How I became a traveler
The following is an interview that I did for an AOL Travel web property in March of 2010. The interviewer requested a piece that seemed like we were sitting around a coffee table, having a conversation in person. So I wrote a collection of anecdotes that he could pick excerpts from to combine into a story. After going through the somewhat arduous round of supplying documentation for a corporate publication — answering editor questions, submitting and re-submitting photos — I awaited the publication of the piece for the better part of eight months.
It has now become clear to me who this mysterious AOL Travel web property is, so they say, it will be published someday in a much stunted form. So, not wanting to let a day of writing and this information go to waste, I present the anecdotes that I submitted for the “interview” below.
How to Make Money
After a childhood of staring out at corn fields and apple orchards and riding my bicycle to the farthest horizon each day just to see how far I could go, I began traveling as soon as I finished up high school in 1999. I did not really know what to expect when I first set foot off the farm, but I knew that it would be something drastically different than the life I had previously known. Before leaving my grandfather took me aside and gave me my first lesson in budget travel:
“If you ever get hungry,” he said, “just go behind a donut shop.”
It was there that I found all the food I could eat in the dumpsters for free.
Many more lessons on how to live simply and cheaply would follow in the intervening ten years. In 2000, I traveled abroad for the first time and went to Ecuador. It was here that I learned how to do archaeology fieldwork at a Florida Atlantic University field school, and this soon became the trade that really gave me my wings. I could now travel AND work concurrently, and the money that I could make from working as a field archaeologist for three months a year was usually enough to keep me traveling for the remaining nine.
It was around here that many of the major pieces of my traveling life began coming together: I now had a way to come up with my bean money without having to go home, without having to stop traveling. All of the other pieces just seemed to fall into place after this.
In addition to doing field archaeology for a few months a year, I have also learned other trades which I do from time to time. I became TEFL certified some time ago and I sometimes will work as an English teacher, and I have found myself doing farm work, gardening, and other forms of grunt work around the world. I am actually still trying to learn as many trades as I can, as each additional skill that I have that I can make money on traveling will increase the total freedom that I have when traveling the world. I would have to say that a diversity of work skills is necessary for long term perpetual travel.
As of 2007, I have been working diligently at making a living off of my website, www.VagabondJourney.com, and I am nearly earning enough money to be completely location independent without needing to work for other people. This is the real dream: to be nomadic on my own terms, all the time. Working for myself as a traveling webmaster has very nearly given me these wings.
Budget travel lessons
Now that I had found ways to make money while traveling, I had to come up with cheap living strategies that would allow me to keep this money and travel the farthest that I could off of each dollar. I usually followed one rather Spartan rule, which is the golden rule of budget travel:
Don’t buy anything you will not croak without, money is for necessities only.
Really, a traveler only needs three things: food, shelter, and transportation. If you only spend money on these necessities then traveling in most of the world is cheap; if you search for ways to get these necessities for the least amount of money possible then travel becomes even cheaper; if you find ways to cut out the need to pay for one or two of these necessities by providing them for yourself then traveling becomes very cheap.
I know that living this way seems limiting in many aspects, but rather than focusing on all of the things that I can’t do for lack of funds, I try to use my monetary parameters as a driving impetus to discover free or cheap ways to entertain myself. Rather than drinking in a bar, I found that I could just pick up a bottle of wine at a fraction of the cost and go into the mountains or forests to drink it; rather than paying to go on a city tour, I go for a walk into the neighborhoods and find local people to talk to . . .
I suppose traveling long term on an extreme budget takes a couple statements as its mantra:
A dollar saved today is a dollar to travel another day.
It is easier to save $20 than it is to make $20, which is actually the maxim of another perpetually nomadic friend of mine named Andy from hobotraveler.com.
The more effort I put into living cheaply, the longer I can travel, and the less I need to work.
I also began computing the costs for items and services in terms of days of travel, which has helped me better conceptualize the true price of things. So if one day of travel costs $10, then each time I spend ten bucks I am essentially peddling away one full day of traveling the world. So if I drop $20, that is two days of travel gone, $100 is a week and a half. By looking at prices in terms of time traveling and experiences lost, I found it much easier to say no and not buy something that I don’t really need.
Living frugally started out as a challenge but it soon grew into a great game. It became fun to develop strategies to live and travel well as cheaply as possible. This also provided a degree of focus and a heightened level of attention paid to my days that I would not have if I were a rich man.
Wealth and adventure are often inversely proportional: the more money you have the less real adventure you are going to experience. If you have all the money you could ever use, then traveling just about anywhere in the world is easy, dare I say, a little boring.
Now I suppose I could spend 100,000 dollars and have some pilot air drop me onto Everest while wearing a grizzly proof suit and roll down to the river basins of Bangladesh, and I suppose this would constitute as having an “adventure” that I would need a lot of money to experience, but this is not the type of adventure that I am talking about. I am talking about the adventure of living, the adventure of daily existence, and not a defined, intentional, and activity specific ideal of “adventure” that is often used to describe extreme sport activities.
If you travel poor enough, then even the simplest of activities — such as finding food and shelter — can become an adventure of sorts. If I were a rich man I would miss out on most of the fun of my days. If I ever found my back account over flowing, I would probably go home, as I am unsure if travel would be nearly as fulfilling without the daily challenge of acquiring and holding onto my personal resources.
Cheaper to travel than to stay home
I was surprised to discover in my early years of traveling that is vastly cheaper to travel the world than it is to stay at home. With the proper amount of discipline and drive to save money at every turn, I found that I could live very well on $10 a day. I found that I could alter my living strategies to meet my budget rather than alter my budget to meet the cost of a particular place. I set the amount of $10 per day as my expense cap in 2001, and I have averaged around this mark ever since.
Even in expensive regions like Europe, I found that it is not particularly difficult to live on under $300 a month. Though I had to adjust my living strategies in a major way to offset the costs of the region.
A traveler needs food, shelter, and transportation. These are the major expenses. If I could find ways to cut out one or two of these needs then I could find ways to travel significantly cheaper, and, therefore, much farther. In expensive countries, I found that I could cut out transportation and shelter costs by riding a bicycle, sleeping in a tent, and trading work in hostels for free accommodation. Whereas in cheaper countries I will often pay for the cheapest types of all three needs. In this way, the prices of expensive and cheap countries can all be balanced to come out to around $10 for one day of travel. If I want to travel perpetually then I need to always stay focused on keeping my budget balanced.
My wife, baby, and I are now in the Dominican Republic renting out an apartment in a hotel that has a nice courtyard, a pool, and is only a short walk away from two beaches. We have all the amenities that anybody could ask for and we are only paying around $22 a day for all three of us — a price which includes our room, food, and baby supplies like diapers and wipes.
Though we have to work a little to live this cheaply — we cook all of our own meals, only eat the cheapest locally grown food, rented an apartment rather than hotel rooms, and we very rarely pay for anything recreational.
One of the biggest surprises of traveling that I found was how well a person can live on such small amounts of money.
Additional anecdote on learning to live cheap in expensive places
The first time I went to Europe was in 2003. I had already been traveling in North and South America for around three years but this was the first time that I needed to make drastic amends to my travel strategy to meet the costs of traveling in the region. So I made up my start up funds while working as a gardener in Ireland, and then tried to hitchhike across the continent. I did not get too far, I went broke in Spain. Though this experience taught me a lesson: I would have to come up with another way.
For the next four years I steered clear of Europe and traveled through Japan, China, Southeast Asia, Central America, and Morocco.
In Japan, another very expensive country, I traveled mostly by hitchhiking, scamming the railways, and camping outside under a tarp that I converted into a tent. I had realized then that I found a way to cut two of a traveler’s three major expenses: shelter and transportation.I do not yet have a strategy for growing my own food on the road, but I know that I can easily cut out two of my biggest expenses when traveling in expensive countries.
I then returned to Western Europe in the winter of 2007 and bought a bicycle in Portugal. I outfitted this bike with a gear basket made from an old milk crate, and away I went. I again used tarps as my shelter. I was ecstatic at this point: I had found a way to travel in Europe on only the amount of money that it would cost for food, and as I was subsisting off of cheese sandwiches and vegetables my total expenses were falling around $5 a day. The only thing that I did not reckon into my equation was that the south of Europe still gets pretty cold in the winter. In the south of France I ended up bunking up with some friends for a while before making a break back to Morocco.
The following summer I returned to Europe. This time the weather, my travel strategy, and my location were all aligned, and I bought an old bicycle in the Czech Republic, outfitted it again with a milk crate as a gear rack, and rode across Eastern Europe. When I would arrive in a major city I tried a new strategy of trading web pages or a little work to hostels for a free place to stay. This tactic worked wonderfully, and I now had a way to travel for free and still have the luxury of a roof over my head.
Traveler ambitions and education
I suppose I have always had the intention to just continuously travel around the world, though the ideal did not really conceptualize itself as a truly solid way to live until I had been on the road for a couple of years. I thought that traveling the world as a vagabond would mean panhandling for food and sleeping in ditches. I had no idea that I could live as well as I do off of the amount of money that I spend.
I had no idea at the time that I began traveling that this lifestyle could become sustainable. I think the derelict projection of being the penniless wanderer flicking the bird at the rest of society is part of what attracted me to traveling as an 18 year old with more than a slight rebellious streak:
“I am not going to get a job, I am just going to travel ARRR!”
You know, I would actually say things like this. I did not know at the time that travel and work are inseparable, and that the penniless vagabond is just a man in search of a job. I could never have seen this coming ten years ago, but traveling has actually taught me responsibility, the value of hard work, that you only get what you give, and all of those other lame lessons that your parents try to instill in you. has matured my outlook on myself, my world, and my place in it. When out on the Road, alone — outside of the easy comforts of mom and home — your either sink or swim. To swim means learning ways to earn your keep, and I quickly found that I needed to chuck my romantic ideals of being a derelict and work.
I quickly found that my great escape from responsibility just lead me to being more responsible and self sufficient than I probably would have been if I had stayed at home. I have only been traveling for ten years now, and in terms of talking about a lifestyle this is not a very long time, but in this time I found that I am usually comfortable, well fed, healthy, and with more than enough money in my pocket to last out today and many more beyond.
While traveling I obtained a B.A. degree while studying in five different countries (from Global College, Long Island University), I learned the trade of archaeology, earned an English teaching certification, discovered how to farm, know that I never want to work as a gardener again, learned a few menial jobs, figured out website construction, and I now make most of my travel funds just from writing on my website, www.VagabondJourney.com/travelogue.
This was perhaps the most surprising thing about the traveling life that I have learned: that I can live a full and productive life while being permanently nomadic, that I could live very well homeless. When I got married and had my baby in 2009 I had little fear about continuing my travels as a family. Even though we move from place to place spending very little money, we still live very well.
Marriage and family
In the summer of 2006 I met the woman who would become my wife in Costa Rica. We then met up a month later completely at random at a farm on Omotepe Island in Nicaragua. I was sleeping on a hammock and she woke me up by knocking on my head like it was a door. I fell in love with her immediately. But the first thing that she said to me after my eyes opened was that she had already fallen in love with another man in the intervening month since I last saw her. I felt stale.
But we met up again two years later in Brooklyn, and it was here that I out competed my competition. We were married in the summer of 2009 and had our first baby before the season ended. We now travel the world as a family.
Any lifestyle is a sacrifice: you must choose certain values and leave others. The values and parameters of being a doctor mean that you can make a lot of money, have an excess of security, but the drawback is that you need to go to school for a decade and be hog tied to your profession for the rest of your life. In this way, all lifestyles demand certain sacrifices: a steadily employed doctor cannot usually travel the world perpetually and seize the benefits of meeting new people and experiences new places every day, but I cannot hope to ever have the money that a doctor makes. Any lifestyle is a trade off: you trade certain values and parameters for others.
As far as Petra and my family is concerned the benefits of our lifestyle is that we can live cheaply, I can work from home on our website, we can meet all kinds of different people, learn other languages and about other cultures, capture the artifices of history in person rather than from books, and live our education directly. The biggest drawbacks are that we are away from our families — Petra only occasionally gets to see her grandparents, her aunts, uncles, and cousins — and that we don’t have a solid base of operations or a support system for helping us raise our child.
Though we are attempting to come up with strategies to curb the potential isolation of Petra’s upbringing. Everywhere we go we try to introduce her to other little babies and children and try to make friends with their parents. Right now, Petra has some little Dominican baby friends who she plays with as much as a six month old can. My wife has befriended the mothers and they sit around all day talking about babies and raising children.
Traveling with a child is a big open door into a culture and makes meeting people and making friends in other countries much easier. Most adults in the world have made a child at one time or another, and it is something that they can relate to. We can hardly walk down the street now with Petra without befriending someone or being invited into conversation. No matter how different various cultures may seem there is always one constant: everybody makes babies. Traveling with a child automatically enters you into the great club of humanity, so to speak.
“I can’t walk anywhere now,” my wife just spoke, “without having to talk with all of Petra’s friends.” We have been in Sosua in the Dominican Republic for three weeks and already have friends all over town.
We are also always looking for other traveling families to befriend and try to share a common history with. It would be nice to have a group of four or five traveling families that we could make periodic visits with throughout the year, or have around ten bases around the world that we can travel in a circuit. It is my impression that this could give our lifestyle a little more of a solid base. Though the prime directive is to purchase a sailboat soon and travel by sea, though I need to start earning a little more money first.
Every day of traveling is not a stroll through paradise, and each new day presents new challenges, but, through everything, it is the best way that I know of to live.