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.

Monday, April 6, 2015

The results of Living on $2/day for a month

We did it. We survived an entire month on $2/day for food and drinks. What this really means is we didn’t go  out at all in the month of March. 

Our friends didn’t particularly love this idea and were skeptical if we could keep it up. We found creative ways to interact with them without having to go out. This included art walk, morning runs, running the Gate River Run, potluck dinners and movie nights. Many were worried about us starving but the reality is we actually ate really well. We enjoyed cooking at home and figuring out recipes together. Asghar has mastered bread making and stir fry and even gained a few pounds because of his love of fresh bread. I have figured out how to buy groceries in a smart way. I actually lost a few pounds and feel a lot less tired because everything has been fresh and homemade. We now use everything we buy in that week and nothing gets lost in the bottom drawer.

Asghar would say the whole thing was hokey but a lot of fun. It wasn't a real challenge for him. He doesn't think we did anything difficult because we didn't follow the guidelines strictly. For example, we used our pantry items in addition to the groceries we bought. We had three dinners on the calendar at the homes of friends and family and we didn't cancel them even though purists would say they should have been cancelled or their cost should have been deducted from the budget. He holds himself to such high standards and would only say we accomplished a great deal if we did this project strictly on $2/day.

I’m sure many of you are wondering if it was all worth it. My answer is a resounding yes, so much so that I am going to keep it up. For starters, we collectively saved a whopping $1500. We only spent $112 out of our allotted $124 on food. This was an eye opening experiment because we just didn’t realize how much we spent going out. Now that we know, we have decided to set our monthly total to $500. Once we reach that limit, we are going to stay in for the remainder of the month. This is obviously a work in progress and we are eager to make it work but we are going to take it a month at a time.

The time indoors resulted in Asghar and I spending a lot more time together and completing a lot of time consuming projects including our taxes. We were able to build a new raised bed, plant some new flowers and clear out some weeds. When I say we, I’ll be honest it was mostly him. My time was spent on cleaning the house, working on TEDxJacksonville, fighting with Comcast. The remaining time was spent reading books and the stack of magazines that used to pile up every month. 

I would highly recommend this project to anyone wondering if they have the discipline to meet their long term goals. Financial goals  both short term and long term are something we discuss and plan for all the time and this really helped us put it into perspective. I have been saying this forever but I really believe that goals are so much more accessible and realistic when you write them down and come up with a plan. You start to believe the rest is attainable because you have a plan. That alone gets you a third of the way there. 

Monday, March 16, 2015

How We Are Surviving On Two Dollars A Day

Asghar and I are now 16 days into our $2/day/person challenge and I am proud to say that we have not spent any money eating or socializing outside. I think for the first time, in a very long time, both of us even hung out at separate social events and only had water. 

You may be wondering, "How do they do it?" Well it really isn't that hard. For starters, it is really important to plan ahead. Laziness is probably the only thing that prevented us from doing this before. Every Saturday, we sit and make a list of what we are going to eat for breakfast, lunch and dinner every day of the week. Doing this has really allowed us to shop for ingredients that we can keep using instead of doing what we usually do and buy one off items and then let them rot or sit there for weeks before we realizing we had them.  For example, I bought carrots on Saturday so I could use them in my vegetable soup, shred them in my salad and roast them with my chicken. 

We even planned ahead to have a double date. Last Thursday, we had a couple over for some spaghetti and meatballs. The meal was nothing fancy but it was still delicious and filling. And we got to enjoy a great evening with friends without spending $50-$100 on dinner which is what always happens when you go out for dinner. Some of our favorite dishes have been chicken stir fry, chicken tacos, potato cutlets, vegetable soup and of course a good old loaf of bread. Asghar has baked baguettes, sourdough loaves, and white loaves. I have attached pictures of each week's receipts and our meal plans for the week. 

The thing that has touched me the most is being able to feel and understand what it is like for those that do not have the luxury to buy whatever they like. We might be doing this as a fun challenge but for many this is a reality. This really hit me on the morning of Friday, March 6th. It was warm most of the week and all of a sudden it got really cold on Friday. I had to be at the Mayor's education summit by 7:30 and of course left the house without checking the weather. When I got out to the car, I was freezing! But I had to deliver promotional material and could not be late. So I dealt with it and made my delivery downtown. I had a hour to kill before the program actually started so I quickly drove home and grabbed a coat. On the way home, I noticed a woman on Park St who was shivering and only wearing a t-shirt. She didn't have to ability to go home and grab a coat. That's when it hit me, I am so lucky to have everything I have and I felt ashamed because I could do nothing for her. 

There is a reason food drives tell us to look into our pantries around Thanksgiving. We as a society tend buy more than we need. Why not buy less, save more and give more to the organizations we want to rather than feeling like we have to give around one holiday. It has been fun inspiring others to think about what they really need to live comfortably. Now that we know we can do this, I think we might make this an annual tradition. 

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Turning Thirty and Trying Something New

February was a decadent month. My parents visited and brought lots of home cooked meals. Asghar and I went to Hawaii for a week and had the most amazing time, topped off by a lavish meal at Red Salt in Kauai. Upon our return, we hosted a party to celebrate my 30th birthday with our wonderful friends in Jacksonville. This was followed by a meal at Roy’s with family and then a delicious dinner at Bistro Aix on my actual birthday. Wow.

Needless to say, I felt spoiled, gluttonous and a little guilty.  My loved ones are wonderfully caring and know how to make a girl feel special. But it also made me feel like we have too much. It made me think back to my time in Cambodia trying to stretch my $300/month allowance as far as I could. I realized that I just don’t think about where our money goes as much as I believe I should. Yes, we save and are conscious about not incurring debt, but generally we spend our income without a purpose. So I came up with an idea and proposed it to Asghar.

For the month of March, we have decided to only spend $2/day/person on food and beverages, $28/week or $112/month. We both felt like it would be fun to do this together and a great way to challenge ourselves. We have decided everything in our pantry is fair game since we barely use those items. Purists would probably consider this cheating but we are taking baby steps.

Discovering the items in our pantry has actually been a lot of fun. We realized we have a lot of flour so we decided to bake our own bread. In three days, we have baked two loaves and they were delicious. One was lemon poppy and the other was a plain white loaf. We are working on our yeast starter for sourdough next.

Grocery shopping has also changed. Instead of just buying things on our list without looking at the cost, we found ourselves comparing weight and costs for most of our items. On March 1st, we went to get our goods for the week and only spent $23.50 and have $4.50 left over. Fresh field farms was great for chicken and produce!  Shopping was actually pretty easy once we decided what we were cooking for the week and planned ahead. The planning has allowed us to prepare our breakfasts and lunches for the next day in advance, which has reduced the temptation to spend money outside.

We both do need our daily coffee intake. Luckily, if you remember, we won free coffee for a year from Corner Bakery. This has helped me significantly since I hate the coffee at work.

The biggest challenge has been declining social invitations. We knew this would be the toughest part going in because this where most of our cash goes. Some friends get what we are doing and some don’t. Some have been really receptive and have been interested in doing potlucks and dessert evenings. But it is also really nice to have downtime at home because we can't go out. I am getting to do things I want like writing this post and working on my travel scrapbook. 

It may seem like a random thing to do but I am really excited about seeing how far Asghar and I can take this and what we will learn from it. I know we will be ready to go Orsay as soon as this is over but we may also only bake our own bread from now on, or learn to be a little more conscious of how much we spend. I hope in the long term we will become a bit healthier and a bit more aware of how little we need to be comfortable.

COVID Reflections

It's surreal to think we are entering nine weeks of COVID quarantine. I am one of the lucky ones, I still have my job, health and fami...