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.

 

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!

Traveler Spotlight: Kelsey Johnson / “5 Things I’ll Change Next Time I Travel”

KELSEY:

Traveling in many ways is like the ultimate sport.
 

There are time changes to deal with, illnesses to avoid, languages to comprehend. Traveling presents you with a load of physical and mental challenges that you get better with over time. I am no travel pro, but there are a few things I would do differently the next time I travel, minor tweaks I’d make to improve my personal experience.

The 5 Things I Will Change the Next Time I Travel:

5) Be More Physically Adventurous

I’ve never been great at sports so doing athletic activities on holiday has always seemed daunting to me. Before our jungle trek in Bukit Lawang, Indonesia, my stomach was a volcano of roaring nerves. I almost considered staying back but after chatting with the locals I decided to go, and going was one of the best things I’ve ever done. Sure I may have been one of the slower members of our group, but that is actually the reason why I had a crazy chance encounter with a  wild Orangutan (more on that later). Plus, you get the best travel pictures in the  places that take the most work to get to. That being said…
 
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Here I am trekking in the rain in the Sumatran Jungle with cameras following me around. Madness.
 

4) Take More Pictures

I really can’t stand when someone has to pause a trip every few moments to take a photo. Like, “A trash can, wow, let me instagram this– just give me 20min to choose a filter.” My disdain for these people has led me to be someone who avoids taking pictures altogether. That, however, sucks when you get home and have nothing to show for your travels. The next time I travel I want to stop being so cool and embrace my inner tourist. Who cares if you slow down the group for a minute to grab moment. Remember the rule: Pics or it didn’t happen.
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Was this an inappropriate time for an Instagram? Okay, maybe… 🙂

3) Pack Less

There’s a part of me that feels like Occam’s razor rules my life. You know the rule that says that if I don’t pack my dressy gown and motorcycle boots, Brad Pitt is going to show up at my hostel door and offer to take me to an evening gala on the back of his bike. Fortunately/unfortunately this has never been the case. Instead I’ve usually ended up lugging around a giant backpack full of unnecessary outfits and styling tools (oh my god, what if I want to crimp instead of flat iron?). I’ve begun practising the Parisian fashion mindset of bringing a few items that can be styled many ways. I know my back will thank me and I’ll have that extra space for anything new I do pick up along the way.

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The Parisian fashion mindset is all you need.
 

2) Take Myself Less Seriously

It was only towards the end of our trip to Indonesia that I finally decided to get my carefully posed hair wet and let the Afro out. I was so worried about what people would think or how I’d look in pictures, but swimming in a natural waterfall washed all those reservations away, along with the makeup off my face… Traveling is the perfect reason to let go of self consciousness, forget about how you appear, and try new things. Who cares if you don’t get the hang of using chopsticks right off the bat… you will feel like a king when you finally reach your mouth without losing a noodle.
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1) Tell Myself Not to Sweat the Mistakes

Getting lost, running off schedule, and booking sub par accommodations are all a part of the travel experience. Things like this can be especially stressful when you’re traveling in a group or running on a tight budget (or are a plan-obsessed Virgo, like me), but mistakes are also inevitable. There are so many times where I’ve looked back at myself and thought “Man, why was I tripping over that?” Remember what Pumba said.
 

Breathe in: hakuna breathe out: matatta.

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What’s your 20/20 hindsight on traveling? Share your wisdom in the comments!

xo Kels