Saturday, March 17, 2012

How to be Me

The simple answer is being a cheap bastard with everything and having the right

The question is one which I have been asked a dozens of times, 5 of those in the last few weeks; how do I travel as much as I do and have the experiences that I do, like working for a small Indian NGO for 5 months, without having a job or a hefty inheritance?

I learned most of what I know about travel the hard way. Through a long road of trial and error that has included some of the most wonderful and defining moments of my life, but which has also been tempered by more cultural faux pas and awkward situations than I care to remember.

Though there are as many ways of dealing with travel and new experiences as there are of dealing with life, here are some of the methods that have been the most valuable for me; many of which I wish someone could have told me. And though every country presents different challenges and opportunities, these are some of the universally applicable lessons that my travels across 6 continent and 36 countries have taught me.

Decide to Go

This is the single hardest part of any trip, after doing it everything else is easy. Making this decision means switching your mindset from can I go, to how can I go? This is both a giant leap and a tiny shift.

Most of the time when people have asked me how I get to travel as much as I do, and I tell them how easy and cheap it can be and that they should try it too, I get a list, sometimes a very creative one, of all the excuses for why they can’t possibly do it: “I would miss home.” “It costs money.” “I need to focus on a career.” “I don’t speak another language.” “Other people would judge me for being an American.” “I have to wash my hair this weekend.” Etc, etc,.

All of these may be true (though I have never been judged negatively just for being an American), but if you actually want to travel none of these reasons should stop you. And if you put half of the energy that these people put into thinking of the negatives for why they couldn’t go and instead put it into figuring out how you can, you will be amazed how fast things fall into place.

Yes, there will be challenges but that’s the fun of travel. Once you have decided that you are going and stop looking at the reasons that might prohibit you, and start looking for solutions to how you can, it is incredible how easy it all becomes. But without taking this first step and making the decision that you will be going, real international travel remains an unattainable, impossible feat.

Buy a Ticket

I don’t think I have ever paid more than $1,000 for a round trip ticket anywhere, except to New Zealand. That’s not to say these tickets are easy to find but that if you look around, and wait for deals on different websites, you can go almost anywhere for less than a grand.

And don’t just check the big sites like Travelocity or Priceline, they don’t include all of the airlines. Also make sure to check the sites of the individual carriers that fly the routes to your destination.

As a general rule, once you pick out where you want to end up, look at tickets to all the major cities in that region. There are low-cost carriers for nearly every part of the world and it can be substantially cheaper to fly to a city 1,500 miles away from where you want to end up, and then just get a cheap puddle jumper to your final destination.

For Asia, the best deals I have found on getting here are with China Airlines. For a little extra money they give you either a 6-month or 12-month flexible return date tickets that are perfect if you don’t have a set date that you have to be back by. For getting around Asia, AirAsia is usually the cheapest way, though China Eastern Airlines and China Southern Airlines sometimes have real good prices too. Just don’t expect 5-star service.

Europe is even easier. Once you arrive there are several carriers like Ryan Air that can get you across the continent for less than 20 Euros, if you book far enough ahead.
It is well worth the time to spend 10 minutes on Google figuring out what low-cost local carriers operate where you are going. But depending on how adventurous you are feeling you might want to check to make sure that the one you pick is not on the UN black list, especially for African airlines.

Tourist vs. Traveler

A tourist is one of the people you see in the wanna-be-reporter vests and New Balances, getting on and off air-conditioned tour buses at national monuments. They always stick close to the guide for fear of being abducted by terrorists or touched by poor people. They eat at bad, fixed menu restaurants, stay in 5-star hotels, take photos at prescribed locations, then go back home, probably without ever meeting a person unrelated to the tourism industry.

A traveler, on the other hand, usually gets out of the major cities as fast as possible and as far away from the tourists as they can. They take local transport or hitchhike to get around, and (gasp!) eat the street food. They stay in fleabag hotels and guesthouses, when they are not staying with families they have met, and they carry with them only the essentials that they can fit into a backpack.

Along with being far more interesting, engaging and fun, being a traveler costs a fraction of what being a tourist does. My budget here in Nepal is right around $10 a day for everything; food, housing, transport and activities. When you are spending this kind of money you can easily make up the cost of the plane ticket in a few weeks, when you compare it to the cost of living in the USA.

Work for an NGO

How to find and work for an NGO in another country is the question I have gotten the most often since I have arrived in Asia.

The NGO I worked for in India I found through family connections, but from what I learned there, and have seen and heard from others, you certainly don’t need to know someone before hand to get a volunteer job just about wherever you want.

Before I decided to volunteer for BFTW in India, I did a lot of research into different NGOs and ways to volunteer in different countries. What I found was a little disheartening. There is no shortage of organizations ready and willing to have you come and volunteer with them- provided you want to dish out a few thousand dollars for ‘administrative costs.’ I’m happy to volunteer my time to a worthy cause, but I am not going to pay someone thousands of my hard earned dollars to do what I could get paid for back home.

It is easy to see why these organizations do this. A lot of people want to come and help but don’t have the time to commit to learning enough about the organization to help in ways other than doing menial tasks or manual labor. However, there is no shortage of manual labor in underdeveloped countries. No shortage of workers who will do twice what you can in a day and three times as fast.

So how do you justify bringing in rich white people to do work when doing so will take jobs away from the local communities that you are trying to help? You charge them a ton of money, let them feel good about themselves for getting their hands dirty for 2 weeks, then use the money that they gave you to do the real work.

What underdeveloped countries do lack are educated minds that have grown up in an efficient system who have a willingness and knowledge of how to think creatively and problem solve. And everyone I know who reads this blog has more than enough of that to be an asset to an NGO.

The best way to find an NGO is to first pick where you want to go then do some research to see what the issues in that community are, and see if you can find any organizations that are dealing with problems that interest you. If you don’t find any NGOs don’t be discouraged. Most grass-roots level NGOs don’t have the time, money or knowledge to make a good, easy to find website.

Do your research on the local issues and see if you can come up with some solutions to the problems you find that you think you have the skills to implement, then get on the plane. Once you arrive in-country start asking around about organizations that might be doing what your interested in. Churches, orphanages and community centers are a good place to start but ask everyone you meet, you never know who might have a friend who rehabilitates child drug-addicts.

After you find a place, do what you would do for any job you are trying to get; go talk to them and tell them what you can do and what you want to do. Most small NGOs are so understaffed and underfunded that they will take any warm body that can walk in the door and wants to work. Just don’t expect to get paid.

If you can’t find any organization doing what you want to do you can always start one. Go find some community leaders that have the credibility to get your project off the ground and convince them to help you.

Just remember to stay open minded. Don’t be the white imperialist who soars down from ‘The West’ to save the savages who don’t know how to save themselves. It helps to have a plan but don’t get so set on your solution that you lose perspective. Make sure to talk to people and ask what they need and what they think the best way to get it would be. They know better than you do what will help them, even if they don’t know exactly how to go about getting it.


Be flexible. This is probably the single most important bit of advice I can impart to anyone who wants to travel. It is very important to remember that things don’t work in the rest of the world the same way they do in the USA. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing; why would you fly halfway around the world to experience the same thing you left behind?

This flexibility applies to everything from day to day plans to the larger plans and goals for the trip. It is painful to see the tourists who have planned out there entire trip down to the minute, because in doing so they are limiting their experience to what they already know, there is no room for the unknowns that are the heart and soul of travel. It’s fine to have goals and a list of things you want to see, but stay open enough that if something cool comes up you have the freedom to take advantage of it.

Without exception the best and most memorable experiences I have had traveling have come from the completely unexpected. If my bus hadn’t broken down, causing me to flag down a passing mini-van on a desolate stretch of road in eastern Turkey, I would never have met the Kurds who I ended up staying with for 3 days. If I had had a set itinerary I would never have met the Georgian family who fed me, then took me 2 hours up a mountain to get drunk at their grandmothers grave in celebration of her life, before getting their friend to give me a ride to the border. Had I been too set in my original plans, me and Taylor would never have made the 3 day ride to a remote coastal village in Indonesia that is one of the last whaling villages on Earth. Tonight I leave for a 5-day mountain ascent with two expats, who live here in Kunming, that I met yesterday at a noodle house.

It can be uncomfortable at first to give up the illusion of control over your plans, but you will save yourself countless headaches caused by canceled buses and ferries, inane and widely inefficient systems and incompetent bureaucrats.

In my experience, travel rewards flexibility far more than any other attribute.

“This too shall pass.”

There will inevitably be times when you feel like you want nothing more than to get on a plane and get the hell out of this godforsaken country. I have not had a trip where I didn’t feel this way at least once. But what makes us better people is the ability to face the adversity and challenges that life slaps us in the face with, learn from them, and come out the other side better because of it. It is not through comfort and ease that we grow as human beings. It is through pushing ourselves past our comfort zones and throwing ourselves into new trials that we cannot easily see a way out of. The process of hitting rock-bottom and building yourself back up through your own will power and sense of self brings with it a real and lasting confidence that cannot easily be undermined.

I have spent most of my short adult life traveling. The places I have seen, people I have met and challenges I have overcome have had a more profound and indelible impact on the person I that have become than any other aspect of my life. I can honestly say that I feel like I could be dropped in just about any inhabited place on the planet and do just fine. This is not because there is anything inherently special about me; it is because I have, through experience, seen just how easy it is to see the world when you decide that you want to.


  1. Beautiful and truly inspiring, Travis. :)

  2. This is great. btw, where are you going on your mountain trip? We only sort of knew each other at Beloit, but I'm living up in Zhongdian/Shangri-la, up in NW Yunnan. So if you come up here, give a shout-out! (

  3. This is all so true! Their are the tourists who save money, to stay in an exotic holiday resort, in a country that they will never visit, not even while they are there. Then there are the the ones who want the long term experience but refuse to go outside their comfort zones. They pay way-too-much-money to enrol in some program where they stay in dorms with other foreigners and never ever ever meet a local.


    their is beauty in all of this. It is these people who leave the good places for those who are brave enough to find them.

  4. I think you are right-on to point out the importance of a "can-do attitude." I find that to be preventing many, many people from going abroad. At the same time, once you travel the world or live in a another country, the world becomes much smaller. For me, going to Taiwan this summer feels not much further than going to California.

    In any case, thanks for your advice and encouragement, Travis. It is absolutely inspiring.