Sunday, August 28, 2016

Women's Equality Day

This week was special, albeit heavy. While highlighting the successes and the importance of women's equality, it reminded me of what feels like a never ending struggle.

On Tuesday, I saw my local community rally behind one woman because of her courage and bravery. Hope McMath has chosen to continuously fight for equity and inclusion. The support she received and the hope she provides has been a beautiful thing to watch. It is a powerful testament of our faith in her and our love for her. 

On Wednesday, I was one of 25 women who received the Jacksonville Business Journal's "Women of Influence" award. I was thrilled to see many men in the audience!  Usually, events for women draw a predominantly female crowd. I had the pleasure of meeting many of the past recipients and was humbled by their accomplishments. They are pioneers who have paved the way for other women and continue to do so through their tireless efforts. As one of the youngest recipients of the award, I understand the responsibility placed on me to continue to positively impact our community. You can read my profile for the award here.

On Thursday, TEDxJacksonville held Women Kicking Ass, one of our most popular events. The event sold out in under an hour, demonstrating the need for this important conversation. The panelists were authentic and honest. They provided great insight on what it means to be a leader in your community, your sector, or your organization. They advocated for women to actively pursue their goals. Most importantly, they reiterated that ceilings can be shattered. 

Friday was Women's Equality Day. In 1971, we designated August 26 Women's Equality Day to commemorate the 19th amendment, passed in 1920 to grant women the right to vote. The first Women's Rights Convention was held in Seneca Falls on July 19, 1848. It took us 72 years to earn the right to vote. 

On Saturday, I exercised my right to vote and took my nieces, who are ages 11 ad 14, to the polls with me. 

Seneca Falls was a milestone. The 19th amendment was a milestone. Our recognition of Women's Equality was a milestone. But it baffles me that women are still fighting for equality in 2016 after proving ourselves time and time again. Headlines like, "Facebook, Microsoft, Apple say they offer equal pay" are mind blowing because women have already proven the economics of women's equality. Research has shown conclusively that the more gender-equal companies are, the happier their labor force is. They have lower job turnover. They have an easier time recruiting. They have higher rates of retention, higher job satisfaction, and higher rates of productivity.

We are headed in the right direction. We should celebrate every step forward. But we are far from equality and there is a lot more work to be done. 

Saturday, April 2, 2016

Before there were blogs

I woke up today to sounds of rain and thunder and decided to spend my morning reading and writing, two things I enjoy immensely when I have the time. Today, I'm going to be writing a journal entry to my childhood best friend in a book we have been sharing since 2012. While reading some of the past entries, I decided to also look back at my past travels. In doing so, I discovered old emails I used to send to a group of about 25 of my closest friends and family. They bring back such fond memories of laughter, love and adventure. I don't know why I stopped so I am also going to write one today after five years. I thought I would share one with all of you from New Year's Day 2011.


Hi everyone,

Firstly, Happy New Year!!

The last two weeks have been an absolute gastronomical delight for me and full of unexpected adventures.

We were stuck indoors because England is still learning how to cope with snow, i.e. a usual 2 hour journey from Birmingham to London took us 15 hours. On the bright side, my mom cooked everything my heart desired and it came to the point that we began to only partake in eating and sleeping. While staying with an uncle in London, I also continued to meet more delightful family that have now made me want to reach out to distant relatives and reconnect because I have learned that family doesn't always come with drama.

I had the honor of spending Christmas and New Year with two beautiful families, the Khorugdharry's in London and the Suarez's in Bilbao. Both welcomed me into their homes and were kind enough to allow me to witness their traditions. In London, I even got entrusted to help cook the xmas meal! And it has to be said that the food was delicious and I'm sure our capabilities surprised everyone at the table. It was also a pleasure to see little Tahj open his presents and play with his new drum set for us, there is nothing like seeing the magic of xmas from a child's perspective.

In Bilbao, the celebrations for New Year's lasted into the next evening and definitely tested my endurance! Not only did I get to experience the annual countdown with a grape eating competition but prior to that the matriarch of the house was kind enough to cook an amazing meal while being careful to take care of everyone's dietary needs. We then went on to the seaside village of Pedernales to continue the festivities. Here, a beautiful 84 year old grandmother invited us all to celebrate at her home and taught me that life needs to be lived with romance or else it isn't worth it at all.

I am looking forward to seeing the city of Bilbao and San Sebastian in the new few days while taking time out to eat as many Pinxtos as possible because they are absolutely delicious. Apparently, San Sebastian is famous for Pinxtos and has 16 Michelin star restaurants so my plans to diet are going to have to wait. Over the course of my travels in the last few weeks, I have met many wonderful people and visited many beautiful cities while partaking in new experiences and am now looking forward to being in New York next week!

Until Peru..



Sunday, October 4, 2015

Monthly Dose of Travel on The Chat

I firmly believe travel teaches us valuable life lessons in ways we never expect. It has allowed me to fall in love with the world, see and believe that we are all the same irrespective of where we were born or raised and most importantly it has allowed me to appreciate different perspectives.

If you follow Humans of New York, then you have to come to see that it doesn't matter if you live in New York or Karachi, humans are the same everywhere. Negative news stories tend to take over the airwaves and we rarely hear about good that takes place everyday. When we experience the world for ourselves, we see that stereotypes are often not true and people are inherently good. I believe this is the reason platforms like Airbnb, Couchsurfing and Uber are successful. Strangers are the best part of travel because they make you realize what humility really means. They are the ones who invite you in and offer you a feast even though they don't have much to  give.

I was on The Chat back in August to discuss my love for travel and had a great time with the ladies. It was just like chatting with a group of girlfriends. Oddly enough, they invited me back a month later to discuss fall travel destinations. Starting in November, I'll be on once a month to discuss holidays around the world! I am so grateful for the invite and for their faith in me. My hope for the monthly segment is to use it as a tool to raise awareness for the different cultures present in Jacksonville. We have many different nationalities amongst us but we do very little to incorporate them into the community. 

I'd love to hear about which holidays from other parts of the world have made an impression on you. I have a list from my travels and can't wait to start sharing them with you. Watch The Chat weekends at 3 p.m. on NBC12 and ABC25.

If you would like to watch the previous two interviews, you can do so with the links below.

Friday, July 17, 2015

What is Eid?

Today marked the first day of Eid ul Fitr, a celebration that marks the end of a long month of fasting for 1.6 billion Muslims around the world. I sometimes describe it as the Muslim Christmas to my friends in Jacksonville because very few know about it despite the 10,000 plus Muslim population in Jacksonville.

I look forward to this holiday even though I am not a devout Muslim because it reminds me about who I am and where I am come from. This is probably my loneliest Eid because my parents are in Canada and my in-laws are in Dubai. My mom always mails me a care package of food so I cant taste the goodness I would get at home but with her being away I got nothing. My in-laws call Jacksonville home and when they are in town, they always make sure our family gets together for Eid prayer and a family celebration afterwards. This year, I worked on Eid and Asghar has been prepping for a deposition so we didn't partake in any festivities.

This holiday also gives me an excuse to raid my SouthAsian closet, courtesy of my mom. That's right, when SouthAsian girls get married they get a wardrobe full of clothes as a gift from their parents. But I didn't get dressed up this year and it makes me sad.

Jacksonville, FL is a very southern town in the bible belt. My friends from around the world and New York always wish me Eid Mubarak on this day but none from my now hometown ever do. I don't blame them for it but I do wish they would take the time out to learn more about the different cultures around them. Discussing Islam in this town can be a controversial topic even if I see myself as a liberal muslim/agnostic. I do think I have a responsibility to share my identity but am never sure when to bring it up.

So the point of the post is come ask me about where I am from and who I am :)

Sunday, June 28, 2015

World Travelistas

Angie Orth and I were recently interviewed by First Coast Magazine  for their July bucket list issue. The interview focused on our love of travel and why it is an important component of our life. Grab the issue at your local Northeast Florida bookstore! You can also read the interview here
Photo by Renee Parenteau

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

My Trip To Vietnam

There are many things I could tell you about my trip to Vietnam. The chaotic border control. The pho in Hanoi. The beauty of Halong Bay. The colorful streets of Hoi An. The chaotic dance of the scooters. The importance of the Mekong delta. But I am going to start by focusing on the people who accompanied me and how they turned a vacation into a memorable moment of my life.

Cambodia and Vietnam are neighbors. I started hearing about Vietnam as soon as I moved to Cambodia. My local friends, colleagues and neighbors would voluntarily disclose how awful the Vietnamese people were and how they changed Cambodia' glorious trajectory and stole all the limelight for themselves instead of sharing it with the region. I listened with skepticism but knew that some of the differences between these beautiful countries were deep rooted and dated back to Pol Pot and Cambodia's real demise.

A lot of my friends made the trip to Ho Chi Minh pretty regularly because it was only six hours from Phnom Penh. I assumed I would make a weekend trip pretty early into my six-month stint but my trip to Vietnam ended up taking place during my last month in Asia. Parts of me wanted to go straight home from Vietnam, parts of me wanted Vietnam to be the start of a month of travel in Asia before I said goodbye to the enchanting continent.

But things end up working out exactly as they should. My best friend and serial travel partner decided to visit me during my last month in Asia. He and I started our exploration of the world together and have stories that will bind us forever. We planned 10 days of travel in Vietnam and it felt like another one of our adventures all over again.

Meanwhile, my cousin, Saima, and her husband, Arzi, also decided to join me in Vietnam before I moved back home.  She and I coincidentally always meet in a new country. So far we have explored England, India, Singapore and Vietnam together. I last saw her in Singapore over Chinese New Year.  We met somewhat serendipitously when my mom told me I had a cousin in London while I was I was studying in Birmingham. Of course I didn’t give it any thought until Saima reached out and we started emailing. Turns out she was really cool! Emails turned into weekend hangouts until they moved. She has become the big sister I never knew I had.

How lucky was I? I got to explore a new country with the people I love while also being able to close out a memorable chapter of my life with them. Our trip was broken into three parts, the north, the center and the south. We ended up visiting Hanoi, Halong Bay, Hue, Hoi An, the Mekong Delta and Ho Chi Minh.

Hanoi is located in the north and is the current capital. We spent the first day walking and getting acclimated to the neighborhoods. Walking is so therapeutic. It allows you to feel like you are part of the pulse of the city. You are amongst locals and foreigners alike. You get to experience the rich and the poor, the young and the old. You really get to see a place. Through walking, we discovered a coffee shop hidden behind a tourist shop. Once we got to the roof, our view was the city and Hoan Kiem Lake. It was the perfect way to meet the city and its inhabitants.

Hanoi is the gateway to Halong Bay. Most tourists start here if they want to visit the bay. It does have plenty to offer aside from shuttle rides to Hai Phong. There is fantastic pho, the best you will ever have. I think I had one for every meal one day because I could not get enough. The Vietnamese also eat pho pretty much at every meal. One of our favorite moments was eating pho for breakfast with the locals. We knew we found a legit place when we saw businessmen in suits sitting on milk crates in the street in the summer heat. 

Ho Chi Minh also lays here in a creepy mausoleum. I say creepy not because you are going to look at a dead body. Creepy because of the rules you have to follow. You have to walk in pairs, you are not allowed to smile, you have to cover your shoulders and your knees.  We discovered these rules the hard way. Z and Saima were wearing tank tops and had to buy cheap cotton I love Vietnam tees in order to enter. These were also over priced. I had to leave my camera behind with bag check. Nobody was friendly and it was a very robotic experience. Having said all the negative, seeing Ho Chi Minh lay there with his black nails is a sight I will never forget. This visit really reminded us that we were in fact visiting a communist country and need to follow all of its laws. All the tourist attractions, the French architecture and influence can’t detract from the fact that everything is very much controlled by the government.

Our next stop was Halong Bay. The four-hour ride to Hai Phong was filled with cheesy pit stops where you are supposed to buy all things Vietnamese. The best part about this ride was seeing a laborer clean a marble statue with a toothbrush. As for the bay, I had arranged for us to spend the night on a secluded island call Cat Ba island. It looked beautiful in all of the pictures. I had no idea we would have such an eventful journey in order to reach it. It took us two speed boats, and a yacht to get there. Had I known that, I probably would have planned to stay for two nights rather than one. It was in fact an absolutely stunning place in the middle of nowhere. Literally. No stores. No local residents aside from the hotel staff. Nothing but eight shacks on an island. They fed us and had kayaks for us.

Halong bay was also a beautiful sight. I have never seen anything like it.  It is filled with thousands of towering limestone islands topped by rain forests. There are plenty of underwater caves for snorkeling and lots of opportunities for swimming and kayaking. Ironically, I learned that the boat tours are called “Junk Boat Tours." Most of the boats definitely aren’t junk boats and I wonder if the name got lost in translation.

We said goodbye to Saima and Arzi here and Z and I headed to Hoi An, a shopper’s paradise. Hoi An was magical. There are bright colors all around you, in the lanterns, on the streets, on the doors, and of course in the shops. You will fall in love with the iconic silk lanterns that set an ambient glow outside everything, especially when you see them in the river. Our objective here was to consume as many Banh Mi sandwiches as we could from a local unassuming sandwich shop. They charge a local price and a foreigner price and I am proud to say that we received the local price on our fourth and final day. These things are indescribable and each bite was a taste of heaven.

The other important aspect of Hoi An is tailoring. Custom tailoring for everything! Shoes, bags, suits, dresses, you name it. We got a little crazy and ordered seven suits, two shoes, two shirts, and one dress. Everything required daily check-ins but in the end the final products were worth it.

Having had the extra time, we took advantage of Hue's proximity and arranged a private tour of the city. Hue is Vietnam's old imperial capital and is only two hours from Hoi An. It has the standard sights like the imperial city and many temples but we loved our excursion because of the Tomb of Khai Dinh. The tomb overlooks a hill and requires you to climb 127 steps before you reach the top. The statues on the first level were the best part for me. Yes, the mausoleum is intricate but the soldiers evoke a certain emotion and I wanted to spend time with each and every one. 

We also took time out for some r&r at the beach. We rented bicycles for the day and explored all of old town and then made our way to the sea . It was wonderful because the beach was filled with locals rather than tourists. It was a fun way to see their daily routine and we got a beautiful sunset as an added bonus. 

Stay Tuned for part II on Ho Chi Minh, the Mekong Delta and the Border.

Sunday, May 31, 2015

One Year Since Cambodia

It has been nearly two months since my last post. I've been meaning to write but keep getting pulled in lots of different directions. I have a long list of posts to write on Vietnam, Hawaii, Montreal, Asheville and Savannah and I promise to get to them before the summer is over. 

While attending a wedding party this weekend, a conversation on Cambodia led me to realize it has been exactly one year since I moved back home. I remember when I was getting ready to move to Asia like it was yesterday. At the time, a lot of my friends were worried I was giving up on the momentum I had achieved and were not sure I was making the right decision for my career. You already know how enriching that experience was for me.

The past year has been full of professional and personal development highs for me. I have been working at the Jacksonville Chamber since August and have enjoyed every minute of it. I am managing a cutting edge project with the goal of improving our region's college attainment rate from 36% to 60% by 2025. You have no idea how baffling this statistic is for all the locals. People just assume everyone goes to college and graduates when in reality more than half don't.  

I also recently learned that I am an Aspen Ideas Festival Scholar for 2015 and part of  Leadership Jacksonville Class of 2016. Both programs present an opportunity to engage with a dedicated group of leaders, locally, nationally and worldwide.

The amount of support and advice I have received in Jacksonville has been unbelievable. I've said this before and I'll say it again but the women here have helped me in countless ways. They have made themselves available for multiple coffee dates and lots of honest feedback sessions. 

The pressure to be great is huge because I don't want to let anyone down. But it is also the motivation to keep going and to keep setting higher expectations for myself. I have never felt a greater sense of community then I do now in Jacksonville. I am excited to be part of the change and can't wait to see what comes next.