Harjit Sohotey-Khan was working in a banking job in the city of London. Feeling a growing sense of unfulfillment, at 43 years of age she left the job to travel across Asia with her husband for a year.
The experience was transformational for Harjit. After returning home to the UK, she left the corporate world behind and founded her own ethical fashion business, Jewelled Buddha, inspired by the many artisan communities she encountered along her journey.
In this interview, Harjit talks about the decision to take a career break, the challenges of long-term travel in your 40s, the standout memories of her journey, and the vision and values behind Jewelled Buddha.
What was your career situation before you decided to take time out to travel?
I worked in the city of London as a PA for an investment bank.
What inspired your decision to take a career break and travel?
I fell into working for a bank after I was made redundant from a job I loved. It was more creative and not corporate at all, so I think there was always an element of feeling that I just didn’t fit in and that the work was quite dull. But more importantly, I was in my 40s and just felt that life was all about work, with the odd holiday thrown in.
I’d always wanted to travel long-term, and had been lucky enough to enjoy at least 2–3 holidays a year. But it was never enough and I always felt really deflated when I’d come back. It was more than just having the holiday blues. Travel was something I’d constantly think about.
Being my 40s I think I’d come to a point in my life where I was questioning a lot of things. I was bored of working in the city. The long commute, daily grind and the everyday mundanity of it all made me question what purpose it bought to my life.
I felt that I just existed in a robotic sense, in a job that bought me no joy at all. I remember sitting at my desk and thinking, is this it? Will I just work, pay bills and die? It’s a bit dramatic but I felt that way for months on end.
How did the people in your life react to your travel plans?
When my husband and I first spoke to our family, I think they were a bit shocked. Having elderly parents from a traditional Asian background also didn’t help, because they didn’t quite understand why we would give up a secure income at our age and just go on a long holiday!
But after telling them how we really felt, they came round to the idea. Our friends were so happy for us as many of them had travelled too, so they totally knew why we were doing it.
How did you approach the situation at your workplace, and what arrangements did you need to make before leaving the office?
To be very honest I didn’t really talk to anyone about it in the office. I didn’t ask for a sabbatical so that I could come back again, I literally just handed in my resignation and left a month later. I figured that by the time I’d come back I’d be in a different job doing something I enjoyed.
Where did your journey take you, and what are your standout memories of the adventure?
We travelled across Asia, taking in the well trodden backpackers route including Nepal, Myanmar, Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia. Nepal was amazing.
We trekked the Annapurna Circuit, which was life-changing in itself. Two weeks of hiking through beautiful mountains and meeting amazing people you’d never come across in your lifetime was exhilarating. It taught me a lot about myself and put me in a lot of situations I’d never had to deal with before. Just simple things like not having your home comforts, sleeping in freezing cold wooden cabins and having to deal with not showering for days on end. Nepal is one of those places that really gets under your skin. It’s one of our favourite corners of the world.
Myanmar was a wonderful experience. We landed there just as the country was opening up to the world, so you could literally see a country trying to grapple this new wave of tourism. We travelled to Yangon, Mandalay and Bagan by train which was a beautiful way to see the rural countryside, meet the locals and just get swept up in the whole nostalgia of it. It was like taking a step back in time. The icing on the cake was seeing the sunrise over the Temples of Bagan while hot air balloons floated above you. I’ll never forget that moment. It was utterly sublime.
Thailand was everything we imagined it to be. Food, parties, elephant sanctuaries and temples with lots of fun surprises thrown in. However, Sulawesi in Indonesia really stood out for me. A shockingly beautiful but mysterious place where the natives still practiced death rituals. We spent three days visiting hanging cliff graves, ancient burial sites and even got special permission to attend a funeral over two days to watch the slaughter of countless buffalo whilst chatting and drinking coffee with the family. Strange but true! It was both shocking and intriguing but at the time it felt a privilege to witness an ancient and tribal custom, even if I didn’t agree with the rituals around it. I don’t think I’d have the stomach for it now though!
We had a few unplanned pitstops during our travels too. While in Kuala Lumpur we found some cheap tickets to Sydney and spontaneously ended up there only to realise that it would probably put a huge dent in our finances. So instead, not to miss an opportunity, we met up with a few friends in Sydney and Canberra with whom we used to work with in London and headed off to New Zealand for a three-week road trip around the South Island. That’s what I loved about travel. The freedom and spontaneity we experienced was unlike anything.
Finally, China and Tibet were epic. We ticked off many a bucket list there, from the Great Wall to the Terracotta Warriors. We ended the trip by taking the Quinghai–Tibet Railway across the Tibetan Plateau. We spent eight days in Tibet where we soaked up as many temples and mountains as we could, finishing the year at Everest Base Camp. A stunning end to a year that completely changed my life and perspective on everything I once knew.
As a 43-year-old, did you find any aspects of long-term travelling challenging? If so, how did you overcome it?
I didn’t feel that my age was a hindrance in any way while travelling. I wouldn’t say I was particularly fit but I was healthy and I think I actually became healthier during travel. While trekking I lost a stone in two weeks. What with hiking at high altitudes, eating nothing but lentils and rice and sleeping in sub-zero temperatures, it was hard not to lose weight!
I think the most challenging things were jet lag and exhaustion. The long journeys, lack of sleep and early starts would often mean we’d collapse in a heap on our beds. There were also the death-defying taxi rides, near misses, falls, food poisoning and insect bites which weren’t great, but part of the package.
What were the biggest lessons you learned from your travel career break that you wouldn’t have learned at home?
Where do I start? I learned so many lessons! Here’s just a few, but I could very easily write a book!
It taught me a lot about myself as a person and gave me the confidence to grow and explore what I wanted in life. It also made me realise what I didn’t want from life. I think it’s only when you travel long-term that you can actually take the time and have the freedom to make these decisions. Of course you don’t have to travel for a year, but a few months can still have the same effect.
It changed my perspective on life. Long-term travel turned our world upside down! Like most people, we had nine-to-five jobs, got married and had a home. However, after living out of a backpack for almost a year and experiencing the freedom that travel offers, you realise you don’t have to be pigeon-holed into living a life that involves just working and paying bills. The definition of living changed for us. Experiencing and engaging everything the world had to offer and growing as a person was life-affirming.
I appreciate life more. Living out of a backpack enabled me to appreciate what I had. Also witnessing so many injustices in the countries we visited like poverty, social inequality and political upheaval, means I’m thankful for the freedoms I have and things I own.
I discovered what it meant to be present and live life in the moment. I think we are all raised to constantly think and plan the future. We run around trying to make this happen, barely taking time out to stand still.
I learned so much about people, different cultures and religions. As Mark Twain said “travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness,” or something like that!
“From India to Nepal, Thailand to Indonesia, women created stunning textiles on traditional looms. I felt there was a story to be told and I wanted to tell it.”
You started an ethical fashion business after returning home. What inspired this?
Throughout our travels, we came across many artisan communities. At first I didn’t look for these, they just happened to be in the places we visited. From India to Nepal, Thailand to Indonesia, women created stunning textiles on traditional looms. I felt there was a story to be told and I wanted to tell it.
My backpack also taught me a lesson about appreciating the clothes I had, and with an interest in handmade ethical clothing, I started connecting the dots. It wasn’t really until towards the end of the year that I started thinking seriously about starting my own business.
Even when I returned home, it took a long time to re-adjust to life back home. It was only when I’d started reflecting on my experiences and the women we’d seen weaving, that I realised it was almost like a sign from the universe that was telling me do it.
Today Jewelled Buddha works with social enterprises, NGOs and social brands, who have a strong sense of integrity and transparency in their fair trade practices, women’s empowerment programmes and environmental impact. Each and every product we carry is handmade or handloomed by artisans empowered by a fair and sustainable income. Our products combine sustainable, organic, responsibly sourced materials including upcycled fabric. This has less impact on people and the planet.
How have your travel experiences influenced your lifestyle since returning home?
Pre-Covid I was lucky enough to travel for work, sourcing new products. I promised myself I’d get a job that involved travel, and so I guess I did it. Totally beats my last job hands down!
It goes without saying that my husband and I make sure we still travel as much as we can. Last year we went to Bali, Nusa Penida and Bangkok in two weeks. The year before it was more of a relaxing break in the Perenthian Islands. I’ll never stop travelling. It’s just a part of who I am.
If you could go back to before your travel career break, would you do anything differently?
I don’t think I would. Looking back I think that everything led me to make a decision to take control of my life, leave my job and go travelling. I of course acted on that decision and made the very best of it. Like everything in life, dreaming about doing something and actually acting on it are two different things. Sometimes you just have to make things happen.
“I think we owe it to ourselves to make our lives as extraordinary and wonderful as we can.”
What advice would you give to other people considering taking a career break to travel?
I would always encourage everyone to travel. Even it it’s just for a short time. It’s one of those opportunities that doesn’t present itself very often and once you start working and building a career, it’s very difficult to take time out.
We’re all conditioned to work, pay the mortgage and live a ‘normal’ life, but I think we owe it to ourselves to make our lives as extraordinary and wonderful as we can. It’s good to unplug from the system from time to time! I mean a year out of your whole life is nothing compared to a lifetime of regret if you decide not to travel. For me it was the greatest gift I could give to myself.
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