Go Away With … Nelufar Hedayat


By Jae-Ha Kim
Tribune Content Agency
December 13, 2016

Nelufar Hedayat, 28, was just 6 years old when she and her family fled the Taliban and war-torn Afghanistan. Her experiences as a refugee and immigrant helped shape her desire to make a difference.

While working for the BBC, she interviewed Malala Yousafzai for the TV documentary, “Shot for Going to School.” Hedayat’s current project is the Fusion docuseries “The Traffickers,” where she delves into subjects such as the illegal selling of human organs and sex.

Based out of London, Hedayat is active on Twitter and Instagram.

Q. What has been the most notable place you have traveled to?

A. I was really keen to get to China and we managed to do so twice (for the series). I find the mammoth country an exceptionally interesting one. I have been bitten by the China bug and would love to explore it more extensively. I think what you’re often hit with when visiting a new place is the sense of scale. A trip to New York, Mumbai or Guangzhou makes you feel like an ant in a metropolitan jungle and that is a heady combination. When on holiday, though, I always seem to be drawn to the small. I love island-hopping in Thailand. I adore the calm of Borneo and parts of Bali. It’s this balance of the big and the small that really excites me about travel.

Q. Tell me a little about Borneo.

A. The animals that I saw there, pigmy elephants, Bonobo and orangutans, to name a few, re-balance my connection with the planet and make me feel human. With the island being so close to the equator, you see a version of the night sky that has a regal sparkle unchallenged in its beauty. I cannot be more helpful than to recommend that you bring insect bite cream. Also, adjust your expectations. I was born in and have always lived in mega cities and am used to the amenities and pace of it. But in (Malaysian) Borneo, I was forced to readjust my views of timing, comfort and I learned to be patient.

Q. How can travelers be mindful of the cultures they are visiting?

A. Google it. Seriously, it’s not terribly hard and it’s much better to be slightly over-prepared than under. I’ve been there and done it. Super-short shorts in the Buddhist temple, no headscarf at the Turkish mosque and way too tight a top for the Pakistani market. This problem obviously affects women disproportionately to men, but I’ve learned to quail the feminist fire-burning within me if only to really blend in and have a true experience of the culture and traditions of the place.

Q. What untapped destination should people know about?

A. Vietnam. It’s a truly awesome place and I have to say, still on the cusp of being tourist-afied. You can still find pockets of it that have little to no tourist trail and the people are stoically polite and kind. It’s a country in the grips of growing pains, supposedly communist, but with Ferraris, a Dior store and lots of designer, dog-friendly cafes.

Q. What are your five favorite cities?

A. This is hard, but I’ve whittled it down to: London, L.A., Kuala Lumpur, Lagos and Mecca. I love them all for very different reasons.

Q. Where would you like to go that you have never been to before?

A. Antarctica, Papua and New Guinea, Madagascar, Russia, Kazakhstan, North Korea. The list goes on. The more I travel, the bigger the world seems to get. It’s a wonder all unto itself.

Q. What is your guilty pleasure when you’re on the road?

A. I always try to save along the way, staying at very basic places so that the last three days are five-star. When my friend and I traveled around Thailand, in the beginning, we slummed it. Really, we did. But then, at the end of the trip, we were living in paradise on Phi Phi Islands with massages every day and a private balcony.

Q. What kind of research do you do before you go away on a trip?

A. If it’s for work, then infinitely detailed stuff — collecting maps, calling other journalists who have been there recently, getting embassy advice and much more. If it’s personal, I literally show up and get a ride into town. I was in Sri Lanka for holiday earlier this year and that’s exactly what I did, solo, and had the best time. I ended up down south and even got my diving license, which sets me up for the Philippines next time.

Q. I understand that you are multi-lingual. In many English-speaking countries like the U.S., the inhabitants can only speak English. How has your language fluency helped in your travels?

A. Speaking 5 languages is a bloody blessing, I can tell you. Most of India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran are open to me which is a treat — not to mention English-speaking nations, of course. That old British Empire, again. Critically, for work, it means I can get much closer to the story and people, as I don’t need a translator, so I can connect with the people and interviewees. But that doesn’t help me much when I’ve paid for a day in a cab with a Vietnamese driver, who doesn’t speak a lick of English. Cue Google Translate. I truly have been saved by the amazing tool and the data is so cheap that you’d be mad not to get it. I honestly feel less anxious and more empowered to know that I can get around and get by with these apps at hand. They’re life savers.

Q. What are some of the changes in Afghanistan that you have experienced?

A. I’ve been back to Afghanistan several times and I am planning another trip next year. Those of my family who stayed behind during the nationwide exodus of the late 1980s and early 1990s are still there. What’s curious about Afghanistan is that every time I’ve gone back – in 2007, 2009 and 2014 – the country seems to have shuffled and changed, dramatically. Economically, socially and culturally, things move through a time warp. I’m telling you–I marvel at it every time I go. Let’s take the social side of things. When I was there in 2009, there were garden cities being developed and built. Afghanistan got its first waterpark and everyone had a data-enabled smart phone. And culturally, you have Afghan girls in skater jeans window-shopping in malls and boys working out in L.A.-style super-gyms. I know what you’re thinking: Women are still traded in blood feuds, it’s the bloodiest time in the country since the start of the Western occupation and the illiteracy rate is 80 percent+, depending on who you cite. But then, I would urge you to look around the world. Take the U.S. as an example. Black men are killed by police at disproportionate rates, levels of post-schooling illiteracy will make your eyes water and poverty is literally killing people. I think we can sometimes have a myopic view of the world and it’s always great to step back and see the bigger picture. Things swing in roundabouts and Afghanistan is no exception.

Q. Where are your favorite weekend getaways?

A. The worries over Brexit aside, I have loved taking weekend trips to Europe as often as I can. Whether it was driving to Berlin with friends or a cheeky weekend in Paris, Europe with its Odysseyian-like history means you can take a one-hour flight and escape your reality effortlessly.

Q. Where is the most romantic destination?

A. If you have a day – Paris. If you have a week – Venice. If you have a month – India.

Q. What would be your dream trip?

A. This is really hard to decide, as my job pretty much is my fantasy trip. I get to travel around the world, sometimes in hostile or even dangerous places, but often to exciting and beautiful ones, and my job is to talk with people and explore an issue I care about. Not gonna lie. That’s pretty epic.

Q. What are your favorite hotels?

A. I adore The Taj in Kolkata. It has such majestic beauty and the people who run it are extremely good at what they do. It’s a legacy of the former British Empire so I feel a certain amount of attachment to it, but I appreciate the horrors that the beauty can hide, like the Empire not the Taj. The Taj is everything I love in a hotel. There’s a personal touch with professional people and a damn good buffet.

Q. When you go away, what are some of your must-have items?

A. For little more than $20, I bought a lens set for my smartphone with various lenses. You can buy ones that are much more expensive, but I love the cheap set I got from a store in Malaysia. These lenses are great for popping on and turning your phone into a specialized camera. I even had a few camera operators watching with envy at all of the cool pics and videos I was shooting.

© 2016 JAE-HA KIM

Comments (2)

  1. Feren Communications says:

  2. Pat Carey says:

    I thought she was one of the most articulate and interesting people you have featured – she is amazing. Also, she provided a very thoughtful list of her five favorite cities – thanks!!

Join the Discussion

Psssst! Your E-mail address will not be published.

Name *

E-mail *