I’m so excited about this week’s If We Can Do It interview. It’s with Ayla Warner, one of the lovely traveller friends I have met via Twitter. She has been a member of the #travelbookclub I run for quite a while and I love swapping stories about different countries with her, so I was really pleased when she told me she was setting up her own travel blog. Ayla has been on some amazing trips and her stories and photographs from Africa are absolutely incredible. I’m so happy she offered to talk about her adventures for the grown up gap year.
1. Why did you decide to take your grown up gap year? Was it a difficult decision to make?
I had wanted to go travelling since I was 16 and when my boyfriend (now husband), Alex, told me he wanted to see some of the world too, our plans were set. Since then my life has basically revolved around travelling. I wasn’t too concerned about going to university or finding myself a high-flying career. My focus was on earning enough money to travel, so I found it very easy when I had to quit two different jobs to go off on two different trips around the world. I didn’t even hesitate. In fact I was overly excited to give my resignation in, as it meant we were one step closer!
2. What were other people’s reactions when you told them your plans?
I think my family always knew that I was going to up and leave them for a while. My aunt and uncle had been travelling when they were younger and my mum and grandparents are big holiday fanatics so it’s something that is in my blood. When I told them I would be gone for almost half a year I don’t think they were too pleased but it was something I’d wanted to do for a long time and they supported that. My mum and my grandparents gave us any spare dollars they had lying around at home and offered to lend us money if we ran out while we were away. That’s why I love my family so much – they weren’t particularly happy with us going but they were still willing to help out wherever they could.
My friends on the other hand wondered how I would be able to last for months without my hair straighteners, nail polish and mascara! I’m a bit of a girly girl so the idea of me camping in Africa for two months got me a few raised eyebrows from some people!
3. How long did your trip take and where did you go?
Our first trip, which ended up being a very long honeymoon, started in Hong Kong for my 21st birthday. We then flew on to Singapore and from there travelled overland through Malaysia and Thailand where we hopped between idyllic islands, big cities and jungle towns. From there we flew to Australia where we spent nine weeks travelling from Tasmania all the way up the East Coast through cities, mountains, beaches and rainforests to Cape Tribulation and over into the Australian outback to Uluru (Ayres Rock). In New Zealand we explored all the North Island had to offer but unfortunately didn’t get time for the South (a trip for another day!). After five months the trip came to a perfect end with some relaxing time on the white sands of Fiji and the Cook Islands.
Our next big trip was to Africa were we spent four months travelling and doing volunteer work in schools, teaching English and working in an orphanage in Tanzania as well as looking after lion cubs and big cats in a lion park in South Africa. We travelled overland from Kenya all the way down to South Africa stopping in Uganda to see the mountain gorillas; Tanzania to safari in the Serengeti; Zanzibar where we swam in the clear blue waters; Malawi where we rode horses along the beach; Zambia for the incredible Victoria Falls; Botswana and it’s magnificent Okavango Delta; Namibia for a sky dive over the orange sand dunes and Swaziland where we stayed in a traditional beehive hut.
4. How did you finance your grown up gap year?
I wanted to go travelling as soon as I could, so straight after finishing school I did an intensive secretarial course and landed myself a job as a Junior Legal PA in Central London. It wasn’t my dream job and it wasn’t somewhere that I wanted to stay forever but I worked hard, got a promotion after six months and three pay rises in a year and a half. We opened a savings account that we both paid a fixed amount into every month plus extra bits here and there. I made extra money by spending a lot of my spare time taking part in very long and boring online surveys, focus groups, market research and reviewing products, all for a pittance, but every little helped get us to where we wanted to be. Alex put me in charge of his debit cards and I would give him a certain amount of money, like he was a little boy being given his weekly pocket money, as he’s not quite as good with money as I am! Yes, this was frustrating for both of us and it definitely caused a lot of arguments but after less than two years we had saved up enough for a five month trip without the need to work while we were away.
For our second trip, we came home and did exactly the same – got jobs, saved hard and again, almost two years later, we were right back on that plane jetting off on our next trip.
5. Did you go alone or with family/friends?
I don’t think these trips were something I could have done alone. Having my husband and best friend there with me just made the trips all that more special. Getting to share it all together and then having it all to look back on later and remember everything that we’ve done is a great feeling. We work very well as a couple – I am the organised one so I plan all the trips and the itinerary. In fact, Alex often knows nothing about what we’re doing on a trip but I like surprising him with all my plans and he always enjoys himself! He is the confident one so never has any trouble in making us lots of new, and some lifelong, friends. Despite being together 24/7 on these trips, we never really argue when we’re away and it just brings us a lot closer than we were before.
6. What is your travel style? (Ie. Budget hostels/Mid-range hotels/Luxury travel – less is more, travelling slowly/pack in as much as possible)
I’m a bit of everything, depending on the place and type of holiday. On our first trip we mainly stayed in hostels – private rooms when they weren’t too expensive but otherwise in dorms. In Africa we camped for two months while we were travelling overland which was a great experience but a bed was much needed after a while especially after a very heavy downpour in Uganda where everything ended up soaking wet and covered in mud!
As I’ve got older though, I find myself leaning more towards mid-range places. I tend to look for small B&B’s or guest houses – somewhere with a bit of character that has a feel for the country or town we’re in. We tried couch-surfing a couple of times in Australia and really enjoyed this, not just because it was free, but because we were staying with locals and we got to see a local’s perspective of a place rather than a tourist’s. We have a few homestays booked on our next trip to India and this is one of the things I’m looking forward to most.
Now we both work full time and have a mortgage we can only get away for a limited amount of time every year but I do try to pack in as much as possible. Not so much that we don’t get a proper feel for the place but I want to see and do everything and I’d rather miss out on a bit of sleep than miss seeing the sunrise over the Namibian sand dunes or a late night song around a bonfire in the Australian bush. Although Alex does often tell me off for trying to squeeze a month’s worth of travelling into only a week but I can’t help myself!
7. Do you go for tours or do it alone?
I like to have my own time to do what I want whenever I want, so we mostly travel independently. This gives us no limitations or restrictions, like the time we were in Koh Samui in Thailand and we loved the little island so much that we decided to stay for an extra four nights to do some more exploring and just relax after a crazy full-moon party on the neighbouring island of Koh Phangan. Or in South Africa, where one of my favourite memories is hiring a car and driving the Garden Route at our own pace, stopping wherever and whenever we wanted on the way, just for a bit of lunch or to walk around a new town. On tours you don’t have this option.
Tours are sometimes a great choice though as everything is already planned for you, from sightseeing and eating to accommodation and travel. You have the security of your guide in case of any emergencies and you also get to meet lots of fantastic (and I’m sure a few less fantastic!) people. We couldn’t have done our two month overland tour in Africa by ourselves, and wouldn’t have wanted to. We met some great people on the tour and now share some amazing memories with them.
8. What is the best thing about taking a grown up gap year?
The freedom is probably what lures a lot of people into travelling. With no bills to pay, no one to answer to and no responsibilities, it’s a way of life that most people would love to have all the time.
The best thing for me though is experiencing different cultures and seeing how other people live. I tend to thrive on culture shocks and like to go to places that are as different as possible to my normal life at home in London. I think you learn an awful lot from travelling and some very important life skills and this is why everyone should give it a go. It’s something I will definitely encourage my children to do.
9. And were there any downsides?
For me the only downsides to travelling are that I miss my family enormously. I have a big family who I’m very close to – we all live within 15 minutes of each other so going from seeing and speaking to them almost every day to only a brief catch up once a week or so, was very hard for me. On both trips I’ve ended up in floods of tears and just wanting a cuddle from my mum or nan! I think homesickness is something that most people feel but I was lucky enough to have my husband there to comfort me. He would tell me that soon enough I would be home and wishing that I was away again and he was right (don’t tell him I said that though!).
Oh, and the other huge, huge, downside is that the travel bug will never leave you. Ever!!
10. What advice would you give to anyone thinking of setting off on their own grown up gap year?
Do it. Just do it.
There will always be something that gets in the way – your job, lack of funds, a relative, etc., but the longer you put it off the less likely it is to happen. It will be the most incredible thing you do. You will see so many places, try so many different things, and meet so many different types of people. Travelling will change you, but in a good way. Seeing how others live in Africa gave me a new appreciation for life and taught me not to take anything for granted. It has made me more confident, open-minded, patient and tolerant and, without being too modest, I’m quite proud of the person I am today, a lot of which is down to travelling.
As the author Karen Lamb said: “A year from now you will wish you had started today”.