Anjaly Thomas is a qualified lawyer and a published travel writer. But what she really likes to call herself, what she really is at heart, is a traveller. And a ‘solo’ traveller at that.
When I interviewed Anjaly Thomas for this feature, the first thought that hit me was, that the name of her first book ‘Almost Intrepid’ suits her just right. Because that’s exactly who she is. Except that I would even remove the word ‘almost’.
Rarely do we come across, a person so ebullient and full of passion. And when we do, don’t we want to know all there is to know about them?
Well, here’s a start…
What is the real Anjaly like?
I have been told that I am a “fundamentally happy person” with the qualities of a rubber ball that cannot stay down too long! I guess that is true. I have not known myself to mourn and whine. The moment I feel I am slipping into a state of depression, I start planning a travel – it doesn’t matter whether or not I end up going on one, but it helps ease me out of my immediate slump.
Traveling helped me become more empathetic. For me, traveling is not just about seeing or experiencing the plush side of life, it is more to do with real people, real experiences and incidents. It was for this I decided to give a meaning to what I loved to do. Hence I started an initiative called Travel and Relief, through which I encourage people, especially travellers to help out the needy in the country they are traveling in. Through TAR, I run various short or long term campaigns that can benefit the needy – the current focus is on eastern Africa (for the simple reason that I visit this side of the world often), India and Nepal. These initiatives however are not restricted to any particular country.
The real Anjaly is fun loving, adventure seeking, thoughtful, bold, outspoken, empathetic, kind, a work-in-progress cook and a go-getter!
Tell us something about your childhood and growing up years.
I grew up in a small town near Mangalore, Karnataka. Went to boarding school in Class 2 – pretty much all my education, right until my LLB was “away from home”, which I think has is the reason for me becoming so independent. I have two older brothers who treat me as their “bro” – so it was never the case of being the “pampered little sister” with me. Looking back, it was the best thing that happened happened – I didn’t grow up thinking girls “could not or should not do certain things” – I just grew up believing one should do what one could do best!
Since childhood I have loved to write. During summer vacations when I came home (we lived on a farm then) I wrote letters to my two best friends. I also got to read a lot – so often I’d visualise an ideal farm life and write about it to my town friends! This was particularly interesting because I sometimes imagined Nancy Drew type setting and characters on the farm and wrote about it – it was fun.
You have been travelling the world, what started this passion of yours?
In the first year of law, a bunch of us decided to go to Goa – and I planned so much around this decision. But when the time came, all of them backed out. I didn’t want to let all that planning go, so I decided to go on my own. Goa was not unfamiliar, but I had never been there alone before – and I was only 17! But, off I went and when I returned, I was a changed person. I knew that I wanted to see the world – although I wasn’t sure how I was going to do that as a lawyer. Plus, by then, my interest in being a lawyer was waning. I wanted to write and I nursed romantic notions of being a journalist who go to be in war zones etc. – anyway, I joined The New Indian Express, Bangalore, right after I completed LLB – and with that financial freedom, I got the chance to explore neighbouring states on extended weekends. One day I packed my bags and just left for New Delhi and from thereon to Mussorie and Himachal Pradesh without a plan or thought. Thus a backpacker was born. Then I moved to Dubai on one such impulsive trip and that opened up the world to me. I wanted to eat Mongolian food in Mongolia or bush meat in Africa – and I did just that.
Any special achievements? Any memorable moments or incidents?
I think breaking the mould of “traditional travel for Indian women” was my biggest achievement. I don’t really care much for social approval and to me achievement is more about overcoming everyday biases to embrace something new, different and better. All these memorable incidents have been penned down in my book “Almost Intrepid” and more are on the cards in my forthcoming book – which will include my travel to North Korea.
Tell us something about your trip to North Korea. That sounds so interesting!
North Korea is like no place else. It is different, in every way conceivable. I am no expert on North Korea and my reason to visit was not to find something “controversial”. I had a simple traveler’s curiosity, wanting to see and experience the everyday life in North Korea. It is another thing that one is not really free to go about executing these plans and one gets to see only what one is shown, but that in itself is an example of how different it is from the rest of the world. There is a severe lack of individual freedom – and its amazing how successfully they have been cut off from the world and yet, are the pet peeve of world media. The glimpses of DPRK which I saw and what I had read of, are two vastly different things – it is really hard to define just what makes it such a “media pet.” On one side I saw stark poverty and on the other, eg in the Kumsusam Palace of the Sun – I saw cutting edge technology that was in total defiance of everything else DPRK stood for.
But I’d like add here that DPRK is one of the safest countries in the world. You can be absolutely certain that no one is going to sneak up on you or rob you or knife you – no one is going to try to harass or molest you – as a visitor the places you go to are absolutely safe and for that matter, since you constantly have a minder with you, there are very little chances of anything untoward happening.
I happened to be the only Indian on that trip. The local people – the ones we got to interact with were quite excited to see and speak to an Indian.
Any painful happenings which have made you a stronger person?
I never think of an incident as painful – I just think of them as incidents. For example, once in Tanzania, I was molested by 3 drunken men. It was the moment I realised it took more strength to stay calm than it took to fight and scream – it takes a lot to know when not to react – and it paid off. Seeing my lack of reaction, they simply walked away. I suppose, this is what is called a painful happening and yet, I feel no pain when I recall that incident! Did it make me stronger? I suppose so. I have not stopped traveling because of that. It has not killed my faith in humanity or made me less kind or understanding. I am the same.
Any personal ups and downs that you would like to share.
As everyone else, I have had my share of crushes, unrequited love, etc – but I have been lucky otherwise – or perhaps, I don’t see everyday happenings as ups and downs – I don’t like to dwell too much on what’s gone – I believe that whatever happened, happened for the good and what will happen, will be for the best! I like things simple – easier to smile!
Which has been the most enchanting trip for you/ which city or country was most contrary to your expectations, in a good or a bad way?
Every place I have been to has left an impression on me. There have been no disappointments in anyway – because I start with no expectations. I like to be surprised. Its the only way to feel and love the place. I am a traveler and that means an explorer of new things – a lover of surprises and to be a good traveler, it is very important to let go of every pre-conceived notion you may have, about the place, deconstruct any previous opinions and arrive with a blank mind – my travels are for me to write something completely new – based on my experiences and feeling and reactions without the influence of anyone else.
How has all this travel added to your perspective of humanity and the world?
Thanks to all this traveling to obscure places – esp riding on back of trucks with cows and goats in interior Africa, I saw a side of life that wouldn’t have been possible had I been just a regular tourist. And thanks to that – I saw things that got me started with my initiative Travel and Relief. I guess if traveling doesn’t change you or your perspectives – then it’s quite wasted. I say education begins where school ends!
Any tips you would like to share with women who intend to travel alone and so extensively?
I’d just like to say this – to educate yourself, travel. The ability to see the same things in a new light everyday should be your driving force. Nothing should come between your desire to travel – it makes you a different person, a better person. You might argue “why better? Am I not good enough?”. My answer is no. No one is good enough – everyone can be better than what they are today. See the world. It helps in every way to “feel and experience other cultures, traditions and food” and thus enrich one’s life. All this doesn’t come from reading books or watching travel shows. Be there hands on. Don’t let fear stop you from doing what you must. We are born to travel, to move, else, we’d be trees.
What are you doing now?
Right now I am waiting for the release of my new book, starting to work on a new one, brushing up my travel blog, trying to think of the best way to furnish my little cottage in Tamil Nadu and work out my finances for the Antarctic Expedition! And oh, I am also supporting a few kids in Uganda for their schooling. So yeah, there it is – pretty much a full plate!
How do you see yourself in the future?
I’d like to continue with the same passion I have for life and travel, family and friends – write a few more books simply because I love to write. One can never see the future and I don’t want to be too prepared for it because I want to be surprised.
Would you like to give a message for the readers of our blogazine.
A message – if you can dream it, you can be it.
Thanks Anjaly. You are truly an ‘Incredible’ woman with inspiring stories to tell. We wish you all the best in life.
To know more about Anjaly, please check out http://www.travelwithanjaly.com. Her latest book “There Are No Gods In North Korea” comes out in February.
Please Note: This interview was conducted online.
Interview co-ordinated/edited for IWI: Radhika Maira Tabrez