Jet setting the world on a post-graduate budget

There’s something seductive about the idea of roaming the world as a vagabond, drifting from place to place with no agenda and never looking back. Pirates, nomads and gypsies have done it with great success. To most of us, though, it’s an alluring idea and nothing more.

The explanation is rather simple: We have lives to live, classes to attend, bills to pay and friends and family to support. As creatures of comfort, we like to stay rooted, and have secure jobs and places to call home.

But what if living as a vagabond didn’t have to be just a theoretical lifestyle confined to our imaginations? What if we could really drop everything — work, school, the daily grind — and just leave?

Technically, we can. That’s what 25-year-old Brian Lio, who received a bachelor’s degree in computer science from the Rochester Institute of Technology in 2006, realized two years ago.

“I was always frustrated by the way everyone I met ended up talking about the same goals and dreams ‘to quit and just go travel to amazing places,’” Lio said. “I never understood why no one would actually do it.”

When Lio met like-minded Robert Ward, who received his bachelor’s degree in physics from Grinnell College in 2006 and a graduate degree in social entrepreneurship from the University of Washington, Seattle, things instantly clicked. The two turned their common ideology into an idea they could share with the rest of the world: Jet Set Zero, a website that follows four college-grads-turned-vagabonds via streaming video, photos and blog entries as they hop from country to country on a “zero” budget.

“Jet Set Zero started from endless conversations about getting up, taking a risk and heading out on the adventure we had always dreamed about,” Lio said.

Jet Set Zero has grown over the years, with the addition of 24-year-old Jen Cheng, who received a bachelor’s degree in commerce from the University of Lethbridge in Canada in 2007, and 26-year-old Nick Amante, who graduated from the Rochester Institute of Technology in 2006 with a bachelor’s degree in information technology.

The travelers abide by three rules: they must fund themselves on three months of low-paying work in the US (under $10 an hour); they must experience their host culture through local jobs and friendships; and they must give themselves three months in each country to succeed or fail.

“We’re not tourists and we’re not backpackers,” the website insists. “We come to live, work and play locally. We want to feel the day-to-day texture of life for people our age.”

Every three months, the team starts fresh in a new city, with the hope of attaining a new job, new living arrangements, new friends and a new life-changing experience. So far, they’ve lived in three different countries — Vietnam, Japan and South Korea. They have recently moved to Turkey to film their fourth season.

The nomads began their journey in Saigon, Vietnam, where they tasted their first helping of culture shock — quite literally, in meals consisting of goat udders and cobra blood — and learned, among other things, how to ride a bike.

“The toughest single adjustment I’ve made was learning how to drive a motorcycle in Saigon,” said Ward. “The city is legendary for having dirty, noisy streets packed with motorbikes, none of which follow the rules of traffic — if they exist at all.”

Their next stop was Tokyo — a metropolis of fashion, luxury and, for the dirt-broke cast, a lifestyle they couldn’t afford. Recall rule three, which states that the travelers must give themselves three months to succeed or fail. Saigon was a success: There, they were able to make friends, save money and build a sustainable life. Tokyo, however, was another story.

“In Tokyo, we were completely unable to find work, and lost the thousands of dollars we’d saved trying to feed and house ourselves,” said Ward. “We couldn’t afford to meet many people in the city, so instead of fully experiencing Tokyo and Japan, we struggled to feed ourselves and wound up thousands in debt, homeless and starving for three months. That’s failure.”

Three months can be a long time if you’re broke and hungry. But, as the team found, camaraderie can get you through anything.

“In Tokyo, we literally had nothing but each other and a few incredible local friends to keep up our spirits. It was tough, but friendship saw us through,” said Ward.

Thankfully, their third stop in Seoul offered all of the glitz of Tokyo — at half the price.

“Seoul was surprisingly amazing — I say surprising, because you never hear about it,” said Ward. “The city is just as shiny and intense as Tokyo, but cheaper and the culture is more accessible.”

The 20-somethings enjoyed the perks of Seoul’s city life, particularly its vibrant nightlife. But their time there wasn’t all just fun and games. When protests in Seoul got serious on May Day, for example, the Jet Set Zero team found themselves taking on the role of civilian journalists.

“We … followed a crowd of thousands as they shut down Seoul’s biggest crossroads,” said Ward. “We found ourselves standing in a completely empty street, 12 lanes wide, with an army of riot police on one side, and a wall of protestors on the other. As we were filming, the hundreds of police charged the protestors as we stood in the middle.”

In addition to filming, blogging and acting as civilian journalists for their website — which asks for donations, but doesn’t rake in much money — the team members work local jobs.

As native English speakers, the team members are able to find reliable jobs teaching English, but their jobs have run the gamut from working for travel agencies to editing video game translations.

Still, even with jobs, paying for their nomadic lifestyle is a constant challenge — and something that puts their lives in perspective.

“Relocating is by far our biggest expense, so we’re often facing financial challenges. At the end of the day we’re happy as long as we have a few dollars in our pocket for food and a roof over our heads,” said Lio. “Every day on the road is a good day.”

For the nomads, “home” is a constantly changing notion. Today, “home” may be Istanbul, but tomorrow, it might be Bulgaria, Greece or Croatia, according to Ward. For that matter, it could be anywhere else in the world they can find jobs, access the Internet and film without landing in prison.

Their philosophy is simple, their adventures enviable. For the Jet Set Zero team, language barriers, financial restraints and culture shocks are just part of the endless thrill and excitement of living a vagrant lifestyle.

Not too long ago, they were college grads unsure of where to go next — not far from where most of us are today. Now, they are vagabonds and adventurers in every sense of the word.

“We have tough times and fantastic times on the road, but looking back at this project, I am completely unable to say I wasted a day of the last year of my life,” Ward said. “As long as I can continue to look at it like that, I will keep doing it, and I can’t see that ending any time soon.”