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The road less travelled


Sunrise in Bagan, Burma

Sunrise in Bagan, Burma

The Bolivian saltflats.

The Bolivian saltflats.

A crystal clear laguna.

A crystal clear laguna.


Sunrise in Bagan, Burma

'I wish I could do that, maybe some day." "Oh, if only!" "I'd never be able to take that much time off." These are just a few of the responses I got when I told people I was taking a career break for one year to travel. A life-long dream of mine was to see the world, so I quit my job and took the leap to realise that dream. And it wasn't as difficult as you might think.

I am fortunate to have been steadily employed (in marketing, communications and PR) since I graduated from university, with annual leave affording me the odd weekend away and usually one longer holiday every year. Friends of mine had taken a gap year straight out of college, but I decided I would wait and take time later after I had spent a few years starting my career (and saving).

Before I knew it, I was 28 and seven years had passed since graduation. I had been thinking about travelling for years and telling myself that it would happen some day. I realised that the "myth of some day" could linger on, and some day I could wake up and realise the chance to fulfil my dream had passed me by. In the aftermath of the perfect storm – a break-up and a loved one's serious illness – I re-evaluated.

I looked at my credit union account, where I had been saving slowly for years, and decided that it looked in good enough shape for me to do what I had always dreamed of. Going solo wasn't a deliberate decision. None of my friends were in a position to join me, and I realised that if I had to wait for someone else to be ready, that time may never come.

The truth is, going by myself was one of the best things I could ever have done. It can be scary and overwhelming at first, but you learn very quickly that when you travel alone you are never truly alone.

As a female solo traveller the risks can be slightly higher, but for the most part the same safety rules apply wherever you are. I got genuine looks of horror when I told some people I wasn't travelling with a partner or friend, and I couldn't tell you how many times I was asked what my mother thought of it. The truth is, she was one of my most fervent supporters (although perhaps a little more worried than she let on).

Funnily enough, most of the solo travellers I met were female.

I have never encountered so much kindness and support from strangers before in my life. When I was travelling through Honduras, I met a local woman on a bus. We were stopped for a while due to protests and I was feeling a little uneasy. She took me under her wing and when I told her I was by myself, she whispered with wide eyes: "Que coraje!" ("What courage!"). She hugged me when we parted and told me to take care. I can't tell you how much that meant to me, and this happened to me many times when I was on the road.

It's a difficult task, trying to estimate your costs for a year of travelling. I identified the regions I really wanted to visit – Central America, South America and South East Asia – and knew anecdotally from friends that these parts of the world typically suit a budget backpacker.

The old adage is true – take half the stuff and twice the money. It's also worthwhile deciding on your budget (monthly, then narrow down to weekly and daily if possible) and sticking to it.

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I also knew that I wanted to be able to DO things – snorkeling in the Caribbean, trekking to Machu Picchu, sky-diving in Argentina, visiting museums and galleries in Mexico City, yoga classes in Bali, visiting the ancient temples of Bagan in Burma and motorbike tours through the Vietnamese countryside.

So, if you're an active person who wants to make the most of the country you're visiting and you want to see something, factor this in.

There are also options available for working while you're away. You can supplement your travel budget by teaching English or keep your costs down by volunteering in a hostel for bed and board.

I spent a few weeks volunteering at an organic farm and guesthouse situated in the Colombian Andes and it was one of the highlights of my trip.

It's not just single twentysomethings who are doing this, either. While I was away, I met backpackers from diverse backgrounds and ages ranging from 18 to 64. I met couples in their 30s taking career breaks together, solo professionals in their 40s taking one- or two-month breaks, a couple doing a round-the-world trip for their honeymoon (spending the typical wedding fund on their journeys). A French couple I talked with on a bus in Laos had taken a year off to travel with their three children (ranging in age from 10 to 14), all of whom were being home-schooled by their parents.

Few companies have sabbatical or career-break policies in place whereby employees are able to take an agreed period of time off unpaid and then return to work. Employees may also only qualify if they are at a particular level or have a certain number of years of service under their belt.

According to Eileen Moloney, head of marketing in Brightwater Recruitment, career breaks aren't necessarily as prevalent as they were during the recession, when they were forced upon some due to cutbacks.

On whether taking a career break can impact negatively on a jobseeker's return to work, Moloney said: "Not necessarily, as long as you explain the gap on your CV and why you took the career break. Employers are almost comforted by the fact that a potential employee has already taken time off and got the travel bug out of their system, so to speak."

It can be a daunting prospect to return to work after a significant amount of time off. But as long as you're clear about your reasons for taking the break, it need not be detrimental to your career.

Jane Downes, author and career coach with Clearview Coaching Group, advised: "If you don't have your story straight about why you're taking a career break, it can work against you. You need to show you can plan out your career and make executive decisions.

"Risk-taking is a skill which employers value to some extent in this new economy – it can show you are comfortable with change and measured risk."

Downes' top advice for those considering a career break? Know why you're taking it. Plan what you want from your career break. Put a timeline in place. Have a back-up or some stop-gap skills to pay the bills if needed. And manage your story when it comes to facing the marketplace again.

Austrian designer Stefan Sagmeister speaks in his TED Talk about "the often overlooked value of time off".

Every seven years, he closes his New York design studio for a year-long sabbatical to rejuvenate and refresh his creative outlook.

His perspective on managing his work/life balance in the long term is both inspiring and practical.

He says: "Right now, in the West, we spend about 25 years of our lives learning, then there's another 40 years reserved for working and then tucked on at the end of it, are about 15 years for retirement.

"I thought it might be helpful to basically cut off five of those retirement years and intersperse them in between those working years."

Sagmeister believes that the inspiration, ideas and motivation that come out of taking these intermittent years off flow back into the company and into society at large.

In my personal experience, my career break allowed me to have the time and head space to reflect on my career to date, to be inspired by new cultures, experiences and people, and to learn new skills while realising a life-long dream of seeing the world.

Now that I've returned, I have a clearer idea about the direction I want to go in, personally and professionally, with the new-found courage and strength I gained from embarking on this adventure.

I made my some day my today and never looked back.

You can follow Sarah Harte on Twitter @hartesarah and check out her travel blog, wingsarewide.wordpress.com

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