Interview with Sarah Jill on March 6, 2016
Six months after graduating college, Sarah Jill decided she would fulfill her dream of traveling and volunteering abroad. She found two programs which would accomplish both goals: GVI and G Adventures. Through GVI, she would volunteer her time teaching preschool in South Africa followed by an eight-country backpacking and camping tour with G Adventures. This three-month excursion would be the catalyst for so many wonderful, frightening, and transformative events to come.
Sarah Jill found a preschool program in a township outside of Cape Town. She made some great friends by the end and loved the hands-on teaching experience, but it was not the volunteering experience that she had imagined. At the preschool, there was no curriculum, continuity, or planning given by the sponsoring company. It was up to the volunteers, which rotated out every two weeks, to create the lessons. She discovered that she had a drive to actively help children, and it broke her heart to leave them after one month. “This was the social worker in me,” she reflected. For her, the hardest part of this program was that she couldn’t help more, at least not this time. Sarah Jill’s experience working in South Africa gave her a better understanding of children living in poverty and shaped her into the social worker she is today.
Sarah Jill resumed her first extended experience abroad with the two month trek through East Africa. She was excited to backpack, camp, and meet people with similar interests, and was thrilled to discover that this trip was much more organized. She couldn’t wait to see the animals, especially the Silverback Gorillas, and the natural beauty of these countries. She was afraid of nothing, only overwhelmingly delighted.
Camping and hiking through these African countries was unlike anything she had ever experienced before. One of the most memorable nights was in the Okavango Delta in Botswana. Here, the group had to take boats to and from the small islands because it was impossible to take any other means of transportation. The islands are uninhabited in the delta, so they had to pack everything they needed prior to the journey. One night, they took a boat ride at dusk through a hippopotamus pool. “This was really scary, but really cool”, she recalled, citing that hippos are incredibly violent animals, if provoked. In this moment, she remembers thinking this was the most eye-opening experience of her life.
“The trip totally changed me as a person because it showed me that I could change the course and pace of my life. I’ve been able to slow down since that trip and I’ve kept that with me. It brought out the naturalist in me. I remember at dusk seeing the sun set upon the delta and I just started to cry. How beautiful life is that everything is connected.”
She had truly tasted life abroad and after only a few months back in the United States, she knew she wanted more. Though the visa process is very difficult, she decided to go back to Cape Town. She made this choice because she wanted to live abroad and she was already familiar with the country, but she also wanted to pursue a romantic interest she met from the East African excursion.
Once the visa finally came through, she arrived to a job working in the Atlantic Point Backpackers Hostel. A typical day would include checking visitors into their accommodation, booking tours for the guests, and sometimes even leading the guests on day trips herself. Her favorite part of the job was making friends and meeting awesome people.
“One night I took some guests and led a hike up Lion’s Head mountain to see the full moon rise over the ocean. Lion’s Head isn’t as famous as Table Mountain in Cape Town, but the view is incredible. It’s 360 degrees, you can see city, mountains, and ocean, and the hike is really nice. We packed some hot chocolate and mugs, got bundled up, and trekked up the mountain together. Everyone from the hostel always got to know each other, and we had a fun group out that night, and when we reached the top the clouds were so low that we were above them and couldn’t even see the sea below. It looked like we were standing on the clouds, and with the sunset happening in the background, it was amazing. When the sun finally set and the full moon came out, it was even more beautiful. It was just an awesome night surrounded by wonderful new friends from all over the world with a gorgeous view.”
Sarah Jill was infatuated with the country and with the man she met on the excursion. She immersed herself into the culture by taking art classes, joining a temple nearby, cultivating new friendships with the locals, and looking for permanent employment. She didn’t plan on moving back to the U.S. because she loved it so much. Both excited and terrified, she embarked on another new adventure abroad.
Suddenly, everything changed when he chose to leave. She was blindsided by his decision and felt like she was “falling into a black hole, being swallowed. It was devastating.” To make matters worse, much of her residence in South Africa depended on him, emotionally and legally. She couldn’t stay. Within three days, Sarah Jill was back in Massachusetts with her family.
For most people, this experience would take them down for weeks, possibly longer; make them skeptical of love; tarnish the thought of living abroad and taking risks. Sarah Jill is not most people. Within days of being home, she applied to a program that combined graduate school and the Peace Corps. She was still in the head space of living abroad. “I couldn’t give up on it,” she said. She accepted what she couldn’t change and became more resilient than she knew she could be.
Six months after she applied, she began her classes for a Master’s in Social Work. The entire program would last four years: the first year at the university, the second and third years in the Peace Corps, and then the final year of classes back in the U.S. During her classes, her opinions transformed and developed about facilitating change abroad, and Sarah Jill began to have slight hesitations. However, she went on with the program, and a year later, began her service in Cameroon.
Even though Sarah Jill adored her host family during training and knew her experiences had value in the country, she explained that everyone comes out of the Peace Corps with a different experience. “The gender inequalities and the isolation were too much to bear,” she said. “I was scared to live by myself, and I was unmotivated because I didn’t believe in the effectiveness of the work. I didn’t know if I could make a difference [in Cameroon], but I did know that I could make a difference at home,” she said. What was going to be a two year commitment ended after three months. Sarah Jill came to terms with her choice by understanding that she had to do what was right for her and her happiness.
“I had challenges,” she said, “but I have cherished and loved every experience, even the bad ones. I still feel so much love and appreciation for all the friends I made there, and even though I wanted to live in Cape Town forever and was so sad to have to leave, my relationship with pieter taught me things about myself that were really important. All the experiences helped shape who I am today; I have loved all of them. I definitely think my overall takeaway from all of that travel is experiencing just how awesome and incredible the world is, and how everything is connected to each other: people, animals, flowers, trees– everything. It’s insanely beautiful and everything on earth is connected, and it’s so important to cherish all of it.”
Sarah Jill finished her Master’s at another university and is now happily teaching music development to children and working at a nonprofit in Washington D.C. She still has the “travel bug” and is looking forward to her next journey abroad.
Cuba continues to be one of the most desirable destinations for many eager American tourists. Let’s look at the importance of cultural tourism as it relates to the island nation.
San Pedro de la Roca Castle, Santiago de Cuba
Cuba is not a new destination for other countries, but in the United States, the American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA) estimates more than 1.5 million Americans will fly or cruise to Cuba within the first two years. With this extensive demand, the influx of American tourists alone will change the economic environment in the country. New businesses will form and old ones will expand to house, feed, and transport tourists throughout the country. Ideally, these businesses will be a healthy mix of both foreign and domestic enterprises. Many of these ventures will be guided by foreign investments looking to make a quick profit. Several businesses, such as JetBlue, Airbnb, Starwood, and Norwegian Cruise Line are already carving out their slice of the Cuban pie.
Historic Centre of Camagüey
Once Americans are permitted to leisurely travel to Cuba without restrictions, the demand will be fast and poignant. As tourists, we have to ensure that we are not damaging any destination to an unsustainable measure. It is sometimes easy to be starstruck by a new destination and want to gallivant around without a care in the world. Tourism is the consumption of experiences, but we have to keep in mind how our actions affect the destinations to which we travel.
Similar to ecotourism, cultural tourism must balance two ideals: making a quick profit and preserving a destination– one cannot exist to its fullest extent without the other. It is important to discuss this relationship through the lens of Cuban tourism because it has already become the source of infatuation by many Americans. Without a clear understanding of the impact more than a million new tourists could bring to the small island nation, we run the risk of deteriorating the soul of Cuban culture at the beginning of the American wanderlust.
Archaeological Landscape of the First Coffee Plantations in the South-East of Cuba
Cultural tourism assets or destinations can be some of the most seriously afflicted sites when there is a huge accumulation of tourists. Not only are they some of the most popular sites to see in general, but they are often easily accessible and can be located close to or even within city centers. If an attraction is convenient for a tourist to travel because accommodations and infrastructure are already in place, it is much more likely that the asset will be visited. These are the types of destinations we have to take care of the most because of the sheer amount of traffic they will attract.
Old Havana and its Fortification System
This system must be balanced. It is nearly impossible to maintain a destination without income from some sort of tourism, but it is also nearly impossible to maintain the tourism income without preserving the destination. Each attraction is different. The cultural heritage managers, focused on preserving the intrinsic value of the site, need to work together with the tourism managers, who are focused on monetizing the site for the enjoyment of the tourist, in order to create a sustainable destination for the future.
How can the culture be enjoyed if all the assets have crumbled?
Urban Historic Centre of Cienfuegos
In light of President Obama’s historic visit to Cuba, further thawing relations between the two countries, many enthusiastic American travelers are asking, “What can I see and do when I go to Cuba?”
Cuba is involved with many organizations that promote conservation and sustainable development.
-Through the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), Cuba has seven cultural sites and two natural sites on the World Heritage List, as well as six biosphere reserves and three sites pending approval.
-The biosphere reserves are essential ecotourism assets in Cuba. Not only do they support a variety of ecosystems in the surrounding areas, they also drive economic activity through tourism.
-Cuba is a member of UNESCO’s Small Island Developing States Programme which works towards sustainable economic development in small island nations.
–According to the World Bank, 12.4 percent of the land in Cuba is protected. This is only slightly less than the United States, which protects 13.8 percent of the land.
-These UNESCO sites are already major tourist attractions to countries who have open travel to Cuba.
#1: The Desembarco del Granma is located on the southeast side of the island. The Desembarco del Granma holds the world’s largest and best preserved marine limestone terrace system and were caused by tectonic activity. The area also includes many endemic plants and animals, coral formations, and archaeological sites.
The American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA) estimates more than 500,000 Americans will cruise from the United States to Cuba within the first two years, and an additional one million will fly. And according to the World Travel and Trade Council, the added source of U.S. travelers will exponentially grow the 10-year tourism revenue projections in Cuba. Some businesses, such as JetBlue, Airbnb, Starwood, and Norwegian Cruise Line, are already preparing for this dramatic increase of tourists and creating connections and itineraries in the island nation. It might seem pre-emptive, but these companies and others are correct in assuming that Cuba will see a drastic increase of tourists from the U.S. within the next few years.
#2: The Baconao Biosphere Reserve features forests, caves, high biodiversity, and archaeological sites, as well as supporting a human population of more than 38,000. Around 275,000 tourists come each year to this reserve and stay in one of the thirteen accommodations or one of the three campgrounds. About 90 percent of the population (who live in the buffer zone of the reserve) benefit from tourist activity in the reserve.
There are about 61,000 hotel rooms in Cuba. 65 percent of these rooms are 4-and 5-star. The remaining 27,000 rooms are 3-stars or less. About 15-20 percent of the rooms are closed because of maintenance. Many of these rooms are the casas particulares, or bed and breakfasts. These are boutique hotels, sometimes unofficially recognized and owned by private citizens. According to Michael Sykes, of The New York Times, if the embargo is lifted, around 125,000 to 150,000 rooms should be added over the next few years to keep up with demand. Although many non-Americans currently travel to Cuba, it is possible that once Americans begin to travel to Cuba, it will be viewed as a safer or more desirable destination, thus increasing the inbound tourists further.
#3: The Alejandro de Humboldt is also on the southern part of the island and is famous for the Caribbean’s best preserved mountainous forest region. This area is the coolest and rainiest part of the island, causing a high degree of biodiversity. Many of the rocks in this park are toxic to plants, so the flora and fauna has evolved to cope with these harsh conditions which make them more unique.
With this heightened demand, it is important that the Cuban government keep its focus on sustainable methods of tourism management, such as ecotourism. In any location, ecotourism should ideally create jobs for the local population as well as foster positive experiences for the tourists, all without compromising the environment for the future. Conservation and utilization of the tourism products, especially when considering the biosphere reserves and national parks, must function together in order for a feasibly sustainable operation to occur. Without funds from tourism, or any other means, it is extremely difficult to conserve the natural environment.
#4: The Ciénaga de Zapata Biosphere Reserve is a cluster of biosphere reserves, showing several different ecosystems in one larger area. These ecosystems include several forests, coral reefs, lagoons, and plains. Cuban crocodiles and flamingos have their main population living in this area as well. Some 800,000 tourists come to this biosphere reserve each year and support economic activities of the 9,000 permanent residents. The local population has a huge and constant input of the use of this area through public hearings and council participation. Two main goals of this area are conservation and sustainable development.
The government of Cuba promotes ecotourism because it is a major aspect of their conservation plans in the national parks and biosphere reserves. The use of ecotourism as a means of development can provide the tourist with unique memories and experiences, if the environment is maintained properly, and can even provide a reason for tourist to spend more money at a destination. Tourists that are specifically coming to see a pristine landscape or a place where people live together with the environment in a distinct way are more likely to pay more per night, be more educated about the destination, and be more considerate of the environment. This is the ideal situation that Cuba should work towards, even after opening up to leisure tourists from the U.S. In many ways, Cuba can serve as a beacon of ecotourism development for the rest of the world.
But, it’s not just the government’s responsibility. Make sure when you travel to Cuba, you’re doing your part to preserve the attractions for the future as well!
Interview conducted on March 13, 2016
“Travelling for me offers new perspectives on the world. It provides inspiration for the work I do. I love being a tourist sometimes and other times just going somewhere with no plans and seeing what happens. Travelling is like hitting the reset button and starting a new chapter. It can feel disconnected from ‘real life’ at times but seem completely normal and everyday. For me, travelling is always a new adventure!”
TCK: What is the name of your school and what is your degree going to be in?
JH: I am working toward my MFA in Physical Theatre at the Accademia dell’Arte in Italy. The school is associated with the Mississippi University for Women in the US so the degree will be valid in the US after I graduate.
TCK: What made you choose the school in Italy?
JH: I was looking for a graduate degree in performance in theatre. While I definitely looked at going abroad, I never considered Italy. After researching the school and speaking to some of the faculty and staff, I knew that this program was the best choice for me. The program is so different than anything I’ve learned in the states. I knew that I wanted to challenge myself by going to grad school and this program has definitely done that so far!
“Sometimes a place you never considered is the best place for you at that time in your life. Keep your options open to what’s out there and go with your gut.”
TCK: Do you think your travels to England made it easier to study abroad?
JH: Living abroad in England definitely helped prepare me for this adventure! The school systems in Europe are quite different than those in the states, so that experience has helped as well this time around. Also, having the experience of living in another country made the choice to come out here less intimidating.
TCK: What were you most excited about before going abroad?
JH: I absolutely loved my year abroad in England and, therefore, couldn’t wait to live in another country again – this time for 2.5 years! I think it’s so important to truly experience other cultures, aside from just being a tourist and seeing the sights. There’s something very magical and timeless about living in another country. I remember that living in England was the first time I truly felt like an adult. So far, Italy has had the opposite effect in that I feel younger and more alive than I have in years.
TCK: What were you most afraid of before going?
JH: The scariest part about picking up my whole life and moving across the world was the idea that I wouldn’t know anyone where I was going. I had really only met my 13 other classmates through Facebook and some through Skype. Other than that, I knew no one!
TCK: Is the language barrier an issue for you?
JH: I admit that my Italian is not as good as it could be, but I manage to get by. We have an “Italian for Actors” course that gives us exposure to the language. Most of our classes are in English as we have professors from all over the world but some do speak Italian to us. The locals really appreciate when you try to speak Italian and are quite forgiving if you make mistakes so I never feel bad trying out my Italian!
“Allow yourself the opportunity to truly become part of the culture you’re in. Sightseeing is fun and full of memories but there’s also something wonderful about becoming a regular at your favorite coffee shop or making a tradition of visiting the farmer’s market every Saturday.”
TCK: How do you make rent? Do you have a job as well as schooling?
JH: Our class schedule is pretty rigorous so we can’t really work while we’re here. Thankfully, because the school is affiliated with an American university we are eligible for Financial Aid. I’m not sure how I’d be able to afford it otherwise!
TCK: What do you miss the most? What will you be most excited to have again once you’re back in the states?
JH: Aside from my family and friends, I really miss the little things. Really good peanut butter is not so easy to find here! My contact solution isn’t available here so I’ve had to change that. So, little things like that, really. And none of it is dire – just a matter of adapting to what’s available. I must admit, though, that I am really excited to go to Target and have a delicious iced coffee when I go back to California to visit in the summer!
TCK: How do you keep in touch with your family and friends?
JH: I use a lot of different social media apps to keep in touch with my family and friends. WhatsApp is really popular here in Europe so that’s been great to contact not only friends back home but also throughout Europe. Viber and GoogleHangouts have been the best ways to video chat with people. I also chat a lot through Facebook Messenger with people. The 9 hour time difference can be tough sometimes but we’ve been able to make it work so far!
TCK: What do you want to do after you graduate? Are you going to stay in Italy? Move back home? Somewhere else in Europe/abroad?
JH: As much as I miss home, I’d love to stay in Europe and find work out here. Italy is lovely and I could see myself staying here but I would be open to working in other countries as well. I see myself coming back to the states at some point but I’m not sure for how long. The type of work I see myself doing has much more opportunity out here than in the states. But I still have a year and a half to go, so who knows!?
“Do it! Go for it! It’s never too late!”
TCK: How do you think you’ve changed the most since you began your degree?
JH: I’ve been living in Italy for just over 6 months now and I’m amazed by how much it feels like home now. I no longer feel like a tourist in my town. I also feel more at home with myself – I feel like I have been allowed the unique opportunity to develop into the person I’m meant to be without restrictions. I grew quite complacent with the life I was living before moving here. Since then I feel like I’m peeling back layers and getting to the real core of who I am. I think a lot of that is related to the work I’m doing here but I also attribute it to being in a new place and allowing the little insecurities and fears to develop into opportunities to grow. I don’t see myself getting complacent here at all!
Interview conducted on November 7, 2015
Linus is a Taiwanese citizen studying at Boston University, going for a Master’s in Innovation and Technology.
If there was ever a person for whom to use the phrase “bright-eyed and bushy-tailed,” it’s Linus. Even though it was 10 a.m. on a Saturday, he bounced toward me, eager to get started with our interview. Every time I talk to Linus, he has the biggest smile on his face, ready to take on the day. I always thought it was interesting that he chose his American name to be Linus because although he is definitely a deep intellect at heart, he has such a bigger personality.
I met Linus in the beginning of 2015 at Boston University, where he is currently obtaining his Master’s in Innovation and Technology. Originally from Taiwan, he will have spent two years in the United States when he completes his program. The first time he traveled to the U.S. was in 2006, but most of his travel consisted of European destinations until 2012. He said that traveling to other countries while he was growing up made him feel more comfortable studying abroad for his degree. However, the overall decision to study abroad specifically in the U.S. was a more calculated choice.
BE READY TO TRY A NEW WAY OF LIFE
“We can talk [about] a bunch of cultural differences between the place we are from and the U.S. I’m not saying to abandon our own values and traditions to embrace the American ones. Instead, I’m saying to give a chance to try and experience a whole new different way of life. After all, we can always back off if we don’t appreciate after trying. I always believe each way of life is a unique philosophy of the specific community. It could be a pity if we miss any precious experiences and philosophy due to not trying to understand.”
In order for him to get a good job back in Taiwan, he said he had to travel abroad to study. Taiwan has had an IT industry in Taiwan since the 1980s, but currently it’s not growing like it should, he said. Many Taiwanese obtain their degrees elsewhere and then come back to Taiwan to work. Linus’s father encouraged him to go abroad, as he did, and return to Taiwan with the resources to begin his own business. But Linus explained that it wasn’t that simple.
In Taiwan, he said, there are many more manufacturing jobs now, but companies are trying to build higher levels of business, such as branding, marketing, and advertising. Companies want to base themselves outside of Taiwan, rather than have the country build the products that are created and marketed elsewhere. He said China is partly contributing to this situation.
Although the economy is growing, albeit slow, China is a force preventing the country from developing more quickly. China, he said, has a lot of funding for new businesses and has stopped Taiwan from entering into free trade agreements with other countries. All of this aside, Linus is hopeful that soon the situation will turn around. China and Taiwan’s leaders met for the first time since 1949 in November 2015. Linus believes this will be the start of an “opening up” of the Taiwanese economy. And, because Taiwan is a more democratic nation, it could become a better safe haven than China for business development.
But, before any of this comes to fruition, he still needs the degree and work experience to back up any new business venture in Taiwan. For his higher education, Linus wanted to come to the U.S. because it is the “heart of technology and economics,” as he put it. His ideal professional career would begin in the U.S. after he graduates, perhaps in business planning or project management in the technology sector. Then, ideally he would travel to China to begin a business with contacts he knows from both the U.S. and Taiwan. Because of the funding in China, it would be easier for him to build the business there and then move or expand it into Taiwan. Regardless of the path, he wants to bring his knowledge and business back to Taiwan in order to help his home economy.
Although there are many top Universities in the U.S., Linus chose Boston because he is a huge Red Sox fan. Even before he moved here, he said that his family watched the games back in Taiwan. He was pleased to tell me that he has now seen dozens of games in the past year and half with $9, standing-only tickets. Being a part of the crowd at Fenway Park was what he was most excited about after being accepted to BU.
DON’T JUDGE, OR AT LEAST DON’T JUMP INTO CONCLUSIONS
“There are so many things confusing for foreigners moving to the U.S. I strongly suggest people to give themselves more time, more than they ever had, to appreciate the differences in the new culture. The stereotypes on every single culture are the first to be broken. Don’t let the stereotype generalize people for us. To feel and think by ourselves, this is why we step out from our country.”
Since moving to the U.S., he has also been to Philadelphia, Chicago, and New York City. Although the “liberty this and liberty that” in Philly and the “too big to leave” size of New York were both impressive, his favorite city (besides Boston, of course) is Chicago. “People were crazy with the Bulls,” he said, describing his experience. He enjoyed the “artwork in the streets,” as he called it, because it was a visual representation of the people of Chicago.
Traveling throughout the U.S. and participating in social events, like Red Sox games, helped him conquer his greatest fear of going abroad. He was afraid he wouldn’t meet enough people who were different from himself. He explained that many Taiwanese students who study abroad, specifically in the U.S., don’t break out of their small group of Taiwanese friends. He didn’t want to fall into this comfort zone. So, he essentially came alone to the U.S. and forced himself to speak English as much as possible. In addition, he likes to go to lectures and conferences regarding international relations, environmental issues, and new technologies. He has found that people in those arenas are already more open-minded, so they are more willing to meet and speak to new people. Linus’ strategy to meet new people even includes going to bars and striking up conversations with random people that sit next to him.
The biggest difference between the U.S. and Taiwan is the teacher-student relationship. In the U.S., he said, the professors are like your friends and are willing to help you understand the concepts. The students here who speak out in class have the best chance to succeed and get ahead. This, he explained, is very different from classrooms in Taiwan, where speaking out of turn and original opinions are highly discouraged. He definitely had to adapt to the learning style here and is appreciative to all who helped him succeed, especially in the first semester. He remembers that it was during this time that he began to speak in class. He was inspired by a French classmate who was pushing herself to speak English and is still grateful to her and the others who were patient with him while he organized his thoughts in class.
“Regarding education, the most significant difference between Taiwan and the U.S. is students’ motivation of learning. While American students are given more time and freedom to explore their own interests on different fields of study, students in Taiwan are generally educated in the same way, same time, with the same contents since they began their schooling. The traditional expectations for young, “good students” are to become doctors, lawyers, or engineers when they grow up, which are the more profitable professions in the country. These over-simplified social expectations (or social values) make Taiwanese students have no chance to learn to make their own decisions. Also, they lead to less motivation on learning. When coming to the U.S., the resources are given to those who are self-motivated and “willing to make further use on them.” Taiwanese students need to realize that from here on, nobody is going to suggest a “best route” for them. People need to have their own motivations and passions on the path they chose, just like other American students do.”
Although he has made friends here in the States, there is one more fear he says affects many who travel abroad from Taiwan to study. He described this as “people with no roots.” When the Taiwanese study abroad for an extended amount of time, he explained that they are like “abandoned kids.” The Taiwanese people think they’re American, and Americans think they’re Taiwanese. Because his family is more open to education abroad, beginning with his father, he doesn’t believe that this will affect him as much as the others he’s met, but it still could to a certain extent. His first roommate in Boston was the full characterization of a person with “no roots.” He had studied in the U.S. since high school and his family no longer recognized him as being Taiwanese. Linus said his roommate had no sense of belonging and couldn’t retain friendships.
Linus still misses home, but a few months ago his girlfriend Lily was accepted to Tufts and began her studies in Boston, as well. He thinks her transition into American life has been easier because he has been here for a year and it gives him great solace.
At each Red Sox game, when they raise the flag during the National Anthem, he thinks of the fact that Taiwan still doesn’t have full national sovereignty. He is confident, though, that things will soon change for the better. He wants to be part of that change, but he knows that getting his degree in the U.S. is the first step. And now, with Lily in the picture, each time they throw the first pitch, he has a little piece of home standing by his side.
Interview completed on March 11, 2016
We wanted a name that incorporated the way we travel. We have always thought of travel as a very personal experience, different for everybody regardless of where you go or what you see there. As people who are interested in slow travel, in delving into a culture, and experiencing it through a very intimate lens, we felt that the words “Bespoke” and “Traveler” were the best way to describe how we travel and what we write about. “Bespoke” means “custom-made” or “tailored” and we believe that travelers should be fully involved in the ways in which they experience their destinations.
Read my interview with Bespoke Traveler! Check out the links in the interview for more interesting articles on their website. Make sure you check out their website, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube channel!
TCK: How specifically do you think travel changes people? How has it changed you?
BT: Travel can be a transformative force, if we allow it to be. It changes our perception of ourselves and our world. It can expand our horizons and destroy long held beliefs. For us, it has increased our empathy, helped us learn to roll with the punches, allowed us to communicate beyond language barriers, made us embrace the beautiful complexity of nature as well as ourselves, and taught us to beware of the singular point of view.
TCK: Did you have travel experience before you started the organization?
BT: Yes. We have been exploring since we were babes in the woods.
TCK: What are your top three favorite places in the world? And, why?
BT: Lake Como, Italy for its serene, calming beauty. South Africa for its entanglement of wilderness and multicultural history. Zion National Park, Utah, USA for Angel’s Landing and the Virgin River Narrows trails.
TCK: You have quite an extensive library of published material. How do you find the time to travel to all these different locations and manage to write/photograph the material?
BT: Stories can be found everywhere. The tricky part is not to trip while jotting them down.
TCK: How do you fund your travel? Is it mainly through book sales? Contributions? Monthly membership?
BT: Our travels are funded through a variety of means: book sales, publication in other magazines and journals, generous contributions from donors, and sponsored collaborations with businesses. For the latter, we always make sure to indicate this when it appears on our website.
TCK: Do you often work with other authors/photographers for content?
TCK: What are your greatest challenges with maintaining your content and keeping the material fresh?
BT: Adjusting the writing schedule to our travel itineraries and having the patience to root out a meaningful story are probably the greatest challenges.
TCK: Do you experience writer’s block?
BT: They have pills for that now, don’t they? Just Kidding.
TCK: You’ve received several awards for your work. Which meant the most to you and why?
BT: Awards are wonderful to receive, but the most meaningful aspect of our work is when a reader tells us how inspiring our stories were to their personal lives.
TCK: What does travel mean for you?
BT: Travel is an opportunity to be curious. Travel does not only have to mean taking a plane to a far off destination or going on a “Round The World” expedition, or trekking through uninhabitable regions. One can do a lot of exploring in one’s own backyard and discover the extraordinary in the ordinary.
TCK: What advice would you give to someone looking to start their own travel-based website?
BT: Our best advice would be to lay a good foundation for the website first. It is better to know what your unique voice and perspective on travel is before-hand, so that the website can best reflect that.
Interview conducted on January 24, 2016
“I wanted to leave to a better place for more opportunities. I needed to start over where I knew no one and no one knew me. Wherever was the furthest away from home–across the ocean seemed appropriate.”
The concept of “home” means something different for all of us. Svetlana never had a single place to call home. She was born in Ukraine and grew up in Israel. Many of her decisions during her adolescence were not hers to make, and when she did chose, it was often between the lesser of two evils. Leaving Israel and coming to the United States for a higher education was one of the first positive decisions she made purely for herself.
HOW A BILLBOARD CHANGED EVERYTHING
Initially, Svetlana was registered to attend university in Israel. On the way home from registering for her first semester, she saw a billboard advertisement on the side of the road encouraging people to study abroad in the U.S. This sparked her curiosity.
She researched the logistics of studying in many locations, but something kept pulling her back to the American universities. I asked her what she knew about the States before she began her research and she said, “I watched so many movies about the U.S. and the ‘American Dream.’ I didn’t really have a lot of information before I came, besides the videos and movies. I didn’t mind where I went [to university], I just wanted something new. I asked myself, ‘Why not?’”
“I wouldn’t say I was afraid, but I was excited. Those two emotions feel the same inside you, so I decided to feel it as excitement. I was completely in the dark about what it would really be like. I came from the same friend group my whole life, so I was worried that I wouldn’t meet new people. I was scared that I wouldn’t succeed in school, as well. But, I was more excited than scared. I wanted to come to the U.S. so badly, but had no idea what to expect.”
Svetlana says she was inspired by her uncle and her grandmother. Her grandmother really believed in her through this whole process, and Svetlana had always looked up to her uncle. With his support and encouragement, she was able to bring her dreams into reality.
She found a school for SAT preparation, English language classes, and advice for studying abroad. Her advisor was a great help, preparing her emotionally, and helping her choose a city. Svetlana applied to universities in Massachusetts, California, New York, and Texas. After about a year of paperwork and weighing all the pros and cons, Svetlana decided on Suffolk University in Boston.
“ALMOST LIKE CARTOON CHARACTERS”
On her first day in the city, she panicked. She had no idea where to buy pillows, one of the few things she said she needed to sleep that night. After attempting to use a physical map (this was before she had a smartphone) to try and find what the random passer-bys called a “department store”, she was graced by a nice couple who walked her all the way to the closest TJMaxx. They asked her what else she needed and they proceeded to show her where to find a phone and take out money from an ATM. She described her whole first day as surreal: “People on the street looked exactly like the movies; the people spoke exactly like the movies. They were almost like cartoon characters to me.”
At the beginning, she said, every problem or concern led to small panic attack. Things that seemed second nature to her now would result in extreme frustration because she couldn’t explain exactly what she wanted to do in English. But, every small success, whether it was ordering food in English at a restaurant, or figuring out how to buy a train ticket for the first time, made it all worth it for Svetlana.
“I started to have routines. I began to know the chain restaurants and other businesses like CVS and Target. I got used to American things and American foods. The food is so weird! The sizes are so big! Peanut Butter and Jelly sandwiches were life-changing. And fluff– who thought of that?!”
“I NEEDED TO PROVE IT TO MYSELF”
Svetlana explained that she needed her first year to be at a smaller university, like Suffolk, because she was able to obtain the individual help she needed in mastering the English language.
“I needed to prove it to myself that I could do it,” she said. “Once the spring came after my first semester, it was better. I was no longer taking 8 to 10 hours to read a few pages.” As her confidence in reading and writing in English grew, she set her sights on a larger university, Boston University. Here, she would have a larger international student body with which to meet, more opportunities, and a world class psychology department from which to graduate.
When she started her first semester at B.U., she felt much more comfortable. She joked that because she was able to find an apartment in the U.S., she could now do anything else in Boston without being scared. At this point, she was able to talk to professors and get good grades. She had a lot of momentum starting B.U. and viewed it as one more goal to accomplish. She said that she was moving forward and felt confident that she could adjust to the new university.
Boston and B.U. began to feel like home. Svetlana said she met people “instantaneously” from classes. And through these initial connections, her friendships began to grow. “When you have people that you actually care about and you begin to love,” she said, “that’s when it feels like home. That is B.U. for me, a collection of little moments.”
EMBRACING A NEW CULTURE
“I had to re-learn how to communicate. I did not see that coming. People smile at you on the street. This was the most incredible thing I noticed. In Israel, people argue with others; it’s the way of life. In Ukraine, life is hard and people don’t smile. Here, people smile all the time! It’s so weird to me. Now I smile all the time and say, ‘Hi, how are you,’ when I see people. It’s easy to talk about nothing to anyone. Small talk is something I never did before. Sometimes people just talk about the weather. Americans don’t cut to the chase. It took time for me to be ok with it. The beauty is that people can be so smart and so superficial at the same time. I struggled with the American notion of ‘extreme politeness’ for the first couple years. There’s a certain way to say something, good or bad, and show how you feel with words. I had to be a spectator at first and see how people communicate with each other and how people have friendships.”
Prior to coming to the U.S., Svetlana said that she felt like she had two parts of herself. She felt like there were two people inside her; two customs. Now, after coming to the States, there’s a third, an American piece in addition to the other two. When she travels to Ukraine or Israel, she notices how she changes. She said her words and body language both change and her heart is divided into three pieces. Svetlana understands the American culture now. “It’s an additional layer of myself. Every place I go, there’s something I learn and it adds to myself,” she said.
The U.S. is unlike anywhere else she’s lived. There’s something special about it, Svetlana says.
She thinks that the people are amazing. They have a love for life, an energy, and they do things because of goals. They do their jobs with passion and with a lot of drive. This drive, she said, has rubbed off on her and now she’s thinking of what goals she has for the future.
WHAT CHANGED THE MOST
“When you go abroad for so long, it changes you to a point where the world seems so small, but it’s really so big. If you overcame difficulties coming abroad to live, and you were open to those experiences, then you can be a better, stronger person. By being a part of so many cultures, I’m actually a part of none. I’m not looking from the outside in anymore, but rather putting myself inside the culture. I get to live within the culture and look at everything differently. If you take this mentality to everything you do, you open your mind to other beliefs and you can learn from each other. At this point, I’m not afraid of anything. It’s everything I ever wanted and more.”
Svetlana’s advice for someone looking into studying abroad is to “just do it.” Don’t be scared, she said. Be ready to change and adjust your opinions and beliefs. Be open to the experiences and try everything. Fear and excitement feel about the same.
The final piece of advice Svetlana can give is: “Take a moment during long drives or on the train to understand where you are. Be present in each moment and experience everything fully. Expect small setbacks at the beginning. Every new thing might knock you down, but soon it will feel like home.”
Here’s my newest interview with Jon and Jo! They’re an English couple who sold everything and began what they call “land sailing”. Read about their experiences and advice in this Q&A.
Interview conducted on February 20, 2016.
“When we tell people what we are doing with our lives we get one of two responses. Either they think we’re crazy and irresponsible or they love the idea and think we’re very brave. I’m not sure that we’re actually either one entirely, perhaps a little of both. We’re just us doing what we want to do together. It wouldn’t work for everyone and we wouldn’t dream of suggesting that we are something special. We are just living our lives in this moment in our own way and enjoying those moments.”
TCK: What caused you to begin your journey? Do you remember the exact moment?
JW: There wasn’t a specific moment or a single reason that prompted us to start our little adventure but a gradual feeling that built up over a long period of time. Our three sons had all left home, unfortunately as we miss them like crazy, and we found ourselves living in a family house with no family. Our lives hadn’t changed but we felt a nagging sense of ‘there must be more to life’ creeping up on us. We were both 53 and the realisation that we had potentially another 14 years at work stretching ahead of us caused us to sit down and discuss what we wanted from life and what was important to the both of us. We realised that we weren’t sure what we wanted but that we did want to get into a position where we could decide. So we made the decision to sell the house and get rid of the majority of our possessions. We felt that if put ourselves into a position where we were renting a property with minimal furniture and clothes then we could make a fair decision on the future.
It took nine months to clear out virtually everything that we’d gathered over the previous 30 years and we found ourselves in a tiny 2 bed rental property in Maidstone. Still working but now in a position to take any path we chose. Unfortunately a serious illness in the family arose and it was another few months before we were ready to make that decision.
The exact moment was 11am on Sunday March 15th 2015 when we both agreed that we just wanted a little adventure and had a real window of opportunity in our lives. We decided we’d leave work, get rid of the remaining stuff, and go travelling. No destinations were decided but we both resigned the next day and put notice in on the rented house.
TCK: When did your journey start and where have you been so far?
JW: Once we’d resigned and started the process we both drew up a list of places that we’d like to visit and compared notes. Amazingly the lists were identical so we decided we’d go to Australia and New Zealand as they were the furthest places and potentially the most expensive to reach. Also we realised that the past 18 months had been quite stressful and that the next two could be really hectic so we decided to spend our first three months just relaxing in a few locations across Europe before we started the trip down under.
We left England on June 1st 2015 and spent our first month just south of Nijmegen in Holland in a quite little village called Groesbeek. The plan was to sit back and do a lot of not very much. It didn’t quite work out like that as we got into some serious cycling and developed a new social life with some reconnected old friends and our new Dutch hosts. It was exactly what we needed and we absolutely loved our new lives. From there we went to Bavaria in Southern Germany for another month in a tiny village outside Munich, where we just walked and talked and read books and hung around in beer gardens. Brilliant again. Our last European month was across in Austria in a tiny remote village called Vochera. We really planned to spend time just finalising our Australian plans and doing nothing but again it didn’t turn out like that.
The family that we stayed with took us in completely and our month was filled with family parties, barbeques, concerts, day trips, local shows, and getting to know vast numbers of family and friends. It was one of the most wonderful times of our lives and we became part of the family. Words can’t describe just how kind and welcoming our hosts Eva and Othmar were, we’ll be good friends forever now.
So from there, we had a few days back in the UK before flying to Perth and a three month tour of Australia followed by three months in New Zealand.
TCK: What were you most afraid of beforehand?
JW: Our biggest fear was that of missing our three boys so much that it might spoil our little adventure. We are a close family and although they were all unbelievably supportive you just don’t know how you will feel until you have left and are actually in that situation. Luckily it is just so easy now to keep in touch via Skype and Whatsapp and of course through our blog. Apart from that we had no worries whatsoever, we are a fairly laid-back couple and fairly well organised so as long as we were together we knew we’d be fine.
TCK: What were you most excited about beforehand?
JW: Strangely we didn’t get overly excited about anything at all. This may have been due to the vast number of things we had to do and plan for before we left but as I said earlier we’re fairly level-headed and take most things in our stride.
TCK: How do you keep in touch with your family? Is it difficult at some destinations?
JW: We made a big decision right at the beginning that we would not have phone contracts when we left. We don’t like the idea of being contactable 24 hours a day, and I personally think being online constantly is unhealthy and makes you lose sight of where you are and what you’re doing. We decided that we’d use maps to get around when necessary and if we needed information we would be completely old-fashioned and actually ask someone. You know, speak to a local. So many travellers walk around with their faces in their phones missing everything and everyone around them. That was not what we wanted. As long as our accommodation had Wifi we could email and blog etc in the evenings. Simple and sociable.
TCK: What were your favorite places so far and why?
JW: We both love places with character and personality and although Australia is a pretty modern country we loved Fremantle on the west coast and Manly on the east. Both had so much history and charm but weren’t too in-your-face. Also, the whole of Tasmania was a real surprise. The scenery took our breath away and a couple of the driving trips there were spectacular. The whole of the South Island of New Zealand is awe-inspiring but if we had to choose a single location it would have to be Wanaka where we immediately felt at home and could have stayed forever.
TCK: How do you think you have changed?
JW: Many people told us when we left that the whole travelling experience would change us but I think to be honest that it has really just re-affirmed our views and what we want from life. We’ve become more relaxed, if that’s possible, and don’t let anything worry us anymore. We’ve learnt that life throws surprises at you constantly and it’s no good gnashing your teeth and getting stressed, you may as well just roll with it and enjoy the ride. That’s what we’re trying to do. We told each other when we left that we should be like the Yes-Man and never decline an offer or say No to anything as that could be an experience missed. So far we’ve nodded and said Ok and done some incredible things that perhaps previously we wouldn’t have agreed to.
TCK: I know you said that you used Airbnb in Europe, but what other accommodations have you used? Does it change from location to location?
JW: We try to use Airbnb everywhere as we love the hosting experience so much. Hotels are so soul-less and hostels are really aimed at the 18-25 age-group I think. We’re currently on our 30th Airbnb I think, easy to lose count, and it really is the people that make it so special. I keep telling everyone that travelling is about people not places and that it’s the moments on the way that you remember forever rather than a tick list of countries. Well our moments are full of shared time with our hosts and so many of them have become good friends along the way. We can’t always get an Airbnb place everywhere, especially if we’re only staying a single night, so we have stayed in a few motels and hostels but really just for places to rest our heads. Occasionally we feel that we need a hotel to properly visit somewhere. In Sydney for example we got a small hotel centrally that enabled us to do the tourist things for a day or two before moving further out to an Airbnb for a longer time.
TCK: What are a few of your favorite memories thus far?
JW: All of the best moments of our trip so far have been shared with new friends and people we’ve met along the way. There have been so many that it’s tough to pick any out but a couple really shine for both of us. A boat trip and dive on the Great Barrier Reef was just one of the most wonderful days we’ve ever spent. It surpassed our expectations and the experience of snorkeling in the ocean around the Reef will never be forgotten. The other really special memory was Christmas Day. We decided to do an overnight trip out on Milford Sound. The weather was perfect, we canoed and swam off the boat, had a wonderful Christmas dinner, and loved every single minute. However the one moment we treasure was the following morning. We were first up on the boat and sat up on deck as the sun rose all alone just watching the world come alive all around. So special and so unique. We will never ever forget that.
TCK: Is there an end date for your journey? If so, how long do you think it will be until you journey somewhere again?
JW: When we began our little trip we decided that we would do it a stage at a time and not think about what came next until halfway through each stage. So we had no idea what was happening after March this year until mid-November when we talked about what we should do next. We decided to go again on JWalking 2 and that will last until December now. We’ll discuss what happens next sometime in late summer. We are very serious about enjoying the moment that we’re in and the place that we currently live and don’t ever want to be in the situation where we are forever thinking ‘what’s next, where are we going’. So no end date ……………….. for now.
TCK: Can you explain how you came up with the term “land sailing”? Personally, I think it’s very clever!
JW: Ha, I’d love to say that it was all our idea and that we’re so clever but that wouldn’t be totally true. We were in Fremantle in a Map shop (I love maps and can’t ever pass a map shop without exploring it) and we bought a map of New Zealand. Got talking to the nice lady at the till as she asked if we were tourists. Now we always hated being called tourists and didn’t really feel like travellers or backpackers and explained this to her. She said ‘so what are you then? Grey Nomads?’. We explained that we were slow travellers who knew where we were going and just wanted to take our time and enjoy the ride. ‘So you’re Land Sailors then?’ she asked. ‘We are now’. Loved the expression as it perfectly describes our attitudes to travel and the way that we’re moving and planning our route. So it’s all thanks to Liz in the Map and Chart shop in Fremantle.
TCK: What three pieces of advice would you give to someone (or a couple) who wanted to do what you are doing right now? (Or general advice regarding land sailing).
JW: The biggest and hardest decision we had to make in all of this adventure was the initial one to just change our lives. After that each step seemed fairly simple. Some people have said how lucky we are to be doing this but it’s not luck, anyone can do this. It’s all a matter of priorities. If you’re priority is a nice big car and a huge house and 5 star all inclusive holidays then that’s fine, but ours are different. We don’t want or need any of that so we’ve made the decision to have a little adventure. The luckiest thing we have is that we both want the same thing. So my biggest piece of advice to any couple thinking about leaving the rat race and land sailing is to be totally honest with each other about your dream, hopes and fears. It won’t work if one of you isn’t 100% on board.
Secondly, I really think planning is the key. Both where and when you are going but also the financial side of things. It’s boring but sensible budget planning, or SFM as we call it (Strict Fiscal Monitoring sounds like something seriously important), is key. It isn’t a holiday and we aren’t throwing our money around. It’s our life now and we’re living in all of these places and we know exactly what we’re spending and what we have left.
Thirdly, always try and say Yes to new experiences. Be open to any offers and suggestions and you just never know where you’ll end up (within reason of course). Our hosts in Rotorua asked us a couple of weeks ago if we’d like to come swimming with them in a Maori mud pool in the pouring rain? Obviously it was a great big Yes and we had the most magical time in an incredible hot spring in the rain in the shade of the mountains. Unforgettable.
Wondering what it’s like to volunteer abroad in Uganda? Read my new interview with Jess Hutchings on CulturewithTravel.com!
Jess didn’t know why exactly she wanted to go to Uganda, but she was definitely excited. She was excited for the unknown, but didn’t know what to expect. Her father had traveled to Africa when he was younger, so perhaps a little of her desire was to follow in his footsteps. In her high school years, Jess participated in a student ambassadors program in Japan, but this experience, she said, couldn’t have prepared her for the foreign culture in Uganda.
Read the full article here!
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