Tuesday, February 11, 2014

What I learned from a sabbatical year

I spent 2013 'overlanding' through South America with my partner. 1 year, 1 continent, 1 simple car, 2 people, 13 countries, 40,000 km. After moving from Canada to the UK 5 years ago, and setting up a new life there, we gave up our jobs, salary, friends and all the comforts of life in one of the greatest metropolis in the world. A lot to let go, but we gained so much more.

Above all, I learned how little I need to live on to be happy, material-wise. We converted the back of our little van into a bed, so we slept in it a lot of the nights. Wild camping at some bizarre and cool spots, like 24-hour gas stations and garages, road-side somewhere in the country, cliff edge by the sea, a lot of central plazas and town squares, in front of police stations (with permission), and once within a secure military compound. The living was rough, and it took some getting used to. I had very few possessions; I was happy; and my eyes were filled with wondrous things throughout the year.

Communities kick ass in supporting overlanding travellers of all modes, by car, motorcycle, bicycle, uni-cycle or even by donkey(!). A few hundred people gathered on a Facebook group were the best near real-time information providers. Almost all overlanders are super eager to share information with each other and help, because we've all known a few hard moments on the road. Most people have never met each other in the cyber community, but are ready to answer questions when asked.

One can have too much of a good thing. I love travelling, and still do. 60+ countries later, my imaginary list is still quite long. Doing a year of pure travel is super fortunate, and I almost don't dare to utter that sometimes I found it hard to drag myself for the 11th time in 3 months to drive through yet another beautiful wine country with breath-taking alpine scenery, or more Andean mountain villages, or serene beaches... etc.. Managing the trip is a huge challenge, but I also missed work a lot, missing the other challenges. So, in the evenings I:
  • brushed up on R and some Machine Learning techniques through Coursera (awesome!)
  • learned something new, OctavePython, more Machine Learning techniques
  • read a lot of blogs on ORanalytics and data science
  • wrote a few blog articles here (definitely neglected when I was working a busy job)
  • thought long and hard about what I want to do when I get back

A bunch of random stuff I learned a bit about:
  • Navigating in places I've never been before. "Don't listen to the British lady (aka the GPS voice), she's never been to Venezuela", and she's leading us down a dead-end.
  • Spotting and dodging potholes, rocks, livestock, cowboys, donkey carts, tree stumps, burned tires (12 day riot aftermath), flying fallen ladder (kid you not from the truck 15m in front at 90km/hr), alignment-breaking and bottom-scraping grooves in the road from heavy Brazilian trucks ... ...
  • Making it Swimming through potholes the size of a swimming pool, with muddy and seemingly endless bottoms, with a 2x4 car that had 6" clearance (nope, didn't get stuck even once! 4x4 is not a necessity for everyone)
  • Fixing cars and dealing with mechanics, and their other-worldly Spanish
  • Playing with the police to always avoid paying bribes (wasn't too often)
  • Finding out just how friendly people are (lots of home-stay invites)
  • Playing the Quena (Andean flute) is way harder than it seems - sticking with my uke instead
  • Optimising the journey in Travelling Sales Man fashion (had to return to the origin to sell the car) - yes, Operations Research is useful in every walk, or drive, of life
  • Optimising decisions under uncertain conditions
  • And of course, learning Spanish, with all sorts of accents and idioms, and the 13 countries' history, culture, landscape, food and people (P.S. mechanics and old country farmers are really hard to understand)

Having finished the year-long journey over a month ago, I was inspired to write this article after reading "Why I put my company on a year-long sabbatical". This is not a PR article, but one to say that anyone can do this sabbatical thing, and you will learn a ton. You don't need the best car all decked out. You don't need to be young. You don't need to be retired. You don't need to be without kids (met a lot of families, with kids from 6-months to 17-year olds). You don't need to have a partner. You don't need to be rich (our all-in costs: £10,000 per person, assuming 2 people sharing). Actually, you will learn how little you need at all. All you need is a bit of discipline to save some money, a bit of gut to throw yourself at it, some luck and common sense to be safe, and a lot of curiosity to explore.

In case you are inspired to consider a sabbatical year, here are some great overlanding resources:


2014 is going to be great. I am never more ready.
First step, land an awesome job.


4 comments:

Lin said...

I was amazed reading your article. It is such a wonderful dream fulfilling thing, congratulations!

Now I am inspired as well, what should I do next?

Lin said...

I was amazed reading your article. It is such a wonderful dream fulfilling thing, congratulations!

Now I am inspired as well, what should I do next?

Vicki Cunningham said...

I'm inspired! Thanks for sharing Dawen.

Rakesh Soma said...

I only just read this :)