyes that twinkle and glasses that balance on the end of his nose. By the end of the weekend he’s my own personal Wizard of Oz  - having cooked me every meal, sorted out my life’s purpose for me and even given me some seriously sensible dating advice to boot. I’m actually considering asking if he may want to adopt this almost 40 year old woman. 

As he starts to cook dinner he tells me about his incredible life as well parting cooking wisdom along the way.

In his twenties his dream job was to “play with food all day and get paid for it. ” An early Dale Carnegie graduate (Carnegie was the famous salesman and author of How to Win Friends and Influence People and a forerunner of personal growth movement) he was eventually able to do just that.

A former systems engineer working in the shipping industry he was able to move to San Francisco and became a food technologist at the height of the hippie movement. Eventually he began writing a wine column for the famous Bon Appetit magazine, assisting at a top notch cookery school on the Northwest coast and even cooked alongside Julia Childs.

Oh and did you know that the black smudge around the cooked yolk of a hard boiled egg was a sulphur ring from it being cooked too long?

The next day there is a fresh pot of coffee brewing on the stove when I wake up and breakfast is slices of fresh nectarines and almond butter on toast. Perfect. 

We spend the morning at a flea market browsing curios and then he takes me into Santa Cruz and for a drive along the coast, leaving me to explore the boardwalk by the beach. 

If you’re an 80s kid its a must see because this is where Lost Boys was filmed. Its hard not to look up at the roller coaster outlined against the setting sun without hearing the eerie Thou Shalt Not Kill sound track and remember that even all these years later i’m still wearing floaty skirts and indian cotton tops in an effort to look as indie chick cool as Jamie Gertz aka Star. 


 

When I wake up the next day  Ed is shows me how to cook Nopales. These are the flat palm shaped Cactus leaves i’ve seen street vendors shave of their thorns and fry on griddle pans in Mexico City. 

Raw, they have a slightly slimy texture like Okre and taste a little lemony. He cuts them into slivers and throws them into a frying pan along with some red onion, two whisked eggs, grated cheese and freshly chopped tomato to make a perfect cactus scramble for two. 

 

 

After breakfast we head off to Henry Cowel Redwood park to visit the trees, just a short walk from Ed’s cabin and beyond Roaring Camp -  a recreation of a 19th century logging town complete with authentic steam train.

We do a short hike to take in the majestic splendour of the redwoods. None of my photos do justice to these beauties, some of which are 2000 year olds. The fibrous texture of the bark is almost fire retardant in its consistency which is why these giants still stand when other species have long fallen. 

Ed explains how the trees grow in clusters as younger saplings shoot up around a parent tree and remain in a family circle when the parent tree dies. He points out how the central core of a redwood can die but the tree can still survive as new healthy layers grow outwards (why we see rings when the tree is cut down.)

"That's a life lesson if ever I heard one," I say

"Oh there's a lesson in most things if you look hard enough," says Ed amiably.

We head back home via Felton, the nearest town. There are tangles of bright pink sweet pea growing wild on the verges and brambles with blackberries ripening on the stem. We stop to pick a few and the scent of the fruit and stains on my fingers throw me back to blackberry picking with my nan when I was a little girl.

Finally after a tip off from a white bearded friend we enjoy a free lunch at the community BBQ going on in the town hall before heading back to the cabin.

Ed has told me a bit about the process he goes through with when he conducts a life coaching session so I tell him i’d like to have a go  and before I can finish the sentence his eyes light up. In a flash he’s dumped a handful of post it notes front of me:

“Ok  - what do you love doing?”  he says

“Ummmm” 

“ Go! write it down…! ”

I start to make excuses…”oh i didn’t mean we have to do it now…”

“No time like the present!”  says Ed 

Gradually I do and post its cover the kitchen counter, then we tape them up to a flip chart and study them together. He asks a few questions and seamlessly helps me make connections and join the dots i didn’t realise were there.

He’s enthused and so am I, I can see how much he loves doing this, we don’t stop for dinner - working right through and picking at leftovers from the fridge. 

“I want you to have a clear vision and action steps before we go to sleep” he says.

The next morning I see that Ed has stamped “Born Writer” on my page in the Visitors Guest Book

I spend the morning going for a quiet walk in the redwoods before getting ready to head back to LA. 

 


As a parting gift Ed has given me a copy of the book The Traveller’s Gift and as i’m sitting in  LAX enjoying a glass of Chenin Blanc before my flight I get to this line: 

“I may not always make the right decisions, I do however have the ability to make a decision and then make it right.” 

If the last weekend has taught me anything its this, sometimes it pays to stop trying to plan the outer journey and spend more time listening to my inner compass instead and I couldn't be more grateful that I made "right" the decision on how to spend my final days in America.

I’m not sure I knew where i’d end up but because I did instead of wilting under air conditioning and the bad carpet of a Holiday Inn off Van Ness i’ll be able to look back on the last few days of this trip as one of my very favourite travel highlights where i’ve experienced not just the rugged natural beauty of the West Coast, but cooking lessons, life lessons and the warmth and welcome of real old fashioned american hospitality at its very best. 

END

A trip up London's Shard and a reminder to express

London's Shard

As a location independent, digital nomad, or whatever your current term du jour is, its amazing how often i just end up sitting around my flat working or staring into space (productive.) 

Today however, I'm taking my mother out for lunch at a restaurant at the top of The Shard. One of London's tallest buildings. And because - hey! as a freelance writer I can now work from anywhere, I decide to get there early and spend a couple of hours working from a cafe with great views.

I've seen Aqua, the restaurant where we'll be having lunch, on Masterchef. It's on the 31st floor of The Shard, London's tallest skyscraper (until the next one that is.) 

All steel and glass and modern chandeliers, leather seats and sleek walnut bar tops -  it's as masculine a restaurant as you'd expect to find in a big, 1000 ft high glass and steel erection.

Still, I have a soft spot for this particular big, shiny building. The last thing i did before I left London to travel for a year and a half was to persuade a friend to take me "up the Shard" whilst it was still under construction. Floor 55 didn't exist and decked out in high  vis jackets and hard hats we had to get into a metal hoist (cage type lift) on the outside of the scaffolding to go up the final few floors. 

The very tip of the building has been designed with shards of glass sticking out of it, when i last visited me and my friend stood at the very top buffeted by wind with nothing but a small chain link fence keeping us from flying off the edge. 

Now that the building is cpmplete and open to the public its a more civilised affair. They have viewing galleries and posh restaurants like Aqua.

I grab a window seat and obviously tweet the view and then start working (today  - press releases on solar energy.) I get moved. Apparently no one can sit in all these empty spaces because they are getting ready for afternoon tea. It doesn't bother me too much as i move to another comfy seat.

Prices are so extortionately high in London these days it almost makes a kind of peverse sense - if you are going to pay over £3 for a coffee in your local hipster coffee shop why not come to a fine dining restaurant with fabulous views instead for your latte. 

When my mother arrives we are seated, sadly not quite up against the glass (and they have a deeply annoying policy of refusing to allow you to move tables if those with a better view become available.) We eat the beets salad followed by river trout with saffron rice and raisins. Mine is full of bones. This is my usual experience of trout so i sigh and get on with it. Halfway through i realise my mother only has one bone and i'm still disseecting the bloody thing.

I toy with the idea of telling them but talk myself out of it. I've aleady come across as a tricky customer by asking to change tables which they refused, so they'll probably say no to this. However the waitress sees i'm struggling and checks everythings ok. I explain its hard to eat and she takes it back and comes out a short while later with a new fillet completely bone free. Of course, this is exactly what should happen, we are in a high class establishment after all.

"Next time, tell us your feelings, so that you don't have to suffer..." she says sympathetically. 

It's a peculiarly Briitsh form of passive aggressive politeness, this suffering in silence "pretending everything's ok when its not."

It's strange because on the road - i'm being tested and learning all the time on how to speak up, assert my needs and protect myself.  But not for the first time i think about how my home environment really doesn't bring out the best in me. My naturally introverted and self reflective ways combined with the natural froideur of the national temperament make me withdraw, over analyise and I become even less likely to speak up than usual. And not for the first time  i think what would really do me the world of good, would be to get out of my head, into my body and just to become a littlbe bit more...well Brazilian about things. 

So its decided. Next on the bucket list... South America revisited.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

An Earthquake in Tokyo and a lesson in Fear

Its 5.30am and the entire room has just shifted from left to right. 

My 75 year old father and I are spending three nights in Tokyo just across the road from the Park Hyatt where Scarlett Johanson first coyly flashed her eye lashes at a jet lagged Bill Murray in “Lost in Translation.” 

It happens again. 

I sit up and hold my breath, as if making myself quieter will help me feel the vibration of more tremors. 

There is a pause and nothing.

Nothing but an oily empty swilling feeling in my stomach, the fizzing of adrenaline starting through my nervous system and the strangely, calm and rational shifting of options as my mind hurriedly pulls through its old filing cabinet of experience to look for possible explanations. 

No, my mind reports back to my body. This is an earthquake, we can sit still, we can leave the building or we can look out the window for what to do next.

And yes, uncontrollably and inevitably the next thing I think about is the World Trade Center. Its hard not too stuck on the 23rd floor of a skyscraper that is now swaying from side to side.

I've never felt so physically and primally vulnerable surrounded by steel columns and shaded glass.

I was awake already of course. 

One of the great things about being on the road by myself was that the middle of the night insomnia bursts stopped at the same time the day job did. 

 

But now my mind has conjured up lots more things that for some reason I absolutely have to try and solve at 4am in the morning. In addition- having stripped my life of absolutely everything that could preoccupy me from doing what I love I can now see how thickly set the obstacles are that stop me from making progress. And most of them are internal.

Procrastination - in all its forms -  laziness, lack of discipline, and perfectionism. 

An American I’ve become friends with says later: 

“Oh god that whole thing, like we can’t do anything unless its 100% perfect, who ever came up with that?!”

“I think you’ll find that was my father” I wisecrack in truthfulness. The man I'm now sharing a hotel room with. 

Back when I was little my drawings were never good enough, my piano playing was never done with feeling and my writing was “verbose.” 

 

School teachers came and went but a sexually inappropriate English teacher and an art teacher for whom everything was “just about OK” meant my creativity went screaming in the opposite direction and years later perfectionism and procrastination are reigning queens. But they are just fear dressed up fancy. 

The fear of change, the fear of doing something new, the fear of not being good enough and perhaps with this blog, the most pertinent of all, the fear of being truly vulnerable and exposing exactly what i’m feeling to any random person at any given moment. 

Fear, in and of itself isn’t a bad thing of course.  Its our natural survival instinct kicking in. But the old flight or fight system that once upon a time protected us in as hunter scavengers somehow got passed over modus operandi into less life threatening situations. 

Our brains still think we’re in an episode of the Hunger Games when in fact all we’re trying to do is set up a new website or start a creative project. 

That’s the kind of fear that normally wakes me up in the early hours of the morning. 

Now, however i’m suddenly right in the middle of experiencing real survival fear. And it feels different. Every fibre of my being is awake, alert and responsive.

Suddenly I have a benchmark with which to compare.

I get up and go look at the window.  It is eerily silent. I suppose it is 530am. And at this height everything feels like that anyway - so removed from the heat and scrabble of the real world. 

As if on cue my architect father wakes up and- ever the master of sanguine understatement - says:

“well that was a bit of a shock wasn’t it”

“Don’t worry”  he explains. "The Japanese architects plan for earthquakes when they design buildings like these, so it can absorb the shock.”

Hollywood, up until this point,  has been having a party in my brain. When something so infeasible starts to happen in reality the first reference point perhaps my only reference point,  is the movies. 

Bright lights big city, Tokyo

 I envisage a thousand smoky glass window panes being blown outwards from the skyscraper opposite, people screaming and flooding through the doors, swarming out onto the perfectly manicured gardens of the hotels; maybe its Godzilla rampaging around the corner to shake my building between his great scaly paws my sleep addled brain jokes to itself hysterically. 

Although i’m not entirely convinced even if the great lizard himself made an appearance that it would cause this most polite and gentle of people to run screaming, eyes bulging in the opposite direction. 

Everything here is run with such pristine elegance, safety and consideration.

Impeccably uniformed ticket collectors on trains bow deeply before entering carriages, men in bright, starched uniforms pick litter between exquisitely white cotton gloved fingertips. Even the leaves on the trees seem to grow in an orderly fashion. The great lime starbursts of the trees that festoon temples and shrines create perfectly ordered starlike geometric patterns against the sky. 

Here no one jaywalks but waits patiently for the lights to change. 

“Why would anyone want to walk early? we follow the rules because they work!” says my Japanese friend Dai genially.

I’ve only had a glimpse of Tokyo, we’ve spent three nights here and i’m not exactly tripping the light fantastic until dawn but what i’ve seen is the electrically charged blinking, glinting mans world of neon,light cubes and glass or order and precision. 

I can’t imagine anything as chaotic as the zigzagging earth split of a natural phenomenonsuch as an earth quake would dare to disrupt this glinting, electronically lit, perfectly ordered man’s world. 

Later in the trip, we escape to the soft waters of Lake Ashi and a traditional Japanese Ryokan. 

I’m enjoying the tradition of a Japanese onsen (a hot spring) andstart chatting to the young student i’m sharing a pool with who is also from Tokyo.  She asks if I was there when the earthquake happened recently. 

“Yes! I was scared….was it a big earthquake?” 

She giggles at my question and shakes her head.

“hahaahha nooo not big, not that one…” 

And then in explanation

“No Tsunami!!”

Well that is a relief. 

And an important lesson. 

I have a feeling my fellow bather wasn’t scared by the minor tremors that had me clinging to the bed covers because to her they were a known quantity, she’d lived through them before, she knew what to expect and could expand herself and experience to tackle bigger, better or worse head on.

And if you can do that by wrestling Hunger Games survival fear to the ground and stepping over it rather than around it or backing up the other way then suddenly perhaps my pursuit of creative freedom, individuation and setting up that all important website, doesn’t really seem so terrifying after all. 


END


Naked Lady Bathing in Japan

sakura (cherry blossom) in Japan

One of my favourite parts of a recent two week whistle stop tour of Japan with my 75 year old father was getting to escape the neon lit,  smog filled cities of Osaka and Tokyo (and my father) and enjoy the ritual of a female only hot spring bath in a traditional Japanese Onsen. 

We have travelled for hours on the famous bullet train and taken a winding local bus up the hills towards the shores of Lake Ashi near Mount Fuji and are staying at a traditional Ryokan where the walls of our room are made of rice paper dividers and the only place to sit is a small mat on the floor. 

The Onsen are divided into male and female bathing quarters and the rules are strict. One washes first and bathes, naked. 

A young student in her twenties laughs in delight when i ask if i have to get in naked.

“It is strange for you, are you embarrassed?” she asks.

Although i’ve never been body conscious it makes me wonder - there is a second of discomfort due to the strangeness and unfamiliarity of disrobing in front of so many of my own sex that has never happened taking my clothes in front of a man before.  

I drop my towel and perch on the little plastic stool, and then wash using the shower handle to rinse myself down.

Peering over the steam drifting in layers over the sunken stone baths I make my way over and ease my way into the hot water. The onsen is beautiful. A sunken stone pool outside, lit up in the early spring sunshine with bright pink bursts of cyclamen decorating the grounds. 

I gaze at all the different women’s bodies I'm sharing this pool with. I look at their thick, creamy white legs and the heaviness their hips, of the young student who talked to me and the xylophone of her ribs and study with envy the sheets of their black, shiny hair twirled up into chignons.

It's like a Degas painting in here, beautiful and sensuous and steamy. Women of all shapes and sizes huddling in corners or floating in the water in a world of their own. 

Old ladies help each other over the slippery tiles, giggling and a mother guides her little girl down into the waters. 

There is a something I find so special about this ritual of communal bathing with our own sex and soothing - the softness, camaraderie and safety of women of all ages gathering and bathing naked.

It reminds me of other times and other cultures where i’ve had the pleasure of experiencing something similar.

I oncespent several happy nights in Luang Prabang, Laos wandering through the tumbling rain and jumping over the puddles in the broken stones of the road to join the local women at their herbal steam room. 

Here young girls in their twenties showed me how to wrap my cotton sarong and tie my hair up in a knot. They handed me barley tea outside when i needed to cool off and gave me the communal pumice to slough away dead skin on my body. I will always remember the deep, steamy heat and medicated air of that steam room and the soft hushed giggles and whispers of the women I shared it with whilst the dark, chilly rain pounded outside. 

In Morocco and Turkey I’ve stood naked and shivering whilst a little old lady in plastic knickers throws a bucket of foam and water at me and then scrubbed me down with a brush. Laying on a thick marble slab i remember anticipating a relaxing western style spa massage only to endure an hour long torture of my poor muscles being slapped, poked and pummelled into submission.

It reminds me of an anecdote one of my friends told me,  who also experienced the baths of Morocco and, unable to believe that one should enter naked,  found herself standing in soggy bra and knickers in ornately decorated tile room where everyone else was naked. I wonder how much i’ve missed not having a ritual like this in my Western world where its more normal that women have been pitted against each other in the office or are held up for scrutiny in the gossipy trivia of the glossies.

Would we be as fixated with the body beautiful and burdened by the pressure to conform if we had this regular ritual in our day to day experience in the UK.  Sharing a zumba class together and then getting changed after at the local gym just doesn't cut it. 

That sense of female bonding seems so far removed from the smoothies and hipster cafes and mindless TV and grafitti of South East london. Perhaps my female friends who are mothers get to share a female solidarity in baby and toddler groups with each other i've missed out on so far - but even that portion of our lives is such a small segment in comparison with the whole. I imagine having a place when I was a teenager where, instead of the likes of Page 3 or Conde Nast dictating how and what our bodies mean, we were able to experience the whole gamut of female body shape and life from the very young to the very old. Where we could find solace in a regular ritual amongst women of all ages and use that to define both our comfort and our relationship with our own bodies as well as with other women.

I like to think, if i ever have a little girl, I would try and incorporate this ritual into her life...Not sure how achievable its going to be this side of Waterloo Bridge though... !

 

An Art Lesson in Hoi An Vietnam and the essence of Creative failure

Hoi An, Vietnam

When I was last on the road I had the bright idea of documenting my long term travels in a slightly more interesting medium than the upload of a gazillion facebook photos.

I'm tempted to buy an old note pad and some paints and have a very amateurish go and sketching my locations as an alternative. However coming upon artist materials travelling through south east asia is easier said than done, until that is i had an impromptu art lesson courtesy of Mr Wan...

There is nothing like being somewhere heart breakingly romantic to remind you how unutterably alone you are.

On one such evening in Central Vietnam I took a stroll into Hoi-Ann. A picture postcard of how I like to think Vietnam looked in the 18th century.

A little golden bridge arcs a milky green river strung with different coloured lanterns. In the water villagers offer rides from old wooden rowing boats, and crouching on the banks they sell paper lanterns with lit candles inside for people to float down the water for luck.

I sigh audibly. I can't remember when i've ever been somewhere so pretty, I can't remember the last time I missed being in a relationship so much and wished I had someone along side me holding my hand. The water is awash with the gentle amber glow of the floating paper lanterns. I go for a meal on the water's edge and have another speciality to Central Vietnam. Succulent (for a change) grilled pork with rice paper rolls and a sweet broth with peanut sauce, washed down with some beer

The old town is filled with tourist shops hawking Vietnamese cloth, little figurines and ink paintings on rice paper. I stop in one little shop that sells the latter and ask the man inside if he knows where I can buy any paint and paper. Instead he shepherds me inside. 

“I don't want to buy a painting just paints” I explain. 

"I understand" he says " Sit down." 

I sit down at his work table in a dimly lit backroom - the outline of his mother (?) is just visible lying horizontal on a mattress further in. He gets some scraps of rice paper out of his newspaper. I start to look around the shop – outside he has brightly coloured acrylic and oil canvases in sunsetty colours of traditional Vietnamese scenes - women in their elegant long flowing shifts and trousers, and conical hats wading through paddy fields. 



He dips his paint brush in the black ink and starts to paint on the scrap of paper. A sea, some bamboo in the foreground, a little rowing boat with the pointy hats of the men just discernible and a fishing line.

“Now you!” He says handing me the brush. 

“Oh no!” I protest. But as i've asked for artist materials and he seems to think i'm a painter – I can't really refuse. I take the brush and diligently start trying to paint a similar scene: sea, bamboo, boat, people. 

“Quicker!” he says. 

“No wrong...” he says taking a brush again and deftly pushing the fat body of the bristles down to make a bamboo stem in record time. 

Then he does a lady – with three or four simple quick strokes. 

“Easy. Do quicker. No wrong." 

He means there is no such thing as wrong. I try again, making just a few confident bold strokes and get a little better. Then he takes some more paper and shows me the symbol for LOVE in Chinese and Vietnamese – and then how to paint the characters – the numbers. 

At first i'm still holding the brush like a pencil but he encourages me to push it down flat and make big fat strokes. After a happy half an hour painting with him he gives me one of his sketches as a keepsake and I leave for some food. 

I used to love art – it was always one of my best subjects at school until the glacial Miss Sage put me off it for the next two decades. 

“Is this o.k?” 

I'd ask her – not sure if i'd got whatever technique we were learning, down correctly... 

“ well that's about all it is, isn't it” she'd say with about as much warmth and humanity as an arctic wolf. 

She had a penchant for stripey parisian style cardigans and culottes, one hazel eye and one blue (both able to pierce you to the spot along with the froideur of her ice cold sarcasm) along with a nasty case of short (wo)man syndrome. 

Don't choose your subjects because of your teachers -they tell you. Well I did – and subsequently left my art career behind at 15. 

If there is one thing i've learnt since about creativity and how to nurture it back to life – its this. Failure is essential. We don't get anything right first time and we don't learn anything by trying to be perfect. Contrary to everything Miss Sage might have thought – Wan my Vietnamese artist friend has it right – there is No WRONG. 

Now where did I put those brushes…