What can drinking blood with Nenets reindeer herders in Siberia, horseback riding with Kazakh Eagle Hunters in the steppes of Mongolia and taking teams across the hottest and coldest deserts in the world teach you about leadership? A lot more than you might think.
I am convinced that we are all meant to be explorers, pioneers, and treasure hunters of the soul. We are not supposed to be sleep walking through life, caught in a routine, ambivalent to the possibilities that lie waiting all around us. The world is a dramatic arena, and each us is meant to experience it in the best possible way.
I believe we are here, on this earth, to live a grand and exciting adventure made up of a series of smaller adventures. We are here to discover, grow, be creative and to have a positive impact on the people and the world around us. Anything less feels like such a missed opportunity.
These past few years, thanks to my work with my two NGOs Women on a Mission and HER Planet Earth, I’ve had the great privilege of taking hundreds of women, of all nationalities, ages and backgrounds, to off the beaten track locations around the world on challenging, often pioneering, expeditions that really push them outside of their comfort zone.
We’ve run expeditions to some incredible places, from regions of the Arctic circle, to the coldest, windiest and most remote continent on earth, Antarctica. We’ve crossed the largest caves in the world in Vietnam, so big in parts you could fly a 747 through them. We’ve sailed across remote islands in Asia and experienced real Robinson Crusoe-like moments.
My teammates and I became the first all-female team to bike across the frozen Arctic Circle Trail of Greenland, the first group to stand-up-paddle board down rivers in the Kingdom of Bhutan and bike across the Danakil Depression of Ethiopia – the hottest place on earth. We’ve migrated with reindeer herders in the middle of the Siberian winter, ridden on semi-wild horses with Kazakh Eagle Hunters in Mongolia and climbed many mountains in the Himalayas, Iceland and Africa. All these expeditions have had as mission to raise awareness and funds for vulnerable women.
As you can imagine, these unique experiences with teams of women to some of the most inhospitable and remote places in the world, have truly been incredibly humbling and formative experiences for me personally. They have forced me to push my limits on multiple occasions – really testing my mental, physical and emotional resilience – while allowing me to grow, succeed and fail in countless ways. And as I take stock of these past few years and plan the next stage of my career in this post-pandemic world, I realised that I’ve learnt more about myself and about leading teams through these experiences than in my 20 years in the corporate world, and as a result, I’ve found my own brand of leadership.
Without a doubt, one of the most important lessons from this unusual journey has been that true leadership is about empowering and advancing others. It is not about wielding power or being in charge. It is about lifting others up and helping them progress.
I’ve come to realise that good leaders inspire their team, their tribe, their pack – whatever you want to call it – to be a part of something bigger than themselves, something more meaningful and ultimately, more fulfilling. Put simply, leadership helps people grow closer to who they are meant to be. And our ability as leaders is not measured by how much we have achieved in life, but by how well we advance the lives of others along the way.
Some questions that come to mind are: how do you harness the power of your team to build success, not just for yourself but in your organisation? How do you empower your team to use its collective energy and influence to impact the world for the better? To do all that well, many vital ingredients need to be in place:
Practice what you preach – To begin, a leader needs to walk the talk and be authentic, aligning actions with values – and not the other way around. This is the first and vital step for any leader to gain respect and inspire the team to unleash their own power within.
Listen and be attentive – Leaders also need to be good listeners and try to understand people’s aspirations and motivations. This will demonstrate they care deeply for their team and will instil a strong sense of loyalty and commitment to the greater mission. You can empower others by highlighting their strengths and potential contributions. The key is to be attentive and identify those qualities and skills. Then, invite them to lead and contribute in their area of expertise. Everyone wants to feel like they are growing in strength and contributing to the bigger vision.
Be humble and take responsibility – Humility and having the courage to take responsibility when things don’t go as planned or when mistakes are made, are important qualities for any team leader. Leadership is not about being perfect or being the strongest. It is about being better together and crediting the team when objectives and milestones are successfully achieved.
Demonstrate empathy & compassion – Our future is a world where technology and automation are on the rise, and because of this there will be an equally massive swell in demand for people who have these valuable skills of empathy and compassion. They will continue to be some of the most critical workplace skills of the future because of their power to boost quantifiable business results and increase employee satisfaction.
Courage & vulnerability – Last but not least, have the courage to show vulnerability. It takes courage to show your authentic self in a way that exposes your vulnerabilities. Most of us are brought up to believe that showing those deep wounds is a sign of weakness. In reality the opposite is true and showing vulnerability is an incredible superpower when it comes to leadership. It creates an atmosphere of safety and trust, which in turn, increases productivity and wellbeing within the team.
The pandemic has shown us how vulnerable we all are in times of crisis. It has made me realise that to drive change moving forward, corporate social responsibility needs to be at the heart of corporations, embedded in their business model, aligned with their values, and not merely part of a separate initiative.
Indeed, research says purpose-driven firms— the ones that place their commitment to something other than generating profits — are more profitable for their investors in the long run. However, theories and good intentions can get tossed aside when stock prices or profit outlooks tip the wrong way. I believe most companies do not lack purpose, they lack the courage, commitment and follow-through to actually live their stated mission.
In truth we need leaders who don’t just support such sustainable initiatives, but who champion them passionately because they believe deeply in their intrinsic value for humanity, the planet and for their organisation in the long term.
Leadership for the greater good, the likes of which we haven’t seen for years has been one of the great advantages of the coronavirus pandemic. And while it may be intuitive to return to the way things were as soon as possible, what we actually need to focus on now, is not how things were, but what needs to change moving forward.
As Economics Nobel laureate Paul Romer famously noted in 2004, “A crisis is a terrible thing to waste.” During a pandemic priorities come into focus, trends accelerate, rules and regulations suddenly become more flexible, leaders pay attention and real change, is finally possible.
Perhaps the most important lesson now unravelling is one of human empathy and the urgent need, today more than ever, for more purpose-driven leadership, focused on empowering and advancing others.
A version of this article was first published in the Straits Times Newspaper of Singapore on 8 March 2020.
A century ago, up to 12 million of the world's heaviest land mammals roamed the earth. Today, there are only about 500,000 elephants left. Despite a 1990 ban on international trade in ivory, and even if the demand for animal tusks has decreased over the last few years, these majestic animals are alarmingly close to extinction.
In October 2019, our ‘HER Planet Earth’ all-female team, had the great privilege of trekking 100km with Samburu warriors in the Karisia Hills of Northern Kenya. The Samburu are nomadic pastoralists who have lived harmoniously with nature in this region of Kenya for centuries. Following patterns of rainfall in search of fresh pasture and water for their cattle, camels, goats and sheep, they have developed a special relationship with the environment and this has created a biocultural landscape that promotes both Samburu culture and biodiversity.
During our week-long sojourn in this remote part of Kenya, we witnessed incredibly stunning landscapes and ever-changing sceneries, from dry deserts and rocky volcanic terrain, to lush green forests and meadows as we climbed higher in altitude to 2,550 metres above sea level. Travelling with a full safari train, made up of twenty-eight transport camels loaded with our tents and supplies, our team walked side by side with an armed Samburu escort composed of proud local warriors, trackers and rangers.
Each day we covered about 18 to 20 kilometres on foot, leaving camp just as dawn broke, and arriving at our next campsite by early afternoon. Our Samburu guides kept us safe throughout, scanning the path ahead meticulously, constantly on the lookout for signs of wildlife or other visitors. They were attentive to every detail and looked after us with sincere and generous hospitality, which made all the difference.
The objective of our trek was to increase awareness of the impact of climate change in this region and raise valuable funds for Conservation International and their programmes aimed at building the resiliency of the local people of Northern Kenya, and women in particular, who are the hardest hit by climate change. In Kenya, women are the natural custodians of the environment and the first to be affected by environmental degradation. This is because they are the ones who walk for hours looking for water, who fetch firewood and who provide food for their families. Our support, which culminated in a team total of S$145,000, was aimed at creating more livelihood opportunities for women in this area - focused on wildlife conservation.
Elephants and Samburu Culture
As we journeyed with the Samburu through their territory, we learnt a great deal about their love of nature and their deep respect for elephants especially. These beautiful mammals have influenced Samburu tribal culture since the dawn of time. Elephants create paths to water and break branches that can be used for firewood, two functions that benefit the Samburu people’s survival.
As we soaked up the beauty of the region during our long days of walking, we came to hear about a local legend that tells the tale of elephants who once lived in homes and worked with the Samburu women, demonstrating that elephants are ancient relatives and therefore deserve love and respect.
The Impact of Climate Change
We soon also realised however, that the Samburu way of life is being severely threatened by the impact of climate change. Droughts are leading to conflicts, human and livestock displacement, animal diseases, and food insecurity. These nomadic herders frequently have to dig deep holes to find water for both themselves and their livestock. They call them ‘Singing Wells’ because they sing to their livestock as they dig, and the cows recognise their family’s song and come down to their well to drink. The difference between each family's song is usually clear but can be very subtle. At night, thirsty elephants seek out these wells. The adults, with great long trunks, have little problem reaching for the water, but the younger, inexperienced elephants can tumble in. If the animals can't be pulled out, the elephants are forced to abandon their young.
Over twenty of these abandoned elephants now live at the nearby Reteti Elephant Sanctuary, the first community owned elephant reserve in Kenya. At Reteti, the baby elephants are being devotedly taken care of and bottle fed, until they are big enough and old enough to be re-introduced into the wild. It's a unique form of conservation, where the local Samburu people collectively own and manage the 3,400-acre property.
As the largest of all land mammals, African elephants play an important role in balancing natural ecosystems and part of our team’s fundraising went to support this elephant sanctuary to help them grow and develop the programme, so as to employ more local women to care for these beautiful creatures.
Female Empowerment & Eco-Livelihoods
Additionally, our team’s efforts were focused on giving a voice and providing a platform for the development of sustainable enterprises and family livelihoods. The ripple effect will extend to education, health, family income and even security, peace and stability. Gender imbalance is a major factor obstructing sustainable development in Africa and poverty is a key element undermining a girl’s right to education; a cycle that reinforces a large gender gap. Many aspects combine to truncate a girl’s education and a young women’s career, limiting the full realisation of her productive capacities. On the other hand, educating a girl means that as a woman, she is then empowered and more likely to participate in development efforts and in political and economic decision-making.
One of our beneficiaries is a Conservation International Fellow, Rufo Halakhe, whom we met during our visit. Rufo will use her fellowship to explore how women are affected by tribal clashes involving communities in her region and how women can be champions of peace through their existing cultural structures. Another very special lady we met during our trip is Josephine Ikuru, a community leader and the first female peace coordinator for the Northern Rangeland Trust, a partner of Conservation International. She’s been a champion for women’s rights in Northern Kenya since her teen years, defying gender norms to attend local meetings traditionally dominated by men. Josephine gained a passion for conservation through her efforts to reform poachers, working to end both the devastation of her beloved wildlife and the poverty that has given rise to it. By age 22, she was elected the Chairperson of the Nakuprat-Gotu Conservancy, bringing together rival tribes to curb poaching and conserve the native wildlife. Throughout her career, Josephine has successfully reformed dozens of poachers, helping convert several of them into conservationists and peace ambassadors.
Our team spent a day with the Northern Rangelands Trust to better understand how our funds could help further develop their mobile anti-poaching unit. This group is comprised of highly trained men and women from the Kenyan National Police Reservists, who are tasked to protect the whole area. The rangers are extremely skilled in several disciplines, including physical training, first aid, weapons handling, navigation, legal briefing, and also work with a K9 task force, making them a unique influence for stability and safety in the community.
Their efforts since their inception have contributed significantly to a reduction in the illegal killing of several endangered species in this part of Kenya. The local elephant population has bounced back as a result, from an all-time low, since the introduction of this team. The success and continuation of this ranger unit provides an example to other communities of what can be achieved with the right resources and training.
Overall, our time in Kenya was a truly enriching and insightful experience. This magnificent country of epic landforms stirred in us deep longing for the rest of the African continent. And when you depart, as the plane lifts, you feel that more than leaving a continent, you are leaving a state of mind. Our hearts are full from the staggering beauty of the local people whom we came to know during our journey. They brought soul and colour to the earth. We will never forget the vast multicoloured grasslands peppered with immense herds of wildlife, which we traversed.
As with many of our expeditions, it’s not so much about the destination but more about the journey itself. The conservation mission is difficult and urgent, and the odds are seemingly stacked against us. The path is rocky, steep, hard and dusty. At times we feel overwhelmed, it’s difficult to take just one more step forward, but then we see our teammates, who are just as thirsty and tired as us, and we know that we are not alone in this journey. Together, we lift each other up and it inspires us to keep going, because this pursuit is too important. We must never give up.
The Land of Fire & Ice
A version of this article was first published in the Straits Times Newspaper of Singapore on 26 October 2019.
Landing in Iceland makes you feel like you are arriving at the very edge of the world. For avid trekkers, this place is paradise because of the incredibly rich topography and varied landscape. Also known as the Land of Fire and Ice, it has stunning blue glaciers, black sandy deserts, over 130 volcanoes, obsidian lava fields, multicoloured snow-capped mountains, and explosive geysers. Indeed, Iceland’s very existence is a geographical oddity. It marks the point where the European and American tectonic plates meet, and are pushed apart by volcanic activity, making it one of the most geologically active places on earth.
In an area approximately the size of New York, but with a population of just over 360,000, Iceland is the most sparsely populated country in Europe. The first permanent settlement wasn’t established until 874 AD, when a Norse Viking Chieftain called Ingólfr Arnarson arrived off the cost with his family. According to local lore, he threw two carved pillars overboard vowing to set up home where they landed. The pillars washed ashore on a coastline dotted with steam vents, so he called the place Reykjavik, which means ‘Bay of Smoke’ in Norse. His settlement is still the capital today, and home to two thirds of Iceland’s tiny population.
On an August day towards the end of the Icelandic summer, our team of 12 women - part of HER Planet Earth, a Singapore-based NGO that promotes female empowerment and environmental conservation – has just arrived in Reykjavik. We are for the most part based in Asia and no one has ever set foot in Iceland, except one person. The journey ahead is exciting and we look forward to spending five days traversing one of the most active, volcanic and alien landscapes of Iceland, Laugavegur, a trail in the Southern Highlandsoriginally formed by an eruption in 1477.
We chose Iceland because it is one of the countries already feeling the brunt of climate change. In fact, land in Iceland is rising at an average of 1.4 inches per year in certain areas, as a result of climate change. The melting of the country's glaciers reduces pressure on the land below and allows the surface to rise. This changing geography is another tangible showcase of the effects of global warming.
Just a few weeks ago, Iceland held an actual funeral for the first glacier “killed” by climate change - the 700-year-old Okjokull, which is the first of Iceland’s major glaciers to die. If a glacier melts and becomes too thin, it stops moving and then it is declared dead. Actions like Iceland’s glacier funeral are a vital part of the mourning process. As symbols of man’s connection with nature, glaciers have great cultural significance in the Nordic country and at current rates of warming, all of the country’s glaciers will suffer Okjokull’s fate in the next 200 years, one by one.
Our determined team is using this expedition to raise awareness and funds for underprivileged women affected by climate change. We want to highlight that gender often remains the untold story behind climate change. Indeed, in many countries around the world, women are among the most vulnerable to climate change and environmental degradation, partly because women make up the larger share of the agricultural workforce and tend to have access to fewer income-earning jobs. While climate change is a global phenomenon, its effects are felt locally, and poor people suffer the most - among the world’s 1.3 billion poor people, the majority are women.
After a bone shattering three-hour drive east of Reykjavik on the rough dirt road, we reach our first camp in the late afternoon, at the start of the Laugavegur trail. The area is only open to trekkers from June to August, because the rest of the year, the weather is simply too ferocious to risk hiking. As we step out of the van and breath in the crisp 6°C air, it’s easy to forget that we are still in the middle of summer. Nevertheless, the camp has a great surprise in store for us - a natural geothermal hot spring for campers to bathe in.
This first evening, the group is in high spirits. In the summer, Iceland never really gets dark so we are tempted to stay up late, despite the early start planned for the next morning. The trail awaits. Considered one of the finest walking routes in the world because of its staggering beauty and diversity, Laugavegur ranks right up there with the Inca trail in Peru and the Milford track in New Zealand.
We set out the next day under clear blue skies, and as soon as we step out of camp, we are greeted by the most extraordinary, heart stopping landscapes. The hills are breath-taking, barren with more than 50 shades of brown. As we climb higher, the wind starts to bite.
This place makes you feel as if you are a character in the Lord of the Rings. It is no accident that J.R.R. Tolkien was fascinated by Iceland. They say this part of the country is as close as you will ever get to Middle Earth, the fantasy land he describes in his novels.
As the day progresses, we make our way to the heart of this geothermal wonderland, and come across stunning sceneries at every turn: incredible lunar surfaces, volcanic rocks, majestic waterfalls and steaming hot geysers with their bubbling sulphuric acid pools. Respect for the landscape grows deeper with every step. It is this otherworldliness that brought Nasa to Iceland on numerous occasions to train astronauts for the geological conditions they would encounter on the Moon and Mars. Across most of Iceland, people live mainly on the coastal areas, because of this, you could walk for miles inland and see no sign of human life, no roads, no houses, nothing.
In the thousand years since Iceland has been inhabited, there have been over 250 eruptions in a volcanically active zone covering a quarter of the country. Our trail runs through the heart of this zone, which makes me wonder just how dangerous it is to trek here. “Surely they would close the trail…” I think to myself, “if there were any signs of an impending eruption.” We soon come across a sobering reminder of why never to underestimate the risks on mountains. It’s a memorial for a young Israeli man called Ido Keinan, a modest pile of stones with a metal plaque that says: “In loving memory of Ido Keinan who passed away in a blizzard so close to the safe hut nearby yet so far at only 25 years old June 27, 2004.” The frightening part is just how close Keinan was to safety when he died. This tragedy took place at the height of summer. We are walking in August and it does not feel like it. Just a few hundred metres later, we reach the Hrafntinnusker campsite for lunch.
Throughout the trek, we camp outdoors and experience a range of temperatures from beautiful sunny days, to cold, windy and rainy spells, with 5-6°C temperatures, for the most part. We hike about 10 hours per day and the team is relieved and joyous when at the end of each day, we finally reach our campsite for the night with warm food and rest.
The landscape is ever changing. Descending into the valley, we go from slopes covered in electric green moss, to lunar landscapes and artic trails, before entering a thick fern and birchwood forest called Thorsmork, named after the Norse God of Thunder, Thor.
As we hike through the woods, our intrepid, experienced guide Helga, shares with us, “We do have trolls who live in these mountains. They only come down to forage for food at night. If they are caught in the sunlight, they immediately turn to stone.” It seems the majority of Icelanders believe in, or at least refuse to deny the existence of elves, trolls, and other hidden beings.
On the third day, the weather catches up with us. The showers come and go as we march on through black volcanic rock covered with a thick layer of dust and sand. But this isn’t any ordinary dust. This is the stuff that caused chaos all over Europe when in 2010 the volcano under a glacier known as Eyjafjallajokul began erupting for the first time since the 1820s, spewing ash 9,000 metres (30,000 feet) into the air and causing the largest international airspace shutdown in years.
On the last day, the conditions worsen. Weather closes in and becomes quite menacing quite fast. The wind and rain are relentless and intensify in strength. This forces us to seek shelter and plan for an early evacuation, as 51km/h gale-force winds start battering the mountains.
Despite the poor conditions, Iceland has drawn us in. The team has covered close to 80km of undulating mountainous terrain, crossing numerous freezing rivers in the processes and enduring unpredictable and capricious micro-climates. The whole experience is surreal, and for many of us almost spiritual. The stunning beauty and dramatic lunar landscapes of Iceland have kept us transfixed throughout the journey. Pushing our limits for a very worthy cause has made the whole experience even more meaningful. We are bonded in our sisterhood and in our common goal. The team returns home with an unforgettable impression of this truly wild and awe-inspiring Land of Fire and Ice.
A Journey to the Lost World
A version of this article was first published in the Straits Times Newspaper of Singapore on July 7, 2019.
The siren call was simply impossible to resist. The moment I first heard about its existence, I simply knew that I had to find a way to see it with my own eyes. Indeed, Son Doong Cave, or Hang Son Doong as it is also known, is the largest cave in the world. It is an otherworldly place full of wilderness and grandeur, a true masterpiece of nature with awe-inspiring landscapes, and enormous stalagmites and statuesque stalactites, hanging from the ceiling and rising from the ground like alien species. They say life is about great friendships and spectacular adventures. Our week-long jungle expedition to the heart of Son Doong cave in Vietnam turned out to be precisely that, an unforgettable journey to a magical place as ancient as time, where we found ourselves constantly at a loss for words in front of so much stunning beauty and splendour, as we solidified friendships.
Located in the heart of the Unesco-listed Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park in the Quang Binh province of Central Vietnam, it was initially discovered by a local lumberjack named Ho Khanh in 1991. He did not dare venture in because he thought the powerful and mysterious wind blowing from inside the cave came from monsters of local mythology. The cave was then explored in 2009-2010 by the British Cave Research Association. It is now open to the public, but only officially since 2013.
In Vietnamese, Hang Son Doong means “Mountain River Cave,” and the grotto wears its name well, since it has its own underground jungle and ecosystem, with trees rising up 30m above ground, and a sinuous river that rushes through its gigantic chambers — distinct features that set the cave apart from many other grottos around the world.
The journey to the entrance of Son Doong cave involved two days of intense trekking through the thick jungle, multiple river crossings, and one night of camping in Hang En Cave (the third largest cave in the world). Once at the entrance of Song Doong, we harnessed up and abseiled down about 80m through tight and slippery passages, scrambling over huge boulders into the cavernous belly of the mother of all grottos.
Travelling through the cave’s depths required intense concentration. We had to stay alert at all times, lest we trip on the slippery rocks, and tumble down into a ravine lined with razor-sharp stones. Up and down we went using the wooden ladders wedged between the rocks; sometimes removing our backpacks so that we could squeeze through tiny crevices, splashing across icy rivers, wading through muddy streams, pulling ourselves up with ropes or sliding down on our muddy bums over sloping stone walls, and balancing precariously on narrow and rickety bridges to cross wide-open echoing spaces.
The cave’s proportions are extraordinary. Its main chamber is the largest in the world by volume (38.5 million cubic metres), measuring more than 5 kilometres in length and running approximately nine kilometres in total. Its largest section peaks out at 200m high and 150m wide. The only way to get a real sense of perspective on the sheer size of Son Doong is to have fellow trekkers scatter throughout the limestone galleries. Even then, it’s hard to properly comprehend the enormity of a place that could house an entire New York City block or could even store 68 Boing 777 aircrafts in its main passage.
The difference in temperature between the air inside and outside of the cave creates hovering clouds of mist that give rise to a mysterious and surreal atmosphere, enveloping many areas of the cave in a dense fog and contributing to the eerie sensation. The vegetation is extremely diverse, with lush and green foliage in parts where sun rays break through the openings, and practically non-existent in the hallowed and dark chambers of the cave.
Because of its colossal size and the high levels of rainfall in the region, erosion happens at an accelerated rate. Occasionally, the weight of the limestone gives way and collapses, creating what is known as a “doline.” Derived from the Slovenian word “dolina,” meaning “valley.” These sinkholes form huge gateways to the outside world, and at certain times of the year when the conditions are right, incredible sunbeams penetrate through these exposed sections, creating a mesmerizing light show.
On occasion, during pauses in our itinerary, we would look up and shine our helmet’s torchlights on the colossal limestone ceiling above our heads and marvel at the awe-inspiring majesty and beauty of this underground cavern. In those moments, we would be reminded of how unbelievable and rare this whole experience truly was. In reality, fewer people have seen the inside of Son Doong cave than have stood on the summit of Mount Everest.
Our Vietnamese guide, Vu, shared that the cave was estimated to be about two to five million years old and was initially formed by river water eroding away the weak limestone underneath the mountain, creating huge skylights. In many parts of the cave, we saw fossils believed to be millions of years old and thousands of cave pearls neatly packed into terraced compartments on the grotto’s floor. The cave pearls are a natural phenomenon formed over hundreds of years when dripping water creates layers of calcite that build up around grains of sand.
At times, we would encounter crawling white insects, almost transparent in hue, that had probably never seen the light of day. Other times, we would step over the remains of small animals such as deer or rats, their bones mixed with mud and dust. One morning on the first day of the expedition, we were awakened by the chirping of hundreds of swifts sweeping across the cavernous hall above our heads. The whole experience was genuinely mystical and surreal.
In truth, it was a spectacular adventure from start to finish. We used ropes once again, to climb out and exit the cave via the Great Wall of Vietnam, a calcite wall totaling 90m in height. This expedition required 28 porters, safety advisors, and guides, who really were the heart and soul of this fantastic journey. In the same way that the Sherpas of Nepal are instrumental to a climber’s success in summiting some of the highest peaks, the local porters of Son Doong are the true heroes of this multi-day caving expedition. These men all hail from Quang Binh, one of the poorest provinces in Vietnam, and come from a variety of working backgrounds such as farming, hunting, and logging. One thing they all have in common is their astounding ability to survive and thrive in the jungles of Phong Nha. All in all, seventeen porters, two chefs, one national park ranger, one porter team leader, five safety guide assistants, one lead guide and one British caving experts made up the team that took us on this remarkable journey inside the world’s largest cave.
The voyage was made even more poignant because our HER Planet Earth team was supporting a significant cause. This expedition aimed to raise awareness and funds for programmes that help the economic empowerment of women in rural Vietnam, strengthening their climate change resiliency. Thus, from the onset, thanks to this shared vision, our team was united in our purpose and humanity.
As we left the cave, my heart sank because a part of me wanted to run back to this precious Garden of Eden. Had we stepped back in time through a magical passage, deep inside the earth’s inner core? Or perhaps, taken a voyage to a lost world millions of years old? It felt that way to me. So much so that returning to my daily life took some time and readjustment. As we look back, the team and I feel privileged to have witnessed a glimpse of what the world must have looked like when dinosaurs roamed the earth and humanity was not even in its nascent stages. Somehow far from civilization’s hustle and bustle, everything seemed so much purer and simpler down there.
Photo credit: Sandra Lim, Oxalis Adventures & HER Planet Earth
They say the best journeys run deep and reconnect us with what it means to be human. Our sailing expedition to one of the most remote corners of the Philippine archipelago, Palawan, turned out to be exactly that - a deeply inspiring and revitalising voyage of self-discovery and exploration. We spent an adventurous week sailing on a stunning traditional 74-foot Paraw sailboat, the largest in the Philippines, which is a revival of an almost forgotten Filipino maritime culture dating back to more than 1000 years. Natural splendour abounded as we camped on deserted white sand beaches, swam through turquoise waters sprinkled with brilliant tropical fish, snorkelled around World War II shipwrecks, sampled native delicacies and simply revelled in the purity and wilderness of one of nature’s last ecological frontiers.
Our ‘HER Planet Earth’ team of explorers formed by ten intrepid women of diverse nationalities and backgrounds hailed from all corners of the world. And what brought us all together in the first place, apart from our adventurous spirit and a yearning to push boundaries, was a genuine desire to empower underprivileged women and to protect our beautiful planet.
We began our expedition in El Nido and made our way to Coron, meandering through the beautiful Linapacan island group. From the onset, the weather and tides dictated the itinerary and schedule. The wind in this part of the world blows strong, and reliably. It is sunny almost all the time, and there are literally thousands of islands in the Philippines - 7,107 at last count. Just a few days prior to our departure, a storm had prevented boats from setting sail from El Nido. Luckily, the weather Gods were on our side, and as we embarked on our journey, the sun shone brightly in the deep blue sky. The fair weather lasted throughout most of our trip, allowing us to combine stretches of pure, calm sailing with exploration of the islands, reefs and caves - carved into towering grey limestone cliffs estimated to be over 250 million years old. Palawan, a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, literally looks like a Jurassic world, with its dramatic jagged rock faces and lush, green tropical foliage. And as we reached our base camp on the first night, we left the boat safely anchored in the bay, while we swam noiselessly ashore with the full moon suspended in the pitch-black sky above our heads to guide us forward.
Founded by eco-conscious British and Filipino Entrepreneurs, TAO, our local partners on this expedition, started a decade ago by running sailing trips across the islands, establishing a network with local families and fishermen. Today, they have grown it into a social enterprise that aims to immerse participants into the true Filipino island life, while at the same time support the remote communities of Northern Palawan. In Tagalog, the official language of the Philippines, ‘TAO’ means ‘human’ and is pronounced TA-O, in two syllables not one. To me who grew up in the Philippines and who has travelled to many parts of the world, their expeditions, although not for the faint of heart, are probably one of the most authentic things you could ever experience in my home country.
The highlight of the trip was discovering Tao’s Kalahi Foundation & Farm projects - all of which focus on the advancement of women, children's education, organic farming and local traditional crafts for this precious region of Palawan.
Founded in 2008 the Foundation works like an extended family in a sustainable micro-economy across a 200km stretch of islands. Creating jobs and providing opportunities for women’s group, food production, water security, schools, and scholarships – offering alternative means of livelihood and access to education among families challenged by isolation and the collapse of the fishing industry. The foundation works with what is already available in the islands; utilising abundant resources and harnessing existing skills to come up with sustainable solutions.
Tao’s main base camp is on Culion Island, where we stayed for one night. From there, they run a children’s school, a women’s association which focuses on teaching them how to give massages, weave and make organics soaps and shampoos. The foundation also educates the islanders on responsible and sustainable farming, from maintaining an organic farm to domesticating animals and producing their own vinegar - one of the main ingredients in Filipino cuisine.
During our trip, we slept in bamboo huts on the beach. The huts or ‘Tukas’ as they are a called locally, are built to survive strong winds and even typhoons. Because they are not anchored to the ground by concrete bases, they tend to bend with the wind and occasionally get blown away during typhoons - hopefully not too far- so that they can be picked up, straightened out and re-used after the storm has passed.
For showers on the islands - if we had access to fresh water - we would wash using a bucket in makeshift outdoor showers or at a local spring. At night, the crew, who were nicknamed ‘The Lost Boys’ - because they truly were the heart and soul of this adventure - would build a bonfire and bring out their guitar to sing along with everyone.
One very important member or the crew was a pet Jack Russel named Amo, who answers to no one but his master, Gener, the boat’s Captain. Amo was our little expedition mascot! He was often patrolling the horizon watching out for intruders and made sure he was always the first to get off the boat when we came ashore – jumping eagerly into the transport kayaks before anyone could even get a seat.
Everything we ate during the expedition was delicious and prepared with the freshest ingredients found on the islands, either farmed or grown in the wild. A typical meal consisted of fresh fruit and greens, rice, and fish or pork. Seafood was bought every morning from local fishermen, livestock used for consumption are always raised on the Tao farms and surrounding communities. Most importantly, fruit and vegetables are grown without harmful chemicals, so as to minimise the ecological footprint of the whole operation.
As I reflect on our expedition, I realise how important such journeys are to open up new perspectives and recalibrate our priorities. They force us to step out of our comfort zone, grow as adventurers and empower ourselves, so that we can in turn empower others. The team and I are deeply grateful for these unique life experiences, because we learn so much about the issues many underprivileged people face around the globe, especially women - making us understand how fortunate we are and as a result how much more we should try to support this kind of sustainable and responsible tourism.
Indeed, at the heart of sustainable development is a deep respect for the earth and future generations. No matter how remote we feel from the problem, every act each one of us takes in our everyday lives affects our planet’s fragile ecosystem. Climate change and environmental degradation are barriers to sustainable development, augmenting existing inequalities. And gender often remains the untold story in this dilemma.
In many countries, women are among the most vulnerable to climate change and environmental impacts, partly because they make up the larger share of the agricultural workforce and tend to have access to fewer income-earning jobs. The destructive forces of nature, warped by rising global temperatures, manifest in typhoons, floods and other extreme weather conditions can act as negative force multipliers in societies already riven by inequality. While climate change is a global phenomenon, its impact is not spread across a level playing field. In fact, its effects are felt locally, and poor people suffer the most – and nowhere is this more apparent than in places like the Philippines.
During our time there, we were privileged to meet authentic and untouched communities. We learnt about their many life challenges, hopes and dreams. Ultimately, such expeditions are exceptional because they are made up of what each traveller brings with them on the journey, and this gets intertwined with the stories of the people we meet along the way. And while ‘The Lost Boys’ did their utmost to look after our every need, it was truly an unforgettable voyage through some of the most isolated and hidden frontiers of the Philippine archipelago, where every day is an adventure and were new discoveries await explorers at every turn.
Scaling Antarctica’s Vertical Limits
This article was first published in the Manila Bulletin Newspaper on March 4, 2018.
An all-female team sets out in search of new routes and peaks in one of the most inhospitable places on earth
Goaded by a mighty tailwind the massive Ilyushin IL-76 TD aircraft hurtles southwards at a velocity approaching 495 mph (800 km/h). The Drake Passage below sparkles to a far horizon as we make our way westward from Punta Arenas in Chile, to the Antarctic Peninsula and finally to Union Glacier, a private base operated by Antarctic Logistics & Expeditions (ALE), located in the Heritage Range, below the Ellsworth Mountains.
After about four and a half hours in the air, we prepare to land on the Blue Ice Runway, a rare and naturally occurring ice strip that is solid enough to support the weight of this monstrous Soviet military aircraft. It’s -15 degrees Celsius as we get off the plane and take our first steps on Antarctica.
The vast ocean of white unfolding before my eyes is simply magnificent. I look up to see the sun ablaze in the blue polar sky while the fierce wind makes me literally moonwalk on the frozen runway as I try to move from the plane to the four-wheel drive waiting to take us to the main camp.
“January is the heart of summer in Antarctica,” we’re told by one of the ALE staff, “It’s the best time to visit, because the weather is the least hostile.” Indeed, man has never permanently inhabited this remote landmass. Accessible only during its warmest months, from November to March, it has no metropolis or village to speak of, no habitat except perhaps the odd expedition shed or research station. It’s all just massive, desolate, glacial emptiness and bone-chilling temperatures that can range anywhere from -10°C to -80°C during the colder months.
Our all-female team arrives at Union Glacier Camp and, after a quick tour of the facilities, we get assigned to the dual occupancy “clam” tents. Most of us are based in equatorial Singapore, and it has taken us close to 48 hours to get here. No wonder settling in feels good, and the tents are surprisingly comfortable to live in. They are double-walled and designed to withstand polar conditions with a high-tech nylon covering and durable aluminium frame. The large “doors” and a tall interior allow us to stand upright and move around easily as we sort out our gear.
We spend the first few days at Union Glacier brushing up on our climbing skills and getting acclimatised to the Antarctic conditions. The team practices rope work, crevasse rescue, navigation, weather observations, and polar camping skills. During this period, we also discuss and plan our objectives with our guides, two incredibly qualified female climbers who have extensive mountaineering experience in polar conditions.
We are in very good hands. The team has no doubt that the next few days, as we go further inland to explore unchartered territory, will be nothing short of extraordinary. In addition to our thirst for adventure, we have a very clear goal in mind. Our group of six is on a quest for new routes and peaks in the surrounding mountain ranges. Ultimately, we want to use this pioneering challenge to raise awareness for a cause very close to our hearts—the plight of underprivileged women affected by climate change.
We chose Antarctica because it is a powerful symbol of this struggle since it is also fighting for its own survival. In fact, Antarctica, the world’s largest desert, which is 98 percent covered in ice, is melting at an alarming rate. The continent is losing large chunks of ice the size of cities from its coastline as a result of global warming, and when these icebergs melt and increase sea levels, this could have catastrophic consequences for our planet.
After a few days in Union Glacier, we get ready to explore. The team will have to drive about half a day away on a massive snow tucker. The whole Heritage mountain range is spread over multiple glaciers with many hidden crevasses. So, before we head out, ALE uses a thermal scanner over the area to check that it is safe enough to traverse. “Only once did a vehicle fall in a crevasse not far from Union Glacier camp,” we are told. “No one died, the driver managed to be pulled out unharmed.” Serves us right for asking.
Despite our reservations, our team sets out in high spirits with a generous supply of food, our camping gear, and climbing equipment because, depending on how the weather behaves, we may be out there for several days. The climate in Antarctica is extremely volatile and conditions can often change dramatically and very suddenly. So we hope for the best but plan for the worst.
As soon as we reach the Larsen Valley, an area that is still largely unexplored, we set up our shelter for the night. This time the tents are very basic, unlike the clam tents at Union Glacier, which now feel like the Shangri-La Hotel in comparison. We shovel snow over the flaps all around the base of the tents to ensure the glacial wind does not get through as we prepare for our first night out alone in the wild. In all this landscape, in all this space, we are the only living things. Like tiny dots in the middle of nowhere, our location is the very essence of remote.
Over the next few days the team sets out on multiple exploratory climbing trips that vary from hard technical ascents to magnificent ridge traverses with views over the Ronne Ice Shelf and Polar Plateau. We attempt steep ice and snow couloirs, classic ridge traverses, icy crests, rock pyramids, hidden valleys, and finally unclimbed peaks!
We are blessed with good weather for the most part and therefore our determined group is able to establish several new routes, claim the first female ascent of one peak and the first ascents of two unclimbed mountains. As a result, we have the right to name these two new peaks. The first, a beautiful mountain with incredible ridges is christened ‘Mount Gaia’ in celebration of our NGO’s name ‘HER Planet Earth.’ Gaia is ancient Greek for the Goddess Earth. The second mountain is named Mount Malala in honour of the Nobel Peace prize winner, Malala Yousafzai, who embodies courage and women empowerment in the face of injustice and violence.
After several days camping and climbing under the 24-hour Antarctic sun, we lose all sense of time and space in this immense white expanse. The days are endless and the light is like no other light on Earth, because the air is so free of impurities. During our climb, we confront both the physical challenges of the adventure and our own human vulnerabilities. The scale of the emptiness is at times almost too much to absorb and the sense of isolation is overwhelming.
Our days of climbing are long and tiring and we are constantly alert for hidden crevasses on the route. On two occasions, one of us falls partly into a crevasse, but we are roped together at all times in groups of three, 15 meters apart, so no one is lost to the depth of the ice. We encounter unpredictable weather on occasion, with icy winds and low clouds forcing us to turn around on several occasions. Even when the summit ridge appears so close we think we could almost touch it, we know that distances can seem shorter than they really are in such conditions. And if the weather continues to degrade as we climb higher, it could endanger the whole team, so we do the right thing, we descend back to camp.
On the days the weather holds, and we are able to summit, the sense of achievement and pride is truly indescribable. The team is ecstatic and feels that the spirits of legendary female explorers are cheering us on pushing us forward to new frontiers on our Antarctic sojourn. Despite the exhaustion, the painful sprains and bruises, the frost nip on our extremities—cold injury due to vasoconstriction—and the fact that on one occasion, part of the team gets stuck on a technical mountain face for close to 24 hours, the whole experience turns out to be unbelievably rewarding. Antarctica, subject to such extreme conditions, has a natural beauty and raw exquisiteness that surpasses all of our expectations.
Our mission accomplished, we finally head back to Union Glacier camp, where we are privileged to meet renowned climbers and polar explorers. We soon realise that like us, they are equally passionate about adventure as they are about protecting the integrity of this oldest of continents, where dinosaurs once ruled. Uniquely, Antarctica remains the only landmass that humans have yet to exploit for its resources. The 12 countries that regulate the continent—part of the Antarctic Treaty System—are adamant that it should remain free from pollution and bacteria. This means that all waste, including human waste, is taken out of Antarctica where nothing decomposes because of the freezing conditions.
Ultimately, this vast continent at the very edge of the earth—the last to be discovered by man—does not disappoint. Looking back on our expedition, I now see that Terra Antarctica, as it is also known, has a way of cutting you down to scale and making you ponder your own insignificance. It forces you to re-evaluate everything you know and feel about yourself and your place on this planet. I realise that the most valuable lessons of the journey resulted from the experiences that, at the time, felt like the most miserable and desolate, that true growth only comes from adversity and challenge. It showed me that no matter where you are in the world you can seek and find adventure by opening up your mind and exploring your own limits. And finally, becoming the first to summit unclimbed peaks as an all-female team in order to create a world where human rights and environmental integrity can blossom and prosper will count, without a doubt, as one of the most empowering experiences of my life. No wonder they say Antarctica gets under your skin, and when that happens, your soul is changed forever.
Cycling Through The Gates Of Hell
This article was first published in the Huffington Post on December 2017.
Ethiopia’s Danakil Depression, an inferno of burning salt, sulphuric acid, lava and volcanic rock - just like hell on earth. Our ‘Women on a Mission’ team had set itself a bold and pioneering challenge - to cross the Danakil Desert on mountain bikes. No one had ever attempted such a feat before, and we soon realised why.
With its furnace-like temperatures, bone-drying aridity, and chemical composition, the Danakil is an alien-looking desert. Known as the hottest place on earth, with daytime temperatures of over 50°C and average year-round temperatures of 35°C, it is considered to be the most inhospitable environment in the world.
Located in the Afar Region of northeast Ethiopia near the border of Eritrea, the area is part of the East African Rift System, a place where the Earth’s internal forces are currently tearing apart three continental plates, creating new land. Since the region sits along fault lines, the valley is often disturbed by earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. Undeniably, the conditions in the Danakil can only be described as brutal, but against all odds, people do live there. In fact, the Afar people call it their home, and they have settled in semi-permanent villages throughout the region.
After five hours on the road descending from Mek’ele, the capital city of the northern Tigray Region of Ethiopia, perched at an altitude of 2000 metres, our convoy of five jeeps, loaded with bikes and a week’s supply of food and water, arrived at Hamed Ela, located 150 metres below sea level. The group, comprising of our ten-woman biking team and its support crew (made up of two cooks, five drivers, three guides and two armed guards) was thrilled to finally arrive at our first campsite. The guards had been assigned to us by the local police chief in the village just a few kilometres away, because venturing into this abyss can be risky. In truth, the Ethiopian government requires armed militia to escort all tourists who travel through the Danakil. Skirmishes with Eritrean armed forces were common up until 2005 and even after the cease-fire, tourists were kidnapped and sometimes killed. In 2012, gunmen attacked a group of European tourists, murdering five, injuring two and kidnapping four. After more soldiers were stationed permanently in the area, things slowly improved.
In any case, as we pitched up in Hamed Ela that first evening, the initial shock to the system was the sweltering 38 °C temperature, a stark contrast to the breezy 23 °C we had experienced in Mek’ele earlier that morning. Night had fallen and it was 7:00 pm when we finally unloaded the equipment and settled into camp. After a quick dinner consisting of pasta, a cabbage salad and warm bottled water, we prepared to sleep on our wooden camp beds for our first night under the stars. The heat was oppressive and without exerting any effort, we found ourselves dripping with sweat as we lay immobile on our mattresses.
After a restless night, we woke up at 5:00 am excited to tackle our first day of biking. The plan was to cycle to Dallol, a cinder-cone-shaped volcano, twenty-three kilometres northeast of Hamed Ela. After some delays because of safety checks on the bikes, we finally left camp close to 8:00 am. The cycle across the salt plains was magnificent and the team arrived in high spirits at Dallol at 11:00 am. We immediately started hiking up to the luminescent hot springs and realised it was already a blistering 45°C.
Dallol was formed in 1926 by a phreatic eruption. This is when groundwater is heated by magma – essentially, a steam eruption without the lava injection. The resulting hydrothermal activity created a series of spectacular, bubbling sulphuric acid pools, that are extremely acidic and salty. Arata, our local Afar guide, showed us springs that had not been there just a week ago, explaining to us that Dallol is constantly changing and very unstable. For our safety, he urged us to follow his footsteps with precision, lest we fall through the porous rock into one of the acidic springs.
After exploring this alien-like environment, we decided to continue hiking to see the salt canyons nearby. Boasting some of the most impressive features of the Danakil, the canyons are reddish pillars of salt that rise up 60 metres high. It is truly a sight to behold and despite the oven-like atmosphere, we continued our exploration. By noon, the heat was completely debilitating and coming from every direction. The thermometer read 50°C. It was the kind of searing heat that the human body isn’t built to handle. The unrelenting sun shone upon the rust-coloured baked earth, and we chose that very moment to bike back to Hamed Ela.
That afternoon, we realised that we had made a grave mistake by underestimating the effects of the heat on our bodies. By 4:00 pm, as we visited the nearby salt lake where miners carve-out slabs to sell in the salt trade, 70 % of the team started experiencing mild to very severe symptoms of heatstroke. Suddenly, one of our teammates fainted. She fell like a ragdoll to the ground and had to be carried to one of the jeeps. Three others felt nauseous with pounding headaches, and by nightfall several women were vomiting violently and burning up with fever. Heatstroke is a medical emergency, a type of hyperthermia, that can result in unconsciousness, organ failure and even death. It is caused by the body overheating, usually as a result of prolonged exposure to heat or physical exertion in high temperatures. We quickly realised the situation was serious - we had no trained medic with us, very limited facilities and the closest hospital was a good five-hour-drive away.
The team decide to wait it out, and throughout the night, the women who felt well took turns, every hour, to check on the sick, putting cold compresses on them, reminding them to take sips of water, soothing them with reassuring words. Thankfully by dawn the fevers had broken, and although still weak, the patients felt much better. It had been too close for comfort, and we swore we would adjust our schedule and depart earlier every morning so as not to bike at the peak of the day’s heat.
The next three days unfolded smoothly. We woke at 4:00 am, were on the road by 6:00 am and tried to cover our target distances by noon. The afternoons were spent resting, under what shade we could find, counting the hours in the sweltering heat. Those times were true mental challenges for most of us. It was too hot to do anything and impossible to cool down. The air was stifling, our drinking water was tepid and the heat enveloped us completely, hanging like a heavy veil around us.
During these moments of inactivity, we had few precious distractions. One of them was when our guide, Mulugeta (or Mule for short), would regale us with stories of how courtship is conducted in parts of Ethiopia. “A man throws a lemon at the feet of the woman he wishes to date hoping she will acknowledge him by picking it up,” he shared. Ethiopia is home to a truly diverse landscape and peoples, with a very rich and colourful history. The Afar people may be Muslim but the rest of the country is Christian (with the majority belonging to the Ethiopian Orthodox Church). In fact, Ethiopia is considered to be the second oldest Christian nation in the world after Armenia and remains the only country in Africa that has never been colonised.
On another occasion, the team visited the village of Waideddo where the local Afar chief and his family received us. We spoke to him about their customs and the future of the region. “We don’t need our children to go away and get an education. We are very happy here the way we are and do not want to change,” declared the Chief. The Afar people are proud of their origins and very protective of their land. They are not particularly fond of tourists, and often refuse to have their photo taken.
The highlight of the trip was definitely the visit to Erta Ale. Known by the Afar as the “smoking mountain”. Erta Ale is a 600-metre-high volcano that is one of only a handful of continuously active volcanos in the world, and a member of an even more exclusive group: volcanos with lava lakes. While there are only five known volcanos with lava lakes globally, Erta Ale often has two active lava lakes – making it an extremely unique site.
Indeed, this was one of our most gruelling expeditions to date. After much blood, toil, tears and sweat, our Women on a Mission team successfully completed the first ever crossing of the Danakil Depression of Ethiopia on bicycles. Two hundred kilometres in six days over vastly contrasting terrain, from sand, sulphuric acid and salt, to bush, lava and volcanic rock. It was an arduous expedition, but we persevered, and every day we pushed on, finding resources we did not know we had.
Throughout the journey, we were rewarded by breath-taking landscapes and when we hiked up to Erta Ale, the most unbelievable spectacle of bubbling molten lava awaited us. Sitting a few feet from the rim of this magnificent active volcano, we felt completely transfixed and overwhelmed by nature’s raw power and might. However, the ultimate satisfaction for us was pushing ourselves far beyond our comfort zones for a cause that bonded us together: the plight of women survivors of war. We were driven by the desire to make a difference in the lives of women who are deprived of the most basic freedom: the right to live in peace and happiness with their loved ones, the right to education and self-accomplishment, the right to live with respect and decency, the right to dream.
In Mule’s words, “Women are capable of anything if they set their hearts and minds to it.” On the last evening, the whole Ethiopian crew shared in the celebration of our achievement and felt equally proud to have taken part in this extraordinary, pioneering crossing. It was truly a voyage to an otherworldly place, an unforgettable adventure to the most inhospitable place on earth - no wonder they call the Danakil the Gateway to Hell.
This article was first published in the Huffington Post on September 2017.
These days it’s hard to escape the mad rush. There are ‘traffic jams’ to reach the summit of Everest, direct flights to the most remote tropical islands in the world, luxury hotels in hidden Himalayan kingdoms and an indoor ski resort in the desert. Humans have conquered and explored most of the world, but one vast expanse of the planet remains beyond our reach: Antarctica.
It has always been a dream of mine to climb a mountain that has never been climbed before. And doing so in remote Antarctica would be an even greater privilege. In the words of best-selling author Jon Krakauer, “Antarctica has this mythic weight. It resides in the collective unconscious of so many people, and it makes this huge impact, just like outer space or going the moon.”
Indeed, man has never permanently inhabited this frozen continent at the very edge of the earth. Accessible only during its warmest months, from November to March, it has no metropolis or village to speak of, no habitat except perhaps the odd expedition shed or research station; just massive, desolate, glacial emptiness and bone chilling temperatures that can range anywhere from -10°C to -80°C during the colder months. Even if you’re journeying to Antarctica on a cruise ship, as most people do, or by chartered plane, they say the isolation and the barrenness will envelop you and inevitably make you ponder your own insignificance.
In the last three decades, a growing numbers of climbers have come to explore Antarctica in search of spectacular summits, many not yet named. First ascents of mountains generally fall into two categories: the easy way, summiting by helicopter, and the old-fashioned way, one gruelling step after another till you reach the top. Clearly, our all-female team wants to achieve this the hard way, not because we like to struggle, but because we want to push our limits far beyond our comfort zone, for something greater and more important than ourselves: the plight of underprivileged women affected by climate change.
In January 2018, our self-funded team of women from Singapore, Australia and the UAE, under the banner of HER Planet Earth, a women’s advocacy group that promotes gender equality and the integrity of the environment, will embark on a pioneering expedition to Antarctica’s heartland, in search of unclimbed routes and peaks in the Heritage Mountain Range.
In the world of alpine climbing, there is no destination quite so stimulating as Antarctica. This wild, frozen continent is subject to extreme conditions that only the most robust of explorers can endure, while having a natural beauty that surpasses all expectations. Ultimately, our team wants to stand on top of a mountain that has never felt the poke of a crampon before! And although there are lots of smaller peaks close to the sea, the real gems are further inland, and that’s exactly where we are heading.
Through our journey of exploration, we hope to highlight the importance of climate change and the urgency of preserving Antarctica for generations to come. We also plan to raise funds for the United Nations’ Women Lead Climate Action programmes that empower and educate underprivileged women in the Asia region. This UN initiative is focused on rural women in developing countries that are already feeling the brunt of climate change, and plans to engage them in conservation activities, ultimately helping them build longer-term climate change resilience. The first country on the agenda for this programme is Cambodia, but the idea is to extend it to other developing nations in the region.
“The destructive forces of nature, warped by rising global temperatures can act as negative force multipliers in societies already riven by inequality. The onset of droughts, accompanied by heightened food and water insecurity, also have a disproportionate effect on those least able to deal with the resulting increased social strains. While climate change is a global phenomenon, its impact is not spread across a level playing field. Its effects are felt locally, and poor people suffer the most. Among the world’s 1.3 billion poor people, the majority are women.” Stated Isabella Lövin, Sweden’s Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for International Development Cooperation and Climate in a recent article on Thomson Reuters Foundation News.
Antarctica is a powerful symbol of this struggle because it is also fighting for its own survival. In fact, Antarctica, the world’s largest desert, which is 98% covered in ice, suffered a major setback this past July 2017, as satellite data confirmed that a trillion-tonne, 5,800 sq km iceberg the size of Luxembourg had broken off from the Larsen C ice shelf and was now adrift in the Weddell Sea. Furthermore, since 2014, researchers at the University of California at Irvine and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory have shown that the melt-rate of glaciers in the fastest-melting part of Antarctica has tripled over the past decade. Today, scientists project that the long-term result could be to raise global sea levels by 10 centimetres, or almost four inches. Undeniably, this would be devastating for our planet.
Our team is keenly aware that in many countries, women tend to be marginalised from economic and political power, and have limited access to financial and material resources. Through this expedition to Antarctica, we hope to encourage society to sit-up and pay attention to grave issues such as climate change and gender inequality around the world. We feel very passionately that women have the right to - and need to be - at the forefront of efforts to deal with climate change. Indeed, it is our duty, and our responsibility to future generations, to support concrete and sustainable solutions for the planet. The cold truth staring us in the face is that we have no time to waste. In the end, we simply must continue to fight for a world where human rights and environmental integrity can blossom and prosper.
About HER Planet Earth
HER Planet Earth is a global women’s advocacy movement that promotes a deeper connection between women empowerment and the integrity of the environment. The group’s strategy is to organise activities to increase awareness and raise funds for programmes that empower and educate underprivileged women and engage them in environmental issues and conservation activities. This Antarctic expedition is organised in partnership with #Up2degrees, a movement aimed at saving the Antarctic aircon and encouraging people in warm countries to increase their air conditioning by 2°C, to fight global warming.
Antarctic Logistics & Expeditions (ALE)
To Donate: Visit the team’s fundraising page for the UN’s Women Lead Climate Action Programme in Cambodia
This article was first published in the Huffington Post on December 19, 2016.
Visibility was almost nil. The howling sandstorm rendered walking along the narrow ridge almost impossible; engulfing us in a dense cloud of razor-sharp, golden sand particles. The gale-force winds roared furiously from all sides, ramming into us, imperiously demanding we get off this 600-metre mega-dune, at once! Balancing precariously on the spine of this gigantic, shifting monster, our team of 12 women carried on resolutely, ignoring the angry storm, carefully putting one foot in front of the other. As we advanced in close formation, trying in vain to use the person in front of us as a human shield, I realised we had no choice but to keep moving forward. If we turned back, we would simply find ourselves in the same impossible predicament. Squinting through my goggles while battling with the straps of my backpack, which were flapping wildly in the wind and whipping my face, I said a silent prayer that the next gust of wind wouldn’t carry me off the mountain.
Our crossing of the Dasht-e Lut of Iran (otherwise simply known as the Lut desert) in November 2016 was nothing short of surreal. In truth, it was breathtaking, challenging and ultimately, transformative. Under the banner of ‘Women On A Mission’, a non-profit organisation, which supports and empowers women survivors of war around the world, we became the first all-female team in history to cross the Lut desert on foot.
In 1271, the legendary Marco Polo journeyed through the Lut, as did British explorer, Wilfred Thesiger, in 1964 — but both used camels. Our team covered more than 200 kilometres in seven days, across a magnificent and varied landscape, which boasts wildly contrasting temperatures and climates. The Lut is truly exceptional and full of contradictions. From the sweltering heat of the mega-dunes to the icy cold nights in the valley of the Kaluts (sandcastle-like rock formations), from the salt plains cracked by the fierce sun, to the sand storms blasting through the meteorite craters, the desert kept us captivated by its raw beauty and versatility.
In Persian, ‘Lut’ means ‘emptiness’. This immense expanse of sand is home to the hottest recorded temperatures on Earth. Global satellite surveys once registered ground temperatures of 70.7 degrees Celsius. “NASA scientists say it’s the closest thing we have to the planet Mars“ declared Mehrdad, our Iranian guide, as we strode across the Eye of the Lut. The Eye is a massive crater believed to have been formed when a large meteorite struck the earth. Mehrdad proceeded to point out the similarities between the Lut and Mars; the scorching temperatures, unyielding aridity and the sheer force of the winds, which converge from all four directions at once, causing the formation of massive star-shaped sand dunes, which radiate across the desert plains.
During our voyage, despite the long and tiring days of trekking, the team stayed positive, motivated and fiercely determined. We were up every day at 4:30am and on the road by 6am. Majestic and imposing, the dunes lead us up their sinewy paths, charming us at every turn with promises of vistas more awe-inspiring than the last. On most days, we hiked till sunset, averaging a distance of 30 kilometres a day, made more tiring because of the uneven sandy terrain. A steady rhythm was maintained, alternating 50 minutes of fast-paced walking with a 10-minute break and so on. This gave us a good cadence throughout the journey, with a short stop for lunch, usually around noon. Then onwards again, charging ahead all afternoon, lured by the serpentine curves of the Lut’s hypnotic landscape. Walking, walking and more walking... The days seemed endless.
As the last thin rays of sunlight glimmered and our shadows lengthened against the amber-coloured sand dunes, we knew our daylight hours were running out. We resisted the temptation to stop for more pictures and picked up the pace in order to reach the camp before nightfall. Upon arrival, our individual tents still needed to be set up, and our preference was not to do so in total darkness. Once the tents were up, those who still had some energy tried their best to “de-sand”, treat blisters and other sores. Since showers were not an option, we freshened up using wet wipes in the privacy of our tents. By day two, I had given up trying to brush the sand out of my hair, which had turned into the driest, straw-like mass imaginable.
Once everyone had settled into camp, our guides would then serve tea and prepare a hearty dinner, which usually consisted of a bean and vegetable stew served with white rice. By 7:30pm, eyelids would begin to get heavy as we stared at the spectacular starry galaxies above. A few of us managed to extend our bedtime hour by drinking more tea and chatting around the campfire, but in truth, we were exhausted from the day’s exertion. Thus, after a quick visit to the “loos”, which were usually downwind and not too far from our camp, we’d drift off, one by one, and retire to our tents. By 8:30pm most of the campers were sound asleep, or if not, tossing and turning in their sleeping bags, trying desperately to ignore the aches and pains in their muscles and bones, praying the Gods of Sleep would soon arrive.
The next day, it would start all over again. A cacophony of different alarm clocks would go off at around 4:30am. Torches were strapped back onto the sleepy, dishevelled heads, lighting up our green tents one by one like a cluster of glowing caterpillars. Next, as people struggled to get out of their sleeping bags and tents, the sounds of shuffling, packing, zipping and unzipping resonated across the camp, as if suddenly an army of giant plastic bags had descended on us.
The campsite slowly came out of its torpor; and inevitably, the sound of women chatting and giggling would ensue. Despite temperatures being close to zero degrees at this ungodly hour of the morning, the noises of a waking-up camp were strangely comforting. While we continued to move around drowsily, packing up our things and sorting out our backpacks, the deep voice of Mohammad, our guide (aka the-best-breakfast-chef-in-the-world) would bellow, “Ladies, your eggs are ready!” - and that never failed to put a smile on our faces.
Soon my fellow explorers and I were off again, fresh and ready to tackle another long day of hiking in the sand. Our group was eager to see what new sights and creatures we would encounter. There were a few lizards and dead birds on the way, and a slithering, sand-coloured snake zigzagged across our path one morning. We were told that over the past few years, drug smugglers from the nearby Afghan and Pakistani borders had used the southern part of the Lut as a travel route. Luckily, apart from a few wolf, fox and camel tracks, we encountered no other sign of life.
During this pioneering journey, our ‘Women On A Mission’ team grew closer. Beautiful bonds of friendship flourished, as we pushed our limits in the desert. Within the intimacy of our sisterhood, cut off from all communication with the outside world, we felt free to open up and share our hopes and dreams for the future. As the journey ended, the team was overjoyed and I shared in the genuine pleasure of our achievement; yet, a part of me didn’t want it to end. My emotions were conflicted. I felt slightly melancholic to be ending a routine and leaving a world that was like no other I had ever experienced.
Today, we come home to our families with more gratitude in our hearts than ever before and feel extremely privileged to be able to undertake such a journey by choice. Often during our trek, we thought of women who are less fortunate than us, who have to flee their country because of war or unrest, escaping with just the clothes on their back, crossing vast expanses on foot, uncertain of any future. It felt good to rally our strength in support for these women survivors of war.
In hindsight, if we had based our travel plans on what some of our friends and family had said about Iran, we probably would never have made it to the Lut. For decades, the county has been cast as the bogeyman of the Middle East by many in the West, for various reasons, one being Iran’s dire human rights record. Nevertheless, during our travels there, and especially during our time in Tehran, and in the towns of Birjand, Keshit and Kerman, we found the people to be incredibly kind, spontaneous and generous, with hearts of pure gold. Indeed, our own logistical ‘dream team’ in the desert (as we liked to call our guides) lead by Mehrdad and his brothers Babak and Mehdi, along with their friends Ali and Mohammad, looked after us with every care and attention. They treated us like little sisters and today, they have become dear friends for life.
We felt incredibly safe and warmly welcomed in the Islamic Republic of Iran. Its proud civilisation and rich cultural heritage are remarkable. Walking around the sublime, turquoise-tiled domes and minarets of the cities, the atmospheric teahouses, bustling bazaars, and of course, witnessing the sheer force and beauty of the Lut desert, contributed to weaving for us a rich tapestry of colours and experiences of magnificent proportions. Undoubtedly, we left a piece of our soul in the vast emptiness of the Iranian desert and with the people whom we came to know during our journey in this astonishing country. In the end, Iran surpassed all our expectations and gave us memories to treasure for a lifetime.
This ‘Women On A Mission‘ (WOAM) Iran expedition, has successfully raised over S$100,000 for Women for Women International (WfWI) UK - an independent humanitarian organisation, which provides women survivors of war, civil strife and other conflicts, with the tools and resources to move from crisis and poverty to stability and self-sufficiency.
WOAM, now in its fourth year of operation, has managed to raise a total of S$700,000 to date, in support of organisations that advance the position of women and girls around the world. Their past expeditions have been to Everest Base Camp in Nepal, Wadi Rum Desert in Jordan, the Tsum Valley in Nepal, the Yamal Peninsula of Siberia and Angkor Wat in Cambodia.
Photo credit: WOAM - with special thanks to teammate Sandra Lim
This article was first published in the Huffington Post on September 2016.
Children often suffer pain, confusion and insecurity when their parents separate. In some cases they even blame themselves, or feel that somehow it’s their fault their parents no longer want to be together. Many children secretly harbor fantasies — sometimes for years — that their parents will one day reconcile and get back together. At the very least, they hope and dream their parents can be friends.
When my ex-husband and I split up after 10 years of marriage, our daughter was 5 years old and our son only 3. Just as adults want to have their own accounting as to why the marriage failed, children also need to understand why their parents are no longer together. Because of this, we decided to consult a child psychologist about the best way to explain this new situation to the children in an age-appropriate way. By chance, she shared with us this special story about a land turtle and a sea turtle, which we then used to help them better comprehend.
Once upon a time, many years ago, there was a land turtle (Mommy) and a sea turtle (Daddy) and they met very close to a beautiful shore. They loved to swim together in the shallow waters and spend time playing in the sand. Soon they fell deeply in love and decided to get married. For a time, they continued to live at the water’s edge so that Mommy could sit on the sand and keep dry and warm, while Daddy sat in the shallow water to keep cool. A few years later two baby turtles arrived (you both!) The little turtles had beautiful brown and blue-green shells. They were very special indeed, and looked a little like each of their parents.
But as the years went by, Daddy sea turtle started spending more and more time in the ocean as he travelled deeper and deeper to look for pearls. And as a result, he spent less time at the water’s edge. Mommy land turtle also started wandering up into the sand dunes to hunt for food in the woods. Sadly little by little, Daddy and Mommy turtle started to drift further and further apart.
Finally one day, Mommy and Daddy turtle decided they didn’t want to live together anymore. Daddy turtle decided to live at the bottom of the ocean where he was happiest, and Mommy turtle in the sand dunes above the beach, where she was most comfortable. And despite the fact the little turtles were sad because their parents were no longer together, they quickly realized that since they were both half land turtle and sea turtle, they could sometimes live comfortably in the ocean with their father, or on the land with their Mom.
The little turtles continued to spend time with each of their parents. They made lots of friends with all the fish, dolphins and whales in the ocean and also many friends with the rabbits, deer, and foxes in the woods. They loved their quality time with their Mommy and Daddy. In fact they grew up to be a new kind of turtle with beautiful brown-blue-green-colored shells, that could live both in the ocean and on the land.
The children were delighted with this story and asked us to recount it many times thereafter. Over the years, this tale of the land and sea turtle has helped my children cope and accept the fact my marriage to their father was over. They know deep inside we once loved each other very much. It’s important for them to realize they were born out of genuine love and tenderness, and that our split had nothing to do with them, but rather everything to do with two people choosing to go their separate ways.
Thankfully, my ex-husband and I are still great friends and the children have grown accustomed to dividing their time between our two homes. We are proud of the fact our friendship has survived our divorce. Most important, we remain committed to our children’s emotional wellbeing and happiness.
Furthermore, today, I am also happily remarried and have two more children from my second marriage. All four children live with my husband and me, and we make a close-knit blended family.
Over the years, when it came to picking presents for their father and me, my two older children would often opt for turtle figurines or trinkets, even turtle cufflinks or pendants. As they grew up, turtles found a way to appear in their drawings and paintings, or even as gifts for their younger half-siblings.
This summer, when we holidayed in Barcelona as a family and visited the sights, the first thing my eldest daughter, now a teenager, noticed as we were about to enter Gaudi’s famous ‘Sagrada Familia’ cathedral, were the carved statues of both a land and a sea turtle guarding the entrance of the main doorway.
To this day, the tale of the land turtle and the sea turtle remains precious to us, and clearly very close to our hearts. So much so that it has become a part of the very fabric of our lives. I am simply grateful this healing story was shared with me at a time when my children needed it most.
***The tale of the land turtle and sea turtle is originally from the book Through the Eyes of Children by Janet R. Johnston (Author), Carla Garrity (Author), Mitchell Baris (Author), Karen Breunig (Author)
A version of this article was first published in the Huffington Post on April 22, 2016.
It seems fitting to share this story given the tragedy and destruction brought on by the 7.8-magnitude earthquake that struck Nepal just over a year ago. It is my way of paying tribute to the beautiful people of Nepal and to the Sherpas especially, who suffered heavy casualties that fateful day.
On the afternoon of April 25, 2015, the strong quake triggered an avalanche that crashed onto the Base Camp of Mount Everest, the world’s tallest mountain (8,848m). At least 22 people were killed in what is, to date, the deadliest disaster in Everest’s history.This tragedy had a personal significance for me, as only a few years before, in October 2012, a group of adventurous girlfriends and I decided to embark on a two-week trek to this very place, in an effort to raise awareness and funds for female survivors of war. The climb, inspired by my friend and Everest summiteer Valerie Boffy, turned out to be a journey of a lifetime and a truly transformative experience for us all.
Everest Base Camp — from which countless attempts on the summit of the goddess of all mountains have been made and continue to be made every year — commands nothing but respect and humility. At an altitude of 5,364m, the Base Camp is higher than any mountain in Central Europe. Because of the region’s spectacular mountain peaks, the loyalty and friendliness of its inhabitants, and the long days of hard hiking needed to reach the Base Camp, mountain lovers consider this trek one of the most worthwhile on the planet.
The way up
The journey to Base Camp can take anywhere from 10 days to three weeks, depending on how many days of acclimatisation you allow. This trek is classified as moderate to difficult, but it is not the terrain or hours on the trail — between five to seven hours on average per day depending on the itinerary — that are the real difficulty; it is the altitude itself. You start off from the village of Lukla (2,800m above sea level) — a short scenic flight from Kathmandu — landing at Tenzing-Hillary Airport, incidentally considered one of the most dangerous airports in the world. On one side of the single runway, which has a 12 per cent gradient, you have the mountains, and on the other, sheer nothingness — a complete drop. So it was no surprise that when we landed there, we held our collective breaths and hung on tightly to our seats as the pilot came in for the precarious final approach.
While many of the routes through the mountains are arduous, there are ample places to rest and enjoy a meal along the way. Furthermore, it is almost impossible to get lost — all you have to do is ask a local the way to the next village on your route, and he or she will direct you. From Lukla, we made our way to the Sherpa capital of Namche Bazaar, which is 3,440m above sea level. Even the fittest people can be prone to altitude sickness, and warnings about this are plastered all along the way into Namche.
One of the highlights of the journey was an important acclimatisation stop at Ama Dablam Base Camp (4,570m). Massive glaciers stretch beneath the cliffs that soar up above the camp, adding to the dramatic scenery around this stunning mountain peak.
Meeting the climbers and Sherpas living at the camp for weeks at a time — as they prepared for their assault on the summit of the mountain — gave us a real sense of how a fully active expedition camp operated.
An arduous journey
Our non-stop trekking soon began to take a toll on us. Three members of our all-female team were on antibiotics, fighting flu and hacking coughs. Two other teammates had to be put on oxygen at the last stop, Gorak Shep, which is 5,164m above sea level.
They had been suffering from pounding headaches for three days, even after taking doses of paracetamol. They were weak and very pale and their lips were bluish — clear symptoms of the onset of altitude sickness, an ailment not to be taken lightly.
Eventually, after receiving oxygen, our teammates felt marginally better, and having come this far, we decided to set off and accomplish our mission collectively. The added motivation, of course, was the fact that we had committed to taking on this challenge to support a very worthy cause. Thinking about the destitute women who had lost everything because of war and conflict helped us focus on the task at hand.
Our persistence paid off, and on a windy autumn afternoon, we finally clambered up the last few metres of uneven ground onto the shifting moraine leading to the Base Camp of Everest. A surge of elation filled our racing hearts: We had succeeded in accomplishing our goal as a team. After embracing and congratulating one another with moist eyes and throats tight with emotion, we began taking in the incredible view from this symbolic place.
Relishing the moment
Surrounded by majestic snowy peaks — a little breathless from both the excitement and the 50 per cent oxygen level in the air — it was hard not to imagine the mountain’s legendary climbers standing very close to where we stood.
Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay were the first to conquer Mount Everest in 1953, using the South Col route, forging a path through the treacherous Khumbu icefall, at our very feet. My teammates and I had been dreaming of this moment for many months while we were training hard to be in the best physical and mental shape possible for the demanding trek. Despite the sun shining brightly in the cloudless azure sky, it was a chilly minus 5 deg C at this altitude. Soon the sun would move behind the mountains and the temperatures would plummet to minus 15 to 20 degrees Celsius.
Looking back, the trek to Everest Base Camp was one of the most meaningful experiences of my life. It is an adventure I will always treasure and the reason I went on to co-found “Women On A Mission”, a non-profit organisation headquartered in Singapore, with my two teammates, Valerie and Karine. And while planning such a trip may be somewhat of a daunting prospect, especially given the devastation brought on by the recent earthquake, it is one way to support Nepal and its people and help its tourism flourish once again. The breathtaking vistas, the kindness of the local people and the sense of achievement and pride you gain at the end of the journey make it all worthwhile. Nepal leaves an imprint on the heart of those who visit, and never ceases to inspire.
36°C Below Zero -- Braving the Freezing Cold Arctic Circle with the Nenets Reindeer Herders of Siberia
Article first published in the Huffington Post on 14/01/2016
Its head facing east, the animal's eyes bulge out and its tongue hangs limply to one side as the rope around its neck, pulled by three broad-shouldered herders squeezes the remaining life out of it. Slowly its resistance weakens, its eyes are fixed on a point in the Arctic sky above, then suddenly, complete stillness. For centuries, the Nenets of Siberia have been living off reindeer meat and blood, utilizing every inch of the animal from hide to heart, to bone and antlers even -- nothing is ever wasted.
As soon as the animal is dead, the hide is meticulously removed and kept in one piece to be used for clothing. Then the feasting begins, and everyone starts to tear out pieces of kidney, liver, heart, or whatever parts they most enjoy, occasionally dipping and swirling the bits in the open carcass, which still holds the reindeer's warm blood. A small saucepan containing blood is passed around, and each one takes a turn to have a drink.
When it's my turn, I hesitate just for a moment. I grab the dripping saucepan, take a couple of small gulps and swirl the warm blood around my mouth to show that I appreciate the full flavor. It tastes salty and not at all unpleasant. I'm certain my eagerness to try these newfound treats is fueled by the fact my "Women On A Mission" teammates and I feel extremely privileged to accompany these exceptional people during a portion of their epic yearly migration across the frozen gulf of Ob, in northern Russia.
We are a team of nine women from Singapore, Dubai, London and Kuala Lumpur and ultimately, we've embarked on this adventure to raise awareness and funds for women survivors of war. By trekking in such hash conditions, we hope to inspire women to leave their comfort zone, their families and homes for a certain period of time, while pushing their limits in an effort to rally support for a worthy cause. Even if we could never claim to truly understand the suffering survivors of war go through, by doing something challenging, so alien to our own way of life, and dedicating it to these brave women, we believe we are standing in solidarity with them, and it gives us strength as we face the howling Arctic winds and debilitating temperatures of Siberia.
The Nenets of the Yamal Peninsula are among the world's oldest surviving true nomads. They are guardians of a style of reindeer herding that is the very last of its kind. In their language, 'Yamal' means 'the end of the world' and indeed, as we journey with them in this vast Arctic desert, along with their gigantic reindeer herds, we feel as if we are pioneers, standing at the very edge of humanity's first settlement.
On migration days, we are up at four a.m. helping the women dismantle the camp and load their belongings on the sledges, while the men go off to lasso the specially trained transport reindeer from the main herd. Once the reindeer are harnessed to each of the sleighs, the tribe is ready to go. Then begins the 20 to 25km journey to the next encampment, with the sleighs forming a 2km-long convoy snaking its way across the frozen landscape.
We won't eat or drink all day, or at least until the new camp is set up. It's overcast and so dreadfully cold. When the wind picks up and the snow begins to swirl violently around us, the temperatures plummet to minus 36 degrees Celsius. We are grateful for the reindeer fur coats and thigh-high boots the Nenets have lent us. However, in these extreme conditions, despite the many layers we wear, our extremities begin to feel dangerously numb. The biggest risk, as we spend close to 10 hours without shelter, is frostbite and hypothermia. We are aware that if our body's core temperature drops by just one or two degrees, hypothermia can set in, thus we keep a watchful eye on each other throughout the day for any early warning signs.
Once the camp is finally set up, it's time for warm tea and a feast of frozen fish and bread is laid out in front of us as we all pile eagerly into the chums (traditional conical tents made of reindeer hides) to warm up. Antonina, Yuri's mother, brings out the vodka, while the family's nine dogs curl up on the furs around us, watching expectantly for any scraps. She then begins to tell us about the rules. "In Nenets culture women have a lot of mystical powers," she begins. We are elated to hear this, then quickly realise there's more to it. "Anything to do with the birth-giving area of a woman's body can be harmful and is considered somewhat of a taboo," she explains.
We soon discover the laws of the tribe, as it relates to women: We are not allowed to step over men or any of their tools. If we come across one of the men's lassos or tools on the ground while walking through the camp, we must always walk around it and never over it, lest we incur horrible bad luck for the whole tribe. Additionally, we cannot cross or put our hand through the invisible line, which goes from the center of each chum all the way to the back of the tent and extends another 100 meters outside. Toileting activities have to be carefully conducted out of sight of any of the men, which in itself is a real challenge given the Nenets men are in constant motion, coming in and out of the camp from any side and at any time.
Additionally, the landscape around the camp is for the most part completely flat, thus our trips to the "toilet" turn into real treks of 200 to 300 meters or more, sometimes in knee-high snow. Furthermore, despite carefully planning our toileting expeditions with great precision and strategy, we discover, to our horror, that the reindeer crave the salt in our urine! Thus they constantly shadow us like ninjas and pounce on us when we are at our most vulnerable, with pants down, clinging without any success to the last shred of our dignity.
Other camp activities include chopping wood, in order to keep the stoves in the chums burning and drawing water through a manmade hole and pulling it back to camp on a sleigh. The work is constant and yet when we look up on occasion and take in the magnificent scenery around us, we are reminded of the extraordinary journey we are experiencing and drink in this otherworldly landscape, which keeps us quite literally spellbound.
Living with the Nenets is truly an unprecedented honor. As of today, just a handful of people have ever experienced travelling with them. We are in fact the largest group they've ever hosted and certainly the first all-female team to journey with them during a migration. And as the days go by, we learn to appreciate the tranquility of the boundless empty spaces, while the deafening silence of the frozen tundra keeps us suspended in time. The dramatic sunrises and sunsets are unforgettable; even if we often confuse the two, given the days are so short.
Despite the harshness of the environment, we adapt surprisingly well to our new way of life, but it's also because the Nenets are so hospitable, treating us like their daughters, making sure we are warm and well fed at all times. Yuri's pregnant wife Elena sees that I'm am about to step out of the chum to go herding with the men, who have made an exception by inviting our women's team to see how they move 10,000 reindeer across the tundra. I can't find my balaclava -- essential to avoid frostbite when riding on the snowmobiles to reach the herd. Elena quickly pulls off her own embroidered scarf and ties it tightly across my face to make sure the skin is protected, while whispering words of motherly concern in the Nenets language, as I run out.
Undoubtedly the proud Nenets people have cast a beautiful spell on us. The contrast with our comfortable, materialistic lives could not be more extreme. And despite the fact their world now also incorporates some modern items such as phones, generators and snowmobiles, their way of life remains pure and in many ways far richer and more meaningful than ours. By sharing the simplicity of their existence, the Nenets remind us of the importance of community and family for survival. Needless to say, as a result, this humbling experience will count as one of the highlights of our lives. The noble Nenets people of Siberia will remain in our hearts, unforgettable.
Letter to My Daughters
Article first published in the Huffington Post on 07/03/2016
In celebration of International Women's Day, I would like to share a letter I wrote to my daughters not long ago. It highlights what I value the most for them, as well as my hopes and dreams for their future.
My dearest daughters,
Ready or not, the day will come when you will become women and leave our home. Nevertheless, despite the years and great distance separating us, you will always remain my darling girls. Thus, I only ask that you keep this letter close to your heart.
Remember to love yourself always, with all the qualities and imperfections you may have. Never forget that you are worthy of love, kindness and respect. Don't settle for anyone who treats you any less than you deserve. Self-esteem is the key to being whole and happy.
Dare to live life to the fullest, go after your dreams even if you don't know yet what that looks like. Choose to do something you are deeply passionate about, you will find joy and fulfilment by living life this way.
Find ways to challenge yourself continuously, and don't be afraid to try new things, because this is how you will grow and blossom as the years go by. Choosing to do something outside of your comfort zone will ignite talents you didn't know you had.
Live with no regrets and let go of guilt. Learning to forgive yourself when you don't get it right or make mistakes is the best thing you can do to be truly at peace.
Travel whenever you can, because you will come to know yourself better and discover how full of wonders and beauty the world really is.
Apply yourself at your chosen career and always conduct yourself with integrity. Remember that every single one of your actions shows who you are and what you value.
Be thankful for all that you have and for all that you have received. The happiest people are not those who wish they had more, but those who feel they have enough.
Strive for goals, but don't choose someone else's definition of success. Instead, have the courage to define success on your own terms. Your uniqueness is your power.
Develop the spiritual side of your life and practice compassionate love, by giving back to those who need it most. Remember that with great privilege comes great responsibility.
Lastly, invest in the meaning and purpose of your existence, and find a way to live a life that matters - a life that empowers and uplifts others with kindness and true generosity of spirit. This is what will give you the greatest satisfaction in life. It won't happen by chance, the choice will only be yours to make.
So when the time comes, dare to make those brave choices and strive to live a life that matters and that is true to your heart.
Je vous aime de tout mon coeur.
The First Six Months
This article is a 'Guest Chapter' in Catharine Patha’s book, entitled Roaming - Living & Working Abroad in the 21st-Century, published in January 2016.
When I was five years old, I moved from tropical and warm Manila to a cold and rather austere French country town north of Paris. At the time, my father had decided to pursue a business opportunity with one of his uncles in France, and as a result, he uprooted the whole family, and this is how I came to experience my first move abroad.
Although often very exciting, relocating to a new country is never easy. During the first few months after you arrive, many factors can affect how you adjust. It can depend on where you’ve moved from, and how it compares to where you’ve moved to. What stage of your life you’re at; if you are an experienced “relocator” or if this is your first move abroad. And of course, it helps if you speak the local language and are familiar with the new culture. All these variables can dramatically impact how you experience the initial integration period in the new country.
In this particular case, I was obviously NOT an experienced relocator, but I did luckily speak the local language fluently, given my French father and my Filipina mother had made French the language of our family home in Manila. However, what was somewhat of a shock to me was the dramatic change in our lifestyle. All I had known till then had been a beautifully warm and sunny country, with cheerful, smiley people and a happy somewhat privileged lifestyle, filled with birthday parties, outings at the country club, and my mother’s large and loving family always close at hand.
For me, moving to France was akin to a 180 degree change in lifestyle. In fact, it was my very first experience with culture shock. Soon after we arrived, I started my schooling at a local public school. The French education system seemed strict and more punitive than what I had known in my American-style kindergarten in Manila. Despite the beauty of the short European summer months, the cold and dark winters also took some getting used to. We lived in a big house on the edge of a dark forest and occasionally I felt a little isolated. Furthermore, I could sense my mother’s longing for the support of her family and friends back in the Philippines, but it also didn’t help that my father was often away on long business trips abroad.
Despite all these challenges, after many months, we finally adjusted to this new life and found many things to enjoy and love about France. Eventually, we made the most of our four years there, before moving back to live in the Philippines once again.
Today, I have lived in a total of five countries and in seven different cities around the world. In my opinion, regardless of if you are a child or an adult, it really does take at least six to 12 months (minimum) to settle into a new life abroad. Even if you do speak the language and have a structure in place when you arrive – such as a new school or job for instance – culture shock can work in mysterious in ways.
It is also important to note that your state of mind prior to the relocation may play a pivotal role in how you experience your first few months in a new country. Was this a personal choice? Were you reluctant to move or did you specifically ask to be transferred? Generally speaking, when the move wasn’t strongly desired to begin with, a certain period of “mourning” for the past life may also coincide with the first few months in the new country. If this is the case, then it may unfortunately make the adjustment period more difficult and emotionally challenging at the onset.
Two months after my 18th birthday, I moved from Manila to Tokyo to attend University. I had never set foot in Japan before, and I didn’t even know much about this country’s great history and culture. I spoke not a single word of Japanese, had never been interested in studying the language, and didn’t even like the taste of Japanese food. If truth be told, I had in fact, no desire at all to go to Japan.
Of my 200 plus classmates at the international school in Manila, I was the only one who ended up going to Tokyo for university. The majority of my friends went on to study in Europe or in the United States. Going to Japan to study was entirely my parents’ enlightened decision. They believed with a strong conviction that I would benefit from this unique life experience and from the added bonus of learning the Japanese language.
So off I went, on my own, to the land of the rising sun, without really knowing what to expect. I could never have foreseen the kind of massive culture shock I was about to experience. Here I was, a cocky-know-it-all 18 year- old expat-brat, who thought she was an Asia-veteran, having lived a total of 14 years in the Philippines, and completely unprepared for how different this new culture was going to be. For starters, to my surprise, people in Japan seemed to be following ALL the rules. Moving from Manila, where traffic lights are a mere suggestion, to Tokyo, where the only people who dare to jaywalk are from the local mafia called Yakusa, was a very strange and novel experience to say the least.
Furthermore, during my freshman year at university, I lived in a strict all-girls dormitory run by stern Japanese nuns. All activities were severely regimented and everyone had to be up and dressed, ready to clean the dormitory communal areas, such as toilets and showers, every morning at eight AM sharp. Having grown-up with a somewhat privileged lifestyle in Manila, with maids and drivers at my beck and call, this alteration in my way of life did take some serious getting used to. Additionally, I often felt frustrated because despite studying the language for hours on end every single day, I was unable to communicate in Japanese till about six months into my stay there. It was only after I spent two weeks working on a Japanese farm in the southern island of Kyushu, where I was forced to speak the language constantly, without any other foreigners in sight, that I finally made a breakthrough with the language. I came back to Tokyo dreaming in Japanese. And in this particular case, I can confirm that total immersion really does work!
In the end, my time in Japan turned out to be a truly humbling but incredibly rich and formative experience. All in all, I lived in Tokyo close to six years, and although I did eventually get used to my new life, and succeeded in speaking the language with fluency, I truly believe that up until the very last few months of my stay there, I was in many ways still adjusting.
Ultimately, when moving countries, the differences between the old and the new culture suddenly become more obvious, and may even cause much anxiety. Getting used to these changes can be mentally exhausting, as it was for me in Japan in the early years. New stimuli, day in and day out, often resulted in chronic mental and physical fatigue. There is so much more to take in and to digest. Changes in weather, food, medicine, language and customs can heighten the sense of disconnection with your surroundings. One may also feel very lonely or homesick because of the lack of friends and support. Language barriers easily become major obstacles and make everyday ordinary tasks much more difficult and stressful.
Nevertheless, in most relocation cases, if one is genuinely excited about moving to a new country, the first three months are usually referred to as the “honeymoon” period. Everything is new and shiny: new food, local habits, pace of life etc….most people are fascinated by the new culture and excited by their fresh discoveries. But like most honeymoons, this phase eventually comes to an end, and reality tends to quickly set in.
When I first moved to the west coast of the United States from Japan in my early twenties, I felt exactly as if I was on a honeymoon. I had been dreaming of living and working in America, and everything was different and exciting to me. Things were much cheaper and more affordable than in Tokyo, and I felt spoiled for choice in local departments stores and supermarkets. Working in marketing for a company such as Nike was a thrilling experience, and I found that Americans had a straightforward and practical work ethic that was easy to adapt to. People valued go-getters and hard-workers, and it wasn’t about spending long hours at the office like in Japan or in France, but rather about being as productive as possible with your time.
Furthermore, in contrast to Japan, where group consensus was often given consideration, I quickly learnt that in the United States, if you didn’t speak up in meetings, it was almost akin to having no opinion. But apart from some adjustments in the work environment, my new life was much easier to get used to, than it had been for me moving to Japan. Language was not an issue. Culturally, it was quite similar to the Philippines, which was once a US colony. And except for a few local customs that were new to me – such as hugging people (even new acquaintances), speaking quite loudly in public places, the huge food portions at restaurants, and being carded at the supermarket even if just to buy a six-pack of beer – settling in was not too difficult, and much easier once I developed a routine.
This is why I believe that no matter what country you move to, it usually takes several months to a year to settle in. As habits begin to form, life starts to seem more “normal”. Having a routine can be very comforting for many people. Familiarly is reassuring and calming, and one begins to create a new life, with friends and acquaintances. You may start to find favourite places to eat or to shop at. Your neighbourhood can also finally become more familiar and thus make you feel more welcome and at home. This is when you really begin to settle into your new life.
When I moved to Paris, New York and more recently to Singapore, I also experienced these various stages of culture shock. Despite the fact that language was not an issue, until I found my way around and familiarized myself with the new cities’ unique characteristics, I felt in a state of transition, and in fact quite unsettled.
In my view, during this early important stage, one’s general attitude, outlook and state of mind is in actuality the key to making integration into the new country a success (or not) in the long term. If you manage to adapt to the aspects of the host culture while keeping a positive attitude, and if you are able to maintain some of your own unique cultural habits and preferences, while also incorporating bits of local culture into your new lifestyle, then you are undoubtedly on your way to assimilating effectively into your new country of residence.
Over the years, during the numerous migratory periods of my life, I’ve come across countless incidents which contributed to moments of culture shock. Nevertheless, what I always find interesting, and often very entertaining, are the differences in each country’s attitude to the following universal subject matters: work, success, education, pregnancy and giving birth, service, alcohol, hygiene, courtship, food, the list goes on and on. If you try to keep an open mind and view these differences as learning opportunities, you will discover a wealth of knowledge in social and intercultural variations that can only enrich your view of the world.
Take the subject of pregnancy for example, as I reflect on the three countries where I’ve experienced these important stages of my life – in the United States, France and in Singapore – I can think of countless episodes which were truly amusing and culturally diverse. In France for instance, as a pregnant woman, I was told NOT to exercise and that I could drink a little wine and have coffee everyday if I felt like it. In contrast, my American obstetrician insisted I exercise regularly and not touch a single drop of alcohol or caffeine under any circumstance!
In Singapore, I was asked to pack comfortable loose clothing to wear for the day I would leave the hospital to take my newborn baby home. In France however, pregnancy books advise that you pack a nice dress, make-up and a pair of shoes with low heels for the day you leave the hospital with your baby. There are countless other examples which are all part of the learning experience of being a roamer such as myself. And ultimately, it is about wanting to embrace the rich diversity of human cultures around the world. As the American novelist Henry Miller once counselled, “Develop interest in life, as you see it, in people, things, literature, and music – the world is so rich, simply throbbing with rich treasures, beautiful souls and interesting people.”
In some ways, adjusting successfully to a new home is in reality about finding your own unique blend of cultures and taking the best parts from your personal background and interweaving them effectively with the host nation’s unique local flavour. Doing this takes time and patience. No matter how experienced you are or how cosmopolitan you think you have become, it can’t be rushed. Give yourself a good six to 12 months to adjust, but most important, remain open-minded, and I am convinced that you will eventually get settled in quite nicely indeed.
The Rules of Engagement
This article was first published in Sense & Style Magazine Philippines
Has courtship become a thing of the past? Is it deemed out-dated to let men do the chasing? While some men seem to drag their feet in relationships, others chase and commit.
Courtship used to be vital for a man to earn a lady’s consideration. Not so long ago it was expected that the male should actively “court” or “pursue” the female, thus encouraging her notice of him and her openness to a proposal of marriage. This notion of the gender roles of males and females in courtship may have altered in today’s modern society, nevertheless, might an updated version of it not be the best way to get the right man to chase and commit to you?
We all know women who seem to constantly be dating the “wrong guy”. Men who undervalue and take them for granted. While some women accept this kind of treatment from the men in their lives, are they not as much to blame for the fact the men are reluctant to commit to them? Some women it seems stay in dead end relationships because they’ve convinced themselves that there is a shortage of good men out there, so they're just thankful to have “somebody”. Sadly, some would even rather be in a bad relationship, than have no relationship at all.
A while ago, I met such a woman. Juliette was 36 and dreaming of marriage and children. Once quite an attractive girl, she now had an air of sadness caused by a life spent too long disappointed by failed relationships. Eric, the man she shared her life with for the past five years, was in no hurry to commit to her. Juliette was still madly in love with him, while he was simply happy to have her around. Travelling to all four corners of the world, Eric had a promising financial career, and at 37 he felt the world was his oyster. Juliette on the other hand, had a mediocre marketing job at a publishing company that underpaid her and took advantage of her accommodating personality.
As the month and years began to fly by, the ticking of Juliette’s biological clock became louder and more deafening. She felt the increasingly urgent need to bring up their future plans together. In those instances, Eric would be incredibly uncomfortable and simply try to change the subject. And while poor Juliette made her hints of yearning for a marriage proposal more and more obvious, Eric began to feel increasingly distant. In fact, her strategy would always backfire and he would end up declaring in an icy voice, that he didn’t feel ready and that he needed more time. The subject would then be dropped, but every time it was raised, it chipped at their already stale relationship, which was rapidly and unavoidably coming to a dead end.
Does this story not sound vaguely familiar? Juliette is just one of the many of women out there who has chosen to keep waiting for the man in her life to commit to her, while wasting the best years of her life and sinking into depression. Many women find it hard to leave the man they are with because they've formed a "habit" of being with him, or because they think that they can change their companion in time. In some cases there is fear of embarrassment, or pressure from family and friends. But unfortunately, many people are simply afraid of being alone.
It's clearly a flawed relationship when it centres only on sex or when there is no sense of belonging, loyalty or trust. Other signs of a bad relationship are estrangement, disrespect, no communication, no laughter and of course no exchange of values, dreams or goals. Co-dependency is also a classic sign of why a person settles for a bad relationship. When one feels that they cannot continue to exist without the other person, even though they’re miserable with what's happening between the two of them. And when it comes to holding on to a pitiful relationship, the psychologists agree that between the two sexes, women probably wait the longest before giving up. Boys and girls are often raised differently. Boys are given more chances to experiment and sow their wild oats, so to speak; consequently, they find it easier to search for other alternatives because they've been allowed to do so. In many countries, even the most developed, girls are still educated to be “nice” and occasionally even “dutiful”; as a result, they lack that sense of empowerment and the conviction to feel that they deserve a healthier and better relationship. Thus although it is sometimes easier in relationships to blame the man for not committing, who can really blame him for keeping a girl around who sleeps with him without expecting much in return?
In earlier centuries, young adults were required to court with the intention of finding a marriage partner, rather than for social motivations. In recent years, conventional dating has progressed and taken on the properties necessary to sustain itself in today's society. This can be seen in the rise of Internet dating, speed dating, blind dating and the rapid growth of apps like Tinder, Hitch around the world. Some speculate that courtship as it was known to prior generations, has seen its last days and that now the roles are often reversed with women doing the courting and sometimes even the chasing.
Yet thousands of centuries of evolution haven't changed human nature and even the most knowledgeable of women daters will have stumbled upon male behaviour that defies belief. “He acts like an absolute Caveman!” she may declare. And do you know? She isn't far from the truth. Why? Simple, man is a hunter; that is what he was intended to do -- Hunt.
This in essence means that in the dating world, the man wants to hunt you, even if you are the easiest prey on earth. Women overlook this reality and ignore it at their own risk and peril. To get the man you want, you have to make them pursue you and believe they have achieved something when they finally get to put their arms around you and give you that first kiss. They need to feel proud when they finally have you on their arm. If that sense of triumph is missing, your hunter will go on searching and you will be left on the sidelines.
The dating world is filled with opportunities to play both the role of the hunter and the hunted. While many people enjoy the thrill of chasing down prey, it's often more desirable to be the one being chased. Learning to attract and keep a man's attention is the key to getting a man to chase you. But to get a man to chase you, you first need to be “chase worthy”. Do you have your own convictions, beliefs you stick to? Do you take care of yourself physically, emotionally, and mentally? And you don't have to be a conventional beauty at all. Do you enjoy your job and have interesting hobbies and friends? Do you have your own purpose in this world? A man will do the courting, if there is something to court. Men are generally attracted to upbeat personalities that have a passion for life. Nothing is sexier than an intelligent woman who is dynamic and who has an interesting and full life. Men love a woman who can make them laugh and who doesn’t take herself too seriously, but who is also a good listener, a loyal friend and creative in her own way. Showing appreciation for what he does for you in terms of his courting is always a way to ensure he will try to make you happy and proud of him again, by continuing to court you and surprise you in the future.
Being positive is also a big winner for most people and not just for men. Who wants to be bogged down with someone who has tons of emotional baggage and lots of negativity? Ultimately, self-respect is probably one of the most important and key attributes for any relationship to grow and flourish. Why would a man value a girl if she does not value herself enough to look and be at her very best, and vice versa? To get him interested in the first place, a girl must be attractive, but more importantly she must emit positive and confident energy and her own brand of charm and sexiness. The great Irish writer and poet, Oscar Wilde, once declared that as a man “It’s beauty that captures your attention; Personality which captures your heart.”
And this quote, in my opinion, embodies exactly what attracts men and keeps them interested. The more men pursue and chase, the more rewarded they will feel when they at long last succeed. And without doubt our hunter will calm down and give up hunting. But only if his lady makes him feel like he has conquered and attained his true love. At this moment our hunter thinks he has captured his lady all by himself, but perhaps, could it just be, that she let herself be caught?
Men like to pursue and conquer something, be it your admiration, respect, trust, sexual favours and of course your love. So if you want to tame your hunter, keep him chasing YOU girls! Continue to interest and intrigue him long after he thinks he has caught you. Persist in gently encouraging him to go on courting and chasing you, and he will feel more of a man for it. After all, is it not possible that men are the most uncomplicated of creatures? In the end whatever you do in the dating world, never EVER consent to be an easy catch.
Santorini - Gem of the Aegean Sea
This article was first published in The Straits Times of Singapore.
About a year ago, I was lost in thought, contemplating the beauty of the sparkling Aegean Sea, from a balcony high above the cliffs. As I stared at the horizon, I felt as if I was sitting at the very edge of the world, at the foot of a heavenly gateway, far from the realities of my usually purposeful life.
Indeed, I was on idyllic Santorini, the celebrated southernmost island of the Cyclades, just a few hours from the mainland of Greece. Directly ahead of me was the spectacular caldera — a cauldron-like lagoon formed by the collapse of land following a massive volcanic eruption some 3,600 years ago.
Lawrence Durrell, the 20th-century expatriate British novelist, who spent his childhood on the island of Corfu, once wrote: “It is hardly a matter of surprise that few, if any, good descriptions of Santorini have been written: the reality is so astonishing that prose and poetry, however winged, will forever be forced to limp behind.”
Thus, it is no surprise that the exquisiteness of the island has a way of plunging those who visit into a trance-like state. And there are many who still believe today, that Santorini was once Atlantis, one of the most mythical lands ever described, and mankind’s oldest lost paradise.
A childhood dream
All throughout my childhood, I had heard about the beauty and unique charms of Santorini from my mother. She had been fortunate to vacation on the island in the late 1960s, before it became internationally famous as a holiday destination. Despite the modernity that has taken over this island almost 40 years since mum’s first visit, I was not disappointed in the least. In fact, much to the contrary, I too, became completely and utterly enamoured. My husband and I stayed in Santorini for a few days to celebrate a special wedding anniversary.
During that time, we explored as much of the island as we could. We learnt that Santorini is home to one of the most significant excavation sites in the Mediterranean — Akrotiri. The ruins of this ancient town are well preserved because, like Pompeii, it was buried in a volcanic eruption. Additionally, we also discovered that there are close to 250 churches on the island, and that it only takes an hour and a half by car to traverse it lengthwise. The locals venerate the Virgin Mary, considered to be their guardian goddess, and are mostly of the Greek Orthodox and Catholic faiths.
Indulging in Greek delights
As we took in the view of sea and sky on a quiet evening, awaiting one of the sunsets for which this island is so renowned, we made our way to a friendly taverna, where the owner served us a delectable dinner. He brought out a whole sea bass, baked in thyme salt crust, and drizzled with sage-infused olive oil, accompanied by a plate of perfect cherry tomatoes with Feta cheese, and a bowl of freshly roasted vegetables. For dessert, we devoured a ripe peach, sliced and garnished with fresh mint, served with a dollop of Greek yogurt, generously coated with local honey. And let me not forget the wines! Santorini’s volcanic soils produce notable vintages, whites especially, that are dry, citrusy and simply delightful.
The vineyard owners are welcoming and knowledgeable. Later in our stay, we spent a day bumping along dusty roads in our rented Jeep, strolling through rows of grapes and tasting the offerings. At another time during our holiday, we devoted the day to just walking up and down the cobblestone streets of the quaint town of Fira — relaxing, picking up charming little souvenirs, visiting churches, always eating magnificent food and taking in the beauty all around us.
Sailing the Aegean Sea
The highlight of the trip, however, was renting a magnificent 12m catamaran boat and speeding up and down the pristine coast with the sea wind on our faces, visiting neighbouring islands, and enjoying the hypnotic swell of the magnificent Aegean Sea. Lunch on the boat was unforgettable — we savoured wonderful local wines and feasted on an exquisite selection of native seafood, barbecued on board by our skipper, while we swam in the invigorating waters of the little cove where we had dropped anchor.
Naturally, it was very hard to leave this magical island, where sea and sky, heaven and earth, seem to meet in perfect accord.There are only a few places in the world where time stands still — surely this must be one of those rare havens. Santorini has unquestionably cast a spell on me, for there are times when I simply have to close my eyes and reminisce to feel that warm Aegean Sea breeze on my face, beckoning me to return.
Tough Love - Tiger Mum Viewpoint
First published in Harper’s Bazaar Junior Magazine Singapore.
Amy Chua’s latest book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, which extols the virtues of Chinese versus western parenting methods, has unleashed a storm of heated controversy and has generated shock waves and intense debate on what is the best parenting style. In her contentious book, Ms Chua implies, in more ways than one, that Chinese parents are better at raising children than are western ones because of the more strict and uncompromising Chinese values, which she says are different from the indulgent and permissive western methods. Chinese parents, she believes, instill respect for authority, stress academic performance above all else, never accept a mediocre grade and insist on drilling and practicing until the child achieves the desired result. Needless to say, this topic has given rise to strong reactions amongst parents and education specialists around the globe.
Knowing that we are all products of our own cultural upbringing, education and childhood experiences, is it right to say that there is in fact a superior approach to rearing successful children? The answer to this loaded question depends on the criteria one uses to define success. High academic achievement doesn’t automatically equate to a brilliant career, and being wealthy and successful doesn’t guarantee happiness and stability. So, the issue is a complex one, requiring an open mind and an inquisitive spirit.
The subject of what makes up the different kinds of parenting styles has been researched in depth by experts, and despite our squeamishness about stereotypes, there is an abundance of studies showing marked and quantifiable differences between Asians and westerners when it comes to parenting priorities. In one study of 50 American mothers and 48 Asian immigrant mothers in the US, almost 70 per cent of the western mothers said either that “stressing academic success is not good for children” or that “parents need to foster the idea that learning is fun.” By contrast, a very small number of the Asian mothers felt the same. Indeed, the vast majority said that “academic achievement reflects successful parenting” and that if children did not excel at school, the parents “were not doing their job.”
It is no surprise, then, that according to research, Asian parents, as compared to western parents, spend approximately 10 times as long every day drilling academic activities with their children. Western children, on the other hand, are more likely to join sports teams or drama classes, and their parents will be more concerned about their children’s self-esteem rather than academic performance. But for Asian parents, often guided by beliefs of self perfection and constant improvement, one of the worst things you can do for your children’s self-esteem is to let them give up, believing that there’s nothing better for building confidence than learning you can do something you thought you couldn’t.
Of course, these cultural stereotypes, while sometimes true, must not be taken too literally. There are many conflicting theories within both Asian and western cultures on the best ways to rear children. According to one of the best-known theories of parenting, developed by Diana Baumrind, parenting styles generally fall into three main categories: authoritarian, indulgent or authoritative. Traditional Asian childrearing practices are often described as authoritarian, characterized by strictness, with little open dialogue between parent and child. Indulgent parenting, on the other hand, a permissive or lenient style, is characterised by nurturing parents who are very involved with their children yet have few behavioural expectations and impose few controls. An authoritative parenting style, the third category and ostensibly ideal, encourages children to be independent, thus helping them develop autonomy, but still imposes behavioural limits and controls.
Having been brought up by an Asian mother and a western father myself, I am fortunate to recognise many of these authoritative parenting traits in the manner my parents chose to bring me up. And in some ways, combining Asian and western parenting styles seems to come very close to the recommended authoritative method. An expression comes to mind— “A hand of steel in a velvet glove.”
In the end, and despite our cultural differences, most parents want what is best for their children. And while it is inappropriate to say that either an Asian or a western parenting style is better, the greatest gift we can give our children is to remain open minded about improving our own parenting method. As I like to remember, there is no handbook on being a perfect parent. We can only pledge to do our very best and strive to keep learning as we go.
Wadi Rum- Jordan
This article was first published in Urban Nomads website.
As I came down the dizzying heights of Jebel Khazali, the most dramatic, and serious – in terms of climbing difficulty – of the Wadi Rum mountains, I drank in this vast, silent expanse of ancient riverbeds and sandy deserts.
Split by a network of canyons, spanned by naturally formed stone bridges and watered by hidden springs, the spectacular landscape unfolding before my eyes held me captivated. This timeless place, virtually untouched by humanity and its destructive forces, where the weather and winds have carved out imposing, towering skyscrapers, so elegantly described by T.E. Lawrence, as “vast, echoing and God-like,” possesses one of the most stunning geographies on the planet.
During this majestic journey, I trekked in a maze of monumental moonscapes, which rose up from the desert floor to heights of 1,750m. I relished the serenity of the boundless empty spaces, and explored the canyons, rock arches and many other remarkable treasures this vast wasteland had to offer.
Undoubtedly the desert of Jordan has cast a spell on me. Its beauty forever imprinted on my soul, and as a result I will always carry this fervent yearning to return…
This article was first published in Urban Nomads website.
When Mount Pinatubo erupted in June 1991, it spewed out more than five cubic kilometres of magma and sent an ash cloud 35 kilometres into the air. It was the second largest eruption of the 20th century, exceeded only by the 1912 eruption of Mount Novarupta in Alaska. Today, if you drive out two hours from Manila to the historic town of Capas in the Tarlac Province of the Philippines, you can follow a 25-kilometre trail to the stunning crater of this 1,486-metre-high volcano.
Four-wheel-drive vehicles take you across approximately 16 kilometres of the terrain, through a deserted valley flanked by huge lahar mountains, formed by the tremendous volume of mud and ash deposited after the eruption.
After a somewhat jerky and dusty hour-long ride, I am dropped off at the beginning of the path where I begin my hike. Two hours later, as I arrive at the Crater Lake, the ridges of the volcano level down, and the panorama opens up before me. Steep mountain walls on all sides encapsulate the vivid blue-green lake, which is 2.5 kilometres in diameter, and about 800 metres deep – incidentally making it the deepest lake in the country.
Standing on the very edge of the crater, the landscape, which unfolds below, appears to belong to a new world – stunning, unexpected, and unspoilt. The lake, hidden away in the middle of the volcano like a glittering gem, instantly conjures for me the pristine scenery of the biblical Garden of Eden, so poetically depicted in Milton’s Paradise Lost.
It’s windy suddenly, almost chilly, and as if hearing me shiver, the noon sun comes out beyond the clouds, bathing the entire crater in a vibrant, warm glow. The water too, deepens in hue, altering in colour, to become even more luminous. Faced with so much raw beauty, all the distractions and noises fade away, and I lose all sense of time and space in this magnificent, immaculate setting…
It Takes a Village
This article was first published in Harpers Bazaar Magazine Singapore in November 2010.
When I first met my second husband, he was 34, single, never married, and out on the town for a good time. On our first meeting, little did he know that I had a six-year-old daughter and four-year-old son waiting for me at home—and an ex-husband living in a different flat but in the same building as mine. After the breakup of our ten-year marriage, my ex-husband and I consulted a child psychologist who advised us that living in such close proximity to each other would be the least traumatic for the children. It would give them some form of stability, knowing that although they now lived primarily with their mother; their father was very close and accessible at any time.
Today, my second husband and I are happily married and have two children of our own, a four-year-old son and a two-year-old little girl. All four children live in our home, while my ex-husband still lives a few floors above from us. The older children view their father’s flat almost as the upstairs part of our home and zoom up the service lift, several times a day, to see him when he is in town. Weekend sleepovers at his place are made easy for them with little, if any, changes to their daily schedules. My two younger children often accompany the older two to visit their “Uncle” in his flat upstairs. They feel equally at home there and occasionally even share their meals with him. In their innocent eyes, he is an important member of our family.
But it is the sight of my ex-mother-in-law and my mother-in-law cheerfully chatting together at one of the children’s birthday parties that I still find incredible. My mother-in-law, a phenomenal cook, sometimes invites my ex-husband over for dinner with her and the children when she’s in Singapore to babysit, while my husband and I are away on holiday. Most people look at our setup and think, “How bizarre. Why would anyone want to live this way, in such close proximity to an ex-husband—or an ex-wife, for that matter?” The answer is simple. “It takes a village to raise a child.”
There is much wisdom in this old African proverb. The proverb is from the Igbo and Yoruba regions of Nigeria where it’s believed that raising a child is a communal effort. The responsibility lies not only with the parents, but also with the extended family, and in some cases, the community. And this is a proverb that my ex-husband, my husband and I have taken to heart, especially now during the formative years of our children’s upbringing. In addition to the mother, the father and the step-father raising the children, every other family member and close friend has a role to play. The larger the community, the better for the child. Every member of this extended family can impart wisdom and tradition that children are extremely receptive to. Rich human interactions make up the fabric of their childhood memories, culture, morals, sense of right and wrong and responsibility, which they will take with them on the road to becoming young adults.
Of course, as one reflects on this quite unconventional modern living arrangement, it is obvious that this requires a certain type of individual who can look beyond the petty differences of opinions, the bruised egos and the emotional volatility that inevitably come with any divorce. It helps if the second husband, as it is in my case, is not responsible for the breakup of the first marriage; nevertheless, ultimately, it is about putting the children first, and our feelings a distant second. Beyond the sense of failure, frustration and self-pity that may dominate the emotions of the adults after a divorce, it is the children’s fragile feelings and nascent self-confidence that really need to be placed at the centre of this complex situation.
My eight-year-old son once declared, “When I grow up and become a famous professional football player, I will buy a big house where all of us can live together!” When probed, he told me what “all of us” to him meant: his father, his step-father, his mother, brother, sisters and all grandparents, including step-grandparents and nannies! In his young mind, there should be no impediment for this situation to one day become a happy reality. In the meantime, we may not be living in the same house, but living in the same building is as close as it will ever get. It’s not uncommon to see my husband and ex-husband chatting by the pool while the children happily paddle and splash about them. It’s a scene that a few of our neighbours had to adjust to at first, when they learned of how our unconventional family unit works.
When I witness these heart-warming family moments, I simply thank my lucky stars for having picked two admirable and unique men in my life to have had children with. Both men have been able to put egos aside for the love, happiness and well-being of the children. This is what is at the heart of our family’s genuine partnership, and at the core of our big, beautiful village.
We all lived this way during six years, and then as the children grew up, my ex-husband bought a flat 10 minutes’ walk from us. Today, even if we are not living in the same building anymore, we are one family and still feel part of the same big village. Most importantly, this experience has taught me that from failure and pain, you can find success and hope. If you work hard to make the best of any situation ultimately, you will discover the silver lining and be able to nurture it into something positive and beautiful.