Karin: A Passion for Art & Travel
Tari: Travel & A New Career
Dennis: A Break from the Medical Grind
Lee: Volunteering with Animals, Children & the Environment
In 1995, I found myself engrossed in a very successful sales and marketing career. I was 18 years in, and happily employed, but something was gnawing at me. Buried beneath all the complicated layers of a family upbringing that trained me to "climb the corporate ladder," was a deep yearning for fulfillment unfamiliar, but dreamt of, imagined, yet wholly unrealized.
I was 5 months shy of my 40th birthday and I abruptly resigned from a good paying job and the security it provided. All my friends and family thought I was having an early mid-life crisis. All asked, "What are you going to do?" My reply was simply "I'm going to go home and sit." "Are you nuts?" they all asked. "No," I replied, "I'm going to go home and sit and be quiet, and see what comes."
My last day of work was a cold, dreary Friday in December and my co-workers sent me off with an after-work gathering at a local watering hole. I cried that night, in front of the whole room. In some ways I knew why, and in many I didn't know at all, but it was clear that this was "my path".
I was strangely calm that following weekend. Nothing really eventful happened until I sat down with a cup of coffee and the local newspaper on Sunday morning. My decision to "go home and sit and be quiet" was about to pay off. The cover article in one of the sections was entitled "Spreading Your Wings" and it described organizations that helped people explore the world by volunteering for diverse organizations scattered across the globe. I cried again. I had an answer in 36 hours, and my path was now illuminated before me.
In our initial meeting, I told Neil that I wanted to spend the next year of my life in the outdoors with animals. He opened my mind to a world of opportunity that was unimaginable. My path got clearer still. Our initial interview lasted several hours and, armed with a database at his fingertips, Neil sent me off with a few dozen volunteer opportunities to peruse. Within 3 months I had rented my house and was driving cross-country on my first adventure.
Summer: Bird-of-prey program in western US
Fall: A school project in India
Late Fall: Maintain hiking trails in New England
Winter: Volunteer at a farm devoted to ending world hunger
Spring: Ecotourism volunteering in Belize
Neil and I had planned out the next year of my life, and the first chapter was volunteering for a bird-of-prey conservation program based in Utah. Without any wildlife or bird experience, they gave me the opportunity to study endangered hawks. I described the experience to family and friends as "living a National Geographic special". I could touch, see, and breathe my dreams. I was there 3 months, and they wanted me to stay, but my path still beckoned.
Following Utah, my next program took me to the Himalayan Mountains of India, in the Ladakh region. I volunteered there for a fledgling school where my tasks included everything from helping with student health exams, to helping plan and manage the construction of their first school building. In my free time, I traveled to remote villages with a Tibetan monk, where host monks rolled out the red carpet and allowed us into ancient monasteries, long closed to the public. Some of these were more than 1500 years old.
When I returned from India, I volunteered for three weeks for an organization in Vermont. We improved sections of trail in need of maintenance, and actually re-located a short section of the Appalachian Trail. I gained a full appreciation for the effort involved in building and maintaining hiking trails. That was hard work!
A key development during my time building trails in the New England forest, was meeting a woman who was working for the Loon Preservation Committee (LPC) in NH. She marveled at my Interim experience and then went on to say that someone with my recent bird experience would stand an excellent chance of being hired by LPC to do summer research on common loons in New Hampshire. My ears were wide open.
It was now late fall in Maine and I departed for my next to last Interim assignment, in Arkansas. I had a volunteer gig lined up with a world food hunger organization that has a teaching farm in rural Arkansas. During my three-month stint there, I took on many duties. I drove a tractor that towed guests around the farm, I helped with administrative tasks, and (stop reading if you're squeamish) I took part in true livestock chores such as castrating calves and slaughtering chickens. Now those are two chores that any good carnivore like me should experience. No meal of chicken or beef has ever been looked at the same.
Before departing for Belize and a position with an ecotourism outfit in Belmopan, I contacted the senior biologist at LPC, and set up an interview. I was offered a seasonal research position, monitoring loons in remote lakes and ponds in northern New Hampshire. The timing was perfect. The job started quite soon after I returned from Belize.
My Belize experience involved many tasks related to hospitality and staff family support, such as shuttling the employees children to/from school. The highlight was accompanying guests on outings with wild adventures like caving and wildlife expeditions in the jungle.
I had a smooth transition from my time in the jungle of Belize to studying loons in New Hampshire. During that summer, I met the Executive Director of BioDiversity Research Institute (BRI) and began laying the foundation for a true career shift that was unimaginable just 18 months earlier. Today, I play a key role in the management and growth of BRI. I don't get to play in the outdoors as much as I might like, but there are many rewards both deep and meaningful.
Along the way, I was told more than once that if you are on "your path" doors will open in magical ways. My story is living proof. During my alternative year through Interim I:
- Slept under the western sky gazing at stars and listening to coyotes cry
- Sat barefoot in a cold Vermont stream with rushing water caressing my feet
- Rode atop an 1800 pound water buffalo
- Napped in the Himalayan Mountains and was roused by a Yak licking my face
- Stood before school children in India who could speak 3 languages
- Held wild raptors (hawks) in my hand
Karin: A Passion for Art & Travel
Karin, a 29-year-old graphic artist, wanted to take a break from what had become the work grind to improve her Spanish skills, concentrate on painting, and experience life in another country. She had been planning for several years to take a sabbatical and had saved money to cover travel costs, daily expenses and program fees. A friend had offered to live in her apartment and cover the rent and bills while she was gone. She was, however, finding it difficult piecing together the elements of her year, and her research yielded an overwhelming amount of information. When she came across the Interim website, she decided to come in and talk with us.
During the initial meeting, she expressed how much she had enjoyed visiting a town in Mexico years ago. We discussed language programs there, and told her about an artist in another town who took apprentices to work on murals. We also mentioned art courses in Italy, New Zealand, Greece and Ireland. Karin signed on with Interim and began looking through specific program information and talking with Interim alumnae who had attended the various programs she was considering. She decided on the following schedule for her year:
Fall: Language and art classes in Mexico for three months, with home stay
Winter: Mexico again to work with the muralist
Spring: Courses in painting and jewelry design in New Zealand
After applying and getting into all three programs, she embarked on her year. When she returned to the US, she was close to fluent in Spanish and had a beautiful portfolio of jewelry of her own design. She went back to work with renewed enthusiasm and a different approach to her artwork, inspired by her time in Mexico and New Zealand.
Tari: Travel & A New Career
When I was 52, I contacted the Center for Interim Programs about taking a mid-career break. I had been working at a large university in adult education and was ready to be personally challenged and to see parts of the world I'd always yearned to explore. A change and chance to travel and explore an interest in working with animals was my initial plan. So, I sold my house knowing that I could perch with family during the times I returned to the States, and headed to Europe in August of 2007.
First Stop: Shambhala Buddhist retreat center
Second Stop: Organic Farming
Third Stop: Learn to Cook
A Break: Travel and a break at home
Off Again: Conservation Work
Finally: Outdoor Activity and Animal Sanctuary
My first stop was in France where I helped out at a Buddhist retreat center. The cost for housing and food was minimal for my 8-day stay. I followed up with work on two organic farms in Italy in exchange for housing and food, and then enrolled in a cooking course in Siena, Italy. I also wove in free travel time in Europe (England, Switzerland, Austria and Greece) before returning home two months later. In late 2007, I flew to South Africa to volunteer on a private game preserve and do conservation work. I also took time to challenge myself with some physical activities: zip-lining and hang-gliding. The animal sanctuary wanted to hire me on but I returned home for a break and then headed west to volunteer at a no-kill dog and cat sanctuary. Although they also offered me a job, my gap time made me realize how much I loved to travel and I decided to find work that would allow me to continue to do so.
In the spring of 2008, I enrolled in a tour director training program in San Francisco and was almost immediately hired by a company specializing in student travel. I am loving my work and very grateful that I took the leap of faith that this opportunity required.
Dennis: A Break from the Medical Grind
Have you ever had a day that made you seriously reconsider your career or working environment? Of course you have. About two years ago, after a particularly stressful day of patients, meetings, and general administrative problems, I got the idea for a break. I had worked long hours for twenty-six years in an academic medical school. A year break seemed like the right amount of time to get reoriented and rebalanced. I wanted to explore adventures other than medicine, those "always wanted to do, but never had time" possibilities. I wanted skill-building, not a vacation; excitement and stretching outside my comfort zone, not a plush travel experience.
I was giving a lecture at a conference in a distant city when fate intervened. The morning paper featured an article on a gap-year option for students. In my generation, a gap year occurred less often as we steadily plowed forward from one institution to another - high school, college, professional school, marriage, family, and now retirement - all very programmed, secure, and predictable. The gap-year concept sounded pretty good as a time to explore and experience new adventures. I called the lead organization featured in the article, the Center for Interim Programs.
I represent a different demographic than their typical client. Kate Warren of Interim described it as "more mature" euphemistically referring to my fifty-five+ status and AARP membership. Holly Bull, President of Interim, arranged a detailed phone interview to better define my interests. My goal was to participate in three different experiences spread out over the year; each of sufficient time to allow an in-depth exposure, each relatively low cost, each in geographic locations I would not normally go, and each in areas of skill building that I could use in my hobby of house renovation. Interim tapped its database of over five thousand programs and made suggestions.
Summer: Alaska stone masonry apprenticeship (2 months)
Fall: Tibetan and Ayurvedic medical training and clinic work (2 months)
Winter: Home for a break
Spring: New England furniture refinishing (2 weeks)
Archaeology research project in Romania (2 months)
I had been considering remodeling a cabin in the NC mountains. I had been thinking about incorporating stonework in the cabin renovation, and so my first choice was to find an in-depth experience in the technical and artistic aspects of stone masonry. Kate and Holly suggested traveling to Alaska to work alongside Brian laying stone and building residential stone fireplaces. Wow - Alaska! Alaska was more fun than I could have imagined with super views of Denali, great summer weather and an unusual summer with only a few legendary Alaskan mosquitoes. Two months of hard manual labor in exchange for room and board had the added benefits of meeting some interesting characters and enjoying clean outdoor living.
To keep family and friends up to date on my activities, I created a blog as a focus point to chronicle my "year of adventure," sharing photos and musings on a nearly daily basis. The blog was another skill-building aspect of my "gap year".
My second adventure presented a much greater cultural challenge. I've always been interested in Eastern Medicine for its ancient roots and its holistic approach to the patient. Kate sought the assistance of a long-standing Interim contact to locate experienced health care professionals in Nepal to act as preceptors for an overview of Tibetan and Ayurvedic medicine. The Nepali contact emailed me a draft daily schedule outlining a two-month cultural immersion program: one month of study focused on Tibetan medicine and one month focused on Ayurvedic medicine, combining didactic instruction and patient contact mixed with cultural experiences and excursions with local guides and homestays with local families. Nepal is a wonderful country and the local contacts, Vidhea and her son, Yanik, made the adventure safe, and enriching. It would be difficult to have this quality of experience without local contacts.
Tibetan medicine uses a different body of knowledge than western medicine with almost none of the examination or diagnostic techniques I've used in my twenty plus years of medical practice. Nonetheless, the patients are open, appreciative, and come to the physician with many of the same complaints as western patients. My Tibetan homestay and local language/culture lessons helped fill out my immersion with the local environment, diet, cultural and religious holidays. I gained a new perspective on Tibetan political issues by daily interaction with the Tibetan people who love their country and miss their independence.
During my month of study, I had on average 4-5 hours of didactic instruction in various phases of Ayurvedic Medicine including diet, spices, food preparation, herbal plant qualities and medication formulations and uses. Each of the four instructors focused on differences between Ayurvedic and Western medicine, and learned from my western experience. This daily dialogue made the experience practical and interactive. For the month of immersion in Ayurvedic medicine, I stayed at the only Ayurvedic Health home in Nepal and sampled the massages, diets, and mental training and meditation. The health home is strictly vegetarian and the meals are substantial, healthy and varied. Food is prepared with only the freshest ingredients in combinations tailored to the individual patient. I ate with the patients staying in the health home and had good conversations with a predominantly German patient population there for a variety of illnesses.
Kathmandu is rich in the history of traders and ancient caravans. To round out the cultural immersion aspect of my adventure, the in-country coordinators booked weekly cultural excursions to local sites of historical or cultural interest led by a superb local guide; the type of excursion that transcends tour books. After an excursion, I was even more excited about updating my family and friends back home with blog entries and photos. Internet access was easily available at a local internet cafe (on average, 50 cents/hour for broad-band speed) with uninterrupted power supplies to deal with the periodic power outages in Kathmandu.
My third adventure was spontaneous, just something I'd always wanted to do. I'd done the usual homeowner furniture refinishing and now that I had time to explore, why not go to the pros and see how they did their artistry? Kate connected me for a two-week experience in New England with a dealer in British antiques ("James") who did fine furniture repair, refinishing, and antique sales. The experience was more fun than I could have predicted - James gave me a battered antique table to work on from start to finish and guided me along the way. The finished product went onto his sales floor along with several other pieces I did under his guidance. What a sense of pride that he felt the work was good enough to sell! This confidence has continued at home with more advanced projects - after all, if I could redo multi-thousand dollar pieces, my treasure finds from antique stores got a new life.
My final adventure of several months started out in discussions with Holly as archaeology in Romania. I chose that because of an interest in archaeology, but wanted to live with people who had experienced a communist regime. Romania is a fantastic country with Dracula-lore for tourists and scenic beauty and warm, friendly people. It is about five years behind in the US tourist trade, so I felt relatively alone touring the sites of Transylvania and Timisoara. Romania gave me a special connection to average people. Diggers at the site invited me for beer, my home stay family and project leaders went out of their way to help me see the spirit of the country.
The fortification was an early dig, still under archaeology control, where basic archaeology principles applied and I could see them at work. As the digging got deeper, we went from 'modern' 17th century, through 14th century, to Dacian times at the base of the structure. The ground maintains objects remarkably well. Patient interpretation by the site project leaders made the site come alive for me. I asked about diagrams, they were able to let me see the plans from the 14th century and the 17th century so I could study castle lore during my visits to the local internet café. I talked with the regional planner and contributed my tiny bit of tourist lore to the enduring legacy of the site.
What did I accomplish in this year of adventure? At the start, I needed to break out of a routine. In Alaska and Nepal I learned artistry from a stone mason, compassion and a commitment to patient care from eastern medical physicians, and countless lessons from the people of Alaska and Nepal. In New Jersey I learned artistry. In Romania, I felt curiosity about life in the USA from a people who produced Vlad Dracula. I felt their spirit in the rugged and beautiful hills of Transylvania. Any of these lessons required some work on my part to take the first step, but the reward was well worth it.
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