Figuring out how to avoid office hell is almost a rite of passage right out of college. Some go to grad school. Some go to law school. Some join the Peace Corps. Some ski bum in Colorado or set out to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail. Some start their own businesses or go work for tech start-ups in New York or California where sipping PBR at 3 in the afternoon on a Tuesday is still acceptable, if not norm. Some take jobs as waitresses, bartenders, and baristas to start paying back student loans. Some just hang out in their parents basement watching way too much daytime television while trying to figure it all out.
Rather than taking the inevitable plunge into the post-grad job market, Jack Gray, a graduate of the University of Michigan, and Ryan Deane, the captain of the lacrosse team at Middlebury College, packed their bags and left the country. Shortly after graduating from their respective colleges, the lifelong hometown friends embarked on a 158-day trip around the world, exploring 11 countries on their own schedule. Somewhere along the way, they came down with a serious case of itchy feet.
The two chronicled their grand adventure on a blog and returned home with a fair share of epic stories. To inspire those coping with the doldrums of post-grad life, I recently exchanged e-mails with Jack about the bucket-list trip. If you're looking to take off on a half-year, jet-setting marathon of your own, here's how to do it right.
Where exactly did you go and for how long?
Peru, Fiji, Australia, New Zealand, China, Nepal, an unexpected 24 layover in Qatar, Jordan, Israel, and Zambia. Imagine that you did something drastically different every day for the past 6 months and then try to describe it. The blog and video do a much better job at telling the story.
How did you decide where you were going to go?
This question is really the best place to start. The idea of the trip came from my uncle and stories of a similar trip that he took when he was young, so for years I knew that I wanted to do something like this. About four years ago I approached my friend Ryan and introduced the idea to him and pretty much told him that I needed him to join me. So probably three years ago we sat down at my place during Thanksgiving break and asked ourselves what we wanted to do, where we wanted to go and why we wanted to go there. We sat in my living room with this huge map of the world and started pointing at places. We soon decided that we were going to try to go to as many places as possible on this trip that we would have slim chances of ever getting to again, which cut Europe out of the equation. We then decided that we wanted to see as many cultures, religions, and people as possible. This helped immensely and was the mantra for our entire experience. If at any moment throughout the adventure we found ourselves amongst “old white tourists”, we knew we were doing it wrong. We wanted to immerse ourselves into the cultures and get away from everything that was familiar to us. We wanted to be uncomfortable and push our personal boundaries.
Another aspect of this trip was the fact that we wanted to not only be tourists in each location, but we wanted to actively contribute and be a part of the culture. This drove us to find as many volunteering opportunities as possible in each of our locations. After years of research I had identified multiple organizations/groups to volunteer with and we pretty much approached them saying “we are two smart guys who want to contribute. We will help with you with financial consulting or we will chop wood for you and everything in between… all with a smile”. By working/volunteering our way through we were able to inject ourselves into communities and networks that we would have never been able to access as tourists. As soon as we started to work, we were no longer outsiders, but rather contributors, and it makes locals way more comfortable and open to interaction.
Most dangerous experience?
One of my favorite 'O, fuck my life' moments was while we were backpacking, or “tramping” as they call it, in the backcountry of New Zealand. Being new to NZ backcountry, we thought that we were pretty stellar hikers and would do this three day trail in two days. Day One went pretty well, although it certainly was no cake walk, and we had a great night's sleep in the remote cabin, completely shut off from the world. Day Two rolls around and we know that we have a long day ahead of us to make it to the trailhead and out of the wilderness, but we are fairly confident we can do it. Four hours later we come to find out that we are lost as two dumb bastards can be and we clearly are not on the right trail. We have followed this river down this valley for miles and couldn't figure out why we weren't coming across our designated lunch spot. Five minutes into the hike that morning we turned left instead of right.
Thankfully we came across a cabin with a family heading out the drive who were nice enough to provide us with a better map and point us in the right direction. We knew our day was going to be shit when after explaining how we had gotten to their remote cabin, their facial expressions turned from confusion to genuine concern and asked us if we had enough food. That is probably the peak of the hairy situation and we pretty much were devastated emotionally. We not only had to backtrack the entire morning of hiking, but we had to complete the entirety of the original itinerary before 8 AM the following morning. If we didn't return by then, the NZ national park service would be notified and we would be deemed “dumb lost Americans.”
The following eight hours of that day turned out to be the most punishing of our lives. We didn't only realize and broke through our physical barriers, but we also realized our mental barriers and tested their limits. We ended up crossing 19 rivers that day and hiking over 20 miles in exactly 11 hours, 37 minutes. With 50lbs packs, thousands of vertical feet over the most uneven trails I have ever witnessed, and wet boots, we were fucking drained. I legitimately was hearing voices from up in the hills in the last hour… It was bad. Not five minutes after the sun had set we made it to our hut safely. We immediately made soup, thanked whoever was watching over us, and fell asleep on the hardwood floor like it was a featherbed.
Looking back, we probably should have 'splurged' on the five dollar map.
This is where I want to mention the importance of picking the right travel companion. This day is something that I absolutely could not have done on my own. Without trying to sound cliché, you pretty much have to trust the guy next to you with your life. You have to trust their decision, even when you don't agree or understand, and they have to trust you. You have to know how to push them beyond their comfort zone and know how to keep their feet moving, even when all they want to do is sit and rest, which would have been a real shit-storm for us.
I almost forgot this other situation I got in: I got attacked by a spitting black cobra while I was walking to my hut one night while I was living in Zambia. I was in a group of four people walking down the path and the guy in front of me didnt even notice the massive snake sitting up, full hood out, hissing. I stopped dead in my tracks, about three feet from the snake, tried to control my bowels, and kept the two people behind me from running into the snake as well. Nobody got bit, but we assume that the snake was spitting the poison at our eyes at the time and about two more seconds would have meant a really, really bad situation for my health. That scared the hell out of me.
What was the best party scene? Any crazy international party stories?
Where ever we went, we were challenged on our drinking abilities as Americans. Let me be clear: We defended the Stars and Stripes with pride and made her proud, although for your own personal well being, I would never challenge an Australian or South African to a drinking contest. It will end poorly for all parties.
Two of the most unique party experiences that we had were in Peru and Zambia, where we went out with friends and other volunteers to the local bars and clubs in each city. We would do our best to ask around amongst the locals as to which the craziest place in the city was and we would do our best to get there by the end of the night. Admittedly, sometimes these places were terrifyingly sketchy, but they were always fun and absolutely wild.
The best actual parties that we came across were definitely in Queenstown, NZ, Byron Bay and Cairns, Australia, and Shanghai, China. In all three, everywhere we looked there were young, fun, goodlooking people from all around the world absolutely ready to throw down and rage. We did our obligatory “goon” nights in Australia and did irreparable damage to our livers, which I can only describe through this blog post. Queenstown is a great town full of a ton of bars and clubs just crawling with adventurous kids. Coming out of the backcountry and taking our first shower in Queenstown, we were excited to find that we were in good company for a night of debauchery. Any place that has a $1000 free bar tab that's only accessed by saying “I am the big bad wolf” is alright in my book. Shanghai was also just spectacular, although much more of a upscale vibe. After a little schmoozing, we found ourselves drinking with the club owner at Mint, the club that sits on top of one of the high rises overlooking all of Shanghai. That night was one of those nights that you don't quite remember, but you will never forget.
Craziest and/or coolest experience? Break down some of the highlights…
This is tough because there were so many ridiculous moments on the trip. Highlights per country could be:
Peru: Climbing Machu Picchu all day and then arriving at the train station to realize that mud slides had taken out the tracks. This left only one train that night to take out hundreds of anxious people who thought that creating a 'mild' riot was the answer to getting on a train. As the last numbers were being called, I convinced the ticket agent that we were the grandsons of the old British guy who she had just let through the gate and we ended up sitting in the first class cabin all the way home.
Fiji: We sat in the rain for 5 days. It blew.
Australia: i saw an ad in the paper for an Australian hiphop concert for our first night in Cairns. The only information that we had was that the group had come up under the guidance of hilltop hoods, whom I very much liked. So we went to the concert on a whim, expecting it to be a dangerous crowd and ended up having one of the most fun nights of the trip. FunkOars was the group and they killed it. Their song is actually the second song in the travel video.
New Zealand: We were working on this dairy farm for a few weeks and got to know the grandfather of the family that owned the farm. He liked the way we worked, so he took us out hunting one afternoon for some Tar (a NZ mix between a goat and deer). This 65 year old man literally sprinted up the side of this mountain and could not have been more in his element. He was an old 'muster', or sheep herder, and had worked those mountains for 30 years (he and 5 other guys moved 38,000 sheep 2x/year over 47 miles of mountains and wilderness). So this old man is sprinting up these mountainsides, honestly smelling, fucking smelling, the tar and led us directly to where they were. We unleashed a proper volley of lead and I ended up getting one through the heart (sounds ridiculous). We gutted him there, I carried him down the mountainside, and the wife cooked it for dinner that night. It was wild.
China: Shotgunned beers on the Great Wall of China.
Nepal: We loved Nepal and our three week trek around the Everest Valley, but my favorite moment is definitely when we woke up at 4 AM on Easter morning, climbed up the mountain Kala Patthar, and watched the sun rise over Mt. Everest. We were sitting at 18,200ft and were looking down at base camp in the morning light, listening to avalanches come thundering down and watching the mountains around us turn from grey to gold in the morning light.
Jordan: Although walking Petra by candlelight was incredible, I have to say our three days in Amman were absolutely mind-blowing. We arrived not knowing what the hell we were getting ourselves into and we left with a serious respect for the culture. That first night, while enjoying our filafel and hookah, when we heard the call to prayer fire up across the city as the sun was setting. That is something I will never forget. As Americans we had absolutely zero exposure to the islamic culture and to be able to sit in an environment and absorb it in a meaningful manner was pretty special.
Israel: We were in the old city of Jerusalem, had just shared Shabbat with a local family there — friends of friends — and climbed onto the roof of the place we were staying. We watched the sunset over one of the most important cities of all time. Looking out and seeing temples, churches, and mosques all sitting right on top of each other was pretty mindblowing.
Zambia: I had been to Zambia before (working for World Bicycle Relief in 2009) so this time around I didn't have the 'holy shit, this is Africa moment', but I was lucky enough to find a position with World Vision for a few weeks and actually run a small business workshop in a remote village that was getting ruined by this incoming copper mine. Living in a hut by myself, I worked with the local chief and tribe members to help them understand the things needed to start micro and small businesses. It was a pretty special time for me.
Traveling like this ain't cheap. How did you pay for such a big, expensive trip after college?
I saved for years and worked for 8 months after graduation from college. My parents paid for portion of the plane ticket as my graduation gift, but I covered everything else. Because I was pretty much self funded, I really had to figure out how to live life on a budget, which was one of the most valuable things I have taken away from the whole experience. I look at it this way: you can go to the bar 3 or 4 nights a week and spend 50$ a time and slave yourself to work to merely get by or you can go to the bar 2 or 3 nights a week, spend 12$ on a couple of beers for yourself, and go hunting with some old sheep muster in New Zealand. It was pretty simple.
The plane ticket was about $7000 and all other expenses were about $8000. Let it be known though, we hustled everywhere we could. We told campgrounds that we were only one person so we could avoid paying an extra $15, sat in the most cramped airplane seats of all time, hitchhiked, etc… Pretty much everything short of stealing/shoplifting.
Who were the coolest people you met during your trip?
As you can probably assume, we met incredible people wherever we went. I'm going to do this by country again just because it makes sense that way:
Peru: the children's school for which we volunteered was run by this local Peruvian guy who could not have been older than 30. After growing up in Cusco, he decided that he was going to help children in his neighborhood, so he started a school run by international volunteers, a hostel for the volunteers, and a restaurant. All of the profits from the 3 places go towards the social project (Aldea Yanapay). To see what he had done, after starting with pretty much nothing, made us realize how impactful passion and the desire to help can be.
New Zealand: one night we went to this BBQ with the family we were working for on the dairy farm. Before we even left, the wife told us to pack a sleeping bag because she “would be too pissed to drive home”. We arrive to find the largest pig smoker of all time and more beers that we could ever hope to consume. 90 minutes later we are sitting in the back of a pickup truck, blasting classic rock, and shooting trap with 30 local NZ farmers. As the beers started to diminish and the ammo ran out, we got to talking around a massive fire and realized that one of the farmers was a rodeo man on the side and actually was one of the lead riders in the Lord of the Rings. For the next 2 hours he told us how he and the other leads would just tell all of the 'extras' managers to piss off and then lead a charge down the hill towards the camera. Supposedly when Peter Jackson heard that he had and the other leads had charged down the hill (for the final charge of the Rohirrim in the Return of the King), he just laughed and said “Well, serves us right for keeping those bastards waiting… They are kiwis after all.”
Nepal: In Nepal we ended up doing more than just trekking through the mountains. We had the opportunity to volunteer for this remote Buddhist nunnery that sat way up this hidden valley. We ended up staying there for a few days and every day we had the chance to join the nuns in prayer (or at least watch them). Sitting in the little nunnery, hot cups of yak tea steaming, watching the nuns sing and pray… That was pretty intense. They fed us like kings and although we were talking through our Sherpa, we did most of our communicating through laughs and smiles. To look up while working to clear a field for them to plant crops and see 10 little Tibetan nuns, shaved heads and skin like leather, giggling at the white boys working was pretty spectacular.
Jordan: we stayed in this Bedouin village while we were in Wadi Rum in the southern deserts of Jordan. This guy was 100% bedouin and lived on the edge of the sandy desert in a little house with his family and then owned a few jeeps that he would take tourists out into the desert and stay at his camp at night. For a good few hours that day we just kicked it with this guy in his “living room” while his little kids just ran around and played. You could tell that this guy did not mess around in the slightest when you heard him talking on the phone about his “business deals” and driving with him down the highway was one of the most absurd drives of my life (no recognition of lanes or speed limits on the highway what-so-ever).
Israel: we ended up having the opportunity to have Shabbat dinner while we were in Jerusalem with some local families that had moved there from the US over 25 years ago. The families were friends of friends and had kids just about our age. Being from a pretty isolated, Christian background, neither of us had ever celebrated a Jewish Shabbat, or anything close to that. So sitting down in a stranger's house, being completely welcomed with open arms was a pretty special night for us. We not only had the opportunity to learn more about Judiasm, but we got to ask them about life in Israel, what it is like to be a teenager there, what mandatory military service is like and more. Great people, great night, even better food.
Zambia: while living in the village in rural Zambia I had the opportunity to meet a few different people in the surrounding villages and tribes. Although everyone was absolutely spectacular, there are far too many people to merely chose one. I must say though, the most surprising interaction I had was with one of the local chiefs, who wields pretty significant political power in the region. I was having breakfast one morning and he randomly joined me to talk to me — being one of three white people in a region the size of the state of Virginia will get you noticed. He sits down, opens his briefcase and says “I bet I can prove that I am more American than you are.” I really don't know what to say to this because you don't disagree with a chief (you might disappear in the middle of the night if you do) and every time you approach the guy you have to kneel on three separate occasions. So when he makes this claim, I just chuckle and smile, not really saying anything. He then pulls out an old photocopy of a personal US Congressional Recognition of excellent community service that he received on his only trip to the US in the 90's. No joke.
Hottest/coolest women on the trip?
Swedes. Swedes. Sweet, beautiful Swedes. It seemed that wherever we went, there were a couple of Swedish girls to remind us that there is a God and he is good. One of our more ridiculous female interactions occurred in Byron Bay, Australia. On our second morning there, I went to the front desk of the hostel to tell the manager that we wanted to stay for a few extra days. He then asked me “if I was cool with him putting a few Swedish models in our room.” I responded with “ok, sure guy” and blew it off. Two hours later, Ryan and I are in our bunks, nursing sunburns that have begun to blister all over our bodies, working through heinous “goon” hangovers, and stinking up the entire place, and there is a knock on the door. I answer in my boxers, looking like a lobster, and there are two Swedish angels. FML. It was the best and worst thing that could have ever happened to us, but we ended up buying the hostel manager some beers for his generosity.
Did you do a post-grad trip in-lieu of studying abroad while in college? Any preference for doing it once you were out of school?
I wanted to study abroad while in school, but it didn't really work for me. I was in the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan and as great as it is, they have zero flexibility to do a standard study abroad experience. So instead one summer I worked in Zambia for World Bicycle Relief and got my international exposure that way.
Looking back, I am glad that I did it this way. While I was in school, I was completely dedicated to having the absolute best experience of all time on campus. I couldn't bring myself to miss sporting events or fraternity functions. By doing the trip after school, I didn't have any obligations other than to make the most of my time and have a great experience. If I was worried about the occasional classwork that comes from studying abroad in college while I was on this grand adventure, I don't think I would have gotten as much out of it.
What's your next adventure? Or is it off to the 9-to-5 life?
Luckily this trip has equipped me with some pretty solid skills and focused my career path. I am going into innovation/strategic consulting with a focus on understanding different cultures, so the trip fell right into place. I got hired only a few weeks after I returned for a project in Western Europe and understanding some aspects of their cultures. So over the next six months I'll be bouncing back and forth between the EU and the US working on that project.
The real difficulty with having traveled like this is that I only want to go to more places now. I have a trip in mind of really touring around the U.S. and getting to know some of the “American” cultures. I have done some travel around the country, but I would love to see more. If I learned anything while going around the world, it is that America has got everything and anything that you could possibly want or need, you just have to work to find it. I am also very interested in Russia and doing a horse-trek through Mongolia.
One final note for the readers, those who stare at their computer screens all day and wonder if everything they are doing is worth it: listen to your gut. If you know deep down that you are miserable and every day you consider sending death threats to the guy who invented Excel, you should just make a change. Don't let your soul get crushed on a daily basis. Life will work out for those who work for it.
One final note: I try my best to live by these two mantras:
“If you don't do it this year, you'll be one year older when you do.” – Warren Miller.
“One final paragraph of advice: do not burn yourselves out. Be as I am — a reluctant enthusiast…. a part-time crusader, a half-hearted fanatic. Save the other half of yourselves and your lives for pleasure and adventure. It is not enough to fight for the land; it is even more important to enjoy it. While you can. While it’s still here. So get out there and hunt and fish and mess around with your friends, ramble out yonder and explore the forests, climb the mountains, bag the peaks, run the rivers, breathe deep of that yet sweet and lucid air, sit quietly for a while and contemplate the precious stillness, the lovely, mysterious, and awesome space. Enjoy yourselves, keep your brain in your head and your head firmly attached to the body, the body active and alive, and I promise you this much; I promise you this one sweet victory over our enemies, over those desk-bound men and women with their hearts in a safe deposit box, and their eyes hypnotized by desk calculators. I promise you this; You will outlive the bastards.” — Edward Abbey