Alden Boon

Travelling Solo Has Made Me More Honest with Myself, and the World: Azny Juffri


Azny Juffri is ensconced in the seat of a nondescript bus. She looks out the window — the great unknown of Cambodia lies before her: a panorama of villages, farms as well as stalls selling fried tarantulas greets her. A stranger in this land, Azny is not privy to her culture, traditions and unwritten rules. A young lad in polo shirt strikes up a conversation with her, and as luck would have it, he too is a Singapore Polytechnic alumnus. He later points Azny to where the hostels are.

It is now 10pm, and the sky is naked and pitch black. Despite following her new friend’s directions, Azny comes to a roadblock. No hostels are in sight; only shabby shops about to retire for the night. “Hostel, hostel!” suddenly shouts a short cherubic man a few paces from her, a disarming quality in his voice. Already tired from the bumpy bus ride, Azny negotiates with him, and follows him down a dingy alleyway. She espies silhouettes of curious residents peering out of windows from above, and feels their eyes tracing their every movement. “What have I gotten myself into?” a woeful thought flits into her mind. A palpable trepidation awakes in and envelops her. She is like the willing prey that goes traipsing into the lion’s den.

And just then, upon reaching the end of the block, a row of hostels comes into view.

It was eleven years ago when Azny first embarked on her solo trip, right on the heels of wrapping up her first stint at an advertising agency. After exploring Thailand with her friends, the then teenager on the cusp of life made the spontaneous decision to make for Phnom Penh — alone. “I was on a very tight budget. I even had to haggle to save fifty cents when I found out the hostel owner had charged me more than he did the rest of my dorm mates!” Back then, smartphones and all their nifty travelling tools were non-existent. Street smarts were Azny’s only weapon.

Being Asian, female and Muslim, Azny should — if one were to pigeonhole her — subscribe to conventional views. Solo travel is out of the question. But coming from a long line of opinionated women has imbued her with the same sense of independence and courage to break the mould of how an Asian, a female, and a Muslim should live her life. “In her prime, my grandmother used to work, and that was a time when the idea of women working instead of being in a stay-at-home role was met with disbelief.”

Growing up, Azny did not come from a well-to-do family; up until they were in their fifties the farthest her parents had been was the neighbouring Indonesia. Disneyland was a far-fetched fantasy to her. Two of her younger aunts were avid travellers — one was a flight attendant — and a young Azny envied their “glamourous” lifestyles. “It was a ‘if they could do it, so could I’ mentality. If their being Muslim women didn’t stop them from exploring the world, it shouldn’t stop me too.” By keeping her nose to the grindstone, by carving out a career in the bustling advertising industry, Azny slowly but surely became an independent woman following in the footsteps of her elders. First on her agenda was seeing the world.

Female solo traveller
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I like the idea of holding in my hands not Google but foldout maps. There is this romance of being completely lost in a country —  it’s what I felt during my first trip, and it’s an experience I’ve been trying to recreate.  

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The road less travelled

Her travels have since taken her to beautiful places such as Croatia, Bali, Hanoi, London, Berlin, to name a few. One of her favourite cities is Perth, Australia. “Teeming with lots of young people, Perth has a unique vibe that departs from the East Coast cities’. It exudes a laidback, small-town charm.”

In 2011, Azny embarked on a Down Under road trip with her best friend Rab, whom she first met in Kuala Lumpur. The two instantly hit it off, despite their contrasting personalities. “We are worlds apart. She’s a girly girl who loves shopping; and I love going to music festivals. Where our common interest meets is food.” With a car crammed with their luggage, the two began cruising along Gold Coast, Brisbane, Canberra and Melbourne, and luxuriating in their new freedom. They counted down to the new year in Sydney, the iridescent shower of fireworks was a sight to behold. For sustenance, they raided the leftover shelves in hostels. Toilets nestled along the beaches were where they did their personal grooming. “We laughed, we cried, we got angry at each other. But the bonds of our friendship strengthened.”

The trip proved that one does not need a luxurious, well-planned-out itinerary to create lifelong memories. “If everything goes swimmingly, then you don’t get to have an adventure.” Azny recalls the first day of her Belgium trip when she was pickpocketed at a heavy metal festival. “I had my wallet and phone in my front pockets — how skilful were they to have fingered my belongings?” Thankfully, Azny had already befriended some of the fellow attendees via the festival’s Facebook group. “These were tough-looking metalheads with the sweetest hearts and a great sense of humour. They took care of me as a big brother would. Also, losing my phone in retrospect was a blessing. I had an excuse to disconnect from the world.”

For females looking to travel solo, being mentally prepared for the worst is key. “Death is not even the worst thing that can happen to you. I don’t know how I’d cope with surviving a traumatising ordeal, such as being kidnapped or raped. These are very real dangers facing female solo travellers.” Steeling the mind immediately heightens one’s awareness. “You won’t do silly things that put you in mortal danger, such as following a stranger to a dark alleyway for one,” she quips.

Solo Travelling Female
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How to have a travel adventure? Draw up an itinerary, but don’t stick too closely to it.

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Flying with birds of different flocks

Travelling changes a person, so the adage goes. An extrovert who readily cracks jokes and makes friends, Azny says travelling has made her embrace her inner introvert. “Also, when you’re in a foreign place, you get to reinvent yourself. At home, I tend to mince or sugar-coat my words lest I offend or hurt feelings. I hide my honest opinions lest the discussion gets contentious. But in a foreign place you don’t have to worry about the repercussions of offending someone — you probably won’t ever see that person again.” When one party in a conversation is being completely unabashed, the other follows suit, and what engenders is a healthy ping pong of opinion exchanging.

This is radical honesty, a movement first conceptualised by psychotherapist Brad Blanton. The benefits of radical honesty extend beyond the freedom of zero self-censorship or the gratification of daring to return an unpleasing meal order. It opens minds. “You’ve carefully chosen your clique of friends; and who you let into your life. But that is a very small sample of the world. When you make friends around the world, you have to deal with views that clash with yours. And that is how you grow as a person.”

Before Brexit, Azny, an advocate for a world without borders, was all for the United Kingdom (UK) staying in the European Union. “It wasn’t until I had meaningful discussions with my friends in the UK that I began to see the counterviews, why anyone would vote to leave, and how they would reap benefits from it.” Such open discussion has now become de rigeur in this era of a Donald-Trump presidency, she opines. “There is beauty in differences, but we must first be allowed the chance to be honest with ourselves, and with others.”

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We are all discovering our true selves. Being able to convey my innermost thoughts out loud has made me less afraid of the person I could potentially be, not just this persona that I project.

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Alden Boon
Alden Boon is a Quarter-finalist in PAGE International Screenwriting Awards. When he's not busy writing, he pretends he is Gandalf.