This is a fairly long-winded essay about my recent experience of a travelling sabbatical around the world, complete with musings, childhood experiences, travel photos and some lessons learnt. Enjoy!
Exploring the world from my living room
The first time I ever thought about going overseas was when I was about 9 or 10 years old when something seemingly small changed my perception of life forever.
On a chilly spring weekend a group of about 10-15 adults from all corners of the world appeared in our living room and were having a hilarious conversation in English. As I was sitting around them, trying to make sense of all the accents, words and expressions I couldn’t help but think that there must be life beyond the borders of Hungary. You see these events didn’t happen every day in a sleepy town where I grew up. My father began taking on more and more international work and assignments, which meant that he travelled more often but also more friends and colleagues visited us in Hungary.
That day my eyes opened and after the guests left I rushed to find a world map and travel books (this was well before the Internet reached us) to try and locate all these countries where we had visitors from: USA, South Africa, Finland, England, Japan, on and on I kept the pages turning. Pictures of skyscrapers, mountains, beaches, pagodas and neon-lit streets appeared in the book and my imagination ran wild. What is life like in these places? What do people eat there? How do they have fun? Could I visit there? Better yet, live in one of these countries? That last question was far beyond anything I ever thought was possible.
It would take a few years to visit most of these countries but since that day I had this burning desire to go and see the world (and also my fascination with Asia began to blossom around that time).
The first international trips I took were near the borders of Hungary: Austria, Croatia and Serbia. I visited the last two during the conflict years in the 90s, which were eye opening. Bombed out houses, wounded soldiers, bullet holes in buildings, half-torn flags yet friendly and welcoming people (toward a young teenage boy anyway), beautiful countryside and delicious food. It was confusing but I could see beauty even in the darkest places.
Then when I turned 14 out of the blue I received a return flight ticket to Helsinki, as a primary school graduation gift, to visit our dear family friends. I’ve been to Finland before with my family but let me tell you; flying solo that young was awesome. Looking out through the airplane window I was mesmerised as the ground grew distant and I began my two-hour journey to the Finnish capital. Sitting alone on the flight at 30,000 feet I felt myself ready and excited for the journey alone.
Then it hit me. I’m doing exactly what I dreamed about all those years ago pouring over the books and maps.
Looking but not seeing
The best way to travel and see the world is…well actually to go and see the world. I never looked at travel as #escapism or #wanderlust rather what new experience or activity I might see or do, who I might meet or what I might learn about a new topic or myself. Actually, that last one is what drove me to travel. There is a whole big world out there with billions of people, adventures and experiences and my view has always been that seeing it first hand is the best way to learn.
You see, most people travel as an observer (think of tour groups and tour leaders with their colourful umbrellas and loudspeakers). They might “see” and do a lot but experience very little. But by being an active participant, someone who lives and breathes the experience in the moment, the traveller gives himself the permission to begin to think and see the world differently.
I am biased. You are biased. We are all biased. If you say you are not you lie about other stuff too. Our past experiences, society, parents, schools, media etc helped us to become biased and most often we don’t ever question our assumptions. We all judge and decide based on a small selection of past experiences and tend to generalise how the future will be. If the familiar past is all that we let ourselves experience then that’s our whole, although rather limited, concept of the world. Travelling, new experiences for that matter, can broaden our minds. Find the universals and similarities as we travel. Nothing makes the world smaller than seeing just how similar we all are.
Finding the travel companion of a lifetime
There is another reason why travelling is great. It lends us the possibility to see someone in ways we otherwise might not have the chance to do so. Let me explain.
During my penultimate year at university (which was in Bath, England) we were offered the chance to spend our second to last semester abroad. I thought, wow, it’s like living abroad on top of going abroad: abroad²(™). I immediately set my sights on two Asian universities, one in Hong Kong and one in Singapore, and began writing my applications. A few months passed by and Christmas was fast approaching when I got an official looking e-mail: “Prepare your bags, you’ve been accepted at City University of Hong Kong as an exchange student”. After running up and down the campus in excitement and calling my family and friends I sat down quietly and remembered that young boy who was dreaming about living or at least visiting Asia. Once again, life has really outdone herself.
Landing in Hong Kong airport on a hot and humid August day the following year was a reminder that, “Well, Toto, we sure ain’t in Kansas anymore”. First of all the humidity was so bad that for minutes I could barely breathe, much to the amusement of my local friends. Second, the huge skyscrapers and neon-lit buildings were not unlike the ones I’ve seen in those travel books years before. I was once again reminded that I was living my dream. I was far from home yet in a peculiar way I felt at home amidst the craziness of this urban jungle. I fell in love with the city.
Love was on the cards for the second time during my stay in Hong Kong, but not how I could have ever imagined it. On the third to last day of my stay I was introduced to a beautiful girl from the city and we struck up a conversation that went until the break of dawn the following day. The first thing that struck me about her was her height. I’m 6”4’ and when I look around I normally see far into the distance. Here, I saw her eyes. In fact, I got lost in her eyes for hours. In a few days we said our good-byes and I headed for the airport to fly back home. However, little did we know that within just 8 years we’d be married to each other and commit to building a life together in love and partnership in the same exact city where we first met. For the nth time, life has truly outdone herself.
So how does it all relate to travelling? To state the obvious I would have never met Joyce, my wife, had I not embraced the uncertainty of a new continent, country and culture. Furthermore, more recently, we have been on an around the world trip, a sabbatical of sorts, together.
Before our marriage began we lived in a long distance relationship, with her in HK and myself in London. The distance is great for collecting air miles, not so much for building a relationship. Then after our wedding she moved to London but we always had this thought in the back of our heads that we never really lived together. Wouldn’t it make sense that before starting a family of our own, we really got to know each other on an even deeper level? We both agreed. How would such an experiment look like? Should we move to a new place? Take a long honeymoon? Volunteer somewhere for a few weeks? How about…travelling around the world? Hmmm. This idea seemed a little scary at first but we both felt a call to embrace the unknown. It also came at an opportune time as I felt my career stalling – a change in scenery would do both of us good in many aspects. Oh, and Joyce also reminded me that we did have two weddings but 0 honeymoons so far. She had a point…
So what do we do now? It is a big world out there if we criss-cross continents we’ll spend a lot of time in transit. How about just one continent?
That was it. We both smiled and agreed. After all of those years pouring over travel books I thought I’d finally have the chance to explore in-depth this part of the world. Better yet we’d be together far outside of our comfort zones, really getting to know the other person, and laying a solid foundation for the future of our relationship. An investment of time and energy into something we both deemed very important.
We sold and gave away all of our belongings, donated hundreds of books, gave up our flat, I resigned from my job in London and bought two tickets towards East. Actually, this process was very liberating; our mini Marie Kondo experiment. We never had too much stuff but the clearing out of a pile of things meant the closing of one chapter and turning the page to a new one. So with two suitcases and two backpacks we set off to explore the world. What we didn’t realise at the time is that just how much this would change our lives.
The seasons of life
I used to think that the word sabbatical meant taking a break from life and career, however after completing one I now know that it is really a part of it. For me it was the letting go of the past and making way for something new to emerge.
Sabbatical has its roots in the word sabbath and originates from an ancient agricultural practice of leaving the land idle, stopping all agricultural activity to reduce soil erosion and increase fertility and future crop yields. Original texts suggest this sabbatical happened on every 7th year (i.e. 6 years of work and 1 year of rest), with other interpretations suggesting otherwise, although perhaps the specifics matter less than the concept itself. We don’t need to think in years to see this work/rest concept appear in nature and our lives: daily wake/rest cycles, weekdays/weekends (though for me most weekends were still about work), seasons in any given year and so on.
The changes in seasons mark the change in weather patterns and soil conditions, such as the end of winter giving way to spring so that new life can form on the land. Just as nature we all have seasons in our lives. Knowing which season we are in and how to take advantage of it are two of the most important things we can do for our sanity. Nature has a flow and acting against it can (and will) create a lot of frustration and pain. Try harvesting in spring, before the fruits are fully ripen, or planting in winter, when the soil is frozen.
Much like knowing which season we are in it is equally important to know that, just as everything in life, it is transient. The heat of summer will fade into the chilly-ness of autumn then to the cool of winter and en-route to summer’s warmth again it’ll make a pit stop in the bloom of spring. Over time this constant flow and cycle creates balance. Remaining in one season for an extended period puts enormous pressure on the land, prohibiting proper recovery therefore normal yields in the future. Over-planting will result in sub-optimal harvest and over-harvesting will erode the topsoil over time.
Nature strives towards balance, finding the Tao, the middle way. Similarly to our lives and careers, we go through cycles: spring (ideas and planning), summer (action and execution), autumn (harvest and reaping the benefits) and winter (rest and recuperation). Just work will burn us out (many are finding this out the hard way) but keeping idle for too long without creating will result in lack of purpose, boredom and entropy. The aim is to find the golden middle.
Seasons change automatically, that’s guaranteed, but what is not is growth and progress through these changes. That’s up to us.
Three ideas to move beyond fear
When we set off for our first destination, beautiful Greece, we were both filled with excitement yet there was nagging voice in the back of my head saying, “Why on earth are you taking this sabbatical?” Before taking this sabbatical idea more seriously I conducted a non-representative survey of friends who were older than me and with more experience. The two answers I got from this were: (i) if they’ve done a sabbatical, especially with their spouse, it was a life-changing experience for the better and (ii) if they have not done one it was one of the biggest regrets of their lives. The results were obvious and I’m really big on regret minimisation.
Still, this voice in my head didn’t let up and I kept thinking if I had made the right choice by giving up a very comfortable (and familiar) life in London for a year or more of the unknown. It wasn’t fear rather guilt that was bubbling up. Nobody in our families has done such a thing before and while many of our friends dreamt about doing something similar (regardless of their socio-economic situation) they never actually went ahead with their plans. Our families worked very hard, heck I worked very hard, to get where we were and now I was just throwing it all away. Seemed crazy at the time. Now, not so much. Three ideas changed my thinking.
First. I’m very fortunate to have found a job, career, and mission early on in my life. I became fascinated with the idea of money, not necessarily with the making of it, just the concept and the idea behind it and read everything I could find on the subject. This led me to investing and somehow the combination of ideas of playing with incomplete information, understanding how big ideas in the world are interconnected, thinking about the future and business made me very curious.
At first, I wanted to be a hedge fund manager (I know, I know too much Wall Street, Gordon Gecko and greed is good blah blah…) but the more time I spent with entrepreneurs the more I fell in love with the idea of building businesses and how capital plays a key part in that. For me it became work that I did for the sake of work and enjoyment, driven by internal satisfaction rather than external praise or appreciation.
For most people in finance their best day in a year is bonus day. I believe that when money becomes the measure of success then I have, for sure, lost the game. To me this is a career or mission for life therefore retirement (unless forced upon me by external events) is not really on the cards. It’s not about making x million dollars or getting out before I’m 45, rather service and contribution. If that is what drives me, life never ceases to be dull. Investing is a very universal concept and applicable in most parts of the world, where capital markets exist, so finding new opportunities wouldn’t be that difficult.
Next. To have a truly great life I need to have truly great relationships. It is something I learnt late in life. I was the shy and introverted guy who worked but never really connected with people as I spent too much time in my head. I can now admit that it made for a rather limited life. So years ago I decided to completely change this up and adopted this approach of “going first”. Perhaps the most important relationship, apart from the one we have with ourselves, is the one with our partner or spouse. I believe that to have a truly outstanding spouse (and relationship for that matter) I have to be an outstanding partner. It’s again “going first”. That takes a lot of love, appreciation, service, trust, being emotionally available and so on. In this life I have to perfect one human relationship and I practice that by loving another human unconditionally. It seemed to me like a mission that should deserve at least a year of full attention.
Lastly, obviously we never know when is our last day here on earth, but statically speaking we’re living longer. That means that with better nutrition, exercise, healthcare as well as looking after our minds and emotions we’re going to be working longer with retirement further out. The traditional retirement model is not something I dream often about, I’m fortunate to have found a meaningful career, hence working late into my life is almost a given.
But what about taking mini-breaks or sabbaticals along the way let’s say every 5, 7 or 10 years? It doesn’t all need to be a yearlong one and perhaps few weeks or months at a time would suffice too. While I have no statistical evidence, my theory is that allowing these periods of idleness would enable me to spend more time with loved ones, explore new ideas, gather new perspectives and just to clear my head; taking a step back and making way for something new in my life to emerge.
Sometimes we’re guilty of not thinking on a long-enough timescale, I’m certainly party to that. Life is a long game but it consists of fleeting moments. How I live those moments, not in a #yolo sense, dramatically impacts the quality of my life. Retirement can fall into the “greener on the other side” category. You think you want it but when you get it you’re not too sure anymore or would prefer it to be different. I’ve seen plenty of examples where retirement, really a loss or end of a career, identity or purpose meant the literal death of the person within just a few short years. Perhaps, retirement shouldn’t be about “stopping work” rather how to find a new meaning or purpose in life. What if we took these sabbaticals to experiment with different forms of retirement?
Letting life do the planning
So with these thoughts circulating in my head we set off to explore Greece over a month or so then headed over to Asia for the rest of the summer: Hong Kong, Taiwan, South Korea and Japan. It was a blast. Especially Japan. We had the pleasure of spending nearly six weeks in this beautiful country and we were just about scratching the surface. It is such a rich place: culture, tradition, history, customs etc, and especially as an outsider, it’s nearly impossible to take it all in. Perhaps that’s what makes it so confusing for most visitors.
There are two lessons we learnt up until the summer. Number one: depth is more important than breadth; don’t even try to see everything. Number two: get with the locals; especially in a country like Japan where for the most part I have no idea what’s going on.
Before we left London we eagerly read blogs, watched vlogs, listened to travel podcasts, began making daily itineraries and so on to get us ready for a city or country. We marked down things we wanted to see and do, restaurants to visit, beaches to spend time on etc. But then something funny happened after the fifth travel vlog. We noticed that the same places kept popping up. Hmm. Nothing against them but we realised that most blogs and vlogs are not helpful if you really want to travel (very helpful if you’re looking to get likes on IG or YouTube). They all point to the same places, sites, accommodation, restaurants and so on. It’s the tried and tested. The known.
We were longing for independence and the unknown yet in a sense we were still part of a (virtual) tour group with a group leader, loudspeaker, colourful umbrella and all, but there was background music and the photos were more Instagram friendly. There is nothing wrong with this approach, we’ve visited some of these places and they’re fun. But this still left us feeling like ‘tourists’, seeing and doing a lot of things. Filling our days with activity often without purpose behind it just for the sake of busy-ness. It’s analogous to visiting someone’s home, eating their dinner, watching their TV, sleeping in their bed but never really interacting with them.
We opted for something else. While we didn’t really give it a name, looking back we’d call it eyeball-to-eyeball travel. Where we’re not looking for the best angle for a photo rather connecting with another human being. Meetings locals and exploring a country or a city through their eyes gave us a much deeper perspective than we could have ever gathered from a guidebook.
Most of our best experiences didn’t involve fancy places or crazy experiences. For a few nights we shared a house and meals with a Japanese Buddhist family who gave and taught us so much about their way of life and Japanese culture.
One evening we had the pleasure to meet with a man whose family has owned and looked after a small temple in Kyoto for the last 400 years. He was the 22nd or 23rd generation of the family. His idea of short term was the next one to two generations (I think that’s called eternity on Wall Street). How does your thinking and priorities change when that becomes your benchmark?
I had the pleasure of learning about investing, corporate management, governance and banking in Japan through meeting local finance professionals (I know, highly fascinating subjects to most of the readers). All of these generous people took time out of their busy days to share and give. What I felt were gratitude and humility and better connection to Japan and the people living there. But it wasn’t just in Japan. I could go on and on with examples from each of the countries, as we had similar experiences and local encounters.
Let me mention one more. On a trip to Malaysia we visited a shelter for children. The unique aspects about this charity are that it is small, privately run (i.e. receives no government funding) and looks after a population of children from a community who wouldn’t have anywhere else to go. We loved spending time with the children, playing and studying with them, connecting with the social workers and helping the charity in any way we could. They did ask if we wanted some sort of memento, a picture that we could use to share with the world (see how conditioned everyone is these days?). We kindly turned it down. We’ve already received a lot more.
I believe that travel without participation (not in a souvenir shop though) is merely entertainment. Again, there is nothing wrong with this and there are many ways to travel. Making the effort of knowing a place, history and customs and communicating with the locals (even if it’s basic “hello, how are you?”) provided us with the human connection that made this trip rich. A smile, a nod or a wave. Often these encounters would turn into longer discussions (or the more odd case of people following us around for a while, such as it happened on many occasions in smaller cities and villages in China).
Every night we checked in and see how we felt, how did experiences of the day affect us, be it good or bad. Having flights cancelled, accommodations falling through last minute or visas not arriving on time impacted the itinerary. How did we deal with these events and the frustration? Were we meeting the original goal we set off on this journey for? Did any of our previous believes, opinions and perspectives change because we had a certain experience? Creating some distance from our normal life (i.e. with a home in one city and with the regular routines) gave us more perspective and enabled us to observe our lives.
As a result of the lessons of the first few months on the road we also gave up planning, for the most part. Being together and having these unplanned experiences was more important than what site we saw or which restaurant we tried. We’d leave it late, towards the end of our trip in a country to think about roughly what we wanted to do and where we wanted to be based in the next one. Then we left the rest up to life. It was perhaps not the most efficient way of doing it but certainly more fun. Life knows much more about me than I’ll ever know about life herself. She knows what she’s doing. In fact she has been doing pretty OK before I showed up on this planet. That’s another, important lesson for me. Allowing for serendipity in life.
I used to believe that control was important but as I learned through my cancer experience there is actually very little that I control. Really, the only thing I have a control over is my choice – how do I respond to events that happen in my life? Do I get emotional and carried away or look for ways to lift the moment in front of me. This is surrender, I wrote about this in my book. It’s letting go, but not in a sense of passive renunciation rather actively participating in what life is presenting without wanting anything else from the moment. Not fighting with it or wishing that it was different. Just enjoying whatever is happening and looking for ways to contribute. Although that presupposes an element of contentment or feeling of wholeness inside.
Some of the cool experiences
Now, don’t get me wrong we didn’t just sit around and philosophise all day long. We did a lot of cool stuff together and had a ton of fun.
For instance, Joyce wasn’t the best of swimmers before. What’s the best way to find the motivation to learn to swim? Let’s go scuba diving. That’s us on Green Island in Taiwan. Well, not on the island itself but deep in the Pacific Ocean (oh, and that seahorse shaped thing in the middle is an underwater postbox).
How about fear of heights and speed? Let’s go ziplining in Singapore.
Thoughts bothering me? Let’s go skydiving in Australia – that ought to get the mind quiet.
Fear of public appearances? Play the guitar at a tourist attraction in Taiwan (p.s. people snapped photos of me as I posed with the Power Ranger dude).
We didn’t really plan on doing these things much in advance. For the most part these opportunities just happened to pop up as we travelled but they all served a purpose. That is growth. As individuals and as a couple. Change is guaranteed to happen, but progress and growth are not. That’s up to us. We can create a truly beautiful life but it requires effort from the both us. But it’s worth it. On the other side of fear and the unknown is truly bliss and freedom.
Some lessons from the journey
As our sabbatical has come to an end a good while ago and we have been going through thousands of photos, videos and memories trying to make sense of what happened in the last years. Sometimes we have even forgotten about an event or an experience so the photos serve as great reminders. We are not big on multi-step plans but there are a few lessons and notes to self that came up so far.
This is probably the best thing we could have done to lay a solid foundation for our marriage and can highly recommend it. Obviously. Whatever we thought we’d lose with this time we gained way more than we could have imagined.
Don’t try to control or plan every single detail. Yeah, that took some learning initially. It can be a hard concept to come around at first, especially as we planned trips thousands of miles away from home. But, in reality being somewhere else is not that different from being home. On the most basic level we always had a flight, roof over our head, a meal to eat and Internet. Then we could figure out the rest. After the first three to four months we didn’t really book trips very much in advance, with the exception of travel during holidays, allowing us the flexibility to explore and stay as long as we wanted.
Don’t try to see everything. It’s pointless and we would have really missed the point about travelling.
Life knows what she’s doing. As above.
Enjoy! Flight got cancelled? Argument with an Airbnb host about how a leaking bathroom is not “normal”? Getting stopped by the police in Japan for speeding (on a bicycle?!)? Explaining to a chef how soy sauce contains gluten? The point is that seemingly important things in the moment can really ruin what would be the experience of a lifetime. Keep perspective. How likely am I to encounter these things again?
All in we visited over 20 countries since we started our travels and in most cases we spent nearly a month. What became very apparent, country after country, is that we are all after the good or a happy life, not necessarily in monetary terms, but the definition of it and how get there differs. When we take all the labels away such as race, gender, religion, occupation etc, fundamentally, we all have the same dreams, hopes and fears but these get lost in the daily cacophony.
Perhaps the best way for us to witness this was through weddings. It just so happened that over this period we got invited to a ridiculous number of weddings in different countries and cultures. When we talked with the bride and the groom, their parents, friends really they all wanted the same things: love, happiness, career, family, health…all these things are universals regardless if it is in Mauritius, Hong Kong, Austria, Malaysia, Ireland, Sichuan or Poland. Perhaps this picture of Earth, taken from space, captures this sentiment the most.
To point out the obvious, someone forgot to draw on the borders. How careless… (Source: climate.nasa.gov)
Joyce and I have already began to think about our next trip with our (future) family. All of us growing up in a developed country are fortunate, though sometimes we take this for granted. I was born beyond the Iron Curtain, while the whole “one-team/one-dream” idea was falling apart, and can still remember the food shortages, month-long queues for a colour TV or a new car. In the “west” most of our basic needs are covered and we are all on the path towards self-actualisation, (or at least we believe we are) but tend to lose sight of this.
We both think, although we don’t have children yet, that the best way to bring a family closer, share in new experiences and teach them about the world is to take them see the world when they are old enough to comprehend. It is also a fantastic way to have them interact with children from other countries, cultures, and means, eyeball to eyeball, to see that on a human level there aren’t real differences between them regardless of their backgrounds. Anyway, that’s what I think now but I’m quite sure that as we’ll have children we will revisit this idea many times.
Thank you for getting through my nearly 6,000-word rambling, truly appreciate your commitment to reading this article. I’d just end with a few words I read from Jon Kabat-Zinn years ago: “Wherever you go there you are, or you aren’t, but that there is here.” Wherever your journey may take you I hope that you’ll be “there” to fully experience every single moment of it.
That’s the best gift you can give to yourself.