“Growing up I had no role models who looked like me in the media – not a single one.”

As part of our Women of Impact special, writer and traveller Jini Reddy talks Gaia, being 'othered' – and the need for diversity in exploration.Tuesday, 5 November 2019

“I know too well what it is to feel Othered myself.“ Jini Reddy.
“I know too well what it is to feel Othered myself.“ Jini Reddy.
photo by Lisa Bretherick
This article is part of National Geographic's Women of Impact special – celebrating the women around the world who fearlessly push boundaries. The November issue of National Geographic is the first issue in which all written and photographic content has been created by women contributors.
This article is part of National Geographic's Women of Impact special – celebrating the women around the world who fearlessly push boundaries. The November issue of National Geographic is the first issue in which all written and photographic content has been created by women contributors.

Jini Reddy was born in London to South African-born parents of Indian descent. She grew up in Montreal and has lived in Hong Kong, France and Georgia. She is a widely published travel journalist, and the author of the nature-themed Wild Times and the upcoming Wanderland.  

Being born in the UK, raised in Canada, to parents of Indian descent from South Africa, has had a huge impact on the way I experience the world. For starters, I very much feel that the wider world is in my DNA. It is a source of belonging and identity. I am deeply grateful to come from a multicultural background, because it makes it easier for me to connect with people from cultures that are different from my own. There’s no Othering going on.

I care passionately about the planet. I see myself as a part of Gaia, the living earth, and have a deep respect for the indigenous knowledge of the land. I believe we all need to fly much less, and travel more judiciously and mindfully. On the other hand, it often feels to me that ‘flight-shaming’ is synonymous with a shutting out of the wider world. I worry that it fuels a kind of eco-nationalism. God knows we need the tolerance, understanding and empathy that cross-cultural exchange brings. So I think this perspective needs to be part of the conversation around the climate emergency. On occasion I need to connect with the wider world and to the countries in which I have roots in order to feel a sense of belonging I can’t fully feel in the UK, and equally I also worry about my carbon footprint. 

For me every walk in the park or woods is an opportunity to going inward and seek guidance. And peace and stillness. How am I feeling? How do I resolve this or that thing that is happening in my life? I genuinely believe that we can connect with nature and the land more deeply, through a language of the heart and spirit in the way that people from indigenous cultures have done for centuries.  It  has absolutely nothing to do with the rational mind. It is about experiencing the land as kin, as an extended part of ourselves. At the same time, I’m also adoring the simple physical beauty of the nature around me.  

In the British outdoors I’ve personally never felt any barriers, culturally speaking. But I’m sure that some people do feel that they may not be welcome in the countryside, because they are visibly different. I have certainly felt conspicuous myself at times. Or perhaps it is that people raised in countries where rural life is synonymous with hardship, and cities synonymous with opportunity shy away from the outdoors. There are also socio-economic factors too – kit costs money! Walking boots cost money! We need to consider the legacy of painful historical issues around access to land as well. And if you don’t see people like yourself doing something, perhaps you’ll be less inclined to do it yourself. If your parents don’t take you on outdoors trips (because their parents never took them, for valid reasons) or if your school doesn’t have the budget to take you camping or whatever, and you live in an urban area with no green space, you have to find the outdoors for yourself. Not everybody has the privileges many take for granted. 

"As much as I’m dazzled by strikingly beautiful or dramatic landscapes, I’m equally interested in the world that we cannot see." Jini Reddy at Hoanib, Namibia.
"As much as I’m dazzled by strikingly beautiful or dramatic landscapes, I’m equally interested in the world that we cannot see." Jini Reddy at Hoanib, Namibia.
photo by Jini Reddy

“A curiosity about the world is in my DNA, but all I’d see is white men going off and trooping through the desert or whatever. I’d think ‘I want a bit of this. Why not me?‘”

Jini Reddy

What is your greatest strength?

I think my desire to identify with others, to find things we have in common. This comes in handy when travelling among cultures that are vastly different from my own. Maybe because I have roots in four continents, I tend not to see people through the lens of ‘foreign’. I know too well what it is to feel Othered myself. On the road, all this means that the walls often come down pretty fast. Kindness, respect and humility go a long way.  

What is the greatest hurdle you’ve overcome?

Finding a way to be seen and heard in a world where women like myself are often overlooked. Finding my voice.  When I was growing up I had no role models who looked like me in the media – not a single one. Please think about that for a moment, and consider not only how that might subtly erode your self-esteem, but also how the world will then perceive you. 

A curiosity about the world is in my DNA, but all I’d see is white men going off and trooping through the desert or whatever. I’d think ‘I want a bit of this. Why not me?’ And at the same I never thought this sort of exciting escapade was not for me. It was more a question of figuring out the ‘how’.  Still, a lack of confidence has dogged me every step of the way. It’s a strange paradox because I am quite comfortable travelling alone.

What was your breakthrough moment?

I am not sure I have had a single breakthrough moment. Maybe a series. Most recently when I decided to be more open about my interest in the spiritual dimension of nature and landscape, the inner journey. As much as I’m dazzled by strikingly beautiful or dramatic landscapes, I’m equally interested in the world that we cannot see, the world of spirit and energy. I’m a big believer in magic, especially the magic of synchronicity. Travelling with an expansive mindset, no matter how near or far from home, and in a spirit of deep respect and gratitude for the earth makes a journey infinitely richer. That’s been my experience anyway. Given the ecological crisis we’re in the midst of, I don’t think I’m alone in feeling this way.  

“I'd like to see a more inclusive culture, a broadening of what adventure means.” Jini Reddy in Botswana.
“I'd like to see a more inclusive culture, a broadening of what adventure means.” Jini Reddy in Botswana.
photo by Michael Gebicki

What is the most important challenge that women face today?

There’s more than one! So much depends on a woman’s circumstances and environment, her access to education, to medical care, to clean water and food, her ability to support herself and her family, the colour of her skin. For some women it’s about having basic needs met, being able to care for their children without worrying about bombs and missiles falling. In the West, women are still judged relentlessly on their appearance, their age, their demeanour. The struggles are more likely to do with equality and empowerment.

In terms of the world of women and exploring, I’d like to see a more inclusive culture, a broadening of what adventure means. What does the experience of exploring, of adventuring feel like for a woman of colour, women with disabilities, women who have children? I would love to see more diversity in those anthologies devoted to women adventurers. For me race and gender issues are inseparable. I’d also like to see more male explorers and travel and nature authors and journalists championing women too. 

“I’ve personally never felt any barriers, culturally speaking. But I’m sure that some people do feel that they may not be welcome in the countryside, because they are visibly different.“ Jini connecting with nature in the UK for her book Wild Times.
“I’ve personally never felt any barriers, culturally speaking. But I’m sure that some people do feel that they may not be welcome in the countryside, because they are visibly different.“ Jini connecting with nature in the UK for her book Wild Times.
photo by D Wakefield

“For some women it’s about having basic needs met, being able to care for their children without worrying about bombs and missiles falling. In the West, women are still judged relentlessly on their appearance, their age, their demeanour.”

by Jini Reddy

What is the most important change that needs to happen for women in the next ten years?

An end to the patriarchy! We need education for all women and children around the world. We need mandatory education around gender equality in schools. I think we (men and women) need to feel okay about more greatly valuing qualities within ourselves like intuition, empathy, the ability to nurture and love – qualities associated with the Feminine, regardless of gender. More and more when I embark on any kind of journey, I try to bring these qualities to the fore. It’s a more yin than gung-ho yang – and self-absorbed – ‘look at me, aren’t I daring/adventurous/brave?’ approach and I much prefer it.

What advice would you give young women today?

Try to learn about the cultures and customs of women in countries far away, very different from your own, or both. Please be a sister to those women.

Wanderland, Jini Reddy's journey to connect with the magical in the landscape, will be published by Bloomsbury in April 2020. Follow Jini on Twitter.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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