The £800 mistake

As I write this today (30 April 2015), it is exactly a year since I ventured out into the world to start my year-long career break and go travelling. As it turns out, my initial hopes and desires weren’t to be fully realised, but it’s certainly not something I regret doing – although certainly with hindsight I may have done things differently, or at different times. Through the things I’ve done and seen over this past year, I’ve learned a lot about myself, what I’m capable of and what my limits are, and I’ve also been able to use what I’ve done/seen to further my writings and chat more constructively with other travellers online. It’s of course not an end to my travel, but may well be an end to long-term travel, at least for the foreseeable future.

The first photo I took on my career break; my toes at Stansted Airport.
The first photo I took on my career break; my toes at Stansted Airport.

One of the things I have learned however is when to say ‘no’. I don’t mean to taxi drivers, hustlers, wannabe tour guides, or alcohol; rather I mean ‘no’ to myself. I’ve learned that sometimes, whilst my mind might say ‘do this, you may never get another chance’, my heart just isn’t in it, for one reason or another. It is mainly this reason why my year travelling wasn’t what I expected it to be, and why I have all manner of internal wrangling about whether or not the entire adventure has been a personal failure.

Ultimately, of course, it hasn’t – I’ve experienced so much I wouldn’t have expected to have the opportunity to, and obviously nothing ever goes to plan; I may have missed out on much of South America and remote Indonesia, but I’ve certainly seen and experienced the bulk of what I set out to see (Chernobyl, Aral Sea, West Africa, etc), and in myself I feel a much more self-confident person having done so, especially as much of it was solo travel.

What I have realised is that, for myself, too much travelling in a short period can be detrimental. Earlier this year I was plotting what I’d aimed to be my final adventure of this year out; two months starting in Ethiopia and working my way South to end up eventually in South Africa, going via Rwanda and Zimbabwe.
It had been a simple toss-up between there, and exploring the rest of South America (Argentina and Bolivia mainly). I chose Africa because it was a slightly better time of year to go, and I figured with travelling alone I’d cope better with the language barrier (English being more widely spoken, and my Spanish – in common with most Brits – being not much more than ‘dos cervesa por favor’).

Still life with beer and 'baby Ian' - Prague, October 2014.
Still life with beer and ‘baby Ian’ – Prague, October 2014.

Even before I started, the auguries weren’t great – I couldn’t get to London easily to obtain a multi-entry visa for Ethiopia (I wanted to pop into Somaliland while I was there), my finances were much worse than I’d intended at this point so I was very much on a budget (and the exchange rate between £ and $ had swung massively against me since I’d last used the dollar during my trip to Central Asia), and in the back of my mind was the worry that having spent 5 weeks recently in West Africa, mostly on my own, that East Africa would be more of the same – scenery, people, similar lack of other backpackers. In addition, my trusty camera had broken so I was going to have to use something unfamiliar and much cheaper, which, although relatively unimportant, was just one extra thing in my mind to myther about.

My first port of call was Dubai – my step-cousin works there and it was a convenient stop-over on my way to Ethiopia. Even while I was there, I was often running scenarios through my mind, and the more I did research into Ethiopia from other travellers, the more I was worried that what I was about to do wasn’t the right thing for me at this time. This was compounded by little things like not being able to get the Ethiopian multi-entry visa in Dubai either, as it was only issued to UAE residents; they told me I could get one on arrival but I was certain they only issued single entry ones. Even on the day of departure I considered changing my flight and going instead to Rwanda, but I persevered, landing in Addis Ababa around 7pm local time.

From here on things just never went to plan. I could indeed only get a single-entry visa (though I’m not sure why; all the guard had to do was write ‘multiple’ instead of ‘single’ on the stamp). The taxi driver at the airport couldn’t find the hotel I’d booked, despite half an hour of searching, so I ended up at some dive of a place opposite a bar, with no running water and which offered free condoms on the bedside table.

Typical run-down street in Addis Ababa.
Typical run-down street in Addis Ababa.

The next day I walked into the centre of Addis Ababa, a gruelling several km journey through some very dusty and run-down streets, to a well-recommended backpacker hostel, which, as I feared, had very few backpackers in it, fairly un-knowledgeable staff, and Wi-Fi that only worked for a couple of hours each morning. So, already grumpy, I set about exploring the city, which I found to be uniformly ugly and miserable. In addition, I think my mood affected my perception of the people and the culture; others rave about Ethiopian food and hospitality – I just found the food quite dull and the people arrogant and unfriendly; a bit like London but with less noteworthy architecture. At one point on my walk I was joined by a local student I couldn’t shake off, who was very annoyed when I wouldn’t give him money for books he needed ‘for an exam in two days’.

The longer I stayed in the city, the less I was enjoying it; I know I was over-concentrating on the bad side, but to be honest a part of me was thinking ‘your heart’s not in this, it was a bad decision; at least you’ve come out to find that out’. I toyed with the idea of changing plans completely and just flying down to South Africa immediately, where I figured I’d probably enjoy the backpacker vibe more, but in the end I figured there was only one logical thing to do; maybe I’d simply been travelling too much, maybe I was only doing this because I said to myself I would, rather than for any logical reasons or for any real enjoyment. My friends said the same thing: that these places will always be there, and it’s better to do what you enjoy rather than forcing yourself through them because you feel you have to.

My two-month trip to Dubai and East Africa lasted only a week and a half.

Flying over parts of Northern Ethiopia I should have gone to...
Flying over parts of Northern Ethiopia I should have gone to…

Sure, with hindsight, I’d have been better off going to South America instead; at least it would have been somewhere different, somewhere with a better ‘vibe’, but sometimes you don’t know what’s going to happen until you get there. My return flight from Jo’berg back to the UK is now an open ticket, so I can use it any time before the end of the year, but one could argue that I spent around £800 on flights and accommodation for no real reason.

A frustrating end to a year of travel, but it proved to me what my limits are, and that sometimes saying ‘no’ to yourself is the right thing to do.

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2 Comments

  1. Roberta Westwood (aka @citytravelbug)

    Ah, there are no mistakes, only lessons. It may sound trite, but don’t beat yourself up. It definitely sounds like you trusted yourself when you came home early ~ better than more weeks of misery. I have had similar experiences in my travels, disappointed when something didn’t live up to the expectations I had created in my mind. My notable period was 3 weeks in Rome, which turned into a love/hate relationship that has taken me years to understand. I know, sounds like heaven, right? Who wouldn’t love that? Exactly. It was depressing not to appear to be happy in my blog, so I just stopped writing. I got sick. I let the lady I was renting a room from get on my nerves. So much more. I was 3 months into what was to be a year of travel, that turned out to be 7 months. The thing is, I have learned heaps, as with the passage of time, I can see this aspect of my trip in context, and it makes sense now, mostly. You have also learned a really great lesson about trusting yourself. You had reservations and niggling doubts, but wnt anyways. You on’t make that mistake again. Good. You ploughed ahead and did things you didn’t want to do, because you thought you should. If this isn’t a valuable lesson, I don’t kow what is. It’s your trip/vacation/life, and you can do what YOU want. This will pay you back when faced with choices in the future. People who’ve never had this hard lesson will continue to go where the guide books or social media or friends tell them. And there you will be, off on a grand adventure meaningful only to you. Or you’ll stay behind when the friends you just met go to see “the” big sight, while you linger in a cafe with a book, your journal, a paper you can’t read, and your (new awesome) camera, taking in the the local vibe. Or visa versa. Your’mistake’ will help make your future travels more meaningful. Cheaper than therapy, and probaly more effective in this case. You may not be able to let it go, but set it aside, and reflect on the rest of your trip. And start planning what you will do when you do make it to South America (it is still there waiting for you). Roberta

  2. Duke Stewart

    I admire you for being so honest and admitting that your trip lasted a lot shorter than previously intended. Still, I applaud your tenacity and trying to stick with things in Addis Ababa. Even though things didn’t work out as intended, I wouldn’t consider this trip a mistake

    It opened your eyes to something that you’d only wonder about when you’re older and probably less able to visit. You learned your limits as you said and those are things we’ll never know until pushing against them. I’m sorry that you view this as an 800-Pound Mistake but in my opinion, this sounds like more of a success story.

    Pushing Limits, learning from mistakes. It all sounds pretty cool to me. Thanks for sharing this. I’m happy about what I read and certainly won’t view it as a mistake!

    Take Care.

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