2 of JAMUY’s members embarked in August last year on a sabbatical year in South America with the objective to help local social projects promote their activities of short duration.
Together with ambassadors (all volunteers as well) and contributors, they have helped grow JAMUY’s website (http://jamuy.sharetribe.com) to approx. 6000 users, 23 countries, over 120 activities worldwide and help increase the visibility of local social initiatives. There is still so much to do but the concept is innovative: fully free marketing for social projects (no intermediary / no fee) and an opportunity for workers and travelers with a tight agenda to support social initiatives through their participation in these Do-Good activities (e.g. Cafés/restaurants with a social mission charity events like concerts or musicals, practical workshops, tours, fairs, festivals, etc.).
Below, Paola (27, Spanish) and Thomas (34, French/Belgian) share with us their take-aways and learnings from this sabbatical year.
“There is no better place than our return flight from Colombia to Europe to reflect on all what we’ve learned and experienced during the year. A bit less than a year ago, we left Frankfurt (Germany) to start our sabbatical year in South America. Although this was not the first time we took time off from work, this sabbatical came with a lot of new uncertainty, especially due to the nature of the social project we were undertaking and the length of 1 year (both in terms of career, life as a couple and money). But there were so many things we wanted to explore and we were so excited about traveling to and living in new countries that any potential challenge to overcome seemed largely trivial. Despite all the pleasure you expect from a year like this, we have also learned a lot during this year, in all important areas of life, whether in terms of personal and professional development, of friendship and partnership or of how someone can enhance a sabbatical like this (the latter being the focus of this text). Below is a collection of take-aways and stories we thought may be nice and helpful to read for anybody who want to start a sabbatical year.
Setting the context: Our itinerary South America
South America was a big draw for us: we never lived on this continent, it was important for us to be able to connect with people in their language (we went only to spanish speaking countries) and it is a continent with so many wonders (although we could say this of any continent :-)). This is what we did during this year:
Aug 16 (Travel time): Bolivia (Cochabamba, Uyuni, Copacabana / lake Titikaka), Chile (Atacama), Peru (Cusco area & Machu Picchu, Lima)
Sept – Nov 16 (Stay time): Quito (Ecuador) as our base to work on JAMUY with travels during the 3 months in Galapagos, Cuenca / Baños, Esmeralda / beach side, Cuyabeno reserve / jungle
Beg Dec 16 (Travel time): Patagonia (Argentina) from El Calafate to Ushuaia, incl. El Chalten
Mid Dec – Mar 17 (Stay time): Buenos Aires as our base to work on JAMUY with travel to Uruguay (Montevideo and coast)
Mar – April 17 (Travel time): Mexico from Mexico city to Yucatan
April – May 17 (Stay time): Medellín as our base to work on JAMUY after 2 days in Bogota
June 17 (Travel time): North of Colombia incl. Cartagena, Santa Marta, Tayrona / Minca, Cuidad perdida, Barichara.
July 17 (Family time): Back in Europe (Spain / France / Germany), this is more family and friends time.
This is just to set the scene, we can of course provide tips and recommendations to whoever is interested (see at the bottom for our favourites of the trip).
A) Planning and preparation
You can of course decide to travel spontaneously, take a flight to any destination tomorrow and be fine for a year. But let’s face it, most people would probably gain from a little bit of planning and these are some of our tips:
Negotiate time-off from work
Most people find it a great idea to do a sabbatical for a personal project or to travel. But what would it mean for my career? How would it look like on my CV? Most of us think this is an awesome idea but won’t do it because of fear of losing something by doing this. But, really… we should all really ask ourselves what we could lose by not doing it now in the quite probable case that we cannot do it later? In any case, once the decision taken, rushing into it may actually be counterproductive and a little patience and preparation is worth it. If you are not able to bring your job with you while traveling, you can simply decide to resign or find an agreement with your company. From our experience, it is useful to:
1) Leave in good terms: it was easy for us as we liked our job and company (we are actually coming back to them) but from previous experience you can find much better arrangements by selling well the project to your employer and leave in good terms. Here’s a story that illustrate this: “I wanted to do a sabbatical a few years ago and was tired of my job. I told my boss at the time and he offered me to be paid 2 years half of my salary but work only 1 year out of the 2. This was a great way to optimize tax and continue contributions to the social security system / pension schemes. I refused at the time because I did not want to come back to the same job… but I had to come back anyway to the same job after the sabbatical because of the financial crisis. I then realized I lost 1 year of pension and some money as well”. This example is just to say, too often career decisions are taken under emotional strain, but always make sure you keep a good relation to your colleagues and employers, you never know when you may need them again
2) Work on your storyline: Think about how to “sell” the sabbatical to your entourage, current and future employer, and most importantly to yourself. Even if your goal is to relax and take some longer holidays, it is always good to start with an end in mind, although you can always change this along the way. It took us about 1 ½ year before leaving to organize our thoughts, talk to our employers, find the best possible approach considering budget, tax, visa, flat rental, etc. It may have taken longer as we were doing a social entrepreneurship project, but it helped hugely optimize our year and our return after the sabbatical.
3) Think Win / Win with your employer: The first reaction of your boss or employer will probably be that of someone faced with a problem with little interest for her or him. So be prepared to explain how they may also win from it – for e.g. this is a great way to retain a motivated or talented professional, avoid the cost and risk of having to recruit a replacement. And anyway, the time it may take to find and train a replacement, you may already be back from your sabbatical by then! You may also want to present some solutions (at least suggestions) to the problems this may cause (suggestion of replacement / contingency plan during your absence).
Optimize access to money
If you’re leaving for a year, secure and cheap access to your money is a must. We have met people carrying a lot of cash with them which obviously may not be such a great idea in South America (and anywhere really). Others have only expensive ways to retrieve money. You have nowadays quite a few banks (for e.g. Online banks) offering services like free global ATM withdrawals or payments. If this is not available, there are also services that may offer you to get some money in the country for a lesser cost. For e.g. In Argentina, you can only withdraw from an ATM a maximum of 2400 ARS (approx. 145 EUR) and pay a commission of approx. 96 ARS (so approx 4%). We looked into services like Western Union, TransferWise, Azimo, etc. in order to get some money. But counting in the hassle and the risk of carrying a big sum of money with us, we decided to keep with the credit card withdrawal. But this may well be different for you. Carrying some USD (or EUR but USD has wider acceptance) is always good as you may get an even better deal, but we thought carrying much of it would be too risky in case we got robbed. The trick here is to not solely account for the fees that you may have to pay for the service, but to take into account the exchange rate that is being used which may vary widely from one service provider to another (it is also one of their way of making money). Note that the exchange rate never equals to what you can find on websites like xe.com or oanda.com, a much better reference guide would be the visa / mastercard currency converters (we used this one for e.g. : https://misc.firstdata.eu/CurrencyCalculator/fremdwaehrungskurse/calendar).
Safety & security
We never got any safety or security issue on this trip (except one small attempt with a knife in Bogotà but that was thankfully not threatening enough), but we heard quite a few stories from travelers. Outside of the typical “keep your calm & don’t play the hero” type of advice, here are a couple of additional practical tips we would give:
1) Ask locals where to go: They will know much better than you or your travel guide. But however know that you are not branded local (esp. if you wear foreign clothes and you are white and blond), so be a little more cautious than locals (but not too much, don’t spoil the fun)
Don’t tempt the easy theft: buy locks / close your bags to make it more difficult to steal, keep your cash, card & papers close to your skin (but you can keep some cash in your pocket in case you can get away with this)
2) Think “what can I lose if someone robbed me now”: Keep the important things at home / locked in a hotel, take an official cab (or Uber / Cabify…) when you think it is wiser, bring photocopy of your passport on you, limit cash withdrawals from your credit card (in case someone want to do a tour of local ATMs with you), bring an old smartphone with you (offline googlemaps is a great way to avoid getting lost), etc.
3) Don’t be too afraid: another big risk is to fall into a more probable trap – be scared. The probability of something happening to you is probably much lower than you think (although this depends on your personality), and other less obvious risks may be more probable (it may be wiser to put your seat belts whenever possible for e.g.).
Prepare your bags
You may have to survive both winter and summer in a year of travel, but all will advise you to pack light and keep on the essentials. We were traveling with a backpack of 60+20 (Thomas) and 50+10 (Paola) together with 2 small backpacks, which allowed us to bring back some gifts, etc. but were a little heavy. It is good to give away some stuff you don’t need anymore on the way and ask your friends visiting to bring / bring back stuff for you. You can also sometime just buy stuff in one country and sell them (sometimes even make a profit) somewhere else (e.g. Buy a cheap tent for Patagonia and try to sell it there when you don’t need it). You can find good lists and tips on the net, but here is what we found astonishingly useful / not so useful in what we brought for the year:
More useful than expected: Kindle / e-reader (Our best friend), Ipad + keyboard + USB compatible memory card (another best friend – Thomas worked the whole year only with that and could do 95% of what was needed), small carabiners (we had some with compass included, but it is really great to close a stuffed bag or hang a bag or a tent outside your backpack – Thanks Daniel for this), In-ear earphones/inflatable cushion for the neck/eye protector/ earplugs (a must to enjoy night buses / flight), tupperware + swiss knife + 2 forks (awesome way to cut budget on eating out and can be used to carry fragile stuff), food shake (powder to replace a meal – this is just awesome for traveling and when it is difficult to find vegetarian / vegan food on the way), trek trousers that changed into shorts and light wool sweatshirts (you won’t make the cover of fashion mags but it’s so useful)
What we will bring next time: Better small backpacks as we sometimes left the big ones to go on multi-day treks, a special box to carry spices (we like to cook and used small plastic bags to carry spices, but we heard there are special boxes for this and would love to have some advice on this), put more data on the cloud (what you may need to use during the year), one of these North American unbreakable bottle
Less useful than expected: A special bag to wash your clothes in it (pretty useless to us as you could do it in a sink), a mosquito net (it takes a lot of space and you can often find some in hostels, bringing some duct tape to repair can help though – Thomas has however used mosquito net a lot for rough travel in Malaria countries in Africa & Asia), too much medicine (it’s good to have first aid, but you can usually find a lot of what you need on the way, although keep some essentials), Too many power banks (you usually only need your electronics where there is electricity), running shoes (as we were doing High Intensity Interval Trainings or cardio on socks)
B) Making the most of your sabbatical
Moving a social entrepreneurship project forward
We could probably talk hours and hours on this. But here are a couple of high level key learnings for us:
1) It is much easier than we thought to travel and do something good on the way: It is indeed one of JAMUY’s key objective, but there are today many platforms that make it easy to travel more responsibly (more details on this topic under JAMUY’s April newsletter)
2) Spend a lot of time understanding your stakeholder: you get too easily hooked by your own ideas and think it is the best in the world. But what is important / simple for you may not be for your users / clients / suppliers. The time we spent on talking and understanding our stakeholders was for us the best investment in time and energy at the beginning of the project, and we should have done more of it earlier on in the process
3) Focus on what really add value and achieve your objective: during the first 6 months of the sabbatical, the whole JAMUY team focussed largely on supporting social projects so they would publish activities on JAMUY under a profile they created. But we realize this was taking precious time from resource-scarce initiatives and limiting our added value, as we could simply copy / paste ourselves the publicly available information. We decided to change into an open collaboration platform where anybody can share an activity from his/her location on the platform and where JAMUY team would focus on external marketing actions. This way, users inform other users about Do-Good activities, social initiatives can focus on organizing the event and JAMUY spend more time on promoting the activities than on administration.
4) Managing volunteers: We are very grateful about all the work that JAMUY’s volunteers and contributors have done for the project. We could not have done what we’ve done without their help. But most social organisations working with the help of volunteers will tell you how tough it can be to motivate volunteers. Sometimes you will invest your time in training / engaging someone that will hardly return your time investment to the project, and sometimes the best ideas and help come from volunteers. There is nothing surprising in this: imagine your employer tells you tomorrow that it would like you to continue working without pay, and think of what would keep you motivated – a great experience for anybody willing to beef up her/his management skills.
Keep a healthy mind and invest time for personal development
It is a great time to learn and do all these things you don’t usually have the time to do. You were dreaming of a new hobby or profession – why not just do it for a while and see how it goes? You wanted to become more healthy and better understand your body – why not try out new physical exercises and a new diet?
We will repeat the same advice than before: start the year with an end in mind. Imagine you at the end of the sabbatical and try to understand how you would like to feel and what you would like to have achieved during the year. Having personal development objectives is a great way to make sure you make the most out of it (with some flexibility of course). Each of us had different objectives and each of us went on different courses and experiences to move forward on these. Whatever your objectives are, here are a couple of advices we would give:
1) Exercise every day (or nearly): It will keep you focused on your objectives and you will feel better with yourself. But how do you do this when traveling? No problem, you now have a lot of free cardio / High Intensity Interval Trainings (HIIT) available for free on the internet. You can do it anywhere (2-3 m2 can sometimes be enough) and with no equipment (we did them most of the time without shoes, and we did not always have a fitness mattress). You could check for e.g. fitnessblender (https://www.fitnessblender.com) for free full length workout videos (man & woman)
2) Leave time for dreaming / meditating / mindfulness: however you call it, we think taking the time to reflect constructively on your life and environment is very important, esp. when doing a sabbatical is a huge step out of your normal life and your comfort zone. Different people achieve this in different way: some do yoga, others meditate, others run, trek or walk, others speak, others read, others do all of this… We do not believe anything is right or wrong, each of us should find what works best for her/him.
Managing your budget for a year
Below is a detailed breakdown of our budget spend during the year. It does not count for health insurance (but you can find pretty inexpensive ones these days – let us know if you need some from Germany and we could help) and our flight from Quito to Galapagos (thanks to Paola’s parents :-)) but all the rest (including some gifts, etc.) must be in it. Note that we do not count for any subletting arrangement for our flat, nor the money we may get back from the German tax office (which hopefully is many).
This may look like very little to many and a lot to others – here are some background to understand how we worked it out.
Budget: Our annual goal was between 12 and 15k EUR per person for the year, and we went under it. We aimed at spending under 30 EUR / day / pers on average incl. absolutely everything. We increased to 45 when we were traveling / visiting, and decreased to 15 when we were living in a city (i.e. Quito/ Buenos Aires/ Medellín)
Food: We are relatively picky about food (we’re vegivore and 99% vegetarian) and would not satisfy ourselves with any deep fried snack on the road. To lower the budget, we cooked. We had tupperwares and shakes when we were on the road. We ate out at lunch when we find good vegetarian “almuerzos” and cooked in the evening, with obviously some exceptions when eating out with friends. In countries like Argentina (more expensive), we ate more in, in Colombia, the opposite.
Accommodation: We usually went for the cheaper double room when we were traveling and rented a room in a shared flat when we stayed in a city (although usually in not expensive nor dangerous neighborhood). If you ask around for people leaving their room for a while or looking for a temporary flatmates, you usually find solutions to your temporary needs.
Entertainment: We also did not spend every night going out in bars & clubs, which obviously helped a lot. But there are a lot of inexpensive nights out to be done, for e.g. Buenos Aires has a lot of free events and there was a lot of inexpensive concerts & bars in our barrio in Medellín.
Traveling and working together as a couple
Both of us would say this was not easy. And any couple who had to work and live 24hrs / day together would probably say the same. Below are a couple of advices you may want to reflect on if you are engaging in the same kind of experience:
1) Listen, speak out, communicate: Discuss your expectations and objectives before the trip starts and re-discuss them every time you have a milestone or you feel like you need it
2) Cluster time: It was very important to us to “cluster” time for different purpose. We would say: We work X hours each on average per day this week and we would literally sit down at the beginning of the week to plan individual time (we could dedicate to work, sport & other stuff and we would trust each other to roughly work the time we agreed to work each week) and collective time (meetings, meet-up with friends but also pleasure time). The pleasure time is an important part of life and during this time it was forbidden to speak about work (see role section below).
3) Learn how to juggle with different roles: Similar to clustering time, it is important to cluster your roles. When interacting with the other, you need to understand in which role it is appropriate to fit in… like if you were acting (although obviously you need to stay yourself in the context of a relationship). So if your partner is asking you a personal question regarding for e.g. direction of his/her professional career, you cannot respond with the role of colleague, but rather as the one of a lifetime partner. In the same way, if there is a professional criticism you receive from your partner on your work, you cannot react with the same emotional intensity like if your partner was criticizing your inner person. It is very difficult to juggle with these roles, and you will necessarily make mistake. But trying as a couple of understand and discuss these roles can be of tremendous help. If it helps you can also start a sentence with “as your partner / colleague / friend, I would …”.
Our highlights from our travels
it’s difficult to be so selective as there are many elements that influence your view of a place or experience, but trying to exclude personal biases as much as possible, this would be our favourite…
… city to live in: Medellín (great relaxed atmosphere, many events & things to do, great budget wise). Buenos Aires and Quito were also awesome, but Medellín offered just about everything.
… cities for cultural activities / night outs: Buenos Aires, Mexico City
… cities to chill out: Baños – Ecuador, Cusco – Peru (also for food), Montevideo – Uruguay, Barichara – Colombia
… cities for community tourism/ craft: Oaxaca – Mexico
… food (knowing we’re 98% vegetarian): Peru / Mexico
… place to enjoy nature: Galapagos – Ecuador (wildlife), Patagonia / El Chalten – Argentina (landscape), jungle (we really enjoyed Cuyabeno in Ecuador but surely you can find better or equivalent in other places)
… people: everywhere! South Americans are so awesomely
This is it for now, if you have any additional questions that may interest other readers, ask in the comment section and we’ll do our best to answer
Paola & Thomas