FREEDOMPRENEURS: Alex & Sebastiaan of Lost With Purpose

Iran. Afghanistan. Pakistan. Kyrgyzstan.

These are places that not many travelers go to and given the political instability that is happening all around the world, many adventure travelers are disheartened with the thought of visiting such places.  It takes plenty of research and courage to navigate such countries and experience travel at its finest.  As travelers, we’re behooved to exercise our innate nature to roam the world freely but what happens when political and cultural views get in the way?

I must admit that I have yet to go to these countries. In particular, as an avid mountain trekker, I’m highly interested in the trekking opportunities in Iran, Kyrgyzstan and Pakistan.  As an American, the recent change in the political and cultural climate towards predominantly Muslim countries have posed a mental challenge – despite what have been presented on the  news, would you allow this to compromise your desire to see the lesser known parts of the world, the ones that are especially known for warm and friendly locals (despite politics) and rich in history, as well as, stupendous landscapes?

In light of the world’s despair over varying political views on the state of said countries, reading travel stories from bloggers who have been to the places in dispute provide a hint of hope and connection.  It is more important now than ever before to continue sharing travel stories from these countries that are constantly berated on the news as being “dangerous” and “unwelcoming” to the rest of the world.  (Read this Matador article on bloggers’ roles in promoting humanity). For us, travelers, we are now faced with the difficult question as to how to delicately balance safety versus our desire for freedom to roam.  If we do manage to venture into these countries, it would be incumbent upon us to share with the world the beauty and generosity of the locals and the world-class sites and nature that abound within these countries.

I’m delighted to feature two travelers who have done exactly that, whose mission is to tell the world about the wonderful experiences they’ve had in countries that remain unjustifiably questionable to the majority of travelers.  Perhaps the negative perceptions will dissipate one day, even if takes years or decades or more.  Regardless, bloggers and travelers have a critical role to play in that process.

Alex and Sebastiaan of Lost with Purpose

Alex (short for Alexandra) is a 25-year-old American girl, and Sebastiaan is a 28 year old Dutchie.  They’re full time travelers and bloggers over at Lost with Purpose.  They’ve been on the road for nearly a year, traversing the Caucasus, Iran, Pakistan, China, Central Asia, and Afghanistan. Currently they’re in India, alternating between sweating profusely, devouring curries, and basking in brilliantly bizarre culture.

Hitchhiking near the Kolsai lakes in Kazakhstan.
Sebastiaan

Sebastiaan grew up in the Amsterdam, the Netherlands. At age eight, his family moved to the Caribbean island of Curaçao.  After two years of island life, they moved back to Zandvoort, a beach town in the Netherlands. He continued to travel, both with family and without (in later years), and took not one but two gap years in Australia and Southeast Asia after high school.

Alex

Alex grew up in an “international” household in Pennsylvania; her mother is Filipino, and her father is English. Her father was also a professor, and the family often tagged along when he went to international conferences. Their travels took them to comfortable destinations such as Hungary and Denmark, as well as far-flung locales like Mongolia and the Philippines.

Their paths crossed on a university exchange program in Bangkok, Thailand.  They hit things off, had a stint of awkward dating-not-dating while traveling around Southeast Asia for several months, then decided things were meant to be and suffered a year of long distance post-travel while they finished their bachelor degrees. After graduation, Alex got a British passport (thanks to her father) and moved to the Netherlands so they could be together. Now, almost five years later, they’re on the road backpacking once again!

What are your interests and passion in life?

Our passion is what we first bonded over, and continue to explore today: traveling!

We both love traveling, especially to uncommon destinations. Once off the beaten track, meeting new people and exploring new cultures becomes much easier and more organic. It’s what motivates us to travel to more “difficult” or unconventional countries!

At a shrine to Hazrat Ali in Bamiyan, Afghanistan.

Aside from our shared love of travel, Alex is addicted to ice cream, and I spend a good part of my waking life devouring manga.

Are you still working a 9 to 5 job? 

Nope, we’re jobless—and homeless—bums. We quit our jobs before we started traveling and blogging.

Before adopting a life of vagrancy, we both worked in Amsterdam. I had a marketing and sales position at a food-related company, and Alex both freelanced and worked as a designer and occasional web developer.

 How was the process like to quit something so stable?

It was surprisingly easy. We knew we wanted to do this for a while, and never really thought about it as something difficult to do. We’re used to change, thanks to my multiple gap years and Alex’s relocating for school and to the Netherlands.

The most difficult part was figuring when to tell our bosses. Luckily, it wasn’t too bad—we both had very encouraging, understanding bosses. We ended up telling them about three months in advance so they had ample time to find and train replacements.

 What are your current projects/business/plans?

We’re mostly focusing on monetizing our blog, Lost with Purpose.

The blog is a combination of photo-heavy storytelling, as well as practical information and advice for other travelers. The focus is on covering less visited destinations such as Afghanistan and Pakistan; i.e. places lacking in up-to-date information for travelers. To supplement our direct income from the blog, we sell articles to publications, and Alex does a bit of freelance writing if an opportunity arises.

I’m curious to know more about your project.  What led you to start this blog?

When planning our trip, we were surprised to see how little useful or up-to-date information was available for the places we wanted to visit. There are hundreds of blogs covering Europe and Southeast Asia, but hardly any covering Georgia or Iran or Pakistan. We decided we could fill that gap.

The blog’s name, Lost with Purpose, comes from our tendency to get lost. We find the most memorable experiences occur when lost… so instead of bemoaning it, why not savor it? Our purpose: enjoy getting lost.

Getting lost in Georgia’s Truso Valley.

When did you launch your blog?

We officially launched when we started traveling: February 24, 2016. The blog was nearly empty though, and the only people reading it were our mothers.

What is your blog’s mission?

It started out as helping other travelers find their way in uncommon destinations.

However, the purpose of the blog shifted since its inception. In our travels, we visited several countries struggling with terroristic stereotypes such as Iran, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. Despite the negative connotations, we met so many people who were ecstatic about our visiting, and were eager to show off their country and mind-blowing hospitality. We wanted to give the world a chance to see what people in these countries are really like.

Surrounded by crazy friendly locals in Lahore, Pakistan.

Now, we write to show people how awesome the world and its people are. People are fundamentally similar no matter where you go, and most will greet you with a friendly smile if you let them. In today’s polarized society, this is often forgotten or purposefully suppressed. We hope to be a voice of positive reason, one article at a time.

With a friend we met through Couchsurfing in Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan.

We still give plenty of practical information (how-to guides, budget reports, transport information, etc.), but many of our stories focus on the human element.

What hurdles have you faced thus far with this project?

We’re on a perpetual hunt for working wi-fi! Seriously, we’ve probably spent more money on coffee and drinks while attempting to find wi-fi than anything else.

The wi-fi in Iran was terrible, and to top it off, many major websites are blocked by the government!

Another problem: traveling full-time and trying to start a business don’t play well together. You want to fully experience your surroundings and meet new people… but you also have to write articles, maintain social media, answer emails, etc.

Another hurdle is monetization. No matter what those articles peddling travel blogging as an instant source of money or free travel may say, making money from a blog is not easy. At the moment, most of our money is made from writing for other publications, not our blog.

How did you overcome these hurdles?

Whenever we find a place with decent wifi, we take over. Sometimes we’ll stay an extra day or two if it’s working really well. Other times, it’s impossible to find any connection. In Pakistan, for instance, some places only have working electricity for a couple of hours a day! Good luck getting any work done.

The Hunza Valley in Pakistan: gorgeous, but connection-less.

That plays into finding our work/travel balance. No wifi = focus on travel, and offline tasks such as writing and editing photos/video. We’ve learned to focus on doing what’s possible at the time, which saves a lot of stress and misery!

As for monetization… we’re still working on that one! Most of our money comes from selling articles, but more sponsored opportunities are coming in as we become more established, and we’re currently focusing on better integrating affiliate sales into our existing content.

Who or what helped you along the way to make your project a success?

The blogging community has been a great help to us! There are several travel blogging Facebook groups that we frequent, such as We Travel We Blog and Female Travel Bloggers. They’re filled with (mostly) good-hearted people willing to help each other out and point each other in the right direction.

We’ve also developed a relationship with a couple of other bloggers in our niche, and they’ve pumped us full of all kinds of useful advice and tips.

Tell us more about your traveling life. How often do you travel?

Full time! We quit our jobs, stopped renting our apartment, and sold all our stuff, so we don’t have anything in the Netherlands to go back to. Our travels stop when the money stops, but we hope to indefinitely postpone that date with blogging.

Waiting for a (potentially nonexistent) bus in Armenia.

Before this big trip, we tried to travel at least three times a year, money permitting. Traveling to foreign countries wasn’t particularly difficult or expensive when we lived right in the middle of Europe.

How does your project complement your passion for traveling?

We travel the way we like, and we write about it so that others can do the same. It’s pretty straightforward!

Alex and Sebastiaan share with us their favorite travel moment. 

There are so many moments… where to begin? We’ve been taken in by complete strangers who gave us food and a bed, we were almost killed by Georgian hospitality (AKA alcohol), and we were treated like movie stars in Pakistan, stopping every 10 meters for selfies and chats.

Our favorite moments are the ones with people we didn’t expect, like when a stranger helped us and fed us in a train station in Pakistan during Ramadan, or when were invited in for tea, melon, and loads of hash by some shepherds in Afghanistan. We’ve met so many brilliant people that have given us the world and then some in our travels—it would be unfair to choose just one!

Chilling with some shepherds in Balkh, Afghanistan.

How do you define success for your project?

Success, for us, would mean our blog is regularly making enough money to fund our travels. The way we’d travel, we’d need to make about $1,500 – 2,000 a month to comfortably carry on, plus put away some savings.

What have you discovered about yourself as part of this process?

We’ve learned all kinds of things! I, for one, have learned that I hate taking pictures… but you’ve gotta do what you gotta do, right?

Alex’s discovery has been a bit more positive. Blogging has proved to be a combination of multiple things she enjoys: photography, web design, and marketing. She’s definitely addicted to it, but in a good way.

How do you manage to afford traveling? 

Before we started traveling, we saved money for about 1.5 years, and ended up with around €12,000 each. We’re traveling on those savings, and supplement them with income from blogging and freelance writing. Our money stretches far because we try to travel cheaply. Previously, our budget was $25/day per person. In India we’ve lowered it to $15/day.

Being hosted for free by a family in Shush, Iran.

Blogging has also helped save a lot of money. When people get to know us through our blog, they often invite us for dinner, or host us in their home. This happened particularly often in Iran and Pakistan, and we’re getting plenty of invitations in India as well, though we haven’t been able to meet up with anyone yet.

Do you have other future projects in mind?  

We’ve tossed around several ideas, such as selling Alex’s photography, offering some kind of consulting services based on our skills, or writing guides to some of the places we’ve visited. The blogging world tells us offering some kind of digital product for sale is the way to go… but we haven’t decided on one yet!

Travel gets in the way of productivity more often than not. Not that we’re complaining!

What advise do you have to those who are thinking of pursuing their passion that require quitting their 9 to 5?

Make sure it’s something you really want to do. A lot of travel bloggers preach about how easy it is to quit your job, leave everything, and start a career on the road. Well, it’s not.

There are plenty of things travel bloggers don’t tell you. Many don’t actually travel full-time, but rather live in foreign countries for most of the year. In our opinion, not living in your country of birth doesn’t equal traveling.

Others make most of their money from secondary sources, such as writing for other publications or working part-time while on the road. They make their blogs look glamorous and profitable, which is, in those instances, a lie.

We’re not saying you shouldn’t do it—just don’t believe the hype. Quitting your job and traveling the world for free isn’t real. You have to work hard, forego the luxuries of home, and ultimately be stationary for long periods of time. Besides, it’s okay to have a 9 to 5 and pursue your passion. There’s nothing wrong with stability.

Did quitting the 9 to 5 kind of career and working for yourself turn out the way you envisioned it to be?  

Blogging has turned out to be more work than we initially thought it would be. We thought we could just post quick how-to guides every once in a while, write a story or two a month, that sort of thing. Far from.

No digital detox for us!

There’s writing, editing, social media, promotion, affiliates, pitching, networking… the list goes on. We spend just as many hours traveling as we do sitting in the glow of our laptops. We’re more glued to our phones now than we were before we left. But, it’s a challenge we enjoy, and if it can fund future travels… so be it!

 Are you living a life with more freedom now than before?  

Of course. We travel where we want to, when we want to. We can work late at night, or early in the morning. We write articles in cafes, do social media on trains, and edit photos from the comfort of a bed. If we want to stop working and go off and explore something interesting, that’s fine—it’s all part of “the job”. I’d say that’s more freedom than traveling to and from the office during the week!

Laptop? Check. Beer? Check check.

The only limiting factor is internet. We could travel to the furthest edges of the earth… but we’ll need to rush back to find internet eventually!

To wrap up, I asked them a few rapid fire questions.

How many countries have you been to?

We don’t really keep a close count, but Alex has been to around 50, and I’m in my 40s. Our current backpacking adventure has taken us through 10 countries so far.

What other countries are still on your list?

The offbeat islands of Indonesia beg to be explored, but we’d also love to explore more of the Middle East—think Iraq and Lebanon.

Name one thing you miss the most when on the road.

Cheese. Real, delicious, properly aged cheese.

Which do you prefer? Mountains/nature or city life?

Alex is a nature girl—she’s happiest when she can relax in some sunshine to the sounds of birds chirping (and she’s averse to humans). I, on the other hand, love cities for their endless opportunities and architectural marvels (and I don’t like hiking much).

Alex in the mountains of Kyrgyzstan.

Describe the word, FREEDOM.

To do what you want, how you want, when you want.

Name 3 things that are important in pursing one’s dreams.

Motivation, persistence, and creativity.

Thanks Alex and Sebastiaan for a wonderful overview of your experiences in off the beaten path parts of the world.  I hope this will encourage some of us, travelers, to take that leap of faith and visit a lesser known destination despite the negative perceptions being promoted on the news.  Having said that, safety is always a priority so as travelers we all have to learn to find the balance between that and our freedom.

You can continue to follow Alex and Sebastiaan via their blog, Lost With Purpose or via social media: FacebookInstagram, Pinterest and Twitter.  They’re always happy to get messages from readers, and do their best to respond to every comment and message… or you can just say hi!

If you know of someone who you think should be featured on FREEDOMPRENEURS SERIES (yourself included), you can find out more here.

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