Taking a year off after university is a great way to see the world and delay the inevitable corporate grind for a little longer; unless you learn to make traveling a way of life. Seeing the world changes people fundamentally and makes you question all your earlier ambitions and goals. Johnny Ward’s one year travel adventure has turned into four years and counting with no end in sight. Johnny has discovered that he can contribute more to the world by working directly with communities in need than his previous plan of a career in finance.
Please tell us a little about your background.
Well, Im 26 and I’m from Northern Ireland – I lived there all the way through until I finished high school. At 18 I moved to England to study, I went to university there for four years there and graduated with a BSc (Hons) International Economics. All the way through from around 15 years old until about 6 months into traveling all I wanted from life was to be an investment banker in London, drive a Ferrari and wear Hug Boss suits (very fickle I know!). Thankfully, I’ve seen the light and now I have no intention spending my life chained to a desk in a corporate cage!
You initially planned to travel for a year after college, why take such a long break from starting your career?
As I said, I wanted to get into finance which would have involved working 60 hour weeks for 20 years so I needed a year to get traveling ‘out of my system’. Nearly four years of traveling later, a serious life epiphany and it shows no signs of ‘getting out of my system’
Your one year career break is now approaching four years, what happened?:-)
To be honest I realized there is so much more to life than waking up on a Monday morning and wishing it was 5pm on Friday straight away, you have one life – only one life, do you really want to be in a situation where you are wishing 5 days out of every 7 to be over?! That’s crazy and I hate the thought of spending my life living for the (short) weekend you know? So, on my travels the sights I saw – both amazing and disturbing – really affected me and now I have a strong desire to do something worthwhile in my life, by that I mean to experience my life to full with the opportunities I have been lucky enough to have and also to give something back to people who haven’t been so lucky
Are you worried that you are missing career opportunities back home?
This is a real issue and I reckon every long term traveler has spared a thought for this! During my first year I didn’t think about it once, but during my second year I started to think about it to be honest (am I wasting my degree?, am I going to be too old when I return to get into industry?) then in my third year I started to really stress about it so when I came to Australia I was desperate to get some corporate experience (be careful what you wish for!). Now I realise the sort of opportunities that I was ‘wasting’ are the opportunities I never want. Imagine if someone had offered me a huge salary just before I set off on my journey it would have been the worst thing that ever happened to me. I would have taken it and been miserable in some city, with huge debt, comparing business cards with other suits in the same bar I go to every Thursday night like some scene out of American Pyscho! So now I don’t worry at all.
Are you planning on returning to Ireland or to get into finance?
Absolutely not! There’s a lot more countries I want to live in and literally probably 100 more I want to travel through! My mindset has changed so much with all the countries I have been too. Travelling around Bangladesh, East Timor, the Philippines etc. really opened my eyes to the disparity in the world, I know we see it on the news and in the paper every day but we become desensitized to poverty through media but when you see it first hand, you can’t help but be affected by it.
Where are you now?
I’m currently in Sydney Australia living, temporarily, the exact lifestyle that I never wanted to live! I got quite ‘lucky’ (if you call working in an office 40 hours a week lucky :S) actually, I moved here to save some cash and gather some corporate experience, as I was 25 when I arrived and had never worked in an office. This will be my first and last office job, I promise that – never ever again. Ever.
How easy is it to find work and save money in Australia?
I arrived during the recession and even then there were jobs available. You just have to be proactive and diligent you know, there are plenty of jobs out there and if you are prepared to look harder than everyone else you will have a job within a month 100%. My mum once said to me ‘finding a job is a full-time job’ so when I arrived that’s how I treated it. Wake up at 7 am, have breakfast, start ‘work’ at 8am and chase jobs all day until 5pm. Online, in person, rewriting cover letters, resumes etc. Within a week I managed to get a pretty good job in sales and 12 months on I have managed to scrape together over $20k AUD savings (after paying for trips to scuba the barrier reef, watch the rugby in Melbourne at the MCG, trekking in the Northern Territory to Uluru etc), ready to pay for my Masters in Malaysia in a one-off payment and hit Africa with my backpack! With the strength of the Australian currency it’s very easy to save, just don’t fritter it away on pointless purchases. I would try not to eat in restaurants, take taxis, go to movies on cheap nights and save money that way but I would have no problem in spending $1k on a trip to Uluru, all about priorities I guess.
Please tell us about your travels so far?
My travels so far – that could be a long answer! Which is why I started my blog, to truly chronicle all the cool stuff I’ve been lucky enough to experience. After graduating in 2006 I went to America to be a counselor on a summer camp (great fun) then I traveled a bit around America – Vegas, NYC etc, back to the UK, did some medical research (awesome way to make some decent cash too!) then one-way to Thailand. Since then I have been to most countries in across Asia and tried to get from Bangladesh to Australia by land over a year or 2, got offered a teaching stint in Korea so I had to fly there, breaking my no-flight rule! Then got the boat from Japan -> Korea -> China, went to the Olympics (amazing!). And from their just made my way south all the way to Oz, by land. And got stuck in East Timor when the guy in the port wouldn’t take me on his boat (b*stard!!) and I had to fly from Dili, East Timor to Darwin, Australia.
You taught English in Chiang Mai, Thailand for 18 months, please tell us about that experience?
I only have good things to say about Thailand, Chiang Mai in particular and teaching English in general! I wish everyone would take the plunge because you will have the best time imaginable. Chiang Mai is my favourite place in the whole world and everyone I know who has been there has loved it. My teaching job was perfect, working 5pm-8.20pm Tuesday to Friday and Saturday 9am-4pm, I had so much free time to explore the area, study Thai, hit the gym or recover from the night before! Finding a job was quite straight forward actually because I recently had just finished my CELTA course which puts you at the front of the queue for teachers with no experience, that helped loads, and I would recommend any budding English teachers to fork out the cash for your CELTA, you won’t regret it.
What was it like to live in Chiang Mai?
Everyday was an adventure, that’s the best thing about living overseas – it shakes you up, moves you out of your comfort zone and makes you feel alive. Chiang Mai’s climate is cooler than Bangkok and hovers around 30 degrees for most of the year so that’s nice, your surrounded my mountains so escaping the city takes all of about 10 minutes by motorbike. Cost of living is so cheap, my serviced apartment was around 4000 Baht per month, one dish of delicious thai food from your local market is around 30 baht (1$), booze is cheap (bottle of whisky around 150 baht), people are so nice it makes you question what we are doing wrong in the West, it’s very very safe too and it’s a very welcoming culture so within a week or 2 of being there you feel right at home. There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t miss it.
You said that you spent less than $5000 traveling longer than a year, how did you manage to travel so cheap?
Cheap travel – that’s my true specialty! I know a lot of people harp on about traveling cheap, and really getting off the beaten track, and telling you they did it cheaper than lonely planet yadda yadda yadda so sorry if I come across like that here :S BUT, my budget initially was $9 AUD per day – that includes everything, travel, food, accommodation, sights and activities. So if I wanted to visit the Taj Mahal which costs around $20 then I’d budget for it in the days leading up to it! I would eat exclusively in local eateries or on the street, and I didn’t touch Western food for pretty much the whole trip! That means no bottles of coke when you’re thirsty, no icecreams when you’re hot etc! No air conditioned hostels for me either, I stayed in local ‘hotels’ where I often shared my room with cockroaches, rats or locusts! It’s wasn’t easy but the best thing about this sort of travel is that you really get to experience the country. I rarely stayed in backpacker hubs, didn’t touch imported alcohol (that means getting drunk on local rice wine, bought from a dodgy guy with one eye and a hook for a hand, that tastes like cat piss!). And I honed my bartering skills perfectly – I’m an expert barter now! The way I see it is that if I can negotiate every down 25% then I can travel for 25% longer i.e a 12 month trip can become 15 months. Also, I did it through necessity – I didn’t have enough money to travel in any other manner so if I wanted to see all those countries then that’s what I had to do AND now having travelled like this for so long I honestly can say if I was to win the lottery tomorrow I would continue to travel like this – you really discover the true essence and soul of a country like this.
What have been the highs and lows of your travels so far?
The highs have been almost endless – if I had to say the top three off the top of my head, I would probably say seeing the Golden Temple (the spiritual centre of Sikhism) in Amritsar near the India-Pakistan border was one of the most breathtaking sites I have ever seen. Seeing Mount Everest with my own eyes from Everest base camp, that was pretty special too! A snow capped Mount Fuji was beautiful. The live volcano, Gunning Bromo, in Indonesia was crazy. Wild orangutans in Borneo were awesome. Wait that’s more than 3! It’s tough to narrow it down! The lows – 100%, categorically, definitively working in an office in Sydney. Living in the corporate cage for what seems like an eternity BUT it’s a means to an end and I understand that
How long do you plan to continue a life of travel?
Honestly, it’s tough to say but I hope to keep going for another 5 years at least. I graduated at 22, so maybe if I stop at 32? Or maybe not!! I’m so thankful for the opportunities that I’ve had to travel, my family are awesome and support my life choices which helps a lot, and I’m really happy with how my life is turning out so I’ve got no plans to stop for the forseeable future. I’m moving temporarily to Malaysia in December to study my Masters (which will allow me to pursue my NGO dreams), and next month i’m beginning another 8 months on the road – from Cape Town to Istanbul by land – that should be an adventure! So when I gaze at my computer screen at work in Sydney I have a map of Africa as my desktop staring back at me – just gotta think ‘keep your eyes on the prize’ and grind through the last couple of weeks of work!
Do you have any advice for people considering moving abroad, teaching English or traveling?
I have lots of advice! First up I would say be brave, venture into the unknown and you’ll be rewarded with life experiences that you can’t even imagine. I didn’t realize how closed my eyes were to the world until I took the plunge and now I want to encourage everyone to do the same.
Teaching English is a great way to explore the world, it gives you the structure and income you might need to set off. I had very little money when I first set out so I had to work and teaching in Chiang Mai was one of the best decisions of my life. So get your degree, get your TEFL and give it a crack. You don’t want to be on your deathbed and think ‘I wish I had traveled more when I was younger’ because I’m sure you won’t be saying ‘I’m glad I spent most of my youth in the office’!
Traveling brings such a sense of excitement and adventure to your life, it’s difficult to articulate but when you are doing it you’ll know what I mean. To truly feel like a global citizen is an awesome thing, a thing I hope a lot more people will be able to feel in the future.