Off The Beaten Path Interviews
An inside look at Earth’s explorers
We’re excited to introduce a very special member of the Where Sidewalks End community. Sakai Naismith has been a strong ambassador of the WSE community since it’s initial days. Australian born, Sakai has been living abroad for essentially his entire adult life. With what started as a quick vacation away, turned into finding a new home in Asia. Sakai has worn a number of hats, from being a tour leader, working various office positions, and even as a performer for the Cirque du Soleil. His true passion has been exploring the world, and enabling those interested to engage with it on a more personal level. For a more inside look into what drives Mr Naismith, we thought this would be a good opportunity to get behind the scenes. Today we’ll find out a little bit about what has motivated him to continue exploring the uncharted off the beaten path world.
Introducing, Mr Sakai Naismith
So, you’re originally from Australia, but have spent a lot of time abroad. Looking back on Australia, how do you feel about it now? How did it inspire you to seek a life of travel?
It is bizarre looking back at Australia because I actually feel increasingly disconnected from the land and the culture. This year I returned to Melbourne for the first time in five years and subconsciously I was treating it as a new destination.
If I look back on Australia I would say the fact that Australia is so isolated from the rest of the world contributed to my hunger for something different and unknown. Australians, like many nationalities, are often very nationalistic, proud and overemphasize their roles in global economics and politics. I remember being told that Australians are always well received overseas and feeling more confident on my first trips abroad because of this statement.
Over time I have realised that Australia walks a tightrope in a few destinations, especially Phuket and Bali, that receive multiple direct flights every day. We are categorised as being loud, arrogant and disrespectful drunkards. I have seen often seen Australians who have earnt this reputation, but I find it unfair to tarnish us all with the same brush. In Phuket and Bali, it is often the consensus that although many locals are frustrated by ‘our’ behaviour – they are unprepared to turn away the strength of the Australian dollar.
I guess that this is the double edged sword of tourism. Countries and cities need to decide what sacrifices can be made to increase the number of arrivals. On the other side is that as travelers we should view ourselves as ambassadors of our country – and our responsibilities include respecting and learning the cultural practises when overseas.
You’ve lived in a lot of exotic places, including many parts of Asia and the Middle East. Where’s the most interesting place you’ve lived? The most difficult?
I would probably say that the most interesting place I have ever lived is Yemen. Despite it’s negative reputation Yemen had some of the friendliest people I have ever met and the Yemeni grasp of architecture is phenomenal: The downtown city of Sana’a is an area of narrow multi storey buildings that seem to have been fashioned out of rudimentary rocks and the views over this lowrise city into the mountainous backdrops are breathtaking; In the Hadramawt there is a city block of buildings 20 stories high made from mudbrick and lime – and no other buildings for miles. I saw houses built on boulders and cliff faces and cities that were built completely out of local rocks that just blend into nature as you distance from them.
I guess I often speak about the frustration of sweeping generalisations and the Middle East is the focus of a great deal of negativity at the moment. The Arabian Peninsula developed through the oil industry on the outskirts of the ‘Empty Quarter’ 40 years ago and as the countries have catapulted into the 21st Century there is a lot of people left questionning whether the progress is positive. Because the political and economical climate is unstable, no oil companies and few international investors have started to develop industries that can carry Yemen at the same pace as her neighbours – and so the Yemeni people hear of the wealth in Oman, the UAE and Saudi but are forced maintain a simple and traditional lifestyle. This is both Yemen’s charm and her curse.
You currently live in Thailand. What made you choose Thailand? What tricks did you use to learn about and settle into Thai culture?
I remember first moving here and meeting expats carrying around books on Thai Business Culture and attending a number of language courses. Looking at the same group of expats today is difficult because most of them have moved on to other countries or their homelands. I believe that if you attempt to learn in a regimented fashion then you will always seem either forced or flawed – unless you are truly passionate in your undertaking. I have always chosen to learn by observation and context.
I was teasing my mother about 20 years ago because she subconsciouly assumes a partial accent when she is speaking to someone with a different accent to her own – but now I am extraordinarily grateful that I appear to have inhereted this trait. My language abilities are often overestimated because of the fact that I am able to replicate the tones and complexities of a language. Most Asian languages also vary depending on the formality of your situation and in the classroom you will learn to speak for a boardroom but you will likely be laughed at in a market. I do my shopping at the biggest local markets in Bangkok and rarely see tourists or expats through the marketplace despite the significant cost benefits. I think Thai people have learnt how to successfully accommodate tourists and expats, and this shelters you from the real pulse of the country unelss you make a real effort to stay connected on a daily basis.
With such passion and experience in traveling, it surprises me that you studied law! What made you pursue the path you’re on today and where does law fit into it?
The main reason I wanted to become a lawyer was to have a voice and to give a voice to people that are otherwise denied this in society. Lawyers are often seen as being the scoundrel ambulance chasers who create an overly litigious society or the profession that is able to profit from a divorce. When I was about 10 years old my parents actually had to stop arguing with me because I learnt to manipulate words or truths to my own advantage. I felt that being a Criminal Defense Lawyer was a perfect progression after High School and a well respected trade that I could easily establish a reputation within.
The biggest issue was that I was already good at arguing and debating and had been annoying my family for so many years with this skill. I struggled at University financially and managed to support myself through the hospitality industry initially before getting a job with a travel agency. I started to speak to people about going overseas and got them excited to travel. At some point I realised that I did not have a sales pitch as a travel agent – but that the reason I was quite successful was because I was genuinely passionate.
Shortly after this realisation I booked myself a one way ticket.
Dreads, along with tattoos and piercings, are often meaningful artistic expressions of self that mean different things to different people. What did your dreads mean to you? Did you have any special rituals that revolve around them?
I’m not sure if my dreadlocks or piercings are artistic expressions. I put dreadlocks in my hair when I was bored on a beach one day in random spots across my head. Actually most of the piercings were born out of a boredom as well and I found the piercing adrenaline rush slightly addictive which is why I had a few too many at one point. I believe I have an artistic mind, but I struggle to draw stick figures convincingly. I enjoy my lack of artistic abilities because I have an even greater admiration for people who are able to conjure up their mind’s images.
Before I embarked on my one way flight journey into the unknown, we had a farewell party and I was convinced to shave my head – or else be faced with the humidity of Asia underneath a shagpile of dreadlocks. I caved to popular opinion and my head was shaved almost all the way when I decided that it was all happening too fast and I had not prepared myself. The result was that I had 3 dreadlocks remaining on the back of my head, I kept this style for the next 8 years.
Over the 8 years my dreadlocks earnt a celebrity status across the Middle East and parts of Asia and were a huge asset as a tour leader. I remember after several years of tour leading I had a child in Cambodia actually asked me for an autograph (he thought that my tour group were my entourage but was not sure why I was famous). My attachment to my deadlocks increased as I realised their value until the stage when I realised that my knowledge of my industry had overtaken their worth some time ago and I was clinging on to the persona they afforded me.
I decided to cut my hair for a Cambodian Charity and raised just under 3000 USD in less than 48 hours… next time you are bored on a beach you might think differently about what you do!!
You have been described as a passionate person who sees a lot of beauty in the world, and wants to share it. Tell us about something you consider beautiful and why you feel passionate about it.
This is a very difficult question. Thank you to whoever told you that about me, it is flattering.
I would like to think that I am a passionate person and I constantly need to remind myself to express my passion using logic and reasoning rather than emotion.
My initial reaction is actually to say that I am rarely passionate about things that I consider beautiful. For example, ibe if the most beautful things I have ever seen was sunset from Assekrem in the Algerian Sahara – but I would not say that I am passionate about it. I like to take time to admire my surroundings whether they are beautiful or not. I was in a taxi on the Bangkok Expressway two days ago admiring the person who thought that they could build a road in the sky… and then succeeded in doing it.
My passions are normally drawn from people and the hardships or injustices that some people face.
Do you have a motto for life? If so, how do you live that motto?
I dont really have a motto but the one thing that I truly value and attempt to nurture is my relationships with the people around me. Sometimes I know the people around me and other times I do not. I can control my actions and my reactions. Beyond that I can maintain positivity.
A very special thanks to Sakai Naismith for sharing his stories and inspiration for off the beaten track travel!
Find out more about Sakai by following him on Twitter @SakaiArun
Tune in next time when we interview our next off the beaten track world explorer, and sign up for email or RSS notifications so you don’t miss any of the excitement!