We kicked off the series with Wendy, the Singaporean woman who manages Hollywood’s biggest stars, followed by Jasmine, the Singaporean woman who was friends with Pablo Escobar’s drug dealer and Wesley, the Singaporean Man Who Owns A 200-Acre Sheep Farm In Canada.
Now, we bring you Mariana Ahmad, the Singaporean woman who gave up her successful media career to live in rural villages with no running water or toilet paper. This story is told from her perspective.
While I was in my twenties and gaining success, I couldn’t shake off the itch to travel. Working in Singapore means only getting two weeks off a year, which isn’t enough to explore anywhere. I was planning to get a working holiday visa in the UK, but I kept procrastinating because of my good job at Mediacorp. When I turned 28, they cancelled the working visa in the UK. I was so disappointed in myself for missing out on it.
As I got closer to 30, I realised I was at the age where I had no one but myself to blame for not going out there to try new experiences and perspectives. I knew if I waited any longer I would never take the leap.
In Singapore, I went to work again for about 2 months, saved up, and then went to Spain. That’s where the real journey started.
In Spain, I was helping a man who was building a restaurant in a cellar. I helped him collect recycled material to build the cellar in exchange for accommodation and food, then spent about 6 months living in different farms and hostels in Spain, France, and Ireland. In Ireland, I worked on a dairy farm. That was so interesting because in Singapore we don’t have any farms that come close to that scale.
When I meet Singaporeans overseas, some are still the same. They ask what kind of house I live in, if I own it, what my husband does, if we have a summer home. But there’s no need to compare.
As I learned to let go of all these things, I decided to take my travels to the next level. After that journey, I looked to move somewhere off the beaten path. Singaporeans love to travel to the usual places: London, New York, Tokyo—I wanted something new. So I moved to Georgia, a country on the intersect between Europe and Asia, for a year to be a volunteer teacher.
We take a lot for granted in Singapore. In Gurjaani, the village where I lived, there was no running water, no one to clean up your trash after you, no coffee shop with food just downstairs from where you live. The toilet was an outhouse—a hole in the ground, and we wiped with newspaper or magazine pages because people there couldn’t afford toilet paper.
For example, the locals grew everything themselves, which allowed me to change my relationship with food entirely. We ate such natural vegetables, and the chickens were running around. I learned to understand the value of food, and see what the process is behind it. We wouldn’t eat meat often—only on special occasions like weddings or birthdays—because you literally need to wait for an animal to be raised every time.
We don’t have many farms in Singapore, so I never knew what went into growing what we eat. Abroad, I got to see cows and understand the process of getting milk. I saw how potatoes were dug out, and what happens when there is bad weather. The family I lived with had an apple and peach farm, and when there was a hailstorm they cried because they were afraid for their crops. For them, there was no plan B. Their crops were all they had.
Since leaving, I have survived on less money than I was used to, and I feel happier. There’s more freedom to express myself and be myself. Maybe it’s just in my head, but I realized I don’t need much to be happy.
The first wants to be very rooted and wants their children to know exactly where they are from—so they teach them English and their mother tongue, and regularly bring them to Singapore.
The second is the opposite, and they just want to forget. They completely take up the new culture they are in. I met a Chinese-Singaporean in Turkey, and her kid only speaks to her in Turkish. The kid doesn’t even know how to speak in English. It was strange because she was not with her Turkish husband anymore, but she still wanted her kid to take on that identity entirely.
Eventually I grew tired of the hustle and bustle of Istanbul, so I moved to Helsinki with my husband—where I live now. In Finland, people are quiet, introverted, and really value privacy. In Turkey, it was the opposite. People come up to you and ask you all sorts of questions.
I think my stepdaughter is learning it too. One day she came back from a metal industry exhibition with a ton of freebies—hats, magnets, bags, lanyards and pizza. She’s only 10 years old … but I was proud. It’s the one trait I’ll shamelessly pass on.
Looking back, If I had stayed in Singapore, there would have always been that part of me that would have wondered, “What if?”. I just had to go and find out what was out there in the world. In terms of my professional life, I might have been really high ranking in the TV industry by now, but mentally or emotionally, I wouldn’t have achieved all that I have.