Immersing yourself in other local cultures can not only provide artistic inspirations and also another perspective at life, without all the hustle in fast paced societies. It also provides an opportunity to see things on the ground that might seem far fetched from home.
Chris and Jill from Artistic Voyages share how they decluttered their life and hearts to embark on a journey of discovery. We speak about how travelers can not just appreciate cultures but also impact local communities.
We dive deeper into how a mural painting project evolved into an ongoing effort to help a starving village in Uganda .
- 02:00: How decluttering material possession impacts the mindset
- 06:00: Transition to a travel lifestyle
- 15:02: Choosing next destinations
- 18:30: Combining travel and art
- 25:12: Practical worldly considerations vs mental freedom
- 29:27: Stumbling into the Uganda project
- 39:00: Creating sustainable impact with knowledge
- 44:54: How on-the-ground experiences with survival plight changes perspectives
- 47:00: How to find communities that need help
- 50:20: Tips to cope with challenges during long term travel
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FIND CHRIS & JILL HERE:
The following is an extremely summarized version extracted from the transcript of the full conversation. I strongly recommend listening to the podcast for all the valuable insights. You will also hear more detailed and contextualized stories from the guest(s), as well as pointers from me in a two-way conversation.
Please tell us a bit about your background.
Jill – I grew up in Canmore, in the Rocky Mountains of Canada. I moved down to the west coast of Canada in 2006, where I lived until 2017. I have an extensive background and different careers every three years. I’ve always been an entrepreneur, reinventing myself, creating new businesses, trying new things, and experimenting. I can’t say I have one single career.
Chris – I’m from Saskatchewan, which is in the middle of Canada. I’ve been an artist my whole life. I remember drawing from a very young age, and eventually, I got into tattoos. It led me to travel to the western side of Canada. Then I lived on the West Coast for quite a few years, working in different restaurants and whatnot. I still do tattoos, but I predominantly do other random jobs. I’ve stuck with art my whole life more than anything else. It’s the way I’ve always been.
Jill – I didn’t find my artistic side till I was 30, or I guess I rediscovered it when I was 30. I was an artist as a child, then I went to business school and did all these other things, so I lost it.
How did your journey start and what triggered you guys to go on this trip?
Jill – Our first overseas trip together as a couple in 2015 or 2016 over Christmas, we visited the coast of Bulgaria on the Black Sea. We thought it would be cool to live there and thought about the costs of apartments. We started looking into things and thinking, it’d be so neat and would be a nice place to live. Looking back, that triggered a thought in our minds that maybe we could live in other places in the world. We don’t have to live in Canada. But we were back in a cycle of debt. It had been a year since our trip to Europe, and we hadn’t been able to travel again because we’re in debt. We were trying to pay our bills; it was winter, and we only had seasonal work. We were mainly working in the summer. We had a few long months wondering how the heck we were going to survive. I was watching a documentary, and suddenly, it was like a lightning bolt hit me in the back of the head. I looked around the room, and I just started laughing. I thought if we didn’t have all this crap, we could travel all the time. You don’t even need a house; we could just travel. It was just like a lightning bolt moment. Suddenly, my stuff was worthless, and I realized it was in the way of traveling. Growing up traveling, I always just wanted to experience new places and cultures. I’m interested in people, and how they live and their cultures and food. It fascinates me how different every country and region are.
What was your timeline between making the decision to travel and setting off?
Jill – I watched the documentary on January 11, 2017. I came out of my office where I had been watching it and just said to Chris, can we talk about something for a second? I told him I think we should sell everything and travel, be free and do whatever we want. I had a couple of reservations; he was concerned about the plants he had planted in our yard. He was worried about where he would do tattooing because he had just started a new tattoo shop on the West Coast of Canada. I said there are plants everywhere in the world; who cares about our yard? We’ll find plants elsewhere. Then I said, you can tattoo anybody worldwide, the whole world could be your tattoo shop, you don’t have to do it in one place. After 10 minutes, I convinced him that it was a good idea. So literally, by the end of January, we had started going around the house and packing things that seemed unimportant to us. Every week, it got easier and easier. The things that were difficult at the beginning to get rid of got easier towards the end. When we first discussed it, we thought it would take a year to two years to get rid of everything. We didn’t want to tell anyone as we weren’t in a rush. We took it slowly.
Then I signed up for a hosting website in February or March. I could sign up with our profile and see what happens; you never know. A lady messaged us in April and said she had a house in Costa Rica. She needed a house sitter from September till December. We still had to finish getting rid of our stuff, and we needed to complete the renovations we had started before selling our house. We both had summer work contracts in place, so I said September wouldn’t work for us. She agreed to get a couple for September and October, and we would be able to come down for November and December. I said, sure, we’ll make that work. So, we left Canada, October 14. It was nine months of going for it, selling, giving away, renovating, and finishing our jobs. It was crazy. We collapsed on a beach in Costa Rica for four months after.
How has the traveling lifestyle changed your perspective?
Chris – Technically, it’s not that big of a change from my original lifestyle. I lived in many places in Canada; I was moving every six months or so. I would find a new home and stay there for a bit, and then I moved on. It was really different when I moved to warm tropical areas. I have craved warm tropical regions ever since. Whenever we get to colder countries, I always seem to be wishing for warmer ones now.
What are some of the things that you do when you’re traveling?
Jill – It depends on where we are. We had a mural project in Costa Rica at a hospital. The owner found out we were artists and asked us to paint scarlet macaws in the jungle on a piece of plywood. We had never done a large-scale painting, so we were a little bit unsure. But we thought, we’re artists, let’s try it and see what happens. The worst-case scenario would be to paint white over the top and get someone else to do it. So, we did it, and it worked out well. We traded our art for accommodation. When you’re on the road full time, it’s essential to figure out ways to save money and save as many expenses as you can, especially with accommodation. Now when we get to countries, we search for opportunities by emailing hostels or hotels and saying we’re artists, here’s our work. Do you need any projects done?
When we got to Sudan, we were exhausted. We had a hard time traveling in Egypt, and getting to Sudan was a traumatizing experience. We came down from Egypt by bus, but we didn’t know that our cards wouldn’t work in the ATM. We had $90 in cash with us. We arrived, and we didn’t know how to get money which had never happened before. So, for like a week, we were running around like chickens with their heads cut off. By the time we went to Port Sudan on the coast, we wanted to stay in one place and relax. We met a man who found us an apartment for close to $200 a month. It was a place to relax. If we get to a place where we feel energetic and want to do some art projects, we go for it. If we need to relax, then we’ll get a spot and just relax. We don’t always fully relax. We work on our online projects.
How did you end up getting money in Sudan?
Jill – Western Union, we had to get money sent to Estonia, which neither of us had ever used before. We had no idea how it worked, but it worked great. It took us a few days to figure it out. It was an interesting few months. Sudan is challenging; they’ve just changed their government over in 2019, and they’ve never really had tourism before. So, it’s not an easy place to travel, but it was a great experience. The thing we liked most was the people. In Egypt, their tourism economy is down, and they hounded us relentlessly; it’s like a sport for them. But when we got to Sudan, they wanted to take care of us and talk to us. They didn’t want anything from us, and that was the most significant difference. They were so friendly and interested in us. Because there have been so few foreigners there, they just wanted to talk and practice their English.
How do you choose your next destination?
Chris – Things kind of float in the breeze that way, like Costa Rica, just came up at random, so we went there. Then while we were in Costa Rica, another host in Guatemala came up, so we went there.
Jill – We were supposed to do a four-month host in Nicaragua, and then the Civil War broke out while we were there. There was shooting in the streets, and chaos was happening. So, we were out of there. We went back to Costa Rica, and we had to figure out our next plan. We had a house booked in Guatemala, so we thought, let’s just go up to Guatemala. We try to leave all options open and see what comes up. When we were leaving Sudan, our visa was expiring. When we travel to Africa or go back to Egypt, we will travel by land, no more flying; we are not scared of it, but we have a lot of luggage.
Traveling by bus across the border is so much more peaceful. You see so much more, and you get the local’s experience. Unfortunately, there was a conflict on the southern border of Sudan, Ethiopia, and South Sudan. The security within the country was questionable, and everybody we talked to said, don’t go there; it’s not worth it. So, we decided to fly. Then we didn’t want to go back north because it was still winter. We decided to go south, and Uganda called to us; we don’t know why. The jungles were calling us; we’re looking for green and warmth. We’re primarily in desert regions in Morocco, then Turkey for a couple of months, then Egypt and Sudan; all are deserts. So, we wanted tropics, lush green tropics.
Chris – When we left Canada, it was 36 degrees Celsius. So, when we got to Turkey, winter was beginning, and we left on New Year’s Day.
Jill – That’s how Egypt came about; we’re trying to run away from COVID. There’s not a lot of COVID in Africa, so that was another reason we went.
Tell us more about your art project?
Chris – Each mural will have themes and qualities of the local landscape and culture.
Jill – Often, they’ll have a bit of an idea of what they’re looking for. They’ll make a suggestion or give us an idea of a concept. Then we’ll come up with a drawing for them to look at, and they’ll say yes or no. We go from there. So far, all our murals have been representations of the country we’re in; there’s symbolism representing a country or culture. We try to bring in the local scenery and animals.
How have your travels influenced your artistic impressions or creativity?
Jill – He has been influenced by a lot of animals, plants, and insects.
Chris – In Costa Rica, I drew so many birds.
Jill – I’m more influenced by patterns. Monaco and Turkey were mind-blowing, and Africa inspired me for sure. I’m also starting to realize I have a bit of a fascination with buildings and architectural structures. Right now, we’re painting a mural where we’re staying, and it has this little village of African houses tucked into a hillside. I feel like it’s my imaginary world, my perfect imaginary world; it’s a representation of where we are. I did the same sort of magical world in Turkey as well but with little Arab buildings.
Do you actively seek out certain things to get inspiration, or does it come from daily life?
Chris – I would say it’s everyday life that influences us.
Jill – We get as close to living like a local as we possibly can. We’re interested in learning about their cultures and traditions, so we think about their culture, which comes from day-by-day existence. Everybody here is living for today; they’re not concerned with tomorrow or the next day or the future or saving up for retirement. So, we are living a life like that. When COVID came, that became obvious; we were in Morocco. I was writing a book about it, scared out of my mind about what was happening in the world. I realized we don’t have control over it, only over what we’re doing right now. We became focused; we pulled our focus back to right here and now, taking it one day at a time. That’s pretty much the way we are now.
How have you found the lifestyle transition?
Jill – My shoulders aren’t quite up to my ears anymore. We’ve taken on a crazy project, and the old me wouldn’t have been able to sleep. I’d be running around, stressed out, yelling at people; I would have been going crazy. Now we take it one day at a time. You know, we’ll get there. Easy does it.
Chris – It’s not worth getting too stressed over. It took us a year after leaving North America to stop feeling the stress from North America finally. I no longer feel all this. All of this pressure, the pressure is the worse. I remember the first couple of days that we were in Costa Rica, Jill sat on the couch and read a book. An hour later, she jumped up off the couch and said she couldn’t be doing this every day; she questioned the purpose of her life?
Jill – We had to go back to Canada to help my parents sell some stuff because they were downsizing. It was also their 50th wedding anniversary, so it was worth the trip. I threw them a surprise party. Going back to Canada after being away for two years was okay initially. Still, there was a bit of a culture shock. It was a reverse culture shock. The hardest part was trying to maintain our focus on our art and focus on our websites. Our friends and family were trying to give us jobs; we were battling against getting back into that society. The funny thing is no matter how hard we fought it, by the time we got to Morocco, we realized that we were wrapped up in it again. It took us a few months of being in Morocco to readjustment. I think it’s the pace; everything is fast. You can’t help but get wrapped up in it again.
Chris – It’s always been a funny transition when we leave the business to go back to relaxing.
Tell us about your fundraising for a village in Uganda?
Jill – Every country that we arrive in, we didn’t have a plan. We didn’t even know we were coming to Uganda until a week before we left Sudan. We got to Kampala, and I just started emailing and searching Facebook for hostels or hotels. Whatever came up at the top of the list, I messaging or emailing, saying we’re artists, and maybe you need some of our services. This guy got back and said he was interested; what do you need from me. We usually try to get accommodation and a bit of a food allowance. But he said he couldn’t give a food allowance but can do accommodation. He was in Kampala, so we all had a meeting. He worked for the Uganda Community Tourism Association. It’s an association building communities and promoting tourism, and incorporating the community members into the tourism. All their hotels have village tours or artisans in the village selling crafts and little gift shops. It’s trying to bridge the gap between the locals and the tourists and getting tourists involved in the local’s lives, which is fantastic. He had two locations where he needed us.
We ended up in the Savanna lands, where there are elephants and vast grasslands. We got a Boda Boda, which is a taxi in Uganda. They take us up into the mountains to this incredible jungle and developments with a running river; it was spectacular. It was a white zone; there was no internet, no cell phone, and we had to walk 15 minutes down the road to get a connection. We weren’t sure what we were supposed to be doing. We had this mentality of we’re here for free, we have got to work. It’s an exchange. We were told to relax and go on a village tour and get to know the area. That turned into ten days of literally doing nothing.
Chris – We did the village forest tour and all the activities they usually take all the tourists on.
Jill – Finally, after ten days, we got to paint our mural. When it was done, we were reenlisted to come here. When we arrived, there was this beautiful little gift shop, campground, and hotel, but there was zero signage. It was just a red building. So, we decided to paint a sign that says what is available and started painting outside the building. We got it almost completed, and then it started raining, so we moved inside and worked on another mural, really transforming the little gift shop. Chris and I had noticed that many storefronts were closed, and the market stalls were empty.
People were so hungry; they slept all day. Nobody had any money to buy things either. We were witnessing the decline of a village of people. They depended heavily on tourism, and everyone knows how COVID has affected everyone. They had also had a considerable drought that killed all their crops. They were left without food and money; it was like a double whammy. We had been there for four weeks or five weeks, and it kept getting worse every day. We started thinking about what we could do and how many people were in the village. We found out it would cost about $1,000 to feed the whole village for a week. So, we decided to make a video and put it on Facebook and see what happens. We don’t know if anyone would care as everyone was dealing with their own issues.
Within a minute of posting, people sent transfers into my bank account because Canada has an E-transfer system. There are five big banks in Canada, and if you bank with them, you can easily send an E transfer to another bank. Suddenly, my email inbox started flooding with $50, $100, $200 donations. It happened in minutes. I was so excited as we could get food the next day. We went to a nearby city and ordered huge sacks of flours and dry beans and had them delivered that day. By the next morning, we were handing out food to the village. So, in less than 40 hours from hearing that they needed food, we were handing food out.
What are other sustainable ways you are helping the community?
Jill – The day we were delivering food, I knew that they didn’t have running water. When we went into the village, there was a main tap in the center that everyone uses, and they had to pay the equivalent of 30 cents to use it. So, it turned out that water was more of a problem for them than food. We found out how much it would cost to solve the problem, and we got $3,000 donated overnight. It took us a little while to get the water figured out, but they were getting free water by the next day. We figured out a system where the fire department from the nearby city fills their tanker truck. They come and fill up many massive water catchment systems around town; it costs $100 a week for the entire village to get free water. Then I thought about whether the people are sick and could assess them. Some people in the village had malaria and typhoid. So, we got the medication they needed.
One thing led to another, and now we are starting to teach them about composting and permaculture sustainable practices. We were huge gardeners in Canada. We lived in an area where everybody had a garden and did sustainable practices, so we have a lot of knowledge in that regard. There’s a huge need for it here; their soils are so depleted, it’s like dry dust. They’ve had two food drops so far, and there’s another one coming soon. So, we’re keeping them fed, and we’re keeping them watered, and we’re getting them excited. There’s a buzz in the village, and people are getting excited.
The mural paintings have been put to the side right now as other things have taken over. Things are just falling into place when we need them. It’s working out. I think the more you can allow things to unfold and stay out of the way, the more things transpire precisely how they’re supposed to be. You’re not forcing anything; they just sort of pop into place. The most exciting part is that people are excited, and they’re on board; they’re willing to learn. They’ve gone down as far as they can go before; they’re basically dying. So, there’s only one way to go, and they realize that.
Having seen these problems first-hand, how has that changed your perspective in life?
Chris – It’s similar to different things that we saw in the Islamic world where like, behind doors that no one talks about.
Jill – That was an eye-opener for us. Everyone silently went about their business. The locals don’t want to tell other people their problems; they don’t want to burden them. I think that’s been the most enlightening thing for me. We need to ask people and check in on people and see how they are doing. As travelers, I realize how important it is for us to ask questions and see what’s happening and anything we can do. You don’t need to worry about having a charity. You don’t need to create a structure. You don’t need to sign a permission slip, just buy the food, take it to their door, forget the rest of the nonsense. It’s super easy.
What are some ways to find legit channels to help these communities?
Jill – Find a place to help and start talking to people to see what’s going on. If you can find a doctor in the community, ask what the real issues are or talk to an official person. The less red tape, the better. We did it so quickly, and we were able to start a GoFundMe page. It took them six days to release the money and confirm that my account was legitimate. Thankfully, I got the transfers and gave them food right away. I don’t think people would be alive six days later; it’s bureaucratic red tape that drives me crazy. I’m super thankful that many people we know trust us; they know that we’re here to do good, and that’s why we were able to do what we did. So, we’re lucky that way.
What are some of the tips to overcome challenges you might face when traveling?
Jill – The first thing that comes to my mind is burnout. I think our senses get overwhelmed. If you’re moving around too much and not feeling settled, it gets exhausting after a while. These are when we would find an apartment, take care of ourselves, do our own things, relax, and recover, ready for the next phase of our journey. I would say pay attention to how much you’re trying to accomplish. You’ll never see everything. Sometimes you have to say no, take care of yourself and make sure that you stay healthy. Keep an open mind and being flexible. Try not to have too much of a plan and too much of a schedule at the start.
Chris – We have seen people ruin their vacations by nitpicking and complaining over the menial stuff. If you just let it go, the rest of your trip will be good. Just enjoy yourself.
Jill – We don’t have anywhere to be. We don’t have a schedule. We don’t have a plan. The villagers keep asking us how long we will be staying, and we say we will stay as long as you need us. We don’t want to throw them some food, take off, and then two months down the road; they’re in the same situation. We realize this is a commitment, and we love Uganda. I think that’s what’s making it easy. We can see ourselves staying here another six months to even a year if we need to see these projects through and make sure that they’ve learned the skills to help them move forward. It’s nice not to have a schedule.
Where can people find out more of your story to support your travel or the initiative?
Jill – YouTube is a big one. You’ll find us on YouTube, Instagram, Facebook; we have a website, Artistic Voyages. Our brand name is Artistic Voyages. Unfortunately, our new page isn’t on there right now because it’s difficult to get the connection to edit it. If somebody is listening that wants to help with editing for me, Instagram and Facebook are the best ways to contact us.