Wednesday, 4 November 2009

My gap months; a quick trip down memory lane...

I've been reading Not Enough Mud's tales of backpacking in Burma with sexy Frenchmen, together with More to life Than Laundry's tales of life on the high seas crewing on a yacht, and it made me think back: to six years ago exactly.

In early November 2003, I was planning to hand in my notice from work, and spending weekends in Trailfinders with The Doctor plotting out a round-the-world backpacking trip. We were about to take four months off to travel around Southeast Asia, New Zealand and South America (with other pitstops in between) before returning to a very different life: me, as a self-employed freelancer, he to a three year stint as a PhD student.

It was not exactly a tough decision, but it was a big one. I'd never had a 'gap year', and had been itching to travel properly (ie. for longer than a holiday) for years. I was doing well in a job that I loved, but had been in for five years and could see would not be compatible with the family that I was planning. On top of the strains and stresses of working on a weekly news magazine, there were constant evening functions to attend, and although it was fun and glamorous covering London's trendy advertising scene, it was in many ways an unhealthy lifestyle; fuelled by too much booze and coffee, a diet that consisted of alternating skipped meals with blowout ones at swanky restaurants, and doing weird and mad things in the streets of Soho at God knows what hour.

On top of that, both The Doctor and I had had an emotionally stressful few years; we had lost both our mothers, tragically young, within two years of each other; we had both been working incredibly hard, and what with the evening demands of my job and him working long hours as a junior doctor, it felt as if we had hardly seen each other some weeks.

So we took off, Karrimors on our backs, in the cold and dark of a British New Year's Day. We sat by peaceful rivers in Laos; rode rusty bikes around Angkor Wat at daybreak; took up a boat up the Mekong Delta. We tramped in New Zealand's national parks, nearly got eaten alive by mosquitoes in a fleapit guesthouse in Tahiti (having turned up on Valentine's weekend with no accommodation - not a good idea); we marvelled at the strange, majestic statues on Easter Island on a 24 hour whirlwind stopover.

In South America, we trekked in the Colca Canyon and on the Inca Trail, rode horses (badly) in the Chilean hills; ate delicious ceviche and drank pisco sours. We saw flamingos, volcanoes and saltflats on the Bolivian altiplano; were mugged by a taxi driver near La Paz (but thankfully unharmed); suffered altitude sickness on jeep trips up to 5000 ft and thanked god for the thermal sleeping bags we'd purchased in New Zealand.

We finished the trip in Belize, staying with The Doctor's aunt and uncle at their isolated beachhouse; feeling as if we were a million miles from civilisation and doing nothing but eating, sleeping, reading and snorkelling.

Then we came back to the UK. A few months later, I became pregnant with Littleboy 1. Our life was about to change even more, but looking back now I can see that it really changed that day I handed in my notice. When I decided to take some time for myself, to prioritise something other than my career/earnings/ability to party. So I treasure the memories of those gap months, that hiatus (as I now see it) between the person I was before and the person I am now; not necessarily different, but more measured, less ambitious and probably wiser. And without that trip to whet our appetites, who knows if we'd have made that jump to living in the US now?

I don't think I could go back to those days (I think I've had my fill of cheap guesthouses, and backpacking around Bolivia with Littleboys would be downright crazy) but, as I pack my children off to preschool, wipe the Rice Krispies from the floor for the thousandth time this week and put on another load of laundry, I am so, so very glad that I took the time.

12 comments:

Mud in the City said...

I am very glad to have stirred up some fantastic backpacking memories. They really are magical times, when you can suspend reality and just revel in experience. As time goes on the fleapit allure does sour slightly, but that feeling of exploration and wide-eyed wonder is still very much there!
(The Frenchmen are just a bonus)
xx

Mwa said...

Sounds so wonderful. I had my aha-moment after having my first child, but I'm still glad I had it. No backpacking in between, though. No regrets - I will get to that when the kids are bigger. I may not stay at a fleapit, though - I hope.

Expat mum said...

Although regrets are a bit of a waste of time, I wish I had taken a gap year. I am trying to get the Queenager to think about it but it's really not done over here. By the time the Little Guy leaves I'll be having to think about a cruise rather than a backpack!

Almost American said...

Sounds like a fantastic experience! Lucky you!

Absolutely Write said...

That does sound brilliant. It's a good lesson in seizing the moment when you can!

Fourdownmumtogo said...

What a moving post. As I sat at my computer about to do my Tesco shop online I felt a tear or two behind my eyes at missed opportunities and the mundanity of life. I am so happy you finally got to travel as I know how much you wanted and needed to and I am not surprised it is something you treasure on those days when we wonder just why we thought it was a good idea to procreate!

nappy valley girl said...

Mud - Magical times indeed. I'm so enjoying your posts and can't wait to hear more...

Mwa - no, I don't think kids and fleapits are compatible. (Mind you, neither would my boys be with a 5 star hotel...)

Expat Mum - don't you believe it! We met several people in their 50s and 60s trekking in Latin America - some of them en famille with their teenage kids.....

Almost American - yes, I suppose it was lucky, not everyone has the opportunity, time or money to do these things. Not that it made financial sense at ALL, but you only live once...

Absolutely Write - see above. I don't think the moment would have arisen again, not for years anyway.

Fourdownmumtogo - thank you. I did really want and need to do it and I'm glad it didn't turn out to be something that you dream about, but ultimately disappoints.

Iota said...

Great post.

My nephew has just spent a few months in South America, between school and uni. I am a huge fan of the gap year, whether you do it then, or later on in life, whether it's a year, or months.

Life is so short. It's good to do these things.

Dumdad said...

What a great trip and, yes, you did absolutely the right thing. Over the years I've listened to so many people saying they planned to go round the world/start afresh in another country etc etc but they never do it. They always make up some excuse and then years later it's too late.

Pre-kids and just before we came to Paris, on impulse we went to Australia for six weeks; I'd always wanted to see the Opera House in Sydney, among other things. (I did and we went to an opera while there). We shouldn't really have spent all that money as we needed it to set up in Paris but we went anyway and had the time of our lives.

I'm glad we did: with two kids now, we can barely afford to go to England! The other day my daughter and I looked through the photo albums of our Australia trip ("you and mummy looked so young!"). One day I hope to return to Oz but with my children.

Carpe diem indeed!

Brit in Bosnia / Fraught Mummy said...

My Mum went backpacking at 55 with friends who she shared a flat with at 19. They had the best time. She also sent a fax to me in my then place of employment. Headed: "Darling! Having the most wonderful time, been to see the Beach Boys in concert in Sydney and I've been smoking Pot!" The company had to email everyone who worked there to find out which Darling it was intended for.
You do need to seize the day, and relish the times that you did it.

Often I find that it is the times that were a bit uncomfortable and scary that i enjoy the memory of so much now. We'll be off a wandering again...

Sabine said...

The post transported me back to my travels through Central and South America... What a great time!
I've also recommended your blog to my sister who has moved to Seattle with her pHD husband-doctor for 2 years and is pregnant with baby no. 2. Sabine x

nappy valley girl said...

Iota - I think months can be just as valuable as a year, as you tend to pack in more. Although it is fairly exhausting going round the world in 4 months...

Dumdad - Six weeks in Australia must have been fabulous. I've been, but never for that long, and would love to go there with my kids, too.

Brit in Bosnia - that's v funny.
Your mum sounds fabulous.

Sabine - thanks, (and it sounds as if your sister and I would have quite a bit in common.)