Maitha Al Qader (left) with her mother in Philippines Image Credit: Supplied

Abu Dhabi: “Don’t judge until you know them!” These words always resonated in her mind after her each travel abroad, even after visiting the 28th nation.

“Travelling across the world taught me that what we have heard and what we experience are always poles apart,” Maitha Al Qader, an Emirati communications professional, told Gulf News in an interview.

If travelling were not her hobby, she would have still carried many stereotypes about other people and their cultures, said the unmarried woman working with Abu Dhabi Government.

Maitha Al Qader in Iceland

Interestingly, she said, people tend to make prejudiced comments about people of all nations across the globe. The superpower US or the developing Asian nations, whose people constitute majority of the UAE population, are not spared. “Only the content differs. You hear many things [about people] but when you have the direct experience, you can distinguish prejudice and reality,” said the 36-year-old Al Qader who began exploring the world in 2004.

Before travelling to the Philippines, her impression about Filipinos was influenced by prejudices shared by many around her. “Majority of the Filipinos in the UAE are on lower-level jobs and some people say that is what they can do,” she said.

But people in the Philippines impressed her by all means — their professionalism in offering services to people, the way they run their nation, and the overall standards of people. “As a people, I felt, they have a wonderful quality also — they are contended with what they have. They taught me [how to be like that]. It was an amazing experience.”

Just a one-day visit to India made a similar transformation. As the majority of Indians in the UAE are also doing lower-level jobs, she had a similar impression. Although frequent news about India’s space programmes apprised her of the country’s scientific advancements, she got a real picture when she visited the National Science Centre in Delhi. “I was fascinated to learn about India’s progress in science and technology. The most important thing is they achieved it with local resources and talents — nothing from outside! I felt Indians are the most creative and smartest people I have ever met.”

While preparing to leave for the US, many people told her that she would face a hard time as a Muslim and Arab, especially from a Gulf nation. “They kept saying all this before I got into the plane. Even on the plane, some co-passengers said I will have to undergo special screening at the airport etc.”

She started hating Americans even before she landed there. “But what I experienced was totally opposite. People were so nice to me and everything went smoothly at the airport. People just wanted to know who I am … why I covered [my head and body].”

That experience strengthened her realisation that “don’t judge them before you know them”.

Travelling also taught her how she could identify with other people in distant lands as many universal values and ideas bring people together. In Australia, while interacting with a local family, they passionately talked about Koalas and Kangaroos. “I immediately felt we, Emiratis, would talk about falcons with the same passion. National symbols evoke same feeling in all people.” In the Netherlands, long lines of windmills, for her, were not merely a revolution in green energy. They reminded her of the universal appeal of literature and art also. When she shared the story of Don Quixote [famous Spanish novel by Miguel de Cervantes] who attacked windmills, many people of various nationalities around her said same thoughts came to their mind, too. “Certain characters bind us together across the world.”

She has travelled in many countries alone and she never faced any safety and security problems as a woman. The UK, France, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Turkey, Bahrain, India, Oman, and Singapore were some of the destinations of her lonely adventures. Her mother, a homemaker, accompanied her to the Philippines and Indonesia. Other members of her Dubai-based family consisting of father and two sisters — all banking professionals — and a brother, a government employee, also joined some trips. Lately, a group of close friends have developed a group of all-women travel-and-diving enthusiasts.

Al Qader says travelling makes everyone happy because it breaks life’s monotony. “Life is the same while travelling but at a new place … with new people around you, you will be doing everything differently. That newness makes you enthusiastic … and in turn makes you happier.”

The 28 countries visited:

The USA, the UK, Switzerland, France, Italy, Spain, Holland, Iceland, Denmark, Vatican, South Africa, Turkey, Jordan, Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Oman, Qatar, Hong Kong, India, Indonesia, the Maldives, the Philippines, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand.

Diving opens a different world

“I am a diver. This means my heart and mind are sometimes under water! Thanks for understanding,” this message greets visitors to Maitha Al Qader’s office.

“I used to wonder how fish live under water. That curiosity took me to diving in the sea,” she told Gulf News in an interview.

“Once you are under water, you will be amazed about a different world there. It is just a heaven … it makes you happy.”

Hundreds of beautiful creatures under the water always fascinated her. “We can’t believe such creatures exist. I just sit and look at them.”

She has travelled across 28 nations and lately she has started choosing destinations offering diving experience. “Bali in Indonesia was wonderful.”

Egypt, the Maldives and Oman also revealed diversity of the seas and she is looking for new destinations.