After a wretched year of personal misfortune, coupled with a weakening job market, one Emirati has decided to cast his fortunes to the wind and backpack around the world. Omar Fikree outlines his odyssey.
On the road with Omar
After a wretched year of personal misfortune, coupled with a weakening job market, one Emirati has decided to cast his fortunes to the wind and backpack around the world. It was last year that I decided to travel the world. It was a cold October day in London and I was sitting at my desk trying to create an engineering model of a steel frame building. Looking back, 2008 had been one of the most miserable years of my life. Within the first few months of the year, I experienced three tragedies. One of my closest friends was killed in China aged 25 while carrying out research for his PhD. A month later, my aunt lost her 10-year battle with cancer and, a few days later, my father became unwell. At the same time, thanks to the global economic downturn, work was not progressing well at all; a number of the company's clients were cutting projects back. I didn't have any concrete plans in my head but I knew that I wanted to visit at least one country in South America. I'd never been to that part of the world and I longed to visit Brazil. I loved the idea of visiting major cities such as Rio de Janeiro and taking in the Amazon rainforest. My eldest sister Asma, who was the first member of our family to take a long time off to go backpacking, had raved about her experiences in South America. She visited Venezuela, Ecuador and Peru and was stunned by the scenery. My other sister, Jomana, travelled to Central America a few years later and also found it remarkable. It's rare to find women from the UAE who are so adventurous, however, this is certainly the case with my sisters. Never shy to experience new things, they are more daring than either my twin brother Ali or I. I remember a trip to the Australian outback when my sister was the only person on the tour who ate a live maggot. It was now my turn to take on and embrace other cultures - even the local food. Despite never having taken more than two months off to travel before, I've been to many places. I've visited most of the major countries in Europe, toured around the US, and spent part of a summer sailing and biking around Mont Tremblant, a ski resort in Quebec, Canada. I've visited Melbourne and made my way north along the coast to the Great Barrier Reef in Cairns via Sydney and Alice Springs. I have learnt something new from each place that I've travelled to, particularly Australia, where a three-day tour of the outback involved visiting important Aboriginal sites to find out about the history and culture of the indigenous population.
That is why I desperately wanted to visit South America. Like the Australian outback, it's a far-flung destination where the culture is bound to be completely different to anything that I'm used to. As soon as I arrived home on that cold and wet October evening, I called my parents to see what they thought of my travel plans. They backed my decision 100 per cent, so I approached my boss the very next day. With some trepidation, I asked for six months off but I needn't have worried. Because the firm was being so badly hit by the recession, they were more than happy to let me go - I was relieved to hear that my job would be available to me on my return. Only a few weeks later, having signed the relevant forms, my sabbatical was official. Although I have a job to go back to, I've saved for my trip and hope to spend no more than US$14,430 (Dh53,000) over the six months, including flights. Due to the suddenness of my decision, I had not planned where exactly I was going to go, in what order or with whom. A colleague of mine had also decided to take six months off, so I invited him to lunch and managed to convince him that Argentina would be the perfect destination. A few weeks later, however, sitting in the same restaurant, I learnt that he'd had a change of heart. I needed to come up with an alternative plan and fast. It was a few months later, when I was lying on the beach in my home city of Abu Dhabi, that a good friend suggested I should head out to Brazil in February with her. I instantly took her up on the offer and, rather excitedly, booked my flight that night. There were minor complications, however; my friend was only planning to stay in Brazil for a week, whereas I'd booked the first part of my trip for nearly a month. And yet, I wasn't too worried. I reasoned that travelling on my own would increase my chances of meeting other travellers from different backgrounds, as well as Brazilians. I knew the last part would not be so easy; I don't speak a word of Portuguese apart from a few rude phrases taught to me by my Portuguese friends at university - I doubted that my language skills would go down well with the locals. Happily, one of my best friends, James Worrall, had also left his job and agreed to join me. If there is anyone who deserved time off, it was James. He grew up with our friend Daniel, who died when a radiator caught fire while he was asleep in his flat in China. James and Dan were childhood friends and went to the same school together. James and I put our heads together and came up with more solid travel plans. We decided to take a very early morning flight to Rio de Janeiro on the Saturday: the following day, we'll head out to Ilha Grande, an island located off the coast of Rio de Janeiro state and stay there for three nights. After soaking up the atmosphere, we may head down to Paraty or head back to Rio. We both agreed that we would definitely have to experience the famous Rio Carnival. After Brazil, I plan to return to London briefly before going skiing in Saalbach, Austria, with my family. We have been taking ski trips together for the past 10 years, and I would not miss it for the world. It's the only time I get to spend with all of my favourite cousins. The remainder of the trip is still up in air, but I'm hoping to hike the Inca Trail in Peru with my sister, Jomana, as soon as we return from our skiing trip. It will be a great opportunity for us to spend some time together. Another reason that this trip appeals to me is that it promises to be a test of perseverance and endurance - one that is extremely demanding, both physically and mentally. If my budget allows, I also plan to visit Colombia, as well as Hong Kong or Bangkok, as I have never before set foot in countries that far east. The time I've been waiting for is now fast approaching. Clearing my desk at work, and saying goodbye to my colleagues, as well as my friends outside work, was not easy. This slightly sombre feeling was quickly overcome, however, by a sense of great anticipation. So to my family, friends, and all the readers of The National on Saturday, I cannot wait to share my adventures with you. Next week: read Omar Fikree's first dispatch from Brazil in our new column, The Nomad