The Lasting Memories of a Travel Sabbatical

[singlepic=1732,175,,,right]Taking a traveling career break or sabbatical is not a new concept. But more than 20 years ago Stuart Tom drew up the nerve to ask for a year leave of absence from his advertising job (something unheard of at the time) to venture off and explore the world. He shares with us how that experience still lives on.

When I was 6 or so, I spent hours flying my battery-operated TWA DC-9 around my living room. I was in love with its smiling tin stewardess and retractable stairs. It wasn’t long before I graduated to collecting travel brochures from chain hotel lobbies. I read them over and over, memorizing every hyperbolic detail. Thinking back, I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t preoccupied with the thought of going someplace new, someplace else.

So it was without much trepidation, after 6 years of employment, that I walked into my boss’s office and asked for a 12-month leave of absence. O.K., I didn’t so much ask as make a declaration. It helped that I was prepared to leave my job if the answer was no. But it wasn’t. The economy was in the crapper, and maybe my boss figured I wouldn’t want to come back after a year. So his agreeing didn’t surprise me. What did was the revelation that I was the first person at my ad agency to ask for a leave of absence. My first thought was, you’ve got to be kidding. Then I secretly congratulated myself for being such a trailblazer. In the end, I got to keep my health insurance for the year (a definite advantage of taking a sabbatical over quitting), and my job was waiting for me when I got back, which was a good thing because after 12 months of not working, I was flat broke.

Six years of living in New York had worn me down. I was ready for a break. As a junior in college, I’d studied in Vienna. That whetted my appetite for traveling abroad. It also gave me the confidence to negotiate non-English speaking terrain. But 6 months of Gemütlichkeit didn’t exactly prepare me for the shock and awe, not to mention God knows how many strains of new bacteria, thrust upon me by the developing world. (There’s no faster ice-breaker than sharing a bathroom with fellow travelers going through the same intestinal reorganization).

Years later, there are memories so vivid, they still bring goosebumps…My sabbatical was a humbling, exhausting, thrilling, transformative experience.

[singlepic=1736,200,,,left]I had a budget of ten thousand dollars and a good idea of the places I wanted to see in my travels, but there were only 2 things I arranged for in advance: an around-the-world plane ticket (through a reputable broker found in the New York Times), and a 6 week overland safari across Tanzania and Rwanda. The around-the-world fare (multiple carriers and all open tickets) saved me a fortune. I added other, inexpensive legs along the way. And the organized trip in Africa eased my entry into the developing world. Apart from those commitments, everything else was wide open, the only potential obstacles being political unrest (a coup in Fiji knocked that destination off my itinerary) or illness (which, apart from Giardia, I managed to avoid).

Years later, there are memories so vivid, they still bring goosebumps: watching a full moon as wide as the horizon rise over the savannah in equatorial Africa, sitting on a train to Mombassa as the man across from me offered up his daughter in exchange for a night with one of my companions, hearing the giggles of school kids in northern Thailand as they ran their fingers through the blond hair on my arms, receiving the hospitality of a Rwandan man whose son had fallen into a well and drowned not two days before, bringing used books to a young Brit in a Katmandu jail, sentenced for shipping opium to himself in England. And of course, there were the countless friendships forged, most fleeting, but all indelible.

[singlepic=1734,200,,,right]My sabbatical was a humbling, exhausting, thrilling, transformative experience. And cheap. The whole trip cost less than ten grand. This is probably an appropriate time to disclose my sojourn was taken nearly two decades ago. But a recent look at round-the-world fares online suggests my same itinerary could be taken today for just a few hundred dollars more than what I paid. The world may feel a little more unbalanced than it did when I took off from JFK twenty years ago, but no less alluring. Or generous.

Other comments

4 Comments on "The Lasting Memories of a Travel Sabbatical"

  1. Andi on Mon, 22nd Mar 2010 1:20 pm 

    Fantastic post…it will definitely inspire people to take off and see the world. Your travels in Africa sound beyond amazing!!!

  2. ez on Wed, 24th Mar 2010 9:17 am 

    wow…makes me want to do it!!!

  3. Sherry Ott on Sun, 28th Mar 2010 11:15 am 

    @Andi yes – it really is inspirational to think that 20 yrs ago this could be done and it didn’t ruin his career a bit! He’s very successful (he’s a personal friend of mine). We put up so many barriers to our happiness!

  4. Mary Myers on Sun, 28th Mar 2010 7:42 pm 

    Very inspiring. Sometimes we just have to break free from the golden handcuffs that hold us back from the unknown.

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