A hands-on vacation to help others

She walks into the room like a bubble of light, her energy so effervescent it subtly touches every person in the room, but they know they’ve been touched.

I watch her and wonder if there could possibly be a soul in the world who wouldn’t get along with Simla Sooboodoo. Even her name makes you smile. She welcomes every person, staff and guest, with equal warm enthusiasm, as she prepares to launch a venture that is the summation of all that she is and all that she has gone through.

Simla is a social entrepreneur. At Sydney’s CBD Hotel, the 34-year-old stands up in front of her friends, her new family in Australia, her work colleagues and a room of supporters to officially launch Hands on Journeys.

Hands on Journeys is a tour company that combines Simla’s many years of experience in the travel industry and her passion for giving back to those who desperately need it. Not wanting to fall under the banner of another other tourism niche market, she aspired to bring a whole new concept of travelling to the public, which she calls “empowerment tourism”.

Through small group tours, travellers explore new cultures and see the sights while immersing themselves in village life.

“When I walk into villages such as Dhatta in Siem Reap, I see a bit of myself in a lot of these children in need. I look into the beautiful smiles and eyes filled with unspoken words and see a familiar face staring back almost like a mirror,” Simla says.

A humble upbringing

Simla was born on the small French-speaking island of Mauritius, east of Africa. Her parents were brought together through an arranged marriage when her mother was 16 years old and her father 33.

She spent her childhood in a plague of family feuds and financial woes, confused and unsettled by her family’s behaviour but she had understanding of the wider world.

“Smiles were not common in the house I lived in but conflicts between my parents, broken plates and foul words were aplenty. With limited access to television and no internet, it was difficult for me to make sense of my family’s rapid destruction.”

She constantly questioned her environment, trying to understand her surroundings without access to the outside world: “These questions were the beginning of me putting things together.”

The first step towards independence came in an unexpected way when, while sitting her year 10 exams, her grandmother passed away. In Mauritius culture this meant Simla’s grandmother’s 13 children, including her father, moved into one single dwelling. This forced Simla to abandon her home and desperately find a new place to live and study. It was then that her aunt and uncle on her mother’s side provided her with a place to call home. Little did she know then that this would be a catalyst for her life’s calling.

“All of a sudden I had someone (her aunt) who stood by my side to help me studying … pushed me … motivated me,” she says.

Her aunt, who she refers to simply as “Mum”, and her uncle, were two strong figures for Simla to look up to and who motivated her to move in a new and rewarding direction. She had no money herself but she had ambition and, with with the help of her aunt and uncle, she was able to finish her studies at school in Mauritius.

Forming an unbreakable connection, Simla left her homeland with the couple when they decided to move to Australia.

“I come from a poor family and never thought I would be stepping on a plane let alone living abroad,” she says.

In Australia Simla undertook a Masters of Business Administration and scored a great job in the travel industry. She worked hard and purchased her first home at the age of 24. It seemed that life could only get better.

“A greater purpose”

But one year later in 2007 Simla was rocked to the core, when after collapsing unexpectedly, she awoke to the news she’d had a brain hemorrhage that left her with a 10 per cent survival rate. She lost 42 days of memory, permanently erased from her life.

But Simla miraculously recovered and was rebuilding her life when, just a few months later, she started to get headaches again. An angiogram revealed an aneurysm on her brain and she was immediately admitted to the neurological Intensive Care Unit at Royal Prince Alfred hospital for surgery.

“My time there was bleak; no television, no music, and absolutely nothing to do. Armed with my Bible and a few women’s magazines, I lived my day watching machines flicker as patients around me fought for life. It was an overwhelmingly heartbreaking experience that had me questioning my current state… I used this opportunity to reflect upon the things that were happening in my life. My mantra became, ‘I have a second chance to live so I am here for a greater purpose’.”

With these words echoing strongly in her head, she survived an 11-hour brain operation and the four weeks of recovery that followed.

Simla’s appreciation for life changed. She felt the universe had made sure she knew how lucky she was. She had an increased alertness and was willing to take on anything and everything her heart desired. An extra boost of energy and optimism filled her very being. It was this that gave her the strength she needed to start the process of creating Hands on Journeys.

“I discovered my aneurysm had been there since birth,” she says.

“If I hadn’t been given my helping hand and remained in a country with a lack of healthcare… perhaps, I don’t know. Maybe I wouldn’t have had this second chance.”

For Simla, there wasn’t a second to waste. Vacations were no longer about relaxing and taking in the sunshine, or drinking cocktails by the pool. Instead she spent her leisure time finding a way to give back to the places she visited and helping everyone she met.

“Holidays weren’t just about visiting the countries but also opportunities to give back to local schools, orphanages, hospitals, crèches, local villages and slums,” she explains.

Through her travels she built loving connections with people begging and fighting for life on the streets. As the years went by more and more of Simla’s personal vacation time was spent helping children in developing countries.

From 2008 to 2013 Simla volunteered in Fiji, India, Cape Town’s townships, Johannesburg, New Zealand, Cambodia and Australia. She learnt that education was a luxury that was easily pushed aside, with children as young as two years old standing on street corners with tattered clothes and teary eyes as they spent a whole day begging for no more than $2 or $3 a day.

The sight broke Simla’s heart and provoked an even greater need to help, to do something, anything.

“I’ve fulfilled my dream of travelling by receiving opportunities from others, now it is my turn to give back,” Simla says.

“As human beings, we need to have more faith in ourselves, believe in who we are and what we do; the rest will unfold itself.”

Journey into the unknown

In June 2014, after almost 10 years working for one of the top small travel group operators Simla’s job became redundant. She went home that day knowing this was the opportunity she had been waiting for. She decided to abandon all previous life plans in order to commit herself to becoming a travel tour operator that could transform the lives of the people she had grown to love on her own travels.

“It was almost as if my calling in life was knocking at the door once again,” she says.

For the next year she went out with the dream of creating a team of travellers who were passionate and committed to not just travelling to different destinations but who were also just as committed to learning and understanding the people and places they visited in order to generously give back and create a real change.

Hands on Journeys has launched with three main tours, to India, Vietnam and Cambodia. They allow travellers to give to the communities they are visiting in the following ways:

  • Building toilets: Encouraging local employment by hiring locals to build toilets that are painted by travellers with the help of villagers.
  • Female empowerment: Funding supplies such as wool, and ingredients for bead making and candle making that travellers can purchase.
  • Painting classes: Travellers partake in painting classes funded by the tour.
  • Water filters: Travellers give away a number of water filters on their journey as fresh water is such a major issue, especially in Cambodia.

Looking out at a room full of admiration and with renewed inspiration, Simla tells those at her launch that Hands on Journeys will give travellers a different experience that have you stepping on the plane home in a totally different mindset: “When you’re leaving the country knowing you’ve left it in a better condition than when you first got there, then that is an accomplishment.” – Kezia Dawn

Photo of Simla in Cambodia taken from @handsonjourney Instagram.