Matthew Kepnes is a well-known name in travel spheres. If that doesn’t sound familiar, maybe you know him as Nomadic Matt. He’s done a few laps around the world in the decade he’s been on the road and written about it on his blog and Matt was one of the first professional travel bloggers in the space when he started over ten years ago.
He originally made a name for himself by travelling on $50 a day and outlining ways for other travel-hungry souls to hit the road in search of adventure. Now, he’s announced his second book, Ten Years a Nomad. I sat down with Matt to find out more about his latest publication…
You’ve got a new book coming out. Tell us about that!
My upcoming book is called Ten Years a Nomad. Unlike my previous book, How to Travel the World on $50 a Day, this book is a memoir and not a “how to” kind of book. It’s about my ten years traveling around the world, the lessons I learned from traveling, and my advice on being a better traveler. It features stories I’ve never told on the blog and goes deeper and into more detail with some I have shared. I also talk about my philosophy on travel too.
In short, this book follows the emotional journey of a trip around the world: getting the bug, the planning, setting off, the highs, the lows, the friends, what happens when you come back — and the lessons and advice that come hand in hand with all that. I spent years writing it (literally) and I’m really proud of how it turned out so I’m looking forward to hearing what people think!
List a few key points of how travel has reshaped your life and ideas.
There’s been a couple of key moments that have really shaped who I am – and they all revolve around people. I think three important points stand out:
a) There are five backpackers on a bus to a temple in Chiang Mai. Over conversation about how absurd the two-weeks-per-year vacation system in America is, I realized there was more to life than a 401(k) and 50-hour work weeks. That small event became one of the most pivotal moments in my life. A week later on the beach in Ko Samui, I turned to my friend and said I was going to backpack the world. The rest is history — all thanks to strangers on a bus.
b) There was Greg, a guy I met in Amsterdam back in 2006. He and some other players took me out for drinks, to their weekly home poker games, and overall, just showed me the “local” take on Amsterdam. Greg taught me that strangers are not always out to get you. As someone who has been on the road for a while, this is obvious to me now. But when you are fresh-faced and new to traveling, it isn’t so easy to let your guard down and let strangers in.
c) There was the time I lived in Bangkok. I came in not knowing a soul and left with a job, group of friends, a girlfriend, and even knowing some Thai. That experience taught me to trust myself and my abilities more. If I could make it in Bangkok, I could make it anywhere.
What are your thoughts on travel to “dangerous destinations”? Have you become more or less cautious over time?
I have and never have traveled to war zones. I don’t think it’s safe and I think it’s weird to be having a good time while people are suffering. You’re not an investigative journalist reporting for the news. Get out of there.
That said, I pretty much don’t buy into the news media narrative that the world is unsafe. I think places are pretty safe so long as you follow the local customs and safety rules. It’s only when you break those that you say end up knifed in Colombia.
One can say that the U.S. is dangerous too if you look at the news about gun violence. And, while gun violence is a problem, you’re unlikely to get killed by a bullet here. Just like you’re unlikely to get kidnapped/robbed/hurt/etc in another country if you’re sensible and smart about how you travel.
Do you have plans to visit Iran, Pakistan or anywhere in the Middle East in the future? – We’d love to have you join us on an Epic Backpacker Tour!
I’d love visit all of those places but I don’t have any plans to visit them in the near future. I just got back from Qatar and Jordan a few months back though.
In my opinion, crazy phone-use detracts from the travel experience, do you agree?
Yes, I do. I wrote a whole post on why people need to get off their phone. Part of the joy of travel is that it teaches you about yourself by removing you from your current social tribe. Free from those that know you, your social triggers, and your known environment, you can really experiment and let yourself be free. You can learn to adapt to other cultures and people and get a sense of how the world fits together. You can’t do that when you’re on your phone all the time because you’re not separating yourself from your home. You’re taking it with you wherever you go and, thus, not really freeing yourself from all that baggage. Put down the phone, enjoy where you are, and be a fish out of water. It’s going to be ok. As they say, sail away from the safe harbor.
Do you have a favourite opening conversation piece on the road?
Besides the generic questions (where are you from, where are you coming from, etc), I like to ask people what they do when they aren’t traveling, their favorite movie and musicians, and what made them decide to travel.
What destinations are you looking forward to visiting in the future?
Well, I’ve seen about half the world so the other half? I really want to get to Nepal, India, Bhutan, Mongolia, and East Africa really soon. The Pacific islands are also really high up on my list as I’m worried they will disappear really soon thanks to climate change.
Everyone has something, what’s that thing you’ve been carrying around in your pack, but never use?
Not anymore. I’ve gotten really utilitarian about what I carry. Everything gets used eventually, even if it’s not used often. I could say band-aids since I don’t use them that often but I do eventually use them. You never know what could happen on the road.
How do you use your travel experience to crush narrow political and social views?
That’s a good question and I’ll say I don’t. No one likes people who are preachy and data has shown that when confronted with information that’s different than what they know, people will double down on a wrong belief. I don’t think it’s my job to educate people for political purposes. If I speak to someone who disparages a place, I’ll ask “have you been?” and when they say no, I’ll say well then how do you really know. Most of the time people will say I guess I don’t. Then I’ll explain my experience there and recommend they visit themselves.
People only change from within so you have to be the fuel that ignites that internal fire. If you just sit there from your ivory tower lecturing at people, they will shut down. You need to be inception like and that’s what I try to do.
Do you still travel for $50 a day or has your travel style changed?
I try to stick to my budget as much as possible to show people that budget travel is still feasible. If I’m going to a place I’ve been a lot, I probably won’t try as hard since I’ve been there before and have wrote about it in the past. I’m really just going back to a place to enjoy it and see friends. However, if I’m in a destination for the first time then I will try to follow my guidelines so I can a) keep myself from spending too much money and b) get an idea of how much a destination will cost for my audience since I’m definitely going to write about it.
What’s been the most valuable lesson you have learnt from traveling?
People are essentially good. I know that’s a bit clichéd to say but it’s true. I have encountered amazing people who have not only changed my life but have gone out of their way to help me. It’s taught me that the old saying is true: you can always depend on the kindness of strangers. We grow up in this culture of fear in America that is unrealistic. 99.9999% of the people in the world aren’t murders, rapists, or thieves. People everywhere are just trying to go about their daily lives and be happy and fulfilled. They want their kids to have a better future, to sleep more, eat better, and have a community of friends and family that care for them. Where you are in the world doesn’t change that fundamental need. Once you realize that, you began to see the common humanity in us all.
Matthew Kepnes runs the award-winning travel site, Nomadic Matt. He’s also the author of the New York Times best-seller How to Travel the World on $50 a Day as well as the upcoming travel memoir, Ten Years a Nomad. His writings and advice have been featured in The New York Times, CNN, The Guardian UK, Lifehacker, Budget Travel, BBC, Time, and Yahoo! He also regularly speaks at travel trade and consumer shows, owns a hostel in Texas, and launched a non-profit called FLYTE, which empowers students from underserved communities through transformative travel experiences.