The saying goes that time flies when you are having fun and one day you wake up and realize that the graduates you are interviewing are over 10 years younger than you.
On the same thought, it also dawned on me that it is a decade since I became an ultra-frequent traveler, a label that I have assigned to myself for lack of a satisfying definition. Frequent travelers abound nowadays but, when I count the days I used to spend on the road and I still do, I often get to two thirds of the year and, most weeks, I am in more than one country, so I believe this deserves a new category 🙂
Life as an Internal Auditor in EMEA
I can’t remember the exact date, I am sure my mum would, but I know it was roughly in 2005 when I took a job as an internal auditor for a very large American company and set off to conquer the world.
My job involved weekly travel across Europe, the Middle East and Africa. Admittedly, the last two bits of the geographical focus received much less travel than the first one. I stayed with the company for 15 months traveling around Europe’s most “exotic” destinations. Think remote industrial estates, random second or third cities or other places where my company had factories, often times, I had never heard of the place before and it sure provided an insight into some forgotten parts of Europe. It was, to someone like me who was hungry to explore the world, a dream come true.
What I liked most about the job was the opportunity to travel. And my colleagues, a bunch of fun and crazy travel-lovers from all walks of life. We were a global team of 100 and the 4-week long projects were staffed with people from anywhere. We would usually meet on Monday morning at whatever exciting destination we had scheduled for the week flying in from any city in Europe. It was exhilarating.
This week we are in Lyon sampling France’s best restaurants and trying to open the door of our completely frozen rental car door. Next week we are in Brno, Czech Republic’s second largest city, which was best reached via a 2h drive from Vienna in the snow. Next month we are in a US high-security factory dealing with machines used by the army and being escorted to the bathroom by a security officer. And so on.
I had colleagues from Benin, Bosnia, Russia, Ireland, China, Malaysia… it was a truly global team and this opened up my curiosity to the endless questions on culture and traditions that just keep coming.
The best part was the super multi-cultural team of young and crazy professionals who were good at their job but were also great to spend weekends with. We always tried to make the best of our travels. We would check the Michelin guide for the best places to eat, spend weekends wherever, travel around, visit interesting places and truly explore. We made the most of our miles and hotel points and became masters at multiplying the benefits. I had some serious teachers in this realm.
A colleague of mine had completely forfeited the traditional life and was literally living in hotels. When he was not staffed on a project he used his accumulated miles to stay for free back at his base office and with the acquired status, he was living like a king, for free. He was the master of the loyalty program universe and taught me everything there is to know about ultra-frequent traveling.
The travel bug
I caught the travel bug four years before, in London, where I spent a month trying to improve my English. I thank heavens for that summer because the following year I came back as an investment banking intern and the learnings of the previous summer sure came in handy. I remember sitting in a room with other 40 interns that were joining JP Morgan that summer and thinking that I could not understand a word the admin lady was pronouncing in her closed British accent.
Was I the only one? How could I do my job if I could barely understand what I was being told? It was certainly an adventure to survive those two months in the City in the midst of the dot.com bubble bursting, people being fired every day but still living the Investment Banking life. I quickly learned what I did not want to become.
After those two summers in London I was looking for more so the following summer, pre-graduation, I spent it in Honduras giving a hand in various educational projects managed by a wonderful NGO in an impoverished slum of Tegucigalpa. The time there changed me and you can read all about it here.
There was a daily curfew and you could hear drug-related shootings between the youth bands almost every night. We were sleeping on the floor, hand-washing our clothes because there was no running water or electricity, cooking our meals from the very basic ingredients that were available and spending our days with people who had absolutely nothing and yet smiled more than anybody in the Western world does. It was a magical experience and 12 years later I am still in touch and helping out as best I can.
I can assure you, eyes closed, that self-less giving is the most selfish act because what you get from it is incommensurately bigger than what you give back.
Moving to Dubai
A little over a year after I started as an internal Auditor an even crazier opportunity came up. A friend called me to chat about an opportunity her ex-boss had contacted her about. It as the chance to join a new consulting company in Dubai. How could I say no?
I only needed to know it involved travel, a new geography and a diverse environment and I thought: Why not?
So in February 2006 I moved to Dubai, became an expat and started my Middle East and African adventure. I will admit that I had no idea where Dubai was, to the point of trying to locate a travel guide in the Africa section, unsuccessfully.
The following 5 years I lived between Dubai and Joburg and life was a roller-coaster. I traveled everywhere yet I could never satiate my curiosity and my hunger for more. I spent most of my time in Africa rather than the Middle East because I was fascinated by the cultures and the landscapes, I just could never get enough of it. I did work in almost every country in the Gulf (Bahrain, Kuwait, Jordan, Oman, Iraq, Afghanistan) but it was not as appealing as Africa to me. The only project that truly caught my attention was one for an Afghani client, although we never traveled there. Their tales of natural beauty and the history of the country before it became a usual suspect on the trgaedy pages of the newspapers were addictively interesting to me. I keep the country in my bucket list hoping that one day it will be safe enough to go.
During those 5 years I worked and traveled in over 25 countries across Africa and I can testify that it is a huge and very diverse continent. It is funny how people talk about countries and then, when they get to Africa, they just say “Africa” as if it was a country in itself. The lack of understanding and knowledge of the continent among most people is painfully common.
I used to pass time at airport lounges looking at the names on the departures and arrivals board wondering where those exotic and unknown places were, then going on Google and find out more. Almost always, I would then go online to try to organize a weekend there. If Europe was captivating imagine what Africa did to me. I was in a constant state of awe. Places like Ouagadougou or N’djamena sounded like the lost paradise of a traveler’s tale rather than the capitals of a country.
I started to accumulate travel guides to all those places I had not been to. My obsession with hoarding travel guides started there. Today, I have a 3 meter long 2 meter high Ikea Billy shelf full of travel books, I just can’t never seem to get enough. An afternoon at the large Kinokuniya bookstore in Singapore is synonymous with perfection to me.
Africa is my most favorite place in the world. In such a diverse continent I could go on safaris, spend weekends by the completely deserted, crystal-clear white powder beaches of East and Southern Africa or by the large lakes, climb volcanos or mountains, explore the savannah, canoe down rivers or fly over falls, immerse myself into the culture and the traditions of the Nubians, the Berbers or the ancient Roman or participate in any of the several wildlife encounters available. It was pure Heaven to me and it had everything I enjoy about travel: out of the ordinary and once in a lifetime journeys. And most importantly, nobody else was there, it was all to ourselves.
Needless to say, I made the absolute most of it and spent weekends at whatever place I was sent to for work as much as I could.
Back home, most of my friends would think it was totally surreal. For a period, I used to spend my weeks between Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda and Madagascar usually traveling to two or sometimes three of these countries in a given week. I have somehow acquired the gift of being at the right place at the wrong time so I found myself in Kenya during the post-election violence, in Uganda during the riots that closed the country, in Madagascar for the coup, in Sudan when the threat of terrorist attacks closed down Western embassies and during the South’s secession process… you name it. Whatever conflict exploded in the continent during those 5 years, I was never too far from.
In those cases I truly understood the power of media outlets, particularly international ones, which almost always paint a much gloomier picture than reality. Telling the truth would usually not make the headlines.
Tragic news would spread like fire and family back home would get worried. The reality on the ground was very different and although they were all grave and dangerous situations to be in, it was not war and the dangers were controlled and concentrated. Of course, we always had an evacuation plan in place and a stack of money, satellite phone and emergency helicopter company at the ready should we have to be air lifted to a safer place. But this was never required. To be honest, I felt unsafer in Joburg when no conflict was taking place than in any of these other countries when there was a risk of war.
At a persona level, life was complicated. I was constantly on the road, although that has been the case for 9 years out of the last decade, but on top, most of the weeks I would be traveling long-haul, that is, each way, for over 6h. We used to joke that we traveled more than cabin crew, and that was not an exaggeration. We used to fly more hours a month than any of the hostesses, in fact, most of the times, two or three times the amount of flying hours they were allowed. But those 8h flights in Business were the most productive hours of the week. I developed a special place in my heart for airplanes. They have played a key role in all my biggest life decisions and changes, from moving continents to changing jobs and, both airports and airplanes, feel like home to me.
The Asian adventure
After 5 years in that part of the world I started being sent to the Philippines. 8 months of long-haul travel to/from Manila later my company opened an office in Singapore and I transferred to South East Asia.
Travel in this part of the world is not the same as in Africa and I sure miss the intriguing and always fulfilling travel experiences that I had there. In Africa every week was a new adventure, every day a book full of anecdotes. South-East Asia is a tamer, more modern and more predictable place so the unexpected is less likely to happen. There are still plenty of out of the ordinary places and experiences to be had but they are harder to find these days. The undiscovered, remote destinations are opening up and places like Myanmar, Bhutan or even North Korea are increasingly welcoming tourists. Myanmar has changed dramatically in the 2 years since the improvement in travel conditions. When I first went shortly after the opening, getting a visa in Singapore was a walk in the park and the embassy was entertaining mainly nationals. Today, there are queues and they have had to triple the amount of staff and most people waiting around are tourists looking to visit this historically closed gem. I don’t blame them but I wonder if this sudden explosion has changed the Myanmar that I experienced.
A fabulous sabbatical
Aside from the work-related travel washed down with copious amounts of personal travel and an absolute maximization of every single public holidays or weekend I also had the chance to take a 2 month sabbatical in 2012 which took me to the Pacific. These two months were the best of my life and traveling solo in the area, even for someone who had already been to almost 70 countries, was an eye opener to solo and spontaneous travel.
I have always been grateful to my job for taking me places but when you are time-starved like I was as a consultant you always have to make the money-time trade-off: if you don’t have time to see a place or to get to a hard-to-reach destination as is the case in Africa, you’ve got to have the money to spend on accelerating the transportation so chartering our own planes was not uncommon because we could hardly spend 1-2 days trying to get to a place which could be reached on a 2-hour flight. Also, we had to plan every single minute because we had very limited time so spontaneous trips were less likely although we had our fair share of last minute what-are-we-doing-this-weekend trips where on Friday morning we would purchase a ticket or book a hotel somewhere. This was extremely common so there were plenty of trips left to fate.
My sabbatical started off as a fully-planned itinerary with almost 30 flights booked and hotels everywhere because 2 months is not that much time and a lot of the countries were served by twice-weekly flights only. I learned the hard way that it would have been better not to plan anything. Towards the second half of the trip I did simply wake up and decide, on the spot, what I would do that day.
I finished off that trip knowing that I wanted to come back and visit the places and countries I had not had the time to cover. So two years later I finally managed to visit French Polynesia, part of New Zealand and The Cook Islands and there are still 10 other tiny countries I need to come back to see!
The learnings of an ultra frequent traveler
So, a post this long to tell you what?
After a decade of travel and 85 countries (see top of page for updated count) there is only one thing I regret: not having started this blog at the beginning. However, I did keep a diary, or shall I say, many diaries, which I keep stuffed between travel guides in the Billy. These are chock-full of anecdotes and thoughts which I jotted down in the many planes and waiting lounges and which I am yet to go through. But I will, because memory betrays me sometimes and I can’t remember where I stayed or what I did on certain trips, or even when I went to a specific country. A lot of my memories are confusing and blending in.
If you are wondering what my learnings are after such a decade of ultra-frequent traveling you will have to wait for the next post 🙂
Curious to know where I’ve been? Check out my profile page here.