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.