Fifty-one cities. Seventeen countries. Six continents. One woman makes time to travel the world
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Fifty-one cities. Seventeen countries. Six continents. One woman makes time to travel the world

How Debbie Cheng found adventure on her 10-month-long sabbatical that was ‘flexible and open’

This story is part of our To the Fullest series, which profiles Canadians who are shedding some of the little things in life to make more time for amazing. To the Fullest is brought to you by Lexus Canada, a luxury automotive brand that supports the experience of amazing in all forms.

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Toronto-based primary school teacher Debbie Cheng's 10-month sabbatical took her all over the world. After returning, she still strives to make time for amazing in her daily life.

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The first stop on Cheng's trip was Cappadocia, Turkey, one of the most popular destinations for hot air ballooning in the world. The experience was a "travel bucket list dream come true," Cheng says. (SUPPLIED)

Debbie Cheng has had a bucket list since she started travelling the world with her family as a child.

When she launched her career as a primary school teacher in her twenties, and found herself with extended time off every summer, she knew exactly how to spend it: abroad.

She quickly made travel a regular part of her schedule. But after adding to her bucket list the Loi Krathong lantern festival in Thailand, which is celebrated in November, she realized how limiting it was to confine her travels to the summer.

“It dawned on me that if I don't go now, I won't get to see it until I retire.”

Cheng decided to take a year off to travel, hitting 51 cities, 17 countries and six continents in 10 months. She says the idea was daunting at first, but looking back, she feels grateful she let herself make the time for travel.

"I wanted to go on this year-long journey to see how new experiences can shape me in a new way and to recharge me and give me a new perspective."

— Debbie Cheng

“When I submitted the application for leave, the whole notion of travelling for one entire year was still very much like a dream to me,” Cheng says. Her application was approved in May, 2018, and she spent the summer packing her bags before setting off the following October. She started her journey in Hong Kong, where her sister lived as an expat.

Cheng is organized and regimented in her work as a teacher, and in her personal life (she meal preps every Sunday, for example), but she took a more relaxed approach to her travels. “I like to leave my itinerary pretty flexible and open.”

While she booked major flights between continents, she left her short-haul travels open.

It allowed Cheng to be adaptable – something she would recommend to anyone planning a trip overseas. “When you're there, you find out about new places that you hadn't even heard of in your own research.”

On one occasion she changed her travel plans spur-of-the-moment to make the most of the experience. Cheng had planned to fly from Chiang Mai in Thailand to Laos, but after talking to other travellers, she discovered a two-day slow boat down the Mekong River that passed by sleepy riverside villages and UNESCO heritage sites.

“I would have missed out on that whole experience if I had booked that flight in advance,” Cheng says.

While she met up with a close friend and her parents for portions of her trip, the majority of Cheng’s travels were spent on her own. “I find that when I travel alone, I’m more aware of my surroundings,” she says. “When you travel with others, you might see things through someone else's eyes, because of the conversations that you share. But when you see it on your own, you form your own impressions.”

To help keep track of her experiences, Cheng started a journal and contributed to it almost every day. “I made sure to always take a bit of reflection time,” Cheng says. “By writing it by hand, I really had to slow down and be very intentional with my thoughts.”

Cheng's sabbatical gave her time to explore one-of-a-kind markets in new places, like the Marrakech Medina in Morocco. (SUPPLIED)

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Even months after returning from her trip abroad, Cheng still makes time to explore Toronto and try new things in her day-to-day life.

When Cheng’s travels concluded in August, 2019, she was sad to see her sabbatical come to a close. But she still incorporates adventure into her daily schedule and weaves lessons from her experiences abroad into the curricula for her class of Grade 1 students.

“I do a unit on stewardship and what it means to be good stewards of the Earth,” Cheng says. “I share stories and photos from my trip and students are able to understand more clearly the concept of how the choices we make have an impact on climate change.”

She shared photos from a scuba diving trip she took through the Great Barrier Reef for a lesson on coral bleaching, for example. “I could see coral bleaching taking a heavy toll on the coral; the students could see it's not that colourful underwater any more.”

Taking time to travel gave Cheng space to evaluate her life and career path, which she says she now approaches with new energy.

Time away also gave Cheng space to reevaluate her life and career. She credits a TED Talk from graphic designer Stefan Sagmeister for helping her find value in time off.

“A career break can really spark creativity and give you new ways of seeing things,” Cheng says. “I wanted to go on this year-long journey to see how new experiences can shape me in a new way and to recharge me and give me a new perspective.”

While she hasn’t made any drastic changes to her teaching career, she says the experience gave her a new energy. “I've been teaching for 13 years now and I’m the type of person who continually seeks new stimulus and creativity.”

While Cheng says she was lucky to be established enough in her career to have the freedom to take a lengthy sabbatical, she recognizes that not everyone has the same opportunity. She suggests starting small: “You don't have to take a whole year off at once.”

“You could take a shorter sabbatical, like three or four months to start.”

And while Cheng’s 10 months abroad may seem like a long time, she says the experience only made her want to see more of the world. She’s already eager to plan another sabbatical.

“There is literally a whole world in front of you and it opens up so many possibilities.”


This content was produced by The Globe and Mail's Globe Content Studio.
The Globe's editorial department was not involved in its creation.

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