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, I don’t see anything I’ve done as a travel mistake. 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.
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 travel mistake, a personal failure. And I have a strong fear of 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.
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. Had I made a travel mistake in coming here?
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, a travel mistake; 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…
Was this a travel mistake? I mean, 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. In fact, I did eventually use the ticket – I went to Southern Africa at the start of 2016 and did the trip I’d planned to do, at a time I was feeling much more self-confident and could afford it.
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. And that there’s no such thing as a travel ‘mistake’, in terms of big decisions anyway – everything is a learning experience.
I talk more about this on an episode of my podcast on Social Anxiety and my Fear of Failure.