Sophee Southhall – Happiness Hunter
Pakistan came to know about Sophee Southhall when she started posting her pictures and her travel-blog about her trip to the country. Generally, in the international media for negative news only, her posts showing the fun she was having enjoying the country’s natural beauty, its culture and people; were a pleasant addition to the viral world.
Here we open a window in the Sophee’s life, what inspired her to choose this path and Sophee Southall become a ‘happiness hunter’.
An Australian national; in her own words she wasn’t brought up in a manner that is followed by the ‘Average Australian’. A single child in a single parent household, encouraged her and instilled in her the belief that she could achieve anything as long as she was willing to work hard, think outside the box, be open to learning continuously and above all be patient. Being a mildly eccentric artist and savvy businesswomen herself, she has been Sophee’s teacher, protector, biggest fan and best girlfriend.
“Based on my mum’s advice, I chose to study a duel degree at university in Business (Advertising) and Media & Communications. It turned out to be the perfect course for me, as it suited my creative-analytical brain and inherent love of entrepreneurialism”.
Her mother has played a key role in developing her interest in travelling and exploring the world. Despite the fact that she was a single parent and money was rarely flush, she always prioritized travel to the extent of making it a necessity rather than a luxury. Thanks to this habit Sophee was exposed to diverse cultures since an early age as an essential part of her education. Her first trip was to Fiji at the age of two!
“I think my mum wanted to give me a better life than she experienced as a child. Travel was her way of igniting my imagination and opening my mind to life’s infinite possibilities. Indeed, her hopes turned into my reality. Having been exposed to the thrill of travel as a child, the idea of foreign cultures, foods, smells, sights, religious practices and lifestyles didn’t frighten me – I yearned to experience them. I couldn’t think of anything better than turning travel into a long-term career.”
Fate gave a helping hand to her passion as well; the man of Sophee’s dreams, Ben Southhall turned out to be a professional adventurer and digital nomad.
“We inspire each other’s intense wanderlust and always ensure we have the next big expedition waiting on the horizon.”
Someone who has been working since the age of 16, you get to see her entrepreneur streak as well. She herself admits that as long as she can remember, she has been attracted to roles that give her creative control, educational challenge, freedom and an opportunity to brighten the day for others. Her first venture though a small one, did set the pace. At sixteen for a couple of years she opened “Cookie Cards”, loosing herself in the kitchen, spending her days baking, icing and then wrapping thousands of cookies for her happy customers.
Then at 21, she was doing a publishing venture, during the same period she was studying Business (Advertising) and Media & Communications which provided her with the basic skills needed to establish the magazine. After a few years in the publishing business she decided to take the plunge into the corporate sector and see what it had to offer. With a lot of its positives from a stable income to a sense of belonging, it was not meant for her as she desired more strategic control and freedom.
At the start of this year, clueless about her perfect job and an intuition that it was time to travel, both she and her better half packed up their lives and decided to go on an epic yearlong adventure. Few weeks into the trip, the need for a project at her itchy hands made her start her travel blog.
“Considering I was on a journey to find happiness and good times, it made sense to write about the travel experiences, which delighted my soul and brought a smile to my face. Hence, Sophee Smiles was born.”
Over the past seven months, she has received an incredible amount of support from readers from every corner of the earth, letting her know my stories have helped them in some way. Her audience also helped her shape the nature of her blog and the kind of stories she writes. The two most popular blogs include her piece on Nepal during the earthquake and Northern Pakistan.
“While both destinations were being tarnished by negative headlines at the time, I wanted to highlight the good stories which weren’t receiving much air time. Due to the popularity of these blogs, Sophee Smiles has started to focus less on popular travel experiences and more on lesser known adventures-of-a-lifetime found off the beaten track.”
Talking about her decision to include Pakistan in her destination list despite the negative headlines and the fact that it is stated as a “reconsider your need to visit” destination on the Australian Government Smart Traveller website; she shared that when people tell her she can’t do something or that she shouldn’t, her rebellious and stubborn urge has to prove them wrong to uncover a different perspective on the said matter and form her own opinion.
“Before visiting Pakistan, most people told me I was crazy and feared I wouldn’t survive the trip. Due to their narrow frame of reference (generally mass media), they never had anything positive to say, like, “I’ve heard the locals are lovely; I’m sure you’ll be well taken care of,” or, “The Karakoram Highway is said to be one of the best road trip passages in the world – it’s going to blow your mind”. I couldn’t believe Pakistan was merely the negative headlines I’d encountered in newspapers or seen on TV. I was keen to find out the truth for myself and discover what the reality was like on the ground. I really valued having the opportunity to explore this country firsthand, uncover its beauty and share it with the world.”
Despite no official travel ban, the Southhall couple hit some bureaucracy at various points. There last option was to apply via Pakistan embassy in Delhi, India. “We weren’t feeling too optimistic (especially in light of the current relationship between India and Pakistan). But, much to our delight, the process wasn’t too grueling and our visas were granted. The embassy staff even helped us out by offering advice on local must-see sights and epic road trip routes.”
Breaking stereotypes cannot get better than this!
The travel buddies entered Pakistan through Wagah border and went on to explore Lahore, Islamabad and locations along the Karakoram Highway (e.g. Gilgit, Karimabad, Attabad Lake, Pasu, Borith Lake, Hunza Valley, and Sost).
“The first thing that really struck me was the quality of the roads. After months of travelling through regional parts of Asia, Pakistan was a modern, user-friendly dream.”
Lahore is a mandatory destination for anyone who visits Pakistan and Sophee and her group didn’t miss it either.
“I loved the rich character bubbling away under the skin of Lahore. From the refreshing cups of lassi served by veteran street food vendors to the grand majesty of the Badshahi Mosque, the local experiences offered in Lahore were a thrill to the senses.”
Islamabad impressed her equally, a contemporary, cosmopolitan city with a brilliantly active nightlife. The Karakoram Highway turned out to be one of her best road trips.
“There was so much beauty to take in, it was hard to believe this magnificent part of the world was real. From the colossal glaciers and dramatic mountain ranges to the iridescent lakes and quaint villages, it was heaven on earth.”
It was not just the natural beauty that impressed our guests, they very much enjoyed the hospitality of the local people as well.
“While the memory of Northern Pakistan’s spectacular sights will forever be tattooed to my brain, it’s the warmth and generosity of the local people that really gripped me by the heart. My fellow travelers and I were treated like family – even royalty – by complete strangers. When it comes to supporting foreigners, the Pakistani community has to be amongst the most hospitable in the world. The locals seem hungry to present their country in its best light.”
During her stay in Islamabad, a gentleman hosted the group for five days, taking time off work to act their local guide and even offered them his family’s wardrobe so we could gel in with the crowds. The host’s cook treated them with local fare from flaky parathas and exotic breakfasts to mouth-watering samosas and flavor-packed curries, it was the best food we’d tasted in months.
Coming to the topic of stereotypes and which one she would like to break after experiencing Pakistan herself she is of the opinion that foreigners need to change their perspective and have an open mind and above all travel!
“There are so many negative stereotypes about Pakistan which could be dispelled by a single visit to this multi-faceted country. The main assumption I had before my trip was that the locals resented foreigners – that we’d be met with animosity upon arrival. This wasn’t the case at all. From the moment we entered the border at Wagah, we were looked after. It was instantly obvious the Pakistani community had a lot of heart and valued the opportunity to host travelers. I think it’s important for foreigners to show the same open-mindedness, warmth and respect when visiting Pakistan. The patriotic locals feed off friendliness; I think our Pakistan experience would’ve been different if we’d entered the country armed with fear, negative assumptions and hostility.”