We interviewed Anam Hakeem (@girlwithgreenpassport) about her journey as a solo traveler being both a woman of color and a Pakistani. She shares some tips and advice for other aspiring WOC solo travelers, especially those rooted in a South Asian background like hers.
1. When did you develop an interest in traveling?
Interest in travel nowadays is developed through social media and blogs but this wasn’t the case for me. I grew up in the 1990s, so when I was a teenager, there was an Indian travel show called “Musaafir Hoon Yaaro” on Star plus hosted by Deepti Bhatnagar. She would visit different European countries in each episode. That sparked my interest a lot. I also remember that in secondary school my phupho (aunt) moved to Canada, and her family would visit us often. We used to drop them off or pick them up from the international terminal at the airport. This always excited me and I imagined that I was traveling somewhere too.
Growing up, I wasn’t exposed to international travel because my family mainly traveled locally. When I started working, I got more exposed to the world of travel. When I was around 21 or 22 years old, international travel blogs were really picking up. I discovered travel blogs like Adventurous Kate and the idea of being a digital nomad. I also watched a lot of travel documentaries. One of my favorite Bourdain episodes really sticks with me: his visit to Tokyo. This was the time I had been virtually bitten by the travel bug.
2. Tell us about your journey into solo travel as a South Asian woman and how you began documenting it on Instagram as a blogger.
My traveling didn’t start with solo travel. Getting my parents’ permission was hard for me. My first trip was a group trip with university in 2012. My International Retail module teacher was planning a trip to Dubai. Since it was a group trip and had an academic purpose, my parents let me go. I was surprised that my dad agreed!
On that trip, I extended for a few days longer than the study trip so my friends and I could explore on our own. In 2013, I had my first vacation to the US where I traveled across 6 states and attended Tomorrowland electronic music festival. When I got back, I planned a solo trip to Cambodia and Thailand. I was getting engaged after that so I wanted to make sure to travel before. When I reached Bangkok, the first thing I experienced was fear and insecurity. I had the address to my Air BnB but I hadn’t told them when I was arriving; it was already 9 or 10pm and the doors were closed when I got there. I panicked because it was late at night and I was alone with all my luggage. After calling my fiancé, I managed to book another place within my budget. That experience taught me a lot.
Then later on in Cambodia, I was detained at the airport. That was scary too. They asked me a lot of questions because my passport seemed to be an issue. After photocopying some of my papers, they let me go but I was in a state of shock. These experiences were more impactful for me than a woman traveling from the West because in Pakistan I don’t roam the streets late at night so solo traveling was more difficult for me to do. Dealing with all these different aspects that I had never been exposed to was hard and it involved a lot of tears but also a lot of learning.
2016 was when I started my blog to document my travels. I had read about digital nomading but I wasn’t sure if it was for me because I had a good career in advertising that I enjoyed and my traveling was more part time. I wanted to have a space within travel media but I didn’t have a degree for it. So I started my blog and called it girlwithgreenpassport, to represent me being a girl and me being from Pakistan. A brown female traveler.
3. It’s great to see you advocating for more South Asian women to travel solo and smash stereotypes. Was it difficult for you to begin traveling solo with regards to family and community?
Yes 100%. Even before I started dreaming about a life of travel or digital nomading, I knew this would be difficult for me because growing up I had very strict, conservative parents. This is a typical experience for girls coming from a Muslim, South Asian culture where the family sees what the girl is doing and wearing as a matter of pride, honor or potential shame for the whole family and especially for the father.
When I was in college and university I was not allowed to go casually to a lot of places where my friends would go, like the movies or coffee shops. Only after I missed out on going to five things, I would be able to go to one. Even then, my time and movement were restricted; there were a lot of concerns about who would pick me up, who would drop me off; I especially shouldn’t be dropped off by a boy alone in his car. All those sorts of things. So it was already tough for me to be out and about in my own city, have a social life and do normal things that young adults my age were doing.
Because of all these difficulties and issues, I had a really tough period with my family and had to move out. My parents were upset as that was also when I started traveling more. When I took my first trip to the US, my family simply couldn’t understand my motivations. They’d get mad at me and my mum would cry a lot. I really had to stand my ground about traveling being my dream, assuring them that I wasn’t doing anything wrong that would bring dishonor to my family. I explained this again and again.
I would also say that I got engaged and married a few years later so that helped my situation a lot. For a lot of girls in South Asian Muslim communities, when they are married off, the parents then shift responsibility off to the husband — they’re no longer so concerned about where you’re going as long as your husband is okay with it.
4. What advice would you give to other women of color who want to travel solo but are struggling with family permissions and societal/cultural expectations?
Do some internal work and some mental work and figure out how much traveling means to you. Very simply, don’t give up — if you give up on a big dream of your life then your mental health will be compromised and you won’t be happy.
For me, going through that rough patch with my parents really started to negatively affect my mental health. I was confused about what steps I needed to take to get out of that situation and I was worried it would hurt my family. But I had to put myself and my mental health first.
South Asian parents sometimes forget the fact that we are individuals with our own aspirations and dreams and we can’t execute our life as an adult based on a yardstick defined by society. Just keep fighting for your dream.
5. What advice would you give to women of color/ brown women who are currently traveling solo?
The first thing I would say is to come out and tell your stories to inspire other women. Even speaking up about it to your sisters or your cousins and your social circle will create acceptability so that it can be normalized in South Asian culture. Talk about the self development and life changes that travel brings.
I would also say that if you haven’t chosen a life partner, be very mindful about who you choose. If traveling is your dream make sure you select a partner that understands your aspirations and wouldn’t expect you to compromise your dreams.
6. What countries have you traveled to and was it difficult to travel to these destinations with a Pakistani passport?
I have been to 26 countries. I have been to Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania in Africa. I’ve been to Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, Cambodia and Japan in Asia and then I’ve been to the US, Mexico and Cuba, a bunch of European countries and Dubai in the Middle East.
I’ve faced some difficulties traveling on a Pakistani passport, one example being the one I mentioned earlier about being detained at the airport in Cambodia. I was also rejected a visa to Zimbabwe. When I traveled to Tbilisi in Georgia, I was stopped and asked questions because of my passport. In Havana, they asked me to step outside of the queue, took my passport and asked me questions. Some countries also treat you differently because of skin color.
7. What countries were your favorite destinations and why?
Japan was a real favorite because it’s so fascinating. Every step you take you discover something really bizarre and strange that you haven’t experienced anywhere else. From those two vending machines that dispense out all kinds of unimaginable products to the techy toilets with all the buttons. I also loved their traditional and cultural elements like zen gardens and their minimal aesthetic in houses and shops. Getting to experience their overall approach to life certainly enticed me to visit again one day.
I also loved Europe, it’s one of my favorite regions. I love the history, culture, architecture and old historical buildings. My favorite was Amsterdam in the Netherlands. In my experience, the people there are the most culturally tolerant people you can find in the world.
In Africa, I fell in love with Zanzibar. It is honestly one of the most beautiful coastal spots I’ve been to with the best beaches. I also really enjoyed Havana in Cuba. It’s very culturally unique and their life is so different after the years of tyranny they’ve experienced. The Internet is not available everywhere and you can only use internet cards in some designated spots in Havana.
8. Why do you believe it’s important for women of color to travel, and more importantly, to travel solo?
I believe traveling is important for everyone, but immensely important for us as women of color. We need representation and stories to be told from our lens. Travel media is predominantly white and male ± we need to break both those representations to be more inclusive.
When I look for vlogs on a particular destination, I am most likely to find a white person’s view and experience. But that view is not representative of what I would experience. We need to normalize women of color traveling and taking up positions in travel media and journalism.
We need to share the stories of our struggles and issues we’ve faced as brown travelers. Our voices will encourage those women of color who aren’t able to do what we are and our stories will motivate them to also take a step towards traveling more.
Enjoyed this interview? Check out our article on Inspiring Women of Color in Media.
Anam; born and living in Pakistan but global citizen at heart is madly in love with the world. She’s been traveling part-time for 6 years without quitting her career in advertising as a brand strategist and entrepreneur. Her gender, color and passport all make it difficult to travel the world freely but she’s a rebel at heart and has managed to travel to 26 countries across 4 continents so far. Check out her blog where she documents all her travels.