Aqeel Karim – AKA Muzza Abroad – has spent the best part of 2017 trekking up and down through Latin America, during which he narrowly missed getting caught up in Hurrican Irma in Cuba, and experienced death-road mountain biking in the Amazon rainforest. Read on to find out more about the highs and lows of his epic journey, and how you too can follow in his footsteps (or mountain boots).
1.What influenced your decision to embark on a 250 day journey to the other side of the world?
I’ve managed to see most parts of Europe thanks to my football obsession, as my team plays in Europe fairly frequently. I’ve also been fortunate enough to visit the countries of my ancestral heritage, and to visit the ‘typical’ spots Muslims tend to travel to, such as Turkey and Dubai. As incredible as these experiences have been, I’ve long had an urge to go further; to explore the ‘unknown’. I say ‘unknown’ because I’m thinking of places that no one has really explored in my family and friends circle, or even in my extended community.
I feel like I’m at a point in my life where I don’t have many responsibilities, and this is the catalyst that sparked my desire to go out there and to do what I love to do; and that’s to explore, discover and dream!
P.S. Due to the beauty of random life events, my journey has ended up lasting 260 days.
2.How does being Muslim in Latin America compare to your experiences in the UK?
To be honest, it’s such a change that you notice the difference straight away. It didn’t take long for me to realise how blessed I am to live in the UK, and just how much of a part of British society Islam is.
Islam is all about community and living communally, which means when you don’t feel this you can start to feel quite lonely. There would be times that I would have the urge to say Insha’Allah to someone (anyone), or at least find a Spanish equivalent of the phrase, or to shake someone’s hand and say Assalamu’alykum, anticipating a warm reply; but the opportunity was often nowhere to be found.
With Muslims and mosques being few and far between, it tends to be a silent emotional moment for you when you’re embraced by another Muslim and made to feel welcome. Whenever I would eventually see and greet another Muslim on the street – especially when attending jumu’ah – my love for them and the community would increase tenfold.
The struggles have been real whilst travelling here…halal food is virtually impossible to find! The main reason for this is that many foods are contaminated with animal extract, whether it’s by the mishandling of food, usage of animal products in food or just the lack of the locals’ knowledge of what halal (better yet, what vegetarian) means. I’ve been served many ‘vegetarian’ dishes where during my pre-inspection of the food, I’ve found what can only be described as meat!
Food aside, I was a rare breed to the locals who were super intrigued by who I am and where I come from. I didn’t come across any negativity, only false perceptions based on what some Latinos they have been taught to believe about Islam.
All in all, I’ve been blessed with an opportunity to meet Muslims from across the globe, and to see that we really are connected in our beliefs, etiquettes and characteristics. I’ve been blessed with an unlimited amount of opportunities to do da’wah and Insha’Allah I’ll be rewarded for my efforts. Lastly, it’s allowed me to appreciate things I once took for granted and even strengthen my imaan.
3.You spent Ramadan in Latin America. What was your most memorable suhoor and iftar?
Ramadan isn’t easy whilst travelling, but what makes it slightly easier is having other Muslims around you.
My most memorable suhoor was one in Tacna, south Peru. Two brothers must have spotted me upon entering the masjid, because after taraweeh prayers they approached me and asked to know my story. Once I had told them about myself they asked me to join them for suhoor, and as they wouldn’t take no for an answer, I accepted.
I arrived at their place in the early hours of the morning and saw the two brothers cooking whatever they had on offer. I didn’t know this at the time but they had only just moved to Peru from Cuba, and their cupboards were not yet stocked with supplies. You would never have known though because the table was generously filled with food – they had shared with me virtually everything they had to offer. It was a bittersweet moment for me as I was so touched at their gesture and the opportunity to enjoy their company, but I couldn’t help but feel upset that they seemingly didn’t have enough for themselves.
As for my most memorable iftar, I would have to go back to where my Ramadan began in Oslo, Norway. I had searched high and low for a masjid to sleep in for a few days, but each time I was turned away. I had such mixed emotions about how I was being treated, particularly during this special month.
It was kismat (destiny) that on my third and final night my feelings towards the people would change, when they saw me for who I am and not as a stranger. It just so happened that a feast had been prepared for iftar. Every other night the food had been quite simple, but this time the mosque presented a banquet of foods from all over the world; I’m talking African, Asian and Arab food. For me, it wasn’t just the food that made the night so special, but having the opportunity to spend the evening with people from all walks of life and a mixture of backgrounds. Although we entered the mosque that evening as strangers, we left it as brothers, eating from the same plates and sharing our stories with each other. I became fond of them as they became fond of me, and just like that, that evening became one of my most special iftars.
4. Your favourite sunset location in Latin America so far?
There have been too many to name, since I plan my days around salaat, and have therefore seen a whole lot of sunrises and sunsets.
If I had to pick then I would have to say Playa Blanca in Cartegan, Colombia. It was an insanely beautiful sunset, reflecting off the calm turquoise waters. Even the clouds played their part as they changed colour from orange to red, pink and purple, something like a magic show. I was in the company of Venezuelans who had recently fled their country, and who seemed to be very appreciative of me spending time with them. We shared our cultures, stories and laughter, as we swung from a tree on a wooden seat whilst dipping our feet into the warm ocean.
5.Your favourite mosque and why?
Each mosque I’ve visited has been special in some way, each with its own personality and beauty. One that’s really stuck with me is the Central Masjid in Quito, Ecuador.
I ended my Ramadan at this Masjid and even participated in the last ten days here. I was sleeping in the masjid, eating and praying here, and my imaan was on a real high. I was no longer a traveller; I was at my home away from home.
The community here is super diverse, it isn’t cliquey – people from different backgrounds mingle and embrace one another. The mosque is new and modern, its facilities are up to date and the atmosphere was warm and communal.
It was also where I spend my first Eid away from any family or friends. Although it felt weird not being around them, it was certainly a positive experience. The masjid put on activities and a feast for us to enjoy. When I was ringing back home to wish my family Eid Mubarak, I found myself telling them (to my surprise!) that I wished they were here with me, rather than that I was at home with them. It was definitely an Eid to remember!
6.Most heart racing experience?
Since becoming a regular traveller I’ve become more daring – you seriously don’t have to ask me twice to do something silly or daft!
Death-road mountain biking in the Bolivian Amazonian jungle is definitely one of the most heart-racing experiences I’ve been crazy enough to try. The speed you gain as you descend the steep path is scary, which means you cover large distances over a short period of time. At times I was so high (around 1000m+) that it wasn’t even possible to see the ground!
As I made my way down, I just kept thinking to myself, ‘If I died right now, who would inform my mother? Who would do my janaza, or would my body even be retrieved?’
Obviously (and thankfully) I lived to tell the tale, and was on a high for weeks afterwards, sharing my hair-raising experience with any traveller I met on the road and telling them how they just had to do it.
A notable mention has to be my first breath underwater whilst scuba diving. It was literally breathtaking!
7. What is the most interesting thing you’ve learnt during your travels?
Parts of the world are not ready to accept me when I say I’m English. They have a very hard time understanding and accepting it.
Whilst travelling you find out so much about yourself. At times I felt like such an alien that I began to identify with the things, people and comforts closest to me. As you begin to grow and mould and understand your identity, it feels so frustrating and even soul shattering when a stranger brands you with a simplistic label that you don’t identify with. Just remember that there is always more to you than their label.
I hope that after each encounter with people that I have met, they are able to change their views on people and especially how others identify. The world and its people are changing, and we need to keep our way of thinking in pace with these changes.
8.Your top 3 tips for backpackers planning to travel alone?
1) Be yourself. The travelling community is friendly and will accept you for who you are
2) Do your thang, be your own boss and know when to be in social groups or when to be alone again! But realistically you’re hardly alone unless you choose to be.
3) Just do it! Whether it’s having a late snack, doing a scuba diving course, or a last minute flight to Cuba! Just do whatever your heart desires and don’t back out of it. You need to be your own motivator, and you’ll become a better version of yourself by experiencing more. Trust me, you’ll thank me and yourself later!
9.Most scenic place you’ve prayed?
I’ve prayed on top of a dormant volcano that overlooked an active one. I actually saw it erupting, and each time it did there was this incredible rip-roaring sound. The sight was just spectacular, something I’ve never seen before and I’m not sure I ever will again. To pray where I did, with all of my senses heightened…it was definitely one of the most spiritual experiences I’ve ever had.
The most scenic place I’ve prayed though would have to be Fajr salaat atop the Two Brothers Mountain in Rio. With the rising of the sun, colour began to emerge on the horizon, and with it thin tendrils of the sun’s warmth. As the colours in the sky gradually grew stronger, silhouettes of the mountains and famous landmarks began to reveal themselves. The sunrise was beyond description, but try to picture the golden beach gradually gaining a sun-kissed glow, whilst the sea reflects the sun’s rays in warm pastel colours. Being able to pray and make dua whilst admiring the beauty of Allah’s creation made me think, ‘I can’t even begin to imagine what Jannah (heaven) must look like’.
10.Number one location you think every person should see during their lifetime?
Numero Uno: India! No matter what background you come from, India has something for everyone. In terms of its culture, landmarks, nature, history, cost and size, it’s the #1 country for me. It has so much to offer and it’s also extremely accessible.
Obvious Choice: Cuba. Even if you tried, you wouldn’t be able to match Cuba’s streets, cars, buildings, atmosphere, history and lifestyle. I just hope that it doesn’t change in the near future. I have every intention to return one day!
Wild Card: For the off-the-beaten trackers, look no further than… Guatemala. It’s easy to say Brazil and Colombia, but for me, Guatemala has near enough the same to offer, but for a whole lot less. Coffee lovers, nature walkers, political fanatics, adventure- seekers, or even those who enjoy lazy strolls in old colonial towns; Guatemala has it all!
11.Many young Muslims dream of taking a gap year or quitting the 9-5 to go travelling, but for personal reasons are not able to. What advice would you give to them?
If not now, then when? As a Muslim we understand the importance of using our time wisely; we are not guaranteed anything. You need to question yourself as to whether holding back from an unforgettable and priceless experience would be worth it.
In my eyes, travelling is the only thing you can spend on that will make you richer.
If you’re really struggling to decide on whether you’re able to leave your job or take extended time off work, sit down and forecast the possibilities. If you’re still unsure then seek advice and guidance from peers. For a decision as big as this, performing istikhara is a must, and seeking guidance from Allah will surely put your heart and mind at ease, whatever you decide.
Live a life where you can say ‘wow, did I really do that?!’, rather than ‘why didn’t I do that?!’
Travel through the Earth!
To find out more about Aqeel’s awesome travel experiences, check out his instagram @Muzzaabroad.