Up next in my bossy travelers series: an interview with Sundes Al Blushi, a solo female traveler from Kuwait and Oman. From a strict Islamic mother to conservative cultural norms to assault on the road, she’s had to deal with more than most to integrate travel into her life.
Contrary to what Western Instababes claim online, traveling ain’t always so simple as buying a ticket and jetting off to a faraway land.
… especially not for women coming from conservative families and countries.
Struggling to realize dreams of travel is a plight many of us Westerners are not privy to. From fighting oppressive cultural norms to navigating complicated visa processes to dealing with aggressively restrictive families, there’s more to a trip than figuring out how to quash multiple shoes into a carry on.
And people need to know about it. Not just Westerners, but also other women (and men) from restrictive countries dealing with the same issues. You’re not alone… and your dreams aren’t impossible!
Sundes approached me on Instagram after I went on my (first) feminist rampage about the place of female travelers in conservative worlds. After she shared some of her story, I knew it was one others needed to hear. This girl is a certifiable boss.
Can you introduce yourself to everyone?
My name is Sundes Al Blushi. I’m half Kuwaiti, half Omani, and I live in Kuwait. I’m 28-years-old, and I started my own graphic design studio in the last year. I have a semi-large family; I’m the youngest out of five.
How did you get started with traveling? What are some of your favorite places you’ve visited?
I’ve always been traveling. The year I was born—1990—Kuwait was invaded by Iraq.
Two of my siblings were US citizens, so my family could seek asylum in Portland, Oregon. I was four months old.
My sisters and oldest brother live in Portland with their families, so there’s been a lot of traveling from Kuwait to Portland for as long as I can remember. Traveling was never foreign to me; in fact, it was exciting.
The trip to Portland from Kuwait is a long one. There are at least two layovers, and traveling “backwards” through time is always disorienting. From being in the heat of the desert one day—it can reach up to 50°C/122°F here, for real—and then all of a sudden being in a completely different world where there’s a cold breeze and… TREES! People who can see trees every day take them for granted!
My first trip without my family was to Egypt on a soccer trip with school. Throughout my school and undergrad years, I joined any school activity which included traveling abroad (including sports like soccer and basketball, eww).
One of my favorite places—and the place that gave birth to my passion for travel—is Nepal. I went on a volunteering/hiking trip to Nepal in 2014. The whole experience was life changing, to say the least. I’ve never hiked in my life, yet there I was, somewhere in the Himalayas, hiking and feeling so present. I also believe being able to give back to people who are in need is crucial to growing as a person, and literally makes the world a better place.
Beyond Nepal, I have way too many places that are my favorite for different reasons. It’s like choosing who would be my favorite child if I decided to have kids! Vietnam has a special place in my heart since it was the first place I travelled solo. I’m absolutely in love with Florence, Italy. Thailand was the first trip I planned on my own. There’s too many to pick!
Tell me a bit about your travel style. You said you travel solo these days?
Throughout the years, my traveling style has really varied. It depends on where I’m going.
For example, if I’m going to Dubai for a weekend trip, I take a suitcase full of outfits and makeup and plan on partying my ass off—since alcohol is prohibited in Kuwait, a weekend out usually means traveling to nearby countries serving sweet nightlife—all while staying in a hotel.
If I’m somewhere in Europe, I’ll probably stay at an AirBnB, have small/medium luggage, and travel on a “regular” budget.
But if I’m going to somewhere in Southeast Asia, I’m backpacking: carrying only the bare essentials, completely living on a shoestring budget, and staying in hostels.
You can say my traveling style depends on my destination. I try to experience each country or place as much as I can, in the way I think would be most comfortable for me to both experience and enjoy.
Again, it depends on where I’m going, but for the most part I travel solo. It’s my favorite way to travel. Only recently have I started traveling with friends. Traveling solo just opens the door to so many more things. You are more open to meeting people, to trying things you wouldn’t try before, and to trusting and developing a beautiful relationship with one’s self.
You told me your travels have caused a lot of tension between you and your family. What happened?
My siblings and father are open-minded and laid back, but my mother is quite conservative and religious.
She runs the family, and loves using Islam as a reasoning behind her ridiculous sexism. My brothers were allowed to do anything, my sisters and I were not.
Being the youngest of out five, I was able to observe my older siblings, how they dealt with my mother. I noticed my siblings (specifically my sisters) were always in some sort of dramatic arguments with my mother. I learned to keep things to myself at a very young age. That to live a life that I can call mine and enjoy, I would have to lie and hide things from my mother.
I started doing things behind her back. I would go to the mall with my friends (girls and boys, GASP!) and not tell her. I pretended I was religious, pretended I was praying. I made up stories about my piousness, and how I really do want to wear the hijab but it’s not my time yet. I reassured her I would get married after I was done with my studies. I was timid and shy at family gatherings, and not speak up about anything, because unmarried women shouldn’t have opinions.
According to my mother.
I did everything I could to create this second persona specifically for my mother just so she could accept me and love me. Everywhere else I was a completely different person. I was being myself.
My situation with my family is a little complicated; whose isn’t?
Traditionally, in a Kuwaiti family, the parents provide everything for their daughters. Education, car, allowance, etc. Then they have some leverage when they forbid their daughters to do something.
My parents have always been in debt, and I always had to deal with the consequences. Long story short, I started working at 19 and never really stopped. I was a full-time student paying for my tuition—with help from my siblings—and saving.
One day, I saw an ad for a trip to Nepal from this volunteer outreach program. Problem was, it was not school-related, so I was sure my mother would say no. But then I realized… I would be paying for it. I realized I was supporting myself completely. Why was I allowing someone to control my life when they weren’t helping me in any way? So I said “fuck it.” I applied, was accepted, and paid for my trip without telling my mother.
She was not happy, but there wasn’t much she could do about it. It was liberating.
I realized I was always in control of my life, but I was finally done playing pretend with her. Most parents speak from a place of concern, but my mother just wanted to control. That’s when I realized how toxic she was.
How she uses religion to get her way, because there’s no way to argue with religion. She argued that, as a woman, I shouldn’t be traveling without a guardian because Islam says so. As a woman, I shouldn’t be dressed a certain way because Islam says so. As a woman, as a woman, as a woman, blah blah blah, I WAS DONE.
I created what I call an “invisible shield”. Now that I knew I was in control of my situation and of my life, there was nothing to stop me except guilt about disobeying my mother. My invisible shield—as corny as it sounds—blocks all that bullshit. That bullshit isn’t just coming from her, it’s coming from the whole society. In this part of the world, she’s in the right, I’m in the wrong.
Nowadays, I just let things go in one ear and out the other.
Intense, but power to you! Aside from your problems with your mother, have you encountered other major difficulties in your travels as a woman in the world?
I have had no difficulties traveling as a woman; I was pleasantly surprised to see the world is a lot friendlier than people make it seem. But I do have a funny story which is not really a funny story at all: I was robbed in Cambodia.
When in Phnom Penh, I had this terrible 6AM flight and needed a ride to the airport at 4AM. Traveling on my own, I don’t usually go out alone at night. But in this situation, I didn’t really have a choice.
The day before, I arranged for a tuk tuk driver to pick me up. That driver never showed, so my plan B was to walk to a hotel nearby to ask if they could call me a tuk tuk or a cab.
Right when I began walking, this tuk tuk driver stops and asks me where I was going, if I needed a ride. I said yes, and we agreed on the price.
I have two backpacks: a big one for all my clothes and my small day pack. I also carry a small bag underneath my clothes with my passport, cash, and cards. This time, since I was catching a plane home, I let my guard down and didn’t have that small bag under my clothes.
The tuk tuk driver insisted I place my small backpack (which held my passport) in the storage unit in the seat of the tuk tuk. So I did. As we drove on the highway towards the airport, he took a turn into a dark alley—literally the darkest alley I’ve ever seen—and stops the tuk tuk.
All of my alarms went off in my body and mind. I jumped out, told him I was taking my stuff, and he grabbed my arm and got close to me and said, “If we don’t fuck, you die.” Shocked and scared, I backed away. He got back on his tuk tuk to drive off with my passport and all my stuff.
Of course, I don’t let him get away.
I jumped back into the moving tuk tuk and tried to get my stuff. I started pulling one strap of my backpack and he started pulling the other one, repeating over and over, “No fuck, no bag.” I have a martial arts and boxing background, so my instincts and muscle memory start kicking in. I ended up punching him multiple times in the face, yelling, “I’ll give you money!” until I gave him one big undercut which made his eyes water.
He looked quite dizzy, and asked, “How much?” I told him 100 dollars. I gave him the 100 dollars I had, then he proceeded to chase me with the tuk tuk down the dark alley as I ran for my life—yelling profanities—with all my belongings.
That shook me, and it took me some time to get over it. It was EXACTLY what every woman traveling wants to avoid. However, I dealt with the situation the best I could… and I have to say, I handled it quite well. Instead of letting the situation bring me down, I let it rise me up. I now know I can handle myself in a tough situation.
Long story short, some guy threatened to rape me and I beat the shit out of him. I have the scar on my hand to prove my triumph.
Traveling as a woman alone has its limitations, but not many. It’s primarily about keeping yourself safe, no matter what the cost, and that can be difficult every now and then.
Despite all these crazy problems you’ve faced, you’re clearly doing what you set out to do. I know there are loads of other women in the world that dream of traveling as you have. What advice do you have for them?
My only advice is to stick to your ground. Don’t take no for an answer… and find the loophole and do it anyway. DON’T GIVE IN TO SOCIETAL STANDARDS. They’re all a load of crap.
Do you have any travel idols or inspirations?
I don’t really have any travel idols. I haven’t found anyone that I can relate to, that I can look up to.
Most Instagram travel bloggers have a Western passport and a Western upbringing; they didn’t face any difficulties that I had to face just to travel for the first time. I couldn’t even go to the mall as a teenager on my own! So I’ve come a long way… I guess I’m my travel idol? Hahaha, joking… but not really.
I find inspiration in photos of places I haven’t been to yet. They inspire me to travel more and feed this really hungry travel beast inside me.
If you had to recommend a first destination (city, country, anything) for a solo female traveler, what would it be?
I would definitely recommend Thailand as a first destination because it’s safe, you can meet so many people along the way, and it’s just so much fun and welcoming.
Last question, I promise! Just for fun, if you had endless time and money—and no responsibilities, of course—where would you go?
Oh my god…I don’t even know! I would never stop traveling. I would probably go to South America, all over the continent. Actually, I would start in Alaska and go down to Argentina. Or I would go all over the far east: Japan, Korea, even China. Ok, I’ll never be able to answer this question!
To rephrase it, if someone gave me enough money for only one trip for the near future, I would go to Norway or Iceland. I’ve never seen snow, and I would like to experience a winter vacation under the Aurora Lights.
You can follow Sundes’ design agency, White Space, on Instagram at @whitespacekwt. Her personal Instagram account is @this.is.sundes.
(It’s private, but she says she’ll open it up soon once she has more pretty travel photos to share.)