WOMEN IN TRAVEL SUMMIT OPENING KEYNOTE
March 15, 2014
Before I begin, I want to thank Beth Santos and the amazing team at Women
in Travel Summit for putting together this inaugural first conference. Isn’t this
fantastic? We should give them a hand!
I’m so bowled over to be that little salmon fish swimming upstream alongside
When I was asked to be a keynote, I thought I’d lost my use of English,
spelling out the word, k-e-y-n-o-t-e as I read the email.
Keyyynote. Holy expletive, they want me to do what??!!
But I’m thrilled to be here, to share this passion we all have for travel and for
What’s interesting is I nearly missed the boat on blogging.
See, I once was what you would call a LOSER – if anybody had a big ‘L’ on
the forehead it was me.
This was my life.
[SLIDE: MESSY DESK]
Well, actually, this was also my desk at work. Okay, more accurately, this is a
a pictorial representation of my life and my job.
See, I worked at an engineering company as a junior project manager and
slogged time at this job that I felt utterly passionless about. I had become that
bad girl in the back of class, the one biding her time. You know that girl, you
were either friends with her or you were her. Or maybe you admired her from
And no, I certainly didn’t have the most terrible life in retrospect at all, I had it
luckier than what many women endure all over the globe.
[SLIDES OF APARTMENT, FRIEND AND CAT]
I lived in a city that makes top ten lists continually. I had an apartment, friends
and a cat. I even took advantage of my two weeks of vacation and began to
take short trips.
Yet I was caught up in this race, surrounding myself with objects instead of
people, ticking off boxes on being fabulous.
I said to myself, oh, don’t I need all these things to be fulfilled, to skip down
the street with Mr. Big from Sex and the City?
[SLIDE: MR BIG]
Look at him so swarthy and handsome; wouldn’t you want to skip down the
street with him?
What’s strange is I had already been through this lesson.
I had endured a transformation from girlhood to womanhood in another sense.
Because in my household, you know that throwback to a movie about the
Chinese family running the local laundry, my Asian background dictated that I
should have been married at 21 with 3 kids.
[SLIEDE: PHOTO OF MOM]
I remember when I was 20 years old and my mother had come home from
church. My mother was a Buddhist when I was a little girl and became a
Christian, like anyone, in search of her own answers. On this occasion, she
came into the kitchen to start cooking dinner for my father and she began to
nag me, clean this, clean that, why are you taking this major in university…
then she turned to me and said, “You should marry soon, I know many nice,
[SLIDE: MARRIAGE HANDS]
There I was, 20, slouching, kind of defiant, and I told my mom, “No way, that
is not gonna happen!” But deep down I was actually scared, and felt trapped,
quaking at the knees. I’m sure you’re all dying to know, did I marry a nice
No, I didn’t.
I had openly disobeyed my mother and became a woman with a career. A
blooming career, oh yes, sisters, I had arrived!
Then the economic crash of 2008 rudely ended it all.
[SLIDE: ECONOMIC CRASH]
What happened is I was offered a promotion but the crash forced my bosses
to take the promotion away. My bosses thought it best to keep me at a job I
had outgrown, rather than let me excel.
The truth is, I was secretly relieved. I was trained to be hungry for a
promotion that I didn’t even want.
So, to go back to skipping down the street in my Jimmy Choos, I was trapped
into a different role, one that wasn’t dictated by my mother, but in many ways,
everything I saw around me.
I had become trapped in what I thought a modern woman should be.
[SLIDE OF SUPER DUPER CAREER WOMAN]
Wanting a driven career, definitely aiming for marriage and kids, but not at
that baby age of 21, hell no, but a perfect 30, the sweet age, and then of
course, you gotta dump your money onto a condo, get into that real estate
market. Are you crazy Jeannie, some of my friends said, everybody is doing it.
Why aren’t you?
I had slid out of that promotion and fell into a depression, still thinking the
solutions to my problems were rooted in grabbing those milestones that
women are encouraged to strive for, whether that encouragement was subtle
[SLIDE: THER PRESSURE TO BE PERFECT]
Sometimes this pressure came from the media, sometimes this pressure was
from my friends, many of them getting married, having children, and taking on
those much heralded mortgages. I kept thinking, you’re in your thirties,
shouldn’t you be here by now??
But the shiny gem was travel.
[SLIDE: ME ON COUCH – TRAVEL]
Those short trips I referred to gave me glimpses into a different way to live. I
met people volunteering, starting businesses, travelling with their children. I
encountered people choosing options I hadn’t even heard of.
What didn’t work were those trips only pulled back the curtain ever so slightly,
and when I returned home to my usual routine, I’d fall into the same patterns,
the same depression, feeling this emptiness inside.
It came to the point when that empty feeling was something I thought I’d
always have. You know that sense of always having something missing?
These short trips, although feeding me inspiration, just weren’t enough to
force an actual change in me. Those ripe feelings I had so many years ago
when my mother mentioned Christian boys returned, hounding me daily.
But one fateful day - don’t all great stories start this way - one fateful day, I
was working late yet again, because in the engineering industry working late
is the norm.
I had just left the office, it wasn’t dark yet, and it was summer time.. It was
balmy so I took of my jacket and decided to walk home. I meandered down
the street and felt this tickle at the back of my throat, and I looked up, seeing
the most beautiful sunset falling over the city.
[SLIDE OF SUNSET]
I watched this force of nature and realized something awful, that I had missed
thousands upon thousands of sunsets just like the one in front of me, because
I was either navel gazing, thinking of the next thing to do or simply feeling
sorry for myself.
I knew I could not continue like this, it was then I made a pledge to myself – to
never miss another sunset again.
Time was slipping away and I looked at all those lists I was ticking off, sizing
up the ones I hadn’t fulfilled but then realizing that my emptiness was because
I was living a life that wasn’t authentic, or genuinely me.
One of the major lessons travel has taught me is that you never want regrets
in old age.
[SLIDE: GROWING OLD AND REGRET]
So, I did a serious tally. I thought about regrets and decided they are not very
cool. Then I pondered sunsets and concluded that hey, they are super cool.
[SLIDE: REGRETS =NOT COOL. SUNSETS = VERY COOL]
That’s when I made a decision, it was drastic, kind of crazy, but my plan was
to travel for a long time, to let go of those expectations I had of myself, the
ones everyone else had of me, and find the real me.
But what hit me hardest, and this is where the loser part comes in, is I had a
lot against me.
I was a woman who shouldn’t travel, shouldn’t abandon everything she built
for something as lofty as travel.
[SLIDE OF WHAT’S AGAINST ME]
For one thing, I was alone, no man or kids to prop me up. Just the cat,
essentially a single woman.
And what some people don’t know about me, and is I’m well into middle age,
those friends I mentioned, the ones with mortgages and babies, found it tough
to relate to what I wanted to do at first. Let’s just say I was way beyond
And finally, my family didn’t approve. They worried about my future, but
mostly it was suggested to me that I was too old to be doing this.
In fact, my brother said to me, “What happens if you break a hip? What are ya
gonna do then?”
Let me put it this way, when a 23 year old college graduate says to her
dismayed mom, “Hey, mom, I’m like taking off to Europe on a Busabout tour,
see ya like later.” Sure, the mom is worried, and biting her nails, but the
social acceptance is still there. You go away for a year, come back and real
When I told my near and dear of my plans, there was a feeling of betrayal –
[SLIDE: WHO DOES THIS JEANNIE CHICK THINK SHE IS?]
That I was insulting everybody around me for even thinking this ‘travel for a
long time idea’ wasn’t flinging salt at the lifestyles they had carefully
cultivated. My choice was seen as not viable and viewed as running away
from real life.
But I knew that I had to move forward, with those regrets bearing down on
me, so I chose belief, I saw that I could give all of myself to this process of
So, I went for it. HARD. I gave up my apartment, my cat, my car -- all the
things that were supposed to bring me happiness for this.
[SLIDES OF WHERE I’VE BEEN]
I hiked the Batad rice terraces in the Philippines, which are now about 2002
I did nutso things like run with the bulls in Pamplona and survived! This was
my victory dance.
I went sky diving in Prague at 4,000 meters. This is my favourite photo, cause
I’m sticking out my tongue at an ordinary life.
I gave my time and volunteered at an orphanage in India.
And as you do, I landed on the Great Wall of China.
More than all these things, I sought out community too, to know these cultures
I was exploring. I lived with families, ate with them, shared with them, their
special occasions and celebrations.
[SLIDE: LIVING WITH FAMLIES, EATING, WITH THEM]
These complete strangers opened their hearts to me, their lives.
Suddenly, all those things I was taught to covet, the material possessions, the
Type A goals turned into something else, something even bigger than myself.
What I found out there were connections and experiences.
[SLIDE CONNECTIONS AND EXPERIENCES]
Travel wasn’t just about adventure or getting out of my own head.
I finally began to see the value in what we bring to this concept of being a
human being. These other cultures showed me that there wasn’t just 1 or 2
options, but many. Many ways to love and exist.
Travel is often cast as this glitzy, get away, but it’s so much deeper than that.
I had all this time and it was solely selfish, because I traveled solo –
everything that happened to me, I was the only one there to absorb it or learn
Many people view solo travel with some controversy, because of the safety
factor, yet the other side of the coin is how it opens you up to these
Once I got out into the world on my own, I discovered few things.
[SLIDES: WHAT SOLO TRAVEL CAN TEACH YOU]
I found out that for the most part, people want the same things we do.
Happiness, love, family and security. This separateness that we’re led to
believe really isn’t there. It is poignant to talk about the Ukraine, but I
remember when I was in Kiev trying to find my hostel after picking up some
train tickets, I suck at directions, I don’t know about you, so there I was kind of
lost and this woman materialized out of nowhere, she helped with my map
and we began to talk. She talked about her job and why she lived outside of
Kiev with her husband and daughter. Then we talked about the most
important thing ever – perogies, which are delicious there. Then she asked
about me, where I was going and what I was doing there. I call these my
world encounters, because inevitably, I always see the commonalities and
never the differences.
Another thing that solo travel gave me was an education. I’m not discounting
school or anything, so don’t tell your kids to give up school and blame me if
they are illiterate, but I learned more about politics, sociology, gender relations
and religion than I ever did during my formal education. A good example of
this was during my volunteer work in India, I was the only foreigner within a
3,000 mile radius and after my work I wanted to escape somewhere to relax,
so I chose Goa. So there I was in the sun and sand, and I struck up a fun
romance with an Indian man who owned a fabric shop. There were many
benefits to this relationship, one being a got a discount on a salwar kameez,
second was that he was a really good kisser, but mostly we had these
intricate conversations about his country. We talked about his religion, he is a
Muslim and he talked about his relationship to God and how it made him a
good man. Then he talked about his home state, Kashimir, often cast in the
media as the state that harbors terrorists from Pakistan. He described the
emerald lakes where you can rent a houseboat and sit on one for days, he
talked of the snow capped mountains, the gardens, the curries – he made me
want to see Kashmir. What I’m trying to say is, you take these subjects like
politics and religion and put a human face to it.
Finally, the biggest thing solo travel can do is bring you confidence. Believe it
or not, I wasn’t the most confident person before I left to travel. I was never
really sure of myself. But in solo travel, you only have yourself to rely on for
all the logistics; what will I eat that day, where will I stay, how will I get there?
What will I do? What happens is you become more self-reliant, independent
and your self-esteem soars. Nowadays, I can handle most things, but when
things don’t go right, I crumple a little and then readjust.
But, as I was discovering all this, my friends often asked me, how about you,
Jeannie? Did you find the real you?
I’m not perfect at all, heck, I still say the wrong thing sometimes or date the
wrong guy. What I ended up doing was shaping a better version of me -- a
happier, more peaceful me.
[SLIDE: POINTS HOW TRAVEL CHANGED ME]
One way I’ve changed is that I don’t sweat the small stuff any longer. I use to
be so caught up in outcomes, but now I let things happen organically.
A second thing that’s really changed is I’m way more patient than I use to be. I
remember when I was in Delhi, standing in line to buy something, to some
tour and there were literally 50 or more people ahead of me, with people
funneling in at the sides. I realized that all I could do was wait. In North
American culture, we are taught to do things quickly and if they aren’t done
quickly, why? But other cultures are not like that.
I’ve also become more tolerant. If you want to test your tolerance level, live in
China, it’s a challenging country. An example of that is when I was taking the
train from Shanghai to Chengdu, it’s quite a long train ride and in China, there
are well over a billion people, so there are always people around you. On this
occasion, the train was packed, there were people shoving and pushing me, a
man spitting by my foot and woman slurping her noodles next to me (slurping
noises) and I had to take a step back and realize, okay, this is their culture,
not mine, this is how they do things here, and what happens is understanding
Another surprise is how much my prejudices have altered. I thought I was the
most non-judgmental person before I left to travel, but I was wrong. We all do
it, make small judgments when we encounter a person or situation, don’t we?
Nowadays, I try to wait on a situation or when I meet a person before arriving
at any conclusion.
But finally, the biggest way I’ve changed is I’m now super prepared!
[SLIDE: PHOTO OF TOILET PAPER]
We’ve all been there ladies, the bus is pulling away, you’re bawling your eyes
out, so naturally, what do you grab? The TP! I’m that girl, the TP provider.
When my friends ask for a tissue, I’m the one that pulls out the roll and they
are looking at me like I’m crazy, “Uh, why do you have that in your purse?”
But to be serious again, travel really gave me vision.
You’re probably wondering right about now, hey, what does all of this have to
do with blogging?!
I started my blog because at first I felt isolated – this middle aged, single
woman failure, so there I was reaching out. I thought I’d affect maybe 5
people with my blog.
A lot of people view solo travel as lonely, but 3, nearly 4 years into my blog,
what I really found was the world.
[SLIDE OF WHEN IT’S JUST YOU AND THE WORLD, YOU’RE NEVER
See, when it’s you and the world, you’re never really alone.
So, when it comes down to it, what is blogging?
We are all gathered here this weekend because blogging reaches far and
wide. I’ve seen blogs from women in India, considered one of the most
repressive countries for women, all the way to bloggers in the Middle East.
So, it’s fair to say, blogging is possibility.
[SLIDE, BLOGGING IS POSSIIBLTY]
Blogging allows us to see beyond our age, our circumstances or our meager
This writing device gives voice to the voiceless. And who else is more
voiceless than women?
[SLIDE: WOMAN AND BLOGGING]
Women from censored cultures, misogynist cultures, but on the positive side
of it, women can pluck this seemingly small thing, called ‘starting a blog’ and
mold that into a legacy that can be globally shared.
Since I’m older than many of you (and don’t deny it, I am), I remember a time
without Internet and once the Internet exploded, what I saw was the
opportunity to express yourself anyway you wanted, without limitations, only
the limitations you set for yourself.
[SLIDE, BLOGGING IS EXPRESSION]
So, blogging can also be expression.
I really thought blogging was something personal. I recall the days of journal
forums with status messages like, “I ate cheese today and it was good.”
The moment I melded travel with blogging, magic began happening.
Here was a platform for me to combine all the things I love: exploration,
community, adventure and creativity.
[SLIDE: COMBINE ALL THE THINGS I LOVE]
And somehow, blogging has also become a tool to reach out to each other.
Women from all walks of life contact me with their dreams, hopes and fears.
[SLIDE: QUESTIONS FROM WOMEN]
Confess their hearts and tell me it’s nice to know they aren’t the only ones.
That they, too, no longer want to feel emptiness, but be able to make their
own choices, and mistakes, and get up and do it all over again.
That they want to wake up with more of a spring in their step.
I’m not going to lie to you and tell you that travel blogging is glamorous or
you’ll be a millionaire.
The ultimate question to ask yourself is: why are you here?
Is it to improve your blog? Get 100,000 hits by June? Become Samantha
Maybe you do, and there’s nothing wrong with that. That’s the beauty of this
For me, ultimately, travel blogging means freedom.
It’s expression. It’s possibility. It’s a platform to realize your ideas.
Maybe those ideas are to write your own book and publish it. Start a social
media consulting business. Be a travel writer. Whatever it is, blogging has that
My advice to anyone seeking answers in this blogging thing is to find your
dharma and do it full out.
[SLIDE: BUDDHA, DHARMA, DO IT FULL OUT)
You’re probably all rolling your eyes, God, Jeannie is getting all new agey..
And what the heck is dharma anyway?
The yogis define dharma as your sacred duty. It is your sacred duty to be
authentically yourself and no one else!
The yogis have a powerful saying that I try to abide by: “It is better to fail at
your own dharma, then to succeed at the dharma of another.”
[SLIDE: “It is better to fail at your own dharma, then to succeed at the dharma
So, what I’m trying to tell you is, wield this tool of blogging, make it your own,
take it as far was you want, but most of all, do it with passion. Do it for you.
I’m going to steal a quote from Maya Angelou, because I feel like this sums up
all of us.
[SLIDE"I believe that every person is born with talent." - Maya Angelou]
We all have something to contribute and I believe women, in particular,
deserve to star in their own travel adventure.
So, if me, a cat spinster with a loser rating of 10 can skip down the street
holding hands with the world, anyone can.
I want to sincerely thank you for listening and let’s all have an epic Women in
[SLIDE: THANK YOU & GOODBYE]