Stephen, 24, San Francisco is a developer and part time world-walker. Born in Ukraine, but brought up in east London, his journey is a classic tale of how understanding what’s out there in that big bad world – makes you that much more richer on the inside. With especially refreshing honesty about his relationship with travel, he was unafraid to talk about the vulnerable moments of travelling and spent no time romanticising it either.
Stephen and I met in a coffee shop in east London, where he gave me his story for the first time: top to bottom. Fast forward to today and he is currently working at huge tech company Slack in San Francisco, and creating his own nonprofit digital platform called 25sense which helps people donate to different charities in an innovative way. I was sure that his experience, and in turn travels, had led to him to this point today. Enjoy his tale and I hope you find it useful, as ever.
When did you first realise that travel was going to be a big part of your life?
When I was growing up I did a lot of travelling with my family. I was born in Ukraine; my mother is Ukrainian and my dad Nigerian. Both my parents made decisions to leave their country of origin to unfamiliar territory so, by default, I knew that one day I would have to do the same thing. Growing up they would both take me travelling all over Europe until one day we moved to a small city called London and the travel spirit was suddenly lost. It was around 10 years before I travelled again.
Then I think it was when I finished uni – I had become bored of London and the thought of coming back home after having such an independent lifestyle felt like a step backwards. I was also fortunate to meet people in university who were kind of doing the same thing, which motivated me. Lots of my friends would travel to really interesting places and I wanted to be part of that.
Once I realised it was a possibility for me to create a real life for myself elsewhere, by seeing other people, I took the opportunity for a job in New York. Most people say university is the best part of your life, but I didn’t want those to me the best years of my life! One thing about me is I like to try new things, so I wanted to continue that.
How often do you travel?
I’d say around once a month. In the US it’s mainly short haul and going to different cities around me. When I lived in New York I travelled around America a lot. I visited Atlanta, LA, Miami, Philadelphia and Las Vegas to name a few…
I plan long haul months in advance and usually take two weeks off. If it’s long haul I do try to plan with friends, after 10 attempts one is successful! So most of the time it’s alone, and the rest is with friends.
Did you have a favourite place out of those?
Either Miami or LA – it’s nice and the weather is very consistent. It’s beautiful, there are palm trees and Miami has this beautiful beach where everyone goes walking during the day – topless and barefoot, so it feels like it’s always summer. The days are long and you don’t want to sleep, you just want to be outside! The nightlife is so nice too.
How do you financially support travelling?
I work full time. At first, when I started after graduating it was all student loans – I took everything I had left and I used it for a flight; it lasted like two weeks max! In terms of what’s helped me afford my travels, it’s kind of like an investment in myself, so I sacrifice certain things. I minimise expensive foods I’m eating. In the US it’s really cool because you get paid every two weeks, you kind of never feel like your money is running out. So while other people spend money on clothes, going out etc, I spend most of my money on travel.
So how do you save?
Out of my paycheck I’ll leave a certain amount each month. So say we’re in March, and I have a trip in June, I take up to £100 out every paycheck. I calculate everything so: Airbnb, flights, living expenses, and then I discipline myself to save that every time I get paid, so I will have paid it off by the time I’m ready for my holiday.
What are some of the obstacles you gave yourself in regards to travelling? And how did you overcome them?
That was pretty recent. That was my Costa Rica trip. I actually wanted to go to Cuba, but Cubans and Americans don’t really get along, and I’m considered an American resident they might not let me back in the US. I told my friends and they were like sure, and like a month before they were like we can’t. So I was like you know what fuck it, I’m gunna go by myself. I didn’t speak any Spanish, looked online to see if there were English speakers, and for some things I could say in Spanish.
It was the scariest thing; all the hostesses were only speaking Spanish. And I arrived at midnight and I thought I was legitimately going to die. It’s the small things you take for granted like going to shop and ordering something, and I felt like I was in isolation for the first day because I didn’t understand anything. But as I moved on to hostels and Airbnbs throughout my trip, people were so friendly and I realised how kind people can be.
Most challenging experience on the trip?
Well one day I thought I was going to die. I needed to eat but I’m in this deserted residential area, and my phone wasn’t working. I finally found somewhere to eat, but I had no idea of currency or even what to order, I tried to buy food but I really I had no clue.
It was super interesting but the main fear was like am I going to be okay? It’s an obstacle, but you have to take out your survival instincts and let them flourish. And then you come back an entirely different person because you’ve come so far out your comfort zone; you feel like you can take over the world!
Because despite the language barrier, surviving on a budget, and getting lost – out of everywhere I’ve been, it’s been my best experience.
Did you have any preconceptions about the type of people who travel and how did you personally fit into that?
When I was in university, I felt travelling was light years ahead form anything I could achieve. I thought people were extremely rich, or just had too much time on their hands. Also I just didn’t understand why somebody would travel, I didn’t understand the concept of character building and going through experiences.
And the type of people who travelled weren’t the type of people I knew growing up. You hear about people doing these crazy long trips, but you can’t see how you could achieve the same thing. But I realised that the people who travel are just the same, normal people, they’re just people that don’t want to accept the same thing in life; they want to open up their horizons.
The thing is, you can apply mentality of travelling to everything else. It’s all about confidence. If you want to be an entrepreneur, you see other people and stories -and you come back and understand how to target your product to different markets, as an example.
Think of a moment for you that sums up why travel is important.
It’s a difficult question; I would say travelling opens your mind to possibilities that are out there. Growing up, we are taught about one direction of life. You grow up, go to school, get a job, get married, don’t do anything else, but when you go outside of that you realise there’s more to the world.
In a bigger picture you realise possibilities, you meet people who you think you would have never met and have these amazing stories. I have a friend who moved to Spain a couple of months ago, because he wanted to teach, and it’s changed him as a person. Prior to that, he never understood that there were opportunities he could take outside of the UK – I really think if most people understood the bigger picture and opportunities available they would easily jump on it.
Most interesting person you’ve met because of your travels?
Oh, oh okay there’s a few. That’s a difficult question! (laughs). Okay, I think I’ve got one: a guy called Scooter when I was in Atlanta.
I think what made Scooter so interesting is that he always had a story to tell. It’s always nice when you met a local, because they show you all the hidden spots; I was there for 4/5 days and he showed me everywhere, and he had an interesting story.
He was from middle class background and ended up dropping out of college three days before graduating because he wanted to work on a Start-Up. Not many people would drop out a few months before graduating, because it’s not the norm. But he did and worked for this random start up in San Francisco. His mentality was so different. He was super-passionate about it too, he was in the fashion industry and was passionate about getting real life experience.
What was interesting was that he had so much ahead of him if he took the normal route, but he decided to just follow his dreams, to go to a new state, new city and work with new people. This kind of inspired me to take risks myself.
On his birthday instead of asking for presents he wanted to donate $3000; he was well connected and in like 10 hours he had raised it. His present was that he helped someone out. He had a good heart and went out of his way to help people. He showed me values of being compassionate, and what he did for his birthday was the most inspiring this for me. I think sometimes we’re so selfish, and he took something that’s meant to be about himself and said I’m going to make it about other people.
What’s your favourite type of accommodation? Give an example.
I’m a big fan of sleep; I can’t sleep on a couch! I don’t do hotels and I don’t really do hostels either even though I have stayed in them before. I like Airbnbs, with Airbnbs you have wide variety of places on offer. Cosy places, most will have Wi-Fi, which helps! After going to a country with no Wi-Fi, never again!
What do you like to do when you visit a destination?
It depends on the city! When I’m in country that doesn’t speak my language I want to explore, but when I go to English speaking countries I feel closer to home for some reason. I tend to do the touristy things and go to famous restaurants or the “places to be”. But when it really different or third world country, I want to see the local sites. It’s about having the local experience and learning what I can from them.
I also naturally end up meeting people or a friend knows someone that resides in that country and your network naturally expands. But if I don’t know anyone I just explore until I find someone to talk to. But it’s never really a plan – it’s always spontaneous. I wake up and say I want to go hiking today, or I want to go to this famous museum.
Do you have a favourite experience/ place you’ve travelled?
Best experience so far was Catalina Island off the coast of California; it’s tiny but so amazing. I went there with my sister because I wanted to get her into travelling. We got electric bikes, we rode along the mountains and beautiful island; it was nice, and we got all our recommendations through other people. I didn’t ever know there was an island, but after recommendations from your networks, you get to know this stuff.
Also aside from home countries like Ukraine or Nigeria, my favourite place would be Costa Rica or LA. Every city in Costa Rica was awesome: I loved so much about it. Miami is my favourite but LA was such a different and interesting experience, in LA it’s really like the ‘high life’, two completely different mind-sets.
Thoughts on solo travel?
Do it. Get out of your comfort zone. Don’t spend time looking for an Airbnb with the biggest TV, think about getting out there and integrating yourself. If you are someone who likes to learn and explore then it’s definitely for you and any problems you had before your trip will seem so small.
It’s funny, we’ll complain about having a minimum wage salary. But then you go to a country where people are making barely anything a day and you see how small our problems are in comparison.
I think it’s also great because you meet awesome people you would have never met otherwise, and you see things you would have never thought – it kind of humbles you and you view your life from a new perspective.
Favourite websites/ apps for travel?
- Goats on the Road – these two travellers that decided to make a lifestyle out of travelling. They have crazy detailed accounts into their experiences – they are really useful. I used them before I went to Costa Rica to find out about the currency.
- Airbnb – for places to stay
- Google Maps – helps soo much (routing)
- UBER comes in handy as well – I had an Uber I Costa Rica 2$ for a 20 minute journey!
- Google Translate – such a big help
Most practical travel item?
Like I said I’m pretty spontaneous I go with whatever I have at the time. I always travel with my laptop, which like my life. I take a credit card just in case I’m stranded and need to buy my freedom! (Laughs)
How has travel changed you? What skills have you gained that you can apply to either your personal or professional life?
What I tend to find about people who travelled, is that they’re always more interesting, have a story to tell, and more open minded. For me personally the way travel has changed me, is that I think it’s made me a better person: it’s made me more understanding, more empathetic, more considerate of others cultures, more open-minded and just generally more respectful.
Professionally, I work in a field where creativity is important: engineering and being an entrepreneur. Because I’ve developed this understanding (from travelling) about how people work in different places I feel I can build services that can really help.
For example I have a friend that trying to make a solar powered laptop in Nigeria. I think you naturally want to solve problems around the world. It also helps you become less ignorant.
You mention entrepreneur, tell us a little bit more about that.
One hugely important trait a successful entrepreneur must have is empathy; the ability to see and understand things from a totally different perspective to your own. I spend a lot of time taking the lessons I’ve learnt from my journey and trying to apply them to the world around me in hope that they could be useful to someone else.
A recent product of this thinking is 25Sense, a donation platform that I’m working on now that will allow you to donate to selective charities in small increments. I think with the typical donation model, people have no idea what they’re actually donating to but I think deep down, everyone just wants to give, and sometimes there’s a misconception that if you’re not giving everything you have, it won’t make much of a difference. So this aims to make you more connected to your donations in a way that makes you realise how far a small donation can go!
What advice do you have for young travellers?
Well, apart from just do it…
- Do your research and plan ahead but not really
- Don’t spend what you have on things that will go out of style, invest in yourself. People think you need so much to travel, but you can travel on the bare minimum, it doesn’t have to be far!
- Before Brexit happens you can go to so many places without a visa, before you know it you’ll be in Asia or Australia.
- If you go to a country that doesn’t speak the language definitely learn the key phrases!
- Go in with an open mind and don’t have any expectations and you’ll have a completely different experience.
- Things aren’t going to be the same you are going to want to cry, but once you go far past your comfort zone you it will be worth it.
- Financially: save, do your research. Try to network with other people who have travelled.
Can you sum up your relationship with travel in one sentence/ quote?
It’s a love/hate relationship. I hate it when I’m there; I love it when I leave. I hate frustrations and obstacles but after I’ve done it I love it.
Not ready to say goodbye just yet? Follow Stephen’s journey on Instagram.
Meet the travellers: ABOUT THE SERIES
Meet the Travellers is a series profiling travellers from different backgrounds, talking about how they do it, why they do it, and how it’s contributed to their life in a positive way. Aside from fun travel tales, I get them to get useful with their chat – offering you guys some real takeaways for your own endeavours. Looking for their go-to travel apps or most useful item? See the full series here.