[Interview] How They Did It: Mike And Kat From Unearth The World

May 12, 2014 | By | Reply More
Mike and Kat from Unearth The World hiking the red sand dunes of Sossusvlei in Namibia

Mike and Kat from Unearth The World hiking the red sand dunes of Sossusvlei in Namibia

Name(s)

Kathryn (Kat) and Mike Pisco

Where are you from?

Kathryn is from Columbus, OH and Mike was born and raised in Boston, MA. We live in Chicago now.

Why do you travel?

Mike and I travel to see the world, experience unique cultures, and learn.

How do you decide on where to go?

Choosing where to travel is one of our favorite things to do. A lot depends on how long we have to travel and what our budget is. For our recent 9-month RTW trip, we chose to travel to locations that we might not be able to reach from the U.S. on a short, 7-14 day vacation (like Australia, New Zealand, Asia, and Africa). We then took into account our more limited budget for such a long trip and decided to focus on travel to areas that are less expensive. We chose to volunteer in 5 different locations along the way and these projects also helped to shape where we went.

How do you overcome your travel fears?

Our biggest travel fear was leaving our jobs to travel for an extended period of time. We were nervous about how people would react and what would happen when we came home. Would we get jobs? Be forever changed? To help us work through these fears, we sought the advice of our close friends and family and reached out to other people that had done similar trips. We read travel blogs and personally connected with fellow RTW travelers.

How do you save money to travel?

Mike and I prioritize travel above almost everything else. So, we cut corners and spend less on typical things like shopping and eating out. We also take a certain dollar amount out of our paycheck each month that goes directly towards our savings.

How long did it take from when you realized your dream to travel to actually making it happen?

While we had been talking about traveling for years, it only took us 90 days to plan and execute the journey once we made the final decision.

Campervan at Mt. Cook campsite in New Zealand

Campervan at Mt. Cook campsite in New Zealand

What is one of your most memorable adventure stories?

We rented a campervan in New Zealand and drove around the South Island for a few weeks. It was a fabulous adventure for many reasons. It was the first time during our journey that it was just Mike and I, relying on each other and navigating the elements in the gorgeous country of New Zealand. The experience brought other firsts as well – Mike’s first time driving a stick shift car. The campervan had a left-handed stick shift and, while Mike eventually got the hang of it, we braved the somewhat treacherous, winding, sheep-filled New Zealand roads stalling, jerking, and holding on for dear life! It was also my first time camping….ever. It was a riot learning how to take a bucket shower, use a flashlight to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night, and subsist on canned goods. Yet, what really made this an adventure is that we embarked with our camper and a simple booklet that showed us where various campsites were and decided where to drive and sleep as we went along. We woke up under a different mountain every morning and loved not having an agenda.

What is one challenge you faced traveling? How did you overcome it?

Mike and I did not realize how tied we were to our daily routines until we ceased to have them. Early on in our journey, it was really odd for us to have nothing driving our day-to-day. We really missed our routine but it was virtually impossible to replicate a schedule on the road. We realized though, that after a few weeks on the road, “vacationing” turned into “travelling”. This important distinction made the difference for Mike and I. We rented apartments for our accommodations instead of staying in hotels. We tried to cook our own meals whenever possible. And we engaged in volunteer projects that helped add structure and meaning to our weeks. This type of travel was sustainable and extremely enjoyable!

Mike with the children at orphanage in Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Mike with the children at orphanage in Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Have you volunteered abroad? If so, what was your experience? What was the impact?

Volunteering was a focus of our 9-month journey. We volunteered in 5 of the locations that we traveled. We taught English at a school in Kathmandu, Nepal, worked at a Children’s Home in Chiang Mai, Thailand, taught English at an orphanage in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, cared for children at an orphanage in Ofaakor, Ghana, and built homes for those affected by AIDS in Mwandi, Zambia. It was an absolutely incredible experience overall because we connected with so many unique and amazing individuals along the way. Some of the projects were more productive and impactful than others. We learned a lot about the international volunteer world and about how important it is to ensure that you work with a community-driven project that truly needs short-term volunteers. We also learned the importance of verifying where your money is going prior to making the trip. Unfortunately, a few of our projects had realistically very little long-term impact. But, we are still seeing the effects of our work at our two projects in Africa. After learning about the many pros and cons of the voluntourism industry, we have been inspired to start our own company focused on placing short-term volunteers in international projects. We strive to address some of the negative issues in the industry by focusing on volunteer education, financial transparency, and reciprocal service learning. Volunteering abroad is such an amazing way to see and understand the world that we would love to help others have this experience.

What is the cheapest you’ve spent per day and where?

We kept our costs down during our trip but did not go completely “budget.” Our cheapest spend per day was probably when we volunteered in Ghana. We volunteered at a school/orphanage for a week in Ofaakor, a tiny village about 90 minutes from the capital city of Accra. We were able to pay for the accommodation, food, transportation, activities, and volunteer fees for US$28 per day (US$14 per person). This is especially impressive because Ghana is not a particularly “cheap” country in comparison to other African countries or places in SE Asia. The volunteer experience enabled us to travel cheaply but much more meaningfully.

Kathryn teaching at school in Kathmandu, Nepal

Kathryn teaching at school in Kathmandu, Nepal

What is happening in the world, where you are currently (at the time of this interview), that isn’t being reported in the media?

At this time, I am already home in Chicago. While there is no glaring media omission, I am surprised by how rarely the local Chicago media reports about the effects of Federal policies on local residents. For instance, President Obama just delivered the State of the Union address and I have read very little about how some of his assertions will affect Chicago, his home city. While we were on our trip, I remember being in Athens, Greece and watching from our hotel room as thousands of people marched in protest. When we went out later that night, there were armed policemen with riot shields on every corner. I was confused and slightly alarmed. And I was even more surprised that the U.S. had stopped reporting about the struggles that Greece was facing from the economic downturn. It was everywhere you turned in Athens and on the islands but nowhere to be found in traditional U.S. media sources.

What is a guilty pleasure you seek out on the road?

One dollar McDonald’s ice cream cones and Oreos. They satisfy our sweet tooth and seem to taste the same wherever we are on the globe.

What is your favorite travel gear or gadget?

We lived very simplistically while on our long trip. But, I would say that our iPad mini was the best investment of the trip! We read books, sent emails, and FaceTimed from this one device. And, it is so small that it was easy to carry and pack.

What app can’t you live without?

AirBnb. We used this app to book a majority of our accommodations along the way. We loved being able to stay in a home, cook for ourselves, and meet locals!

What advice do you have for aspiring travelers?

Just do it. Seriously, the more you think about it, the more excuses you will come up with and the more reasons you will find NOT to go. Travel, even long term travel, is easier than you think it is. Make the decision to go and don’t look back. I guarantee you won’t ever regret taking a trip.

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About Kat and Mike from Unearth the World

Kathryn and her husband, Mike met as student athletes at Cornell University. After graduating with degrees in Communications and Business, Kathryn and Mike spent 9 years working in sales, sales training and sales management for large corporations. They recently decided to take a one-year career break to travel the world and do a mix of personal travel and volunteer work. After spending 250 days exploring 20 countries and engaging in 5 volunteer projects, Kathryn and Mike have returned back to their home in Chicago. Mike has taken a sales role at Boston Scientific and Kathryn is channeling their passion for travel and service by starting a social venture focusing on pairing volunteers with international non-profits.

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