Irfan Aziz speaks to architect and travel aficionado M.K. Aaref on the joys travelling and unpacks some of his favourite stories from around the world
Imagine traveling around the world in an hour without ever leaving Dhaka. This is exactly what a conversation with M.K. Aaref felt like. An architect by profession but also an avid traveler, his tales and vivid descriptions painted an elaborate picture of the world that gave me a renewed inspiration to fulfill my traveling goals. Aaref has visited over 20 countries over the past couple of decades but remembers every single detail about his journeys as if it were yesterday.
The first country he ever visited was Pakistan at the age of three but you could say that his second trip to India is where his fascination truly began. “I was enchanted by the Mughal history and architecture. I remember this particular incident where I was simply taken aback by how the Taj Mahal literally glows under the full moon without any artificial lighting. Even for a six-year-old, that was a very mesmerizing vision”, Aaref explained. His parents were avid travelers and their tales enthralled him as a child. This instilled a real sense of adventure into him. Over the years, he also developed a keen interest in history and what humans have done over the last few millennia. Combine all of these factors and it becomes clear how his passion for traveling came to be.
What do you think are the biggest benefits of travel?
The beauty of traveling is that it makes you realize how similar human beings are throughout the globe. I mean, of course, the way they live their lives may drastically vary but you’ll see that they share the same aspirations, same achievements and there are common grounds in things that make them happy. At the same time traveling opens the mind to the diversity of human civilization. The fact that not every person is the same makes the world more colorful and interesting.
Tell us about a favorite but hidden place our readers may not know about?
About 10-12 years ago while visiting the city of Fukuoka in Japan, I visited an island called Kyushu. I love pottery and had heard that Kyushu has amazing Imari Porcelain. So my friend and I decided to rent a car and drive there. The place we went to was a small village comprised of little houses, cliffs, and creeks. It looked like a Japanese painting in real life. We were exploring the village and just around the corner, we stumbled upon a 300-feet tall rock formation where there was a little cottage at the base straight out of a fairytale or postcard. Living in the shadow of that rocky formation seemed so peaceful and tranquil. I had never seen a more picturesque setting in my life. I wish I could spend a few days in that cottage. The image of that little cottage that has been forever etched in my mind.
We encounter so many interesting people in our travels and have innumerable experiences. Tell us about one that you will always remember.
Throughout my journeys, I have had both positive and negative experiences. When you are in a tourist mode, people sort of realize that but one of my most positive experiences happened during my visit to a small temple in Inle Lake in Myanmar. I stumbled across a 2-year-old dressed in tribal clothing and he was one of the friendliest kids I have ever met. He came towards me and said hi and started laughing and posing for photos. I didn’t come across as an outsider to him. This is what traveling is about, you get to learn about the similarities and the fact that the little kid thought of me as one of his own embodies this fact.
As an architect, is the architecture of a place of particular interest to you or do you like to explore other things?
Most monuments you see abroad are all pieces of architecture and as an architect visiting the places you have studied about is always fascinating. Architecture happens when a society has accumulated enough knowledge of aesthetics to create something and the palaces, mosques, monuments, and churches you see are a culmination of that effort. There are beautiful architectural details throughout the globe, some similar, others completely different. Due to colonialism, you will see that a lot of structures in Penang Malaysia are similar to those you see in London. I also stumbled upon a Cathedral in Goa which looked exactly like the ones you see in Europe. So colonization may have had its downside but it also allowed the exchange of information and culture. On the other hand, Buddhist temples vary greatly from one country to another; the same philosophy can trigger different executions. Such is the case for many mosques and churches as well.
Tell us about the culinary experience you have had in a foreign land that you can never forget.
Years ago in Florida, I was given a burger and was told that it was alligator meat. I am not sure whether it actually was though since it tasted exactly like chicken. I also visited a street in Beijing that is dedicated to selling insects on sticks. Basically, throughout my travels, I have had plenty of culinary experiences, some amazing, some weird but if I had to pick one, I would say it was this street in Fukuoka. The entire street is made up of small restaurants that specialize in one dish only and you have to basically eat your way through it. I had the best steak in my life and the best Japanese food I have ever tasted there. It was a very fulfilling experience.
What travel tips do you have for our readers?
First and foremost, pack light. It is not fun to travel with too much luggage but always carry a collapsible bag in case you want to do some shopping. Having an open mind also helps as it allows you to get out of your comfort zone and indulge in a different culture and atmosphere. Last and most importantly, read up. Don’t just show up to a place. This will make your experience richer.
What’s on your bucket list?
Definitely visiting Egypt to see the pyramids. I would also like to visit Greece, Machu Picchu, and Mexico. There’s so much that I would like to do but unfortunately, a lot of places are becoming increasingly difficult to access these days, most notably Jerusalem. Furthermore, due to climate change and other factors, a lot of historical monuments may also not exist by the time I visit them.