You can be splendidly prepared and still things go wrong. You can run into issues and problems you did not foresee. So here is some advice, a few things to keep in mind and consider before and during your sabbatical. Some of these lessons we learned the hard way but you don’t have to.
You might have help at home so it can be a good idea to get help on your sabbatical. This is more feasible in some countries than in others. In Germany and Austria we didn’t bother knowing how expensive and hard finding domestic help can be. In Mexico and India it was easy.
We had a cleaning lady in Merida and a maid in Kerala. She cooked, cleaned some, and washed our cloths. I felt like a million bucks having a maid, a little insecure what exactly to expect from her and what not and a lot of guilt for not doing my own dirty laundry. We also found a temporary day care for your son in a couple of places. There is more on that topic here.
In India we hired cars with drivers for longer journeys such as to the Western Ghat mountains. A luxury we rarely afford ourselves here. We also hired a nice rickshaw driver repeatedly and paid him for the whole day because we knew he would reliably pick us up and take us places. We probably overpaid him but that was okay, we were happy to pay extra for better service.
So, if you can afford it, pay for some help, especially for things you really hate to do, like hand washing laundry or driving around large cities you don’t know.
Be prepared for the dark hours
I mentioned that I love traveling – and I do – but there are times on every trip where I hate it, where I want to be home, sit on the couch and watch Law & Order reruns. It will pass, I know, but it is like an episode of depression – even if you know that’s what it is, it is hard to beat.
I had two major crisis of that kind, one in India, one in Spain. The first one was just after we arrived in Kerala, completely jet-lagged and sleep deprived, trying and not succeeding to sleep in a dark, damp, smelly apartment, fighting a losing battle against gazillions of mosquitoes. My son was in a bad mood and wide awake at 2 am, I was stone tired and my husband was killing off mosquitoes with a newspaper declaring, every time he squashed one, that he now definitely had killed the last mosquito in the house only for us to hear – seconds later – the buzz of a renewed attack on our profoundly sweating bodies. It was hell. I wanted to go home. I wondered why I was doing this to my child, to myself. What was gained by this craziness? If I had had Internet access I would have booked a flight back, right there and then, no matter the cost. I didn’t have Internet access – and so we staid.
The next morning we booked a trip to the Western Ghat mountains to escape the heat, we arranged for a better apartment for when we return, we got used to the new time zone and the dark cloud lifted.
The second time was less provoked. I just reached a point where I had had it. I was done traveling, no particular reason, no major catastrophe. Even then I knew this would pass and thinking about the alternatives is always a good remedy. What would I do at home that is so cool: drive to work, work in the garden of our suburban home? Take my son to daycare – in the end that didn’t compare favorably to taking a trip to Seville and playing on the beaches of the Mediterranean. So I got over it.
The lesson was – and still is when I am lying jet-lagged in some bed trying desperately to sleep and fail – that these attacks are normal and pass. I have days at home where I don’t like my life, days when I want to be somewhere else, anywhere, just not here. That passes, too.
I won’t sugar coat it: life can be frustrating when dealing with people you don’t understand and who don’t understand you. Smiling is fine and goes a long way but eventually you actually feel the need to use your words to get what you want – and can’t. So you try again with smiles and pointing and the result is the same. To confound the issue, body language might mean different things in different places. I noticed this most in India where I did not speak the language at all and the cleaning lady didn’t speak three words of English. We tried, we pointed, smiled, showed, demonstrated but often what I tried to communicate was met with a shaking of the head. She doesn’t understand or does not want to do that I task was my conclusion. I got annoyed with her. I didn’t pay her much by our standards but a decent wage by Kerala standards and to everything I asked her to do she would shake her head no. Only later did I realize that that peculiar shake of the head in India is an affirmative. She shook her head “yes” not “no”. Maybe I should have known – but I didn’t.
Another story I want to tell did not happen during the sabbatical but on a short trip we took to the Sierras a few years back. We had breakfast at a restaurant and a German couple was finishing their breakfast at the next table. I overheard their German conversation. They were very upset because the waitress had put the bill on their table while they were still finishing their meal. It is considered very rude in Germany, an unsubtle way of being kicked out. They interpreted the server’s gesture in that cultural context – the only one they had – and felt treated extremely poorly and rudely. They did obviously not know, that this is how it is being done in the US (at least in California). I don’t exactly remember what happened next, probably something like my son knocking over his glass of milk, because the next time I looked up to clarify the misunderstanding they had already left, likely fuming.
These two stories go to say that even if you think you know for sure what is going on, you might not and you just might misinterpret the situation. So reserve judgement and don’t get rilled up. There is a good chance that whatever you think is being conveyed to you actually isn’t.
You’ll never be fully prepared, there always will be situation that you didn’t expect and don’t know how to deal with. To point of diligent planning is avoid catastrophic failures, like booking a flight through New York that has you flying into JFK and out of Newark 90 minutes later at 11 pm. The rest is manageable with the right attitude and by keeping an open mind.