Health and Safety

I celebrated my 30th birthday just a few days ago. All through my 20s, the internet had been dishing me advice on what to do, have, and be before you hit 30.

As I turn the decade, I would like to share my experiences through the lens of my travels, and how I’ve come to define success in life.

This is the story of how I travelled 20 countries in the past four years and the lessons I learnt along the way.

I was raised in a middle-class family. My dad never allowed me to wear jeans and tees and hang out with friends. I was not allowed to drive the family car — even in the neighbourhood — whereas my younger brothers had those privileges.

The fact that privileges were distributed by gender never sat well with me. Conscious of the inequalities, I became a rebellious child with the ambition to do more for myself.

For a family who had not seen women working other than in gendered roles of teachers, doctors, or home makers, I ended up seeking inspiration from foreign role models.

No one in my family had ever travelled abroad (except for my dad visiting India to see relatives).

Canoeing on the bewildering Lake Bunyonyi, Uganda. -All photos by author


My favourite show used to be Musafir Hoon Yaron, which was then being aired on Star Plus.

I had a strange pull toward the concept of that show: Deepti Bhatnagar travelling every week to a remote location and showing the world what it’s like to eat, breathe, and sleep in another part of the world.

This was back in 1999/2000. Since there was no Instagram or Facebook at the time, the show didn’t exactly give me any 'hashtag travel goals,’ but it did instil in me a yearning for the far off and the unknown. I wanted to be adventurous and do big things – this was my idea of becoming someone important.

These friendly monks agreed for a photo, South East Asia.
These friendly monks agreed for a photo, South East Asia.


Fast forward to 2012, I was living with my parents, working at an ad agency as a copywriter, and my MBA was to be completed in a month. I had never travelled outside Pakistan.

My life changed when I found out that a group of students from a course on international retail, along with some teachers, were going to Dubai. I was not taking that course, but a few of my friends and I had previously studied the course with the same teachers. My friends insisted that we go and that it would be fun.

Fun? I thought to myself, once again, this would be me asking dad for permission and him saying ‘no’. I would end up sad and angry. I could sense that this idea would not turn out to be fun for me.

But then I imagined what it would be like to be in Dubai for five days with zero parental supervision, no need for permissions, and no curfew times. And I’d be getting to wear jeans. It seemed like a dream that could actually come true!

Visiting the top of Burj Khalifa, Dubai.
Visiting the top of Burj Khalifa, Dubai.


Using what I’d learnt from the advertising world, I packaged it to be a very serious, important, safe, and strictly supervised trip and mustered the courage to ask dad.

He realised that on this occasion he shouldn’t say no because the tour was related to coursework. Also, because the faculty members would be accompanying us and one of my close friends whom my parents knew well, also got permission to go. Hence, he said yes.

I could not believe it. I wrote the biggest lesson of my life down in my diary. Never be afraid to ask, no matter what you think the odds are.

Riding the world's fastest roller coaster at Formula Rossa in Abu Dhabi.
Riding the world's fastest roller coaster at Formula Rossa in Abu Dhabi.


I was not earning enough at the time and was paying for my MBA, as well as all personal expenses. And so, I planned this Dubai trip on a very, very tight budget.

I ate falafels and Burger King only, so I could save money to visit Formula Rossa (Ferrari World) and the top of Burj Khalifa.

I did the six-day trip in about $600 including air tickets, visa fee, stay, and chocolates for the family (no trip abroad is complete without bringing chocolates back).

It was when I roamed the Emirati streets at 3am clad in jeans, I finally felt I could exercise my right as a human being to go and breathe where and when it pleased me.

There are many women who abide by house rules and are perfectly happy with limited mobility, but I was never one of those. I was, for the first time, in my element, able to finally roam and rove at will.

Travelling solo to Africa.
Travelling solo to Africa.


I loved being away from the known and comfortable. Travelling touched me. All of it.

From being at the airport, to seeing so many people in transit, all the while imagining where they were going and coming from, affected me deeply. The moment I stepped out of the airport, I was filled with a great sense of anticipation and uncertainty about what was going to meet my eyes and excite my senses. All of this transformed me forever.

Roaming aimlessly on the streets, finding something new at every turn; I became addicted to the feeling of experiencing something new. Does that feeling have a name?

The travel termite had officially bit me. And so began my insatiable journey into the discovery of my nomadic tendency.

Bathing in Szechenyi thermal bath in Budapest.
Bathing in Szechenyi thermal bath in Budapest.


As soon as I got back, I made plans of where I could travel next. But my parents refused to give me permission since these were no university field trips.

Unfortunately for the next two years, my plans could not materialise and Dubai remained my only foray into the foreign world. Thanks to our patriarchal culture, a girl does not travel unaccompanied. The idea of a single female travelling solo always prompted my parents to ask “Log kya kahen ge?”

My angst grew — I hated this sexist culture.

I kept putting down my destination goals on paper; making itineraries of trips I wanted to take, thinking one day I would execute these.


In 2013, I stumbled upon Anthony Bourdain’s travel show on CNN called Parts Unknown.

It had been a while since I had come across a travel show, where the anchor left a deep impact on me. It had once been Musafir Hoon Yaron and now it was Mr Bourdain in Tokyo. That episode reignited the fire in me. I wanted to travel so bad, I cried.

I wanted to once again feel the sense of release and freedom that I had in Dubai. I had had a taste of what it really meant to be free and there was no going back.

Visiting Guinness World Records' Cafe Delirium to see how they serve 2000+ beer varieties in one shop.
Visiting Guinness World Records' Cafe Delirium to see how they serve 2000+ beer varieties in one shop.


I grew more rebellious and one year later, after major arguments with my parents, I left home to be on my own. I had built quite a sizable amount of savings during the past two years, thinking I would use it one day to finally break free and travel.

I was turning 27 that year and found out from a friend that on my birthday, the world’s biggest electronic music festival, Tomorrowland, was taking place in Atlanta, Georgia.

I decided to take a chance and applied for a US visa.

Experiencing love and community at Tomorrowland USA.
Experiencing love and community at Tomorrowland USA.


At the embassy, I was questioned thoroughly about my reason to visit the US. I told them I wanted to treat myself to a Tomorrowland ticket for my birthday.

They then asked me at length about the festival, the DJs attending, and also expressed amazement at the fact that Pakistanis even know about electronic music. It was a most amusing exchange for both parties.

They asked me in detail about the nature of my job, to which I confidently responded by describing what I do and how much I enjoy doing it.

Feeling lost and overwhelmed in Manhattan.
Feeling lost and overwhelmed in Manhattan.


I don’t know if it was my lucky day, or if they liked how neatly I had presented my documents but I somehow managed to secure approval for the visa.

The lady who had interviewed me told me they had seen many apply for a visa there, but never a girl who wanted it to travel to a music festival.

She was fascinated. I was ecstatic. Getting a US visa, with barely any travel history was indeed an unexpected victory.

The trip to the US in 2014 was a three-week-long adventure with friends, during which I travelled from California to Vegas to Texas to Atlanta and ended it all in New York.

When I returned, I already knew where I was travelling next.

Skydiving over Nevada.
Skydiving over Nevada.


By that time permission was no longer an issue, because my parents knew they could not stop me from taking off any more. Yes, they were upset and angry at me for not listening to them, but the urge to travel was too overpowering to ignore.

At the start of 2015, I travelled to South East Asia, all by myself, for ten days. To mark the occasion of my first solo trip, I got inked.

Travelling solo was not always fun and games. I travelled alone for the first time to seek a cure. My heart had been broken, and it was not healing.

Visiting the magnificent Lake Victoria and discovering massive bananas.
Visiting the magnificent Lake Victoria and discovering massive bananas.
Having the biggest sea food buffet of my life comprising of various varieties of lobsters, octopus, fish, prawn and crab.
Having the biggest sea food buffet of my life comprising of various varieties of lobsters, octopus, fish, prawn and crab.


I had realised that only I have the power over my happiness and hence I decided to give myself a chance to get away and truly be all by myself. And so, I bought a ticket to Thailand and Cambodia. It was not as easy as I thought.

Being alone, without any distractions, meant having to deal with my thoughts and fears all by myself. It scared me. I felt lonely.

I watched a movie, took tours, sat on the beach, and had many dinners all by my lonesome on that trip. I learnt that while on the one hand we are scared by the harm others might bring to us, on the other hand we are also afraid of the absence of others around us.

Being on my own, I would get scared about getting robbed or raped, but I learnt to overcome my fears. I also learnt to portray myself as being very confident to others around me. I was mindful of not doing anything stupid.

I became aware that I appeared younger than my age, which could be a disadvantage because to the world I looked like a teenage Indian/Mexican girl on a summer break/gap year. And a young kid alone is easy to take for granted or rob. Or worse. Because of this, I learnt how to dress and appear older while travelling.

Enjoying a view of the canal at Leidseplein - Amsterdam Centrum.
Enjoying a view of the canal at Leidseplein - Amsterdam Centrum.
At a Hindu temple located in Pura Tirtha Empul, Tampaksiring, East Bali famous for the holy springwater bath.
At a Hindu temple located in Pura Tirtha Empul, Tampaksiring, East Bali famous for the holy springwater bath.


After South East Asia, I was curious to venture off into a completely different landscape. Europe had always held a great deal of fascination for me. The sophistication, history and culture, and most importantly, the architectural marvels, were calling out to me.

Moreover, Tomorrowland was once again happening, this time in Belgium and I was not over the magic and exhilaration I had experienced while attending it for the first time. And so I planned a trip to Paris, Brussels, Amsterdam, and on the way back, Turkey.

I had wanted to travel to more cities, but my Schengen visa limited me to just 12 days. So in order to extend my trip, I decided to spend four days in Istanbul and Cappadocia .


After Europe, I was in a bit of a financial crunch. I had exhausted all my savings. I had also borrowed a little bit from a friend, which I returned over the course of the next three months following my return.

Toward the end of 2015, I got married and finances were no longer an impediment to my desire to travel. For our honeymoon, we travelled to Bali and Kuala Lumpur over a period of nine days - a heavenly treat all paid for by my husband.

Seven months after my honeymoon in 2016, I had an itch to travel again and this time, to Africa. I had saved money by then, and planned a three-week Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania itinerary.

Honeymooning in Bali.
Honeymooning in Bali.
Bungee jumping over River Nile in Uganda.
Bungee jumping over River Nile in Uganda.


After Africa, I took a small weekend trip to Dubai once again, this time with friends, to attend the Sensation White event. My husband bought me the event ticket as a birthday gift.

And recently in 2017, we planned a trip to Europe once again to attend Sensation in Amsterdam (the last flagship Sensation event in Netherlands). This time, we planned a backpacking, city-hopping trip, covering in three weeks, seven countries we really wanted to visit in Europe.

It started in Italy and from there to Zurich, Salzburg, Vienna, Bratislava, Budapest, Amsterdam, Rothenburg Ob Der Tauber (Germany), and ended in Prague.

And this is how I travelled, from 2014 till today, to more than 30 cities in South East Asia, Europe, and Africa, all the while pursuing a full time career in advertising.

Before embarking on a safari at Great Rift Valley viewpoint, Kenya.
Before embarking on a safari at Great Rift Valley viewpoint, Kenya.
Visit to Masai Village, Africa.
Visit to Masai Village, Africa.
Taking a surfing lesson on Kuta Beach in Bali, Indonesia.
Taking a surfing lesson on Kuta Beach in Bali, Indonesia.
River rafting on Mount Ayung, Indonesia.
River rafting on Mount Ayung, Indonesia.


Every time I planned a trip my approach was generally to see more places. I typically spent about three to five days in a city, not more, not less. This was not because I was counting countries, but because I was, in fact, counting experiences.

People often wonder how I can afford to travel so much. I have gotten nasty comments from trolls about daddy’s money on my Facebook page. Trust me, I have supported my family on multiple occasions, besides taking care of my own expenses and saving up for travel.

During the time I was working but was not allowed to travel, I saved all my money, planning to one day break free from the prison that my home had become and use the savings to fulfill my dream of travelling.

Walking amdist hundreds of tortoises at Prison Island, Zanzibar.
Walking amdist hundreds of tortoises at Prison Island, Zanzibar.
Walking the narrow lanes of Stone Town, Zanzibar.
Walking the narrow lanes of Stone Town, Zanzibar.


I prioritised saving over spending. Over the years I did not upgrade my lifestyle in proportion to the growth in my income.

I never lay emphasis on keeping up with the latest trends. One would never find me splurging on the latest designer wear. I made do with drugstore cosmetics and spent very conservatively on gadgets. I was perfectly happy owning an old iPhone and using car-hailing apps for my commute instead of buying a car.

The one thing I did indulge on was eating out and that too was not a regular occurence.

This is how I was able to save mostly half or more of what I made every month and put it in the form of dollars in my travel fund.

Kenyan savannah in Masai Mara National Reserve.
Kenyan savannah in Masai Mara National Reserve.


In the time spent saving up, I also spent time researching and planning for the destinations I’d like to visit in the coming months. I mostly booked all my flights myself rather than going to travel/tour agents, which saved me a considerable amount of money.

Over time, my spending priorities during travel have also seen changes. I no longer spend on touristy things as much as I used to. That means no hop-on hop-off tours or museum tickets for me.

One might wonder how I find the time to travel so much; how I am given so much time off from work. It may seem like I take a lot of days off, but actually I don’t.

In my first year with my current employer, I took a total of 22 working days off to travel and in the second year I took 24.That was it.

I had always managed to plan my trips craftily, utilising public holidays and ensuring weekends fell on both ends of my trip.

Rothenburg ob der Tauber, a well-preserved medieval town in Germany.
Rothenburg ob der Tauber, a well-preserved medieval town in Germany.
From a balcony in Rothenburg ob der Tauber, Germany.
From a balcony in Rothenburg ob der Tauber, Germany.
Discovering the gorgeous river town, Salzburg.
Discovering the gorgeous river town, Salzburg.


Also, I had established from the start that travel is my only motivation to earn. My employers were indeed a group of very accommodating people who understood my passion as long as I was delivering on what was required of me.

While, my employers had been understanding, one might wonder if I find the same sort of support from my spouse. Well, I am happy to report that I have more than lucked out in that department.

My husband understands my passion for travelling and respects my goals. When I told him about my wish to travel to Africa a few months after our honeymoon, he told me to go right ahead.

I travelled to Africa, six months after my wedding, alone. I travelled to Kenya & Uganda all by myself, my husband joining me two weeks later in Tanzania.

Staying in a geo-dome on a lake island resort in Bunyonyi, Uganda.
Staying in a geo-dome on a lake island resort in Bunyonyi, Uganda.
Sunbathing and swimming for seven days on the gorgeous beaches of Zanzibar.
Sunbathing and swimming for seven days on the gorgeous beaches of Zanzibar.
Stuffing Zanzibari pizza and so much other sea food at the Forodhani street food market, East Africa.
Stuffing Zanzibari pizza and so much other sea food at the Forodhani street food market, East Africa.


Travelling also helped me broaden my mind. I understood the similarities in people. We are barely different from one another, no matter what geography, language or faith we follow.

Our ambitions are similar, our problems are similar, and our fears are the same. We are similar even in our desire to be different.

Travelling helped me realise the insignificance of the self. It helped me conquer my fears and anxieties. It introduced me to the biggest battle that I must win: against my own demons of self-doubt, procrastination, and narcissism.

It also made me aware of my addiction for the strange, unknown and new. It has helped me discover the explorer within myself, the wanderer that can’t stick to the same place.

Some people like the comfort that comes with familiarity. I enjoy the thrill that comes with uncertainty.

Partying with German girls at Fullmoon in Thailand.
Partying with German girls at Fullmoon in Thailand.


During those years spent travelling, I used to write my yearly goals every December, wondering about the meaning of success and how I wanted to define it for myself, and I found an answer.

I am going to count my achievements each year and each decade, not in terms of how much money I have earned, or to what extent my lifestyle has improved, or what is my job title is, but in terms of the new experiences and adventures I have had.

Because of these experiences, I realised that since I have found fulfillment in life through travelling, this was success for me.

Visiting Tomorrowland for the second time.
Visiting Tomorrowland for the second time.


Having defined success for my own self, I believe I must also inspire others to define success for themselves in their own unique way.

Travelling the world may not be everyone’s idea of success, but if success is to travel, then one must never be discouraged by circumstances, money, visa, or lack of knowledge about places.

I want to be the first Pakistani passport holder and woman to have travelled more than a 100 countries in her lifetime. My aim is to step on all continents, expand my understanding of the world, and share my experiences with people.

I want my fellow countrymen to travel, meet people of other religions, languages, and castes, etc and learn tolerance for other viewpoints.

What I want to tell all the girls reading this, is to be assertive. Carry in your eyes and in your whole presence the fire that fuels you. Let it be seen, and those who respect you and want to be a part of your life, will support you, eventually.

And to the men of my country I say: Have a big heart and an open mind. We only want to pursue our dreams, just like you do.

Getting charmed by the medieval UNESCO heritage city, Bruges.
Getting charmed by the medieval UNESCO heritage city, Bruges.


The street leading to Hrad Castle in Bratislava, Slovakia.
The street leading to Hrad Castle in Bratislava, Slovakia.

فالج ایسا مرض ہے جس کے دوران دماغ کو نقصان پہنچتا ہے اور جسم کا کوئی حصہ مفلوج ہوجاتا ہے اور مناسب علاج بروقت مل جائے تو اس کے اثرات کو کم از کم کیا جاسکتا ہے تاہم اکثر لوگ اس جان لیوا مرض کی علامات کو دیگر طبی مسائل سمجھ لیتے ہیں اور علاج میں تاخیر ہوجاتی ہے۔

فالج کے دورے کے بعد ہر گزرتے منٹ میں آپ کا دماغ 19 لاکھ خلیات سے محروم ہو رہا ہوتا ہے اور ایک گھنٹے تک علاج کی سہولت میسر نہ آپانے کی صورت میں دماغی عمر میں ساڑھے تین سال کا اضافہ ہوجاتا ہے۔ علاج ملنے میں جتنی تاخیر ہوگی اتنا ہی بولنے میں مشکلات، یاداشت سے محرومی اور رویے میں تبدیلیوں جیسے مسائل کا خطرہ بڑھ جائے گا۔

فالج کو جتنا جلد پکڑلیا جائے اتنا ہی اس کا علاج زیادہ موثر طریقے سے ہوپاتا ہے اور دماغ کو ہونے والا نقصان اتنا ہی کم ہوتا ہے۔

فالج کی دو اقسام ہے ایک میں خون کی رگیں بلاک ہوجانے کے نتیجے میں دماغ کو خون کی فراہمی میں کمی ہوتی ہے، دوسری قسم ایسی ہوتی ہے جس میں کسی خون کی شریان سے دماغ میں خون خارج ہونے لگتا ہے۔ ان دونوں اقسام کے فالج کی علامات یکساں ہوتی ہیں اور ہر فرد کے لیے ان سے واقفیت ضروری ہے۔

ایک کی جگہ دو چیزیں نظر آنا

بنیائی کے مسائل جیسے کوئی ایک چیز دو نظر آنا، دھندلا پن یا کسی ایک آنکھ کی بنیائی سے محرومی فالج کی علامات ہوسکتے ہیں مگر بیشتر افراد ان علامات کو بڑھاپے یا تھکاوٹ کا نتیجہ سمجھ لیتے ہیں۔ طبی ماہرین کے مطابق تھکاوٹ یا بہت زیادہ مطالعے ایک چیز دو نظر آنا بالکل ممکن نہیں، درحقیقت خون کی ایک بلاک شریان آنکھوں کو درکار آکسیجن کی مقدار کو کم کردیتی ہے جس کے نتیجے میں بنیائی کے مسائل کا باعث بنتے ہیں اور اس دوران فالج کی دیگر علامات بھی ظاہر نہیں ہوتیں۔

ہاتھ پیروں کا سن ہوجانا

اگر آپ دوپہر کو کچھ دیر کی نیند لے کر اٹھتے ہیں اور آپ کے ہاتھ یا پیر سن یا بے حس ہورہے ہو تو آسانی سے تصور کیا جاسکتا ہے کہ یہ اعصاب دب جانے کا نتیجہ ہے۔ تاہم طبی ماہرین کا کہنا ہے کہ اگر آپ کا ہاتھ اچانک بے حس یا کمزور ہوجائے تو یہ کیفیت چند منٹوں میں دور نہ ہو تو فوری طبی امداد کے لیے رابطہ کیا جانا چاہئے۔ ان کے بقول شریانوں میں ریڑھ کی ہڈی سے دماغ تک خون کی روانی میں کمی کے نتیجے میں جسم کا ایک حس سن یا کمزور ہو جاتا ہے۔

بولنے میں مشکلات

کچھ ادویات جیسے درد کش گولیوں کے استعمال کے بعد بولنے میں ہکلاہٹ یا مشکلات کا سامنا ہوتا ہے اور لوگ سوچتے ہیں یہ ان کی دوا کا اثر ہے مگر یہ فالج کی علامت بھی ہوسکتا ہے۔ طبی ماہرین کے مطابق اگر اس سے پہلے یہی دوا استعمال کرنے پر آپ کو کسی قسم کے سائیڈ ایفیکٹ کا سامنا نہ ہوا تو پھر یہ فالج کی ایک علامت ہوسکتا ہے او رآپ کو فوری طور پر طبی امداد کے لیے رابطہ کرنا چاہئے۔

سوچنے میں مشکل

جب لوگوں کو درست الفاظ کے انتخاب یا کسی چیز کے بارے میں پوری توجہ سے سوچنے میں مشکلات کا سامنا ہوتا ہے تو اکثر وہ اسے تھکن کا نتیجہ قرار دیتے ہیں۔ مگر اچانک دماغی صلاحیتوں میں کمی فالج کی عام علامت میں سے ایک ہے۔ طبی ماہرین کے مطابق ایک لمحے کے لیے تو سوچنے میں مشکل کا سامنا کسی بھی فرد کو ہوسکتا ہے مگر اس کا دورانیہ اگر بڑھ جائے تو یہ باعث تشویش ہے۔ ان کے بقول کئی بار تو مریضوں کو یہ اندازہ ہی نہیں ہوتا کیا چیز غلط ہے کیونکہ ان کا دماغ کام نہیں کررہا ہوتا اور ان کے سوچنے کی صلاحیت متاثر ہوتی ہے۔

آدھے سر کا درد

ہوسکا ہے کہ یہ محض آدھے سر کا درد ہی ہو مگر یہ تکلیف آپ کو پہلے سے متاثر نہ کرتی رہی ہو تو یہ فالج کی علامت بھی ہوسکتا ہے۔ طبی ماہرین بتاتے ہیں کہ آدھے سر کے درد یا مائیگرین میں فالج بھی چھپا ہوسکتا ہے کیونکہ ان دونوں امراض میں دماغی علامات ایک جیسی ہی ہوتی ہیں۔ ماہرین کے بقول آدھے سر کے درد کے شکار افراد کو اس کا علاج فالج کی طرح ہی کرانا چاہئے اور ڈاکٹروں سے مدد لینی چاہئے۔

When I gave up meat, four years ago, my family and friends were convinced that I would revert to the oh-so-juicy goodness of animal protein the very next day.

But, as time passed and they realised that I was serious about it, the deliberations started, with an intent to bring me back to ‘sanity’. I was open to discussions, but I had given it a lot of thought over the years, so it wasn't something I was just going to snap out of. It wasn't a fad, it wasn't a phase, and it certainly wasn't a ploy to lose weight.

After a while, people close to me gave up on convincing me otherwise and started respecting my decision, even accommodating me with good vegetarian cuisine when possible. But, out in the larger society, the responses were varied and ranged from bemused to utterly shocked.

The social nuisance

When I go out to a dinner where people are not yet aware of my vegetarian diet, and decline the offer of a meat-based dish, people almost always respond with, “Take a little bit at least” or “At least give it a try”. Their first reaction is that I am a little snobbish about food, or that I have had some bad experiences with meat dishes and that their food would change my opinion, if only I tried.

After reiterating that I have given up meat and don't eat it at all, quite a few folks go on to suggest a chicken-based item. This, I guess, is because they assume I have been medically advised to give up red meat.

When I clarify again that I don't eat any kind of meat, most people just go blank. And I kid you not, some still counter-offer and ask if I would like to try some seafood instead?

Better yet, when there's some kind of a meat-curry, many suggest that the gravy should still be fair game.

It is only after they have exhausted all their efforts, do people dishearteningly allow me to feast on the usually lone vegetable dish they had not expected anyone to indulge in. Large public gatherings like wedding ceremonies are especially hard to negotiate because most of our society considers it below themselves to include any vegetarian dishes in the menu – "loag kya kahenge ke kitney cheap hain (people would think we are so poor)."

Once the matter of what I will eat is settled, they are suddenly hit with a pang of curiosity and start inquiring about the reason for my vegetarian diet. Most people automatically assume it to be a medical reason and ask only to validate their assertion. When I deny, their curiosity multiplies and they push further with a desire partially to inquire, and partially to convince me otherwise.

When I tell them that my personal moral compass does not allow me to, they feel it's their duty to reason with me. It isn't unusual for the discussion to turn into a heated argument, so I had to train myself to politely back out of it or steer the conversation to a different topic.

These discussions become extra sensitive when people bring religion into them or start throwing labels like 'ungrateful'.

After a few of these conversations, I realised that the issue makes people touchy and insecure because my defending a personal belief and choice makes them feel like their own beliefs are being threatened.

I have learned my lesson though, and unless I am dead sure the person at the other end of the conversation is on the same wavelength as I am, I rarely encourage the discussion. On occasions when I was too tired to argue, I even lied, admitting to it being a medical reason.

I can't say people have been condescending or judgmental, but I can see the nods of disagreements almost everywhere the topic is discussed. In countries like the US where people are more used to vegetarians, I don’t raise many eyebrows (but they do get shocked sometimes when I reveal I am not an Indian and this is not a religious thing).

Is it easy being a vegetarian in Pakistan?

Even though it's more of a social nuisance to be a vegetarian in Pakistan, I prefer the food scene here because of the breadth of vegetables you can get and the delicious ways they are cooked. I can eat chapatti and sabzi every day. In both places though, if you are eating out, most of the non-meat choices are full of staples or grains and not exactly vegetables, which makes it a tad harder to eat healthy.

People often ask me if I still crave meat, and honestly, there are times when I crave meat, a lot. No matter how strong-willed you are, when the aroma of a well-cooked chicken tikka, badami qorma or a juicy mushroom swiss burger tantalises you, it's very hard to ignore.

But just like we control a lot of our other desires that contradict our ideologies, this one also becomes a hard-but-necessary act of self-restraint. The craving becomes much less frequent as time passes. There are some soy-based proteins available that taste just like meat but I usually avoid them because of the large amount of preservatives and artificial ingredients in them.

Another question I am always bombarded with is whether I would eat meat for my survival; for example, let's say I am trapped in a jungle and it is the only thing available to me. My answer is always a resounding "Yes". Just like everything else I choose, my choice of what to eat should also have a degree of flexibility. In fact, there have already been a couple of occasions when I was really hungry and not so well, and had to eat meat because nothing else was available.

Did I like doing that? No. But I understand the importance of eating meat over starving on these rare occasions.

Also read: Why is India called a vegetarian country when two-thirds of Indians eat meat?

I am usually also asked about how I feel or what difference it has made in my life. To be honest, it feels amazing. I don't feel heavy after a meal, I don't crash a few minutes after a meal, and yes, it did make a tremendous difference in turning me into a calmer person.

Moreover, if I keep a good vegetarian diet (lots of vegetables) as opposed to an unhealthy vegetarian diet (lots of grains/staples), I also get a large amount of really important micro-nutrients that help a human body in healing itself. I have, over these last few years, fallen less sick with day-to-day ailments than when I was not a vegetarian.

I should clarify that my purpose here is not to convince anybody to become a vegetarian. Eating meat or giving it up, are both completely personal choices that each of us should make independently. All I am saying is, I made mine and expect people to respect it.

Sleep learning used to be a pipe dream. Now neuroscientists say they have found ways to enhance your memory with your eyes closed, says David Robson.

Just before you climb under your duvet, you carefully prepare your room. You sprinkle a few drops of incense on your pillow, put on some headphones, and place a strange-looking band over your scalp. Then you go to sleep. The ritual takes just a few minutes, but you hope this could accelerate your learning of a diverse range of skills: whether you are trying to master the piano, tennis or fluent French. You won’t recall a single aspect of the night’s “training” – but that doesn’t matter: your performance the next morning should be better, all the same.

The idea of learning as you sleep was once thought very unlikely, but there are several ways – both low- and hi-tech – to try to help you acquire new skills as you doze. While there is no method that will allow you to acquire a skill completely from scratch while you are unconscious, that doesn’t mean that you still can’t use sleep to boost your memory. During the night, our brain busily processes and consolidates our recollections from the day before, and there could be ways to enhance that process.

Given that we spend a third of our lives in the land of nod, it is little wonder that sleep learning has long captured the imagination of artists and writers. In most incarnations, it involved the unconscious mind absorbing new information from a recording playing in the background. In Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, for instance, a Polish boy learns English after having slept through a radio lecture by George Bernard Shaw; the authoritarian government soon uses the same technique to brainwash its subjects. More recently, in The Simpsons, Homer buys a tape to subliminally reduce his appetite as he sleeps, only to find that it is instead changing his vocabulary. When his wife, Marge, asks if his diet is working, the normally inarticulate Homer replies: “Lamentably, no. My gastronomic rapacity knows no satiety”.

Bad science

In reality, this particular kind of sleep learning is almost certainly impossible. Although some early studies suggested that subjects could pick up some facts as they slept, the researchers couldn’t be sure that they hadn’t just awoken to listen to the recording. To test those suspicions, Charles Simon and William Emmons attached electrodes on the scalps of their subjects, allowing them to be sure that they only played the tapes once the subjects were dozing. As they had suspected, the subjects learnt nothing once they had dropped off. The results were published in the 1950s, but entrepreneurs over the years have still tried to cash-in on the attraction of effortless learning with various products – even though their methods had no scientific basis.


Monitoring brain activity of sleeping people suggests they can't learn new skills while unconscious (SPL)


Despite being blind and deaf to new information, however, the sleeping brain is far from idle: it mulls over the day’s experiences, sending memories from the hippocampus – where memories are first thought to form – to regions across the cortex, where they are held in long-term storage. “It helps stabilise the memories and integrate them into a network of long-term memory,” says Susanne Diekelmann at the University of Tubingen in Germany. Sleep also helps us to generalise what we’ve learnt, giving us the flexibility to apply the skills to new situations. So although you can’t soak up new material, you might instead be able to cement the facts or skills learned throughout the day.

Smell enhancer

So far, at least four methods have shown promise. The simplest strategy harks back to the research of a 19th Century French nobleman named the Marquis d’Hervey de Saint-Denys. As he explored ways to direct his dreams, the Marquis found that he could bring back certain memories with the relevant smells, tastes or sounds. In one experiment, he painted a scantily clad woman while chewing an orris root; when his servant then placed the root in his mouth as he slept, the tart flavour brought back visions of the same beautiful lady in the foyer of a theatre. She was wearing “a costume that would have hardly been acceptable to the theatre committee”, he wrote with delight in his book, Dreams and How to Guide Them. Another time, he asked the conductor of an orchestra to play certain waltzes whenever he danced with two particularly attractive women. He then rigged up a clock to a music box, so that it played the same tunes during the night, which apparently brought their handsome figures to his sleeping mind.

The Marquis simply wanted to seed his slumbers with pleasant (and sometimes lustful) experiences, but it now looks like the same approach can also trigger the sleeping brain to replay the learning of skills or facts, reinforcing the memory in the process.




Diekelmann, for instance, asked her volunteers to play a variation of the game Concentration, in which they had to learn a specific pattern of objects in a grid before going to sleep in her lab. Some of the subjects were exposed to a subtle, artificial, odour as they played, and Diekelmann then wafted the same scent into their noses as they slept. Brain scans showed that these subjects had greater communication between the hippocampus and several cortical areas, compared to those without the cue – just the kind of activity that should lead to enhanced memory consolidation. Sure enough, those subjects remembered about 84% of the object locations when they awoke, while a control group remembered just 61%.

It’s not just sweet smells that could boost learning; as the Marquis found with his night-time waltzes, sounds might also be able to trigger recall, provided they do not wake you up in the process. In one study,volunteers found it easier to master a musical game (a little like Guitar Hero) if they heard soft strains of the melody as they slept. Bjorn Rasch at the University of Zurich, Switzerland, meanwhile, found that the same setup helped Swiss German speakers learning Dutch vocabulary, allowing them to remember about 10% more.

Tech upgrade

In the near future, technology may offer further ways of upgrading the brain’s sleep cycles. Memory consolidation is thought to occur during specific, slow, oscillations of electrical activity, so the idea here is to subtly encourage those brain waves without waking the subject. Jan Born, at the University of Tubingen, has been at the forefront of these experiments. In 2004, he found that he could help amplify those signals using transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS), which passes a small electric current across the skull, successfully improving his subjects’ performance on a verbal memory test.

More recently, he has turned to an even less-invasive form of stimulation, which uses a skullcap of electrodes to measure neural activity, while headphones deliver sounds that are in sync with the brain waves. Born compares the auditory stimulation to the tiny push that you might give a child on a swing, so that it gently enhances neural activity that is already present in the brain. “You deepen the slow wave sleep and make it more intense,” says Born. “It’s a more natural way of getting the system into a rhythm,” he says.




If the idea of going to sleep with a cumbersome headset doesn’t appeal, Miriam Reiner at the Technion Institute of Technology in Haifa, Israel may have a more attractive solution. She hopes to use a form of neurofeedback, which allows subjects to control their neural activity while awake. In her setup, an electrode attached to the subject’s head feeds into a simple computer game, in which the subject is advised to drive a car with the power of their thoughts.

When the electrode records the right frequency of brainwaves, normally associated with memory consolidation during sleep, they accelerate; when they don’t, it slows down. It typically takes just a few minutes for the subjects to start revving up the right brainwaves – and the change in mind set is palpable, says Reiner. “I feel kind of relaxed – like when you’re in a garden or walking along beach. It’s just like being in a serene beautiful place.” The idea is to kick-start memory consolidation straight after learning, which then gives the sleeping brain a head-start as it sets about reorganising the day’s events. “You create a seed that then grows during the night,” says Reiner.  

Play a tune

To test the impact on learning, her subjects first learned a complex sequence of finger movements – a little like learning to play a tune on the piano – before taking 30 minutes of neurofeedback. The benefits were immediate – straight after the training they were about 10% better than the controls, suggesting the computer game really had begun to stabilise their memories as if they were actually asleep. Importantly, the improvements continued to grow as they were tested throughout the following week, supporting her theory that neurofeedback could help memories to blossom as you sleep.  

Needless to say, we will need to see bigger trials with many more subjects before these techniques should be recommended for everyday use. Since the experiments have so far used somewhat artificial tests of learning and memory, it would also be useful to see how they fare on more useful tasks; Reiner is beginning to take a few steps in this direction by testing whether her neurofeedback can help students learn the guitar. Diekelmann also thinks that we need to confirm that these memory hacks don’t have unexpected consequences. “If you enhance one set of memories, maybe you’d impair another set,” she says.


Sounds and melodies can consolidate memory (Thinkstock)


And we shouldn’t shy away from the problems highlighted by fiction like Brave New World and The Simpsons, she says. Although she doesn’t think that these methods could be used for brainwashing people against their will, she thinks we still need to question whether it would be right to start manipulating their children’s memories, for instance, in these ways. “Sleep is a vulnerable state.” But she’s keen to stress that these potential issues shouldn’t deter interest in sleep learning. “It’s very worthwhile. We just need to use it as responsibly as possible.”

Easy tricks

Once those questions have been addressed, there shouldn’t be too many practical hurdles for people who wish to use the techniques for themselves, says Diekelmann. Many of her students and colleagues have already found that sensory cues during sleep can help them swat-up for exams. “It’s very easy to apply,” she says.  And you can now buy EEG kits that work with your smartphone, potentially opening the door for games that help you boost memory consolidation. Even the hardware for certain forms of tDCS became commercially available last year, which could lead to kits designed to improve sleep learning.

Further evidence will be needed to show that the commercial kits can provide the benefits seen in the laboratory experiments, but Born is optimistic. “I think it’s just a matter of time before it is used as a cognitive enhancer,” he says.

At the very least, the research could change the way we view this often under-appreciated part of our lives. Sleep tends to be considered an unnecessary down-time that we try to conquer with coffee or Red Bull; we are all driven by the need to squeeze the day for every last drop of productivity. But we may take more time to catch 40 winks if we know that the most profitable part of the day really could involve doing nothing at all.

For most of his 20s, Ed Cooke had been hovering around the top 10 of the World Memory Championships. His achievements includedmemorising 2,265 binary digits in 30 minutes and the order of 16 packs of playing cards in just an hour. But at the age of 26, he was getting restless, and wanted to help others to learn like him. "The memory techniques take a certain discipline," he says. "I wanted a tool that would just allow you to relax into learning."

The resulting brainchild was Memrise. Launched in 2010, the website and app is now helping more than 1.4 million users to learn foreign languages, history and science with the ease of Cooke's memory powers. It has been followed by similar apps that also take the pain out of learning – both for individuals, and in schools, with some teachers finding benefits that even Cooke couldn't have predicted.

“It's very powerful – it does all the spade work of learning,” says Dominic Traynor, who teaches Spanish at the St Cuthbert with St Matthias Primary School in London, UK. “I would say we've covered a year's worth of work in the first six months.”

As Cooke first set out developing his idea, he turned to his former classmate at Oxford University, Princeton neuroscientist Greg Detre, to help update his tried-and-tested techniques with the latest understanding of memory. Together, they came up with some basic principles that would guide Memrise’s progress over the following years. The first is the idea of “elaborative” learning – in which you try to give extra meaning to a fact to try to get it to stick in the mind. These “mems”, as the team call them, are particularly effective if they tickle the funny bone as well as the synapses – and so for each fact that you want to learn, you are encouraged to find an amusing image or phrase that helps plant the memory in your mind. For example, in one German language course, the word “abend” for evening, is illustrated with a picture of Abraham Lincoln listening to a ghetto blaster, with the caption “Abe ends work in the evening”. It’s silly, but that’s the point – an absurd image is memorable.

To cultivate those memories, the app then sets you a series of carefully timed tests over the days, weeks and months that follow. Numerous experiments over the past few years have shown that the best way to build new neural pathways is to try and recall it afresh, helping subjects remember more than twice as much, over the long term, than just passively reading the material; self-testing also turns out to be more effective than creative techniques like drawing diagrams and mind maps.

Although you can find other apps designed for rote learning and drilling in this way, Memrise makes use of another trick. Detre had found that the most effective time to reactivate a memory is when you feel that it is half-remembered, half-forgotten – when you feel it’s on the “tip of your tongue” but you can't quite reach it. So the Memrise team have designed an algorithm that predicts the arrival of that agonising state, and then springs a test on you. Since the app constantly tracks your progress, over time it becomes more accurate at predicting your learning curve, helping you surf the waves of your memory to more efficient learning.

Fun learning

All of which may help take the pain out of learning; however, the big challenge was to make it fun too. “We're always having to compete for your attention when you look at the screen of your phone,” says Ben Whately, Memrise's chief operating officer. “The experience has to have as much light-hearted interest as something like Pinterest.” But the team have also tried hard to create a community of learners that encourages friendly competition – so users can upload their courses to share with other people looking to learn the same subject, and they can compare their rank on a leader board. “We needed people to be comfortable to share stuff on sites like Facebook in order for it to get up and running on such a big scale,” says Whately.

Unsurprisingly, it was the friendly competition element that captured the attention of Traynor's primary school pupils learning Spanish. “As soon as they come into the classroom, they want to see where they are on the leader board,” he says. And there are other advantages. Each lesson, Traynor tends to split the class into two – while half are doing the “spade work” on vocabulary learning on the school's iPads, he can teach the others – before the two halves switch over. By working with these smaller groups, he can then give more individual attention to each child's understanding of the grammar.

Even more powerfully, Traynor recently began encouraging his class to record and upload their pronunciation of the words onto the app – which they can then share with their classmates using the course. The sound of their classmates seems to have spurred on their enthusiasm, says Traynor. “They're constantly trying to work out whose voice they're hearing,” he says. “So they're giving more attention to the different sounds. I think it's improved their speaking and listening dramatically.”

Although most courses on Memrise deal with foreign languages, teachers in other subjects are also starting to bring the technology to their classroom. Simon Birch from The Broxbourne School in Hertfordshire, for instance, uses it to teach the advanced terminology needed for food technology exams, while his school’s English department are using it to drill spelling. "The benefits for literacy can't be overstated," Birch says.

The Memrise team are now hoping to develop further features that might help teachers like Birch and Traynor – by providing them with data on students’ progress, so they can see which bits of the course are failing to stick. And following Memrise’s success, other companies seem to be seeing the potential of applying the art and science of memory to learning apps. For instance, the Cerego app, which launched in September 2013, also times your learning and testing to boost recall, and its team have so far launched courses on brain anatomy, music theory and art history. The team’s preliminary tests on school students suggests that classes perform between 20-50% better using the app, and they are actively working with teachers and educational institutions to develop courses together.

So are we coming close to the relaxed, effortless learning that Cooke first envisaged? Traynor thinks so; many of his class are so hooked that they readily practice Spanish on their iPads at home, to the point that he now has to plan four or five lessons in advance. “That's the strength of it,” he says. “The learning just doesn't stop.”

Indigestion, irritable bowel syndrome, inflammatory bowel diseases...if your belly always seems to be in an uproar, try munching 18 ounces of fish weekly to ease your misery. Repeated studies show that the fatty acids in fish, called EPA and DHA, can significantly reduce intestinal inflammation, cramping and belly pain and, in some cases, provide as much relief as corticosteroids and other prescription meds. "EPA and DHA are powerful, natural, side effect-free anti-inflammatories, that can dramatically improve the function of the entire gastrointestinal tract," explains biological chemist Barry Sears, Ph.D., president of the Inflammation Research Foundation in Marblehead, MA. For best results, look for oily fish like salmon, sardines, tuna, mackerel, trout and herring.

Latest studies show that at least one in four women is struggling with arthritis, gout or chronic headaches. If you're one of them, a daily bowl of cherries could ease your ache, without the stomach upset so often triggered by today's painkillers, say researchers at East Lansing's Michigan State University. Their research reveals that anthocyanins, the compounds that give cherries their brilliant red color, are anti-inflammatories 10 times stronger than ibuprofen and aspirin. "Anthocyanins help shut down the powerful enzymes that kick-start tissue inflammation, so they can prevent, as well as treat, many different kinds of pain," explains Muraleedharan Nair, Ph.D., professor of food science at Michigan State University. His advice: Enjoy 20 cherries (fresh, frozen or dried) daily, then continue until your pain disappears.


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