Vagabonding Case Study: Matthew Karsten

On May 6th, 2016

Matthew Karsten of The Expert Vagabond

Age: 30

Hometown: Campton, New Hampshire, USA

Quote: “Every day is completely new & different. You have absolutely no idea what will happen to you. I love that feeling.

How did you find out about Vagabonding, and how did you find it useful before and during the trip
I first learned about the book Vagabonding through a traveling photographer friend, Ferenc Ecseki. He insisted I check it out before starting my backpacking trip. Once I began reading it, I couldn’t stop! Finished the whole thing in one sitting. It gave me a great idea of what long-term travel could be like, further enticing me to do everything possible to turn my dream into a reality. I also took advantage of the many great tips & resources the book contained. For example: Spending the first few hours in a new town purposefully getting myself lost. Still one of my favorite things to do!

How long were you on the road?
I’ve been traveling for the last 12 months, and don’t have plans to stop anytime soon.

Where all did you go?
My backpacking adventures began in Mexico, and I’ve slowly worked my way South through the countries of Central America. It didn’t take long for me to see that slower travel was definitely much more enjoyable, providing a stronger connection to both the people and the country.

What was your job or source of travel funding for this journey?
To pay for this trip I began by saving money like crazy, cutting down on some excessiveness in my lifestyle, while also working nights to build up a small online business creating websites. I continue to earn income online selling information products in addition to some advertising on my travel blog.

Did you work or volunteer on the road?
I’ve volunteered in a few different places so far. My favorite experience was building ovens out of manure for poor families in rural Nicaragua. The people are incredibly friendly and I really enjoyed living with them. They have absolutely nothing, yet seem to be happier than many Americans I know. The village we stayed in had no electricity, no running water, and everyone got around by horse. It was an eye-opening experience. Plus, who knew poop-ovens were capable of producing such tasty pizza!

Of all the places you visited, which was your favorite?
That’s always a tough question, and I really haven’t been to many countries yet due to my pretty slow travel style. But I definitely have favorite experiences that stand out from the rest.  Camping on the top of an exploding volcano outside of Xela, Guatemala & trekking through the rainforest in Panama’s notorious Darien Gap were both ridiculous adventures that will be hard to top.

Was there a place that was your least favorite, or most disappointing, or most challenging?
The La Chureca landfill in Managua, Nicaragua was a very sad place. A few thousand people live and work on the landfill, searching for glass & plastic to sell for recycling. Their homes are made of garbage, the living conditions are horrible, and children are forced to work in the dump too. That was difficult to witness, but I’m still glad I went.

Did any of your pre-trip worries or concerns come true?  Did you run into any problems or obstacles that you hadn’t anticipated?
After a solid year of travel throughout Central America, just a single crime was committed against me. My laptop computer was stolen by hookers while I was visiting a bar in Panama City. It’s a long and embarrassing story. After a year of travel, I got lazy with my normal precautions. My tip for others? Don’t bring expensive stuff to bars after dark…

Which travel gear proved most useful?  Least useful?
For anyone who loves to camp a lot, a Hennesy camping hammock is a great way to always have a lightweight, comfortable, and bug-free place to sleep. Other items that receive regular use include earplugs, a Moleskin notebook, and my Kindle. I used to have one of those wire-mesh things to lock-up my backpack, but ended up giving that away pretty quick. It was heavy & I never used it.

What are the rewards of the vagabonding lifestyle?
There are many. For starters, every day is completely new & different. You have absolutely no idea what will happen to you. I love that feeling. Long-term travel has taught me to be more patient with annoying situations that may present themselves in life. Riding on the roof of a school bus with no shocks over a washed-out road for 3 hours in the blazing sun while simultaneously dodging giant tree branches makes all other problems seem pretty trivial!

I’ve also enjoyed living out of a backpack, with the complete freedom to go wherever I felt like, do whatever sounded interesting. I know these rewards wouldn’t have been as drastic had I only been on a 2 week vacation.

What are the challenges and sacrifices of the vagabonding lifestyle?
It’s tough to create really deep friendships or relationships on the road. It’s not impossible, but it’s hard. One of you is always leaving.

What lessons did you learn on the road?

  • Our planet is not a dangerous place.
  • People are generally the same all over the world.
  • You really don’t need a lot to be happy.
  • We shouldn’t believe everything we hear in the media
  • First-hand experience is the best teacher.
  • I don’t know as much as I thought I did, and still have plenty to learn.

How did your personal definition of “vagabonding” develop over the course of the trip?
In the beginning, I thought “vagabonding” just meant visiting as many locations as possible, checking them off my list. But these days my definition has changed to mean slow, deliberate travel from place to place, learning from people and growing with all the challenging new experiences you encounter along the way.

If there was one thing you could have told yourself before the trip, what would it be?
Pack less, and spend more time practicing the local language.

Any advice or tips for someone hoping to embark on a similar adventure?
Don’t over-think it too much, or you’ll never go. Make sure you save enough money, but the amount will be less than you think. You don’t necessarily need to travel for many months to get a taste of vagabonding though.  I began my journey with a 5 week practice trip to Mexico before I started traveling long-term. Feel free to test the waters a bit first, see what it’s like.

When and where do you think you’ll take your next long-term journey?
I’ll soon be heading to South Africa for a few weeks, finally making my way to a new continent. But South America is still calling my name too, and I should be spending much of 2012 getting myself into crazy adventures there. One of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned from the book Vagabonding is to keep my travel plans flexible! It’s much more fun to wing-it most of the time and just see what happens. So who knows what the future will hold…

Read more about Matthew on his website, The Expert Vagabond.

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