The more you travel, the clearer your thoughts become | An interview with Anjaly Thomas
Star travel blogger and author of four books, Lonely Planet (Dubai), UAE Country Guide, For You, Almost Intrepid and There are no Gods in North Korea, Anjaly Thomas is a traveler and a lawyer by education, although she never practiced law. She always dreams of traveling – backpacking, trekking, and climbing.
Anjaly recently made a trip to the mysterious and elusive land of North Korea and her experience and insights form the book There are no Gods in North Korea. We caught up with Anjaly for a quick bite on her experiences of solo traveling, writing and more.
The title of your book is really intriguing, and so is the place that it is about. It’ll be interesting for readers to know what made you choose North Korea as a travel destination.
Well really – my decision to visit North Korea was not based on any long term motive of writing about it later on. As a traveller looking for new experiences I realised North Korea would be a totally different experience. I was, of course, aware of the consequences of non-compliance to the rules governing the tourist, but you see that very fact was intriguing. No country in the world imposes rules for tourist behaviour, but this country did – now, isn’t that interesting in itself? The more I thought about it, the more intrigued I was and that was the only reason for me to choose this country. I knew few things about the country, thanks to all the CNN and BBC and I suppose I still have that journalists instinct somewhere inside me, so I was more than eager to see for myself.
How do you decide on the next place to visit? Do you conduct a thorough research before going in terms of the country’s culture, the places to visit etc., or do you like to go ahead with a completely open mind?
Well, to be honest I don’t dwell too much on a place I am going to visit. There are times I have planned for place and ended up going to an entirely different place – it doesn’t matter. If I can afford it and get a visa in time then am all set. I am not the kind that Googles every possible detail of a place – I like to be surprised. I do make a rough plan, you know about the highlights, where to find cheap accommodation, couchsurfing options etc – but not more than that. I do not make a checklist of what I am going to see, because I find that rather limiting. I just like to take it one step at a time.
What’s your favourite memory/experience from North Korea?
You know, everything about North Korea was different from anything I have ever seen or experienced before and I would like to hold on to everything that I experienced there. Beginning with the heavy silver chopsticks to the tiny toothpaste tubes in the hotel room, to how our guides sang for us on the bus, the guides’ expressions when we gave them “gifts” such as chocolates or cigarettes, to the absolute feeling of depression at the end of the day – you might wonder why stress – when you are constantly under the radar and are trying to be the “model” tourist and not do anything to irk the Regime – I remember with fondness all of that. I can’t say I was particularly fond of following every rule in the North Korean book – but well, it was experience that makes it a pleasant memory. I suppose, every experience is a beautiful memory – same with DPRK. I still shudder at the thought of the Red Chamber, but it still brings a smile.
You’ve mentioned in an article that what tourists see in North Korea is all make-believe. Were there instances when you were able to peek through that illusion?
There are not many instance where you can see through the illusion created for you – in fact, one of the rule says that you cannot wander off on your own or interact with locals – so it leaves you little or no chance to hear what the locals have to say – but when traveling from one place to another, you do catch glimpses of a life that is far removed from the glamour of Pyongyang’s monuments. I got to see a the real face briefly at the beer parlour during the last day and at the railway station – people sending off their loved ones to China, real tears, then at the clothing factory – where women in uniforms worked hard at stitching winter clothes unmindful of the tourists thronging about, involved only in their task, the bunch of school children waving at the tourist bus…the darkness of the city seen from the balcony of my hotel room – that was the real face of North Korea, the streets devoid of life and traffic.
Please tell us a bit about your writing process. How did you get started in travel writing?
Ever since I remember I have loved to write – began as letters written to friends in school and later on to diaries and blogs and now books! I love to write but I love to travel even more. So I decided to combine both these passions into one! Turned out to be quite an engaging and satisfying process.
And why solo travel?
Hmm, the first time I travelled on my own, I was 17. I thoroughly enjoyed that trip and it never occurred to me to want to invite someone along and each time I planned a trip, I only considered myself! I think it was the best decision I made. I am glad that way I end up talking to random people from different parts of the world, get to know more from the local people, open up and make new friends, seek out help or information. I am happy that I only have to deal with myself, to keep my pace and time, do what I wish. Today, I have travelled to over 50 countries, all by myself and I have friends in all these places – moments I have shared with them, a better understanding of their lives and culture – none of this would have been possible had I opted to travel with friends because, you know when you travel with people you know, you tend to stick in the same group and hence limit your interactions with the outside world.
Do you follow the work of fellow travel bloggers/writers? Any particular one that you admire?
I do read a few blogs – it helps to know what’s happening in the world and different people have a different perspective to offer. It’s a good source of information as well. About admiring any particular blog – well, no. I do like a few and admire them for what they represent but I am never over-the-top enthusiast gushing over a travel story. But I do read for sure. Travel bloggers for example have a peculiar way of finding things that dong get mentioned in guidebooks, so they offer a unique perspective which is rather engaging.
What is your advice to budding travel writers? Do you think travel writing is a viable career option for newbies?
My advice is simple. First, travel. Then travel some more. The more you travel, the clearer your thoughts become and that’s when you are ready to begin writing. One country or place will not provide enough fodder to make an interesting read. What you need is a variety of experience – the good, bad and ugly – everything contributes to a good story and to have all these elements, you must travel and experience it first.
My goal when I started writing for not to make money from it – I can’t say that about others. For me, writing and traveling is passion and because it is so, I am able to remove the commercial element from it and benefit by being completely honest, because I am not trying to see anything. But, no. You may not become super rich just by being a travel blogger – but you will be richer in experience if you invested in yourself – your travels.
Where are you travelling next!
That’s something I need to figure out! I haven’t been everywhere – but it’s surely on my list.
You can catch up with Anjaly at her book launch at IIC, Delhi on May 6th