Escaping the 9-5…. Into the 24/7

April 2008

It was too late to turn back by then, strapped into my seat as I was, but it did cross my mind. My head was full of conflicting thoughts that kept sending me in circles: Why was I here? Who had changed the plans on me? What on EARTH was I doing?  I felt like I was standing on a precipice looking down into the depths.

What was I doing?  I was sitting on a plane with six other newly-recruited tour leaders on my way to Beijing to start work leading tours along the Trans-Mongolian and Trans-Siberian Railways.

A month before, I had packed up a life in Canberra to embark on this adventure.  It had started out as a bit of a lark but had resulted in me actually on the plane doing it!

For nearly four years I had been working at the Department of Defence in Canberra, Australia.  It was a good, steady, secure public service position that I did enjoy for some time.  I had done my year of travelling when I finished university, and was able to travel during my annual leave, so I truly believed I had curbed the travel bug and was in “real life” now (whatever that is!).

While I was working full time, I also undertook a Masters Degree part time – I’m a sucker for punishment.  By the time I graduated, I was tired of Canberra, tired of work, tired of always having the thought that I should be doing something else instead of having fun or relaxing.  Perhaps if I had not done the Masters I may not have had such a dramatic life change, but I do love study and “what ifs” don’t matter.

My studies were really motivating for me anyway, and I developed a strong desire to work abroad in the aid and development field.

I joked about running away to dig wells in Africa, but what got me excited was the prospect of research; conducting primary research in the field on important issues and bringing those issues to the world’s attention to get things fixed.  Human Rights Watch, International Crisis Group and the United Nations were my targets.  Everyone wants to make a difference, and I was (am!) no different.

So in my last semester of study, in between work and assignments, I started my job search.  On the Seek website I entered my parameters: Any industry, any pay range, no keywords; simply Location: Outside Australia.

The first job that came up in the results was a tour leader on the Trans-Mongolian Railway.  Perhaps I should have put in some more specific parameters, but I was curious.  In 2006, my friend and I had travelled overland (and sea) from Tokyo to Helsinki including taking the train across Russia.

I had loved that journey and we had met a group of Australians with their tour leader on one of the rail legs across Siberia.  It was my friend who had picked the tour leader’s brains about his awesome job and it was her who was strongly considering a career change.  I was content with the job I had when I returned home.

But eighteen months later it was a different story.  I called my friend and told her about the job advertisement.  She was no longer interested.  But the application form was quite simple and took ten minutes to fill out.  So I did.  What a lark, I thought.  Once submitted it was all but forgotten and my serious job search resumed.

It was out of curiosity more than anything else that found me on that plane to Beijing.  First there was a Skype interview, then a personal interview in Melbourne, then I was sending my passport, then my passport was returned with working visas for China and Russia, then I was resigning from Defence, then I was selling my things at the market, then I was at the airport with six others who seemed just as bewildered and excited.

Throughout the process, I continually told myself “I can say no at any time”, “This is not the job I really want”, “I have a Masters degree, I need to pursue something professional” and other such nonsense.

Yet there I was on a plane to Beijing, excited, filled with trepidation, but with huge bragging rights to my friends still stuck in the office!  The plan was to complete the two-year contract and then return to “real life” – I still had some crazy notion that it was what grown-ups were supposed to do and I thought at 27years I should be grown-up after two more years.

The plan failed because I loved the job!  And I was pretty good at it – that is to say, I got good feedback from my group members.  It probably helped that I have had a strange obsession with Russia and its history since high school, so it was great to learn more and share my knowledge with my group members.

My time off between tours was spent with new friends who were knowledgeable and passionate about their home towns from whom I could find good restaurants, fun facts and interesting things to do.

The absolute highlight of the job was seeing people’s faces when they saw that one sight they had been waiting so long to see.  Travelling from east to west, we would arrive in Moscow at 4.58pm after three days and three nights cooped up on the train from Irkutsk.  We would then sit in Moscow’s peak hour traffic for an hour to get to the hotel and then sit around the lobby waiting for the busy reception desk to check us in.

By the time I handed out the keys, the group simply wanted to take a shower and relax in the hotel bar/restaurant.  I wouldn’t allow it though, and they had to be back in the lobby in an hour to go out for dinner.

I was usually pretty free with my groups allowing them as much free time as they wanted – it was their holiday after all!  But this was one compulsory thing and I never had anyone scold me afterwards.

We would take the metro into the city centre, to Red Square.  Rounding the corner and seeing St Basil’s Cathedral at one end, GUM department store on the left and the Kremlin on the right, all of them lit up in the dusky evening was breathtaking and that was why I force-marched my group members on every trip to see it.

My second season was largely spent on Silk Road journeys, Beijing to Istanbul through the former Soviet republics (aka the ‘Stans).  I thought I had loved riding the rails in Russia, but Central Asia was another world completely and I was smitten.

The rich history of the region was not something I learned at school and I was amazed, along with my group members, at the stunning architecture, preserved culture and incredible monuments in Samarkand, Bishkek and Ashgabad.  It was also during this year that a crazy idea started to take root in my head; I started dreaming of my own tour company.

It was going to be difficult to stop doing this job, so I put my hand up for the winter trip – surely a Russian winter would cure me of my love and I could happily move back to sunny Australia and get on with life.  But winter in Russia and Mongolia is too beautiful for words.  The snow makes everything so pristine and the sun sparkling on the flake-covered trees produces a magical light.

Evenings in Moscow and St Petersburg with Christmas markets lit up and the festive spirit twinkling in people’s eyes through their hats and scarves produced an ambiance I’d not experienced in those cities before.  Far from cured, it was with a heavy heart I told the company I would not do a third season.

But I had World Cup tickets for South Africa 2010!  So I returned to Australia, where I had four months to settle down before heading to South Africa.

I made a deal with myself: if I found an amazing job, then I would go to South Africa for the football and return immediately after; if no job, then I would stay in Africa and travel.  With that choice is it any wonder I didn’t find an amazing job in those four months?

Following the World Cup the plan was this: travel until the money ran out, making my way in the direction of Nairobi, and once in Nairobi start knocking on the doors of the UN, International Crisis Group, Human Rights Watch, and any others who might give me a job.  The aid and development interest was still alive, and being in Africa I thought it should be much easier to get a job.

Somewhere in Mozambique I heard through a friend of a friend of a friend that an overland truck was in need of a tour leader.  So I sent the message back through the grapevine that I was around, experienced, and needed cash.  I got to Malawi from where I was summoned back to Johannesburg to start work.  It was no Trans-Siberian Railway; in fact it was harder work than I anticipated with having to cook for the group, which was also larger than I had been used to previously.  But I was on the Jo’burg to Nairobi run that took in some of sub-Saharan Africa’s highlights including the Okavango Delta, Serengeti and Ngorongoro Crater, Maasai Mara, and gorilla trekking in Uganda.

After three months on the truck, the job finished and I started working for another tour operator based in Kenya.  It was while working for this company that I met Francis, my Kenyan colleague and most-trusted friend in this wild continent.

This is how we met in Cape Town’s International Airport in February 2011:

“I’m wearing a blue cap” read the text message.

“I’ve got blonde curly hair and glasses.  I’m near the candy store” I replied.  Truthfully I was in the candy store, but I didn’t want to give a bad first impression.  I stepped out of the store to see a man in a blue cap disappearing down the corridor.  Was that him? Should I chase after him and ask? How many blue-capped men are in this airport though?!  It’s not a very defining characteristic.

“I’m in the lower car park” my phone beeped.

“I’m at the candy store” I repeated as I started walking towards the lower car park.

“Where’s the candy store? I’m at the Vodacom shop” my phone notified me.  I began to wonder how we would run an eight-week tour from Cape Town to Nairobi together if we couldn’t arrange a simple airport meeting!

Finally we found each other, after visiting several car parks, phone stores, upstairs, downstairs, chasing each other around the airport.  It was the blue cap I’d spotted disappearing as I stepped out of the candy store.  I offered him a sweet, guiltily. “Hi, I’m Tracey.”

“Hello.  Francis.”

“So do you drink beer?” I asked as we drove away from the airport.

“Yes, of course.  Why?”

“There’s a Beer Festival on next weekend.  A bunch of micro-breweries gathering somewhere in town.  I was going to go and meet some people there.  Do you want to come?”

And so Francis and I became friends, aided with some local ale one sunny Saturday afternoon (I had learnt team-building skills working at the Department of Defence).

A week after meeting we had ten clients and we were off on tour.  A positive tour leader/driver relationship is crucial both for a successful overland tour and for the mental well-being of that crew.

You are together in a vehicle for up to nine hours in a day.  Before and after the drive you must help each other pack and unpack camp and share a meal.  Your crew-mate is the first person you see in the morning and the last person you see before you retire at night.

I calculated during that tour Francis and I spent approximately 196 hours in the car together.  It is little wonder then that by the time we reached Nairobi he had become my best friend and confidante in Africa.  His calm confidence in his own abilities left no doubt in my mind that I was working with a professional.  We worked well together and the trust, care and respect we had for each other ensured we ran great trips.  And despite the long hours driving, we still managed to find topics to chat and laugh about while I prepared the dinners.

On New Year’s Day we were in Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania, leading a tour from Nairobi to Cape Town.  Being the day for resolutions, I asked Francis his goals for 2012.  He had been dreaming for some years that he should like to have his own safari vehicle to take small groups around Kenya’s parks.

I too revealed my dream of running my own tour company taking groups to far-flung corners of the earth.  A look exchanged, a slight nod, a big smile: the Overland Travel Adventures concept was born.

Meanwhile back in 2010, on my first visit to Nairobi, I met Ben.  A woman I had met while travelling in Mozambique had given me Ben’s details to contact him when I got to Nairobi.  Ben and his friends run a local NGO called Amani Kibera – Kibera is the name of Nairobi’s largest slum and Amani means Peace.

It was established in the wake of the post-election violence in 2008 to promote peace in the slums, where much of the inter-tribal violence had taken place.

Amani Kibera runs a football camp for children and has established a football league in Kibera.  They supplied teams with shirts and uniforms for the umpires.  This simple project has fostered a sense of belonging for the young people, giving them motivation and inspiration to move forward.

When I first met Ben, he was talking about a library Amani Kibera was planning.  It was a much bigger project than they had taken on before, but a very important one that needed to be achieved soon.

When I returned to Nairobi in May 2011, I called Ben and we arranged to meet for nyama choma a typical Kenyan weekend meeting.  Literally it means “meat barbeque”, but practically it means “tough old goat”.  You order meat by the kilogram and it is simply chopped off the carcass in the appropriate amount, with fat, bone, and some meat if you are lucky.  It is presented on a tray, diced into bite-size pieces which you pick with your hands, dip in the pile of salt on the side of the tray and chew….. and chew….. and….chew.  Typical side dishes include ugali (maize meal porridge), githeri (beans and maize) or kienyeji (mashed potato with maize).  A cold Tusker (Kenyan beer) is a necessary accompaniment, whereas the vegetables are very optional.

So while I chewed, Ben caught me up on Amani Kibera’s accomplishments.  The library was open!  It wasn’t the final product, but it was an interim solution so the students had somewhere to go.  Book club was running every Saturday afternoon and tutorial sessions were also being held regularly.  I was so excited and happy about this news and immediately started making plans to visit the library the next weekend – I wanted to see Book Club in action!

Our conversation was lively and excited and as happens in lively, excited conversations, hare-brained schemes arise.  The phrase “philanthropic tourism” was bandied around a bit too casually as we developed an idea of bringing tourists to share Amani Kibera’s achievements.

Funding is a constant struggle for many local NGOs and indeed Ben and the Amani Kibera team spend a lot of time writing grant submissions to fund their projects.  They were also battling with building a donation facility (through PayPal) into their website.

But what if we brought tourists to have a look at the library and if they wanted to donate they could very easily do it in person, rather than through a dodgy internet connection?

The next weekend I visited the library.  It was basically a tin shed tacked on the side of a school.  It had 20 seats, with most of the space taken up with bookshelves.  There were many more than 20 students in there and a tutorial was in progress.  Children of all ages were there studying.  The librarian was losing heart because it had got to a stage where he had to turn kids away because the library was too full.

But I was inspired.  This was what I had come to Africa for.  Here were children who had little opportunity, but what they did have they grabbed with both hands and made the most of it.

While I was there I was overcome with the feeling that this place had to be shared.  Here were Kenyans working for the development of Kenya and no one knowing about it.  As I committed to raise awareness of this project, Overland Travel Adventures moved from being a concept to having a mission.

So now it’s 2013 and I have truly escaped the 9-5….. and stepped into the 24/7 of starting my own business!  After setting the New Year resolution in 2012, Francis and I ran our first trip in November that year for two guests travelling from Nairobi to Kigali, Rwanda.

This year we have trips in Namibia, Botswana, Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda and of course Kenya.  There was so much I didn’t know about running a business, and the learning curve has been steeper than I ever imagined.  But it’s awesome; it’s my dream, and it’s Francis’ dream.

In fact our acronym OTA is a Swahili word meaning “dream”.  And we are also committed to other people’s dreams: those of our guests who want their dream holiday and those of the beneficiaries of projects we support who dream of education, entrepreneurship, and improved standards of living.

It’s not all sunshine and lollipops – there’s financial stress, no personal time and a strain on relationships.  But the freedom to do what I want, to be in control of my own destiny is so exciting.  If OTA fails it’s our fault, but if OTA succeeds it’s also our fault.

There’s so much variety in running our own business that if I wake up in the morning and don’t feel like doing the accounts, then I can do something more fun like marketing, but still working towards the same goal.  When someone writes to us with some ideas of what their holiday might look like, it’s my most favourite thing in the world to work with Francis to design an itinerary.

I am lucky that I have been able to find what gets me excited and be able to make money out of it.  And our support of community-based organisations gives an outlet for my aid and development passion, giving me the opportunity to get involved with the projects and to also bring guests to witness the positive work Kenyans are doing for the development of Kenya.

Tracey Bell

Tracey Bell is the director of a tour company called OTA – Overland Travel Adventures.
OTA is based in Kenya and runs tours throughout East Africa including Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda and Tanzania designing trips for each client’s needs, interests and budget.  OTA works closely with clients to develop their ideal itinerary, incorporating both sightseeing highlights and visits to local communities.
After completing a double Bachelor degree in Business (Marketing) and Arts (Politics), Tracey headed to the US for the first half of a gap year.  She worked on a summer camp in Pennsylvania before exploring much of the United States by Greyhound bus.  Once her visa expired, she headed to the UK where she worked in a pub to save money for the next few months backpacking Europe.

On returning to Australia, she failed to secure the marketing position she was hoping for and ended up moving to Katherine in the Northern Territory to work with youth.  From there she moved to Canberra to take up an Analyst position with the Department of Defence.  During that time she completed a Masters degree in International Relations and continued travelling abroad during her annual leave to Scandinavia, Asia and Russia.
Despite travelling in 58 countries, her love of travel has not been sated.  She now lives in Nairobi, Kenya advising others in their travel goals.

Tracey loves showing people the places they’ve only dreamed about and providing the opportunity to interact with local people on a personal level.  She loves doing this because she believes travel is so important to increase tolerance and understanding of other cultures and so much can be learned regardless of age.

This is a sample chapter taken from the fantastic book, Escape your 9-5 and do something amazing.  Available from Mithra Publishing.

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