‘I’m ad­dicted to dan­ger’

An­jaly Thomas has trav­elled to some of the most dan­ger­ous places in the world – and she’s done it alone. She tells Shiva Ku­mar Thekkepat why she will never hang up her back­pack

Friday - - Making A Difference - Al­most In­trepid by An­jaly Thomas is avail­able at Jashan­mal book stores, Spin­neys and Ki­noku­niya for Dh49.

Drag­ging her in­jured right leg through the mud, An­jaly Thomas grit­ted her teeth against the pain. She was half­way up a steep hill, deep in the jun­gle, and some­how had to keep go­ing. So dig­ging deep into her re­serves, the Dubai-based jour­nal­ist braced her­self against the cold, harsh land­scape, and slip­ping and slid­ing, fi­nally scram­bled to the sum­mit.

“What am I do­ing here?” An­jaly, 36, thought, col­laps­ing. She kept wish­ing she could get back to the warmth and give her twisted an­kle time to heal.

But it was day one of her nine-day trek across 96 kilo­me­tres of rugged, iso­lated ter­rain – malaria-en­demic rain­forests, wide and fast-flow­ing rivers, nar­row or non-ex­is­tent tracks, hu­mid­ity, ex­tremely cold nights, and tor­ren­tial rains – on the Kokoda Trail in Pa­pua New Guinea, and there was no time to rest.

Wet and shiv­er­ing as much with tired­ness as with the cold, An­jaly would have turned back to Port Moresby, the cap­i­tal of Pa­pua New Guinea, if she hadn’t al­ready made some progress. Re­al­is­ing it would be as much of an ef­fort get­ting back as it would be to keep go­ing, she vowed to carry on. Be­sides, she knew that even­tu­ally she would rel­ish the chal­lenge and the dan­ger – as she had on ev­ery one of her back­pack­ing ad­ven­tures so far.

“I knew it would be tough – in fact, one of the tough­est in the world – and trekkers will swear by the vary­ing de­grees of hard­ship you face along the track, end to end,” says An­jaly. “This was per­haps one of the hard­est things I’d ever at­tempted. You walk for eight hours and find you’ve just cov­ered five kilo­me­tres. I’d also twisted my an­kle while train­ing to get fit for the trek. I did have doubts about whether I’d be able to do it in­jured, but I had set my heart so much on it that I didn’t hes­i­tate.”

Those who know An­jaly, know why she wanted to carry on – she’s a travel ad­dict, and loves ex­plor­ing the world solo with noth­ing but her back­pack. She has vis­ited 35 coun­tries, in­clud­ing some of the most dan­ger­ous places on the planet.

“Pa­pua New Guinea is one of the most dan­ger­ous places to be, so much so that ho­tel guests are not al­lowed to leave the ho­tel premises with­out armed guards,” An­jaly says. In­ter-tribal war­fare and an end­less stream of kid­nap­pings, car­jack­ings, and vi­cious mur­ders mean it isn’t safe to ven­ture out alone. But even ac­com­pa­nied, An­jaly learnt she needed to be ex­tra-vig­i­lant.

“I was rid­ing around town in a van and hap­pened to stick my hand out of the win­dow,” she says. “The per­son op­po­site me ur­gently asked me to pull my hand in. At first I didn’t un­der­stand, but when I looked back I re­alised a bunch of teenagers with ma­chetes had been run­ning af­ter the van to chop off my hand – for the or­di­nary watch I was wear­ing.”

It was not an iso­lated in­ci­dent. An­other teenage gang later ac­costed her when she was leav­ing a nearby su­per­mar­ket with a bag of fruit. “I as­sumed they were af­ter the fruit, but they weren’t,” ex­claims An­jaly. “They wanted my wal­let, watch and cam­era. I ran for my life and in the process of run­ning, I dropped the cam­era, which I guess saved me.”

Fast-for­ward to the Kokoda Trail. “When my two porters Vico and Jones and I reached Camp Good­wa­ter, one of the many camps along the way, I was ready to give up,” says An­jaly.

“It was just the start but it had taken me quite a bit of walk­ing and slip­ping to reach here with my ban­daged right foot. I was al­ready re­gret­ting my de­ci­sion [to come].”

For­tu­nately, the camp was run by a lo­cal tribe – and one mem­ber was a baby. “Of course, no one spoke my tongue – but see­ing a baby made all the dif­fer­ence,” she says.

“I have no idea how or why but just cud­dling that frail lit­tle fella made me stronger, some­how. As though all the fa­tigue washed away – and then he cried. A real hu­man baby cry – in the mid­dle of a for­est where it was easy to go for days with­out see­ing an­other hu­man, ex­cept for the guides. It was mag­i­cal. I’m sure I will never see that baby again, but he gave me that push to carry on the next day.”

It was a trek that would have nor­mally taken An­jaly nine days to com­plete. How­ever, due to her in­jury, she took 12 days to fin­ish. “In the end, it was well worth the pain and ef­fort,” she says.

Though it would ap­pear that it is just the unusual and the dan­ger­ous that in­ter­ests An­jaly, there is an­other

‘Teenagers with ma­chetes had been run­ning af­ter the van to chop off my hand – for my watch’

side to her back­pack­ing – she has pi­o­neered what she calls re­lief travel: help­ing the un­for­tu­nate in the place she vis­its with es­sen­tial sup­plies, or vol­un­teer work. When Fri­day first met her, she was hold­ing a jum­ble sale of items do­nated by friends and col­leagues at the Up­town Mirdiff mall to col­lect money for a trip to Kenya.

The money was not to fund her travel – it was to buy es­sen­tial goods on ar­rival, such as flour and eggs that would help some starv­ing families, or what­ever she dis­cov­ers they need. “Once when I was in Tan­za­nia, Africa, the bus I was trav­el­ling in broke down. A bunch of kids were beg­ging and I gave them some pack­ets of soup I had left. They promptly tore them open and swal­lowed the pow­der.

“That’s when I started my re­lief trav­els – col­lect­ing stuff they need and get­ting it to them,” she says.

“The lo­cals would not know what to do with some of the things we want to give them. So I col­lect money or things I can sell at jum­ble sales, and buy flour, beans, eggs, things they can cook and eat, along with clothes, soaps and pen­cils – which are a luxury in many African coun­tries – to give to or­phan­ages, spe­cial needs homes, or even peo­ple on the street.

“There are many there who haven’t used a full bar of soap or seen an un­used pen­cil…”

Re­lief travel, An­jaly ex­plains, does not nec­es­sar­ily have to be at­tached to an or­gan­i­sa­tion that fa­cil­i­tates the do­na­tion.

“I have gone from work­ing with vol­un­tary pro­jects rais­ing thou­sands of dol­lars in the poor­est coun­tries in the world, to do­ing my own thing now. Even if I don’t get a donor to sign up, there is the sat­is­fac­tion of know­ing I have been hands-on do­ing some­thing that had made a dif­fer­ence,” says An­jaly.

“When I vis­ited a spe­cial needs cen­tre in the in­te­rior of Kenya and do­nated medicine and sta­tionery, the only re­ac­tion I got was a smile – but when you are among 30 chil­dren who can­not even open choco­late wrap­pers, you know that smile means more than words can ever say.”

As she helps more and more peo­ple, An­jaly wants to travel – and help – even more. She’s back­packed through coun­tries in­clud­ing China, In­done­sia, Kenya, Thai­land, Cam­bo­dia, Tur­key and Uganda alone, and has just re­turned from North Korea – which is rarely on any­body’s list of coun­tries to visit.

So, why does she do it? “Be­cause it is my life,” she says. “Ac­tu­ally, it runs in the fam­ily – we all have itchy feet. Since I was a child I could never sit in one place – be­ing on the move helps me be sane.”

An­jaly has two older broth­ers, Av­inash and Maneesh, and was a tomboy. “My fa­ther never told me ‘you are a girl, go play with dolls’,” she says. “He always en­cour­aged me to do what­ever I wanted. We had our bi­cy­cles as kids, and we’d go off on them to ex­plore around town. We would never sit at home.”

An­jaly be­gan trav­el­ling solo ac­ci­den­tally while at law school in Man­ga­lore, In­dia. “A bunch of girl stu­dents de­cided to go to the neigh­bour­ing tourist state of Goa at the end of the first term,” she says. “I planned ev­ery­thing around it, though I’d al­ready been there a

‘I al­most died three times dur­ing the Kil­i­man­jaro trek. I was dizzy, soaked and had a frac­tured arm’

few times. How­ever, as the date ap­proached, ev­ery­one started back­ing out. I was the only one left when the day fi­nally ar­rived.

“I had put so much into it that I de­cided to go alone. I was 17. I just packed a bag and I left.”

But when she reached Goa, An­jaly’s bravado be­gan to fade. “I was scared, I had no idea how to check into a ho­tel by my­self,” she re­calls. “So I slept on the beach in Madgaon, next to a cow, that night. It felt like a safe place, be­cause I was so new. And it was, though the beach was full of fish­er­men. Maybe if some­thing had hap­pened that night, I wouldn’t be trav­el­ling alone to far-off places now.

“But it kicked off my travel bug. I still do the same thing. I still stay in bus sta­tions, public places. No one has ever trou­bled me.”

Af­ter grad­u­at­ing and get­ting a job with a news­pa­per in Ben­galuru, An­jaly started ex­plor­ing north­ern parts of In­dia. When the tsunami struck the east­ern coast of south­ern In­dia in De­cem­ber 2004, she and two of her col­leagues col­lected re­lief ma­te­rial and went to Cud­dalore and Pondicherry – two of the af­fected ar­eas – and dis­trib­uted es­sen­tial items to the vic­tims.

Not long af­ter that, a job of­fer from a fledg­ling tabloid news­pa­per in Dubai saw her trav­el­ling plans take off in earnest. An­jaly be­gan ex­plor­ing the world, start­ing with Thai­land. Soon, other coun­tries and more chal­lenges – in­clud­ing a solo trek up Mount Kil­i­man­jaro – fol­lowed.

“I al­most died three times dur­ing the Kil­i­man­jaro trek,” she says. “I slipped on ice and nearly fell off the moun­tain. My wa­ter sup­ply froze, it was snow­ing and pour­ing with rain. I was dizzy, soaked to the bone, with a frac­tured arm and didn’t know what I was do­ing.”

But she made it, thanks to sheer de­ter­mi­na­tion. “I can be stub­born as a bull in ad­ver­sity,” she laughs. “Throw me a chal­lenge and I will never back off. All the prob­lems I en­coun­tered on the Kil­i­man­jaro trek were just that, chal­lenges to be met. And I did.”

Af­ter that she set her sights on the Demo­cratic Peo­ple’s Repub­lic of Korea (DPRK, or as it is more com­monly known, North Korea) which she fi­nally vis­ited in July this year.

“It was an itch for some­thing unusual,” she grins. “I come from the world’s largest democ­racy, while DPRK is a com­pletely mil­i­tary-run state – where in­di­vid­ual free­dom is over­shad­owed by the state – but I was at­tracted by the coun­try so cu­ri­ously lack­ing in free­dom. I wanted to see and ex­pe­ri­ence it for my­self. I was aware of the lim­i­ta­tions to the visi­tor, of how we’d be herded around by min­ders and shown only the best in the coun­try – yet I wanted to go.”

What An­jaly saw in North Korea was shock­ing. “Peo­ple shy away from tourists, re­fus­ing even to smile, or hid­ing their faces upon see­ing a cam­era,” she says. “I saw no posters or bill­boards or even the name-board on a store – the only colour on the bill­boards were pro­pa­ganda posters. The city has no char­ac­ter al­though it is one of the clean­est I’ve ever vis­ited – not a blade of grass out of place.”

From the unusual to the dan­ger­ous, An­jaly plans to keep trav­el­ling alone, even if she mar­ries in the future. “It sounds very clichéd, but ev­ery place has taught me some­thing, and ev­ery per­son I met has en­riched my life in some way,” she says. “Travel has de­fined me as a per­son, and made me so tol­er­ant and pa­tient that noth­ing sur­prises or angers me. I’ve trav­elled in trucks in the back along with cat­tle. I’ve rid­den in mata­tus (makeshift mo­tor ve­hi­cles) in Africa with­out brakes, whose seats fly off at the slight­est provo­ca­tion, and that only stop when they hit some­thing. I’ve eaten snakes and spi­ders, even taran­tu­las.”

She’s held a dy­ing child in her arms in Uganda – where she was vol­un­teer­ing at an or­phan­age that looks af­ter aban­doned kids with HIV – and wept at the rem­nants of the carnage that took place in the Killing Fields of Cam­bo­dia. “It all changed me into a bet­ter per­son,” she says.

There are a lot of places left for An­jaly to see. “I want to go to South Amer­ica,” she says. “I want to walk through the Ama­zon, see ana­con­das in their nat­u­ral habi­tat. I’d like to see the po­lar bears in the Arc­tic, and pen­guins in the Antarc­tica.” But be­fore that, she’s plan­ning to climb Mount Ever­est.

She loves to write and has penned a book about her ini­tial travel ex­pe­ri­ence called Al­most In­trepid, which re­ceived good re­views and has been sell­ing well since its re­lease last year. Part two is al­ready in the works.

And for ma­te­rial to write, she will keep trav­el­ling. “To me, back­pack­ing de­notes free­dom,” she says. “Want­ing to travel alone doesn’t make you weird. To­day’s woman is fiercely in­de­pen­dent and to me, trav­el­ling is an ex­ten­sion of that free­dom to do what one pleases.”

Our in­trepid ad­ven­turer in Dubai

An­jaly feels the trou­ble she had to go through to get to DPRK was worth it

An­jaly at the source of River White Nile

An­jaly meets the men of the Huli wig­man tribe at the start of the Kokoda Trail, in Pa­pua New Guinea

Up close with a python in Thanalot, near Bali, In­done­sia

Travel throws up some tempt­ing of­fers… An­jaly tucks into a taran­tula in Cam­bo­dia

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