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Interview with Michael George: 15 months of travel, yoga, and the best food around

Michael George is a Chicago born yogi, traveler, and entrepreneur.  I met with him to talk about his 15 month travel around the world, his yoga practice, and where to find the best food abroad.

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Leaving Chicago

SW: How did you start traveling?

MG: My first out of country trip was to Mexico with my family to a resort, so I got to see that side of what it means to travel.  Going to the beach spending seven days and then relax and come home.  I enjoyed it but it wasn’t what I wanted to be doing when I would go traveling.  I think I was really inspired by my parents’ best friends because they go to all the national parks around the US.  I always was very envious of what they were able to see and accomplish and enjoy.

SW:  Awesome.  Why did you leave Chicago?

MG:  I think there’s a difference between being stationary and being stagnant in your life and I truly believed that I was just stagnant.  There wasn’t anything that I needed to get from here at that time to grow more into myself. I had always known I would go traveling, I just never knew when.  So when I found myself not personally breaking out of routine or challenging myself outside of work, I knew it was time to go.

SW:  Sure.  So, you were gone for about a year and… 4 months or something like that?  Is that right?

MG:  Fifteen months total.    Four hundred and forty two days to be exact.

SW: Ooh, okay. 

MG:  I only know that because this couple I met in Ecuador had left the same day that I left to go traveling, so when I met them it was like day 378 or something – then I was able to just count after that.  So that was nice.  

SW:  So what countries did you visit on this trip?

MG:  Um, alright.  This isn’t in order, but I’ve got the list.  So I was in Australia for 7 months, and then I did Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam for about 2, 2.5 months.  Then Israel and Jordan, Morocco for 2 months, the UK (well, mainly London) and then Ireland, Poland, Germany, Spain, Ecuador, and Peru.  Yeah.

SW:  That’s a lotta shit to see.

MG: It’s a lotta shit, eh?


Cost

SW:  I feel like this is a question a lot of people are interested in knowing, but… so how did you afford the trip?

MG:  How did I AFFORD the trip??

SW:  I think people oftentimes have this expectation that it’s so expensive to travel abroad for like a really.. long amount of time.  I think in your case that’s not necessarily the truth, so how did you afford the trip?

MG:  I like to think that I traveled a bit differently than people because I had the opportunity to work while I was abroad. I was living abroad so I had nothing to go back to.  When you plan a trip that you have to buy a flight there and a return trip, you have two weeks to see everything and your standards of living are higher than the standards of living in that particular country.  You’re going to be spending more money.

If you level yourself out with the culture, the price of rooms and you’re okay with a shitty or cheap hostel for the evening, you’re going to be able to save money in that sense.  When I was in Australia, I worked for about 7 months and we all know the pay there is pretty sweet – it’s like sweet as may, you know?  So I was getting $23 an hour and I was able to save a lot of money there.  Then use that money to go traveling.  So I spent my American money on plane tickets, but anything I did in countries up till like Morocco, I was paying with Australian money.  That was really helpful, but yea I mean just lower your standards.  There was a point where I was pretty close to being broke on my Australian money and while I was in Australia even, so I just limited myself to traveling with $30 a day including the hostel, the food and if you drink and what not… $30 a day was my limit.  If I didn’t spend $30 this day, I would add it to spend on the weekend.

I had that sort of budget for a bit and… really just being flexible and notice when you’re spending too much.  You could be definitely spending too much money on souvenirs or something let’s say or really nice food when you could check out blogs and what not to find the cheaper but more authentic way to eat in that country.  That’s usually the better bet.  Cumulatively I would say, lower your standard of American living and be okay with shoveling out necessary cash – but don’t overexploit your bank accounts.  It is vacation but it’s not, it’s a lifestyle.  So it’s not ‘spend everything you possible can’, it’s a steady pace so that you can experience everything.


Food

SW: Speaking of food, where did you have the best food and where did you have the worst food?  ‘Cause you’re a foodie.  

MG:  I’m a foodie.  I guess so, yeah.  I like food.  I eat a lot of food.  I guess I would say Australia did not have the best food because… they prepare it very well and they have a nice standard of preparation.  Fresh produce, fresh everything.  Kinda similar to the US but they have less people to feed so the food is actually better.  They have more room to grow it and etc., whatever you wanna go down that bunny hole.  But, it was just like nothing special.  You could get seafood there which was pretty good… but again, nothing special.  Nothing I had never tasted before.

The best foods though are countries that you go to literally for the food, so like Pad Thai in Thailand was good.  Not my fave, but good.  Vietnam had some AMAZING food.  There was this back alleyway, I wanna say it’s like Boon Nak Tal…?  It’s this street alleyway, where you can go and there’s 6 or 7 snail restaurants so you go there specifically for snails.  I had pork and snail steamed shells… you put the pork and the minced snail back into the shell and they steam it.  And it.. it was just mind blowing.  Just mind blowing because it’s something I had never thought would exist or exist at my price range.  I was able to try that.

I loved Israel’s food.  Oh my god, the falafel was just unreal.  So good with pastries and doughs – very flaky; light.  And great spreads, like their harissa was just unbelievable.  Everything.  And as long as you allow yourself to an open palette while you’re abroad, you could really have good food anywhere.  I was vegetarian before I left and I totally decided that meat was on the menu when I was traveling, especially because in peoples’ cultures, you don’t know if they’re gonna have the vegetarian option for you so you have to be a little bit more flexible.

SW:  Totally.  I’ve heard that before too where people, they have to kinda change their dietary restrictions especially while traveling the world because you don’t want to offend anybody and you wanna taste all this good food bc it’s so completely different from what you’re used to as well, you know?  

MG:  Totally.  The best places are when the chef – and the kitchen – has a pot that’s older than you and they’ve been making this constantly year after year after year and they keep perfecting it little by little ’til its down to a science and it’s just ungodly amazing.


Inconveniences

SW:  We just talked about your favorite food and your least favorite food.  How about, what was the biggest inconvenience you had while abroad?

MG:  Biggest inconvenience…. 

SW:  Traveling with me (laughs).  [ click here to read our travel journey in Jordan & Israel ]

MG:  Traveling with Stevie.  That was a fuckin’ load that I had to deal with.  I would say… the days that were spent in airports.  Either you just don’t have the money to go out into this country for 5 hours or 8 hours and you have to sit in the airport or you have to sleep in the airport overnight.  It’s just really uncomfortable and you’re irritable and you’re going from plane to plane and switching altitudes.. everyone’s anxious because they’re in an airport.. and you just have to sit there and learn to be mindful of the moment and it’s really hard.

It was really always uncomfortable.  Shell out too much money for this coffee at the airport because you have nothing else on you.  I would spend those days blogging and what not and that was good to catch up but you can only do things for so long before you’re just struggling to move somewhere.  I thought those were always very, very inconvenient.

SW:  Totally.  I feel like a lot of people have this misconception of places they’re not familiar with and thinking that they’re unsafe and… I remember, personally, when I was going to Middle East.  Dubai, Jordan, and Israel, people were like “well why would you want to go there?  There’s so much that’s going on around there right now.  How can you go there knowing that it’s not safe?”  So I want to ask you, did you ever… during this fifteen months of travel, did you ever feel unsafe?  And if so, what was that moment?

MG:  I never really felt unsafe.  I’ll start this out with the fact that I am a white male dude that is pretty confident in my walk or whatever I guess you could say.  So I didn’t really have trouble with people on the streets.  If somebody would approach me, they would know that I’m down to talk or ‘no, don’t talk to me’ and I would walk away sorta thing but I never felt unsafe.

I was actually saying this the other day that actually the first time in my life that I stopped looking over my shoulder and worrying about if someone’s following me or something or is there something bad going on behind me?  As you would do if you were walking down the streets of Chicago sometimes in certain parts of the neighborhood.  And I never had to do that in Australia for the first time in my life.  Australia has no guns, no citizen has a gun.  Everyone’s pretty mellow because nobody’s broke.  Nobody’s struggling and begging and it’s very hard to be poor there.  They make sure that the minimum wage is high enough so that is just one example that goes hand in hand with like.  I went to this foreign country and I honestly had not idea what to expect in Australia.  I didn’t even know that they had a law against guns there or anything.  I took it day by day and if somebody would come up to me and it was an unsure situation, my rule of thumb was always to just kill them with kindness.

It’s a lot harder to attack or hurt a person who has been kind to you than somebody that is just wanting to get away from you.  Psychologically speaking, I guess, those are the kinda games that you have to play in the world.  I made it out in one piece, I never had any pickpocketing issues.  I never was a target of anything really.  The worst thing I guess is some hate crime in Morocco.  It wasn’t even hate, I think he was just a repressed gay, he was on the street and he said “wow, that’s a nice ass” or “hey, cutie.”  My friend Eliza would go up to him and be like “you cannot talk to him like that!” And in Morocco you have more rights as a traveler and safety and security than a local does so I felt safe, I felt fine.  Even with that, catcalling is a thing around the world and it’s worse in other places, especially for women.  So I can’t speak on that experience, but I can speak on my own.


Communication

SW: Definitely.  So kinda talking about different situations around the world, you were in many different countries and I’m sure most of them spoke English.  Were there any where it was hard to communicate with people where they didn’t speak your language and maybe you didn’t know where you were and you were trying to get somewhere?  What was the biggest communication barrier, I guess?

MG:  I guess it would be just intimacy with the locals.  That was a very difficult thing to just try and automatically communicate on the same wavelength because different languages have different social cues and saying things in certain ways means something completely different to somebody that speaks Arabic or someone that speaks English.  Or even someone that speaks Darisian – a middle ground of the two.  It was always like ‘okay, take a step back,’ realize how they present themselves, don’t necessarily come off too strong and assertive as Americans may do because that’s how we get through things and we just assume people should be speaking English so we don’t take time to look at their efforts going into learning the English language because it’s just assumed that they can speak it.  So I guess that was always tough for me.

I eventually got really good at not assuming that people could speak English and I would try and throw in a couple words of their language to speak whatever I could.  The one place I would say that was really difficult was Poland.  I found very few people in Krakow that spoke very, very strong English and I don’t know if that has to go with their economic status or what not but a lot of Polish people just can’t travel because their złoty is not strong in other countries so it’s very hard for them to leave.


Plane Tickets

SW: What is your method of going about and buying plane tickets?  I know Expedia is a huge one that people use.  Is that what you’re prone to or do you do like…

MG:  I don’t use the bigger names.  I’ll use apps like Skyscanner and Hopper.  I use the two as a dynamic duo where I’ll plug the flight into both of them and I’ll get notifications from Hopper which is a red app with a little bunny on it.  I plug it into there because it tracks the price trends within the next coming months up to the flight and it’ll say ‘within the next two weeks the price will rise, buy now’ or… ‘wait two weeks because the price is going to drop.’

So I go off that but I also go onto Skyscanner and I’ll check the price when the alert comes up and see what it’s at.  And I’ll usually play with the system for a couple days.  I’ll check Skyscanner and then I’ll go over to kiwi.com, that one’s also a really, really good one.  Once I get enough notifications, maybe 3 or 4 from Hopper that say ‘the price is gonna rise, buy now,’ I usually wait ’til like… Tuesday afternoon or Wednesday morning are my days to buy tickets that I like and usually I feel the prices are lower on those days and in those times.  And then I’ll go buy.


Yoga

SW:  We haven’t really talked about what you were doing abroad in the sense that.. right before you left, you got certified to be a yoga instructor.  So let’s talk about yoga and finding that balance between work and focusing on your self and your yoga practice..

MG: Abroad.

SW: Yeah.  Or we can talk about your business too.

MG:  Featured moment!  Abroad.  Yes, I went and got my YTT when I was just about to leave to go traveling so it was like my last big project in Chicago before I took off.

SW:  He’s sitting here doing a yoga pose by the way.

MG:  I would try and get in as much yoga as I could in other countries.  Some countries know what yoga is, some countries have no idea. So most of the time.. like in Morocco, there was one place that had yoga and it was a restaurant that only taught on Saturday mornings.  And you would have one class, one opportunity.  In Marrakesh at least.  There were a lot of yoga retreats along the coast of Morocco but I wasn’t there so.. it was a lot of self practice and I was teaching yoga at the hostel I was working at, so that was really nice to have a daily practice and getting to try new tricks and.. when you’re in situations like that, you really get to just test your boundaries of what works in a sequence, what doesn’t work in teaching students and especially internationally.  Not everyone in your room speaks completely fluent English so you have to really understand how to break down terminology that works for everyone.

Another weird thing that I noticed is that in the US they advocate not practicing while teaching, but everyone in the world that I worked with really wanted to see me practice with them so that they could see exactly how it is and what not.  So I tried to take 50/50 from my teachings and from my actual experience and do some flow in the class and then the rest of the time adjustments.  Now I’m back here and I am starting a little yoga online business, basically the goal is to bring authenticity back into yoga so.. not necessarily focusing on things that a beginner may not understand in every class such as mantras or.. if it is a mantra, break it down for them and not just assume people know exactly what you’re talking about.  Or really diving in and breaking down poses for beginners that might not know what utkatasana actually means and needs the step by step still.

I’m a very laid back, down to earth guy and I want to bring that into my yoga teaching so that more people feel more confident in trusting themselves to look inward.  I have an online page, called michaelgeorgeyoga.wordpress.com – still need to get those rights and you can also follow me on Instagram or FB under michaelgeorgeyoga.

SW:  Awesome.

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If you want to see what else Michael is up to, check him out on social media!

Instagram: @michaelgeorgeyoga
Facebook: Michael George Yoga
Yoga: michaelgeorgeyoga.wordpress.com
Travel blog:  alchemy-travels.tumblr.com