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Mari Jose's Journey

The story of a successful economist who left everything to make her dreams come true

This week I would like to share a very special life story, the story of a woman who has fought all her life to make her dreams come true. And as always, photography will company her, during her journey, allowing us to know and understand the world through her gaze…

“My name is Maria Jose Amarilla, and I am 41 years old. I am Diving and Marine Conservation Instructor, as well as Economist. I have a good family, very close and loved. I have a Degree in Economist, and have had a long professional career as a Business Analyst in the financial sector. I have worked at the Bank of Spain for more than 6 years, and then I worked at Santander Bank in the United Kingdom, where I was part of the great transformation of an English bank to the Santander Bank system, which lasted about 5 years. A very interesting job with many learnings, which I always appreciate because it has given me so much, it helped me grow both professionally and personally, it gave me the opportunity to learn English well, and realise my dreams…

Since I was child I have always wanted to travel around the world, discover new places, live adventures…but nobody ever tells you...go ahead!! Leave everything and fulfil your dreams!! Especially when these are as crazy as leaving your job and your whole life built around it to take your backpack and lose yourself in the world. We have to take the risk, make that decision, be brave and take the step…and I did it!!

That day came to me the first day I put my feet down in Bangkok…until that day I was afraid of my decision, you know…all that advice of conscience: 'what are you doing?' 'Where are you going?' 'What are you looking for?' However, I will never forget that fantastic feeling. There I was, in the middle of a hug, chaotic airport with so many people, and I stood there, looking around, and suddenly all fear disappear, and I could only think 'Here you are Maria…the world is yours, it is for you!' So, I just ran away to enjoy it.

My journey started as a very desired after dream that, in principle, would be one year. For almost a year I traveled all over North Asia, I climbed great mountains, thousand of stairs to reach beautiful temples, I saw countless natural and architectural wonders. I did volunteer work with children, with animals, I met countless fabulous people who were very humble and no so humble, from whom I constantly learned and had very good traveling companions as well.

The Kissing Elephant

This photo was taken in Chang Mai, northern Thailand.

In this wonderful place they saved elephants that had been mistreated, that were sick or older and nobody wanted them anymore.

In this Elephant Camp the volunteering consisted of the fact that during the days that you stayed, you have to fed and care for your elephant. That was a very heartfelt experience, I was trilled every day and I really enjoyed taking care of my elephant who was old and blind. I fed him by hand, we went to the river and I bathed him throwing him buckets of water. Those responsible for the camp taught us about these wonderful animals, and told us how each one got there, and about their life, and how they had save them. They show us videos about how some people mistreated them to tame them. I cried a lot during those days, and I felt how much I loved these animals.

Feeding an elephant is very expensive, and in Asia they are used for heavy work or for walking tourism. Many of them suffer mistreatment and bad life. The elephant is a very intelligent animal, they live in pairs all their lives with their family without separating, and when a member of the herd dies, they mourn their dead. They are of great sensitivity and love, you can see it when you look into their eyes, just like what happens with the whales and countless marine beings. This elephant was called ‘The Kissing Elephant’ because if you stood next to him, and he likes you, he give you a kiss that seemed to absorb your full check. It was such a beautiful and unique feeling that I will never forget…the kiss of an elephant.

The White Temple

This temple is located in Chang Rai, northern Thailand. It is a Buddhist and Hindu temple, all white as seen in the photo. A beautiful appearance, it is a wonder to admire. It is relatively modern but absolutely beautiful.

The main goal of my trip was to dive in Thailand. I have been a diver for 20 years, I love the sea, its seabed, and the beings that inhabit it, it is my great passion.

While working, I was getting all the diving titles I needed, even the Dive Master in El Hierro, on the Canary Island in Spain at only 20 years old. So, this was what I wanted most, to discover the beautiful ocean in Asia, a place of coral, nemos.

The year flew by and I finally reached South Thailand…and the sea. At this point, I had to make the second big decision…If I had come this far…How could I go back now? I felt that my adventure had just begun. Now that I had arrived to those beautiful oceans full of corals and thousands of species to discover, I was thought about it for many days. Here, in Thailand, I did yoga for the first time in my life, and meditation helped me a lot to make my decision, and finally, once again I communicated that I would not return to my job in London.

Now I was expecting the best, living and discovering the beautiful coral oceans and so many wonderful marine species. I settled in a wooden bungalow, in the tropical lushness of the mountains of the island, I had a red motorbike with which I moved everywhere, and began to work as a dive master taking the divers around the island to enjoy the beautiful tropical coral bottoms of Koh Tao.

Koh Tao means “Turtle Island” since there were turtles everywhere before, and now there are still some. In this photo you can see the shape of the beautiful island that with a little of imagination you can see the silhouette of the Turtle Laud, the largest and prehistoric turtle that crosses the oceans and is the best swimmer.

On the right is the beach of ‘Shark Bay’ where you can swim with blacktop reef sharks, and the Green Turtle, the largest I have ever seen, calm and beautiful. She lived there and you could see her every time you swam the bay.

On the left is Chalok Ban Kao, the inhabited part of the quieter island, my neighbourhood. And at the end in the lush green of the hills was my dream bungalow.

Hawksbill turtle

This turtle is the most common turtle to see in the Coral Reefs. From this perspective in the picture she can be mistaken with the green turtle, but this one has a pointed beak-like mouth to be distinguished. They are smaller than green turtles and they have a shell like irregular and not clean as they like to camouflage among the corals. It is a beautiful turtle that you can see easily eating the corals. They can get to one meter of shell. Hawksbill turtle lives more than 80 years.

From Koh Tao I went to the Adaman Sea, a unique place in the world for its great variety of marine species. There I worked on ‘Lives on Board’, on the Similan and Surin Island, diving four times a day as a dream holidays. This place was the one where I learned the most about the oceans and their beings. I enjoyed seen families of seahorses, all type of clownfish, I saw a great rays and sharks that I never dreamed I would have the privilege to admire. This was one of the happiest times of my life, I remember thanking life every day for letting me see these things and being there at that time. I felt that I had resolved that uncertainty and the longing that had carried me inside for so many years when travelling and going out into the world was just a distant dream.

Oceanic Manta Ray

This is the largest species, that cross the oceans and eat plankton mostly. In Similan Islands there is a place called ‘The cleaner station’ which is a huge thousand-year old coral where the Manta Ray queue waiting for a free deep cleaning. There are thousands of fish of various species dedicated to cleaning them thoroughly. This might delight them. It is wonderful to admire it.

Manta Ray also like the bubbles that come out of the divers when they breathe, because when you see them, if you stand sill in a group admiring them in the distance, they come up to place over you, where all the bubbles go into their belly. It is wonderful.

Nurse Shark

This is a very calm shark specie that can perch on the ground, unlike most sharks that need to be moving all the time to breathe. They eat small animals, and above all they clean the oceans. This is the main task of sharks, maintaining the marine ecosystem by eating all the dead leftovers. They are called ‘scavengers’.

In Thailand I was offered the opportunity to go to work on the Greek island of Rhodes as a commercial and taking tourist to their first diving experience during the summer season, which is usually five months, from May to September. You can earn very well, enough to go back to Thailand again, and get the Diploma of Padi Diving Instructor.

Now my work would be even more serious, because now I was able to be a diving teacher and I could teach my students to dive and appreciate the wonders of the ocean and to love it forever.

We organised several courses of all levels and I had many students of all nationalities. It was a time of great learning. I was happy every day, I loved my job as a teacher. I worked in several dive centres on the island, and I was able to choose the ones that I liked the most. I feel like I had the best jobs, the best colleagues, bosses and students.

Time passed very quickly again, a year and a few months in Thailand, and I was very happy. I always tell myself that I should have stayed longer, but I wanted to see more and go more places. Now I was accompanied and together we started looking for work in another countries. We had two work opportunities: one to go to Baja California in America, where it was beautiful, and the other one to go to Malawi Lake in Africa!! We thought about this decision because we liked both directions, and had even more advantages to go to America but that excitement of the adventurous spirit was so great that it flooded us. So, we decided go to Africa.

We went to work and live in a Resort on Malawi Lake where we really did everything. We were the instructors of all water sports including diving. There were also all kind of activities such as water skiing, boat sailing, snorkelling trips, sightings Ospreys in action on the lake, and land activities such as hiking to the mountains to see monkeys, and everything to do to entertain clients. It was an exclusive and luxurious place, with few clients such as ambassadors, high officials from Africa and another countries, important and wealthy people in all the poverty around us. This experience was the hardest of the entire journey because it allowed us to see the great differences and the great injustices of this world.

Malawi Lake

In this photo we can see Malawi Lock, beautiful and big as a sea, full of minnows called ‘cichlids’, endemic to the loch, with tropical colours that put all their young in their mouths when they see you to protect them.

Here in Malawi we discover more than just the natural beauty of the place, here we discovered extreme poverty, which affects happiness by being hungry. During this trip, what I already thought was confirmed to me, that everything we have in the first world is not necessary to achieve happiness, and that material things or our consumer lifestyle do not give happiness. We only consume and accumulate waste, destroying everything. And it is precisely this capitalist economy that has the entire African continent drowned and exploited, as we already know but do not want to see.


Here I am with my mate Maria. She was the chief of the cleaning team at the resort. She was earning $28 a month, working infinite hours, just like us, from dawn until night. She would come in at 5am and leave work at 6pm.

We were working even more hours, since we started at 8 am and night we had to attend the Resort bar and be with the customers playing games and were here sometimes until 12 at night.

Maria had 5 children and her husband had abandoned her. She got up early to leave breakfast for her children, based on wheat flour with water. It was her main meal.

Maria worked hard all day in the resort, they weren’t even allowed to sit all day, and when she finished at work, she went home to help her family and make ‘the puddle’ as they called it, the fire to cook their daily food, which was this flour in large quantities with a typical sauce there consisting in two tomatoes, chives and one egg. I could observe all this on the days that I went to her house for dinner, where I appreciated the humility of her home, the poverty in which they lived, in a little house with nothing. However, she consider herself abundant and rich, as she told me one day ‘my children and I can eat everyday, and we share it with others, and the is the greatest thing, what more can I ask for?’ You can see the happy person she is in the photos.

The first day I went to dinner at her house, in addition to the flour with the sauce, they cooked rice, and when they were going to serve it as a second course, I could see the great joy and enthusiasm of all the children who were at the table. It was not only the Maria’s 5 children, but also several neighbours and cousins. She shared her food every day. Thus they manage to survive, since they help each other.

Well, for a moment, I said I did not want rice and then it happened, there was a silence and stop in the world, everyone looked at me, and then Maria said to me: 'We have cooked this rice today as a very special day in your honor. Please, give it a try and share it with us. The last time we ate rice was at Christmas'. I clearly apologised and ate the rice that so excited them.

The story seems simple, for me rice is the main food of the whole world practically, and where I have traveled there was always rice. I did not know that in Africa it was a luxury, and it made me seen even more the extreme humility that is experienced in some countries in the world. The crude reality.

This reminded me my aunt Mari, a big and wonderful woman. One day she told us that in the Post-Spanish Civil War they had to share one egg among seven brothers, and I could never imagine it, since I was little I had this doubt…it is not possible to eat an egg among many. Well, that night at Maria’s house I understood. She threw an egg in that tomato sauce and this was shared by many more than seven.

Children playing with food on the beach. Malawi Lake

Our contract in the resort was for a year, but we were not happy working there, and the way they manage everything, it was very hard and we were being exploited. We were there three and a half month but it seemed like a lifetime, this experience was very intense, so we quit.

Before returning to Spain, we wanted to fulfil another of our dreams: to see wild animals in their own habitat, free in nature. So, we travelled to Zambia, we traveled a long distance between buses and passing through various cities, with names such as Lilongwe, Chipata, Lusaka, and we were able to admire the African landscape, having various calamities and adventures as well, and arrive at the Zambia Natural Park where we expected a tent in the middle of the African savannah.

What did you do after Africa?

We return to London to work at the bank, to restore our economy and think about our experience and life. Now I had to decide what I was going to do with my life, while going back to the routine and daily life of the office work. I was planning how to do it next time. I was also happy there because It was a very good job, and I have always had very good friends and colleagues in this place, as a family. I loved them all. But this is another story.

What does photography means to you?

Thanks to the photos, the memories are more real. They remind you that it was real

I have experiences and places that I visited and I do not have any photos, but everything is in my mind and imagination, and there are times that you can think they are dreams, and they are not real. However, with pictures you can share with others all those wonderful experiences and places.

I consider myself more ‘enjoying first hand’ without the camera in my hands but on another hand, I think we should take more photos even if we are lazy.

What final learnings have you taken?

I learned nothing is impossible, that you have to jump into the pool as it is worth it. Not everything is rosy, you have to fight, start again, change places and start again. Don't just stay in your comfort zone, wrapped with your family. You have to travel, live with different cultures to understand. You have to have strength and fortitude many times to continue, and to continue. It is not always easy, but all those adventures and experience will help you. I always say that it is like studying several ‘higher degree courses’, you learn with reality, living it and walking it. I think we should all be able to fulfil our dreams. It will never be a waste of time because we will always learn and live something unique that will mark our lives.

Now that I think about all that time, looking at these photos and writing the story, I can only be thankful for having lived it and for making my dreams come true. It is the greatest thing I have ever done, and where I keep the best experience of my life.

By Marijose

English correction: Rebecca Brown

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