Hiking through the Himalayas, celebrating Carnival in three different Brazilian cities, even watching an elephant walk within two or three feet of you in the middle of Zimbabwe. These seem like memories that would take a lifetime (or two) to create.
But, three years and 60 countries later, Walter Chang’s budget backpacking trip has amounted to many marvelous experiences.
“Once I got out there, I saw that other people were doing it and I decided I’d just keep going until I got tired,” Chang told TODAY.com, explaining that his initial plans involved only eight to 12 months of travel. “It’s one of the best things I’ve ever done.”
Chang's experience is particularly striking considering the latest numbers showing how little time off most Americans are taking. A recent telephone survey by insurance company Allianz Global Assistance shows that more than 135 million Americans, or 56 percent, say they haven't taken a vacation in the last 12 months.
Additionally, a majority of executives (72 percent) and workers (56 percent) in the U.S. say that if there were no limit to their personal holidays, they would still take the same amount of vacation time, according to a survey from staffing firm The Creative Group. However, Time magazine reports even with the current amount of vacation time, U.S. employees still leave about 429 million paid vacation days unused every year, and a 2013 Harris Interactive survey shows 61 percent of respondents planned to work during the vacation time they did take.
Chang said that many countries in Europe, unlike America, better endorse a culture that supports the importance of true vacation time. For example, in Germany, a country with one of the strongest economies in Europe, businesses are required to give workers at least four weeks of paid vacation a year.
“It’s important because if you’re stuck at work your body is drained,” he said. “You need to get out and refresh yourself and interact with your family and friends. The whole system is kind of messed up, people work a lot and get depressed and it affects their work as well as their life. Nobody benefits from it.”
However, this wasn’t just a vacation for Chang. He quit his job and didn’t do any work while traveling.
Chang, who is from New Jersey, said he was pretty scared after college because of the recession, so he got a safe, full-time job as an audio visual technician, something far from his dream to work in film and TV.
“I started getting pretty unhappy about it because I felt stuck,” he recalled. “I watching something, 'The Pale Blue Dot,' that was pretty influential and I just realized that I had to go out there and see stuff. I had never really traveled before.”
So did Chang win the lottery? Because that must be the only way someone only three years deep into the real world would be able to afford a trip like this, right?
Believe it or not, the whole trip was done with the money Chang saved up for about one year. He did everything from selling what he didn’t need to living in the building he worked in — kind of discreetly — for a couple of months.
“It was just anything to save up money just to make sure I could fund the trip,” Chang said. “If you’re really motivated, then you’ll do what you have to do to get out there.”
He shared a few tips about how to budget backpack — from hitchhiking to couch surfing — adding that there are people everywhere who are willing to help travelers.
“People would tell me, ‘It’s dangerous here,’ but you go there and it’s fine and people are incredibly friendly and helpful,” he said. “You realize that a lot of people are similar. They laugh at the same jokes. Everybody is helpful and they’re really welcoming to foreigners. They want you to enjoy their country and a lot of countries don’t have visitors so they’re really curious as well.”
His travels were also a major learning experience. Chang said it “was amazing to realize I could actually deal with a whole bunch of situations I never imagined myself in.” Though he mainly interacted with great people, there were a few stressful situations. He got into a car accident in Namibia and was robbed twice. He said there are bad people in the world, just like there are bad people in America. "People are friendly in a lot of places," he said. "You just have to be more aware and try not to let your guard down. I just got unlucky."
He also became more comfortable with going with the flow and not planning so much in order to have fewer expectations while traveling and more surprises.
“I became less focused on planning and I think that’s one of the best ways to do it. If you're constantly looking at pictures, ultimately when you get there, there's no surprise,” said Chang. He also suggests asking people you meet in a country about where to go in order to get a better sense of the place, instead of just going to the main tourist spots.
“The response to the video alone has been more than I could have ever imagined,” Chang said. “The photography book is my way of giving back for all the experiences I had traveling. Even if it only inspires a few people to consider including more travel into their lives, I really believe that ripple effect is something invaluable.”