For many, the privilege to travel globally and sustain a notion of a carefree life intertwined with an adventurous soul – in a world where, fortunately, satisfying our extreme levels of wanderlust through whimsical escapes, is never too far out of reach.
And yes, we’re all guilty of taking for granted – particularly true thanks to the rise of lifestyle influencers flooding our social media feeds – we often forget the true reasoning and cultural experiences available to us. It goes deeper than achieving that perfect insta-snap for followers. It’s about immersing ourselves into a world we know nothing of and walking away having experienced the emotionally confronting, life-changing and, enormously rewarding sides of travel.
Enter in Simla Sooboodoo, Founder of Hands On Journeys and all-round life-changer. Usually this is where a journalist provides a generic introduction – mentions of a “humble beginning” so frequently over-used. But this time? It needn’t be necessary. It was far from humble beginnings that shaped Simla’s life – instead, it was the hard yards.
Growing up on the island of Mauritius, Simla was no stranger to personal heartache and struggle from an early age. Bearing the weight of a home with little income, family life was often in a state of tension and flux. Eventually, these circumstances lead Simla’s beloved Gran to take on the role of part-time carer, ultimately playing an influential role in her childhood and upbringing. At just 16, Simla suddenly found herself devastated and with little options after her Gran passed away.
Whilst in the midst of personal anguish, a shining light beamed through in the form of her aunt and uncle. Supported financially by both until she was due to finish high school, they took one last action that would forever shape Simla’s life; relocating her to Australia.
Of that moment, Simla credits that time as the “second chance that, without doubt, changed my life’ – eventually leading to a job in accounting and soon after, working as CFO in a large travel company. Finally, she was living out her childhood dream of traveling the world.
As we all know, life can work in such beautiful ways. But unfortunately, nobody is ever immune to the harsh realities it can in turn provide. And while Simla had already been dealt her fair share, it was not yet close to easing up.
Struck down by a brain aneurysm and haemorrhage on two separate occasions, Simla fought a devastating prognosis of only 10% chance of survival. Somehow she miraculously awoke – and so did the new burning passion inside of her. That day, she notes, was a pinnacle one. And from thereon in, promised to love life differently and ultimately, dedicate herself to inspiring other travellers in providing second chances to those in need through her foundation, Hands On Journeys.
ACC: For those who aren’t familiar with Hands on Journeys, how would you describe what it is that you’re doing?
We combine an exciting mix of cultural immersion, sightseeing, and our unique empowerment tourism concept. This ultimately means that for one day our travellers could visit the Taj Mahal, the next morning learn from locals how to cook traditional dishes and by the afternoon, help developing communities open their own business or improve skill sets to grow their income potential.
Our tours are a real sensory overload, but we genuinely believe they allow travellers to maximise their vacation time with a mix of traditional touring and powerfully impacting experiences. The most magical feedback I receive is when people walk away from a ‘Hands On journey’ saying traveling any other way no longer appeals to them.
ACC: Hands On is growing steadily. What countries have you visited? Are there particular cultures of the world you find yourself working with most?
Until now, our focus has heavily been on the Asia region – with India, Cambodia and Vietnam being our core focuses. Over the coming months, we will be expanding to Fiji, Mexico and Queensland. It’s a massive achievement for the Hands On family.
Our core values embrace various cultures and ideally, helping as many people possible. So, pinpointing a favourite would be hard. Between my team and myself, we’ve visited around 100 different countries – so we’re always aware of new destinations we would love to expand into. Hopefully, as the company grows, we’ll be able to bring the Empowerment Tourism concept to even more travellers and destinations.
ACC: While encouraging the good of volunteering, you combine the satisfaction with the joys of travelling with in-depth cultural experiences – was there any moments you found particularly challenging, and if so how have you remedied them?
Being a woman certainly throws up some challenges, especially in certain cultures and communities. This – coupled with the fact that what we try and do is so different from other operators – means making the first contact with communities and working out how we can actually support them particularly challenging.
I believe two-way conversation, open communication and finding common goals and beliefs are the best way to remedy this. The heart of what we do has to be based on the local communities being happy and feeling the next steps will bring long-term and sustainable improvements to their day-to-day life. Honest conversation is truly the key to anything in life.
ACC: As a lifelong wanderlust craver, what was the pinnacle moment where pinpoint as the shift in momentum ultimately driving your sense of wanting to give back?
Growing up, I used to wave at planes in the skies above Mauritius, thinking I’d never get the chance to go on one. When my move and subsequent career led to a life in the skies, I truly appreciated how fortunate I was. Years before starting Hands On, I volunteered around the world – joining numerous charity projects and working with local NGOs. It was my second long-stint in hospital that made me realise this wasn’t something I wanted to do for just a few weeks while on vacation, I wanted to make it my life mission. It was engrained in me after that.
ACC: What’s the first account impact you’ve witnessed come from Hands On?
The impact is two-fold, which makes it extra special. Seeing our travellers come away from a project or tour with a new outlook on life is truly magical. Many of our ex-travellers often return for other tours or have gone on to set up their own social enterprise in support of communities around the world.
From a project perspective – there’s been so many! One that stands out was a project in the floating villages of Vietnam. Bringing together a small community, we worked tirelessly with them in developing jewellery-making skills and also, spent time with them refining the products and tools to do so.
Just weeks later they’d taken those materials and talents and turned it into nearly $2000! For a community who are used to earning a few dollars a day, this impact was resounding, and also reassuring that yes, we really were helping these people. That money bought necessary repairs to their floating homes, as well as allowing them to reinvest so they could repeat that success.
ACC: What does a typical day look like for you?
I wouldn’t say I have a typical day anymore; I’m aptly very hands-on business-wise so often find myself on the road alot. I personally prepare all itineraries, projects – while training our guides and leaders on-ground. When I’m at home in Australia, I’m usually floating between meetings, spreading the empowerment tourism message or can be found attached to a mocha and working on my emails.
ACC: Hands On highlights Empowerment Tourism rather than Volunteer Tourism – how, in your eyes, do these differ?
Volunteer tourism provides incredible opportunities for travellers to leave a lasting mark on the communities they visit. These opportunities usually, and should be, long-term to ensure teaching or supporting project allow them to build a personal rapport with the community. We see what we do as working alongside such a project.
In brief, while volunteers may go to build a school, we work with communities to ensure they have an income, so in turn, they can afford to send their children to that school. Sadly, in many parts of the world if there’s no work and thus, no food, children can either be sent to beg or so malnourished they cannot glean the most of their education. We take a cut of the profit from each tour, and it goes to work before our travellers even set off.
We employ locals to do required construction or tasks before we arrive, so really, our travellers only spend about 25% of their tour involved with the projects. This time allows observation of where their funds have gone, immersion into the community and of course, dedicate their time to helping grow the employment and business opportunities in the communities.
ACC: Any info you can divulge about any upcoming projects you have in the works?
We’ve got some new tours launching in coming months, all which have their own unique focus. I’m really excited to be bringing Hands On Journeys ‘home’, with our new Queensland tour built alongside a local Indigenous community near Cairns.
Basically, this tour is focused more on learning and cultural immersion rather than our usual tours – while also still allowing this community to open their own tourism focused business. Fiji is a key focus next year too; we have a real emphasis on those affected by the hurricanes inland benefit from the typical tourist dollars arriving at the country.
ACC: No doubt working closely with communities in need can take quite the emotional toll do find yourself struggling at points?
I’d be lying if I were to deny it being emotionally overwhelming, but it’s important to remember we aren’t here to save people, we’re here to work with them towards a better future. I try to focus on the positives. Although many communities live differently to what we assume is the ‘right way’ in the west, for most there is usually happiness and a day–to-day routine. If we embrace the commonalities we share, it keeps the positive energy flowing.
ACC: Why would you urge travellers to choose this company when planning their next getaway?
I think the world is getting smaller and learning more about different cultures in person is so important. I try to make sure all our itineraries are the perfect blend of traditional touring, life-changing moments, community empowerment and cultural immersion. If anyone wants to maximise vacation time, a tour provides a memorable, magical experience that a typical holiday won’t. All our tours are based off my own travels and future desires, so they’ve been shaped with the traveller at the forefront.
ACC: How has working on such life-changing projects impacted both your outlook on life, and how you try to influence others?
Overall, its made me feel more as a person – having a purpose like this makes getting out of bed each morning that little bit more important. Between Hands on Journeys and my health scares, I’ve learned the value of every waking minute and always strive to make them really count. It’s a message I try to share daily with those around me and who’s paths I cross, and I hope it inspires others to make the most of their own time, focused on what truly matters.
ACC: If someone wanted to donate or get involved further – how could they?
Obviously, joining one of our tours is the best way to get the full Hands on Journeys experience, but I appreciate that may not be possible for everyone. We offer alternative ways to support our projects though we don’t accept any donations ourselves.
Our Facebook page and website are regularly updated with information on the communities, projects and NGOs we work closely with. From time-to-time, they may be seeking direct donations, or you can see the business we have helped set up. Ultimately, we want to help businesses grow even after we’ve helped set them up – so we’re always happy to hear when people visit them, even if not on a Hands on Journeys tour.
To get involved or learn more visit: Hands On Journeys
Feature image credit: http://www.cntraveller.com/
Body image credits: Hands On Journeys, Pinterest