How Do I Do It?

People often ask me how it is that I find the time, money and energy to travel, write, take pictures and make films for such an extended period of time abroad.  So I have created this journal to answer those questions.

Firstly, I am not rich.  I have to work and budget my time and money just like most others.  But I know a lot of people that travel in a wide range of fashions.  And while their time and budgets vary greatly, they all have one thing in common: Energy.  So I’ll start there.

When I was a little boy, I would listen to my father talk about his career as a photojournalist in the military.  He would travel all over the world and photograph news and feature events for various newspapers and publications.  I am sure that I would look at him with wild, unflinching eyes as my mind also traveled to these amazing, far off places in this world that I didn’t know.

It was also about that time that I got interested in photography.  But not just photography.  Video and stills were both very interesting to me.  And because my father was also a budding wedding videographer at that time, I got some schooling in both.  He would teach me the various items related to the lens (aesthetic, composition, white balance, ASA/ISO, exposure time/shutter speed, film speed, and on and on).

I ate it up.  I started getting involved in photography competitions right in the third grade.  I even won my very first competition – first place.  It was a photo of a lone weed set amid the inverted backdrop of a reflected horizon in a pond.  Even today I remember that being a pretty cool photo.

My brother and I would steal my dad’s cameras and make short films about old westerns and comedies.  We would put on plays and act out parts.  At the end of our films, we’d write the credits on a piece of paper and slowly drag them vertically in front of the camera because we didn’t have access to the equipment necessary for creating the credit-scrolling effect.  We’d go to thrift stores and magic shops and spend our allowance on fake appendages, tinfoil coins and plastic cigars and we’d use them as props in our little productions.

Later, we would move to a small town in Kentucky where my brother and I would run the video equipment for our church to broadcast the sermon live on the air.  Sometimes I’d be in the booth while my brother ran the cameras.  And sometimes we’d switch.

As my teen years rolled on, my father’s wedding business grew and I’d find myself in his editing room, helping him on shoots and organizing lenses in the camera bag or just watching and learning the editing process from him.

I’d go on to join the military, myself.  And I’d have my own business in the following years and have other interests as well.  But all the while, I was always involved in some kind of visual medium – moving or still-life.  Creative writing, too, was always on the back burner as I’d always be writing short stories of adventurous tales in the back of class.

The energy, therefore, to stay on task and create visual productions that document the goings on around me, was simply a non-issue.  I would imagine it’s appropriate to describe photography and videography as one of my passions.  The drive to explore was given to me as I’d salivate over my father’s stories.  And therefore, documenting my travel experiences seems also to be a natural complement to that.

The second item, time, would probably be seen as an issue for most people.  In fact, I don’t think I know anyone with such an abundance of time that they take to travel because they need to fill some hole in their life or risk dying of boredom.  Time, I would imagine, is likely the biggest hurdle for us all.

However, the way that I find time to involve myself in travel and documentary productions is also closely related to how I find the funding as well.  So the last two issues I’ll answer together.

My family was always moving around.  We never really put down roots anywhere.  The longest I spent in one place was my high school years.  And even then it was the last two years (junior & senior years) that I spent in a different town than I started.  So it would reasonably follow that I don’t really have much of an issue relocating.  In fact, I am not sure that I even know how to settle because what I am comfortable with is seeing new surroundings about every couple years.  I just always seem to need new stimuli.

My independent travel started when I joined the Navy.  I went a few places while enlisted, but most of my travel was on my own, after I got out.  I would move to Texas because I wanted to see what life was like in the south.  Or I’d move to Kansas City to follow a promotion at work.  Sometimes I’d even move to a new place because I needed bailing out.  But whatever the case, I’d always find new surroundings quite frequently.

Finally, in 2003, I became interested in completing my lifelong interest in global exploration.  I started busying myself with research into ways to study abroad in my college program or volunteer at a school or project somewhere.  And eventually I found that there were a lot of options as long as I was willing to put in the legwork and dedicate myself to a certain amount of time and responsibility.

I had the passion and definitely would have made time.  But there was always one thing lacking:  money.

I knew what short term travel was like, and how I could use it to keep my wanderlust from taking over.  So I had to start thinking creatively about how to sustain my passions for longer periods of time.

The first thing that I came up with was a bicycle trip.  I assumed (quite accurately) that the three biggest hurdles to cheap travel were transportation, lodging and food.  A long distance bicycling trip took care of all three.  Transportation was only limited by my muscles (and the infrequent popped tire).  Lodging was taken care of with my durable, three-season tent.  And food generally amounted to pancake mix in the morning, spaghetti in the afternoon and one paid meal for dinner.

This regimen was great.  And from 2005 to 2008 it carried me through 12 countries.  While traveling by bike, I had plenty of time to stop and snap a photo, spend a few days writing and camping in one place or change direction at my own whim.  And during this time, I used my spring, summer and winter breaks from school to go on these adventures.  So there was plenty of time, plenty of energy and plenty of loan money to carry me through.

‘But what about when school ends,’ I thought.  What happens when the funds stop, the time is more sparse and the effort must be managed between my other commitments?

After my biking trips abroad, I found myself living in Alaska working as an environmental scientist.  It was fun.  But it was very expensive.  And leaving the country seemed more financially impossible than at any other time in my life.  But my experience abroad, combined with some creativity would help me plan the goal that would make the next five years of long term travel a real possibility.

Having had so many breaks from college, I thought about how it would be nice to work in the academic setting and have all this time off to go and travel.  I later combined this idea with my experience with traveling and working in new places (and of course, my interests in photography/videography) and POOF!  There it was!

I was going to become an international educator, live abroad permanently and use my time off to see and document the towns and countries around my host country that interested me.  And that’s just what I did.

I made my objectives early;  I knew that I wanted to be a teacher.  I thought about the hurdles; the things I needed to do to become qualified to teach in various settings.  And I made a commitment to finances; budgeting for long term travel and all the gear and supplies that I would need.

And so I started my master’s degree in education and international communications.  I packed up my “extras” and mailed them off to be kept in my dad’s basement.  I cleared my schedule for the next few years.  And I saved up every penny I could by the end of my contract working as a scientist and professor for the University of Alaska.

Since the end of 2009, I’ve been living and working abroad as an instructor in various forms.  I have worked in middle schools, high schools, at after school clubs and even my current position as a college professor.  I even worked freelance for newspapers and magazines as well as hosting live events and exhibitions to earn extra money from my photographs and videography expertise.

Most of the time, the teaching I did was for English or English as a Second Language (ESL).  But the longer I have been involved, the more flexibility I have gained for instructing in my areas of interest.  So I have also been able to start teaching in visual media (photography, graphic arts, videography, journalism, etc.).  And in between those times, I have gone on to visit neighboring countries, exploring all the amazing places that I had longed to do so many years ago and creating the works that I’ve amassed since I started.

At this point in my life, though, I have it pretty much down to a science.  The money that I would have spent at the pub on the weekend back home is now spent traveling and documenting during my breaks.  I have more respect for my professional objectives because they allow me to explore the world and pursue my passions.  The rewards that I thought were “rewarding” back home are some foreign lost cause that some corporate supervisor once tried to sell me.  And all the achievements that I might have pushed for in my settled life have been replaced by the type of gratification that I imagined my dad got when he’d tell me about his amazing stories.

Now, I plan ahead like a master craftsman and execute like a poised artist.  I have very little fear of failure because I know that I have the experience to accomplish what I set out to do.  And the advice that I once asked of others is now being asked of me.  And it’s not only humbling and rewarding, it also reminds me that I am doing well in life and that I have achieved real success.

So how do I do it now?

As far as traveling and documenting goes, I generally invite a teacher friend to come along and sometimes pay their way as we plan and execute a filming junket to a country of interest.  It’s helps with safety, it offsets the cost of lodging and it makes a huge difference in being able to film in various conditions.

I research my travels by connecting with other travelers in the same locations or areas of interest, going onto travel forums and discussion boards, watching tutorials about where I’ll go, checking the currency indices and exchange patterns. I find out the topography and think back to times when I have traveled through similar climes and conditions to sort out what gear to bring. I think about all the electronic needs I have and consider if several of them can be taken care of with one device (e.g. alarm clock/maps/translations/exchange rate/calculator can all be found on an iPhone), and I budget both time and money without a shred of emotion (refraining from being partial to my love for this or that type of food, for instance).  And many other things that have become a natural part of my planning process.

This last year has been the apex of all of my years of traveling and documenting.  And I’ve even been able to start organizing all those scattered journals, books, photos and films that I’ve collected throughout the years into a well organized online medium.  I’ve tried so many different things, that now I effortlessly get rid of what doesn’t work and focus on what does.

And at this point, I have several published books (and some that are yet to be released) of journals and research from my travels.  I have the freedom to head off to a national park or an island paradise and bring the right video equipment with me because I’ve been able to refine all my gear to the best stuff that will work for the specific filming needs I’ll encounter.  I’ll be sure to come back with great photos because of the technique that I have honed over the years of learning my lenses the hard way.  And I now have more than 100 short and feature length videos, nearly 100,000 images and a countless number of stories to share of my experiences.

In retrospect, I am sure that the travelers of the future will be making quick business of my accomplishments and far surpass what I’ve been able to do.  And I really can’t wait to see what the new generation of travelers will do, given the pioneering efforts of my generation – the first digital travelers.

I hope that this answered some questions as to how one might get out into the world.  And I hope that it inspires interested travelers to do just that.

Remember, bills will always be there.  So there’s never a better time to start putting money away for your goal of going global.

Here are my top ten points of advice for long term, live-abroad travel below:

  1. Make your plan and stick to it.  Be as specific as possible in setting your goals.
  2. Find out where you want to go and how much it will cost to live there for at least one year. Include costs for children/spouse/pets.  [If you’re considering a permanent move or a move which has you living in many different countries for many years, consider selling your things – which will help offset the startup costs.]
  3. Save up that amount of money and another $2000 for a return or open-ended flight. Plan to have money to buy a ticket home in the event of a family emergency.
  4. If you want to film, photograph or write, make sure you budget this equipment outside of your savings.  On the flight, try to bring this equipment as a carry-on, rather than checked luggage.
  5. Plan your profession: What works well overseas vs. what you do well at home? Find that job niche and start connecting to employers abroad.  Some hire six months to a year ahead of time.
  6. Plan your year: At least one full year is what is normally required by international contracts. So that means no pets, no rent, no car insurance, no cell phone bill.  Nothing.  The most you should be spending is in storage fees – buy for the year and set up options for longer.
  7. Tell your bank where (and for how long) you’ll be using your cards abroad.
  8. Travel light. Over-pack your wallet and under-pack your bags. Don’t worry, you’ll have plenty of time to accumulate an abundance of stuff overseas.
  9. Download Skype, set up a family email and Facebook account, create a community Drop Box account or create a blog through which others can easily contact you on a regular basis and keep up with where you are, what is happening and how to contact you in emergencies.
  10. Don’t go half-ass.  The first two months of any long term transition are the hardest.  Don’t be a pansy.  Push through and make it work.  You will be rewarded with a life changing year that you will never forget.

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