Four years ago, I embarked on my first solo trip. I was about to spend four months in an entirely different country and I had no idea how it would be.Credit: Giphy
Prior to this trip, the only trips I took abroad were with my family or school. So you can imagine the shock my family had when I chose a destination as far as Canada for my exchange programme ?
The weeks leading up to my departure were far from promising.
Farewells to my family and friends
My family repeatedly told me, "don't wear your hijab there" or "wear a wig instead of a hijab" because that was how afraid they were for my safety. Looking back, it sure is laughable but at that time, the anxiety was real! All we knew of that 'part of the world' was how rampant Islamophobia is. Every other day, the mainstream media would cover news about another attack or a slur that will be hurled at a Muslim brother or sister. The news inevitably fuelled our worries.
But I refused to back out. Taking a leap of faith, I decided to go as I was. The fear was there but I stood by Verse 3:160 of the Quran,
"If Allah should aid you, none can overcome you.
And if He forsakes you, who is there after Him that can help you?
And in Allah (alone) let the believers put their trust."
With that, I said my farewells to my family and friends. And off I went - into the unknown?
My solo journey begins
The plane ride was good. I felt safe in my little space but I think I spent most of the time sleeping? My immediate thought when I landed was to head straight to my Airbnb - it was just 'one safe place' to another. I took a taxi at the airport (a really rookie move, looking back) to my apartment. For a few days, I was too afraid to step outside my apartment. I had no groceries so I was forced to rely on the food I brought from home. Days were spent watching the television, unpacking and many calls back home.
But it soon dawned on me that I was wasting my opportunity to fulfil the very reason I chose Canada. I wanted to step out of my comfort zone and this was not the way. I decided to take my first trip out to the mall nearby.
It was a 20-minute walk but it was 20 minutes which pretty much blew my mind away. I found solitude to be comforting and I loved the quietness of my walk. Somehow, I was more aware of my surroundings (and more immersed!) compared to when I travel with others. This marked the start of my daily 20-minute walks to the mall. It was a small but significant step for me.
A week later, my housemates arrived
The group of four are also Singaporeans but we did not know each other prior to this. At that point, I enjoyed being alone and I was afraid that my 'peace' would be disrupted now that they were here. I mean, I've heard of many stories where friends had to put up with horrible housemates. And I was prepared for the worst - to coop myself up in the room, oblivious to everything outside and only going out when necessary.
But it took a mere few days of staying with them to realize that they were nowhere close to a nightmare. In fact, they were the total opposite. They were friendly and filled with warmth. Above all, although they were non-Muslims, they respected my request to separate their utensils from mine. I guess the idea of me being alone in a foreign country encouraged them to befriend me even more☺️
Our friendship naturally progressed to a point where it reached the discussion of 'where should we travel to this weekend?' Amidst all the excitement, I was somewhat plagued with worry at the back of my mind.
Travelling with them would mean they have to tailor their choice of eateries to suit me, and it would also mean they have to wait while I perform my prayers. I was afraid that the inconvenience I brought to them could potentially ruin our newfound friendship. A part of me wanted to hold back but that would not do justice to me (or them) so I decided to go along with the plan.
Our first trip together was to a go-kart place around the outskirts of Toronto. It was an amazing day out, and I realized just how amazing His plans are. Knowing I was alone in a foreign country, He sent this bunch of girls to keep me company, perhaps knowing that I would not have visited these places should I have been completely alone.
Then, it came to the question of lunch. I tried to be as flexible as I could, telling them I could eat elsewhere and that they did not have to cater to me. But somehow, He opened their hearts to ask me for a good halal place to dine in. I pulled up my entire list of halal eateries research (yes, I planned my entire trip down to that detail) and we headed to a burger place in Chinatown, Downtown Toronto.
The distance of our trips grew further as time passed
During our week off from school, we took a day trip to the Toronto Islands. I tried to find a place to pray there but there were none. So I found a grass patch behind some trees and lay my mat there. I told my housemates that I'll catch up with them once I was done with my prayers. It seemed like I was really calm and confident, but inside, I grappled with fear. Thoughts like "would people shoot me if they saw me praying, thinking I was doing something suspicious" to thoughts like "what if people hurled stones at me while I prayed" came to mind.
Again, somehow, He protected me. My housemates decided to hang out and wait for me at a nearby bench as I prayed. The fact that they respected the fact I had to pray (no matter where) made me feel blessed. But them waiting for me while I prayed truly touched me. It felt comforting to know that they were nearby.
Through my travels with them, I realized how important it was for Muslims to travel with non-Muslims. My housemates would ask many questions out of curiosity - why can't you drink alcohol? How often do you need to pray? What happens if you miss a prayer?
And through these conversations, slowly, I felt I was doing my little bit of da'wah. I genuinely never knew travelling would give me such a platform!
It soon became a comfortable routine. I would spend weekdays exploring Toronto on my own after school, and on weekends, I would head out with them. In school, I found myself to be more sociable. I think it was the idea that I was in a foreign country (or class) alone which gave rise to the need for me to interact with other students. And through all that socializing, I made a good friend who, despite the physical distance between us, is still my friend till today ?
Then, something unexpected happened
Everything seemed to be going great until two months in, when I noticed spots on my body. Itchy spots. It was completely unexpected but I almost instantly knew what they were. Chickenpox. True enough, I went to the doctor and was diagnosed with chickenpox. I was baffled.
And there went my travel plans for the next 2 weeks, as I had to stay home. I initially planned to visit Ottawa and Montreal but I had to push them back. I was miserable, to say the least. Who would have thought of all times, in my entire life, I would be diagnosed with chickenpox while on my trip - alone?
My emotional instagram post ?
My family was so concerned that they volunteered to fly to Toronto just to take care of me. But of course, I rejected that. I guess the 'consequence' of solo travelling really hit me at that point. My family was a thousand miles away, and there I was - sick and pretty much all alone. As much as my housemates tried to offer their help when they could, I felt like nothing could beat the feeling of having family around to take care of you when you're sick.
For about a week and a half, I cooped myself up in the room and cooked my own food when my housemates were not around (because I did not want to infect them too). The Skype calls and texts with my family grew during this period, and I turned to Him for comfort, realizing that as much as there's no one (physically) around to take care of me or make me feel better, He always is.
My being sick reminded me how little time I had left here and I was determined to make the best of it. I recovered just in time to witness the beautiful autumn foliage at the Toronto Botanic Gardens. And there started my planning of even more trips, including my first proper solo trip to another city - Quebec.
Now, I'm ready to put myself out there
After arriving in Quebec from Toronto, the feeling was vastly different from when I left Singapore for Canada. I was more confident and even excited! I was ready to put myself out there, to get lost, to explore but ultimately to just immerse myself in all that the beautiful city had to offer.
But that was not the only thing that was different. I loved how I could take everything at my own pace and time. I made it a point to stay in hostels, mostly because of the price but also because I wanted to interact with more people. And true enough, I did! I stayed in an 8-bed hostel in Quebec and there was no one in the room except for a Mexican lady. We did not see each other much, but there was once when she was in while I was preparing to leave.
I was wearing my hijab and she asked, "what is that cloth?"
Somehow, the conversation grew to a few minutes long as I explained to her what a hijab was, a little about Islam, and a two-way conversation of our respective countries.
Again, I was reminded of how powerful travel was in spreading what Islam truly is - which was very, very different from what people gather from mainstream media.
I found myself walking exceptionally slowly, just so I could take in everything around me. On Google Maps, routes will indicate 30 minutes but I would take 1.5 hours getting there ? Thing is, I absolutely loved each moment of the journey - not just the destination. I would pop by shops I stumbled upon, views I came across, or even a cafe just to have a cuppa before carrying on with my journey. These were little stops and detours which the old me would not have made, considering how meticulous a planner I was.
But see, that's the beauty of solo travelling. You'd feel so comfortable being alone, and doing things at your own time and pace that you'll start to explore like never before!
It's time to return to Singapore
When I returned back to Toronto, it was time to part with my housemates? They were heading to different places before going back to Singapore. I felt sad but more grateful than ever. So grateful to have friends who were so open, welcoming and willing to learn more about a religion when they did not necessarily have to. I was once really afraid of sharing a house with a bunch of strangers who I have never met in my life. But we bonded in such a beautiful way that I dare say it might even be better than if it were with people I knew. And truly, it attests to the fact that with His help, even the impossible can be made possible ?
When they left, I felt a sense of loneliness coming back to an empty house which was once filled with so much laughter, love and joy. It was hard and I found myself feeling down on many occasions.
On my way back from the nearby mall, I boarded the bus with dinner in hand. It was super crowded and I had to stand next to the bus driver.
"If you bring that onboard, you'd have to share it," she said - pointing to the pack of dinner I had in hand. I was having a bad day but that instantly made me laugh. It was a warm feeling and one I would never forget. It's pretty amazing how He sends the most unexpected people to lift you up when you're feeling down or alone ?
For someone who has been so afraid of travelling to someone who absolutely loves travelling - both solo and with friends, here's me encouraging you to try it for yourself! You might fall, at times you might be miserable and sometimes, you might even question why you started the trip alone, but trust me, it will be worth it and you will discover more about yourself (and others around you!) than you ever thought was possible☺️
Above all, being alone in a foreign place pushes you to rely only on Him. In the process, it'll draw you even closer to Him. And if we think about it, isn't that the one goal we all hope to achieve in this temporary life? ?