Adults can take gap years too! Hanna took a break from corporate America and embarked on a 9-month solo sabbatical through Africa. Learn about her detailed planning process, which 11 countries she visited, and why she chose to travel in the Motherland.
Why did you decide to take a sabbatical? What inspired you to embark on this trip?
I love traveling and have always been ready to embark on new journeys, so the inspiration was always there. Initially, I did not intend to take a sabbatical as my primary focus was to build my career. There were a few factors, however, that pushed me to embark on my journey — my joy and passion for learning about different people, cultures, and countries.
I was also thoroughly burnt out and needed time to recharge. My holistic health (including mental health) is incredibly important to me, so recharging looked like “unplugging” and seeing my family in Ethiopia.
Additionally, I was searching for employment opportunities somewhere on the African continent. The best way I know how to get a position is through networking, so my trip’s intention became twofold — to rest and to build connections.
What were your original travel plans? Did they change once you started your trip?
I originally had no plans to embark on this journey. To some extent, my plans were born out of happenstance. At that time I was in a state of self-reflection and looking within, so the idea of travel became stronger. After much prayer, I felt at peace with the decision to begin planning.
The plan was to go abroad for 3-4 months (not sure why I thought that would be enough time to explore 11 countries). On my trip though, I began to realize how tranquil I felt within myself and my journey. Everything felt right. My experiences, the people, atmosphere, culture, history, everything was precisely what my soul needed. I knew I needed to stay a bit longer. To my surprise, that “3-4 months” turned into 5 months, 6 months, all the way to 9 months. It would have been longer, but COVID-19 brought it to a screeching halt. I’m still VERY thankful for those 9 months and wouldn’t trade them for the world!
How did you approach planning for an extended trip abroad?
Planning was slightly challenging and multifaceted, especially considering I was solely responsible for planning what was supposed to be a 3-4 month journey. I like having options and want to make the best decision, so I can be very meticulous about details that other people find minor.
I spent the majority of my days and late nights researching which countries to go to, budgeting, visas, routes, length of stay, lodging, transportation, weather, clothing, excursions/activities, and so many other things! My contacts in Africa (and here in the USA) were teasing me that I never slept, which was partly true (haha). I was sleeping about 4 hours a night trying to research and plan as much possible, with only 1.5 months to accomplish this task.
I wanted to avoid doing this stuff while on the trip so I wouldn’t waste precious time being with the locals and exploring my surroundings. There were many times when I got extremely frustrated and stressed out with planning. I often contemplated completely cancelling the journey, but thankfully, I had people encouraging me to finish and offering to help out a bit. Shout out to them!! They’re the real MVPs!
How did your approach change once you arrived on the continent?
The funniest thing is that I arrived in South Africa with a whole vision of how this trip was going to go, but decided to basically throw it out the window upon arrival. I was booking lodging the night before I arrived in new cities (and sometimes while on my way to the lodging to first check it out), doing spontaneous trips with random people I met there (other travelers and locals), and such. I did make sure to somehow do my absolute “musts” from my planning, while remaining much more flexible and adaptable.
Typically, I leave a lot of room for spontaneity on my trips, but for the first time in my life, I wanted to experience a trip with complete freedom and no concrete plan/schedule. I wanted to go where I wanted, do what brought me joy and excitement on my own time, with who I wanted to be surrounded by. That is what made this such a beautiful and centering trip for me. When the vibes where high, I extended my stay, then left when it no longer served me. I literally went with the flow, planned as the days came, and put out a ton of good energy. I had that “mustard seed” faith and manifested that everything would work out the way it needed to, especially when things were not looking so good or going the way I envisioned.
DID YOU SAVE MONEY Prior to your departure?
I absolutely saved money before I left! It would have been foolish to go without it! Based on research, I determined what my potential expenses could be and went off that number. I have a travel fund and intentionally save for my trips.
I would only recommend going on any trip if you have the cash for it. Don’t go into debt or dip into your savings/rainy day fund account(s) for traveling. You need to be financially stable first, in my opinion. Don’t go broke trying to keep up with the Joneses or stunt on social media; that’s a recipe for a disaster!
Why did you choose to travel throughout Africa?
Originally, I was thinking of exploring Southeast Asia because it seemed to have been a more cost-efficient trip; one goal of mine was to minimize my costs. After some internal debating and reflection, I changed my mind and decided to continue exploring the African continent. I originally planned on visiting South Africa, Lesotho, Swaziland, Mozambique, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Rwanda, Uganda, Kenya, and Ethiopia. Unfortunately, I ended up removing Lesotho and Zimbabwe, and later decided to add Ghana and Ivory Coast.
Why the continent of Africa? Africa is my home and my favorite continent. While I appreciate and celebrate diversity, personally, it didn’t make sense for me to explore another continent when I hadn’t finished the one my (and all of our) ancestors originated from. I am a person who prefers exploring countries that are not always at the top of people’s lists. I intentionally choose developing countries to not only showcase their beauty, but to also dismantle negative perceptions and encourage people to visit.
Typically mainstream media and textbooks portray African countries in the most negative manner. I have met individuals who vehemently believe the continent of Africa is poor (in all aspects, not just financially), that everyone lives in huts, wild animals roam literally everywhere, it is a disease-infected continent, and the list continues. While there are definitely parts of the continent (and world) that face those realities, the whole continent, obviously, does not. I have many family and friends who have a MUCH stronger and better quality of life in Africa than they did in many developed nations, including the USA and all over Europe. This being said, an additional perk of my travels is to demonstrate to people that beauty also exists on the roads less traveled.
How did you stay on budget while travelling?
I like to consider myself financially savvy, plus I was aware of how much I wanted to spend versus how much I was able to spend. I calculated how much I my expenses could be, while also leaving some wiggle room. When the 3 months arrived (what I initially budgeted for), I realized I was actually under budget, which was another factor that made me feel comfortable to extend my stay. I was monitoring my spending and negotiating as much as I could. I also leveraged my contacts to stay with their family and friends, so that helped cut down on lodging costs as well. It helps to be well-traveled and well-connected.
What is one of your favorite memories from your trip?
This is such a difficult question to answer because the majority of the trip was pretty perfect for me. If I had to choose a few memories, they would include (not in any particular order):
- The people I met (some of the kindest people I’ve met are currently there)
- Getting stuck at the Mozambican border (not ideal, but it was a hilarious story)
- Camping for 3 weeks all over Namibia
- Privately feeding and playing with elephants (one of my favorite animals + lions) in Zambia
- Being a few feet away from a Silverback Gorilla while trekking and white water rafting in the Nile River in Uganda
- Celebrating Timket (aka Epiphany — an Orthodox Christian holiday which symbolizes the baptism of Jesus Christ in the River Jordan) and spending quality time my mom, grandma & family in Ethiopia
- Relaxing with my coconut water and drinks on Kenyan and Mozambican beaches
- Splurging on a nice resort and road tripping with random strangers in Ghana
I could go on and on. Quite often and randomly, I would be overwhelmed with emotion due to thankfulness of embarking on this journey and being back on the continent. I would tear up in mid-conversation too, which alarmed people. I had to reassure them they were happy tears.
The whole trip was magical, and I have a ton of favorite memories, but if I had to choose only one thing, I would say my experiences with many people is it. Without them, none of my other favorite memories would have happened, so I’m thankful for them.
WHAT SURPRISED YOU THE MOST about this experience?
What surprised me was how many extremely helpful, generous, and caring people I came into contact with. I could write stories for days on the kindness and genuine hospitality of most Africans I met. With my family being from Ethiopia (east Africa), I have always been immersed in a culture that truly embodied taking care of one another — both within our Ethiopian community and outside of it. I also live in the south of the USA, where “southern hospitality” is a thing, but it didn’t compare to the African hospitality I experienced.
The way complete strangers embraced and took care of me (as if I was their own family) honestly blew my mind. All without expecting anything in return. It was a gentle reminder to always be kind and help others (whether you know them or not). You never know how much it can help or positively impact them.
Do you envision yourself living abroad permanently?
Permanently, I’m not sure. Growing up, I never really considered leaving the USA to live anywhere else. Now, it’s high on my radar. I know I want to live abroad, but it is such a multi-layered decision. Though I do encourage everyone to get out of their comfort zone and live abroad for some time, there is a quote by Ernest Hemingway that reads, “I never knew of a morning in Africa when I woke up and was not happy.” This rang true for me as well (except the days I was leaving a particular place for the next). I’ve been to 30 countries across 5 continents and know parts of my heart are scattered throughout Africa. When I decide to live abroad, I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else first.
What advice would you give you to someone considering taking a sabbatical?
I would first advise you to ensure your reasons for taking a sabbatical are responsible. Make sure you are able to leave without having responsibilities back home that will act as mental stressors during your time away and when you come back. Do not go broke or deplete your savings to go on any trip. Be intentional with savings and use that money for your expenses.
I recommend everyone take sabbaticals; the world has so many available destinations. Not only is traveling beneficial to growing the country’s tourism, but ideal for personal and professional development. I have personally had more moments of self-discovery by being abroad than I have by being in the USA or in any professional setting. It has also given me an advantage to other applicants because of what skills I sharpened and/or developed from my global perspective. You’ll always be able to make money back, but time is our most valuable asset, and there is no time like the present!