Women living their dream

PHOTO: Women living their dream

Many of us dream of a globetrotting life, but in reality how many actually dare walk away from everything to follow our passion?

With the help of mobile technology, however, many, especially women, are finding that making that big leap from a working professional to a "professional" traveller is not so difficult.

For former mechanical engineer Juno Kim, it has even opened up new career possibilities.

"I decided to break away from my cube farm three years ago when I realised I was slowly becoming someone I didn't like - full of questions and fear, feeling lost, and numb.

"So I packed up and left everything. I was determined to stop bucket-list making and start bucket living," says the 30-something South Korean travel blogger.

She shares that she knew she had made the right choice when, on one of her first trips out, she bumped into an office crowd at a Seoul subway station at rush hour.

"In the wave of dark suits and high heels, I was the only one breaking through to the opposite direction, wearing a green and yellow hiking jacket and carrying a back pack. I thought they (commuters) looked miserable and that blew away all my insecurities."

But as she discovered, travelling solo as a woman - what more an Asian woman - has it challenges, prompting her to start her blog RunawayJuno.com.

The lessons she learnt especially from her first foreign trip left a big mark on her.

"I was visiting the Stardome Observatory in Auckland, New Zealand, just three days after arriving. I'd missed all the public transportation back to my hostel and was stuck. I entered panic mode. Then a kind woman named Diana rescued me. She invited me into her home, and we quickly became very close.

"I lived with her family and she visited me a year later in Korea. The whole experience showed me how the world is a great place filled with kind people. It showed me the wide open opportunities waiting out in the wild world."

This, along with the success of RunawayJuno, gave her the idea for the three-day Asian Women's Empowerment (AWE) conference 2013, which is being held in Kuala Lumpur starting Friday.

The regional conference hopes to gather solo women travellers together to share and exchange experiences and tips with each other as well as those who aspire to take to the road on their own.

Kim acknowledges that her biggest challenge as a solo woman traveller remains in the eyes of her own society:

"My home country Korea is still quite conservative. When I decided to live independent from a settled location two and a half years ago, I had a hard time, not because of money or any other reasons, but because I was being rejected by my own society. I think that's quite a common challenge for anyone, rejecting social norms in an Asian country."

Support systems for Asian women who want to step aside from the common path do not always exist, she adds. "So AWE targets Asian women who want to take charge of their lives, to follow their hearts and passion, in spite of social norms. Through the conference, we want them to be supported and prepared to deal with societal reaction, and to know the challenges they will face."

At the conference, women who have followed their passion, and have achieved enormous success against all odds, will share their stories of struggle and success with participants, providing real-world guidance and inspiration.

Undeniably, money remains a major obstacle for most.

Says Kim: "Money is one of the most important issues to consider when one takes a big leap. I did save money as a back-up, but I also changed my career. I didn't just quit. I have been working as a blogger, freelance writer, and photographer for the last two and a half years. That has been supporting my constant travel."

And, contrary to common perception, you don't have to be a travel writer to travel and work at the same time, she adds.

"Think about ways to be location independent. You can keep a career and try to work online instead of going into the office. That's why lots of location-independent people are freelancing. Think outside of the box, and research the opportunities within your career."

Her smartphone is her lifeline, she shares.

"Having a smartphone makes it possible for me to keep my business. I deal with many different time zones on a daily basis, which means I get email and messages any time of the day, regardless where I am."

But just as having a job and going to work aren't always easy, managing your work on the road is challenging too, Kim cautions.

"If you can work online as a freelancer, and deal with the challenges this presents, then it's a great way to be a location independent worker."

At the conference, participants can explore diverse opportunities to make money and sustain their travel itch.

Kim has travelled to more than 30 countries in Europe, North America, Central America and Asia but after two and a half years of constant moving, she has realised that she likes it better when she has a place to go back to. "I don't know where it will be, but I'm trying to find a new place I can call home."

Another professional traveller who will share her experience at AWE is Malaysian journalist-turned-travel bogger Anis Ibrahim.

"I'll essentially be speaking about travel writing - how to find a travel story, what's good travel writing and how to research a place before a trip, among others. The workshop is targeted at people who might want to improve their writing with a view to writing for magazines, newspapers or travel websites," she says.

When looking for stories to write, advises Anis, don't only focus on the monuments and locations.

"Places - cities or countries - are not defined by their temples, mosques or monuments. Places are defined by their people," she says, recalling her experience in China during an overland trip from Russia.

"I wasn't enjoying myself as much and I couldn't understand why. It was as though I had gotten bored of Beijing, which bothered me greatly.

"Then I met a Tibetan woman selling jewellery at a subway station. She had the loveliest smile, and I would bump into her every time I passed through that station. "Finally, I went up to her, bought a locket from her and had a conversation with her in sign language. With the help of a map of China, I found out she was from Tibet.

"While we were 'speaking' and as I learnt more about her, it suddenly dawned on me that there I was connecting with a real person, a woman who was so grateful that I had bought something from her.

"Travel is all about connecting, so she became my story. When you travel, you don't connect with the Great Wall of China, the Pyramids or the Eiffel Tower. You connect with the people you meet. I still have that locket with me and if I ever go back to Beijing, I'm going to look for her again."

Anis believes that while its important to be financially stable before you take the plunge and leave your fulltime job, the other challenges are all in the head for Asian solo women travellers.

"The ones who have never travelled alone, that is, are afraid that it's dangerous, that they'll be lonely and have no one to talk to, that men will come up to them and do all sorts of nasty things, etc."

Anis admits that things can get dangerous, "but only if you look for trouble".

"Keep your money safely, compile a list of emergency numbers, don't wear flashy clothes or jewellery, don't walk alone in dark areas and if someone makes you feel uncomfortable, leave," she says.

For more on AWE 2013, go to http://aweasia.org/2013/07/01/awe-conference-2013/