At the age of 30, Rhinal Patel appeared to have it all. She was working with A-list celebrities like Angelina Jolie and Sienna Miller, was in a loving relationship and pretty much living the “perfect life” in London.
But she gave it all up to travel the world on a measly budget of 100 a month, surviving by couch surfing, hitch-hiking and dumpster diving.
“I found it very liberating,” said Miss Patel, who comes from an Indian background and grew up in Wales.
She was working in London as a communications director for a film company, earning more than 70,000 a year. The 34-year-old now lives near Pontypridd in Rhondda Cynon Taff on 10,000 a year, working as a volunteer, writer and guest speaker.
“When you stop worrying about money you attract likeminded people and find yourself making very deep and meaningful friendships,” she said.
“Only when we live in the present rather than worry about the past or future can we focus on finding true happiness.”
When she set off to explore Latin America four years ago, Miss Patel said she did not have a plan.
She found by “freeing her mind” she learned new things, challenged herself and gained a new perspective on life.
She said she initially felt uncomfortable staying in another person’s home for free as “it’s quite contrary to British thinking”.
“I don’t think life should be seen as a financial exchange,” she said.
“Sometimes someone buys you a meal or lets you stay in their house and you share a bit of your life and your heart with them.
“As many of my hosts told me, these are things money can’t buy.”
But not all her experiences were positive.
“I was followed and attacked three times and had my house broken into,” said Miss Patel.
“Whilst physically I survived, emotionally these incidents shook me, broke my heart, my confidence and left me a shadow of who I was before.”
But her travels also taught her to open her heart to strangers.
“Openness, honesty, trust and most importantly, love and compassion can take us out of the stereotype of being vulnerable, feeble women that need to be protected and into the role of strong, happy, bold and confident women who can lead change,” she said.
Miss Patel recalls staying with a family in the Amazon jungle of Bolivia after volunteering to go into Amazon communities to help with social work.
She could not speak much Spanish and got by using her instincts and reading body language.
She said the family were “heartbroken” when she left, and four years on they still call her their daughter.
“When you stop looking through the narrow field or vision or language we can make really deep and meaningful connections in places we never expected,” she said.
Miss Patel has continued to travel the world. She recently travelled for a month to Hong Kong, during which she donated all of her money to a charity which supports children that live in the slums of India.
“I wanted to show the beautiful circle of giving,” said Miss Patel. “And what happens when we give everything we have to people who need it more and leave our fate in the hands of the universe.”
She had to hitch-hike her way back to the UK and rely on the generosity of strangers for food and accommodation.
Miss Patel said her most challenging experience was at a service station in Germany. She had planned to sleep in the toilet but was told it was “too much of a risk as she might organise a bomb somewhere”.
She also had similar encounters in Norway and Sweden.
“I had felt prejudice in some of the people from as little as asking for directions. Sometimes I would get a ‘no’ with a judgemental look even before I had opened my mouth,” she said.
Miss Patel said the experiences made her more aware of the “harsh reality” that refugees faced.
“The worst I saw was a refugee being shouted at for daring to go into a McDonalds and ask for some leftover food.”
She said the temperature in Scandinavia at this time was often in the sub zeros and the only shelter they had available was through the Red Cross.
On her travels, Miss Patel noted how differently homeless people were treated in different countries. In India, she said they were allowed to sleep on train station platforms, whereas in Sweden, she said there was a guard that went around “booting people out”.
Miss Patel now writes articles and blogs about her travel experiences and is a human rights speaker for Amnesty International and other not-for-profit organisations.
She will be a guest speaker at an event to celebrate International Women’s Day at Wales Millennium Centre in Cardiff on Sunday.
She is planning a travel documentary later this year.
“I want to show that travel, exploration and adventure is as much a woman’s world as a man’s,” she said.
Miss Patel is also fundraising to give “pursuit of happiness” talks in developing countries to help vulnerable women and children find happiness in often difficult situations.
She said: “My main driving factor is trying to inspire people to follow their dreams by opening their mind and heart.”