My name is Arabel Lebrusan and I am a jewellery designer. I sell my products online – a range of silver collections and bridal jewellery – and I’m totally passionate about design, craftsmanship and ethics. I also offer a bespoke service. When someone wants a special piece of jewellery, they get in touch and I create a design exclusively for them. This process takes up most of my time and design expertise.
My bespoke clients were my biggest concern after I made the decision to go travelling, but in reality, much of what I do on a day-to-day basis comes down to emails and phone calls. So, excluding the bespoke service, I decided that, in theory, I could still do most of my work remotely, with a good internet connection (more on that later).
I had been dreaming of going away for a while – to disappear from this frantic world and hide away on a deserted island. Philippe, my partner, had been working at the same company for seven years and needed a change. He and I both love travelling so it seemed like the perfect time to embark on an adventure together with our five year old son, Jojo. The flexibility of my work allowed it and Philippe really wanted to experience being a full-time dad and reclaim some of the time he had missed with Jojo while working long hours and commuting.
We’d been talking about going away for a year or so, and with our son Jojo getting older, we wanted to do it before he started school. As a summer-born baby, Jojo was able to start reception in the last term of the school year. So that gave us the perfect window of opportunity: September 2016 - April 2017.
The other major thing that prompted us to go now rather than later was that we both lost a parent within six months of one another. First, my dad had a stroke and passed away; next, we lost Phillippe’s mum to cancer. It stopped us in our tracks and really made us think: life is short and you need to enjoy it while you can.
Everyone was surprised, but not shocked. We’re the kind of people who thrive on spontaneity. I’m sure most of them were a little envious – except my mum, who immediately started to worry. With its tropical scenery, Philippe and I both liked the sound of French Polynesia and Central America.
Philippe and I were totally up for it. Obviously you don't ask a four year old, “Shall we go away for seven months?” They don't really understand the concept. Jojo is a seasoned traveller, but the longest he had ever been away from home was three weeks, so the trip was a bit of a test.
We did our research – mainly about the price of accommodation and food in the different countries we were planning to visit, so we could put together a realistic budget. It was tight, but I have to say, we stuck to it! In some countries we spent more, in others less, so it all balanced out.
We booked our main plane tickets and travel insurance, and that was pretty much it. The day-to-day organising happened whilst we were away.
I already had Kim working full time for me, so I increased her salary and responsibilities. However, my PR and marketing assistant had just left, so I made sure there was someone new on board and trained her for a couple of months before leaving.
We thought about renting out our house, but in the end we decided against it. Packing up all of our possessions would have been far too stressful, so instead we found someone to take care of the house, and our cat.
I definitely worried about my finances and my business, and whether it would still be possible to make money while I was away. I worked out the bare minimum we needed to cover our monthly expenses and put together a contingency plan in case we were spending too much.
I also contemplated what it would be like to be with my partner and son 24/7. I’m a fiercely independent person, and the thought of being with them non-stop for such a long time made me a little apprehensive.
Many people expressed their concern, but I wasn’t unduly worried. What happens if you get ill? What happens if this? What happens if that? But I am a big believer that anything can happen at any time and anywhere, regardless of your location in the world. Neither Jojo or I get sick often, so I was pretty relaxed about illnesses. We did take the obvious precautions, though, avoiding all the areas with high levels of Malaria and having the appropriate vaccines before we left.
In fact, Jojo did have an accident. We were surfing in Nicaragua and the board went over his head, cutting his forehead open. It was a deep cut that required treatment at a health centre. He was stitched up by a lovely nurse using sterilised equipment – she did a brilliant job. It was a scary incident, but we couldn’t have asked for better care in one of the poorest countries in Central America.
The potential problems didn’t put us off. We really wanted Jojo to experience other cultures from within. He actually attended school for a month in French Polynesia, and again in Nicaragua. As parents, we believed strongly that this trip would be one of the best presents we could give to our child. He is growing up a confident young man and is flexible and adaptable to all sorts of situations. The trip has had such an impact on him. He enjoyed it tremendously and was exposed to so many different cultures, languages, animals and landscapes. Now, whenever we are in a forest in the UK, he asks, “Mummy, this forest has monkeys?”
We speak three languages at home. I am originally Spanish, Philippe was born in Belgium and his mother tongue is French, and Jojo was born in the UK. The dominant language in our house is English, but we still speak Spanish and French with Jojo constantly.
Naturally, we wanted to go to countries in which we could use our two extra languages. Jojo speaks English to everyone, and we wanted him to become more fluent in Spanish and French. That was why we settled on French Polynesia, so Jojo could learn French and daddy could learn to climb coconut trees and build canoes, and Central America, where Jojo could learn Spanish, mummy could work (I ended up visiting some ethical gold mines in Colombia, but that is another story!) and daddy could explore.
I mainly wanted to relax – to take a break from the frantic speed at which we live our lives. But Philippe wanted to travel and see other countries and cultures, which meant we had to find a happy balance between the two. Travelling can sometimes feel like a full-time job if you’re always the go. So we mixed up travelling with staying for longer periods in places we were especially in love with.
Around three weeks to a month, but I didn't feel like it was happening. It was very gentle and totally natural – like the layers of an onion were slowly peeling off. Slowly but surely, I could breathe more normally.
I had tons more energy! I am of the belief that a lot of our energy goes into over-thinking things. When you’re travelling, you go right back to basics: where am I going to sleep tonight? Where can I find food? Do we still have clean clothes?
As a designer, I also wondered how the trip would impact me creatively. In my day-to-day life, running a business, creativity is often overshadowed by office work, emails and meeting customers. At the beginning of our trip, I wasn't feeling very inspired, but after a few months I had this incredible burst of creative energy. I couldn’t stop myself from weaving palm trees leaves, making sand sculptures and drawing everywhere I went. By the end of the trip I had designed so much new jewellery that when I returned I had to stop myself from making it all in one go.
My main responsibilities while abroad were to answer emails and solve problems. I made a pact with myself to only work two days a week, Tuesdays and Thursdays, but in reality I ended up catching up with emails for an hour or so each morning. This meant that I could get on with my day knowing that any urgent to-dos had been dealt with.
Working meant typing/drawing on my computer most of the time, and the biggest challenge was accessing the Internet for Skype calls, or simply to download documents from our business Dropbox (before I left I made sure everything was backed up online in case I lost the computer).
We are so used to being able to log on instantly, wherever we are in the UK, that we take it for granted. The rest of the world is definitely not like that. During our month in San Juan de Sur, in Nicaragua, they cut off the electricity every Wednesday. That meant no internet, but also no fridge, lights or air-conditioning. It was definitely challenging, and even more so when they cut the electrics on a Tuesday instead, just because, and the meeting I had planned had to be cancelled.
There were also other challenges, like when my marketing assistant deleted three years’ worth of blog posts from the website. I was in paradise, on a Robinson Crusoe island with no internet and just a very bad telephone connection, when I received a text on my phone: “Arabel, something happened, but I’m not sure what.” Unable to do anything, I wanted to scream and shout, but like most things, it got fixed. The work had to be redone – there was no easy way out of that one – but that person learnt a lesson and I learned an even bigger lesson: you might not be physically present, but things work without you just fine.
There are literally hundreds – imagine seven months in paradise! Top of the list has to be swimming with humpback whales in French Polynesia, not once but twice. Sadly, amongst all the beauty, there were some shocking moments too. So many deserted beaches were littered with plastic and waste. Even when we were feeling totally overwhelmed by nature, the waste was a constant reminder of how damaging we, as humans, are for Mother Earth.
Animals were another highlight for us, even more so because we were travelling with a child: monkeys, sloths, birds, crocodiles, sharks, colourful fishes, stingrays and all sort of bugs made life both wonderful and hell at times – thank you Asian tiger mosquitos!
Travelling between Colombia and Panama on a sailing boat with 10 metre waves was mesmerising. Crossing borders by foot. Dancing to Tahitian music in the town square. Visiting an active volcano and seeing bubbling lava in Nicaragua. Descending down a gold mine in Colombia. Diving with sharks in Bora Bora. Jojo learning to swim and surf. Watching turtles coming in to the world and making their way into the sea. Swimming inside the cenotes and climbing Mayan pyramids in Mexico… and many, many more.
Definitely. The only problem was that I kept saying to myself, “I’ll do this when I get back, let’s leave that until we’re back.” So there's a lot to catch up on now!
But the key thing I gained was a sense of freedom. I now know that I can go away and nothing bad will happen – at least nothing that can’t be fixed with a bit of love and hard work. I am now much freer to go away for a whole month in the summer if I want, and all I have to do is put my tried and tested schedule in place: Tuesdays and Thursdays to catch up. And make sure I have some reliable Internet!
There is a danger when you get back that everything will feel a bit pointless. On my return, I had a strong feeling that the way we have overcomplicated our lives is all wrong, and it was very difficult to get back to normality. But I am not sure I want things to be like they were before anyway. I’m quite busy right now and still figuring out how to live my life with all that I learnt on my travels.
When you run your own business, you never really relax. You're always setting yourself new goals and targets. I personally find the biggest challenge is to find a balance between what my body naturally wants and what my brain is telling me.
When you're travelling, you meet a lot of fellow travellers. What was different was their age – they were younger and most were travelling alone. Travelling as a family, the biggest reaction was, “Oh my God, it’s so beautiful you're travelling with your kid”, and that made us totally proud.
Philippe and I are already “foreigners”. We eat late, we go to bed late and we tend to be the last people in the playground. My partner has Chinese and Greek genes, was born in Belgium and has a French passport, so identity and culture are quite mixed things for us. We feel it is really important that Jojo experiences different ways of living life. We want to show him that there is more than one way of doing things – that lifestyles usually depend on weather, food, landscape and personalities.
Yes, yes and yes again – but not now. I need a bit of time to fix everything that needs fixing in the business and then I am sure I will travel again. Probably for a shorter period of time, maybe just three months, but who knows.
I would say: GO! Just pack your bag, but don't pack too much. If you need something you will find it along the way. If you are going alone, don’t worry, there are hundreds of people who are also travelling on their own so you will definitely hook up with a person or a group. If you don’t speak the language, someone you meet will.
If you’re travelling with kids, get a few basic toys only (we just had a bag of Lego, a tablet and a pencil case filled with sticky glue and coloured pencils). Children play with anything, or they will find other kids to play with.
If you’re concerned that there are not many kids in hostels, don’t be. After a while, Jojo started talking to anyone, kids and adults, which was lovely to see. He really enjoyed staying in hostels with loads of people, hanging out by the pool table and chatting to whoever wanted to talk to him. And there were many people that wanted to find out who he was.
So no excuses – just pack your bags and go!