Okay so my friend Zach may be the coolest person you’ll ever meet.
We met just a few months ago in our Master of Management studies program at Duke and he’s also a fellow Michigan Wolverine, so of course we became friends.
We started chatting about Michigan things like football game days, how much better the Ann Arbor bars are, etc. and then somehow we got on the topic of traveling and he dropped the bomb that right after graduation he literally got up and left the country and backpacked around the whole freaking world. Casual.
After learning a bit more, I realized his adventures were just too good not to share so I asked to do a little interview with him. The following stories are 100% true to his journey.
What got Zach interested in traveling in the first place:
When he was younger, Zach went on family vacations frequently. But not just those touristy beachy vacations; he mainly visited impoverished and developing nations. His trip to Israel when he was just ten years old was the first time he left the continent. Not only did this spark his love for travel, but it also taught him that you could travel cheaply given the economic circumstances in many countries across the world.
The first time he traveled independently:
As a junior in college, Zach had a month off before studying abroad in Mexico and wanted to do something that would help improve his Spanish, so he volunteered at a boys orphanage in Peru. He found himself completely immersed in Peruvian culture – he knew only his host family (who spoke no English) and was a tutor at the school for five hours a day, five days a week. The city he lived in was very poor and very mountainous, making it hard to navigate around the area, which kind of forced him to adjust quickly.
The start of his backpacking adventure:
Following graduation at the University of Michigan, he didn’t have the money to travel quite yet so he worked at a café and a sports store while living at home in New Hampshire to earn and save a bit of extra cash. After saving about $11,000, he went back to Israel for five months and worked in a hotel as part of an internship program called MASA. He was cautious not to spend much and since he worked at the hotel he got free room and board which was a huge money saver. While in Israel, he picked up on some Hebrew, meaning that he was now trilingual. Jealous. There were other people also working for the same Israeli hotel that he ended up making friends with and a few of them eventually started traveling together. Zach took the initiative to plan a trip to Greece after their time working and that’s when the whole five month backpacking extravaganza began – with just $5000 in his pocket.
Zach’s main goal was to see as many countries as possible, so visiting fancy places, having nice food and drinks and staying in comfy hotel rooms were not part of the itinerary. He lived as simply as possible, only using money for accommodation, transportation and food.
Hostels were the main places he would stay, and were probably the nicest too. The cool thing about hostels were that he would meet other solo or group travelers and would even sometimes start traveling with them to the next location. He never really felt alone because there were so many people doing similar things who were so lively and inviting.
Couch surfing was another way to totally reduce costs… because it’s free. He would just crash on a “host’s” couch and call it a night. The first time he did this was in Bulgaria, and the guy didn’t have a profile (think Uber ratings) so you could say that was pretty risky. But the guy actually ended up being awesome and took him to a couch surfing “party” where he met tons of other travelers, some of which he still talks to today.
Apparently couch surfer hosts are all pretty neat because another one of his hosts had previously booked a trip with his girlfriend but she bailed last minute so the guy offered to take Zach on this entire planned adventure and ended up paying… for everything. Nice hotels, sight seeing, delicious food – everything Zach hadn’t had the pleasure of the past few weeks. The guy even took Zach to a country called Transnistria, which is not UN recognized, meaning its pretty much off the map. Pretty cool. At the end of the trip the guy kept fussing with Zach’s back pocket, which kind of freaked him out thinking he was trying to steal something, but the host ended up handing him 50 euros and walked away. If that doesn’t restore your faith in humanity I don’t know what would.
Yet another way to save on accommodation was to not have any at all. He would book overnight trains – not even the ones with beds – from one country to the next and just sleep in the seats. So probably not the most comfortable thing, but hey it works!
(Sydney Opera House, Australia)
Starting with his hotel experience in Israel, Zach often reduced costs and made some extra cash by looking for volunteer or work opportunities in the countries he visited. For instance, in Hungary he worked for organic farms in a little town of about 400 people. For just four hours of work a day, he got free room and board. His work consisted of things like picking apples, making cider and baking pies. So, definitely doable for anyone to do, especially if you get free housing out of it.
No phone, no problem… kinda:
The craziest thing to me was that Zach didn’t bring a cell phone or a laptop. So he was pretty much out in the world on his own. He would go to local businesses in town to use their computers and phones for free.
This bit him in the butt one time when he was supposed to meet his host family in Ukraine at a bus station but had been dropped off at the wrong station and didn’t have any way to communicate to his host that he would be a few hours late. He then had to figure out a way to communicate to a Ukrainian taxi driver to drive him to the correct station (that Zach didn’t know how to pronounce) and ended up running into his host right as he was walking out of the bathroom. Talk about good timing.
Not having a phone bit him in the butt a second time when his credit card stopped working while trying to buy a train ticket to get him to his next location. He had to walk one and a half hours to the nearest McDonald’s to get free phone service to get the card working. Then had to walk all the way back to the train station to buy the ticket, which ended up being a 13 hour train ride to Moldova from Romania. I now catch myself when I think that I had a “long day.”
(Annapurna Mountains, Nepal)
Other fun “Zach Facts”:
- He lost 25 pounds in 2 months because of how little he ate. No meat, no dairy, no sugar. He was pretty much a vegetarian and ate mostly rice and was able to pull this off because he was a solo traveler, which meant less social eating/drinking activities.
- He only had 3 sets of clothes with him throughout the whole trip and did his laundry in the sink with soap.
- In total he reached about 30 different countries throughout Europe, Asia and Latin America.
What was your favorite place and why?
He said that he had so many amazing experiences in such beautiful locations that he couldn’t pick just one. He mentioned Nepal and its incredible mountains and jungles, and also highlighted the Adriatic coast with its perfect climate and picture-perfect views. One trip that he said was definitely a favorite was a trip to Costa Rica just two days after his graduation from Michigan. He stayed in a hostel on a beach with some friends and surfed and partied for 5 days straight and never parted from his bathing suit. Which literally sounds like the perfect week to me. He ended by mentioning that its all about the people your with. That’s what shaped his fondest memories.
Biggest lesson learned from traveling:
First he realized that literally anyone can travel the world if they have a big enough curiosity to do so. Even women as solo travelers. He mentioned that he saw the most solo females travelers while in India and that it was actually just as common for girls to do what he did as it is for guys. So ladies – put those fears aside.
Additionally, besides finding his “minimum threshold for discomfort,” Zach was in search of finding the simplest things that transcend throughout humanity regardless of cultural or geographical differences <– he literally said that, I’m not making up big words. In the end, he found that we all want to live well, find happiness and simply survive and if you can understand how to do that for yourself and for those around you to make life better than you’re doing just fine.
What’s the next adventure??
Even though he loved all the adventures he’s been on, Zach finds himself slowly migrating back to his more homely place in New Hampshire. He recently got an offer to work at Deloitte in New York, which he is pretty excited about. The hopes are that he has a few months off after this Master’s program to go do some farming in New Zealand for fun before coming back and working in New York. He still wants to travel more in the future and plans to keep adventures a big part of his life.
(Big Island, Hawaii)
For a little closing note – take Zach’s advice to heart and seriously go out and chase your dreams if your curiosity leads you to do so. It’s so important to fill your life with exciting adventures and memories and there’s no better time to start than now:)