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.