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A dead-end job leads to a deadened life, and if a dusty 401(k) with paltry growth is the best compensation that corporations can offer, then why should a worker waste 30 years of the only life he’ll ever get behind a desk in a cubicle farm? Why not travel the world instead?
 
How to Travel the World on $50 a DayMatt Kepnes, the Bostonian author of How to Travel the World on $50 a Day, has been making this exact argument on his travel blog nomadicmatt.com since 2008. Three years before that, after falling in love with the cheap beaches and delicious food of Thailand, he decided to quit his workaday life and explore the world on a realistic budget. At a book signing he did last year at Parnassus Books in Nashville, he gave a talk about how he fell in love with traveling—and how travel eventually became the engine that powered his exciting life.
 
Making sure everybody was at the right place, he greeted the bookstore crowd by referencing another popular book with the word fifty in its title: “The Fifty Shades of Grey group, right?” After the crowd’s laughter died down, he gave a dismissive wave of his hand and said, “It’s an awful book. Don’t read it.”
 
Kepnes is a witty jokester, and the anecdotes he offers from his adventures are random and humorous, even if his life didn’t start out very unique. After college, he got a job as an executive assistant in a hospital. He said it was beyond dull. “I had a 401(k)—a very empty 401(k)—and two weeks’ vacation time. So I said, ‘Okay. I’m really going to get into it. I’m going to travel. I’ll use it up.’” And by 
“it,” he meant his vacation time. He used up both weeks worth in one fell swoop
 
Costa Rica

First he went to Australia. Then came Costa Rica. “When I was there, that was when I fell in love with travel. It was so different from my day-to-day life back home.” He described his workaday life in the familiar depressing tones of anyone who has ever been tethered to a desk: “You know, I’d get up, get ready for work, go to work, come home, skip the gym, eat dinner, regret the fact that I’d skipped the gym, watch some TV, and go to bed, every day.”
 
Costa Rica, he said was different. “I was meeting people from around the world. I was doing whatever I wanted. I got lost in a jungle. I got stuck on a zip line—and for someone who’s afraid of heights, that was very scary. I got food poisoning, which was not fun, either. But I loved the adventure of it all. From there, I was hooked.”
 
Thailand

A year after that, he discovered Thailand. He loved it so much, his life changed forever. He said, “I decided to quit my job and travel the world. I was going to get this travel thing out of me. I was going to do a year away and come back and finally put something into that 401(k) that was collecting dust. Nothing ever went into that 401(k), by the way.
 
After a year and a half in Thailand, he returned to his office job, but he just couldn’t stay. He had changed as a person, but the world of office work was just as dreary as ever. “I had spent this amazing 18 months away, so I just said, ‘Bugger this. I’m out of here again.’”
 
Thailand

He once again left his job and moved back to Thailand. That was when he started his website and began answering people’s questions about how they could travel on a budget. “More and more people kept asking me, ‘How do you do it? How did you do that year away? How did you make friends? How did you not overspend your money? How did you not end up like Taken or that movie Hostel?’” From the questions he received and the answers he cobbled together, he built a successful blog and eventually wrote his book, How to Travel the World on $50 a Day.

The Risks of Traveling? What Risks? 

Kepnes has the exuberant personality of a man who has no regrets about the risks he’s taken. And it’s hard to deny that leaving the comfort and security of a career behind can be a risk. It can seem unrealistic—maybe even a little quixotic—for people to just quit their jobs and start traveling the world. After all, not everybody can be an Anthony Bourdain or a Matt Kepnes and make money by writing about the adventures of traveling the world.
 
But this thirty-something-year-old’s travel advice has a heavy dose of practicality mixed in. He said he aims to make people “better budget travelers.” He didn’t suggest that a traveler has to be a travel writer to explore new places. Nor does a traveler have to go into debt to see the world. In fact, he advises against it.
 
His blog often reads like a diatribe from one of those money gurus who love to spout “get out of debt quick” plans. Except instead of encouraging you to pay down your credit card bills and mortgage so you can buy fancy bottles of wine and new boats, he extols the virtues of saving money explicitly for the purpose of going someplace else. And his math is pretty simple.
 
“I know some of you will look inside the book and say, ‘Oh, fifty bucks a day—that’s kind of a lot of money.’ But when you think about how much you spend every day, you realize you’re probably spending fifty bucks just living every day. When you put that in perspective, traveling becomes cheaper than living.
 
“I looked at how much I was spending just day-to-day, and you don’t think of it like, ‘Oh, I’ll get Starbucks here and water there. Grab a snack. Plus transportation and rent.’ And suddenly, ‘Ah! I’m spending fifty bucks just living. More than fifty bucks.’”
 
He insists that a person who wants to travel merely has to envision the goal and the plan will fall into place. “It’s never been an easier and cheaper time to travel,” he said. “Travel has never been more accessible for us because … there’s so much information out there.” Working overseas, he said, is probably the most realistic way to see the world.

Working While Traveling 

Various countries in Asia offer great opportunities for people wanting to work abroad, especially Thailand, his favorite place to travel. “It holds a special place in my heart,” Kepnes said. After deciding to quit his job in America, he got a job in Thailand teaching English, and once he realized he could support himself abroad with oddball jobs like that one, his old workaday life started to seem like a distant bad dream.
 
oddball jobs

Even though he loves Thailand, he probably couldn’t live there permanently. He noted with a wry smile, “There’s a saying in Bangkok: ‘If you stay more than five years, you’ve either married a Thai or you’re really crazy.’ My friends in Thailand fall into both categories.”
 
Bouncing around from job to job is easy, according to Kepnes. “Jobs overseas are a lot more ad hoc,” he said. He gave the example of Ios, a beautiful Greek island. If travelers go to Ios during the summer season looking for jobs, employers will line up to hand out paychecks. “They’ll say, ‘Okay, you’re now a bartender.’” Kepnes gave the bartending example half-jokingly, but he was also trying to prove a point: there are lots of jobs overseas, and travelers just need to be prepared to work unconventional gigs.
 
He said hostels are one of the best information hubs for job hunters. He said, “Even if you’re not staying, they deal with people all the time who are like, ‘Wow! I suddenly really love Amsterdam! How do I get a job?’ So they’re fielding those questions all the time.”
 
Kepnes said hostels are also great places to have all sorts of experiences. “I have seen people older than my grandmother in hostels, which is usually awesome. They’re the life of the party. They always have the best stories: ‘When I was growing up, hostels were dirty.’
 
Global Volatility
 
When asked if he’s ever felt in danger while traveling, he acknowledged there are some places you just can’t go. Syria, for instance.
 
Global Volatility

And yet, there are other less dangerous, but still exciting, travel destinations out there. Experiencing the unexpected, said Kepnes, can be half the fun. He was in Greece when mass protests exploded into full-scale riots. “There’s only so much you can prepare for,” he said, also noting that when it’s time to go, you’ll probably know.
 
But he argued Thailand is different. “I have been through three coups in Thailand,” he said. “The government changes there all the time.” It wouldn’t matter if protests broke out in the middle of lunch. “With Thailand, I’d just keeping eating my soup because it’s just a regular occurrence there where everybody just says, ‘Well, okay, we’ve got a new government for, like, six months.’”

Women Traveling Alone 
 
The world can be a dangerous place. Kepnes acknowledged that some people might not feel comfortable about traveling alone, and for those people, there are some good tours out there. Intrepid Travel is a great website to use for those who want to stay on tour routes.
 
Women Traveling Alone

But for women not wanting to travel alone, he said many of their fears are overblown. “My friend Candace wrote a chapter on the sole female traveler because I woke up today and realized I was not a woman, so I had her write that chapter. I’ve met solo female travelers of all ages. I’ve met one backpacking through Africa, all over the place. Taken is just a movie. You’ll be fine. Don’t feel like you have to rely on tours. Go out there. Wet your feet in a familiar country before you backpack through Africa all by yourself.”
 
For those still skeptical about traveling alone, he offered an example of a woman who is living the dream: “A good website is called Hole in the Donut. Her name is Barbara Weibel. She’s a retiree who travels the world by herself. She’s gone to India, Nepal, China, and the former Soviet Union, and she’d tell you not to take tours. Do it yourself.”
 
The Benefits of Traveling on $50 a Day
 
One of the greatest parts about sticking to a strict travel budget is that it forces people to engage with interesting communities and support their local economies. Kepnes loves to support Mom-and-Pop businesses overseas, and the Internet has made it much easier for him to do so.
 
He said, “The whole sharing economy has allowed us to break out of the hotel, big tour operator, big legacy airline model and connect more with locals. The more you can connect with locals, for you as a traveler, not only are you saving money, but you’re also getting a richer experience.”
 
He has nothing against mainstream accommodations, per se. “I like hotels,” he said, “but hotels are very sterile. I’m not staying in hotels in places I don’t know because I want to be involved in the community. I want to get there. I want to know about the place. I think you lose a lot of that when you’re in a traditional hotel.” He said the same is true when people rely too heavily on big tours and professional bus routes.
 
“By connecting with these locals, you get access to information,” he said, quick to give a relevant example. “You guys in Nashville, you know all the cool bars, the cool restaurants, which supermarket has the cheaper groceries, where to drive to avoid traffic.”
 
He offered a litany of cool websites that help connect travelers with locals. Airbnb.com, CouchSurfing.com, Blablacar.com, and EatWith.com are some of the greatest ways of getting around and meeting locals. But to get the full list, he noted, people need to buy the book. He also admitted the list is forever growing. This book is in fact the second edition. The first came out in 2013. “As you know, travel is a constantly changing field. Restaurants come and go. Attractions come and go. Prices change. So even after the first edition came out, I knew I wanted to have a second edition because travel changes so much.”
 
Kepnes cautioned people against expecting to always spend $50 everywhere they go. “The number’s just a guideline,” he said. “The book is a philosophy of budget traveling. … If you go to Thailand and you send me an email and say, ‘Matt! I’m living your book! I’m spending fifty bucks a day!’—I’m going to get on a plane; I’m going to go to Thailand; I’m going to find you; and I’m going to slap you. Because that is a lot of money to spend in Thailand. The whole thing’s an average. Remember that.
 
“But, if you send me an email and say, ‘Hey, Matt! I’m in Switzerland right now and I’m doing it on fifty bucks a day!’—I’m going to get on a plane; I’m going to go to Switzerland; I’m going to find you; and I’m going to high-five you. Because that’s awesome.”
 
After finishing up his talk, Kepnes offered proof that he loves to connect with locals and do what they do. He extended an invitation to the crowd to come downtown to the honky-tonks with him and his entourage. He said he had forgotten his cowboy boots and his best sundress, but no one in the crowd seemed to mind if he was ill prepared for the occasion.
 
Maybe it was the famous Nashville hospitality that made people eager to hang out with him. Or maybe Matt Kepnes is onto something: if you want to get to know a community, you’ve got to get to know the locals first.
 

www.Dishmag.com / Issue 197 - November 2017
Turnpage Blk


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