Mind the Gap

Is the daily commute to office cubicle getting you down? It’s time to take a break from Britain, says Kaye Holland

 

I love London but it is – to paraphrase Dr Johnson – possible to be tired of the capital, something that dawns on me every January when the sky is the colour of porridge, it’s dark at four o clock and everyone is skint and succumbing to flu.

Some people, when they’re broken, dig into a huge tub of Häagen-Dazs. Others, when they’re feeling sad, go shopping (well they don’t call it retail therapy for nothing). Me? Whenever I feel tired, stale or simply need a little better balance and perspective in my life, I turn to travel.

Knowing that I can just leave and go exploring gives me a wonderful sense of freedom.

I guess I have always been nomadic. At 18 I headed Down Under on the prerequisite gap year. I followed this up by spending my university summers, working as an au pair in Switzerland.

During my twenties I moved to the Middle East and then Grand Cayman (pronounced kei-man) – a place of sugar white beaches and waters so clear that you can see every crevice and crustacean.

Next up, China came calling and I found myself packing my bags for Beijing regardless of the paltry local salary and my lack of Mandarin.

Finally, aged 30, I boarded a flight back to Britain – with a certain amount of fear and trepidation in my heart and rightly so, for repatriation proved to be the hardest posting of them all.

I had expected to feel like an alien in Beijing with my blonde hair and less than masterful Mandarin, but I hadn’t anticipated feeling like an outsider in a familiar country. 

Bizarrely it was Britain that felt like the foreign country, not China. It took a while to realise that it wasn’t the UK and my childhood friends and family that had changed – the Daily Mail still bangs on about immigration, the Metropolitan tube line continues to be suspended for engineering works every other weekend  – but me.

What I needed to do, so everyone said, was put down roots. To this end, I decided to choose a good apartment without waiting eternally for the perfect one and bought a flat in zone five - the only area I could afford.

A couple of work trips to Canada and California kept me going, but I still felt stuck – a small cog in a big machine, saddled with a burning desire to pack my bags and fly away.

The idea lodged itself firmly in my brain and refused to leave, leading me to rent out my apartment on Airnbnb for five months in January 2015. 

It was a decision that made perfect sense to me. I don’t need – especially in the middle of winter – to be in London for work. That requirement expired with the rise of the digital office. Providing I can fire up my laptop and connect to Wifi, I can make a living just as easily in Buenos Aires as Britain.

 

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The trip did its job: the awe inspiring landscapes and huge-scale mountain ranges and oceans I encountered while working in Argentina, Colombia, Chile, America and Uruguay, soothed and nourished me and I returned to the UK in June 2015 with pep in my step.

But by January 2016 - when the festive season had been and gone, the parties had stopped and everyone was back at work - my heart and soul were craving new experiences and adventures once again.

Once I decided to escape the bone chillingly cold capital - January in London leaves me, like Sundays, a bit listless and aimless and occasionally depressed - the question became: “Where to go?” 

Usually I’ll wander off in a new direction, taking heed of Heraclitus’ advice: “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.”

And yet, and yet… I found myself being lured back to sunny South America which felt like a good idea when the thermometer in Britain remained stubbornly low. So I left.

I spent three months at the start of 2016 in Argentina, and loved every minute.

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Every morning I’d wander to an elegant cafe like Los 36 Billares (whose famous past guests include the likes of Michaelangelo Bavio Esquii, Abelardo Arias and the beloved Frederico Garcia Lorca) for a Cafe cortado and alfajore – a melt-in-the mouth cookie guaranteed to make you close your eyes with happiness – before beginning work.

When I needed to take a screen break or stretch my legs, I’d stroll along to one of BA’s bookshops - the Argentine capital is positively brimming with brilliant bookshops. Make no mistake: Portenos are proud of their strong literary heritage – this, after all, is the land that has produced Jorge Luis Borges, Ernesto Sábato and Julio Cortazar (aka some of the greatest writers in the Spanish-speaking world).

On Sundays, I’d drop into Feria de San Telmo – an unmissable market selling some of Baires' best arts, crafts and souvenirs including bombilla, the metal straw used to drink Argentina’s beloved Mate (a bitter herb drink) – and  watch a colourful street performances while enjoying an empanada (super South American pie) and freshly squeezed orange juice purchased from friendly street vendors, for peanut prices.

But it’s when night fell, that BA truly came alive. Never mind the Big Apple: Buenos Aires is the real city that never sleeps. Dinner is rarely eaten before 10pm – at the earliest – while boliches (night clubs) and milongas (tango clubs) don’t open much before midnight.

After three months in the Paris of the South, I felt ready for a change of pace and to return home -  for a few months. By the summer, I had a chance to head to Hawaii for a month and I reached out and grabbed it with both hands.

I’m back in Blighty now but my memories of the aloha state, where everyone waves hello and shares a smile on the street, will sustain me. Until the next time - for taking a break has become something of a pattern in my life.

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Why do I keep wandering off? I guess, perhaps, because I value freedom above all else and am aware that there’s a whole world out there, some of it welcoming, some of it hostile – especially when stripped of the safety of organised tours – waiting to be discovered.

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Or in the words of author Rachel Wolchin: “If we were meant to stay in one place, we’d have roots instead of feet.”

FIVE THINGS I LEARNT
Working remotely overseas is hard work, but immensely rewarding. Here’s five things I learnt…

Travel light
Locals have to buy clothes as well you know and they’ll be more climate/culture appropriate and cheaper too. Lugging a heavy backpack on and off buses, trains and planes isn’t fun. It’s better to own little and see the world, than own the world and see little of it.

Drink bottled or boiled water
And plenty of it. I got a little too gung-ho in Colombia, inadvertently drank contaminated water and contracted giardia, a parasite that subsequently saw me suffer from sickness, severe abdominal pains, diarrhoea and dehydration. Grrrr!

Go with your gut feeling
Trust your instincts. If the taxi driver seems shady, he might be. If the bus driver seems drunk, he probably is. If the Airbnb owner strikes you as being untrustworthy, find an alternative – even if it’s more expensive.

Treat your hosts and yourself
There will be days when you feel a long way from home and a little treat can make a big difference. If dorm rooms are becoming a drag, a night in a private room can restore your sanity. Body battered and bruised from too many overnight bus journeys? A massage works wonders!

Reverse culture shock
Be prepared for this. Coming back home to the drab, grey and familiar was the hardest part of each ‘working remotely’ experience. Have some funds set aside while you're abroad (and resist from touching them) to smooth your way.

 

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