After 17 years of work, finance executive Annalisa Winge Bicknell wanted a change, but a fortnight's holiday wasn't quite what she had in mind.
As International Head of Business Development with Northern Trust in London, she decided to take a six-month sabbatical from her high-flying career and booked five expeditions in a row with Earthwatch.
Annalisa asked her bosses for a sabbatical and was delighted to be given the chance to take up a fresh challenge. She explained, "I had been working for 17 years and my job was very challenging. I found I was tired and feeling I was on a treadmill. I thought ‘there is so much else in life', and I wanted to experience something different and worthwhile."
Anne Lise had reached the stage in her life where she wanted to give something back to the world, and felt a sabbatical from her job would offer the perfect chance.
"I am not one of those people who sits around on the sofa and I wanted to get a taste for charitable organisations. A friend of mine had talked about Earthwatch and I went on their website to look at all the expeditions. Reading about their many projects, I found myself grinning from ear to ear. That was the sign I was looking for."
Annalisa wanted to step outside her comfort zone and challenge herself. In the past she had only stayed in comfortable hotels and had never even camped, but she was full of enthusiasm and deliberately chose a varied range of Earthwatch expeditions.
In June 2008 she eased into her new life on the Earthwatch expedition Wildlife and Wine in Bordeaux, where she helped scientists to investigate which farming practices best stimulate biodiversity in vineyards. But this gentle introduction to the charity's work was in stark contrast to her next expedition to China, where she opted to join the Chinese Village Traditions expedition for an entire month. This project, based in Jia Xian County in Shaanxi Province, is documenting a lifestyle which has changed little in the past few generations. With her comfortable lifestyle far behind her, Annalisa found herself living in cave dwellings and exploring the local people's values and customs.
She said, "It was out of this world. The whole experience was a once in a lifetime adventure. I decided to stay for a month because I had the time and I wanted to get into the project in greater detail.
"I slept on a concrete bed with four others, with a pillow full of beans, a cow next door and a pit toilet. I lived the simplest of lives with people who have the values of food and family. They were living off the earth and using the earth. They were so much in tune with their environment."
For Annalisa the experience was both eye-opening and liberating. "I understood more about people and values, and the difference between need and want. The Western world has confused need and want."
Her adventures did not end in China, and her next Earthwatch expedition, Wildlife of the Mongolian Steppe, took her to the Ikh Nart Nature Reserve in Dornogobi Aimag. The project's international team of scientists are collecting data on the threatened Mongolian argali sheep as well as a variety of little-studied animals within the reserve, a magnificent region of semi-arid grasslands and rocky outcrops.
"Mongolia is one of those remote places you hear of, but you don't know about. This country fascinated me. The expedition was pure camping - the research camp was five gers, with no electricity, no running water. You slept on the ground and it was freezing."
Annalisa was thrilled when the scientists name a sheep after her. "There is now an Argali sheep with a satellite collar on it wandering about the Mongolian steppe called Annalisa!"
Her final adventure of 2008, Climate Change at the Arctic's Edge, took her to yet another wild place - to Churchill in Canada where she helped Earthwatch scientists who are exploring the impacts of climate change within the Hudson Bay Lowlands, North America's largest peatlands.
Annalisa believes her experiences have made her more relaxed, patient and understanding, and her sabbatical has allowed her to spend more quality time with her family and friends. She adds, "I feel I have grown as a person. Life is all about experiences. I think for me it meant stepping out from the middle of the road onto a completely unknown road - the road of exploration, and opening myself up to new experiences.
"My experience has given me the chance to see other parts of the world and meet other people. There are still so many people in the world who do not understand one another. In our global community, we do sometimes need to step outside our comfort zones and let others in."
Are you looking for ideas on how to spend your sabbatical? Take a look at our expeditions.