It is scary. It is daunting. There is no doubt about that to embark on a career break or Sabbatical and for me mine included travelling, left me wondering what on earth I was doing and how was I actually going to do it.
I had never undertaken the gap year that is now so commonplace and de rigeur as any rite of passage for someone passing into adulthood. Yes, I had travelled alone but only to cities in Europe and on the odd holiday package, but it was one of these, my 3 week trip to Peru and Bolivia in 2005 that had whet my appetite for this Latin American continent, vowing to return and travel the rest of it. I had never predicted at the time that I would be backpacking it alone on a mid-career Career Break. Perhaps it was the onset of a mid-life crisis that prompted me to take a Sabbatical, I had joked that I may come back with a Ferrari or a toy-boy.
The whole thing scared the pants off me. I am a worrier. I didn’t feel excitement as that always comes last for me. I am never excited before I am travelling, I worry all the way until I finally arrive at my hotel, only then I can collapse and go “phew!” and from that point I can get into being away and enjoy myself. However, underlying that, I knew that if I didn’t do it now, I would never do my chapter of “travel the world” in my life. Yes there would be holidays but I knew I would regret it if I didn’t do this big piece. One of my friends threatened to kick me out to get me to take a Career Break when I hesitated.
I had no idea how to tackle South America. I didn’t know where to make my start point, where I was going in the middle nor where I was going to end up, or even how long I was going to go for. I picked up travel brochures, read the internet and travel guides and was still not that much wiser. Which direction to go in? Clock-wise or anti-clockwise? I am a researcher. Searching for as much information I could garner, reading and talking to anyone who would talk to me, it came to a 6 month trip starting in Buenos Aires in February and finishing in Rio in August, travelling clock-wise. In that time I knew I wanted to go to Patagonia, Easter Islands, the Atacama and Iguassu Falls. All the other bits in between were a blank. 6 months was a random figure, I could stay longer if I wanted or cut it shorter. As it turned out I stayed 7 months and still didn’t cover what I thought I would and went back for more on two separate occasions.
I did it relatively rushed, for me at any rate. I left my job in December, then planned as much as I could, I ended up missing Carnival in Rio simply because it was late that year and I needed to get to Patagonia before the change of seasons. (So for carnival, for me that means it’s another excuse to go back to South America!) I think I bought my ticket and left within weeks of doing so, not advisable if you’re looking for cheaper airfares!
Backpacking and me was never something anyone would utter in the same sentence without being followed by a huge laugh! One of my best friends, (male of course) laughed, “so Julie, how many pairs of Jimmy Choos are you taking with you?”. In response to one of my updates, one of my previous bosses was surprised to hear I had slept in a hammock on the beach underneath the stars, “I always had you as an Egyptian cotton sheets, 5 star kind of girl” …. What kind of image do I project?!
I totally loved it. No two-ways about it at all. I didn’t lose anything (bar a pair of sunglasses and a pen-knife), I was careful and organised, you have to be, but sometimes I wonder if I missed out on things, like not taking a tour into the favelas of Rio. I was ill only once right at the start of the trip but that could have been attributed to acclimatisation. The endless meeting of new people was fantastic and I have made some fabulous new friends around the world and back here in the UK. It never tired me to hear everyone else’s journey. I have also had the privilege of encountering such kindnesses too, I was given US$100 because the cashpoints were empty and I wanted to leave a town so he just said send it to me when you get back home; that was to be 6 months later and purely on trust. What I loved was that everyone you met had no agenda, there was no “office politics” or conditionality attached to friendship and help. You freely gave and received it just because you could and there was a sense of camaraderie. It didn’t matter if you would or wouldn’t stay in touch with everyone you helped. There’s a kindness out there you forget exists in the battle to survive the daily grind. You find your own pace and rhythm, stay longer in fewer places or keep up a faster pace, it’s all down to you and you will find people who will be similar.
This is life-changing. You cannot possibly be poorer for the experience. How much richer your life becomes is then just purely down to you. You are unlikely to ever hear anyone say they regret travelling the world. If you have an inkling that you would like to do it, just go. The worst that can happen is that you don’t like it but then like me, you just tell yourself you can always just get back on a plane earlier and come home just knowing it wasn’t for you but not regretting not trying. Many people get homesick at some point, usually about a month in, and I was no different. I got over it knowing it was just one of those “bad days” you can have anywhere, at anytime. I can guarantee you that I would have had more of those bad days staying at home living my usual life than in those 7 months!
I am a Latinophile. Since my return, I now work voluntarily with the founders of the Santa Maria Foundation, a London based charity which supports orphaned, abandoned and abused young girls in Colombia, giving them an education and a chance to rebuild their self-esteem for a better future. You can get to see things differently and it can change your values, hopefully you see a bigger picture.
I am also an “arm-chair activist” campaigning for the rights of the indigenous people of the Amazon, for the protection of the Amazon Forest itself and anything else that strikes a chord with me. I loved my time there and it has taken away some of my reluctance in starting new things, I even joined a Brazilian Samba Reggae drumming band and I have just played my first gigs, including playing at Chelsea FC at the Russia v Brazil match. I plan to play at the Notting Hill Carnival and Carnival in Salvador in Brazil in 2014, I would never have thought of that before my trip. It is forever a turning point in my life, I hope it will be one for you too. Consider this my kick to you.
PS. I almost married my toy-boy.
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