The One on Finding a Place Called Home

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Photographed by Noor Iskandar

The past ten months has been nothing short of freedom and independence to me. I enjoy the ability to pack up and leave for another country in an instant. I enjoy the flexibility of working on my own. And most of all, I enjoy the fact that I am alone responsible for my own happiness.

Recently, Singapore has been crowned Lonely Planet’s top travel destination for 2015. I stopped in my tracks to read the article on my phone to be sure that my eyes were not deceiving me. Yes, I sure do love my country, but what have I missed about my homeland that makes it a top destination for travelers from around the world?

I thought about what makes Singapore so attractive to foreigners. Some said it was the efficiency that impressed them, others loved how safe this country is and the rest just enjoyed Singapore’s little quirks. There was a New Yorker I met in Morocco who got so excited when I told him I am from Singapore, “Dude! Your subways are like fifty years into the future!”

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Man sleeping on the job, Chefchaouen, Morocco, 2013

When I travel, I look for experiences that I cannot find in Singapore. I seek adventure. I seek the wilderness. I seek ruggedness. And most of all, I seek the country life. Perhaps I have always been the kampung girl at heart, preferring the outdoors to city skyscrapers and air-conditioned malls, and my idea of retirement is having a home with enough land for me to grow vegetables organically with love and a butcher who knows me by my name and choice of cut.

I love traveling in ruggedness, not having plans for the day and just sitting down somewhere with a drink and a book to read. I have been approached by fellow travelers asking me about my religion and why I chose to cover my head with the hijab. I make friends with people from all over the world and make it a point to keep in touch just in case I drop by their hometown in my future travels. I thrive on spontaneity and randomness – it makes me feel less guarded and wary, of which I usually am.

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Angkor Wat, Siam Reap, Cambodia, 2014 

Last year, I left Singapore for Europe without a job waiting for me back home. I wanted to do something crazy and bold. I wanted to know what it feels like to be invisible and not know what to expect. I left Singapore for a trip to open my heart and mind. I left Singapore without attaching my heart to anything, or anyone for that matter. I left Singapore knowing that there was a possibility I would not come back.

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Brighton Beach, Victoria, Australia, 2014

In my pursuit to find myself, I realize I enjoyed being anonymous and not having any worry for the uncertainty that lies ahead of me. A friend once told me that this lack of worry is because of a heightened faith in God – like what they say, do not pray for God to make things easier for you, but pray for the strength so you can go through challenges better. When we travel, we learn to let fate take its course while we take a back seat. In essence, we accept whatever happens to us because God has already willed for it happen in our lives, anyways.

Halfway through my month-long trip, I broke down. I was missing my family. I missed my mother, my three cats, my sisters and brother. Most of all, I was missing my nieces and nephews a lot. When I got home after 28 days away, my room was filled with about a hundred balloons. My brother would probably kill me for telling the world about this but he blew each and every one of the balloons. I went over to my sister’s place with presents for my nieces and nephews only to be greeted with hugs, kisses, and fights as to who gets to sit on Aunty Ida’s lap.

My then four-year-old nephew Yan Yan looked me in the eye and asked me, “Where did you go for so long, Aunty Ida? Don’t you love me anymore?”

There are a million reasons for you to go away, but find one that keeps you coming back – I found mine.

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Mia Familia, 2013

This article first appeared on The Shawl Label’s Sisterhood Project on http://www.theshawllabel.com.

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On Being the Only Muslim in Town

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Little Mosque on the Prairie was one of my favorite TV shows back when I was in university. Set in a little town in Canada, it tells the story of a growing community of Muslims living with the Anglo-Christian majority. I was always intrigued by the existence of Muslims in areas where there weren’t any Islamic governing bodies or authority.

Having born a Muslim and lived in a country and region where Islam thrives, it is pretty much easy to take everything for granted. Halal certifications are aplenty in Singapore, and halal certified or Muslim-owned cafes are sprouting like wild mushrooms. Across the Straits we have Malaysia, where almost everything is halal for Muslim consumption. Needless to say, Singapore and the Southeast Asian region makes being Muslim fairly easy.

I never had the chance to live abroad but my wanderlust needs have brought me far and wide across the globe in search of my true existence as a Muslim. I struggle with my faith sometimes so traveling helps me to strengthen my love for Islam and my Creator. In my few years of traveling, never have I been faced with a huge challenge until quite recently.

I packed my bags for Daylesford, Victoria in Australia for a food photography workshop with Ewen Bell and Iron Chef Shellie. Truth be told, I did not do a lot of research for this trip. I did not look at the map to figure out where exactly Daylesford is, and neither did I Google “halal restaurants in Daylesford”. Shellie did most of the cooking and baking, so I merely wrote in to Ewen saying that I do not mind seafood, but strictly no meat of any kind.

The best thing about Australia to me is the ease of being vegan, vegetarian, paleo, gluten-free, kosher, halal and whatever-allergies-or-food-preference-you-have. The diversity coming from all sorts of cultural and religious backgrounds is taken into account to form an accepting and open society. Sure, there will be always a small minority who thinks the whole world is against them and stir up trouble, putting a bad name on the beautiful and kind majority of Australians.

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On my way to Daylesford with another participant, Atlanta, we discussed the food scene in Melbourne because after all, Melbourne is the city to be in if you are a foodie, cafe enthusiast, caffeine addict and avid Instagrammer. Basically, hipster was born in Melbourne. It was a very exciting experience for me to hear first-hand stories behind the ever-thriving food industry in Melbourne. Atlanta is a manager of a Middle-Eastern restaurant in the city so she would definitely know a thing or two about running a restaurant.

Upon our arrival in Daylesford, I was greeted with even more food lovers. Olivia is a stay at home mum who makes everything from scratch – even butter; Winston is an avid cook who runs his own blog; Leslie is a grandmom who takes beautiful photos and of course, there’s Ewen and Shellie. I was to spend my weekend with not just foodies – they were food connoisseurs.

And there I was, the city girl whose biggest accomplishments when it comes to food is to make her own pasta and lasagna sheets. Needless to say, I was about to get schooled about food and my biggest assignment was to ensure they were halal for my consumption. It was a “rusa masuk kampung” moment whenever I entered a restaurant for dinner as heads turn towards me. I felt a bit like Cinderella because I stood out from the rest with the obvious headscarf covering my hair

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I had no clue on what to expect during the first dinner. We had the Degustation menu where food magically appears for 5 or 8 courses. It was my first experience with fine dining and I was superbly excited. Thankfully, Olivia is a vegetarian so I didn’t feel like such a party pooper for having a special dietary requirement. I went vegetarian for the entire weekend and truth be told, vegetarian food has never been so delicious. Although there were times the beef or quail or chicken the others had look amazingly delicious, and there I was with puppy eyes wishing I could have some.

On top of making sure there was no meat on my plate, I had to ask about every single thing that was on my plate. I really did not have to worry but I wanted to be sure I knew what I was eating. One of the entrees we were served was a garden of seasonal vegetables and flowers, and it was served with some black little crispy things which I thought was blackened garlic. To my amusement, it was in fact a type of edible soil. It was a literally “makan rumput’ moment for me.

While I wished I could have some of the chicken or kangaroo meat that was served, I relish the fact that I was able to experience something out of the ordinary during the workshop. Food is such an integral part of my life, and experiencing food in a way that was beyond amazing is something I am thankful for. I came back from the weekend inspired and ready to try out some flavours and vegetables I never knew would go so well together.

I am thankful for living in a city where halal food is readily available, and I can only empathise with Muslims who live in far-flung places having to always question how halal the food is for their consumption. It is certainly not an easy task, to dictate for yourself and put in real effort as to what is halal and what is not given your living situation but it is also a blessing because it is when you are the only Muslim around do you really test your faith as well as your understanding of the religion your believe in.

Wallahua’lam.

This article first appeared on Halalfoodhunt’s Halal Diaries.

2014 in Pictures

Somehow, I cannot believe that a year has flew by yet again. Apart from some failed New Year’s resolutions made at the end of last year, I think I pretty much nailed 2014. I started the year with only one thing in mind – do whatever I want. I thought to myself, while I still had no form of whatever commitments, I should adopt 2014 as my gap year to be responsible for my own happiness. Life is, after all, too short for disappointments. This past year, I chose my battles and made it a point for myself to choose gratitude over anything else.

In January, I loved and lost. I also got hired by Mini Monsters Ltd teaching little kids Malay speech and drama.

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In February, I turned 24. I also worked on The 24 Hour Selfie which was released on my birthday itself. Never did I realise it impacted so many people when in actual fact I just needed to distract myself from heartbreak but at the same time learn to use my new lens.

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In March, I officially launched my photography website where I dump all of my work for your viewing pleasure.

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In April, I headed for my first overseas assignment Down Under, in Perth, with ISHQ by Nora Zee. I cannot stop thanking the bride, Sadiyah, as well as Nora for the wonderful opportunity. The amount of faith they had in me when I was still pretty much a noob. A short crash course by a new mentor certainly helped a lot with this assignment.

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In May, I headed to Krabi with my mother. It was the first trip out of the country that I brought my mother to all on my own.

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In June, I had assistants shooting with me and for me during wedding assignments. Kinda felt good to be a bit of a boss, I suppose?

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In July, it was pretty much Ramadhan and Eid. And I had my darling Ikea and Harry Potter buddy Maisarah back in Singapore with me.

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In August, I wrote this article on The Shawl Label.

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In September, I went to KL for a food fiesta with my darling Shireen.

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In October, I became a bridesmaid for the second time this year. This time it was my good friend Aisyah Manab aka Manab who got hitched to the love of her life. Photo credits to Abang Rizal from Tru My Lens.

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In November, I travelled to Siam Reap, Cambodia with Nani. Turns out she’s an awesome travel partner. Now to find one for life. Haha.

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In December, I’m packed for back to back weddings. So here’s a sneak from one of the weddings I shot.

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I’m excited for 2015. Here’s to new adventures and exciting times ahead! Happy New Year everyone!!

Chasing Shams

I arrived home from work this afternoon with a throbbing migraine and pretty much puked my entire lunch out. I have gotten used to my erratic working hours and I’ve survived a few months of health so naturally today’s lack of productivity and day spent in bed came as a shock to me. I guess this is God’s way of telling me “Guuurrlll you’ve been so healthy and too happy here’s me reminding you life is short and unpredictable!”

Anyhoos, I got back from a short five-day trip to Cambodia with my good friend Nani last Thursday. It was pretty much a random trip we decided to go on. Besides, I could not have started November if I had not gone for the trip. Wedding season is back and I’m about to go crazy. As much as everyone else is off for their year-end holidays, I’m going to be stuck in sunny Singapura for the next five months. But I ain’t complaining. Come April 2015, another adventure awaits!

Nani and I enjoyed Siam Reap very much. It was laid back, chill and filled with loads of fun activities. The sunrise and sunset at Angkor Wat were beautiful. Gorgeous. Beyond amazing, I think. Perhaps it’s because I was on vacation that the sunrise looked extra beautiful. I mean, I would not have been bothered to wake up at 4am in Singapura to catch the sunrise. Unless… well unless someone dragged me.

You know, adulthood is biting me in the butt, especially when it comes to emotions. Matters of the heart is a painful thing to deal with as an adult. You win some, you lose some. Then there are major decisions you make in your life that determine pretty much the rest of your adult life. One wrong move and you’re out, sista. I really suck at blogging now but I think my photos are getting better. Meh. Enjoy them.

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Sunrise at Angkor Wat

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What is life?

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Part 3: I Left My Heart in Morocco

It all started with a Facebook message from a Moroccan guy. Such an exotic character, tall, a face full of stubble and eyes so captivating – who could resist such charm coupled with charisma fitting of the face? I was wary, but photos of his travels to Asia got me interested. He knew so much about the Asian region. I figured it would only be fair to him if I started reading up on Northern Africa.

A month later, I decided to travel Europe alone, but I knew I had to fit Morocco into the itinerary. Every travel forum and discussion group I read sang high praises for Morocco – the beautiful sand and sea, the mysterious deserts, the bustling souqs[1] and the famed Atlas Mountains. The appeal of what Morocco had to offer surpassed the appeal of the young gentleman who intrigued me in the first place.

The next thing I knew, I was on a flight out to Casablanca. A whole entourage of close family and friends had sent me off, knowing that I would be gone for a month. My family and friends were used to me traveling, but this was the first time I would be away for such a long time, and on top of that, traveling solo.

While my mother worried about me bring home a boy, my best friend worried about me not coming home at all. After all, I had just left my job. With no commitments back home, I could have easily gone on a traveling spree for a few months but I chose to focus on the traveling, and see if I liked the life of a nomad.

About sixteen hours later, with a two-hour layover in Doha, I arrived in Casablanca, the economic capital of Morocco. I was greeted with cold winds and sprinkles of rain in my face. My seven am flight battled through an early Sunday morning rain. No wonder I could not see much of the country while looking out the window. As I stepped a foot on to the gravel of the airport, I took a deep breath and registered the smell of Morocco. A gust of wind sent chills through my spine. I took out my coat from my backpack. I was ready for my adventure to begin.

Casablanca

Morocco’s lingua franca is Arabic despite being situated in between two major continents – Africa and Europe. The local dialect of Arabic, however, was infused with French and it made learning Moroccan Arabic even more difficult than the standard Arabic. Apparently, one semester’s worth of studying basic Arabic did not prepare me enough for Morocco. Thankfully, a local middle aged man saw me having difficulty communicating with the train ticket counter staff and came to my rescue.

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A typical mini mart in the heart of Casablanca.

Upon reaching Casa Voyageur, the main train station in Casablanca, my dear friend Jannah greeted me with open arms. Jannah is an SMU undergraduate who was on exchange in Casablanca. I was blessed with friends who were scattered all over Europe at the time of my travels. Who could resist free accommodation and a glimpse of life as a local while traveling?

Ahmed became my train companion to the city. He was visiting his mother in his home city of Tetouan. Having spent the last twenty years of his life in Netherlands, Ahmed had plenty of stories to share with me during our brief encounter. He warned me of sly young Moroccan men (of which I already took precaution of since making friends with the earlier-mentioned Moroccan guy), boasted about Moroccans’ ability to speak multiple languages and reminded me to visit his home city.

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I walked past an ongoing street protest about the government raising the prices of fruits and vegetables.

The first thing I looked forward to in Morocco was the street food. Years of dining at the so-called Arabic and Moroccan restaurants of Bussorah Street only brought shame to real Moroccan food. The tagines and infusion of sweet and savory in authentic Moroccan cuisine were divine. The flavor of spices like cumin, paprika and cinnamon would burst in your mouth as you bite into juicy chunks of meat and tomatoes. Bread and olives come together with your tagine as a set, and a Moroccan meal is never complete without a glass of fresh Moroccan mint tea.

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Posing for the camera on Ain Diab beach.

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My first meal of chicken tagine upon touchdown in Casablanca, lovingly bought by Jannah.

Jannah took me on a tour of the city on foot. Casablanca was bustling with life, more specifically, nightlife. The streets of Ain Diab saw a plethora of pubs and clubs. In a country where Islam is evidently imprinted in culture and tradition, Casablanca is refreshingly modern and westernized. The malls carry European and American brands, and surprisingly, homegrown brands Charles & Keith and Pedro too.

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Hassan II Mosque of Casablanca, Morocco.

On the contrary, the Hassan II Mosque provided respite from the chaos of the city. The minaret stands at 210 metres tall and it has a capacity of 105 000 pax – I heard that during the month of Ramadhan, up to 500 000 people flood the mosque grounds to carry out the nightly terawih[2] prayers. I took the opportunity to step inside the praying area and marvel at the intricate architecture. It became clear to me why it took 7 years and more than $500 million to build.

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A middle-aged man walks around the Hassan II Mosque, waiting for the call for prayer.

Fez

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The famous leather tannery in Fez, Morocco. They still use ancient methods of making leather by hand.

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A little boy in one of the shops selling leather goods.

After spending the first two days of my solo adventure in Casablanca, I took a four-hour train ride to Fez, the city most well known for its leather tannery. I stayed in a cozy little hostel near the old medina[3] and made a few friends. I even met a fellow Singaporean who shares the same name as me (a guy version, however) and has been traveling for two months! It was exciting for the both of us because we took the chance to converse in colloquial Malay. I ventured Fez on my own on the first day, keeping in mind to stay safe and come back to the hostel alive.

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A makeshift stall on the streets of Fez.

My first meal in Fez was a huge camel meat kofta kebab. The tenderness of the meatballs was cleverly mixed with a plethora of spices, among which were cumin and paprika. Topped with a dollop of yoghurt mint sauce and filled with garden vegetables, the kebab pretty much filled me up for the rest of the day. I headed back to the hostel to wash up and rest. I was desperate for some sleep.

After a good night’s rest, I filled my stomach as much as I could with the free hostel breakfast. It wasn’t much, but being a traveler on a budget I had to make do. I had earlier planned to go on the free walking tour, but somehow the tour was cancelled. I made friends with a fellow solo traveler, Ariel from Argentina, who arrived in Fez about the same time as me. Standing at about 1.9 metres tall, I would have easily fallen in love at first sight with him if I were back home. Since I was traveling, I couldn’t care less. 

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Two young ladies at the entrance of the Fez library. Visitors were not allowed in.

We explored the entire old medina of Fez, walking on the outskirts of the medina to see the castle ruins and take a breather at the top of the hill. The view of Fez from the castle ruins was simply breathtaking. For the whole hour we were there, I could not stop marveling at the beauty of the country. The clear blue skies, the beautifully aging bricks walls and the old people who were never short of compliments; Fez was charming.

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One of the main reasons I love Morocco – the beautiful Islamic art displayed in the mosques.

I spent my last night in Fez in the comforts of the hostel, smoking shisha with Ariel, and making small talk with others who were sitting around us. As much as I would have loved to be part of the party at the hostel rooftop, I was gathering all my excitement for the next city I would depart for the morning after.

Chefchaouen

Just a three-hour bus ride away from Fez is Chefchaouen, the blue city. Situated in northwest of Morocco, Chefchaouen sits amongst the Rif Mountains, and is just inland from Tangiers and Tetouan. Chefchaouen was formerly part of the Spanish Morocco but was returned to Morocco in 1956; hence Spanish is a more common language in this city.

I fell in love with Chefchaouen at first sight. I stumbled upon images of the city on Tumblr and was delighted when I found out the blue ville is actually in Morocco. It felt like I was living in a snow globe of sorts. The chilly winter with a hint of the sun was perfect to me. Pastry and boulangerie shops lined the quiet streets, while the main souq was filled with old men and women making a living out of selling fruits, vegetables and knick-knacks for the curious traveler.

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A man settle fruits and vegetables just outside of the souq.

I reunited with Jannah in Chefchaouen. The main mosque in Chefchaouen stood amidst restaurants and coffee shops. Since it was a Friday when we spent our second day, we sat down in one of the restaurants and watched the men head to the mosque for their Friday prayers. It was a remarkable sight. Compared to Singapore where only about fourteen percent of the population is Muslim, Morocco’s official religion being Sunni Islam means their lifestyle and culture are deeply embedded with the religion.

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The beautiful view of Chefchaouen, also known as the Bleuville.

We spent our two days in Chefchaouen eating, hiking, relaxing, eating, talking – did I mention eating? Despite the lack of activities for tourists, the quaint city still attracts people from everywhere just because of its beauty. Indeed, Chefchaouen placed me in the shoes of the most superficial men I have encountered.

Tangiers

We took a bus to Tangiers after two days in Chefchaouen. Jannah was due to meet a fellow Singaporean, Aida, who married a Moroccan and relocated to Tangiers. My plan was to bid farewell to Jannah in Tangiers so I could catch a sleeper train to Marrakesh. It was the weekend of the Marrakesh International Film Festival and I wanted to be part of the action. After hearing so much about Aida, I ended up spending the weekend in Tangiers.

Our hosts were welcoming and they made us feel at home. Newly-weds, Aida and Karim were excited to have us over at their place, as we were their first guests. Tangiers was like another Casablanca to me, except that Tangiers offered more than just malls and a mosque. Hercules Cave, where the supposed son of Zeus separated Spain and Morocco, is one of the more popular tourist attractions. The sea provided a clear view of the Straits of Gibraltar, which must be accompanied with a tagine of fresh fish and vegetables. The winds and sounds of the sea would remind you of the beach, and for a while, you forget that you are in Morocco.

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An old man contemplating on life. 

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He was playing football with his friends.

Right after this shot was taken, he looked at me said, “1 Dirham!” I ran away after that.

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Jannah (in the pink hijab), Aida and her husband Karim with some men we made friends with.

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On the way to Grotte D’Hercule.

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Endless horizon at Grotte D’Hercule.

Marrakesh

I ended my nine-day tour of Morocco by spending the last day in Marrakesh. After a fourteen hour train ride from Tangiers, I was tired and famished. I did not prepare myself well for the commute, and was dying for a place to rest. Thankfully, the hostel, which I cancelled my reservation at, welcomed me with open arms although I was not checking in for the night. I was served tea by the front desk personnel, Muhammad, and was even given free breakfast. The hospitality of Moroccans never failed to amaze me.

After walking around the famed Jemaa Al-Fana for half a day, my feet were begging me to rest. I finished my souvenir shopping and made my way back to the hostel – a very long way back because I got lost in the maze of the medina. After a two hour unintended detour, I arrived at the hostel and rested for the remaining hours before catching my flight to Sevilla.

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Maassalamah Ya Maroc[4]

On the way to the airport on a motorcycle taxi, I soaked in my last Moroccan sunset. The orange hues in the sea of blue sent chills to my spine, and somehow, it brought tears to my eyes. I had to bid farewell to Morocco. I was not ready to leave Morocco. I had yet to experience the Sahara Desert, skiing in Ifrane, or climb the Atlas Mountaints – but I know deep in my heart I would be back someday, somehow, to this marvelous land called Morocco.

I left pieces of my heart in the cities I visited. A little in Casablanca and Fez, a piece in Chefchaouen, and a little bit more in Tangiers and Marrakesh. As much as I wanted to drop the rest of my Euro trip and stay in Morocco, I decided not to. I soaked up the last air of Morocco I could while I was at the Marrakesh airport, and told myself I will be back – and hopefully the next time I am in Morocco, I have a lifelong travel partner by my side.

[1] Souq – market in Arabic

[2] Nightly prayers only held during the month of Ramadhan. These prayers are not compulsory for Muslims, but highly beneficial.

[3] Arabic for city

[4] maassalamah ya Maroc means see you again, Morocco in Arabic

Part 2: A Month in 11 Cities in Afro-Europe for $2100

Three weeks ago, I landed in (not so sunny) Singapore after a month of being away from home. I was miles away in Europe, getting lost and finding myself in countries I could not hold a decent conversation in. My Arabic was very rusty, I only knew 5 Spanish words, pretended to be able to speak French and pretty much got away with speaking any German. On top of that, I was traveling alone, meeting up with old friends and new friends along the way.

Before I procrastinate any further, I reckon it’s best I write this entry to help any of you wondering souls who are keen to take a giant leap of faith to travel solo. I’ve had the pleasure of being inspired by my fellow solo female travellers, mainly Atikah, Jumaiyah (a close friend and advisor) and Swani, my first couchsurfer back in August. Atikah and Jumaiyah travelled while on exchange and Swani stopped over in Singapore before she embarked on a 3 month backpacking trip in Indonesia. I never had the chance to go on exchange, so I asked myself, if not now, then when? I decided to leave my job, buy myself the tickets and went forth with the biggest adventure I’ve ever had. I started thinking about the trip in May, but only got around to actually planning it in late July and early August.

I decided on Morocco, Spain, France and Germany. 5 countries, 10 cities. I had a few friends asking me why didn’t I go to the Scandinavian countries or London. Well, I simply didn’t want to. That’s the fun in traveling alone. You get to make decisions without having to wait on other people. You get to learn how to make the best decisions based on advice you get. Best of all, you are anonymous when you’re traveling alone. I decided not to include the amount I spent on travel insurance, the baking courses I attended in Paris and the ridiculous amount I spent on food, or rather, desserts. It’s really amazing how my weight didn’t increase as much as I thought it would, but don’t get me started on my gym routine. I’m basically a weakling right now.

So below is my route. I started in Morocco and went north, so basically I was preparing my body for the climate adjustment. Morocco was aircon weather, not too cold and not too hot, but as I went further north, the cold was excruciating. Okay I may be exaggerating, but -3 degrees is bloody cold for someone who is named after the sun (Shams = sun in Arabic, get it? okay you don’t have to laugh).

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Countries covered: Morocco, Spain, France, and Germany

Cities covered: Casablanca, Fez, Meknes, Chefchaouen, Tangiers, Marrakech, Seville, Granada, Paris, Berlin and Munich

Airfares and Transfers

Flight numero uno (SIN – DOH, DOH – CMN) – Qatar Airways $1565.20

So anyways, I decided to land and take a multi-city option with Qatar Airways. Yes, it is a bit pricey, almost twice the amount another blogger spent on her airfare. But I landed in Morocco. How many people can say that they’ve been to Africa? Okay so Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia aren’t really considered Africa, but they are in the African continent! I may have not fulfilled my lifetime ambition of living with a pride of lions but I did step my foot there, and I was a step (okay maybe millions of steps) closer to the big cats. Of course, I digress.

I bought my flight ticket in September during the NATAS travel fair from Chan Brothers. I could have bought my ticket directly from Qatar but the website was throwing a sissy fit. I went to NATAS to check out the deals and steal some ideas for my itinerary but I ended up making my own one. So I had the pleasure of Rachel from Chan Brothers to settle the tickets for me. She even made sure my layover in Doha was only 2 hours, since Doha has a reputation for long layovers.

The reason why my ticket was more expensive than usual is because I chose to land and leave at two different cities. Also, only two airlines landed in Casablanca – Emirates and Qatar. I landed in Casablanca and left Europe from Munich. I did not want to waste time and keep going back to the same city to transit to other cities. I was very OCD in that sense. Even my traveling route has to be organised. I would recommend you to think through where you want to land. Remember that some airport taxes are higher than others. It might be cheaper to land in a less desirable city if you really want to cut costs.

Flight numero dos (MAR – SVQ) – Ryanair $61.46

Yeap, your eyes do not deceive you. I spent that amount on my flight from Marrakech to Sevilla, Spain, inclusive of a checked in 15kg bag. Book early. I bought the ticket in September, right after I booked my flight to Casablanca.

Flight numero tres (SVQ – BVA) – Ryanair $77.36

I booked this ticket a day after I booked the previous one. Once again, book early. Ryanair tickets are cheap, you just have to make sure you don’t do a last minute booking.

1465315_10152052169771445_1556053315_nTook this shot when I landed in Paris

Flight numero cuatro (CDG – TXL) – Lufthansa $88.37 This ticket was a flash deal! I was randomly going through Zuji and checking out the prices and decided that it’s the best deal as yet.

Miscellaneous costs – $150

This included train tickets in between cities in Morocco, bus fares from airports to city centres (which aren’t cheap by the way), metro tickets and bus tickets in between cities in Spain.

1450049_10152038748726445_2045268601_nThe sleeper train from Tangiers to Marrakech

Accommodation

Find friends living abroad

In the midst of planning my trip, I found out that a few of my friends were going to be on exchange. I had the pleasure of their hospitality while traveling, and even managed to squeeze time to travel with Jannah, who was on exchange in Morocco. This certainly helped me in saving accommodation costs. To be honest, the friends I stayed with aren’t really the close ones, but they are the ones I would keep in contact with in years to come.

1459721_10152028624856445_928336013_nThank you Jannah for being an awesome host and travel buddy!

Couchsurfing

Need I tell you more about how awesome Couchsurfing is? I set up a profile sometime back and only became active when I welcomed Swani, my first Couchsurfer in August. I could have stayed with Swani in Paris since she moved there in November, but I decided to stay with another friend instead.

When I put up an ‘ad’ about going to Berlin, I received numerous invites but Mirjam and Martin’s invite was the most welcoming. They even mentioned that they live with their 2 cats, Leo and Krumel! Cats! Of course I had to say yes! I will write about my first couchsurfing experience later on so watch out for that.

1497490_10152064700906445_193574507_nI can never thank Mirjam and Martin enough for their wonderful hospitality.

Backpackers Hostels – $130

I was a lone traveller, so backpackers hostels were the best way for me to socialise and meet new people. I only stayed in hostels in Fez, Sevilla and Granada since I had a place to stay in the rest of the cities. I paid on average about SGD15 per night on the hostels, with breakfast included as well.

1453552_10152026199436445_546945313_nI met Ariel from Argentina in the backpackers hostel I was staying in while in Fez!

GRAND TOTAL = $2072.39

So there you go. It is possible to experience a trip of a lifetime on your own, for less than what you think you need. I have prepared an itinerary so if you’re keen on taking a look just drop me an email and I’ll send it over. For now, I need to sort my photos.

Kinabalu – Konquered!

Last week, I managed to escape the hustle and bustle of the city to head to Sabah, Malaysia, for a quick five day adventure trip. I never did get a chance to experience hardcore adventure when I was younger, although I was in the canoeing team. This trip was eventful for me, because not only did I go with five other people whom I didn’t even know, I successfully climbed Mount Kinabalu! Well, until 3550m that is. I decided to climb Kinabalu for real about a year ago, when I found my freedom once more. I was no longer obliged to make decisions by consulting another half. I could do what I wanted. Then again, I was never the kind who asked for permission, even my mum. Heh. One thing a broken heart taught me was that you need money to fix it. Loads of it. (Okay I kid. No actually I’m quite serious.) There were so many things I wanted to do while studying in college, but I knew where I came from. I know the kind of person I am. Most importantly, I know the kind of socio-economic background I came from. I could not afford such a lifestyle while studying. So when I got my first job, I knew climbing Kinabalu would be one of the first few things I’d like to achieve. (Yes, climbing a mountain is more important than getting a driver’s license.) I spent a bomb on this trip, but I consider them investments. I bought myself a fleece jacket, a outer windbreaker, hiking shoes and a bladder. I borrowed the walking stick from a friend’s friend and everything else was pretty much stolen  borrowed. I still had my silat pants from Ledang and since it’s super comfortable I don’t see a need for me to get a new pair for the climb. I still need to get myself a Gregory 60L backpack though. (hint hint December trip!)

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So naive. I didn’t know what to expect of the climb!

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Haidar, Shireen and I before we entered Timpohon Gate.

We began the hike on a positive note, but eventually Haidar and I got left behind by the others. I don’t think we were slow… the rest were just too fast hehe. Kinabalu has the same terrain through out the hike – steps, stairs and more steps and stairs. It wasn’t as fun as Ledang, where you need to literally climb a wall of earth, or slide down a muddy path. Kinabalu was challenging because you need a high endurance level and resilience. Doing the same thing for six hours straight can get frustrating. Climbing up steps which seemed never ending was a test to my perseverance – and how strong my quads are.

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Stairway to heaven, anyone?

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Somewhere in the middle of the climb I got bored so I camwhored.

Haidar and I got our guide, Johnny, to carry our bags. Johnny apparently has gone up and down the mountain 300 times in six years! My jaw dropped when we found out. He was very helpful and considerate. He kept reminding me not to push myself too hard, “Masing-masing ada kemampuan sendiri! Pelan-pelan aja..” (Everyone has their own capabilities – take your time!) I did a lot of thinking while climbing up the mountain. Most of the times, I was thinking of how stupid I was back then. Other times, I told myself to let go and move forward. I guess I haven’t really moved on, although I claim and think to have done so. I keep telling myself and my girlfriends that I need to start dating again but I guess the time just isn’t quite right. There’s many other things I discovered about myself too, but I’ll fill you in when the time is right.

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Johnny! The bestest guide anyone could ask for!

Of course, my ego wouldn’t let me give up or go terribly slow. I was determined to reach base camp at 4pm, so we could eat to our heart’s content. And we did! We eventually reached at 4.05pm, after a seven hour hike. Slowly but surely, as how my friend Hannah would say!

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Look at my tired face.

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I thought I was almost in heaven.

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The view from our cabin, Pendant Hut. It’s newer than Laban Rata Hut.

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Happy goober when we reached base camp!

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That’s Haidar, my adventure/marathon/fitness junkie buddy

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Beautiful eh?

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The mountain peak!

We had a scrumptious dinner buffet once we reached Laban Rata. Ate to our hearts’ content, cleaned ourselves up and finally got the rest we needed. I was asleep by 6pm, considering that we needed to start the summit climb at 2.30am in the morning. I was up early, though, at 12.30am. I got hungry (oh what’s new) and it got too cold, so I walked around the hut quietly, trying to keep myself warm and realised they prepared breakfast! It was just toast, eggs and jam, but being 3000m above the ground, that was heaven.

The summit climb was even more difficult than I thought, and the weather wasn’t too nice for us. Winds were so strong I almost got swept away (it’s a big deal for me to be swept away by the wind, okay). There was a slight drizzle as well, so it was very slippery. The terrain up to the summit is steps as well, but way steeper and more difficult than the one before the base camp. Haidar started feeling sick and I didn’t want to leave her, so we both turned back at 3550m. Did I regret it? Nah. The mountain will always be there for me to climb again. Haidar’s already planning to climb at year end!

So when we got back to the hut, we rested, sleep and ate even more before we prepared ourselves for the hike down the mountain. I ate breakfast 3 times that day. I was angry at myself for eating so much but I forgot about the amount of calories I was burning while hiking up. I figured I needed the same amount of energy going down as well. The hike down was easier, but DOMS (Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness) was kicking in so my calves and quads were a little bit sore. Okay I kid, they were VERY sore.

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Attempting a fierce face.

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Haidar decided to be a ninja.

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The newlyweds, Faidzil and Shireen!

We reached our hotel back in Kota Kinabalu at around 6pm, after which we showered and got dressed for dinner. We were famished (oh what’s new)! Had a great dinner of seafood at the nearby seafood place. Basically we chose our ingredients and just tell them how to cook it. No menue at all. I totally forgot to take photos of the food we ate!

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Another certificate to my collection!

The next day, Haidar was really unwell so she didn’t go for the white water rafting. The five of us headed for Padas River Adventure. The commute there was far more interesting that the rafting itself, because I felt that the rapids weren’t so powerful that day. Aaaand we had to share our boat with three other tourists who weren’t exactly up for an adventure. (They didn’t paddle at all I tell you. Noisy but ughh so frustrating!)

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Some of the scenery while on the way to Padas.

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Look how old school the train is!

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Oh you know, camwhoring by the country side..

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WE SAT ON TOP OF THE FREAKING TRAIN!

I’ll let the picture do the talking from here. I looked terrified not because of the rapids, but because my friends had a habit of either hiding behind me when a wave came upon us, or they fell on top of me. I’m a human shield!

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Epic face!

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In my defense, we were about to capsize!

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Okay enough unglam shots of me.

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And our friendship has gone to a whole new level because we bathed in the open together!

I seriously never had so much fun on a holiday before. I only met these guys on the day of our trip, and looking at how we’ve bonded as a team, it’s amazing. Hopefully I can go on more adventurous trips with these guys because I know for a fact my girlfriends won’t be as crazy as I am. hehe