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The Outsiders: In Defence of ‘Weird’ Countries

I’ve always been interested in outsiders.

You know those people that don’t quite fit into the high school cliques. The ones with interesting backgrounds, or sometimes that the other kids warn you to stay away from for whatever reason they came up with that day.

Instead of heeding the other kid’s warnings, I’d always try to befriend them.

Sure, sometimes I got burnt, but more often than not, I found an interesting human with a story they wanted to share.

It wasn’t just humans who interested me.

Hanging out with new and old friends in Islamabad, Pakistan | Nicole Smith & Josh Cahill

Hanging with new and old friends in Islamabad, Pakistan.
Photo by @umer093

I’ve had a passion for countries which are considered outsiders too. Those countries you probably wouldn’t tell your Mother about before visiting.

While the people I grew up around dreamt of Paris, Los Angeles or Bali, I dreamed of Russia, The Silk Road and the -Stans, (what was formally) Czechoslovakia, North Korea, and – for some reason – Saudia Arabia.

I discovered these places on the spinning world globe in my parent’s study, the novels I devoured (and still do), by watching movies, and delving into the pages of my history books which the teachers didn’t teach us from.
When I got older, I explored them online using the dial-up Internet and chunky PC in my parents home.

When I told others my interest in these faraway places, I was told that my interest was strange. That it was weird to want to visit those places; so I kept to keep it to myself. A little dream of travelling to these “weird” countries protected within me.

Hanging out at Monal Restaurant, Islamabad. This restaurant sits high in the hills of Islamabad offering a HUGE array of delicious Pakistani food (you MUST try the succulent koftas!) and incredible views of the surrounding area. Top tip: the other side of the hill has the best sunset views, but the view from Monal is still gorgeous :)

Spending a day by myself roaming Islamabad. Yes, Pakistan, a place the Media tells us is chock full of terrorists!

Even just a few weeks ago when I visited Pakistan with my good friend, my Mum sent me an email with a simple question:

Hope all is well, ? why 5 days in that place, why not Bora Bora or somewhere exotic,

What she didn’t know was that I had flown to Pakistan in order to get a visa to visit a place far more ‘exotic’ – Afghanistan.

I respect that travelling to Pakistan, Turkmenistan, India or Afghanistan is not everyones cup of tea. I understand the lure of sun and sand or snowy peaks and hot chocolate, and even a good road trip not too far from home. But it’s always been ‘those places’ that has lured me and captivated my imagination. I was just too worried about what my family, my colleagues, the strangers that would feel it appropriate to cast judgement on my decisions would say.

There’s something to be said about age and wisdom here.

Sharing a meal among new friends in Kabul, Afghanistan. There are houses, which are more 'hostels', for locals, students, NGO workers, journalists, and others all around the city. In those houses you'll find a rag tag mix of interesting humans, some who cook excellent Persian and Afghani food, if you are lucky!

Sharing a home cooked Persian/Afghan meal with new friends in Kabul - delicious!

Each one of those outsiders called to me in a completely different way. Some were clearly curiosity of the unknown – why else does a person want to visit a Dictatorship like North Korea or understand a country where women are granted so few rights like Saudia Arabia yet is home to the world’s largest annual pilgrimage for a religion whose language I do not understand – but others were a result of the Media speaking their names on the nightly news as they discussed these conflict happening in lands a long way from the peace of my home, Australia.

Albania.

Georgia.

Belarus.

Iran.

Iraq.

Afghanistan.

Morbid curiosity? Yes, you could debate that. Most of all, it was the pull of the rich, intricate history of these places, so often forgotten about when the Media sees the crimson stain of blood.

Walking out of Kabul's Darul Aman Palace after
we were reluctantly given a guided tour of the
recently renovated Palace, escorted by an Afghani Army officer.

The Media paints pictures for what we cannot see, to share stories of places and people that share this place, earth, our home.

The Media tells of starving Africa, as though Africa is one country, and about the world’s drug epidemics, choosing not to discuss the very root of the problem – the unsexy discussion that growing the opium poppy earn farmers far more than other crops in war-torn countries like Afghanistan, which still cultivates the largest illicit supply of the drug in the world.

In much of the West’s Media, Russia is still an enemy even now 28-years after the Cold War came to an end. The Media tell us one country is our friend… only until they are not.

There is only black and white, no shades of grey, in the stories that the Media portray.

I like the grey.

The grey is more often where the truth can be found, where perceptions can be challenged, pondered, and reconsidered.

The grey is where people and their stories are discovered.

The grey is where you will find the pathway I choose to travel down, the less travelled one, and the reason why I travel at all. To learn, to understand, to challenge my own perception of the world and maybe, just maybe, help you challenge your own perception too.

Which path do you choose to take?

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

– ‘The Road Not Taken’ by Robert Frost –

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