review: 15 countries, 5 continents, 5 years

Since this blog is in its infancy I thought it’d be a good time to explain how we went from living paycheck to paycheck in 2007 to having traveled to 15 countries in 5 continents in just five years.

In 2007 I was finishing up my Masters degree in Kentucky while my wife, Jessie, was working on a six month launch for a hopeful internet startup based in suburban Chicago. We were making it on one salary with the help of my excess school loans. I had been in school consistently for the past 23 years and was starting to burn out, but I continued looking into doctoral programs because, let’s be honest, that’s pretty much the only direction someone with a psychology or philosophy and religion degree can go. For her part, Jessie had spent four years working in marketing and media, fields which are notoriously all-consuming. She was consistently putting in 50-80 hours a week. While she enjoyed the creativity of her work, she wanted her life back.

Jessie’s university roommate had been teaching in South Korea for the past two years and was really enjoying it. She recommended that we come over and give it a try. I was raised to be adventurous. By the time I married I had already been to over 60% of the states. And Jessie was learning to be adventurous as well; first when we moved 6 hours from Michigan to Lexington, and then again when she moved up to Chicago all on her own. So we decided to give it a try.

We moved to Seoul in April 2008 to teach English at an English Village. They paid for our flights. They provided an apartment and utilities for free. They even supplied us breakfast, lunch and dinner. So basically, each of us was earning the same salary as Jessie was making back home, but with zero obligatory expenses. And we made great friends with the 40 other teachers from other English speaking countries and Korea.

It ended up being the perfect move for us for many reasons: we learned a lot about a different culture, we paid back a huge chunk of debt, we made a lot of friends from all over the world and we listened to their travel stories. As they traded stories about their experiences in Asia, India and Europe we learned so much about how to travel cheaply, smartly and prolongedly. Most importantly, we discovered that we didn’t need to fear the unknown.

When we finished our contract we vacationed in the Philippines for three weeks before returning to Korea to work a quick, high-paying 5 week summer camp. One of the perks of working in Korea is your employer pays for your flight to and from the country upon completion of a year contract. We convinced our employer that a stopover in Hawaii was only $50 per person more expensive than a direct flight to Detroit. And so for $100 we bought a weeklong holiday in Hawaii. We had no accommodation cost because one of the friends we made in Korea had just moved there.

Another thing we’d learned about was the working holiday visa. Many countries offer this visa to anyone under the age of 30. It’s basically a one-year free pass to travel and work anywhere in the country. I was on the doorstep of my third decade, so we grabbed the visa and moved to New Zealand. (Of course, we had to stopover for free in Fiji for two days and stay at a resort with buy-one get-one free nights). We traveled New Zealand for 2 months, sleeping in the car or in a tent on the side of the road. Then we worked 2 months at daycare centers and slept in our sleeper van in a friend’s driveway (again, a fellow teacher from Korea).

We’d heard so much about Thailand so that was next on the list. But we had to fly over Australia to get there, so why not go there first? We hit the major east coast cities over three weeks: Sydney, Melbourne, Gold Coast, Cairns (Great Barrier Reef). We stayed in hostels and with several friends along the way. Then we tramped through Thailand and Laos for 8 weeks, riding elephants, petting tigers, volunteering, eating one dollar meals and getting six dollar hour-long massages.

Then it was back to Korea for a 6 month contract teaching English at a university. We had a visa issue (you can read about that here) so we went to Japan for a weekend to resolve that issue. Then we were flown home (by our employer) and loitered for several months, living with family, until my brother’s wedding. We really loved the places where we volunteered in Thailand and decided to go back to help long term. We bought a multi-city ticket (big money saver!) to Thailand with stops in Italy, Spain and Egypt.  We spent 5 weeks in Venice, Florence, Tuscany, Cinque Terre, Rome and Capri; another 2 weeks in Barcelona and Sitges; and another week in Cairo and Alexandria. We stayed with some fellow teachers from Korea in Spain. We crashed with a friend from one of our Thailand volunteering stints in Egypt.

When we got to Thailand we lived in a bamboo hut here for six months. Halfway through, we did a quick winter camp in Korea. Then we flew back to the states for several months until Jessie’s brother got married. That flight cost us $75 each. We used frequent flyer miles to book the trip. On that flight we also stopped over for free in Hong Kong for a day, where one of Jessie’s high school friends gave us a tour of the city and let us crash.

We are currently 8 months into our third “long” contract in Korea and looking forward to our next trip: Thailand, India, Nepal, England, France, Netherlands and Poland before landing back in the States. So, what does the future hold? Stick around and you’ll see!

We accomplished all this in 5 years because we decided to pursue five things: 1) living internationally, 2) making global friends, 3) learning how to travel hack, 4) adapting to a more minimalist lifestyle and 5) making decisions not based on fear.

The Sphinx at Giza