How to Experience the World as a Long-Term Backpacker with Travis King
In this episode of the Expat Empire Podcast, we will be hearing from Travis King. Travis followed the standard life path to grad school in the US until he was 27 years old when he realized he had never made a decision for his life, only for his resume. He soon bought a one-way ticket to South America and traveled around the world for over 9 years. Though the pandemic changed his travel plans, he has been living in Mexico with his partner, building businesses, and taking on new projects over the last two years.
Travis has covered most of the world in his travels and serves as a guide to new adventurers at hostels and in his work. Listen to this episode to hear more about his adventures and get inspired to start making some of your own!
LEARN in this episode:
✔ What it’s like to start and end a multi-year journey around the world
✔ How you can make money and save money while traveling to extend your trips
✔ What to keep in your backpack when traveling for the long term
FIND Travis at:
► Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Not-That-Anyone-Asked-Finding-ebook/dp/B08LG5V4X4/
► Website: https://www.traviswking.com/
► Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/traviskingtravels/
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Welcome to the Expat Empire Podcast, the podcast where you can hear from expats around the world and learn how you can join them.
Hey guys, before we get to the interview, I want to remind you that we’re offering free 30-min consulting calls to anyone interested in moving abroad.
Whether you’re thinking about retiring somewhere warm, starting an international career, or becoming a digital nomad, we’re ready to help you think through the next steps in your journey.
Send us a message at https://expatempire.com to schedule your call today!
With that said, let’s start the conversation.
David McNeill [00:47]: Hey Travis, thanks so much for joining us today on the Expat Empire Podcast.
Travis King [00:52]: You’re welcome, man, thanks for having me on. I appreciate it.
David McNeill [00:53]: Yes. It’ll be good to hear a lot about your experiences, of course, traveling around the world and more recently, I guess, slowing down a little bit as far as your travels, perhaps, but I’m sure we’ll hear a lot more about it. I’d love it if you could tell us a bit about your background first. Where you’re originally from, where around the world that you’ve been or lived so far, I’m sure it’s a long list so you can abbreviate it and where you’re based right now? That would be great.
Travis King [01:18]: Awesome. 37, I guess, to give some context on age and how long I’ve made it in this world, on this journey. I started in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. I was actually born in Minneapolis. I don’t remember it because we moved when I was three, but then I was raised in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. That’s what I claim is my home where I was brought up. That’s why I’m still a diehard Green Bay Packers fan, all that stuff. I worked in the non-profit sector through my twenties. I was like an old-school camp counselor. All I knew I was really good at was hanging out with kids. So, I worked in the non-profit sector working with disadvantaged youth running after-school programs. I ran a group home in New Orleans for a couple years called Boys Hope Girls Hope. It was a really cool job, my first real job.
Then I went back to grad school, actually in Milwaukee at Marquette. I got a fellowship to the Trinity Fellow program, which is like a really cool grad school program basically. After those two years, I just got it stuck in my head like, whenever I ever made a decision for my life and not for my resume. That thought led me to book a one-way flight into South America and then fast forward nine years, here I am, still just out in the world. I haven’t really lived in the states since I was 28 and I’ve lived in a lot of places since then.
The memoir that I wrote that I’m sure we’ll talk about, I broke up into four continents. I guess as a way to abridge the list of places I’ve been to, those four continents are South America, North America, where I lived in Alaska, Hawaii, this island called Utila where I did my Dive Master off the coast of Honduras. I lived sort of all those places for a little while each and then I lived in Australia, so that’s continent three in the book. I did Australia for like a year and a half until I was forcibly removed from the country for breaking the terms of my visa, also a good story in the book. If you want to know more about that, we can chat through that a little bit. It was a pretty hectic couple of days for me, and then also a lot of Southeast Asia. That’s the last continent in the memoir that I wrote.
Since then, I’ve also been all over Europe. Cape Town is one of the places I first went internationally that made me feel like the world is open to me. I made a lot of really close friends and connections there in South Africa, so I really love Cape Town. I’ve been all over the map, man. The more you travel, the more you find other places that people talk about, that seem interesting and that make you want to go.
I don’t think of my travels as being done by any means at this point, but since the pandemic I’ve basically just been in Mexico. My partner is from Mexico City. We spent the first 10 months of the pandemic in Mexico City and then started plotting and scheming how to get down to where we live now, which is Puerto Escondido on the Oaxacan coast. It’s a magical little surf town, Bohemian sort of artsy neighborhood that I live in called LA Punta that I really, really, really love. It’s just got really connected energy where I just showed up at this co-working space today to chat to you. I said hi to five people on the two blocks walk over here because it’s a really small little connected town. I really love it here.
Yes, my girlfriend and I spent every dollar I have in the world on a piece of land in this neighborhood. I’m trying the staying put thing now. I tried the moving around thing for like nine years and now I’m going to try the staying put thing. I took all my money out to the bank and put it in a little chunk of Oaxacan land and I’m pretty happy about it.
David McNeill [04:19]: Sounds great.
Travis King [04:19]: That fast-forwards us to today, I guess.
David McNeill [04:22]: Yes, absolutely. Time to dive into it. I guess maybe the best place to start is a bit at the beginning. Just to get some clarity on your thought process, and as you said, that question about doing something for you as opposed to your resume. How did that originate and how did it germinate I guess, and ultimately lead to that one-way trip?
Travis King [04:43]: That’s a great question, man. I try to think through this and write it out a little bit in the book as well. I remember as a kid, my dad having a National Geographic Magazine collection. I would lay on a rickety old bench press in the suburban basement, just flipping through these pages. Where are these people? How can I meet other people that are so different from me or whatever? I remember, Papua New Guinea specifically, always stuck in my head as a kid. I was like, I want to go there. I still never made it. Hopefully, I will at some point.
I just had these swirling images of what the rest of the world outside of Milwaukee, Wisconsin might be like. I was always just really curious. Then I did my fair share of trying to see as many of the 50 odd states as possible in my twenties and whatever. I went to the gulf and did a lot of volunteering after hurricane Katrina. I tried to see as much of the country basically, but then at some point during grad school, that was when I was 26 to 28, I just really felt like I needed to go, use my passport and go see something beyond Canada, basically. That was the only place I’d really been with my passport. I’d done this trip to South Africa. That made me feel like I can have success if I go somewhere even further afield and more exotic, more out of my comfort zone.
Then that thought just really planted itself in my brain and started growing. I couldn’t really stop the feeling of, I knew that if I took a job with this brand-new master’s degree in the non-profit sector, it was going to be like a commitment. It would be a three or four- or five-year commitment. I could see the house in the suburbs and the three happy kids and the dog and the fence following shortly after. I didn’t really necessarily want any of that. It felt like a foregone conclusion if I kept pursuing this path where my resume was dictating every decision I made.
I did really just get it stuck in my head, all those conversations when you’re finishing any degree, every professor, every older person, all the baby boomers I know were like, what are you going to do with this degree? Do you have any jobs lined up? Do you want me to put you in touch with this person or that person? I just started telling people that I was going to South America. I was like, that’s how I’m going to answer this question. The last semester I had in grad school, I was just telling people I’m going to go to South America. I luckily had a one-way flight anywhere that Spirit airlines flew because they had messed me up like a year earlier on a flight, so they gave me a voucher, two vouchers actually, anywhere they flew. I used that to get myself all the way to Aruba on a one-way flight. Then I caught another short little puddle hopper plane to get into the Caribbean coast of Columbia. That’s where the book starts and where the journey starts.
That was nine years ago. I actually just passed my nine-year anniversary on September 5th this past September. It’s been a whirlwind since then. I still love Wisconsin. I love where I’m from. I try not to talk too bad about where I grew up and all that stuff because a lot of it made me who I am and I’m very grateful to have the upbringing I had. In the end I’m so happy that I push myself to get through all the uncomfortable feelings that the beginning of travel often has for folks. Now I have this sense that I could end up anywhere in the world and find a job and find new friends and make community and be happy. That’s a pretty cool empowering feeling of traveling I think for a lot of people once you push through all that early uncomfort.
David McNeill [07:57]: Could you talk a bit about some of those initial, maybe doubts or challenges and those different feelings that you just mentioned? You could talk about that a little bit more and what you experienced and of course maybe some of the strategies that you’ve come up with or, how you’ve managed to deal with them and really embrace it over the last nine years.
Travis King [08:17]: That’s a great question too, man. I keenly remember the feeling I had when I was first going to South America because I had no plan. I didn’t know anybody there. I spoke like five words of Spanish. I remember being nervous about the money. I’d never been anywhere where there’s like totally different money and like a different conversion rate. All these things and then on top of that, my parents were scared. Growing up in the states we’re all made to feel like Columbia’s a scary place for whatever reason. Columbia’s one of my favorite countries in the world, it turns out, a really wonderful place to be. It has crime like every other country has crime, sure, but it’s also just a really great place to go backpacking and to check out.
I showed up there alone without any language, without a real understanding of the culture or whatever. I knew I was made to feel scared so that was there. Honestly, I remember, when I flew into Aruba, I went to the duty-free shop and just bought a bottle of whiskey. I’m a Wisconsin boy, this whiskey will help me feel like I’m okay. If I need to just take a shot of courage, I can. I was holding this bottle of whiskey at the airport and the security guard looked at me. He was like, are you lost? I was like, Oh man, I thought I was keeping that internal. I thought I was hiding it quite well, that I was scared and out of place, feeling as I was, but it was obviously apparent on my face when the security guard asked me, I was just lost.
I was really weirdly stubborn about paying for cabs at the time. I didn’t want to give any money to a cab. I was prepared to walk with my little backpack on. Then, this German woman who was teaching there, her name is Anna. She offered to give me a ride into town. Then as we got to talking, putting the bag in the car and on my way to town, she was like, actually, I have a spare bedroom. You seem like a really nice guy. If you want to just crash in my spare bedroom, let’s do that because I admitted, I had no idea where I was even staying. I didn’t book anything ahead.
That was like my first real taste of travel serendipity. I stayed with her for a week and got my bearings a bit. Then, even when I made it into Columbia, I remember trying to get water and I was practicing Spanish in my head and walked up to this little tienda and looked at this lady, then just froze and walked away and was thirsty, the next two hours. Man, I got to get this figured out. I’ve got to feed myself and drink water and find places to sleep and stuff. I totally remember what it felt like in those early days of just trying, it’s like fake it till you make it almost right. Just keep going, keep trying to make it. Eventually, you’ll settle into this, hopefully, it’s where my optimistic brain kicked in. Thankfully, I have all the time with me.
Years down the road, when I did get comfortable traveling, I remember just always really loving to find that person, that I was in my early travels at the hostel, who you can tell they’re uncomfortable. Maybe their first time away from the states or Canada, wherever they may be from. I always love finding those people and talking to them and making them feel like, you got this man, it’s cool. Just figure out what you’re going to do for dinner tonight. Maybe make a plan for tomorrow. You don’t have to think that far ahead, any of that. Just enjoy – we’re in a cool place in a foreign country together. Let’s just have fun.
I totally remember the scared puppy. That’s how I describe it in the book, a scared young pup. Eventually, I grew into myself as a traveler and the world felt a lot more open and a lot less scary. I think it just takes time for anybody really. I think anybody that tries to act like they weren’t scared in the beginning, totally lied, no matter what, you’re totally out of your comfort zone. It’s totally different from everything you’re used to, the language, the money, everything is different. I think it’s really intimidating, but then that feeling of going from being scared to being comfortable is exactly where you’re growing as a person. That’s how you evolve and become more yourself, a better version of yourself.
David McNeill [12:01]: Yes, absolutely. Of course, you went without much knowledge of the Spanish language without necessarily much of a particular plan. How did you really go through the process of figuring out where to go to next? It sounds like you said a bit of travel serendipity, but of course, you’re going to meet different people who might drag you along for the next adventure or someone, like you said, that lets you stay in their house or things like that. How did you figure out where it was next? Even as you said across these different continents. When did you know that it was time to jump on a plane? I assume at some point that was required, you had to make a decision there. How did you think about the big overarching plan or direction?
Travis King [12:45]: That’s a good question. I guess the long version, when to get the flights, I would always do that well ahead of time for one to save money. It’s like one of the pro tips I give in my book. I would look up where the cheapest international cross-continental flight is. Say I was going from Asia back to the states at some point. I knew it was going to be for the holidays. Say it’s September. In three and a half months, I need to get a flight from Southeast Asia back to the states. I would just look up which airports are the cheapest. It turns out in Asia back to the US, it’s definitely Hong Kong, by a couple hundred dollars. So, then I would just buy a flight out of Hong Kong, back to Chicago or something for three months in the future.
I kind of love that way of traveling, because then it’s like you have this big white canvas in front of you to fill in the time between that flight and where you are currently. It’s like whatever, I have this much money and this is my flight back to my home country and then I’ll fill in this white space between with whatever feels good and whatever feels interesting, like volunteer opportunities or just traveling with other friends.
To the first part of your question of, how do you pick where to go next and what sort of makes the path in front of you? For me, it was like, I didn’t really realize this either when I first left on that first trip to South America, but I’m like a born hostel hopper. I just love the hostel culture. I remember the first hostel I really fell in love with was this place called The Dreamer in Santa Martha. There, I made my first little travel crew and we did everything together for that week, like cooking family dinners together, planning the coffee plantation tour the next day together, all that stuff. Then like in every hostel too there’s flyers on the wall for other hostels that are associated with this one or other fun hostels. Then all the conversations on the road too are just like, where have you been? Where are you going? All that stuff. The advice offered up there is just invaluable. I never cracked a travel book or travel guide ever. Just chatted to people and looked at the flyers on the hostel wall, and then would tag along with whoever’s going.
At some point too I remember, Medellin is just a crazy party town. I was having party night after-party and I felt like I needed to escape this party town. This young Irish kid named Brian, one morning when I was like, “Dude, I’ve got to get out of here.” He was just like a buddy that I made in the hostel. He was like, I’m going to come with you man. That decision by this dude who was like seven or eight years younger than me, a crazy Irish guy that can sleep through a train riding past his head and is the best version of himself when he got like 20 beers in him. He’s just a really funny Irish dude. He became my first best travel mate. He and I made all of our plans after that together. We picked up people along the way.
A couple weeks after that we had a seven- or eight-person travel family that we were making every decision with together. With that group, I did the Colca Canyon and Machu Picchu and Salt flats in Bolivia and Amazon in Bolivia. The last couple months of that first trip to South America, I was with the same travel family. That was just a really magical, special experience for me and made me feel more like, man, this is also possible because you can find your people on the road and form the fastest, closest, deepest connections. Create a lifetime worth of memories together in a few months, and then you know it’s impermanent and that’s part of the magic of it.
That first travel family had people from New Zealand, Australia, Scotland, Ireland with Brian, me, and one other American. We just loved each other’s company and it felt so fun and comfortable to do, to make all these choices, and to go into the fray together. Wherever we were headed next, whatever overnight bus we were getting on, we were doing it together. It was just a little family. Awesome.
David McNeill [16:19]: I know this is getting into some of the technicalities, but I’m really curious how you were able to frankly, fund this great travel adventure because I think a lot of people think about that part too. For some people, it’s some type of remote work and for others, it’s maybe working on the road and finding those opportunities. It’d be good just to know how you were able to make it happen because maybe some of the other listeners or viewers out there are curious about how they can do it themselves.
Travis King [16:44]: For sure, I think it’s a great question. I think it’s actually one of the notes I had from some of the people that read the first version of my book, is to like explain it even a little more. I do think it is something that we’ll leave people wondering if you don’t say how much you spent, where that money came from, all that stuff. For me, I had a little money from a grandma who had passed away. I mentioned in the book a couple times I would swipe my card that my grandma money was on and just be, thank you, grandma. In my head, it was maybe $5,000 or something.
Before I left, I mentioned I left in September, I’d finished grad school in May. I had June, July, August to just try to save. I ended up taking every shift at this bar that I could take. Then I also was like petty cabbing on the nights that I wasn’t bartending. Basically just biking a bike around Milwaukee with my fellow Wisconsinites behind me. Then it was just for tips. But that job, I would make a couple hundred dollars every night biking people around as a taxi service. I just tried to save and I think I departed on that first trip with about $8,000 or $9,000 in my bank account. At the time actually too, it was the most I’d ever managed to save up and have there ready for my use.
Then I found the first trip was about five months in South America. I found that I was able to do it all for about $1,000 a month. I was definitely staying in cheap hostels. I never got a private room. I always was in a ten or eight-person dorm room, I took overnight buses to save money. I just did it all. You start to figure that stuff out pretty easily too, when you’re on the road. You watch and you learn from other backpackers around you. A lot of meals were just bananas and peanuts, that kind of thing. I didn’t mind, I was like, this is cool because I also felt this can go on as long as possible, as long as I have money. Every choice I made that helped me save a couple of dollars also felt productive and rewarding in a way.
I really got very used to being clever with money and saving money. I just wrote a blog post about this. It was something like six ways I learned how to save money while traveling that will save me money for the rest of my life, something like that. I work out at playgrounds when I find them wherever in the world. I cut my own hair, never pay for water because I carry a water bottle wherever I go. I just try to be really creative and crafty and making sure that my money stretches.
Then at some point, maybe like two years into the travels, I started looking for volunteer opportunities or work opportunities. I worked at a bar when I was doing my divemaster at Utila. I started working at a bar when I was there. From there I went to Alaska to try to work at Alaska because that’s the Alaskan dream. Go there and make $10,000 and keep traveling kind of thing. I didn’t quite have that success but I did make some money in Alaska. When you can see the financial light at the end of your tunnel, but you want to keep the adventure going, it forces you to just try to figure out what you can do to keep it going. That’s also why I ended up going to Australia because I was able to get a working visa. When I was in Australia, it was hard to find a job at first, but then eventually when you get work in Australia all the jobs, they pay really well. I was able to come up quickly and that was really nice.
Then at the end of my book, I won’t give a spoiler but I started to realize this might be it. I had passed 31, which is basically the age that you can get a work visa for New Zealand, Australia, and a lot of the other countries that have this work reciprocation visa with us.
David McNeill [20:07]: Is that the working holiday visa?
Travis King [20:09]: Yes. It basically gives you a year to go work, whatever job you want, legally in the country. I had outgrown the ability to do that. I was like 32 and then I got forcibly removed from Australia. I was just in Asia, but I got on work away when I was there and I started just like trying to find every volunteer gig I could find just so that my housing would be covered and some of my food would be covered.
I remember, there were stretches then where I was helping rebuild concrete houses in Tacloban in the Philippines that had experienced one of the worst hurricanes in their history. I remember I could make a two-week period pass and only spend like a hundred dollars because my housing and my food was covered. Just spending money here and there on some extra food or some beers or whatever. When you get in that mindset of, I want to make this adventure go on for as long as possible, you can figure out how to really save money on the road. I think in the end, I always say, I can have a lot of fun in most of the countries I would want to travel for less than a thousand dollars a month, and then if you stop and volunteer, you stop at work you can make it even stretch longer.
I can do two months in South America for what a lot of people I think would go spend in two weeks at a resort or in the other ways that people choose to travel and vacation. I think it really is just a shift in the mindset of how you want to travel. I’d definitely prefer like one-way flights and no real plan and just trying to see how long this amount of money can afford me to go.
David McNeill [21:39]: That makes perfect sense. As you said, a lot of good financial management tips in there anyway that can help people regardless of their plans or their situation. It’s good to hear that you are able to make every dollar count.
Travis King [21:52]: Yes, for sure. What I’ve started to come to realize now is a lot of those things that you start to do on the road, they stick with you for life. I still cut my own hair. I still don’t pay for water. I still don’t pay for a gym. It’s all the stuff that I started doing while traveling just to stretch every dollar. Yes, I think it’s like the way that I’ll kind of probably stay ahead of my finances for forever, just being creative and using a trick that I can figure out.
David McNeill [22:16]: What would you take with you when you were fully on the road during that time? What was your typical backpack or situation around that? I can imagine there’s a desire, and I’ve had this before earlier in my travel days and I’ve certainly never traveled as long consistently as you have. Wanting to maybe take more than I needed to and it ends up weighing you down or you can’t buy and keep that one thing that you want. Maybe you don’t really buy anything on the road anyway, but there’s some souvenirs that might be nice to have, even if they cost practically nothing, just as a reminder of your adventure. How did you manage your space? What were the most important things that you took with you and of course going across different geographies, different seasons, things like that?
Travis King [23:00]: All my trips were long enough where I just felt like I needed to have warm clothes and a bunch of tank tops and board shorts as well. What my pack had in it and what I chose to travel with definitely evolved and kept changing. I think on the first trip I brought hiking boots and a tent. I used the tent three nights in five months and I used the hiking boots, never. Even when I went on a hike, I was like, these tennis shoes are more comfortable than the hiking boots, why would I even put them on?
I learned some stuff on that first trip. When I put my backpack on myself I look like a backpacker in the mirror. I was like, Yeah, I should have a tent. I should have hiking boots. Turns out I used neither of those things. Then like I mentioned earlier, I play guitar, not like an expert, but I really enjoy it. Especially sitting around a campfire at a hostel somewhere, it was really nice to be able to break it out. I ended up in the fourth month of my first trip in Bolivia buying a $100 travel guitar at a music shop in La Paz. I traded the tent out for that, that became part of something that I felt was worth caring for me. I basically had like a little backpack that I would put on my chest when I was going to the airports with a big backpack on my back, that had all my clothes and everything. Then this little travel guitar that I could sling over my shoulder. That was sort of my get up for those four years that the book covers. I got it down to what I thought was valuable and what was taking up space inside of my bag.
It’s mostly just old clothes, clothes that are falling apart. That’s another piece of packing and travel advice for especially anybody from the states or Canada. I remember having this weird misconception that I needed to get everything here before I leave because, what if I can’t find it? The world has everything, every country I’ve ever been to has pharmacies and clothing stores and whatever shoe stores. Whatever it is that you lose or break or forget to bring, you can just buy it when you show up wherever you’re going. I just think it’s a weird, American misconception to think that you have to get it here before you leave here because once you get over there, they won’t have shoes. Of course, they have shoes. Of course, they have boxers, of course, they have sunscreen or whatever it might be.
David McNeill [25:10]: Absolutely. Even with electronics, it’s only gotten easier. It seems like most of the things you buy these days can take any voltage or obviously you can get the converters and things like that. It almost seems like the process of the things that I was concerned about. I mean, like you said, you can probably find some clothes which fit maybe, even from a thrift shop or something like that if you need to, but those electronics were harder back in the day, but now everything’s so portable. Everything’s smaller, lighter and takes ultimately kind of all of the voltages. I guess maybe you have to just change the plug potentially, but that’s about it.
Travis King [25:47]: Having a great international or a universal adapter or charger, that is like something I would totally say is good advice to pick one out that will work wherever you go. Then it takes out that worry to make sure that your phone will still be able to be charged or whatever else you use will still be able to be charged. Now I look at my clothes and the things that I’ve acquired over the last nine years. It’s so fun to be like this shirt’s from here, and these shorts are from here and this hat is from here. All my stuff, just this weird mishmash of things that I picked up throughout my travels. That makes it even cooler, like an eclectic closet.
David McNeill [26:24]: We’ve heard about a lot of the great adventures, some of the fun parts, some of the craziness. We obviously didn’t get too much yet into the deportation part. I’m sure that was an adventure as well. What I’m curious about is if you could tell us a little bit about maybe some of the downsides or some of the things…were there any points in those years of constant travel that you thought about, maybe I’m getting a little tired of this or maybe I need a break or perhaps it’s time to go back home. I’m not sure how frequently you went back to visit family and friends, relatives and so on, but it would just be good to hear a little bit about maybe some of the negatives as just to give a balanced perspective.
Travis King [27:05]: Oh, for sure. Well basically to answer that part about how often I go home, I have a really good group of guy friends that I grew up with, working at the same summer camp, going to the same high schools and all stuff. We go on a trip between Christmas and New Year’s every year up north in Wisconsin. Also, I’m close to my family and Christmas is right then too. Those two things combined, the holidays with my family, this trip with my buddies, has always made it worth it for me to figure out how to get home basically Christmas and New Year’s throughout this whole stretch. No matter where I was, Australia, whatever, I would pay the money, figure out how to get home and just look my family and my closest friends in the eye and be, I’m still me. Everything’s good. Give me a hug. I’m going to keep doing this whirlwind adventure, but just to keep that connection at least once a year.
I always kind of just stuck with that. Last year actually with the pandemic was the first time I didn’t make it home for the holidays. It felt super, super weird, to miss Christmas. I didn’t experience too much loneliness or homesickness or anything like that because I am a pretty extroverted person. The whole hostel traveling culture where it’s very open and connected really suits me. I took pride in being somebody that helps accelerate it, make the whole hostel hang out together wherever I am in the world kind of thing, and lead the charge to the bars that night.
I always had that in me. I also was always the older guy too because a lot of people backpacking are in their early mid-twenties and I was in my late twenties and early thirties. I did also have some tough moments on the road. Some of it is relationships you form become really intense and very heavy and real. I think I fell in and out of love like seven times in the nine years that I was traveling and some of those weren’t my choice. Some of those heartbreaks were sad and hard and made me feel like I should go home.
One of them was actually the reason I went back to Australia illegally and started working on a tourist visa instead of my working visa. I had broken up with a girl that I thought was going to settle down in the states with. I was like I’ve got to get back to kayaking with these dolphins in the sunshine. It’s the only thing that’ll make me happy. That was why I ended up back in Byron Bay for the five months that I shouldn’t have been there, right before they caught me.
I also have this other really vivid memory, I was in the Perhentian Islands, which are islands on the side of Malaysia that are gorgeous. They’re like pretty far out to sea, so they’re pretty untouched and un-messed with, and it’s just like beautiful nature, but they have other problems. People get food poisoning and water poisoning and bad bed bugs out there. It’s also famous for being the cheapest snorkel tour in the world. I did a snorkel tour for like $10 or something. It was so amazing seeing all these cool fish, but I got my back super sunburned. There’s a fun party life there. I was just drinking rum and smoking bad tobacco and just partying too hard.
Then I slept in this bed that had like a million billion bed bugs in it. There’s a morning I woke up on that island and I was like, so sunburnt on my back. I couldn’t breathe through my nose. I was just super sick. Like my whole head was going to fall off and I was covered in infinity bed bug bites. All the friends that I showed up with to that island were leaving that morning too. I didn’t really have a plan, I wasn’t sure if I was going to leave or stay or whatever, but I remember after they left, just lying in this hostel bunk bed, just feeling so alone in the world. Nobody here knows me and I’m suffering in such rough shape and I just need to fix this and sort my body out. That was just one of those hard…Man, would it be more comfortable or would it be easier to just be a high school teacher in Milwaukee? For sure it would’ve been, at that moment.
Then you heal up and a couple of weeks later I was somewhere else with new friends again and glad I didn’t quit, but there’s obviously going to always be hard moments, I lost four or five phones. Every time you get your phone stolen or broken or lost or whatever, it just feels it might drive you to want to quit the whole adventure and just pack up and go home. I always found it worth continuing as long as I could, as long as I could figure out how to, I was like, I’m going to just keep this going.
I was also keenly aware that at some point it would end. Like now I’m 37 and I’m here in Escondido and I plan to stay here. Now, I am not moving every week or every day. Back then when I was, it just felt like, dude, this is a short time, it’s 10 years of your life, go for it.
David McNeill [31:34]: I know that eventually you got involved with the organization Remote Year. It’d be great to hear about how that all came to be, of course, what you were doing there, what they’re all about, and how they can help other people to go abroad as well?
Travis King [31:47]: Yes, for sure. I love Remote Year and I’m not with the company anymore. They started back up recently. They were bought by Selina, if you know the big hostel chain Selina, but they were acquired by Selina. Now they’re starting to run programs again. Give them a Google if you’re out there listening to this. At the time when I was just traveling, whoever their director of Facebook ads and marketing was, was very good at targeted marketing because they knew I was a traveler and every time I opened Facebook, one of the ads there was for Remote Year.
After maybe the 8th or 10th time I saw it, I just decided to send them a cold email. This is also when I was running out of money, and trying to think well, how am I going to extend these adventures longer? Really at that point that I was in Southeast Asia, I was past the age where I could do a legal work visa thing. I just had no idea. I was like, man, this might be the end. I might just end up home for the holidays, on monster.com, on my parents’ desktop computer, looking for a job. I saw that vision and I was like I don’t want that to be the case. I just started applying to every travel company I could think of.
I sent Remote Year, a cold email, got an email back. I was like, hey, I’ve been like a group leader and traveling for three years. Eventually, a lot of these stories were in that last section of the book. But eventually they flew me out to Ko Pha-ngan. The weekend I got there, it also happened to be a full moon party. That first community, like RY1 was 60 years old people, all digital nomads basically. The Remote Year platform takes you one month at a time around the world. We started running shorter programs eventually but the first like 15 programs Remote Year ran were all actually one year. So, you would live in 12 cities for one month at a time with the same community of like 50, 60 or 70 people, however many people were there.
When I met that first group, it was a full moon party. So, I went to this full moon party that was also sort of my job interview. Very strange night. Very strange story. If you pick up the book, you can read the whole thing, it was kind of bizarre. Then I was just waiting on bated breath for two weeks to find out if I’d gotten the job or not, that story’s also in the book. I’ll let you read that yourself, if you pick up a copy.
In the end it all worked out quite well for me. It allowed me to continue to travel. I really thought it might be over, but then through finding a Remote Year gig, I was able to just keep extending it. I worked for them for about four years until the start of the pandemic. It was a weird thing, unfortunately travel stopped being possible because of the pandemic. We had to shut down operations and our whole team, like 120 people pretty much, got let go. We also were pretty keenly aware that the whole world is getting a remote work experience. So if we can get this back up off the ground in the future we might be perfectly positioned to be a really important thing for a lot of people and be the tool and the way that people can go about figuring out how to become a digital nomad out in the world. Not just one that walks down the street to their closest Starbucks or whatever.
Now Remote Year is starting to run programs again and I will always wish them the most success ever. I want to pursue my projects here locally in Porto and some other stuff that I’m working on. I thought about maybe getting my job back. I ended up as the director of community, which was really the coolest job I’ll ever have in my life. It was basically whatever you think will be good for this community, travel, convince us, the leadership and you can go ahead and do it. It was just a really magical job and a really cool last three years of work for them. When it ended, I was also pretty aware that I would probably never find a job that felt that good and that I love that much. I was like maybe I don’t want another job. Maybe I just want to try to hustle and be creative and become an entrepreneur and figure this out. That’s where I am at sort of,
David McNeill [35:24]: Yes, that’s amazing. It must have been just incredible, like you said, to find out that you got this job that not only allowed you to keep traveling, but it was somehow seemingly the perfect role for you. What did it feel like that day when you got that news? It’s hard for me to even put myself in your shoes, but I can only imagine.
Travis King [35:43]: Dude, it’s really one of the best moments of my life, finding out it was via text message. I was in a really rural part of Cambodia in this town that’s famous for having like these mini dolphins that swim in the river. I decided to go there to check out these little dolphins. I also ran into this French girl that I had a crush on. Right after I got the job, she asked me if I wanted to kiss her, and I was like, yes. It just was really one of the greatest end of my little life movie, it just happened perfect. It was like, oh man.
Then also just like, know that I was going to go home. I already had this flight home from Hong Kong. That was actually like a real example that I was using earlier. I had this flight home from Hong Kong and I knew that when I got back to the states that I would have something to tell my parents and tell my dad like, I got a real job, a really cool job in like cutting edge travel program. I’m going to be able to go out back in the world and be paid US salary and be paid pretty well for this. Now my expertise on the road and up with all these travels has led to something.
That was the part that just felt so validating. I didn’t really know if it was leading to anything. I felt like it must be, and I was like, I’m doing all this for some greater reason. It’s not just like a really long vacation or something like an extended trip and I would go back to the suburbs in Milwaukee and work at a non-profit or something. I was like, if that’s how this ends, that would just be so weird and not feel right.
David McNeill [37:07]: That’s awesome.
Travis King [37:09]: It just worked out in a really magical way.
David McNeill [37:10]: It gives the idea that it’s all kind of working towards something. I think we don’t really know what that is in a way we can never know, but there’s plenty of opportunities to be surprised. I think your story is a perfect example.
Travis King [37:26]: Yes. I tried to stay positive and optimistic. Something will work out for me. It has to. This can’t just be, I’m not going to just end up back in the Midwest, looking for a job. I hope this amounts to something. I really did feel pretty amazing and pretty validating really. I was just like, yes, all of this amounted to like the coolest possible thing.
David McNeill [37:48]: I mean, not to jump to the tough part there, but I guess the next thing to ask is just sort of how it was when obviously the pandemic was starting and you realized that things were changing. Especially for the company that you were working for, how did you deal with that transition and how did you end up in Mexico then more permanently?
Travis King [38:08]: Yes, it’s a good question. That was hard. In 2020, the whole month of January, I was running a month-long event in the Dominican Republic on the north coast for Remote Year, we were running these, we call them nation houses where people, like groups of 10 to 20 would go somewhere that was like off the regular Remote Year itinerary, usually with me. I would plan the experience and the whole, whatever we had, like the hostel or like the little hotel, I’d figure out all those relationships and stuff. It’s still such a fun gig and a fun part of my life. Like, that month in the DR was amazing.
Then I had a partner in Mexico City. She also was working for Remote Year. She was the head of operations for Mexico City. I made it back there in February, I was planning to spend like a month with her in Mexico City. At the time I was planning an Estonian island takeover. We were going to rent this island in Estonia and have a three-day party there for our whole community. I was planning another month-long meetup in central Africa, I was like working on all this really interesting stuff that had me feeling like this is so cool. I still love this job. Then yes, we all got let off one week in March. Pretty much the whole company, half of us got laid off one week and then a week later they just let the other half go and it was like, yeah, this isn’t going to be possible for a long time to travel. We need to make these decisions that are really hard obviously.
For me it really rocked me to the core because it was not only my job it was like my identity, it was my friends, it was my schedule, it was like my travel plans, it was my everything. It was tied into this Remote universe. When it all just got taken away and disappeared overnight, yes, I was shook. I didn’t really know who I was in the world or I had to re-find that.
Luckily, I had been working on a book and then I was able to put a lot of my restless energy into the book. All through my travels I had the thought of like, where would I open up a hostel or like a little hotel? I mean, now it’s like, where would I open up a co-working/co-living because I’m in my mid-thirties and not my mid-twenties anymore. So, the idea sort of morphed and matured with me, but like I still had all those thoughts. I don’t know, once I was able to, the first few weeks after being sad or disgruntled or whatever, like bad about, it kind of just dissipated. I was able to just focus my energy on what’s next.
One of my buddies, Jason, he also got employed at Remote Year, right around the same time I did, he led the second ever group. I led the third ever group. So we were like in that first batch of 15 employees and him and I have always been really close. He also is way more like operations minded and like how things should work. He’s very strategic and I’m more like culture, community; how do we make this fun.
We kind of have like two sides of the spectrum covered on a lot of the stuff when it comes to community building and remote work and all this. We decided when we both were let go, to start a consultancy around remote work. Last year we started Sprawl Consultancy and we’ve been doing that since, since we started it just over a year ago, we’re probably coming up on a year and a half actually now. So that’s a lot of the work that I was able to throw myself into is just building out our website, and building out the company, and like making it a real thing, and trying to find our first couple clients, which is the hardest part.
Now we have like a little client base and we’re throwing a bunch of like virtual holiday parties for companies this year coming up. We are pretty good at making virtual things fun. We have a lot of experience with it having gone through Remote Year for the first four years that it existed. It did take a while. That’s a really good question too, because like it was like every aspect of my life was tied up into Remote Year when I was fired. So trying to figure out how to rebuild my little house of cards and what that was going to look like and what it was going to include was a long kind of difficult process for those first few months of the pandemic.
In the end, I’m super happy with it. Jason and I always joke, what is the best way this would end? I was like, I don’t think I’m ever going to quit this job, but what am I going to be, like a 55-year-old community director? I just didn’t see the ending. I didn’t see how it was going to continue to evolve. We would always joke it would be like riding our horses off into the sunset. It’s not our fault. It’s not up to us that it ended or whatever. That’s kind of what happened because of the pandemic. We both rode our proverbial horses off into the sunset and then started something new based on the amazing experience we got at Remote Year.
Really it was sort of the perfect end and it pushed me in a new direction. Now I’m trying this entrepreneurial, make it up as you go type of path. I’m very happy doing it. Yeah, it all worked out in the end. It was a really tough first few months, I guess but yes, it’s all worked out.
David McNeill [42:39]: You’ve been building this remote business which is great, but also, you’ve decided to stay more permanently in one location. Of course, the pandemic has slowed you down a bit, but at the same time it sounds like you’ve bought some land. You’re more serious about staying there in Mexico. What was your reason for doing that?
Travis King [42:59]: That’s a good question. I love Mexico. That’s part of it. My partner is from Mexico as well. Her being my partner makes whatever dream we have here more possible, I was able to buy land without having to go through a lot of the hurdles that like other expats or people from the states would have to go through. It just all felt possible. Also, there’s so much I love about consistently traveling and continually moving. I do have that feeling a little bit that I’m a shark. I need to keep moving otherwise, I’ll die. I’m really trying to just get comfortable with the idea of maybe try staying put and try to make the best of that.
Like I mentioned earlier, I play music a few times a week in my little town and started an ultimate Frisbee game that happens once a week. I play volleyball most nights of the week with a bunch of locals here that gave me a nickname and all that kind of stuff. I’ve always known that there’s parts of life on the road that are amazing, you can only have if you have a life that’s constantly in motion and constantly trying to discover the new. I’m also missing things that you can only have if you stay put and you try to build community and you try to be a part of a community.
I’m also working on trying to get a plastic recycling system set up in my neighborhood and things like that. I can never really do that if I was going to leave every week or do music the way that I’m doing music right now or yes, all these sorts of ways to try to become a part of the community and help build community. Those are all things that I knew I was sort of missing by consistently and forever moving. Now that I’m staying put, I’m just trying to lean into all of the best parts of staying put.
That’s really where I’ve come in my mind about. It’s like I was trying to make the best of moving when I was moving, and see as much as I can do, and do as much as I can do, and meet as many people, and make as many stories as I can make. Now that I’m staying put, I’m just trying to think of it in that way, like learning to making the best of staying put and try to do as many things here in the community and with the people that are around here as possible. That feels really good as well. I’m just trying to make the best of this different version of also life.
David McNeill [44:59]: Yes. That’s perfect. I know that you’ve talked about releasing your book and you’ve shared some stories from it in our conversation today. I’m sure people out there definitely want to catch more of the stories and pick up a copy. If you could tell us more about where they could find it, of course the name and what you cover there, if anything has been left out of the story so far, that would be great.
Travis King [45:19]: Thanks. I think hopefully if you’ve been listening this far, you get an idea of what’s in the book, but the book is called, Not That Anyone Asked: A Travel Memoir about Sex, Drugs, Love and Finding Purpose. There’s a lot of sex, drugs, love, and also finding purpose throughout the book. There’s 20 some countries covered in the book. Like I mentioned earlier, it’s broken up into four continents. So yes, I wrote it over four years. It’s definitely the thing that I’ve created in my 37 years on this planet that I’m most proud of.
Yes, I self-published it like a little under a year ago, but it’s already got like 125, five-star reviews and it’s getting some good praise out there in the internet. It feels good to have it out in the world. You can find it on Amazon. I have a website that’s just www.traviswking.com. You can find it, it’s linked in my website throughout the whole website, obviously, but also if you just Google, ‘not that anyone asked travel memoir,’ it should pop right up and you can get it on either Kindle or paperback. I dropped the forever prices by a couple dollars just because in the end I’m like, I just want as many people to read it as possible. First, I was like, I want to make like $4 – $5 off each book, it took me four years to write this book. Now I’m like, because I’m also trying to give a dollar towards some charities and some causes that I support for every book that I sell.
Whatever in the end, I just want this to be in as many people’s hands as possible. I hope it becomes a part of the great travel memoir canon of a hostel hopping backpacker, you’re like, have you read? It’s a conversation, have you read, Not That Anyone Asked? You’ve got to check this book. I hope it becomes like that in the future. The more people that read it, the more likely it is to become that way. Please check it out if you’re out there listening to this. I promise I wrote it with my whole heart and I’m so honest throughout the whole thing. I know every sentence in that book like I really reread it like 15 times before I published it. I’m super, super proud of it. It turned out better than I even was hoping it would turn out I think, and I had high hopes for it.
David McNeill [47:10]: Good stuff. Well, I’ll definitely put links to that and your website and everything else in our show notes. I recommend people out there pick up a copy, hopefully, a paperback so that they can take it to the nearest hostel and leave it there when they’re finished for the next backpacker. Thank you so much for your time today. Thanks for sharing your story, Travis, it’s been a pleasure and I look forward to keeping in touch.
Travis King [47:30]: Thanks David. Thanks for having me on, man on the Expat Empire Podcast man. It’s a cool, cool podcast you guys started here. Thanks for having me be a guest.
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