Looking Back on 6 Months of Adventures on my Sabbatical
Today in a few short hours I will get dressed, have breakfast and travel into central London for my first day back at work after a whole 6.5 months’ sabbatical. I feel incredibly lucky for everything that’s happened over the last half a year and very thankful to my wonderful boss and flexible company for allowing me to go off pursuing dreams and following my wanderlust. I’ve loved every minute of it and in hindsight it was exactly the right decision to take! I’ve done such a lot of different things (from snorkelling between tectonic plates in 2°C Icelandic water to hiking in the Himalayan foothills in 35°C heat), met so many new people (including a new best friend Asha) and learned so much (from surfing, to leadership, to Cultural Diplomacy, to Russian). Back in October I announced the itinerary for my sabbatical and I’ve stuck to it almost exactly. Here’s a whistle-stop tour:
A luxurious weekend in Paris with friends; a fantastic 48-hour KAYAK challenge in Iceland; a fleeting mother-daughter trip home to Hampshire; a long weekend with friends in Polzeath, Cornwall; a 2-day father-daughter walking trip to the Cotswolds; a 2-week course on Cultural Diplomacy & International Relations in Berlin; 10 days skiing with family in Tignes over Christmas; a girly New Year’s Eve in Newquay, Cornwall; 2 weeks backpacking around Sri Lanka with various friends; a 3.5 month project leading a team of 13 Raleigh ICS volunteers in rural Nepal; 2 weeks studying Russian in St Petersburg & Moscow.
The high points were…
The high points were… many! Sitting on the Eurostar 2 hours after leaving the office and marvelling at everything ahead of me. The excitement of every single outbound flight I took. Receiving blog earnings for a 2-day trip that I absolutely loved, equivalent to an entire month’s salary at work: just stunned. Treating my father to a luxurious trip to the Cotswolds after so many years of him treating me. Cycling everywhere in Berlin, staying in a fantastic Airbnb and remembering how much I love living on the continent. A blissfully sunny Christmas Day skiing off-piste in Tignes with all my family and not a scrap of cooking or washing up to be done! Getting into a yoga-breakfast-surfing-sunbathing routine in Hikkaduwa, in Sri Lanka, with Georgie and Alex. Giggling with my newest best friend, my co-Team Leader in Nepal, Asha. Finding out in an anonymous exercise that my volunteers thought I was inspirational and a great leader – the ultimate compliment. Visiting a Plan International project in Nepal on maternal health and seeing first-hand how important the charity’s work really is, after fundraising for them by running the Athens Marathon in November. Twice sitting under the stars beside a bonfire and barbeque with all the team in Bhalu Khola and celebrating a fantastically successful volunteering project, feeling immensely proud of all our achievements and the impact our project had made on the community. Successfully completing my Russian course in St Petersburg with a 99% test score and remembering how much I love learning languages.
The low points were…
The low points were… Being in Paris when the November terrorist shootings took place. Packing up my life into boxes to rent out my room in London and taking down the postcards on my bedroom walls. Not being there for my sister during a really painful and stressful few months for her, and feeling like I’m a hopeless sister. 8 hours travelling in a single day on jampacked and sweaty trains in Sri Lanka, alone and mostly standing up. Being a terrible friend for posting photos of exotic climes in the middle of the British winter. Living out of one suitcase and one backpack for 6 whole months! Losing my beloved EU Boom speaker in Sri Lanka and a favourite necklace in St Petersburg. Occasional moments of exhaustion as a Team Leader in Nepal without a single day off or alone for over 3 months. Missing family gatherings and birthdays. Reading poems on gender inequality written by 3 local young Nepalis and weeping in front of my entire team at the horrendous reality of how women the world over are treated so despicably. Saying a tearful goodbye to my wonderful host family and our village Bhalu Khola! Being followed home in the early hours by a persistent drunkard in St Petersburg.
The hardest parts were…
The hardest parts were… Trying to role model good leadership for 3 months straight without dropping the ball, going on strike or having a full-on tantrum at any point! Showering in a confined space in the presence of 3 tarantulas, a cockroach and a gecko. Climbing Mount Chatra Lekh and ascending 1,200m of steep paths in Nepal’s dry (and very hot) season. The first week of leading our team in Bhalu Khola and having no project co-ordinator nor idea of what the project would entail to begin with, and having to improvise! 12 hours of D&V in Sri Lanka (and somehow not once in Nepal!). Writing my final essay to complete my Cultural Diplomacy course while in Nepal with no internet for research. Realising that if you eat rice twice or thrice a day, then you will definitely put on weight. The oral test on Day 1 in St Petersburg when I could barely speak 3 words of Russian after a 6 year gap in lessons.
The easiest things were…
The easiest things were… exploring Paris with zero sightseeing or tourism on the agenda, being happy to just soak up the atmosphere in endless bars and restaurants with my friends Mel & Simon. Finding my way around Berlin and all the Christmas markets with the perfect guide, my half-Spanish half-German Airbnb host Alexis. 10 days skiing in Tignes in a beautiful catered chalet run by family friends, where the hardest part of the entire trip was attempting but failing to finish an exquisite cheese fondue. Finding so many topics to blog about and having so much mental stimulation from every angle. Waking up every morning with energy and excitement for life, especially in Nepal where my body clock would naturally wake me up around 5am feeling refreshed every day. Finding beautiful things to visit and do in Russia, which is just overflowing with culture, beautiful palaces and parks.
The funnest moments were…
The funnest moments were… Dancing around drunkenly under the stars while watching our very own private firework display on Polzeath Beach. Completing the #KAYAKhacksIceland challenge and getting really competitive – such a fun way to travel! Living it up in Paris in absurd luxury in a suite at the 5-star Hotel de la Tremoille and spending absurd amounts of money on food and alcohol because why the hell not? Endless ski chairlifts catching up with all my family and chasing each other down the slopes. Dancing Nepali-style and cold stone sober with Bhalu Khola locals at every single celebration or ceremony, and of course throwing around colour and water on Holi festival! Prelashing like teenagers again at New Year’s Eve with some of my best friends from uni. Impromptu catch-ups with long-lost-friends (Marina in Berlin, Mel in Paris, Valerie in Reykjavik, Sarah and Tom in Tignes, Georgie and Alex in both Sri Lanka and Kathmandu, Ellie in between trains in Basingstoke) and meeting new friends (too many to list, but Alexis in Berlin and everyone in Sri Lanka deserves a special mention for their fantastic hospitality).
The things I will remember most…
The things I will remember most… The feeling of freedom. Snorkelling in between tectonic plates in 2°C Icelandic water. My brief stints of solo travel in Iceland and Sri Lanka. My best Christmas Day in 10 years. My new family in Nepal, who I’ve promised to visit in future for weddings and to meet future children. The selflessness of my sister Olivia as she agreed to take over arduous loft conversion plans in my absence, on top of her already crazy workload. My surfing prowess in the Indian Ocean on my first try. Body boarding in the freezing November Cornish sea against ferocious waves. Hiking at sunrise to the top of Pidurangala Rock overlooking Sri Lanka’s famous Sigiriya, encountering no other living soul apart from an adorable puppy who accompanied me all the way to the top. Dressing up in a sari for our farewell Talent Show and performing (truly terribly) with my team in Bhalu Khola, to the great delight of the village. Watching the Swan Lake ballet in the Mariinsky Theatre and stumbling upon a world-class grand piano concert at the Sheremetev Palace.
My biggest shocks or surprises were…
My biggest shocks or surprises were… How maturely the Parisians coped immediately after the terrorist attacks, not letting it intimidate or overwhelm them as it did in other cities. Meeting my fascinating Cultural Diplomacy classmates in Berlin coming from all over the world, learning about their countries (some of which I knew literally nothing about), including hearing about how one classmate had to flee his home country of Burundi during the civil war, leaving behind his family. Getting the train down the south coast of Cornwall for New Year’s Eve in such a storm that waves rolled up and over the train as if in a car wash. Reading Michael Ondaatje’s book Anil’s Ghost about political murders during the Sri Lankan civil war, as I was travelling around the country visiting places mentioned in the book. Learning about Nepal’s archaic traditions and sexist attitudes towards women (read my interview on International Women’s Day for more) for example, only a few centuries ago they used to burn widowers to death on the funeral pyres of their husbands! The extreme contrast between living in one of the richest global capitals, London, and poverty-stricken rural Nepal, one of the poorest countries in the entire world, with a GDP of just 3% of that of the UK. Catching the tube and walking home from Heathrow with a backpack and summer clothes in London’s freezing January weather, after a balmy climate in Sri Lanka.
I’d like to thank…
I’d like to thank… My accommodating boss, especially after giving me a two-week extension. My sister Olivia for dealing with our torturous loft conversion project in my absence. My parents for giving their support for the idea of a sabbatical and their encouragement. My cousin Sophie and others who advised me about Raleigh before my assessment day. The UK government and the Department for International Development (DFID) for funding my project in Nepal. My relatives and others who donated to my £800 fundraising target to be able to take part in Raleigh ICS in Nepal, including £200 from my employer (!) and £100 from the Alchemy Foundation. All our Nepali volunteers for helping me understand the culture and communicate with the villagers. My host family in Nepal for never-ending quantities of rice and some absolutely stunning meals in our turquoise paradise. My co-Team Leader Asha for rescuing me from unbelievable numbers of giant spiders in our bedroom. Qatar Airways for a surprise upgrade to luxurious Business Class on the way home from Sri Lanka, despite being dressed in backpacker attire! Anna for looking after my room while I was away. VisaToHome for their immense help in getting my invitation letter and visa for Russia organised at very short notice! My Russian teachers Marina and Darya for being so patient with me during the first few days of lessons.
I was annoyed when…
I was annoyed when… I had to shorten my trip home to Hampshire from 5 nights to just 2, letting down my saint of a mother. I got ripped off in Sri Lanka when travelling solo for a few days, after being treated perfectly fine with others. My course in Berlin was a bit higgledy-piggledy – still educational but not quite what I’d expected. I found out there’d be no fresh snow during our skiing trip (although it turned out that in Tignes we were remarkably lucky compared to most resorts that week). I discovered how under-prepared our local project partner in Nepal was before our arrival, although we did manage without them in the end. I understood how restrictive Raleigh’s Health & Safety rules are for volunteers, although begrudgingly I do see why they exist.
I’d like to complain to…
I’d like to complain to… Time for disappearing on me so fast! Lots of different Nepali ministries for their ridiculous laws regarding women, for example the law that only a father can bestow the gift of citizenship to a baby – a single mother alone cannot and her child remains stateless its entire life!
I’m pleased that…
I’m pleased that… I managed to travel around with the fantastic Georgie and Alex in two different countries. That I managed to keep up my blogging to a certain extent while in Nepal. The break from internet, meat, alcohol, men and fizzy drinks in Nepal did my health and happiness a world of good. Asha and I were given such a delightful bunch of 13 volunteers to lead in Nepal – such a stroke of luck. I skipped the miserable British winter! I extended my sabbatical by an extra fortnight to fit in Russia (my 49th country), which I absolutely adored.
I learned that…
I learned that… I’m very competitive, but luckily my team in Nepal were just awesome and won everything anyway! I’m not so keen on solo backpacking, but I’m glad I tried it to find out. In the UK we are so, so lucky to have so many opportunities and our freedom of movement to so many parts of the world, a freedom that citizens of countries like Nepal would do anything to have (read more here). I need to get more skiing back in my life! Everyone has an area of expertise they can teach to others (a lá our Bhalu Khola masterclasses) and I’d love to encourage those around me in London to do just that and share their skills and knowledge. International development work is a slow, uphill battle against so many obstacles – we need patience and more people to get involved. 3 months without alcohol in the middle of nowhere is very good for the soul! 6 months’ sabbatical is not long enough to do everything I wanted, but that I filled it to the max. Russian grammar is a beast.
I wish I had…
I wish I had… Spent longer in Sri Lanka to explore the east coast and climb Adam’s Peak. Visited a Plan International project while in Sri Lanka too, as my visit in Nepal was such a great experience. Found more time for books – my reading list is still so long! Done ICS first as a volunteer (you have to be under 25) so that I could then do it again as a Team Leader, as it was one of the best experiences of my life. Put more effort into learning Nepali. Spent 2 months in St Petersburg rather than just 2 weeks, as I’d have learned so much more. Relaxed a bit more, as I feel like I packed in too many things!
If I could do my sabbatical all over again I would …
If I could do my sabbatical all over again I would… Do the volunteering and hard work at the beginning and keep the travelling and more luxurious holidays for the end. Spend more time chilling out. Blog a lot more. Send more postcards! Study and take more courses, as I’ve realised how much I love learning. Explore the UK a bit more. Invite my family on more trips with me.
So the only question that remains now is, what next? Today I return to work although I do have a few more trips up my sleeve: a sailing holiday around the Saronic Islands in Greece and hopefully a long weekend on Lake Constanz in Germany with my uni housemates, both in July. As to my next big trip – who knows? Back in October 2015, before this sabbatical even began, I was kayaking on Lake Como with my friend Sarah (as you do) and chatting to two Australians who were also kayaking with us. They told us they were on a 6-month-long honeymoon around Europe and a lightbulb suddenly switched on in my head! I’m a long way off any honeymoon, but I shall certainly be poaching their idea and I can still get planning on my next big adventure in the meantime…
Above all, I’d like to thank my sister, my family, my friends, my boss and DFID for making possible different parts of my 6-month adventure. I feel I’ve got so much out of it, hopefully given something back and have grown leaps and bounds as an individual. To my readers, I hope you’ve found the tales from my sabbatical entertaining or interesting, and perhaps they might have even motivated somebody to take the plunge and embark on a big adventure too.
Have really enjoyed reading your posts during your sabbatical- Russian would be an interesting language to learn! Lake Constance is beautiful – I visited on my year abroad, Lindau is a really pretty town & likewise Insel Mainau is worth a visit!
Oh thanks, glad you’ve enjoyed them and weren’t bored! And thanks for the tips for Lake Constance too – very handy!
LikeLiked by 1 person
This sounds like the most amazing adventure and I have enjoyed reading your posts throughout. Also, stunning photos. You are so lucky to have been able to do that. I work for the NHS and my employer has been known to grant sabbaticals to people in the past but unfortunately my boyfriends hasn’t and I think he would kill me if I went without him! Can’t wait to read about future adventures.
Thanks Emma! Well perhaps he could be the first in his company? Or…. move company? I hope you manage to do one sometime!
LikeLiked by 1 person
Very well written! I loved following your adventures over the past 6 months. Nepal looked like an amazing experience. And I’m sure even in tough times, the good experiences outweighed the hard ones. All the best in London!
Thank you so much Kait! The tough times have practically faded already, I have only good memories of my sabbatical. I’m glad you enjoyed reading the post – I had such fun writing it!
LikeLiked by 1 person