By Sogol Khalkhalian edited by Vincent Lyn
For some people, traveling may merely represent a change in surroundings. But for me, it embodies the very essence of existence — a harmonious fusion of body and soul amidst vast landscapes. My journeys often beckon me towards disparities: from serene hideaways to bustling urban cores, the visible disparities within society, the extremities of our planet’s climates, and the majestic interplay of mountains and oceans.
I’ve come to regard contrast as the wellspring of creativity. It’s within these distinctions that I find myself most invigorated, most impassioned. This profound urge to explore has driven me to capture moments through photography, narrate tales in documentaries, and even discover design inspiration. Yet, at its core, it’s a craving — a yearning to witness, to listen, to experience the world in its unfiltered immediacy.
My connection with travel runs profound and intricate. I’ve frequently pondered: Why does the routine of everyday life fail to captivate me? Why do I experience a sense of detachment from city living, seeking solace solely in the arms of nature? Each expedition seems like a step deeper into self-discovery, with each stride shaping facets of my being.
During my childhood, I was an inexhaustible wellspring of energy. I was a spirited young girl, often discovering myself outside the confines of the classroom, much to the bewilderment of my family, who sometimes reacted strongly to redirect my enthusiasm. During such moments, I would seek refuge in quiet corners, finding companionship in animals and engaging in wordless conversations. This was my serene escape. My early years unfolded in a residence located in Tehran’s Darroos district. It was there, within its garden, that I constructed a small brick sanctuary — a space where I cared for the animals I stumbled upon. This profound connection with nature planted the seeds of a greater passion for exploring its marvels.
These experiences felt like chapters in a childhood adventure set against the backdrop of nature’s expansive canvas. The intricacies of a leaf, the textures of trees, the graceful movements of water, or the tales concealed within a grain of sand — all of them taught me the art of concentration, the ability to truly perceive. Nature, in all its restorative magnificence, provided a sanctuary from the whirlwinds of my vivacious childhood.
Chapter Two: Boundaries and Their Essence
My first glimpse of the Berlin Wall crumbling came through a Pink Floyd music video. Later, a family friend who had witnessed this historic event recounted the euphoria of that moment. They emphasized that borders were not merely physical structures; they were the threads that wove thousands of lives together before tearing them apart. Borders and travel had always been intertwined in my mind. Borders, after all, were nothing more than lines on paper, separating people and delineating territories. It was this very concept that ignited my desire to explore these demarcated divisions firsthand.
For me, borders had always been a source of fascination, turning travel into more than just an adventure or a historical expedition; it became a profound exploration of societal dynamics. Borders weren’t confined to lines on maps alone. Invisible barriers, separating genders, ethnicities, religions, and social classes, often wielded more power than the visible ones. They existed within cities, molding an individual’s world. Wandering through a city was a way to challenge these boundaries, unveiling microcultures, lifestyles, labels, and exclusions.
Borders had taught me that in order to truly expand our horizons, to understand people from diverse cultures, and to eradicate bias in our judgments, we must transcend both visible and invisible societal boundaries. We should lend an ear to stories from different worlds, embracing coexistence, empathy, and tolerance.
Chapter Three: Confronting Our Apprehensions
Since childhood, there have always been individuals discouraging me from venturing into the unfamiliar. I’ve hurdled over all the fears and the discouragements I’ve encountered — those stemming from my gender, those attempting to confine me, a woman, within the domestic sphere and confined spaces, and various apprehensions such as the fear of getting lost, encountering harm, encountering deception, and various forms of exploitation.
Travel inevitably comes with geographical, cultural, and cognitive disorientation. Some of these fears have legitimate foundations, and I, too, experienced trepidation. My antidote to these fears was diligent research. What lay ahead of me? Reading travel accounts, studying ethnographies, perusing online accounts by amateur travelers, delving into the intricacies of local customs, and discovering methods to comprehend indigenous cultures offered me some guidance. It pointed out areas where I should avoid venturing alone or proceed with caution. Always, I sought insights from locals that would illuminate my path, forging friendships made more accessible through digital tools, and adopting numerous strategies to protect women from various potential hazards.
When we position ourselves against the unfamiliar while traveling, we inevitably embrace a certain degree of risk. Nevertheless, immersing ourselves in resources at times makes us so well-acquainted with a society that it feels as though we are stepping into familiar territory.
Chapter Four: The Adventurous Motherhood
As a mother with a zest for adventure, when my daughter was a mere five months old, I secured her in a backpack and ventured off to enjoy a skiing trip. This marked the most formidable aspect of my expedition: surmounting a societal framework that typically confines motherhood to the domestic sphere, tethering the nurturing of a child exclusively to the home’s four walls. These societal pressures coalesce to ensure the preservation of the taboos surrounding the archetype of a ‘good mother.’ The influence of familial structures, entrenched patriarchal ideals, and various cultural norms that pertain to both women and men can be burdensome. Even when you defy these conventions, the pervasive patriarchal culture keeps you entangled in the web of maternal guilt.
My motives were not overly intricate. I was a young mother, driven by two fundamental convictions: firstly, if Eskimo children could thrive in the Arctic or African children could endure adverse conditions, why couldn’t my child? Secondly, I believed that the most valuable lesson I could impart to my daughter as a mother was to demonstrate how people from diverse cultures and religions could peacefully coexist.
In due course, during her own upbringing, my daughter conveyed an even more profound lesson to me. Observing children of different nationalities and races playing together, and her innate inclination to form friendships with strangers, revealed to me how our minds harbor a preconceived hierarchy laden with labels. Together, my daughter and I embarked on an extensive journey, successfully challenging numerous gender stereotypes along the way.
Chapter Five: The Allure of The Expedition
The journey exerts a magical allure, casting a spell that eclipses the enchantment of everything else. When I set out for the Maasai community in Kenya, I had not foreseen the profound impact it would have on me. After years of travel, watching documentaries, and following the work of photographers, I believed I had grown adept in my voyages. Accompanied by a local guide I had befriended during a prior visit to the Maasai, I ventured into their village. They had promised me an opportunity to witness a rite-of-passage ceremony. I donned traditional attire and partook in their dances. Young men entered the arena, engaging in wrestling matches, and we indulged in a feast featuring hunted meat. Slowly, I began to discern something extraordinary: women changing from their customary clothing into modern garments, the village chief engaging with the young men, and eventual farewells. These were moments concealed from the gaze of the average tourist. I ran my fingers over the walls and realized their ornamental purpose. In subsequent journeys, I became more vigilant, diligently seeking the demarcation between authenticity and performance. Initially, I was taken aback, as though genuine cultures were eroding. However, I soon came to understand that we often suffer from a form of cultural shortsightedness, unable to perceive the unadulterated essence of cultures during our travels. Travel compels us to scrutinize everything rigorously, to question, to delve until we attain the desired depth — an understanding of culture that separates us from the superficial pleasures of the stereotypical tourist.
Chapter Six: Navigating the Abyss
The tumultuous waters of the Drake Passage have forever beckoned daring sailors, enticing them with visions of the South Pole. To navigate these waters, one must endure three relentless days on a ship that never truly finds respite. The waves and storms are so ferocious that the ship is in a perpetual state of upheaval, with everything thrown into disarray. Seasickness becomes an unwelcome companion, and even tightly secured belts offer little solace as they’re lifted by the turbulence.
Amidst these tempests, I found myself pondering: Was my journey merely a quest to check off uncharted territories on my map? Had I unwittingly entered into a race? Most importantly, thoughts of my daughter, waiting for my return far away at home, haunted me. I wished I had left her a note. In the whirlwind of emotions, I confronted a profound fear — the fear of death. It was a fear I had always casually brushed aside, but now it stared me in the face. If my life were to be cut short, had I truly savored its myriad experiences? Why had I willingly plunged into such peril?
In that tumultuous abyss, I came face to face with the deepest layers of my soul. It was as if life had held up a mirror to my innermost self. Yet, as the journey drew to a close, the storm within me subsided. Unbeknownst to myself, each expedition had been a quest to confront my innermost fears and voids: descending into the depths of the ocean to conquer my childhood fear of confined spaces, confronting other fears rooted in my youth, and even addressing the fear of homelessness that led me to choose a life under tents and makeshift shelters.
The Final Step: A verse from the renowned Persian poet Hafez resonates deeply within me: “In the end, you’ll become the clay in the potter’s hands.” Fate has blessed me with a supportive family who understood my dreams, a daughter who forgave my absences, and opportunities to collaborate with esteemed institutions like National Geographic. While my determination and strategies, such as promoting airline brands in exchange for free trips, paved the way, there are moments when destiny gently rests upon one’s shoulder, granting cherished desires. I pen this final chapter as a reminder to myself: many aspire to make travel their life’s work but remain unfulfilled. It’s not always about qualifications; others may even surpass me in merit. I cherish this privilege and aspire to inspire others with my stories, offering insights and solutions. I, too, am a devotee of travel narratives, eternally pursuing the dream of turning the impossible into reality.
Adventurer/ Documentarian/ Yogi
National Geographic Magazine Explorer
CEO & Founder of We Can Save Children
Deputy Ambassador of International Human Rights Commission (IHRC)
Director of Creative Development at African Views Organization
Economic & Social Council at United Nations (ECOSOC)
Rescue & Recovery Specialist at International Confederation of Police & Security Experts