Traveler Spotlight: Kelsey Johnson / “What did I give up to travel the world?”

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Kelsey Johnson is a longtime friend of mine and has worked with me on award-winning travel television projects in the past (“Chasing the World” before it transformed into a cutting edge virtual reality series).

KELSEY:

It was the Fourth of July 2011. I was sitting underneath a table in our backyard while my college roommates screamed at each other overhead. We were playing a game of beerpong. I’d lost the previous game which meant that I was now “trolling,” a cruel and unusual rule which banished me to stay under the table for the remainder of the game. Even though it was a holiday, the whole scene felt redundant. We did this everyday, and as I sipped my red cup of Coor’s Light I began to daydream about where else in the world I could be at that very moment.

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After four years of college life with my friends, we were all ready to get out and do something completely new.

I’d only been out of the country twice—both times to Rosarito, Mexico but that was back when you didn’t even need a passport to cross the border and I’d been there to do community service only, not sight-see. My friend Champion had recently talked about moving to Australia and although I only had pennies to my name on that day, I vowed that I would move to Australia (or somewhere) too.

I got some art supplies and began decorating a piggy bank which I labeled “GTFO”—my “Get the F*ck Out Fund.” My first deposit was of $7.86 and for several months after that my piggy still did not feed on much more than pocket-change.

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Once I finished with my last semester of school, however, I was able to get a job. I signed up with an environmental organization where I would have the extremely difficult task of converting strangers in the street to monthly donors. I had a weekly quota for how much money I’d have to make—a dollar amount that was just bellow intangible. The pay, on the other hand, was a good deal higher than minimum wage and with these earnings I was able to save.

Alas after several months of moving back in with my mother and living like a monk—no social life and no frivolous spending—I almost had the $3,000 that I’d set out to earn. On one fateful Friday afternoon, though, I didn’t meet quota for the second week in a row and I suffered what I referred to as the “Noble Quota Death.” I had failed to meet the mark and I knew, standing in the cold outside of a Best Buy in Culver City, CA that I’d lost my job right then and there.

I could hustle to find another job and risk spending all my savings to support myself in the interim, or I could take a chance and move to Sydney with what I had. I’d heard it was easy to find a job in Sydney and that the wages were high. Wouldn’t that be better? I wasn’t sure of the answer to that question. All I knew was that it would definitely be a crazy risk, but that weekend I bought my ticket and knew that in less than a month I would be on my way to a world 8,000 miles away from anything I’d ever known before. The over-calculating “proceed with caution” Virgo in me was dying, but the adventurer inside of me was just beginning to breath for the first time.

Was this a good decision? The answer to that is one with mixed realities, including the downside periods of near-homelessness, credit card debt, and homesickness. But on the Fourth of July 2011 I’d only been to one foreign country in my life and by May 2013 I’d been to eleven.  Plus, one of those expensive “vacations” resulted in my helping to make a travel TV show pilot which has connected me to people around the world.

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Traveling on a budget definitely makes things more interesting. We rode in the back of this truck for 2 hours

By no means do I intend to say that this whole journey was easy. Success and failure are two sides of the same coin– different combinations of calculation and risk-taking with no set end. But, the way I look at it, no matter what side a coin lands on—the coin itself still has value. I will tell you what happened to me once I got to Sydney another time. In the interim though you can ask yourself: what would you give up to travel the world?

How 6 young friends started chasing the world

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Before I filmed an entire season of Chasing the World in cutting-edge virtual reality, my closest friends and I set off to create a separate project of the same name. It was a television pilot that we made right after graduating University in the Sumatran jungle, and it even won the Independent Television Film Festival.

This is the story of how that project came to be, which subsequently led me to create the virtual reality travel series today.

Well, I wish I could tell you that we fell into a windfall of funding. That would have made everything so easy! But the real story is much crazier— a chaotic mix of irrational decisions, blind optimism, hard work, and maybe even a little bit of fate.

Let me begin with a question:

What did you do when you graduated from school? Many people dive straight into a career. Or sometimes, they apply to go back to do more school. To us, both of those options just don’t seem right. I mean, we’re young, and we’ll only be this young once. There must be a way to escape a life sentence of doing what everyone else is doing. But… how?

Our Answer: Australia.

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Yes, we all just randomly up and moved to Sydney, Australia. Woah.

“What?! You’re moving to Australia?!” was the consistent reaction among our family and friends. But the six of us made the decision together: me (Danny), Arielle, Patrick, Kelsey, Katy and Champion. That’s right, we were temporarily moving to Australia, and with the purchase of a one-year working holiday visa ($350) we were departing the “Land of the Free” and entering the land of higher wages and no worries. Champion was the first to depart, proving to all of us that it was possible. Then, after a few months of penny-pinching until each of us managed to scrape together $3,000, our adventure down under began.

But we knew we wouldn’t last long unless we found a job in Sydney immediately.

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We called these tiny hostel beds home for a while…

The gritty details of our time together in Sydney will be saved for another post, so I’ll summarize by saying this: we lived in shitty accommodation and worked ridiculous odd jobs. We applied to a myriad of temp agencies and bounced between the weirdest jobs imaginable— cereal factories, hospital offices, beach bars, bakeries… you name it! We were backpackers living a carefree adventure and each weird experience was a chance to step out of our comfort zone. Furthermore, we soon discovered that Australia pays all of its employees generously ($25 an hour to stand on a street corner and gather signatures?! I’ll take it!)

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We did not just work… we did other things too

Suddenly, we found ourselves saving some money in a way we never could in America… too easy! We were on the other side of the world and we had each saved an extra $1,000 to do something crazy. But we wanted to create something in the process. Before long, the obvious conclusion came to us: a travel show.

I mean, think about it– what travel show out there actually captures what it’s really like to travel as a broke young backpacker? Most travel shows are scripted and revolve around a celebrity, or have massive film crews following them around. The stars had aligned for us to self-document and create something truly unique and real.

We soon discovered that round trip flights to Singapore were only $300 due to a lucky promotion. After scouring the depths of the internet in search of an exciting off-the-grid travel destination near Singapore, we stumbled across a message board where a lone faceless man recollected his remote adventure in the Sumatran jungle with a mysterious guide named Obi Wan.

 

And the rest is history.

 

A Crazy Adventure on the Back of Obiwan’s Motorbike…

 

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Here goes nothing…

This story is from 2012 when I was a beginner traveler. My lone adventure with Obiwan in search of a working ATM was definitely one of the craziest experience of this first trip to Sumatra.

To tell this story fully, I need to backtrack to when we first landed in North Sumatra at Medan airport. At the time, it was late at night, we were stressed and scared about our safety, so we did not take out too much money at the airport ATM. We could easily find an ATM later on our journey, right? Hahaha…. wrong.
 
 
When we ran out of money a couple days later, Obiwan offered to lend us money until he could take us to an ATM (best guide ever). However, by the fourth day it was time, and of course I volunteered to take everyones debit cards, then proceeded to hop on the back of Obiwan’s tiny motorbike.
 
 
I wish I could have filmed this, but I would have fallen off. It was the first time I had ever ridden on a motorbike, and we sped through the bumpy, twisted jungle roads for 30 minutes. We swerved around oncoming traffic where road rules just didn’t seem to exist until we finally arrived at a village with a single ATM in an enclosed booth.
 
 
Obiwan waved goodbye and entered some sort of shop/cafe, leaving me alone. Every single pair of eyes in the village lingered on me. Some people waved in curiosity… Others just stared. I was an anomaly in this place.
 
 
Cautiously, I entered the ATM booth and secured the door shut. Whoa, it was hot in here. The sweat from my forehead dripped on my wallet as I pulled out 6 debit cards. One by one, I entered the cards and pulled out wads of cash so large that I could barely shove them in my pockets.
 
 
A crowd began to form outside the ATM as people curiously peeked inside. I kept my foot at the base of the door to keep people from coming in.
 
 
I had one more card to go – Katy’s. I nervously laughed to myself at the massive American flag imprinted on the card. I was a walking target.
 
 
The crowd outside the ATM was growing by the second. I had to get out of there. Finally, the ATM spit out the last wad of Indonesian currency. I didn’t have any room left in my overflowing pockets, so I just held it against my chest and shoved my way through the crowd that had gathered around me.
 
 
After retrieving Obiwan, I felt more at ease, so I began to organize all the money and debit cards. And then, my worst nightmare happened. Katy’s debit card was missing. I had left it in the ATM!
 
 
Quickly, I rushed back to the ATM with a frantic look of worry on my face. The card was gone. I had to figure out a way to cancel Katy’s card. Immediately!
 
But then, I felt a small finger poke me on the shoulder. I turned around, and there stood a tiny old Indonesian man with missing teeth. In his hands, he held a debit card with an American flag image imprinted on the cover.
 
 
He smiled, handed me the card, and continued on with his day.
 
 
To this day, I can’t decide if I was a bigger idiot for leaving the debit card in the ATM… or for underestimating the kindness of the wonderful people of Indonesia.
 
 
I smiled and waved goodbye to the crowds of locals as Obiwan drove us back into the jungle. And, for some reason the drive home was not nearly as scary as I remembered.
 
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Traveler Spotlight: Kelsey Johnson / “I can’t believe this happened to me in the jungle…”

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KELSEY:

One of my favorite things about my trip to Sumatra as a whole was discovering how much the locals and I had in common as far as music tastes. I was so surprised the first night when we walked into the bar and they were playing “Welcome to the Jungle.” I had my ukulele and quickly befriended the “musicians” of the village and would often sneak off to have little jam sessions. One night Katy and I were at one of the tiny restaurants after hours. One of the guys was playing guitar while I sang “Lighting Crashes” by Live. Suddenly it started raining this incredible downpour and the power went out; the only light was from the tiny red ends of lit cigarettes. We kept on singing and right as we got to the “lightning crashes” chorus part this huge zap of lightning hit down. The whole room was lit up and everyone was smiling. I had been debating staying back from the jungle hike but one of the guys told us “well now you gotta go- Mother Nature she’s calling you!”

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We didn’t catch the power outage on camera, but it led to more jam sessions with the locals

What happened in the jungle was even more amazing. As I mentioned in a previous post, I am not the most athletic person and the trek was definitely turning out to be a bit of a challenge, complete with mud and bugs. We’d crossed our fingers that the jungle had gotten all of the rain out of its system in last night’s storm but the sudden rumbling of deep thunder told us we were wrong. The rain came quickly as ever. Everyone else put on their ponchos but I was overheated and welcomed the lukewarm water on my skin. I remembered, though, that my ukulele was exposed and I needed to cover it. Our second guide stayed back with me while Obi and the others continued ahead. I put my yellow poncho on over myself and my backpack and realized that this actually felt better. “I feel so warm and fuzzy!” I thought to myself, a bit delerious from the day’s rough terrain workout. But I realized something was off– I literally felt warm and fuzzy.

 

I looked down and saw in my hand… another hand. The hand was orange and hairy. This hand belonged to an orangutan! She held her baby in her other arm and I realized that her protective instincts could be triggered easily. I stayed calm and kept walking forward, the three of us hand in hand but it didn’t last for much longer as Champion had come back to check on me and screamed “monkey!” The orangutan let go of my hand and everything slid into chaos. Our guide quickly pulled out a long stick of bamboo which he tried to bait her with, but she took our backpack full of supplies and food instead. He screamed for us to run and I ran up this muddy, steep mountain faster than I’ve ever gone in my life. You would have thought a velociraptor was chasing after me.

 

At the top of the mountain, Obi, Danny, Arielle, and Katy were waiting for us. I told them all what had happened and they told me to sit down– thinking that I was literally out of my mind with exhaust! Our guide came up shortly after, with the backpack safely in tow, and he explained that everything that we told them was true. I know that Obi Wan has experienced a lot of crazy things on these treks but the look on his face told me he was truly shocked. I still laugh when I think back at this wondering exactly how long had we been walking like that. I realize how lucky I am that nothing worse happened. I know one thing: that 24 hours is something I will never forget!