Today I have an exclusive interview for you guys. A while back, Kip and Liz from 1 of 7 agreed to answer some questions of mine. Early last year ago the couple quit their day jobs in Washington, DC to travel the world. Volunteering was what initially inspired them to make the leap, and it continues to be their focus to this day.
Considering taking to the road? Or just looking for some advice on getting active in your community? You’ve come to the right place. Read on to learn more, straight from the mouths of two seasoned travelers and volunteers.
How did you ultimately decide to leave Washington to travel the world?
As longtime travel junkies, we hit a point where the two-week vacation thing just wasn’t enough. We had long dreamed of traveling the world, of exploring faraway places; and we thought maybe our honeymoon would be a great excuse. But when we got married five years ago, we had a house, a huge mortgage and little money. Flash-forward to early last year, we realized there would never be a perfect time, so we finally pulled the trigger, combining our travels with volunteering, which has been a longtime passion for us both, as well.
Did you have any logistical difficulties becoming full-time world travelers?
It’s hard to travel the world while working in an office full-time. Leaving the security of a good job (we both had jobs we loved) was a scary, but necessary, step towards living our dream. To save for the trip, we ate a lot of meals at home, lived well below our means (as we continue to do), and rented out a spare bedroom in our house using Airbnb. While we’re away, we’ve been lucky enough to rent our house to cover some of the bills, as well.
Can you give an overview of where you’ve been so far? Where are you going next?
We started with one-way tickets to the Philippines, which we bought for $11 and 32,500 frequent flyer miles each. (If you’re planning on traveling long term, do all you can to build reward points now, which can save you tons on airfare, the most expensive part of most trips).
From there we ventured into the Pacific for some diving around Palau, then after a horrific voyage back on a small sailboat, we ended up in the jungles of Borneo, up to the crazy foods and friendly people of Southeast Asia, across to the snow-covered Himalayas and ancient temples of Nepal, Tibet, and India, and then over the Indian Ocean to Africa to hang with some lemurs and pirates in Madagascar, for some stellar wines in South Africa and lots of wild animals and nonprofits in Tanzania, Uganda and Rwanda, volunteering the whole way through.
After a quick stop back in DC to re-rent our house and do our taxes, we’ve headed to Central America, starting in El Salvador and making our way south through Nicaragua and Costa Rica.
How do you find volunteering opportunities in each place you visit?
The biggest unknown for us on this trip was how we would find opportunities to volunteer at least one day every week, no matter where we went. After 14 months and lots of volunteer time, we’ve developed a well-oiled system of finding opportunities, which we outlined recently for Third Sector, the UK’s top philanthropy publication.
It’s not always easy, but there are always things we can do to help. Our top three tips to find volunteer opportunities on the road:
- Google “volunteer” and the name of your destination before you go;
- Ask locals like hotel staff, tourism reps or taxi drivers if they know of organizations or ways to volunteer your time; and
- Keep your eyes open once you get there—if you see trash on a trail or beach, clean it up; if you walk past a nonprofit, drop by for advice; it’s amazing the opportunities you can find just by keeping open eyes and an open mind.
How do you find lodging and transportation most often?
We’ve traveled and gotten lost in a lot of places — close to 80 countries so far. We’re not planners, and we’ve found there’s rarely a need or advantage to making reservations far in advance. Plus, this allows for last minute changes. That goes for hotels, flights, anything…as long as it’s not a holiday (like Holy Week in the Philippines, as we unfortunately learned!).
Even for domestic travel, we book flights at most three weeks in advance, and for hotels, we simply walk into a property when we arrive where we’re going and ask for their best rate. It may not be for everyone, but it’s worked great for us, and it keeps things fluid for spontaneous detours to check out that secret spot a fellow traveler just whispered to you.
What have been some of your favorite volunteering experiences so far?
The traveling part of the trip has been amazing, but so too have all the volunteer experiences, such as counting whale sharks in the Philippines, reading English by candlelight to a little girl in Myanmar, and walking abandoned dogs in South Africa. You can check out all our volunteer highlights list here.
Anyone who reads our website regularly knows we don’t like seeing garbage in places it shouldn’t be. That has led to us picking up a lot of trash, which isn’t everyone’s idea of a fantastic time. But our loathing of litter has led to the most fascinating, fun experiences of the trip. Just two examples: five little angels in white helped us clean up a beach in Borneo, and we made a lot of new friends collecting garbage along the Everest Base Camp trek.
What countries would you specifically like to return to?
We could go back to them all, really. But, our top choice has to be Nepal and the Himalayas. The views, the people, the night skies, the yak momos—we’d love to either hike to Everest again, or do the complete Annapurna Circuit. Our next favorite spot would probably be the Philippines. Though we spent two months there, we didn’t come close to seeing all of the country’s 7,000 islands. And in Malaysian Borneo, there was a family of pygmy elephants and a group of proboscis monkeys who we just know would remember us if we went back.
What have been the most challenging aspects of traveling constantly?
Not strangling each other has probably been the hardest part. We’re pretty independent, so it can be difficult to spend every waking second together. And sometimes when we’ve just gotten off of a 17-hour bus ride, and we’re hot, hungry, and tired, it can be hard to be nice to each other. The trip has taught us patience, both with ourselves and others; and we try to spend a few days apart every now and then, just for the sake of our sanity (and personal safety).
It’s also difficult to reconcile the desire to see everything a country has to offer, with the need to slow down. We’ve realized that it’s harder to enjoy a place when you’re moving every day, and that it’s important to take a few days to recover – particularly between 17-hour bus rides.
Can you please describe an interesting person you have met on the road?
You meet so many incredible people on a trip like this.
There was U Paw San, the fisherman and guide in Myanmar who taught us the Burmese version of stand-up paddling. Then there was the Collie family, Americans who run a nonprofit that puts shoes on kids in Jinja, Uganda (and who cook up a great batch of fried okra). One of the other standouts so far has been Rob Turner, an Australian veterinarian we met hiking to Mt. Everest Base Camp. Rob joined us on our trail clean up, walking with us for days as we picked up trash. He was coming off a few months volunteering neutering cats and dogs in India. We stayed in touch, and later, he gave us advice on a serious dog problem we came across in rural Tibet. Weeks later, we ran into him again at the world’s largest camel fair in Pushkar. He was volunteering with local vets caring for the thousands of animals at the festival. No matter where he goes, Rob seeks out ways to help others, and he does it with a smile.
What are some of the memorable moments or experiences in your travels?
Besides the terrifying stuff, like jumping off a cliff in Thailand or escaping a charging silverback gorilla in Uganda, probably the most memorable moments for both of us came during a 10-day silent and meditation retreat in Bodh Gaya, India. Neither of us are meditators, nor can we sit still more than a few minutes without getting the twitches. But we had time and we were in the village where the Buddha found enlightenment, so we gave meditation a shot. Kip lasted eight days, managed to sit deathly still for a full hour, and would never, ever do it again. Liz enjoyed the inner peace and is actually thinking of doing a refresher course when we get to Costa Rica.
Any advice for travelers looking for ways to volunteer in other countries?
Our advice is just to remember that, whether at home or abroad, there’s always something we can do to help others — even if it’s just one day each week.
For those who want to go the 1 of 7 route, looking for short-term opportunities as you go, check out our “Tips on Volunteering while Traveling” article we wrote for Third Sector, the UK’s top philanthropy publication.
People who have the time and money and want to make a longer-term commitment should figure out what type of work they want to do and where they want to do it. Do they want to volunteer with kids, with rescued leopards or in a rainforest? Do they want to focus on health, education, or construction, for example? Can they handle hot weather and no running water? Once you know that, befriend Google and do a lot of research.
Voluntourism has become a multi-billion industry, so there are tons of organizations out there. Just make sure your time and money are going to a good one. Often, the money people pay for a volunteer trip could go a lot further as a donation, either from home or on the ground after the traveler finds a fitting person/family/community to support.
Is there anything else you would like to tell readers?
Just to remind people that, whether at home or abroad, there’s always something we can do to help others — even if it’s just one day each week.
And be sure check out our website!