By Alexia Elejalde-Ruiz, Tribune Newspapers
8:14 PM EDT, April 30, 2013
Working as a night-life photographer had its perks, but Matthew Karsten was tired of life in South Florida. Looking at a friend's pictures from a trip through Southeast Asia, Karsten yearned for a bigger world. So he set out to discover it.
There are people who dream of ditching the daily grind to roam the Earth. And then there are people who actually do it, who renounce stability and creature comforts in favor of scrounging and sacrificing and hurtling themselves into the great unknown — who trade vacations for vagabonding.
How do they make it work?
Karsten, 29 at the time, sold his Audi and bought a bicycle. He stopped partying and eating out. He spent his free time writing how-to guides about night-life photography and club promotion and built websites on which to sell them, creating a business he could take anywhere.
Once he had amassed $7,000 in savings and was making about $1,000 monthly online, Karsten sold everything he owned that wouldn't fit into a backpack, reluctantly left a girlfriend he felt deeply about, and, with his family worried that he'd lost his mind, flew to Central America without much of a plan.
Two years and 12 countries later, Karsten continues to wander the globe, spending one to four months in each country he visits to deepen his experiences: He befriended a Tarahumara Indian woman who lives in a cave in northern Mexico; he trekked through a rain forest and traveled by dugout canoe with the Kuna tribe in Panama.
"This lifestyle allows me to live in the moment with a freedom I've never felt before," said Karsten, now 32 and traveling through Thailand. "I'm currently living my dream, and I don't plan to stop any time soon."
From broke backpackers watching every penny to resourceful entrepreneurs earning money on the road, people living the nomadic life say it's not as daunting as it seems, particularly given the opportunities afforded by the Internet.
Karsten, who launched the adventure travel site expertvagabond.com, earns money from advertising, affiliate sales and sponsorships on his site and does some freelance writing and photography. Other travelers make mobile livings as graphic or Web designers, social media or marketing consultants, day traders, writers, editors, paralegals, English teachers, scuba-diving instructors and entrepreneurs of all types.
Travel can be cheap when you eschew restaurants for street food and find shelter through hostels, family-run guesthouses, short-term apartment rentals, couch-surfing and house-sitting gigs, Karsten said.
When Johnny Ward, 29, bought a one-way ticket to Thailand after college seven years ago, he managed to travel a year and half on $4,000 he had saved from such gigs as letting medical researchers run tests on him. The experience was all the richer because he was so broke: He stayed in slums with families, rode with goats on the roofs of buses and entered China illegally after a five-day trip up the Mekong River while stowed away in a cargo boat.
The Web has since changed Ward's lifestyle. While traveling through Africa, Ward found himself with a lot of time at night to write for his website, onestep4ward.com, and soon he received an email from an Australian company offering to pay him $60 to put an ad on the site. Within six months he was making up to $3,000 monthly in ads.
So he built a second travel website, then a third, charging companies to include links to their websites in the articles.
Ward, who has no computer experience (he trolled Filipino travel blogs to find an affordable English-speaking Web developer), now employs a staff of 10 to run numerous websites and, working 10 to 15 hours a week, has earned a comfortable enough salary to buy an apartment in Thailand.
Feeling directionless after graduating from the University of California at Berkeley, Turner Barr, 29, hit the road six years ago to find his passion by sampling a globe full of jobs, an adventure he chronicles on aroundtheworldin80jobs.com.
He is currently on job 17.
In Luxembourg for a master's program in business entrepreneurship, Barr was paid to edit articles his professors wished to publish in English-speaking journals.
He traveled Europe with a roller bag, including some suits, and attended academic conferences to drum up copy-editing business.
Since then, Barr has harvested agave in Mexico, assisted on a reality TV show shoot in Bangkok and cleaned toilets at a Rotterdam children's festival.
He came across his favorite job thus far in Austria, where he dressed as the Krampus beast of Alpine lore that harasses kids around Christmastime.
Though he had saved money before his travels, Barr said, he lives purely off what he makes, with expenses running $1,000 to $1,500 monthly. He finds most jobs simply through networking and travels on the cheap by waiting for good deals.
Barr doesn't envy friends who are chasing traditional success or worry what might happen when — and if — his vagabonding ends.
"You are opening more doors than you are closing," he said.
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