“There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.”
― Albert Einstein
It seems crazy to think that another year has passed: it’s time to celebrate my birthday again. This time last year, I was strolling around the Temple of Literature in Hanoi wondering why it had taken me so long to get there. Today has been ever so different… I awoke to a text message informing me that my visa for India is ready for collection and to celebrate, I promptly went to my first Barre Bootcamp class at my new gym, enjoyed a delicious smoothie with a friend and found myself strolling home with a huge, happy-as-can-be smile on my face. Small, meaningful moments.
In the last year I have been hit by the full force of the travel bug. In addition to travelling around Vietnam, I visited Cambodia, Thailand, Turkey, my beloved Iran, France and in a few days, I will finally venture towards India. I had intended to spend my birthday in Rome but life takes twists and turns: I got a place on an academic course (which I applied for in February) and had to postpone my trip as my passport was being held hostage at the consulate.
So now, I’m sitting here at home reflecting on this year and everything feels so surreal. I finished university, submitted my applications, travelled to countries I had longed for and, most importantly, connected with myself for the first time in many years. I joined a gym and started to put myself, my health and my desires first. With my dreams and reality; I made peace with my past and acknowledged my future whilst staying grounded in the moment. As an organiser, I’m often planning ahead – thinking about what do next, where to go, what to eat but, finally, I’ve come to realise that often the most important thing is the here and now and, even with planning, change is constant, necessary and often wonderful. This has been a year of transformation: a moment to stop pushing against what feels right to me just to conform to what societal pressures. It has been a year of realising the full degree of my own personal strength.
It wasn’t all rosy though. At one point, I messaged my friend Andrea, told her I was quitting and couldn’t deal with seeing another Kanji. Japanese consumed my every thought and I just shut down. I’ve never been under so much pressure. But, never one to dwell on the negative, I got through it and celebrated over pistachio gelato with Andrea. A week later, my childhood friend completed her Masters exams and we toasted each other with champagne over a 5-hour lunch! Women achieving in every direction!
I returned to Paris for a few days and, for the first time, the city had no hold over me. Yes, the architectural magnificence is still there in all its glory but that’s where it ended for me. I am passed the point in my life where I need to pretend; I loved my visits to the churches, the Louvre and to see my dear friend Gail and her crazy cat, but beyond that, Paris has nothing for me any more. Change where you least expect it. I went to L’église de la Madeleine for the first time since 2011. It shone like an angel. You see, I have always been fond of Saint Madeleine but, sadly, my association with this church was rather negative. I used to go there at least 4 times a week, to pray in fits of anger, suffering and sheer confusion as to why my life was as it was. As I walked in this April, I wept profusely. For about 40 minutes I just knelt down and wept tears of gratitude and understanding. Everything made sense.
Of all the highs this year, travelling to Iran topped every possible list. That feeling of wonder and innocence as I walked around Yazd hasn’t left me. It was my first time in the desert, and it felt otherworldly. Entering the beauteous Shāh-é-Chérāgh mosque in Shiraz rendered me speechless with its ornate turquoise mosaics and endless grounds. The sense of security and the warmth of the people left me in a befuddled state; why wasn’t I scared? Should I have been? I questioned my subconscious endlessly: did I, liberal-lover-of-people, expect to be endangered? By whom? Muslims? Huh, don’t be ridiculous. Why did Iran, a country I cannot claim lineage to, feel like home? How could everything I had been told about Iranian people be so wrong? I loved every moment and every person and would return in a heartbeat. And whilst I know that my adventures as a 2-week tourist are not indicative of the experiences faced by millions of local people and those with dual nationality (which Iran does not recognise), and there is no debate on Iran’s abhorrent human rights record, I remain grateful and changed by all I encountered there.
This has, undoubtedly, been the most successful year of my life. I have never been happier. However, my personal happiness is against the backdrop of unnecessary and excruciating pain within our world which often makes me question what I am doing. I haven’t blogged as often as I could. This is, in part, because I struggle with the idea that I’m sitting here eating chocolate and sipping sencha whilst millions are under siege, starving and lost. How is it 2016 and girls and women are being sold as sex slaves, and our governments are more concerned with their legacies than helping the lives they had an active role in destroying, all while I’m sipping matcha lattes and taking photographs of my manicure. It’s not pretty but this horrific reality seems particularly pronounced in recent years. But onwards we go, right? There is no other way. So yes, I’m celebrating a year of achievements, embracing this blissful moment of my life and looking forward, and I am also invested in the plight of my fellow human beings. When you’ve always blogged about scones, fashion and travel in a carefree manner, it is somewhat challenging to change the direction and feel of one’s blog. But, if not now, then when? I am different, I have changed; my travels are no longer solely about bikinis and martinis. I love this term Travel Deeper – this is where I am, combining travel experiences with geopolitics whilst wearing pretty nail polish and maybe the odd bikini. I no longer care about curating a life that looks good on the exterior but feels empty. I’ve been there, and it wasn’t right for me. In a world where people are still judging each other based on the colour of their skin and their religion, I need to engage more about such meaningful subjects. If this year has shown me anything, it’s that we – the people – have to put our voices forward. It’s not always comfortable and some people prefer to us social media for other, less-controversial topics, which I like to see popping up in my feed. That’s good, that’s their choice. It’s just that I want to mix it up a little – good coffee, politics, the ballet, the plight of refugees and the mess that is Brexit. I need to follow what feels right for me. Changes are afoot.
This year will be different: I have booked another trip to India for the winter (which will be purely pleasure) and then it is time to focus on my professional goals. There will be little time for travelling to far-flung destinations but I still have my eye on Scotland, Italy, Spain and maybe even good ole France. But right now, I am happily focused on this week: reading the required literature for my course starting on Monday and trying to learn a little Hindi… My year is off to a great start!
I often reflect on what my expectations say about the tiny, orderly bubble-of-one I live in, and Istanbul was no exception. The stakes were high as I had intended it to be a gentle introduction to the Middle East. I had read so much about Turkish ceramics, craved the pickles I’d sampled here in London and looked forward to exploring a city of beauty and religious diversity. Against the backdrop of an increased terrorist threat, complaints of religious pressure and the majority of people saying “I wouldn’t go somewhere like that”, I applied for my visa online, packed a small bag, and off I went to finally experience the wonder of the Blue Mosque.
However, things didn’t quite go as expected. My experiences before I even got through passport control were less than welcoming; the chap at passport control threw my passport at me. Deep breaths. Stepping out of the airport I was engulfed by a thick, cough-inducing cloud of tobacco smoke, people spitting everywhere and this incessant hooting of taxis. My taxi driver chatted away on his mobile phone as he puffed cigarette after cigarette on the seemingly endless motorway. The traffic was heavy, loud and chaotic but every now and then I would catch a glimpse of a minaret over the hills and feel a wave of peace come over me. I would finally get to explore Istanbul’s mosques, eat a kebab (such a tourist!) and see a place I learnt about by ogling its porcelain at the V&A. Complaining because a city in a foreign country is different to what I know and love seems ridiculous to me. Almost as ridiculous as not sharing one’s true feelings… Istanbul is not my city; I don’t know the rules and, as a tourist, I needed to relax and take it for what it is, one day at a time.
I have never been so happy to get out of a taxi! The hotel, so clean, smoke free and with a smiling face greeting me was such a relief. I walked in and within 5 minutes, I was in my room, where I had a wee cry. Shattered expectations. Anyway… Whenever I travel, I always contact the hotel to ask for a yoga mat to be placed in my room. Like many people, and maybe more so as a solo female traveller, I struggle to sleep in hotels and often do a gentle yoga practice in these moments of insomnia. The only time I slept well whilst travelling was on a Junk Boat in Halong Bay, despite being certain it was going to sink! For my first night, I stayed at the House Hotel Galatasaray: the gentleman on the reception desk explained that he had upgraded me to a Junior Suite because it was quieter for my yoga practice. This is service. Even yoga wasn’t enough to help me that night – I opted to calm my nerves with a martini in the hotel bar, where I met a lovely Turkish lady whom happened to be enjoying cocktails with her friend.
In the morning, full of excitement, I ate a light breakfast before rushing out discover my new neighbourhood. Being late December, it was cold but the blue sky dazzled and I was finally able to explore a place I’d read so much about. I visited St. Anthony of Padua Church to enquire about Christmas Day masses, climbed Galata Tower for spectacular views of the sprawling city, completely in awe of its size, the glistening strait and the enormous mosques dotted around. There were a few school groups too; I cannot speak Turkish but the children I encountered were extremely polite, calm and engaged with their teachers, and it was a delight to watch their little faces as they saw their city from a different perspective for the first time. What a shame we often lose that sense of wonder as we age. The sun shined upon me as I made my way through the cobbled stone streets towards Galata Bridge, where fishermen chatted amongst themselves as the tram whizzed by, people rushed across and tourists like me crawled by at a snail’s pace, taking photographs and getting in everybody’s way.
As I neared the end of the bridge and approached the Bazaar Quarter, I heard the Call to Prayer for the first time. I was terrified! I thought it was an announcement or warning as it seemed to echo (it was in fact from other surrounding mosques) but nobody else seemed concerned. I noticed a gentle stream of people heading into the New Mosque, and soon figured out what was going on. Within a few days, against the backdrop of exquisitely-designed and maintained mosques, I came to appreciate this call and the meaning it has for Muslims. I feel grateful to the universe I was able to have such an experience. Religious rules and rituals fascinate me, and I was incredibly lucky to be able to visit some such an array of mosques, churches and a synagogue, and indulge my fondness for religious architecture. This exploration greatly aids my desire for a deeper understanding of our different beliefs, but more on religion later.
The spice bazaar next to the New Mosque was a feast for the senses: cardamom, sumac, fennel and spices I’ve never heard of. The selection of dried fruit, sugar syrup infused pastries, ornate tea sets and ladies juggling babies and baskets was unique. I loved the scent of pickled chillies infused with freshly-roasted coffee beans from across Africa and the Middle East; suddenly you see names of countries only mentioned when talking about war and misery yet here, in a market, you are reminded that life goes on, people work and breathe and, in some little way, we can help them. I sampled everything I could until I reached the point where I needed to stop eating or return to my hotel and put my yoga leggings on and return, but that’s not really my style.
At the end of the first day, I switched to another hotel – House Hotel Bosphorus – where I stayed for 4 nights, and discovered my favourite mosque in Istanbul, met some interesting local people who informed me “we are not ISIS” – a comment I also (sadly) heard in Iran – and sampled some pretty good beer. Istanbul is heaving, very loud, people are suspicious of you (and baffled by why you would visit Istanbul now, at this troubled time) and, dare I say, aggressive. By the same token, I also experienced help and kindness from people I did not share a language with – the ladies who helped me take a bus when I decided to have an adventurous moment, the random young man who advised me not to walk alone at night (and he was right, as I didn’t feel entirely comfortable even in daylight) and the volunteers at the Süleymaniye Mosque who made me feel very welcome. The paradoxical nature of Istanbul has me debating whether or not to return but, at least for now, my memories (and the 2000+ photographs I took) will have to suffice.
Coming soon: Exploring Istanbul’s religious architecture.
Halong Bay always seemed like one of those places other people go to. You know, those people who take extraordinary photographs, have Condé Nast Traveller raving about them, have seemingly never taken a bad photograph and who are so naturally at ease with everything they encounter within the world. The more I live, the more I realise these people don’t really exist; they’re just like you and me. Halong Bay seemed otherworldly in the most wonderful sense but fear still held me. Fear of the unknown, of fulfilling the words of caution others had ‘offered’ without experience.
Coming from a busy city I haven’t spent much time at sea or in the water in general. Occasionally I go swimming but then I get freaked out about germs, rush home and spend longer in the shower than I did in the pool! As soon as my bus pulled up at the harbour, I started to feel a little anxious. The moment I put the life-jacket on, I felt nauseated, sweaty and I just kept thinking about drowning. I just wanted to get on the main ship for some sense of stability though, secretly, my initial thoughts all related to getting back to dry land the following day.
I made my way onto the main Junk boat, and to my little cabin with comfortable little bed with crisp, cool white linen. The awe-inspiring views as the boat made it’s way through Halong Bay. Hundreds, no, thousands of islets surrounded the boat, giving me goosebumps – each one seemingly more lush than the last. It was a place of firsts: I kayaked around the islets, slept on a boat and, most importantly, realised that my dreams are all attainable. I wanted to push myself, to live outside of my neatly planned life of books, manicures and stained glass window ogling; to live what I read, to explore the impact of formal education, my beliefs and to confront my fears. The kayaking was a mistake; it was one step too far outside my comfort zone and something I will never do again. I couldn’t enjoy the view because I was too scared about dropping my oar and, naturally, the fear of my kayak drifting into the abyss as a result. Petrifying.
The adventure was only beginning. We docked at one of the islands for a little mountain climbing, as one does in sandals and a bikini… There, high-above sea level, in the company of ravenous mosquitoes I spent a good hour just staring out at Halong Bay’s beauty, patiently waiting for the sun to set. I soon headed back to my boat for a strong martini and the silence of life at sea.
I awoke feeling refreshed and calm. It turns out sleeping on a boat is a pretty blissful experience. I still recall my morning boat shower; it’s amazing how quickly we become desensitised to the seemingly-new and strange. Having survived the previous night’s shower, with surprisingly-good water pressure, the morning was a breeze. I stepped up on deck, sat down with The Economist and started to cry. It was a magical moment of feeling connected to our universe and myself. I hope I never forget that sense of possibility. Just me, my favourite magazine and nature’s beauty. It was definitely one of the best moments of my life thus far.
It turns out that my Halong Bay experience, my second and third days in Vietnam, not only opened my eyes to a new part of the world but also set the foundation for my entire trip. Vietnam welcomed me; its people exude warmth and curiosity, the food is spicy and delicious and everywhere you look, even in the main cities, there is an abundance of greenery. Once again, I realised that as expensive and exhausting as travelling is, nothing enriches your life more. I’ve only been to Vietnam once, so I am clearly not an authority on the country. However, people with lives vastly different to mine, citizens of country deeply scarred by war and Western greed yet with a culture of kindness, education and learning from history. People who affirmed that our differences exist to unite us, rather than divide. I have met never people who have experienced the horrors of war, mass rape, violence and oppression yet whom, astonishingly, show openness and forgiveness. I would return to Vietnam in a heartbeat but first I think I need to visit other distant lands – China, Iran and India – which have long since been calling my name!
In the last few weeks I have been packing away items I no longer use, fit in or desire. I had dresses I last wore 8-9 years ago when I was younger and my hemlines were scandalously shorter, presents people kindly gave me but I never used and bottles of unused toiletries. All packed away and off to the charity shop. I like this concept of being possession-light and free of unnecessary material goods. I unfollowed dozens of social media accounts, unsubscribed from various newsletters and had a bit of a frenzied delete/throw-out moment. Those pesky remnants of my younger, superficial life when I cared (yikes) about labels, society pages and other forms of ridiculousness.
After years of heavy suitcases filled to the brim with items I would never wear on holiday, I try to travel with hand luggage now. I still remember the look on the bell man’s face when I checked out of my Istanbul hotel: I had 1 over-the-shoulder carry-on bag for 5 days. We both laughed about it. I don’t buy souvenirs or very much when I travel so, if anything, my case gets lighter. I am trying to apply this to future trips too.
Recently I’ve been listening to The Minimalists via their podcast (Technology and Education are particularly pertinent to my life) and I realise they constantly articulate what I have been struggling to accept: sometimes we need to declutter our relationships just as we do our wardrobes. I know someone who only contacts me to talk about herself, often not even asking about how I am. I mean, basic etiquette. If you ask her a question, she will never respond without “my boyfriend says” interjected into her answer, she complains constantly yet does nothing to address her issues and, most importantly, I feel really low after I’ve interacted with her. Some people just drag you down. Look, we’re grown ups; our relationships are an important facet of who we are but I struggle with people who speak through the opinions of others. I try to be empathetic towards other people. I know (and love) that we’re all different, I just struggle with people who complain yet do nothing. We all have down moments but, come on, let’s stay positive, focused and move on to better, happier times. I’m more of a let’s-encourage-and-soar-together rather than let’s-be-miserable-forever kind of person. My life has had some lows, and there were times when I didn’t think I would make it. I did. I have nothing to complain about, just gratitude for where I am and the possibility of going further. Not everybody is the same, and that is okay. One of my favourite quotations from The Minimalists essay entitled Goodbye Fake Friends (not sure where it originates from) is
“You can’t change the people around you, but you can change the people around you.”
I guess it wasn’t until last weekend when my friend Amber was in town that I realised how bad this actually is. We met for coffee and discussed everything: university, our relationships, the brilliance of Timberyard, future goals, politics, living abroad, the perfect lip moisturiser and that as long as cake exists, we will keep eating it for breakfast. I felt happy, light and motivated as I headed off to my Japanese class, and sad that my dear friend wasn’t staying (but excited about her life abroad). It really made me think about my interactions with other people, and how I spend my time. As an introvert I do not choose or like to spend much of my time around others so, in those limited interactions, why would I choose to be be around negativity? I am doing this to myself.
Change is challenging but necessary. I’m learning that things and people should bring value to your life, not weigh you down or clutter your shelves. As one of my favourite yoga teachers – Andrew McGonigle – always says in class
“Let go of what is no longer serving you.”