Ismat Abidi finds that her round-the-world trip not only broadened her mind, it also built up her character.
Round-the-world trip promotes independence
Cruising down US's Highway 1, regarded by many as the most scenic coastal drive in the world, beside the infinite waters of the Pacific, the waves unapologetically crashing against orange coastal rocks, my round-the-world adventure, which would unfold every week in a column on the back page of this section, had begun with some idealistic California dreaming. Before boarding the plane to San Francisco, I had bid a sad farewell to a great job at my law firm's Abu Dhabi office, I had sold my Jeep, left my home by the beach and some childhood friends behind, shipped off my belongings and moved from the UAE to the UK. With no end in sight, I was full of anticipation at what I might discover, full of curiosity as to who I might meet, backpack full of handy travel gadgets and a bank account full of my saving, which were supposed to last me the next few months.
America was an easy start into the journey. With no culture shock or language barrier to contend with, it was fun, laid-back, relaxing and unforgettable. After three weeks of exploring the West Coast and desert, I flew over the international date line into Sydney, a city that caters fantastically to backpackers. From Australia, my travels took me on to Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, Japan, China, to a life-changing experience in my attempt to conquer Mt Kilimanjaro in Tanzania and finally, the beaches of Zanzibar. Depth versus breadth of places to visit was a moot point for me, but for what I wanted in terms of scope from my round-the-world trip, I got: snippets (at least) of all the countries I visited, gave me strong indications of which I would want to return to and discover further. Japan remains the place I was most blown away by. Inspired by its gracious culture and astounding efficiency, I wished I could have stayed longer, hopping on and off bullet trains, exploring the more rural areas, but it proved too expensive.
At the risk of tiring my family and friends with the word "Kilimanjaro", forgive me for using it again. This is, after all, my final column. The climb was the hardest thing I have ever done, and that much more fulfilling being the end of a wider journey. I pushed my physical and mental strengths to their limits that week and it will be extremely difficult to give up on anything in the future. Thinking things are impossible is the only barrier to challenges now, and whenever I am faced with a seemingly impossible obstacle or task, I think of the moment I stood at the summit and any mental block immediately evaporates.
I almost fell on the wrong side of the fine line between under- and over-planning my trip but keeping plans fluid and opting for a flexi-ticket fixed this. The plane ticket was my biggest expense at £1,300 (Dh7,590). Booked through STA, I added an easy option to change dates for £30 per country. My mountain climb was my second biggest expense at £1,200 (including guides and equipment). In total I spent about Dh50,000 (including food, transport, accommodation and souvenirs) on my entire round-the-world trip. This was more or less what I intended, and keeping a separate credit card for travel, topping it up country to country, made my spending much easier to track.
Budgeting is fine but don't under-spend at the expense of being happy. It was good to leave a little cushion for when I wanted a hot shower or a nice room for the night. Budget travel doesn't mean you have to spend the night in unsanitary conditions, it means you travel within the budget you've set for yourself. I also wouldn't hold back from splashing out on an experience or day out as chances are you won't notice the 300 or 500 dirhams less in your bank account on your return. If you have to be thrifty, hostels have kitchens, so opt to cook your own meals a few times. Research is imperative when it comes to savvy spending. By simply jotting down the average prices of accommodation etc from a guidebook or online travel forums (I found TripAdvisor particularly helpful) in a notebook before you leave, local prices are never a shock and you're always prepared, with an upper hand for haggling as well.
Of course it wasn't all plain sailing. My spirits were dampened slightly when my iPod broke in Australia less than a month into my travels. Being a musicphile, I had to bear up with the thought of losing 5,000-plus songs, and I was also using it to store all my travel documents and card copies and to write my weekly travel column for The National. I spent the rest of my plane, train, automobile, ferry, junk-boat and bus journeys writing and chatting to other people instead of plugging in my headphones. Lesson learnt: don't overly rely on technology. My patience was tested waiting hours in queues and facing delays, which ruined onward journeys. Lesson learnt: remaining calm and carrying a book will make the wait more pleasant. It was bad enough arriving in Bangkok a day after the riots ended (with curfews still in place) but when a taxi driver snatched my money I decided to break up with Bangkok on my final evening. It was the one moment that made me realise I didn't have to enjoy every place I visited.
What have I gained? Aside from a bottomless pool of anecdotes for parties and shedloads of air miles, I've gained a greater sense of independence, or should I say, independent thought. In spite of being fairly open-minded, I still came across people, places and situations that provoked, informed, educated and broadened my thinking. I've been asked whether I think I've "changed". The answer to this is fundamentally, no. I'm still the Izzy I was before I went away. I have, however, learnt things about myself in terms of resourcefulness, compromise, my perceptions of others, people's perceptions of me, and appreciated the importance of spontaneity more than ever.
If anything, I've realised how much more there is to learn and it's only fuelled my passion to discover more. I've started on my doorstep by picking up a guidebook on Britain, now appreciating what I can explore locally; something I previously took for granted. I may be back at work without the fortune of months off or a pot of savings, but with continental Europe just a two-hour train ride away, weekend city breaks are next on my agenda.
Although it was liberating allowing myself to roam around the world with no one to answer to, I was equally intent on keeping in touch with the people closest to me back in the UAE and the UK. Probably the most poignant (some may say ironic) lesson I've learnt is the importance of having that support network, regularly touching base while far away. I'm sure there are plenty of people reading this who can relate to having grown up all over the world or having a multi-cultural upbringing. Constantly on the go, it's easy to lose track of where you consider home or your base.
I also created a circle of familiar friendly faces while on the road that made me feel comfortable as opposed to constantly lost. Ultimately, I've come to realise that it's not about the where but who. It's one thing travelling alone, taking in the sights, sounds and tastes, but without the people I met along the way, I would have found the trip relatively unfulfilling. In my story, I was the protagonist who crafted my physical journey. The colours on my otherwise blank pages, however, come from stories of the people I met and the experiences we shared on the road.
I hope the On The Road columns over the past six months have been entertaining and inspired others to make similar journeys. I'm grateful to have been able to share my highs, lows, lessons learnt, and skills gained and savvy tips from my expedition. As for my regrets? None whatsoever.
The route Abu Dhabi-London-San Francisco-Los Angeles-Sydney-Melbourne-Thailand-Cambodia-Vietnam-Laos-Japan-Hong Kong-China-Abu Dhabi-Tanzania-Kilimanjaro-Zanzibar-Abu Dhabi-London 5 continents, 13 countries, 3 wonders of the world
Most enjoyable country Japan
Most enjoyable city Stone Town, Zanzibar
Most enjoyable place Pacific Ocean coast
Most expensive Japan
Least expensive Cambodia
Most enjoyable food California
Least enjoyable food China
Cost About Dh50,000, including food, transport, accommodation, activities (including the Kilimanjaro climb), equipment and gifts