Welcome to Earning Abroad! In this series I’ll introduce you to some inspiring and ambitious friends I’ve met on the road — friends who have found viable work away from their home countries. Do you guys read Further Bound?
If not, I recommend adding it to your reading list immediately. After years of mutual blog fandom, Further Bound author Hannah and I finally met during my last trip to London. We hit it off immediately and I was thrilled when we bumped back into each other once again during my latest trip to Indonesia. This time, I also met Hannah’s charming Scottish partner, Lee Vine. Over dinner at the local market, Lee mentioned his adventures as a canyoning guide in India, a decision he perhaps regretted when I started pestering him for an interview. Ever wonder what it’s like to spend your days leading high-adrenaline outdoor adventures? Over to Lee to find out!
AB: Walk us through a typical day on the job.
LV: My day would begin at a restaurant on the main road in Palolem, south Goa, which served as our base for meeting customers. My colleagues and I would have breakfast together while we checked the bookings for the day, then prepared the gear and safety equipment. When the customers arrived we fitted them with a helmet, harness, wetsuit, and shoes, and gave them all a safety briefing and rundown of the day. After we had ensured everyone was happy, we would all jump in the open-top jeep and I would drive us up into the jungle-covered mountains of the southern Ghats.
The drive was the real start of the adventure for the customers, and I would always say to them, “If we survive the drive we will be fine!” – it was genuinely the most dangerous part of the day, avoiding the notoriously crazy motorists and wayward cows. After about half an hour of driving on the main road we would pull into the National Park area, from where it was about another hour of driving up through beautiful rice paddy country and into the jungle as we ascended deep into the mountains, and finally reached the Netravali Wildlife Sanctuary. Once we reached our starting point we would all put on our gear and I would go through another safety briefing, focusing on the importance of following our instructions, and what to do if they saw snakes or spiders. The jungle is home to a wide variety of dangerous and even deadly animals, including numerous spiders, water snakes, pythons, king cobras, leopards, and tigers (though I have never seen any of the latter three), so it was essential to be prepared.
The trek would then begin with a long hike into the jungle to reach the top of the canyon, where we rechecked the safety equipment and did a final safety briefing. From there we started descending through the canyon by three methods: hiking, abseiling (repelling), and jumping off cliffs into pools in the river. Depending on the particular canyon we were doing that day, abseiling ranged from 6-100 meters, and jumps ranged from 2-21 meters. Once we reached the bottom of the canyon there was only one way out: up. The trek back varied in length and steepness, but we always aimed to back at the jeep before dusk. We definitely did not want to be in the jungle in the dark! After arriving back at the jeep we removed our safety equipment and began the drive back to our base, stopping off at a tiny jungle bar in a village where our customers could grab a well-earned beer and reflect on an amazing day.
How long did you have this position?
I worked there for 5 months. This is pretty much the full season, as when the monsoon starts the canyons are too dangerous to work in.
How did you come to guide adventure trips in India? What inspired you to find this job?
Back in 2007 my brother and I filmed a TV show for the UK’s Channel 4 that saw us completing 101 challenges around the world, set for us by members of the public. One of these challenges was called ‘Crazy Canyoning’, that sent us to Goa to do a cliff jump of at least 10 meters. This was my first ever experience of canyoning, and I absolutely loved it, not only completing the original challenge of a 10 meter jump, but also an additional one of 21 meters. I was hooked! Having befriended the owner of the company after impressing him when filming, I returned to Goa over the next few years on several month-long holidays and trained with the gang there, simply for fun.
My girlfriend Hannah and I then decided to sell everything we owned and head off to travel the world indefinitely. We began our journey in India, renting a house in Goa for six months. It was down to pure luck that there was also a vacancy with the canyoning crew, and I was offered a job for the season. I should emphasize though that this really was very lucky, as all the other staff are full-time canyoning guides who have been with the company for many years, and my friendship and commitment to the company played a huge hand in my employment. You can actually see my first ever canyoning experience and my pretty awesome 21 meter jump on YouTube.
How did your family and friends react to your initial departure?
This is not the first time I have packed in a good job and set off for an adventure, so I guess they’re used to it by now. They did think I was crazy to want to throw myself off cliffs on a daily basis though.
How much money did you make? Was it enough to live on?
This was in India, and though the wages were certainly better than a local would earn, they were still not anywhere near a typical Western wage – I did it for the love of adventure rather than money. The business, although successful, was aimed at backpackers and ran cheaply to meet their limited budgets. The more customers we had, the more I got paid. Part of our contract stipulated that we were not allowed to discuss wages with other employees etc., and I guess that includes blogs. So to give you the best idea without an exact figure, the following was pretty much covered (all per month): rent $400, moped $45, food for two people $400. We still left with less money than we arrived with, but we did splurge now and again.
What kind of legal hoops do you have to jump through?
Work visas for India are not the easiest to come by, but not impossible either. You have to fill in a lot of paper work and visit the Indian Embassy a good few times – not always a pleasant experience. The work visa covers the full season, and should you return the next year, the process has to be repeated. Having said that, I am from the UK, and application processes will vary depending on where you are from. An international drivers license is also essential.
What skills did you need for this job?
You need to be extremely methodical, have good leadership skills, handle extreme pressure, be safety conscious, have good fitness, and definitely be outgoing and fun. You also need to be specifically trained for this job, and learn rope techniques and lots of safety procedures. It’s not a job you can just walk in to.
What were the best and worst things about being a canyoning guide in India?
I got to have fun every day, meeting new people and ensuring they had an amazing experience in the jungle. Pushing customers to their limits and seeing them get a buzz from the adrenalin was great. On one particular abseil over a waterfall we would deliberately set the rope so it was about 3 meters too short. We would always get the cockiest customer in the group to go first (there was usually one on every trip). When they were halfway down, and too far to come back up, we would shout to them saying we thought we had made a mistake – could they look down and make sure the rope was long enough and reached the pool below. Every time the cool bravado was instantly replaced with a look of panic as they shouted back “No it’s fucking not! What do I do?” After everyone stopped laughing we would explain how they would get down… basically pushing against the wall with their feet, and as they swung away from the wall they had to let go the rope and fall 3 meters, landing safely in the water. The pictures we got as they hit the water were priceless. Here’s a picture of when I did the same thing to my girlfriend Hannah… she wasn’t too impressed!
The worst part was when a customer didn’t listen or thought they knew better. They may have jumped incorrectly or not followed abseiling guidelines, and then it became dangerous. Thankfully the company has an amazing safety record, and no one has ever been seriously hurt. Sure, we got the odd scratch and bruise, but that is really about it, and long may it continue. In fact, I think it is me who has had one of the worst injuries, but that was my own stupid fault. Having fallen in love with one particular jump (see the 21 meter jump in the video above) I decided to do it naked on a staff only day. I kept my shoes on as I knew how hard you hit the water from that height and the soles of your feet need protection. It is very important that you land straight too, as the water is like hitting concrete otherwise. To keep straight from that height you have to rotate your arms and fight to keep your balance. Just before hitting the water you need to pull in your arms by your side, but on this occasion I also had to try and protect something rather valuable to me. Well, as you can probably imagine, I didn’t quite get there in time, and let’s just say that I really did worry about ever being a father. Thankfully after a day or two the pain subsided and it all returned to a normal colour. I’ll never do that again.
What would your advice be to someone seeking to do the same?
Start as a customer to see if you enjoy it, then if you do, you need to gain the necessary experience and/or qualifications to help you find work in the outdoor pursuits industry.
What do you know about India that you wouldn’t have learned as a tourist? How did working in India change your experience there?
We had hoped to go out there for six months and really integrate with the locals, some of whom we already new from previous visits. Unfortunately this was not the case, and we found the majority of locals were resentful of us working there. Taxi drivers were angry that we would transport customers in our jeep and not their cars, despite us driving on rough jungle roads they would not be able to navigate. Local restaurant owners were angry that we based our business at just one establishment, and police would regularly stop us and say we did something wrong and expect a bribe. Our house was also robbed and our MacBook Pro and iPhone stolen. Other locals told us that it was probably our landlord who had stolen them, and said they had done it before to previous tenants. We reported it to the police, but with no proof there was little we could do. To be honest India is a very complex place, with equal amounts of good and bad things about it, and it’s this chaotic mix that creates its charm. The more time you spend there the more you realize that you can never fully understand it or it’s people. It’s still one heck of an amazing country though.
Are there differences between working in your home country and in India?
It’s easier just to say there are no similarities. India is India – there is nowhere else like it on earth. It’s a very special place, and I know I’ll be back again soon.
Have you had other experience working abroad?
I am currently self-employed as a website programmer. My girlfriend Hannah is a writer and designer, and runs the blog Further Bound, through which we also run a graphic and web design business together of the same name. We have been digital nomads for almost two years now, and it’s great to have the freedom to go wherever we want whilst still being able to earn a decent living. If you’re ever in need of some graphic or web design work get in touch!
What are you doing now? What are your plans for the future?
Currently we are house-sitting a massive 18th century chateau in the Midi-Pyrénées region of southern France. We are using the time here to focus on our design business, ski and snowboard, and for Hannah to enjoy being creative with her writing and painting. Oh, and obviously enjoy the wine and cheese! We are here until May, and then who knows? Something will seem right when the time comes though, and we’ll follow that.
What question should I have asked instead?
Where can you go canyoning in Goa? Answer: You can go canyoning with the excellent French-owned company I worked for: Goa Jungle Adventures. It’s based in the beautiful south Goan beach town of Palolem, and truly is a great day out. Activities start from around $30, and you won’t find a better way of blowing your daily travel budget. If you go, be sure to say hi to the guys from me!
Lee and Hannah on one of their early India trips
Thank you Lee for sharing your story! Let’s all leave some love for him in the comments. Who would you like me to interview next?