“First of all, I am a Bruneian, if you have ever heard about one before (laugh). My mum is Bruneian and my dad is British Malaysian. It is a bit confusing. I am a music graduate but I somehow ended up in a financial job. I hated it and quit. I live in London and I’m slowly getting back to music and travelling.”
We talked about music, Brunei and how its locals get used to couchsurfers. In the end, Sofiah got out a postcard and handed it to me, saying. “ If you ever go to Brunei, let me know. We will show you Bruneian relaxed life.”
What is it like in Brunei?
We are really tiny. Brunei is a monarchy with only 450 000 people living there and with an area of just 5600 km2. And we are super happy…
Our king is super generous and he even gives scholarships to study in England, Australia and other countries. Many people want to have Brunei citizenship when they hear that. There are no taxes. Our petrol is very cheap, a litre of water is a dollar but a litre of petrol is 50 cents so that you might drink oil instead of water (laugh).
A lot of people who come to Brunei are surprised. They usually never heard of Brunei at all and they do not understand how we can have fun without alcohol. We do not sell alcohol, we do not have clubs or pubs, we just have a coffee and go to the beach. And there’s a beach around 15 to 30 minutes of drive from anywhere.
Is it a good country to visit or to couchsurf?
It is a nice place to relax and just do nothing. If you came to Brunei without knowing me, you would have the dullest time ever. But when you come as a couchsurfer people will take care of you. My first guest was Finish and then I had some Germans, Polish, and Ukrainians. People asked – where are all these people from? And my parents would just reply, “Oh, they are her couchsurfers. We are hosting.”
Back at home, we host as a family – you would not stay with a single person. We simply take couchsurfers in the family. And I have five siblings and there is a lot of family living on the same street. So couchsurfers have fun with us.
I will always remember my Ukrainian hitchhikers who hitchhiked all the way from Ukraine to Brunei. A young couple who just got married. They managed to do the journey in two years, on a low budget and without tearing their hair off. They stayed in Brunei for a month. And they even somehow managed to get on a radio show and after that got a sponsor to pay them for the flight to Japan so then they could fly back home to Ukraine after that. Some people are just lucky.
How is your life in London? Without beaches and sun and with alcohol, clubs… So typical for European fun.
I keep my traditions and people got used to it. I don’t drink and can have fun with soda. I am quite open to other nationalities. To me there is the same world and same God everywhere – Islam came from Judaism, Christianity came from Judaism. It is the similar story and if everybody were the same religion, it would be boring. You just have to accept others…
Do people treat you badly when you travel and show out that you are a Muslim?
When I travelled in my hijab (headscarf) for the first time, I was paranoid that something bad would happen. At that time, many Muslims were scrutinised for being terrorists. But both with or without the headscarf is it OK. It is just a minority who think that Judaism is bad, Islam is bad or Christianity is bad. They just do our world a bit worse. As a Muslim girl I am just a bit more careful but then again if you are travelling alone, you need to be careful anyway. There are pros and cons to everything.
What are the pros then?
You learn to grow, you learn to be independent, you learn to be yourself. Because when you travel alone there is no one but yourself to take care of. You discover things about yourself, you do things you would never do.
I am actually a very shy person. So when I was first travelling, I was very hesitant to come to somebody and say: “I need a place where I can sleep.” I was trying not to get rejected. I learned to become braver. And you become a global citizen because you learn different things from different people.
I grew up in an international school and my first friends were expat kids. So maybe that’s the reason it was OK to jump into all different cultures for me.
You are a musician and even here in Prague, you are visiting classical concerts. Could you be a musician in Brunei?
Brunei is not there yet, there is no such a job as a musician. I played for the Royals in the past and it’s a very rare job. And parents usually expect their child to be something “more” like a doctor or a lawyer. I love to watch orchestra playing. I think it is magical. I was taught to understand the work of orchestra. I can see what is the conductor doing and what is the first violin thinking. It is a blessing-curse at the same time.
Is there a difference in music in different countries?
Each country has a different scale to music just like in a language. Different countries do the same thing differently, even music. A lot of big composers studied in Austria or France and their music is kind of similar. British composers are different for example. Their music is very strange to me. I don’t understand it and I have to listen to it few times to get the meaning. On the other hand, my favourite Rachmaninov is beautiful. And then you have American jazz and it is also very different.
And your music?
I like conducting and I like to know what I am doing. I am not super spontaneous. It is a part of my classical education. As a classical pianist, you have everything structured, you have your scales… If you are a jazz pianist, it is very flowing, very different. I have tried to switch to jazz but it has never worked. I am the “classical type”.
I would love to do conducting back home. I like giving directions. I like getting a sound out of music… I would love, love, love to do it. And there is no female conductor in Brunei… You see, you kind of struck a cord in me. It would be great to be the first female conductor in Brunei! Interesting… I have never thought about it this way. It is like a revelation. Maybe I just should go back and do it. (laugh)
Well, maybe later… I am kind of stuck in London with all the concerts, theatres and musical events. I guess I just need to stay there for a bit longer.