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.
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.
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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Check out my new interview on Courtney Greene! She is studying abroad for her full degree in Ireland. Thanks, Voy Abroad and Courtney Greene for your time and energy!
“I’d be a fool to not try Ireland,” she said. “If I don’t like it, I’ll stay for a year.” It was a great comfort to her that her family was only about an hour train ride away. In addition to her cousin going to the same school and in the same year, this provided a safety net, just in case she felt homesick. Fortunately, she said it never came to that point and has never regretted her decision to move across the Atlantic.
Read the full article here on Voy.gs.
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Check out my guest post on jessicalipowski.com! Interview with Fernanda on her experiences and advice from studying abroad in Aix-en-Provence. Thanks to both Fernanda and Jessica for your time and energy!
Fernanda is studying linguistics, with an emphasis in ESL teaching, at San Diego State University. She moved to the United States when she was 18 and, since then, her life has been full of wonderful opportunities. She’s had the chance to live in other countries and learn everything that comes with that experience: the language, the culture, the people, etc. She has been forever changed by it and cannot wait for her next international experience.
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