Joanne & Damian do Raleigh

Exploring life from a different perspective

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Raleigh Costa Rica & Nicaragua Blog

Group photo of Raleigh International 14K Expedition

I was very privileged to have been involved in 52 blog posts for the Costa Rica & Nicaragua 14K Expedition, written by the very talented Amy McCallum. I was honoured to share a lot of photography taken by myself and also from the Venturers taking part in the expedition. Before a new expedition starts on the Raleigh International website blog, I thought I would document the links for anyone wishing to go back and read about the success of 14K. An experience I will not forget. Joanne x



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Our Raleigh Expedition Highlights

2015-01-15_0001Since our last blog post, we have travelled a fair few miles, a lot has happened and we have had the most amazing experience. Our Raleigh Expedition exceeded both of our expectations and we have so much to share with you.

For those of you that have been following our volunteering either on Facebook, Instagram, or the actual Raleigh International blog, then you will have a good idea of what we have been doing. There is so much more than that to try and explain, so we will be writing a few blogs to talk about the work that Raleigh do and what a valuable experience it has been from our own personal points of view.

For now, here are a few highlights and answers to those questions that we have been asked the most so far …

What were your highlights?


Whilst on expedition, I spent phase 1 in La Cangreja National Park, phase 2 on trek in Nicaragua, and finally phase 3 back in the National Park in Costa Rica.

My time in the National Park was amazing. We camped out in this beautiful rainforest with all kinds of local wildlife for company (Insects, reptiles & mammals), and carried out important infrastructure work in the park along with essential liaison with the local communities. The work was extremely hard work but really rewarding, and living within the nature in a small group really enabled us to bond and work together as a unit, and it was amazing to see how the groups develop.

Carrying out the 250km trek in Nicaragua was a personal highlight for me however. I didn’t know what to expect when allocated this on phase 2, but I knew it would be tough …. and I was right! At the same time it was so rewarding pushing myself to the physical limit on this gruelling expedition and seeing myself and the other team members getting through their own personal challenges. We were actually trekking for 17 days, and carried all our kit (clothes, food, tents, equipment, medical supplies etc …… ruc sac’s weighing 20 – 25 kg), so it was really liberating to know that we were self sufficient throughout the trek. We trekked through some amazing landscapes, but my trek highlights were probably climbing Cerro Negro volcano and then arriving later that day at the top of El Hoyo Volcano and watching the sun set over the beautiful lake of La Laguna where we would be trekking down to on our final day! Just Amazing!




The whole experience for me was a highlight, but picking three, it would be going out on road trips, slideshows and La Laguna. By going out on three road trips I was lucky enough to visit all the projects and treks and I even got to drive the Land Rovers across Costa Rica and Nicaragua. The slideshows were a highlight for a personal reason. To have a whole group of people excited to watch your compilation of images being shown every phase was such a thrill. I still laugh at the thought of my name being chanted before each slideshow was played – you made my day guys! The third highlight for me, sums up what Raleigh is about. Arriving in the community of La Laguna and having a man want to take me around the village to photograph people turning their tap on to receive water for the first time was simply unbelievable. We take this for granted every day and to be involved in an expedition that helped create a Gravity Water Feed system, so that they could have water in their homes was very humbling.


What was the food like?

We did eat well and despite the jokes about rice and beans, for many people in Costa Rica and Nicaragua this is a staple diet and for very good reasons. There was a lot of porridge, rice, beans, pasta and refried beans, as this is the cheapest and best food that can be provided for projects that are in the jungle, or on trek.


For me the food was pretty plain and basic! On all phases we cooked for ourselves; in the National park we had a portable gas burner, and on trek we cooked on Trangias. Breakfast would always be porridge, which was a personal challenge for me as I can’t stand the stuff (I would attempt to make it palatable it by adding cinnamon, nuts and raisins). Lunch would be something quick and easy; refried beans, cold canned beans (similar to baked beans) or tuna; all with some form of dried crackers. Dinner would be heavily “carb” based, consisting of either pasta, noodles or instant mash, with this we would combine combinations of pasta sauce, soya mince, or tuna. Food was very basic and simple, and especially on trek ….. tummies rumbled a lot!


For me at Fieldbase, the food was more varied and we got to cook for ourselves. When staying in the homestays on my road trips, meals were beans, cheese and tortillas for every meal usually. This comes from a tradition of ensuring that the men who went out to work in the fields for the day, were fed with lots of beans for energy for the day’s work. I did love Gallo Pinto for breakfast and actually enjoyed the fact that my meals were predominantly vegetarian. The pineapple, mango and avocado out in Costa Rica though are so different to the UK and I will miss them a lot. I got to try as many of the local dishes as possible and I will bring you a blog on this, when I can hopefully find some recipes.


Where did you sleep?

It was a mixture of dormitory bunk-beds at Fieldbase, basic beds in homestays that were in either brick, or mud/wood houses, hammocks, the floor with a rollmat, basha beds, which are stretcher style beds on bamboo stalks and sleeping bags. We slept in tents, dorms, houses, in the jungle and under the stars. Sometimes with insects, but thankfully usually under mosquito nets.


How does it feel to be back?

It feels like we’ve never been away and work has already kicked back in. It does feel like we only just left for Heathrow a few weeks ago for our expedition, but it also feels like we’ve fitted in a whole year’s worth of life. An experience we are still coming to terms with and one we will never forget.

What did you miss?

The obvious is that we both missed family, friends and Quito. What else did we miss …


The dog (Quito), being with Jo, hot showers & clean clothes, having my own choices and variety of food (I especially missed cereal with cold milk!), personal space and comfy beds.


Nothing is the honest answer. I was doing what I love, travelling and photography. I ate great food. I saw stunning landscapes and sunsets. I felt part of a team that cared about all kinds of things and inspired me. I could have happily swapped my stinky travel towel for a white fluffy one and my hair felt like it needed hot water for a change, but I wouldn’t have changed these experiences for anything.

What will you miss?


Excitement and variety of expedition life, constant personal challenges, Fieldbase, and the buzz of all the excited volunteers, companionship, laughter and new friends, a beautiful and diverse country, the sense of achievement, knowing that you are doing something worthwhile for yourself, others and the environment, sunshine and the Caribbean and Pacific coastal resorts.


The sun and heat, those sunsets, friends, bunk-bed laughing, driving a Land Rover, Bon o Bon chocolates, Snickers Almond and all the amazing opportunities I had out there.



Would you do it again?

We both say without hesitation – yes, in a heartbeat!

What next?

Well back to work and washing some very smelly sleeping bags is the immediate answer.


For me in the first instance it is back to work before the company gets too used to being without me! Hopefully we can get some exciting architectural projects on the books to get my creative juices flowing again! Being on expedition has made me think differently about many things, and about what is important in life and what isn’t. I want to keep involved with Raleigh work; whether that be merely helping at UK events or further afield in the future. It would be great also to get involved with local charities to make better use of my free time and to feel that I am doing something of importance in the community. I also want to undertake some form of project together with Jo; something that is worthwhile and that we can carry out together as a team …….. Ideas on a postcard please!


On a practical level, I have to buy some new external storage hard drives as I have too many images to try and back up. I would love to create an exhibition, or book from the stunning visuals I have captured and would hope to use these to raise funds for Raleigh. I am keen to do some speaking at networks about my experience from both a photographer’s and personal point of view. What it has taught me about me, how I can use the experience in business and life. I have realised that youth work and mentoring could be an option open to me, so I may pursue something with that. I am keen to make a difference and will definitely look to continue to be involved in helping Raleigh International both here in the UK and even overseas if I was lucky enough to get another opportunity.

Generally we had an unforgettable time and made friends that we already feel we have known for years and were a huge part of our experience. We are going to miss it a lot, but we are glad to be back. Our challenge is to make sure we use this opportunity for every second it was worth.






Inspiration and Motivation

For me, it is a week today till I step on the plane at Heathrow and step off at San Jose, Costa Rica. A simple journey that marks the start of what I believe will be an amazing journey. This is such an opportunity for Damian and I to do this as a couple and as individuals and I feel incredibly lucky to be able to take this on. Our various assessment and training weekends with Raleigh have made me realise that, unlike others, I have had a huge amount of support and love that have led me to this point in my life that I could achieve this opportunity. I don’t ever underestimate the inspiration and motivation that surrounds me and thought I would send a virtual hug to these people as they go about their day.

My Family

My dad unknowingly gave me my strongest belief that life is too short and my mum is my highest role model, in everything from appreciating what you have, to partying the night away. My older brother and sister gave me unconditional love throughout my childhood and showed me what a work ethic was. As my nephew hits freshers week at University this week, I am filled with pride that he got there and reminded of how fortunate I was to go into higher education and make the friends I did. My wider family, from my aunties to cousins, all show me how to preserver as they go through the highs and lows that is life. I was brought up with a strong family value and although I rarely see everyone, the childhood memories have a massive influence.

My Career

So many people I’ve met through employed work and networking inspire me to continue in business when it is tough and this is a valuable lesson in life. Success, however you value success, comes from a mixture of achievements and failures, but it is how you deal with those elements that makes the difference. Observing other people’s strengths and how they run their businesses and working alongside them is always inspiring. A mention to Jo Cameron’s Achievers Academy for Women, as these ladies give it their all and more. My Loughborough group have been wonderful this past year, so thanks ladies.

Aspire Photography Training

So many of you know how this photography training company in Cumbria built my confidence back up just when I could have easily stepped away from my photography business. Catherine and Jane are simply awesome! The team they have built around them are so welcoming and the push I get, from the photographers I trained with, is always the kick I need to just get on with it. Big hug to all of you.

Be Fitter

I am probably the fittest I’ve been in so many years and this is the first fitness team that have motivated me enough to stick at it for over two years. The directors of Be Fitter have created a community of friends simply by pushing us to exercise exhaustion a few times a week. It fascinates me how good they are at motivating every single person in that class, regardless of weight, size, strength, or gender to keep going and want to improve. Then I remember how between them, they are a British Powerlifting Champion and European Powerlifting Champion,  a selected finalist for the CrossFit Thorium Throwdown Competition and came in the top percentage position in a gruelling 69 mile ultra marathon. They challenged and supported us through our mile of burpees and this fundraising challenge raised the majority of our money to enable Raleigh to do what they do. I am going to miss you guys and already laughing at the thought of me trying to lift that 16kg kettlebell on my return in January!


Some people were surprised that we had to go through a proper selection process to volunteer for Raleigh, rather than just go for where the money is and this is what makes me think so much more of Raleigh as an organisation. From a CV, personal statement, references and assessment weekend, they do consider carefully if you are going to be at the right stage in life to take on their work and motivate young adults on the expedition to make a change. Not everyone is accepted in their first application and I was very humbled to receive a yes. Their training weekend was something else and so powerful.


Not enough words to say how my husband makes my life easy and amazing, even if he does make me climb mountains on holiday! Getting on the plane without him will be strange, as I haven’t done this for years. Being apart quite a bit while over there is going to be different from day to day here, but I can’t wait to talk about our adventure together from our own points of view when we return and share this with you all.

I am one very lucky lady and hope you will enjoy my sharing of this adventure with you.

Joanne x

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Training with a difference

With less than a month to go now, before we land in Costa Rica, the excitement level here at the Withers household is only just containable. Having our leaving party recently had meant that reality had sank in for us  already and our training with Raleigh this last weekend has meant that this is really it now.

This weekend has highlighted to me just how professional, thorough, humble and exciting Raleigh International is as an organisation. The work this team put in across the world is highly impressive and I am looking forward to seeing their activities in-country.

Heading down to Sussex on Thursday evening, Damian and I were wondering what to expect on our training weekend, especially after all the surprises on the assessment weekend, but we had guessed incorrectly. We came away with so much more than imagined and feel totally committed to the projects.

Everything from understanding the vision and mission of Raleigh, to self-reflection, working as part of a team, understanding differing values, cultural identity and inspiring young adults. I personally came away with the confidence that I have chosen an amazing path to venture down.

I won’t go in to detail on the training, so as not to spoil it for anyone who may be undertaking Raleigh in the future, but I can’t praise the trainers enough. There is a reason these people are asked to be in these motivational roles.

I come away with a list of personal qualities, written by those in my peer group that I had only met this weekend, that meant I had to fight back the tears. Thank you everyone who wrote something on that list. I come away with new friends. I come away motivated and inspired. I come away excited that I can share this experience with Damian. I come away knowing that little actions can make a difference. I come away determined to give Raleigh my all.

The countdown is on …..!

Jo x

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Challenge Yourself

When Damian and I announced we had been approved as volunteers for Raleigh International, there were a mixture of reactions. Some nervousness, lots of excitement, much surprise and a little bit of questioning.

A lot of the questioning surrounded the fact that I was just relaunching my business under its new branding, so why would I go and leave it for 3 months? I thought therefore, I’d give you a little insight in to my decision to head out to Costa Rica & Nicaragua this year.

It is true, that I will not be running my business on the ground level while I am away, but effective planning does not mean it is going to disappear from view. Three months is much shorter for me to be away than if I was having a baby for example and with the internet, so much is always possible. It simply depends on how you view your office and how you work.

I am actually going to be a photographer while I am away. I may not be photographing weddings, but I will be photographing lifestyle. I will be documenting and blogging. I will be capturing people and portraits. Most importantly for me, I will be so very inspired by my new surroundings and community. For any creative, inspiration and sometimes a fresh perspective is vital for growth.

The image I’ve included in this post, that is from the Raleigh International Facebook page, sums up the main reason I applied for expedition with Raleigh.

Challenge yourself to change your world.

That’s exactly what I want to achieve. Damian and I both wanted to push ourselves out of our comfort zone and see what we are capable of. We are lucky to be able to take such an opportunity and our aim is to not waste a minute of it, both while we are there and when we return. Our ambition is to change our world and come back and help others to change theirs, with what we have learnt.

I could sit at my desk and push through what is the expected model for a professional in the workplace, or I could take my skills as a photographer, combine it will my love of travel, add a little bit of a leap of faith and see just what is possible.

Man in a Raleigh International tshirt


Photography Inspiration from Steve McCurry

I had one of those moments recently when I felt my heart singing and I knew I’d made the right decision to apply to be a Raleigh Volunteer.

At The Photography Show, in Birmingham last week, I had the pleasure to listen to Steve McCurry talk about his work and life as a photographer, travelling around the world. This is the man who’s iconic image of an Afghan Girl, made me realise as a teenage, college student, that photography could be something special. I am still memorised by this image and the thought of creating something that reaches so many, is what drives many a photographer. (If you ever get the chance to learn about the impact Steve’s image of the girl had, it is worth a read.)

 Portrait of an Afghan Girl made famous by Steve McCurry

Listening to Steve talk about the back stories to his images, is what lights up for me, when I think about heading off to Costa Rica & Nicaragua to capture real life on expedition. If I thought for one moment, that any image I take, can have a bigger impact to help those we are going to work with, then I would be truly humbled.

The phrase on Steve’s website will be something I want to take away with me while working overseas.

“What is important to my work is the individual picture. I photograph stories on assignment, and of course they have to be put together coherently. But what matters most is that each picture stands on its own, with its own place and feeling.”

The evening of the Photography Show, myself and some friends got the incredible and unexpected opportunity to talk to Steve McCurry personally and I was a little bit star struck. A totally down to earth guy gave up ten minutes of his time to chat to us in a bar and we loved him for it. I asked him how he creates a connection with his subjects when there is no translator around and he gave the simple and obvious reply, of ‘just be yourself’. ‘Be charming, be open and they will want to help you.’ That’s the thing about photographing elsewhere in the world; people are simply open to helping and welcoming others in.

I am so looking forward to meeting all the communities and being welcomed in and in return, I will share what they would like the wider world to see.

Joanne x

Collection of thumbnail images from Steve McCurry


So what is this volunteering all about?

Our first blog post should surely be about why, when and how we have become volunteers for Raleigh International. I had been looking into volunteering as part of one of our holidays for a while and always want to travel to experience new places. So when Damian said he felt it was time to take a sabbatical from work and mentioned Raleigh, I jumped at the idea.

The first part of the process was an application with a CV, personal statement and references. Following this we were invited to attend an assessment weekend down in East Sussex. We could only make one of the available sessions, so on a cold weekend at the beginning of December, we started on the path to being a Raleigh volunteer. Armed with a rucksack, tent, a doodle that had to answer certain questions and no mobile phone, we were allocated our groups and the challenges began. Damian and I knew we would be separated, because we will also be separate for the majority of the time we will be in Costa Rica & Nicaragua, due to the nature of our roles. This made it all the more interesting though, as we had no idea how we were both reacting to the activities and gave us a lot to talk about on the way home. I won’t give too much away, incase there are those reading this that are heading for their assessments, but I can honestly say, it was fun. It involved camping in the forest, problem solving, team building, communicating, cooking, medical scenarios, learning, researching, performing, sleeping under tarpaulin and one very cold, muddy pond!

Raleigh Assessment Weekend images of rucksacks and a forest

A week later we heard back that, not only had we both been accepted as part of the huge network of Raleigh volunteers, but obtained the roles we wanted, the countries we requested and the dates we could go. It all still seems very surreal to me and whilst this year is going to be huge with the launch of my new website and preparing for this trip, I couldn’t feel more like I’m living.

The whole application process is very thorough and made me think so hard about what I am going to be taking on. I know the first question will be why volunteer overseas, when we could do it here. The difference for me personally, is that I will be totally immersed in a community and away from my desk, my phone, my routine and my comforts and I want to learn from Raleigh about how to help communities successfully in a sustainable way. For me, to be able to take what I do for a living and use it to showcase a wonderful organisation is a privilege. To be able to draw on all my experiences from our various traveling and adventures in order to be a day to day support for a team working towards a great goal, is going to be so rewarding. To use my age to help young 17 – 24 year olds, who may not all have had the best, or most positive influences in their lives will be humbling. This all sounds cliche I know, but these are all the reasons as to why I am taking on this challenge. I have such an incredible life, with a family, home and career that I love, holidays that take my breath away and whilst I have had my far share of bereavement, life not working out as planned and various difficulties, I have had the love and support of those around me to help me realise that you have to take life on the chin sometimes. If I can share just a fraction of any of that to give something back, it is worth taking my comfortable life off course for a few months. Enjoy the adventure with me.

Jo x

Portrait of Joanne WithersA sketch of Joanne Withers life journey