We all love to take an occasional vacation, but there are few that have managed to turn travel into a way of life. Derek Earl Baron, more popularly know as Wandering Earl is one of those people. He has been travelling the world for 11 years now and has done it all. Earl shares some of his experiences on cruise ships, teaching English and selling eBooks in this interview.
Please tell us a little about your background.
I’m currently 33 years old and I’m originally from a suburb of Boston, Massachusetts. I grew up living a normal North American-Jewish childhood, playing a good deal of basketball and baseball, studying relatively hard and being forced to compete against my cousins and other Jewish friends in every aspect of life!
Actually, that last part played a significant role in my upbringing as from day one I knew that my path would include four years at a good university and rising to the top of a well-respected profession as quickly as possible in order to ‘out-do’ my competition and make my own family proud.
And this even led me to declare, during my second year at university, my desire to become a Jerry Maguire-esque sports agent, much to my family’s delight. I was quite keen on pursuing this path at the time and everything went exactly according to plan, right up until the day I decided to spend a university semester studying abroad in Melbourne, Australia.
As my mom loves to recall, I left the US as a straight-laced, typical American kid and returned from Australia with blue hair, an eyebrow ring and a sudden desire to avoid living a conventional life. From that point on, and to the horror of my parents, I wanted nothing to do with being a sports agent. I had no idea what I wanted instead, but I started thinking that it may involve world travel.
After graduating, I spent some time working at random jobs back in Boston while trying to sort out my confusion. But after six months of making no progress whatsoever, and after coming across a magazine article about the Millennium celebrations scheduled to take place at Angkor Wat in Cambodia, I decided that a backpacking trip to Southeast Asia might help me decide what I wanted to do with my life.
And even though none of my friends cared to join me, and despite the fact that I was terrified to travel alone, I boarded a flight to Bangkok on Christmas Day, 1999. The plan was to travel around for 3-months and then return home.
That 3-month trip has now turned into 11 years!
Please tell us about your travels.
The last 11 years have generally involved backpacking around various regions of the world, teaching English in Thailand, working on board cruise ships and living in places such as Australia and India. I’ve now visited about 65 different countries and would love to visit dozens more, which I plan on doing since my travel addiction shows no signs of slowing down any time soon.
Of course, the most difficult part of all this travel is being away from family and friends, but I do return home to the US about once or twice a year, although typically, I don’t stay longer than 3 weeks at a time. But the good news is that many of my family and friends now choose to visit me each year and I also make a point of visiting my friends that live in different countries around the world as well, so I still get to see everyone relatively often.
At the moment I’m living in Playa del Carmen, Mexico and have been in Mexico for the past seven months. I’ve been spending my time here working on a few internet projects while improving my Spanish and crashing into waves while attempting to surf. However, recently I’ve been craving some new adventures and now plan to backpack around the Middle East and hopefully Central Asia, starting within the next two months.
For the most part, I’m a budget traveler and I much prefer seemingly insignificant local experiences over visiting a major highlight or sight. I often stop in random places of no particular interest just to spend a night, have a meal and for a chance to meet people that I would ordinarily never come across in life. There really is nothing more rewarding to me than a simple cross-cultural conversation with fellow citizens of this planet and it is these interactions that keep me wanting to explore more of the world over the years to come.
Please tell us about your experiences working on cruise ships.
I spent a total of four and a half years working on board 10 different cruise ships, spread out over a nine year period. For most of that time I was a Tour Manager, responsible for the shore excursion programs that we offered our passengers in every port of call. I really only have wonderful things to say about ‘ship life’, as crew members call it, as I don’t know of any other form of employment that allows a person to create global friendships, gain valuable life and work experience, travel the world, have zero expenses and also get paid a decent salary.
And while salaries vary drastically between cruise line and position, salaries over $3000 per month are quite common and as a Tour Manager I earned approximately $4500 per month. I know that might not seem like a huge amount, but considering that crew members virtually have zero expenses while on board, a person could easily save $18,000 in one six-month contract!
Life on board a cruise ship is much different than what most people would imagine. While the work is often both mentally and physically draining, there is plenty to keep the crew happy during their free time such as crew bars, lounges, dining areas, crew shops, internet cafes, crew gyms, swimming pools, saunas and frequent parties and theme nights. And even though there are a handful of annoying aspects of ship life, such as the lack of privacy, showers the size of a shoebox and sore cheeks from smiling at passengers all day long, the positive aspects far outweigh any of these minor complaints.
It’s funny because I always tell people the reason I finally decided to leave ‘ship life’ for good was because I enjoyed it too much! It gets addictive and if you don’t force yourself to leave at some point, you can end up stuck on board for 10, 15 or even 20 years. And there’s just too much out there in the world that I want to explore for me to spend that amount of time on board cruise ships.
Would you ever go back to working on a cruise ship?
I’m quite certain I wouldn’t return to working on board, although it’s always nice to have it as a back-up plan in case I need it. But for now, it’s time to work on other projects that I want to pursue in life and working 60-70 hours per week on a ship just doesn’t allow me to make much progress with those ideas.
Would you recommend cruise ships for others?
Absolutely! Whether someone wants to take a break before entering the ‘real world’ or if they want to save money so that they can avoid the ‘real world’ altogether, everything from the friendships to the work itself and of course the money saved will help someone reach their goals. And once you have one contract under your belt, the door will almost always be open for you to return, even if it’s a year or two down the road, in case you need to refresh your bank account or gain some more experience. It is definitely an under-utilized form of employment that more people, especially those interested in gaining some more freedom in their life, should consider taking advantage of.
Please tell us about your experiences teaching English in Thailand?
A friend of mine and I set up our own English teaching operation in the city of Chiang Mai instead of trying to find work at an established language school. We figured we’d just advertise our services by posting signs around the local university and surprisingly, before long, we had enough students for us to hold at least one class every day of the week.
Since we didn’t have access to a classroom or even any materials at first, we held our classes outside in a park and we offered only conversational practice, which not only proved to be what our students wanted most but was much easier for us to teach as well, considering that we didn’t have any teaching credentials.
While clearly not a lot by Western standards, I earned about $200 per week doing this, but that was enough for me to share a comfortable apartment with my friend and explore all of Chiang Mai and its surroundings without having to watch what I spent. And besides, our students were so incredibly respectful, attentive and hard-working that I loved every minute of my classes and could hardly consider it ‘work’. In fact, most of my students quickly became my friends and I still keep in touch with many of them today.
The only catch to all of this, since it wasn’t ‘official’ work, was having to renew my 30-day tourist visa every month by taking a 5 hour bus ride to the border town of Mae Sai, crossing into Burma and then crossing back into Thailand in order to receive a new 30-day tourist visa. But I would spend a couple of hours in Burma each time and I grew to enjoy and look forward to these monthly trips.
Do you make any income online?
I do earn some online income at the moment, mostly from an eBook I wrote based upon my experience working in the cruise industry. It’s an “Insider Secrets” guide that helps cruise passengers save money on their cruise and enhance their overall vacation. I simply took a market I knew well and shared with them some behind-the-scenes tricks and tips that I had discovered during my years on board ships.
At the moment, I earn approximately $2500 per month from this eBook although I am constantly working at improving the website and my advertising in order to hopefully boost that number. I will say that setting up this business has not been the most enjoyable of experiences as it required me to stare at my computer screen for 12 hours per day for five straight months as I learned everything I could about website creation, eBook writing and internet marketing methods. Even after I launched my product, I’ve continued to spend hundreds of hours tweaking and learning more in the hopes of improving my sales.
On the other hand, I also co-authored another eBook as well, one that explains exactly how to take advantage of unique worldwide travel and work opportunities that many people simply don’t know about. It’s basically a guide that shows people how easy it really is to turn dreams of international travel into reality. Unfortunately, this eBook has only sold 2 copies in its first year. And even though I feel that this one is far more useful than my other one, I simply miscalculated the importance of narrowing down a potential target market. No matter what I try, I can’t seem to get this website in front of people that might be interested in its topic. I learned a great lesson here as I originally assumed that a good idea was all one needed, but in reality, even the best idea will fail if you don’t take the proper time to evaluate your market and assess your competition.
I’m definitely not giving up on this one and will continue working on it until the situation improves. I’m also about to launch two other products within the next couple of months that I’ve been working hard on creating during my time here in Mexico.
Of all the countries you have visited, where would you most like to live?
That country would be India, as despite the chaos and intensity, I feel more at home in that country than anywhere else I’ve ever been. It’s clearly not an easy place to live and can be quite disturbing at times, but I am drawn to the fact that every minute of every day involves some new sight, taste, sound or smell that I’ve never before experienced in my life. I consider it to be a life-changing education unlike any other.
I actually wrote a post about why every traveler should visit India and I wrote something like, where else can you find human-powered rickshaws, holy men, ancient temples, kids playing cricket, seven-day weddings, open sewage, delicious curries, Buddhist monks, upscale cafes and half naked men who clean your ears with a long wooden stick…all on the same street!
To me anyway, that’s the kind of place I want to be, and its why I’ve spent 2 years on the subcontinent already and plan to return again this year.
Have you had any serious problems or been in dangerous situations abroad?
While none of the situations I’ve faced resulted in any major problems in the end, I have had a few close calls. Two stand out in particular. One time I was kidnapped by a gang of taxi drivers in Dhaka, Bangladesh who held me for two days before I managed to escape. And once I spent an evening in a remote field with a group of armed Taliban in northeastern Pakistan who, despite ranting for hours about the need to kill every American and every Jew in the world, were quite hospitable and generous to me. I’m just glad I had introduced myself to them as Ian from New Zealand as it turned out that these Taliban were quite fond of New Zealanders.
Do you plan to settle down and have a more fixed lifestyle?
I actually don’t have any plans to settle down at the moment and am interested in maintaining my nomadic lifestyle for now. Although, over the past two years, I have embraced ‘slow travel’ more than I did during my earlier years which has led me to spend longer periods of time in each place I visit. That’s about as settled down as I can take these days!
Do you have any advice for people considering moving abroad or traveling?
Don’t put it off! The longer you wait to travel, the longer you’ll remain unaware of the endless opportunities out there in the world that only travel can reveal and that can change the course of your life. I’d also recommend contacting and communicating with other travelers who’ve already traveled where ever it is you wish to go because as soon as you hear about their rewarding adventures, your own confidence will soar and your last remaining fears and doubts will quickly disappear.