Travel Tips

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! 

 

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The Interview: Building Belief & Inner strength with South Pole trekking Sandra Floate.

I meet Sandra in the beautiful botanical gardens of Bella Tiamantini - a Botanical Gardens set in the humid heat and jungly backdrop of Santo Domingo, Northern Ecuador. The gardens are run by a delightful old couple Don Marcos and his wife Estrella who are committed to rescuing and nurturing over 1000 native plant species from deforested areas of the Amazon, in oder to protect plant diversity in Ecuador.

 

 I have turned up at the gardens by myself and am not sure what I'm letting myself in for. With relief I see there is another English speaker amongst us! 

Sandra is a softly spoken Aussie from Melbourne with a flush of blond curls around her face, twinkly blue eyes and rosy cheeks. She is sitting outside the concrete breeze block guest bedroom on a plastic stool helping Estrella shell corn.

Welcoming me with a warm smile she speaks with an endearing shy humility about herself and quiet enthusiasm for her time volunteering with this delightful family. I'm about to turn 40 and as the conversation drifts to this milestone of a birthday I ask Sandra (now in her mid fifties) how she felt about turning 40. Apparently she felt that she'd lost some of her physical shape and fitness due to being a full time mother. What did she decide to do to regain her fitness? Renew her membership at the local gym? Nope. Sign up for an extra Pilates class? Nope. No ladies, Sandra Floate decided to go to the South Pole....! 

As a sensitive introvert myself I'm fully aware of the magnificent adventures, physical feats and courageous acts us quiet ones are capable of.. .however I have to admit to still reacting with some surprise when this gently self effacing woman drops into the conversation that when she turned 40 she once led an all female expedition of mothers called The Ice Maidens, on a trek to the Antarctic. 

Excuse me, you did what???? 

Time for an interview! 

WW: OK would you like to start by giving me a little bit of background?  a brief life story! You were mainly based in Melbourne is that right? 

SF: Yes I was born and bred in Melbourne and went to school there. After leaving school I did a diploma in advertising and then travelled for 2 years to Asian and Europe and worked in Londo for a year as a nanny, and then to India, Nepal and then in Australia met and worked an Indian.

WW: How old were you when you were married?

SF: I was 25 and I had two children in my mid thirities and worked in our family business cabinet making business, my husband and I had been in business for 30 years.

And then when I was 40 I did an expedition to the Antarctic. Which is 3 years training for 2 weeks on the ice.

WW: And had you done any training, hiking or professional trekking before then?

SF:  No I was a mother! ...I'm a skier and a snow skier and I've done that all my life so I've always loved skiing i learned to do cross country for Antarctica. We went out and found women and they had to be mothers.

WW:  So you decided to do this trek and they had to be women and they had to be mothers!? 

SF: Yes, we found women and they had to be mothers because there are many constraints when you're a mother to be able to go out and train. You need a sympathetic partner, because men can go off and work and then train in the evening but women  can't do that when they've got children, they cant just walk out of the house and say "well i'm off to go train" five nights a week so you needed a certain sort of sympathetic partner as well to accommodate the expedition.

WW: But it was part of the expedition requirements that everyone was mothers? why was that? 

SF: Because the English group that did it (it was first done by an all female group in Britain)  some of them were mothers and some of them were single. We based our group on 5 english women that did it, and one of them was a mother, and there were different problems for mothers, we had to go away at weekends and leave our children or train at 5am or train while eveyone was asleep and that's hard.  If you have a family you've got to find time train. When you are working part time or full time its very difficult to find the training time. So because the three or four of us had kids we all had to realize the dififciulties in having an expedition as well as the constraints around doing it around family, and having the money. It started as 5 but there were 3 in the end because they drop off.

WW: I can imagine! (laughs)

SF: We all started of from zero fitness.

WW: It seeems like an extraordinary thing to suddenly decide to do...what prompted it?

SF: Just one of the women always wanted to do it an expedition to Antarctica and so she asked around and  I said yes and then a couple of others said yes, and then we just went along with the process without really understanding what that process was... 

WW: Did you know it would take 3 years?

SF: No we just knew it was a lot of training. Then we needed to find all the sponsors, doctors, physios, runners, gym membership...we had 40 - 50 sponsors in the end, plus Quantas (major Australian airline) who came on board.

WW: In order to raise the funds to do it? 

SF: To raise the funds to do it, to get us to South America, tro get us to SA to bring our canoes ( we didn't have sleds we had canoes) because they are round so they are very easy to use. Then we had to tap into...because it's  such a small population who had done expeditions we had to tap into that community. So for example we had conversations with Eric Phillips and Peter Hillary to give us guidance on the best way to do it and complete it. 

WW: And did you also do it for charity?

SF: Yes we raised money for the Royal Women's Hospital in Melbourne. In the end the flights, our gear (sponsored by Mountain Design)  so we probably raised about $300,000. 

WW: That's incredible, what a fantastic achievement.

SF: But the flight costs from Chile to Antarctica is probably about $80,000.

WW: Oh wow, just to fly to Antarctica? 

SF: When you are in the base camp at Antarctica and you go out to the South Pole they've got planes there. If you have a problem they can come and pick you up.

WW: how long did the expedition take? 

SF: It was supposed to be 10 weeks but we didn't get to the south pole just to Antartica, we only lasted 2 weeks. 

SF: We always dreamed to get the South Pole but we didn't get there. We didn't dream it enough... you know you have the image in your brain? It was hard enough just to get to Antarctica, leave our children do all the hard work and the training, get all the money. 

WW: and what happened that meant you had to cut it short after 2 weeks.

SF: At the end of the training there were only 2 of us left out of the 5. We needed one more person and she only joined us 9 months previously. So we didn't have that bond that you needed and she turned inot a bit of a loose cannon. She hadn't as much experience in the snow as us and we had problems with her breathing and her hypothermia. So she was very physical but she hadn't had enough snow and ice training.

WW: Did you have to have another person?

SF: Yes it's best with three. Because if something happens like you fall down a crevasse or something and there's only two people  - you're only leaving one person to make a decision on what to do whether or not to leave you.  Whereas if you have three people you have two people to take that decision.

WW: Oh gosh I see, because of the probability of having to make a  life or death decisions. How do you prepare mentally for that?

SF: We had an Englishman, Roddie, who was a former SAS teacher who would do meditation with us...he was former SAS but turned Buddhist.

WW: Wow he sounds like a good person to talk to. So you would visualize scenarios that could happen?

SF: Yeah we had a lot of discussions around all of the scenarios that could happen, with other people that had done expeditions. Unfortunately also, Quantas airlines lost our gear.

WW: Oh no!

SF: Yeah! So we were 2 weeks in Chile instead of 3 days before we got going, so by that time we were very apprehensive. We had been raring to go so we were really uptight by the time we got going. You only have a certain window of time. Because if you start your expedition too late and you're not quite at the pole they have to come and get you to fly you back to Chile, so we were very stressed by the time we got to Antarctica to do this trip. 

WW: Was there anything at that point in your life that prompted it? Or was it just your friend saying "I'm going to Antarctica do you want to come along?" I'm trying to work out what the appeal was?!

SF: The appeal was, I was reaching 40 and didn't have any fitness because i'd spent all my time looking after children.

WW: How old were your children?

SF: They were 12 and 9. And feeling like I was running out of time and that I might not be able to get fit for something like this. 

WW: I'm turning 40 tomorrow...(laughs)

SF: The possibility of even considering it was way off the planet. But you just start with something and see where it leads to. To know that we actually got there and got onto the ice. We had two trips to New Zealand also in preparation on the Fox Glacier. 

WW: And you were called "The Ice Maidens" - brilliant.

And what lessons did you learn emotionally, how did you overcome challenges in preparation or on the trek? 

SF: Yeah it was very stressful. So it was about being safe because we had children.

And we were looked on differently because we had children. We got emails saying "you shouldn't be leaving your family! blah blah blah" 

Mentally to do these trips -  at 40 and beyond is best. You'll find most expeditions are with older people because you have to have that maturity as an adult to take it on. 

WW: That's interesting isn't it you wouldn't think that would be the case, that you would need to be young and physically fit foremost.

SF: Yeah look at Ralph Fiennes he's just done a night one - he's 65? and he thought he'd do Antarctica in the dark in winter. I mean, that's bizarre!  But there's no limit to your physical age, he's just thinking "I can do that." 

WW: And because he's thinking he can do that he can?

SF: Yeah and because he's older he can, a lot of them are older, late thirties, forties. It's better. 

WW: This is a very small example in comparison but it's made me think of the time that I did Kung Fu in China with a bunch of 18 years. And I did the Shaolin, and it was the same kind of thing, I was really trying to push my myself and I was pretty out of shape and I was crap at it (laughs) but I did it. But lots of people in the 18 - 25 category would come try it for a bit and then drop out because it was too hard and they couldn't be bothered. Just before I joined 7 people dropped out of the Shaolin Kung Fu class so as a then 37 year old woman everyone was expecting me to fold, but out of sheer mental determination (and some may say stubbornness!) I persisted. When you get to a certain point you're proving it to yourself and that mental discipline isn't necessarily always there when you're younger.

WW: Did you learn anything about yourself that you hadn't realized before?

SF: Yeah lots and lots. Mostly mental strength. I"ve had to keep applying that. When I got back my daughter got sick and was very ill for 6 or 7 years. So i had to apply mental strength to keep her well and sane for the years that she was ill.  

WW: And how did what you learnt on the trip help you do that?

SF: Finding that inner strength that I had, that we've all got. Always being tested emotional, physically and needing to push yourself that little bit more. 

SF I had that strength, emotional strength to get through because it was an awful time. If you're children die or get sick its awful.

WW: What did she have?

SF: She had chronic fatigue and then depression because her body shut down and wasn't working.

WW: How did it change you? 

SF: Yes it changed my life.

W: How?

SF: I wasn't ever a team player and never played in teams, so with an expedition you have to rely on your team members because they may have to save your life. And that you can do just about anything if you're physically able and believe it. Believe in wanting something badly enough that you can do it.

And making other people believe that you can do it. So that you're getting that people behind you. There was a group of people behind you another group of people helping you to get to the goal.

WW: And your husband was supportive.

SF: Yes very much. 

WW: Great. So now, we're meeting in Ecuador...so that was 10 years ago for you...I was 45 years when I did it. Did you do any travelling between then and now?

SF: I went skiing in Japan and a brief trip to Vietnam, but otherwise no...no. 

WW: So what prompted you to suddenly go to Ecuador in your mid fifties?

SF: Because I wanted to volunteer in Ecuador and by this time my children were old enough so that I could actually leave them.

WW: And why Ecuador?

SF: The first time was with a friend because it had the Andes, the Amazon and the Galapagos in one country and because it was small. It was supposed to be the 10th year anniversary of our expedition to the Antarctic and i was supposed to come here with Michelle from that trek. We were going to go to Siberia to see lots of volcanoes but we wouldn't have had the culture and in Ecuador we got the culture, the sea, the mountains and the jungle,

WW: And that was a 10 week trip?

SF: No that was a month or 5 weeks and 10 year anniversary celebration of Antarctica. And then  I decided to come back as a volunteer as I felt comfortable here the first time.

WW: And at that point, was that when you were splitting up with your husband ?

SF: No but i was thinking about it, so travel was a way of getting time out from family and friends and husband to think about things.

WW: What advice would you give to women wanting to travel in their forties and fifties who are a bit frightened of going to a country solo.

SF: Sometimes its good to do a quick trip, and then go back. If yo feel comfortable in a country do a quick overview first for a holiday and then go back and see it more in depth. That's what you did isn't it? 

WW: Yeah it wasn't deliberately planned like that, but that is what ended up happening. I started travelling five years ago when I took a month of extended leave off work to travel South America. So I started by doing group tours as well so I wasn't completely by myself. 

 

SF: Yeah i started travelling when I was 21 and did a couple of years by myself so I already had that inner strength and belief at that age that I could do it and knew at this age I could do it again.

WW: And now you're trying to combine your time between Ecuador and Australia?
SF: Yes by helping out here with volunteering.

WW: How do you support yourself when you're travelling?

SF: I work in Australia and save up to travel. I prioritize the money and go without certain things knowing that i'll need to save up for airfare. I met a lady a few years ago and what she said to me really stuck in my mind...I was just turning 50 and she was 65 and she said? 

You are in the best years of your life right now, after you've had children is the best time you've got left. Because you're still relatively fit, Its a time for yourself  again. You get your time back without commitments and family. 

WW: And you took the decision to split from your husband is that right?

SF: Yes I've made the decision to separate because my husband didn't want to back me in this volunteering.  I felt in a marriage when you get to an older age with a  partnership you should be able to take time to explore other things that you want. Life is for living it's not long and you don't have a lot of good years, they go quickly. Soon you won't be able to . 

WW:  You're volunteering for Bella Tiamantini, what has that brought you? Why were you drawn here?

SF: Because of the garden and the family and i thought i could offer western eyes to help with their project and enjoy a different lifestyle. 

WW: And how do you see the next 20 years for you?

SF: One of travel and splitting time between countries and learning new languages.

WW: Perfect! Thank you Sandra! 

 

 

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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? 


Beauty, botox and blowdrys in Chiang Mai

And now to address the burning issues of the day, where to get a decent hair cut on the road? 

 

Hair that  needs help

The great thing about South East Asia is how cheap everything is, but cheap doesn’t always mean good right? Chiang Mai is rammed full of dental whitening studios, plastic surgeons and all the obligatory spa and massage places. But sometimes paying 3 quid for a manicure means you get…well…a three quid manicure. Forking out just a small amount extra at a decent place means you can avoid paying sky high city prices from the west and still maintain fabulousness on the road.

Here are my top 3 beauty bargain hideaways in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

Blowdrys…

Vera at Icon Hollywood in Nimmanhemin (the posh, boutiquey part of town,) is a long willowy Thai with fashionably cropped and bleach blonde hair. She honed her trade in San Francisco and New York before coming back and setting up shop in her home town. She picks up my hair like its a piece of drift wood or old straw (actually it is) and asks: Riiiiggght what are we doing with this then?? After a year on the road with only one other pitstop to see a hairdresser my roots and highlights have transformed into a two tone head with more contrast than a walnut and mahognay table top. My roots to my ears are my natural dark brown, the rest are the remains of blonde highlights that a year under Asian sun have turned bright yellow. “Which colour did you want to go for?” she asks hesitantly.. Oh god. The blonde the blonde!

She manages to tame the birds nest and rehydrate the straw and cuts it so that the layers nicely frame my face and the ends are left chunky and dare I say it…almost healthy looking. Then she tackles the roots and gives me perfect, sun kissed, fresh from the beach highlights. She is officially my new favourite person in the world. I think she might be the one. You know -the hairdresser you spend your life searching for. I’m worrying about how I’m going to fly all the way back to Chiang mai just for a hair cut after I leave Thailand - a 700 quid flight price seems excessive from the Uk but then I have been searching for someone who does my layers like this my whole life! The best news is, the cut and blow dry itself only sets me back 500 baht - or a tenner. I have two colours on my hair for highlights on long hair which costs around 40 - 50 quid. Still a good twenty to thirty pounds cheaper than back home and as good a quality too.

Beauty

So having sorted out the mane its on to nails. You can get a manicure anywhere in Thailand, most of the massage and spa places offer it, and charge around 100 - 150 baht (or three pounds.) My advice? It’s worth finding a nail salon that specialises in manis and pedis and paying a bit extra. For a fiver (so lets face it still not breaking the bank) the girls at Thai Nails over the other side of the Ping River - agonise over my colour. They buff and they scrape and they massage. It’s a little embarrassing… traipsing around the world in flip flops has left my feet with more than its fair share of hard skin, callouses and brittle nails. How attractive.

Botox and other Skin Care Essentials.

 Forget Argentina. Chiang Mai is fast becoming the go to place for cheap cosmetics.I have been monitoring the line developing between my brows for about 15 years now - I’m nothing if not obsessive. It still has yet - in my humble opinion - to reach the critical stage. However I’m dismayed to see what a year under Asian sun has done to my upper arm and decolletage skin. I’ve been applying the factor 50 religiously and since I stopped travelling I’ve bought an umbrella and when that didn’t help given in and covered up with long sleeved tops and hippy pants. This didn’t however, un do the great swathes of the previous year where I dressed like a 20 year old back packer in cut offs and vest top - because - well quite frankly -because I could.

Or correction, thought I could. Turns out you really can’t get away with using coconut oil and a string bikini and excessive arm exposure and not pay the price at our age. I feel like such an idiot. There is something about us British. The old Noel Coward song “Mad Dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun,” is so true. It doesn’t matter that everyone knows all the sensible advice about covering up, and not sunbathing between 11 and 3 etc as soon as I get anywhere near a beach and the sunshine comes out I feel compelled to strip off and lay myself prostrate on the sand. So as an aside - prevention of sun damage is much cheaper and more effective than anything the beauty industry has come up with to combat ageing. Keep the tops of your arms and chest covered in strong sun as well as wearing a high factor and high quality UV sun cream (some of the sun tan lotion sold in Asia is actually fake and not that effective.) In more traditional areas such as Chiang Mai and the North you should be keeping your legs and arms covered anyway so invest in long sleeved cotton tops and trousers and an umbrella - which comes in handy in the temperamental rainy season.

Dr Danai is married to Miss Thailand and is a preternaturally young 49 year old who looks 25 if he is a day. He cheerfully has a look at my skin, peers dubiously at my cleavage and then the tops of my  arms.

"Weeeell"  he says

"You should wear sunscreen."

 Yeah great thanks for that. He puts one of those scary mirrors in front of me (the kind that magnifies your face so you can see every single open pore on your nose) and then draws imaginary lines across my face horizontally dividing it into three sections, eyes and forehead, cheeks, nose and jowel and chin and mouth. Botox he explains - is his forte. He goes into a long winded reason about the fact that it's a  preventative measure as it is repeated frowning and pulling our faces into these shapes that eventually leaves the lines - however the more I look at my face the less I want to have I done.

I quite like my laughter lines.  There, controversial - i've said it. 

I know that men find youth and beauty attractive but I think they make my face warmer and more interesting than the blandness I had in my twenties. I ‘d like better quality skin and some facial exercises to stop the jowels would be good but overall I dont think I look to bad for pushig forty. Dr Danai is very disappointed. But cheerfully sells me a micro peel and microdermabrasion for around 30 pounds (half of what I would have paid in London) He leans over and confides: 

"Before your menopause the best way to stay young? Eat anti oxidants and exercise. "

So there you have it and from the horse's mouth. Do exercise and eat lots vegetables. It really isn't rocket science after all.

His  clinic is clean, hygienic and the staff sweet and attentive. The treatment I have is good value, they pummel and use diamond tone microdermabrasion. And then a face cream. 

But if the needle’s your thing then this is the place to go. And as an aside, the only skin cream sworn to work by beauty therapists is Retinol A - and the only percentages you can buy high enough to do any good won’t be found over the counteri n the west.

 You need to buy Stevia A or Retin A 0.05% and in Thailand its available over the counter at Boots for a fiver. That’s what I call a result.