My round the world travel adventure wasn't supposed to last that long.
In fact, even my allotted six months seemed a stretch. Everyone predicted I'd come home much sooner.
Yet the more I traveled, the less I wanted to stop.
And so I carried on, to places that were never on my itinerary, with people I never thought I would meet, searching for things I didn't know existed.
But I'm getting ahead of myself.
The idea of 'taking off' insinuated itself in 1995. I remember the moment.
I was in my early forties, living a life that seemed ideal from the outside. I worked in Geneva for an international organization, lived in a centuries-old village (Morges) on the lake, ate out a lot and had plenty of friends. I was enjoying myself.
But every day was a repetition of the previous one. I wasn't becoming any better - just older.
I was in a dead-end relationship, my job was agreeable but not challenging, life was placid, with few ups and downs, one day seamlessly drifting into the next. I was restless, verging on discontent, and the grass was looking greener on the other side - any side.
One day I was flying back from South Africa. As my plane rushed across the Sahara, I looked down and I had a vision, corny as it may sound. I imagined a redheaded backpacker, only she was heading back the way I'd come from.
Once home in Morges I couldn't let go of that vision so I began to debate the future. I made lists of what I might do to change my life. I couldn't really afford to go back to school (and wasn't sure I wanted to), I didn't want another job, and moving to another country wouldn't change much more than my surroundings.
The idea of round the world travel crept in.
I had been a journalist before joining the UN, so why not try to freelance? Surely writing had to be a bit like riding a bicycle... And a few years working in corporate communications couldn't have wrecked my pen permanently.
I decided to go to Africa, for no other reason than my finger landed near Cape Town (actually, in the middle of the nearby ocean) when I closed my eyes and pointed at the map.
I bought the Writers' Market and made a list of all magazines that might be interested in a story from that continent. I approached corporate publications by non-governmental organizations and the United Nations. I wrote to everyone I knew, and to everyone they knew.
I began to get responses. Remember, this was in the mid-1990s and most women didn't take off to Africa on their own, and even less to write about it, so there was some interest.
I shopped for a laptop computer - they were just coming on the market. I bought a strange-looking modem you had to strap on a phone to file your story. The only other option was sending things by fax, which cost $1 a page. When some stories were paying as little as $20, that wasn't realistic.
I picked up a number of useful publications: UNFPA's State of World Population, UNICEF's State of the World's Children, UNDP's Human Development Report. These publications held precious data about people, places, health, occupations, education... everything you could find online in a minute today, but not then. For many months I would carry them around Africa in a straw basket.
Preparations took a year. By July 1996 I'd canceled my lease, broken up with my partner, quit my job, and fended off concerned friends and family who collectively agreed I was insane. I bought a one-way ticket to Cape Town, with the intention of spending six months traveling North as far as I could and then flying home to Geneva. Having boycotted South Africa during apartheid, starting my journey in Cape Town held special meaning for me.
I wasn't familiar with the Southern Hemisphere and overlooked the inverted seasons. I landed in July in shorts and a T-shirt, in the middle of winter, watching my breath curl up into the crystal-cold air. My first inglorious stop on this trip was a sports shop to buy long underwear.
I made contact with the people whose names I had brought along, and slowly, slowly, I started writing articles. Those first few efforts were a bit rusty (I hadn't worked as a journalist for some years) but writing is like a muscle that strengthens with practice so I got better, worked hard, and slept little.
Soon I was a regular freelancer, and then a newspaper foreign correspondent in Africa.
I felt my way tentatively across South Africa on the Baz Bus: Nelson Mandela hadn't been in power long, and the country breathed hope and energy. I rode the rickety rails to Maputo, the only white person on a train of Mozambican market traders and spent a day sitting on bales of second-hand clothing. I visited overcrowded refugee camps, burnt out national parks and deserted beaches. The civil war had recently ended there and Mozambique was limping towards reconciliation. I stayed with hippies at the Last Resort, and fished for my meals off the Bazaruto Islands.
I was surprised by Zimbabwe - modern, ordered, dynamic... at least in those days. At Lake Malawi I wrote about HIV and bilharzia and in Tanzania I hobnobbed with opposition politicians as I researched corruption. I sailed to Zanzibar and spent a full three hours hugging the mast but still managed to throw up half a dozen times. On the island I sat with fishermen who were losing their livelihoods to overfishing and in Kenya, I explored conflicts between wildlife (rampaging elephants) and people (farmers whose land they destroyed).
In Uganda I chased mountain gorillas and discovered they climb straight up and down hills as I would have to do to track them; an evil scientist abandoned me in the wilderness with a loaded rifle as my sole defense - not that I would have known how to use it.
In Ethiopia I marveled at the architecture and ached at the altitude but as a coffee addict I was in paradise. With the country then briefly at peace with Eritrea, I was able to cross the border overland in an antique yellow school bus discarded by the US. The driver was stoned, we hit a hailstorm, and he prayed loudly and stridently all the way across the mountains. So did I.
On the Eritrean coast, I observed first-hand the behavior of Saudi men, who left their women and teetotaling state behind to cross the Red Sea to Massawa, its free-flowing whiskey and its sex workers.
And it all came to a halt in Sudan. There was a war, the border was closed, and no amount of begging would get me through. By then I'd been on the road a year but had barely felt the time fly. I was stuck.
I still wasn't ready to go home. So I went to Asia.
For the next two years I would write about sex change operations in Thailand and deforestation in northern Laos, watching the sun dip at night over the Mekong; I was smuggled into Banda Aceh at the height of the separatist troubles in Sumatra. I was in an attempted coup in Manila and on a mountaintop, I paid villagers to gouge me a tree and build a canoe so I could escape a flood.
In Bali I crossed the island in a ministerial motorcade (a rare glimpse of the high life) and in Burma I dodged the authorities for weeks as I tried to gather information from dissidents for a long piece I'd been assigned. The shock wave of foreign tourists was still in the future.
I crossed the border from Thailand into Cambodia with a returning convoy of child beggars who had probably been trafficked. I got lost often in Shanghai, the craziest city in the world. I ate my way through Hong Kong, and fought to stay solvent in Tokyo and Osaka, where one piece of fruit cost more than my monthly salary. I tried to get to Afghanistan but my editor wouldn't send me there.
By now I'd been gone more than two years and couldn't remember living any other way. Forward movement was my stability, and the journey itself became my endpoint. In a second-hand bookstore I picked up a Lonely Planet Baltic States. I had little knowledge of these countries so off I went, via Vienna, landing in Vilnius on a cold winter day - again in a T-shirt, cementing my strange relationship with the weather.
I visited old nuclear reactors, rode on Soviet-era trains, ate grisly sausages and watched with wonder how these recently dour and dingy countries morphed before my eyes into modern, hip cultures.
And then the opportunity arose to go to Cuba, so I jumped. As a Canadian this was not a difficult thing although as a journalist I did need a bit more paperwork than the average tourist. I was treated like a queen, and was granted every interview I requested (including with dissidents, although these were obviously being recorded). I caught Cuba in full Fidel, though things have changed rapidly and I might not recognize it today.
I might well have faced a lifetime of travel had my brother, recently married (I missed the wedding because I was stuck in the mountains of Java at the time) not become a father. Desperate to meet my niece I rushed back to Geneva in time for the birth. I had only planned to stay a few days but complications at birth turned me into a foster parent for the first week as mother and child were separated by an unwelcome bout of measles. As I bonded with that amazing little baby, I found it difficult to leave. So I hung around, taking up space at my brother's home, and trying to figure out how to sustain my coffee habit with Swiss prices on a developing country income.
A friend from Laos was in town and offered me some writing work. Then another friend offered me a job for two weeks. And so on. And I stayed. I had left well over three years earlier, and now I was back, a bit confused by my newfound sedentary status.
I never thought I'd be gone that long. It just happened. Doors opened, and I allowed myself to walk through them.
I'm now living in rural France, about an hour from the Swiss border. I recently retired from the United Nations and now write full-time.
When I first returned I wanted to write a book about my travels but I put it off for so long it didn't make much sense anymore - and that's why I started this website: to encourage women to travel the world and not give up their dreams just because they can't find a travel partner.
Here and on my blog I can share the joys and challenges of being truly alone in places I had never heard of until I got there.
I still have itchy feet. That trip was my longest but I've been escaping my life to travel ever since I first ran away to Morocco at 15. I still travel every chance I get and my backpack gets plenty of use whether I'm traveling solo (a lot), with my partner (often) or for work.
Who knows, I may hit the road again, but for now, I'm happy helping other women who are apprehensive or curious about traveling the world on their own.
I wrote this piece because readers often ask me how I managed to stay on the road all those years. My answer is, I didn't manage it at all... I just let it happen, and went along for the ride, and I tried to say Yes more often than I said No.
Have you ever felt the irresistible need to travel, as though you might stop breathing if you didn't go - there - somewhere - right now? That feeling is what drove me.
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