This column, Escape Artist, is a series about folks who have escaped. More importantly, this biweekly column is for those thinking about trading in their 9-to-5, leg-shackled-to-the-desk existences to forge their own way. The brave outliers featured in this collection of interviews are the digital nomads, online entrepreneurs and lifestyle trendsetters who decided it was time to say to hell with the humdrum and grab life by the roots.
Elona Karafin runs Elona the Explorer, a travel site that focuses on how to take inspiring weekend trips while still working a 9-to-5 during the week. A cancer survivor, Elona also runs a charity for underprivileged kids with cancer during her free time.
The “escape the 9-to-5” mentality seems to be popular now. What are your impressions?
Elona Karafin I have a few takes on this. On a personal level, I love to work. I come home every day and work on my blog and on my charity on the weekends. I am constantly busy, so when I do take short 3-5 day trips, that is my way of refueling and mentally preparing for more work. The reality is that to survive in a place like NYC, you need to work hard and you need to save. As an example, working for an employer that matches your 401k contributions is an incredible benefit. Likewise, putting money aside into a money market account or a regular savings account is crucial for future wellbeing. I think this is something many people tend to close their eyes on, especially when they are young.
I hate the idea of sitting in a cubicle all day, every day until I retire, but I also believe that if you are surrounded by intelligent and hardworking people, then you can learn a ton in that cubicle. I also believe that if you are motivated outside of work and have goals and aspirations, then a 9-to-5 may not be as bad as everyone makes it seem. The more I travel, the more I realize how hardworking Americans are, but a huge portion of the country is still living paycheck to paycheck. That’s a problem.
What was the “aha” moment that sparked this idea of travel for you?
EK I’ve been traveling to and from Ukraine since I was 5 years old, so the idea of international travel was never foreign to me. I saw a show on the Travel Channel that featured the United Arab Emirates, and I really wanted to go there someday. I hate the word “someday.” I vividly remember the moment I pushed the word “someday” out of my thoughts and started looking for flights. “Someday” might never come, so I knew I had to make the trip happen sooner rather than later. That is when I realized how accessible all these deals are. It’s simple to find a cheap flight and cheap accommodation if you put in the research. Everyone told me that I was crazy for going so far for just four days, but it was the first time I traveled a long distance in a short period of time, and I haven’t traveled any other way since.
What inspired you to start blogging, and how did you first build a following?
EK When I came back from Dubai, many people reached out to me with questions about where I stayed, what I did, what I ate, and so on. In my close circle of friends, nobody traveled extensively at the time, and if they did, it was mostly to the Caribbean. Dubai was an exotic destination. Many of the questions repeated, so someone asked if I would write it down. The rest is history. The goal of my blog was and always will be to give people that extra nudge, a word of advice, and a little inspiration to travel. I think that resonated with people, and they started following me because I provided genuine information based on personal experience. I started introducing my readers to new portals with cheaper flights and cheaper accommodation and promoted the idea of “stop making excuses.”
Tell us about your charity, “Checkmate Cancer!” Why is philanthropy important to you?
EK Charity work is part of my DNA. I don’t believe that life is fulfilled until you change someone else’s life for the better. I fought and beat cancer when I was 10, and throughout my battle, I encountered many wonderful organizations that bent over backwards to make my family and me more comfortable. I vowed to do the same. I raise money for underprivileged families who have kids with cancer and other life threatening diseases. I provide financial assistance for medical and recreational costs by hosting multiple crowdfunding efforts. It’s important for me to not only help the families in need but to encourage others around me to get educated and involved.
Do you have a favorite travel anecdote you’d like to share with Paste readers?
EK I always love telling the story of the time my best friend and I rented a car in the French Riviera, and it ran out of gas and didn’t have navigation in English. We were on our way to Monaco for dinner, and although our car barely had gas left, we were confident that there would be a gas station along the way. We were solely relying on the navigation in the car, which ironically enough, did not have English as a preset. There was a ton of construction on the road, and we kept getting re-routed until it dawned on us that we were nearly out of gas. It didn’t help that we had no idea what the navigation was saying. We had no choice but to keep driving. In the distance, we saw a toll booth … and after the toll booth … a gas station. The funniest part about all of this was that the toll booth was between France and Italy. 2.50 Euro’s. We accidentally drove into Italy. Now I always like telling the story of the day we stopped by Italy to get gas on our way to dinner in Monaco. For the record, we totally flunked out of that reservation.
What’s one tip you have for readers who want to live a life like yours?
EK Everyone creates their own happiness. The problem is that we often get lost in the excuse of “not having enough time” and we get so lost in it that it begins to affect everything in our lives. In that process, we forget to be happy. That’s a really scary thing because the hardest part about losing the momentum and the drive is getting it back. I always use this analogy where I ask people to remember a time when they had the flu. Those dreadful days when you lose your tastebuds and you can’t breathe and your body is weak and fragile. Imagine being in that condition indefinitely. The reality is that anything can happen to you at any time. I guess this comes back to my experience with cancer when I physically wasn’t capable of doing anything for months at a time. Once you start living your life knowing that “someday” might never come, you start doing more things and doing them more proactively. I may not fully agree with the idea of ditching the 9-to-5, but I do believe that if you’re not doing something that makes you happy every single day, then you need to change things.
What are you most excited to do in 2017?
EK I am excited to roll out my destination series, which include Q&A-style visuals about the places I visit. I want to bring my readers up close and personal with the destinations that I travel to while also answering questions and giving advice about ways to book cheaper flights and accommodation. I think videography is taking over the blogosphere, and I can’t wait to show everyone what I have in store. The Elona the Explorer brand is going through some major enhancements geared at getting people out of their comfort zones and traveling the distance for short time periods.
Carolyn Crist is a freelance health and science journalist for regional and national publications. She writes the Escape Artist column for Paste Travel, On the Mind column for Paste Science and Stress Test column for Paste Health.