Introduction to Roads and Ridges

David Carillet, elephant selfie enthusiast and creator of Roads and Ridges.

Hello and welcome! I'm David Carillet, an ordinary guy from Asheville, North Carolina (originally Orlando, Florida) living a somewhat less ordinary life.

On March 5, 2016, I reduced my life's belongings to a single medium-sized backpack and checked in to a one-way flight bound for Japan. I've been living minimally around the world ever since, and everything I own still fits in that one bag.

Although it had long been my goal to travel, it wasn't always my intention to do so in quite this manner. However, when life events made my plans more and more distant to achieve, I decided that unless I wanted to end up like all the people who put off their dreams "just a few more years" until they're all out of years, I needed to do something more drastic.

The decision to leave America was actually more difficult than anything that came after it, as living abroad, it turns out, can be easy to settle into with the right mindset and lifestyle. Had I known more about this stuff when I was younger, I probably would have left America sooner. With that in mind, something I'd like to cover on this blog is how to make travel more simple and affordable. I hate clickbait and "best of" travel articles based on short-stay tourism, so you'll find none of that here. My travel style is to spend weeks or months in each area to get to know it like a good friend. I find this style is well-suited to writing website content that is both practical and detailed. I'll also share plenty of original travel photos, which I produce professionally for a living.

If I had a remarkable life story, it would go here.

I blame video games. That's the short answer I'd like to give people when they ask me why I chose this lifestyle. It would certainly be easier than attempting to explain the myriad factors that influence a person to sell/donate most of their possessions, discontinue all contracts, and leave their country. And honestly, games have influenced my wanderlust since at least the age of 15. My brother returned home after work one night with a new PlayStation game called Final Fantasy VII. He described the gameplay as something like "roaming a huge world map, fighting monsters, exploring cities, and searching people's homes for items." I was sold. Travel and kleptomania? That would be my ideal job.

This game genre, known as RPGs (role-playing games), is built upon the inseparable themes of deep storytelling and exploration, and what is travel without stories of new places and cultures you've explored? RPGs were travel simulators in my mind, and the more their visuals and depth evolved through the years, the more I daydreamed of seeing the real life locations and cultures that sometimes inspired them. When the genre later adopted online play, adding MMO- (massively multiplayer online) to the initialism, it enabled me to meet and chat with new people from all around the world. The virtual travel experience was complete.

Some of the realistic visuals found in the Final Fantasy RPG series.
The Final Fantasy series features real-world Asian and European-inspired imagery. Clockwise from upper-right: Final Fantasy VII, Final Fantasy VIII, Final Fantasy XI, Final Fantasy XIV, and Final Fantasy XV. © Square Enix

I could write a whole article on inspiring games. That's why I wrote an article on inspiring games. Now it's time for the obligatory story of hardship, betrayal, and overcoming adversity Google.

Growing up, I was never certain what I wanted to pursue as a career. College wasn't a strongly promoted option in my family, and I wasn't sure what my strengths were. In the mid '90s that all changed; the world became connected! My dad set up a computer with Windows 95 and I got my first look at the World Wide Web. From the moment that I realized people were making money with their websites, I made it my goal to somehow find a way to do the same. But without the girls.

There weren't many online tutorials back then. Even Google didn't exist yet. I know, it's hard to imagine such an idyllic world. I learned HTML by saving web pages and methodically removing pieces of their code to see what broke on the page. The first website I made was a Final Fantasy fan site hosted on the newly launched Angelfire service, with graphics created in Ulead's PhotoImpact 3. I made a few iterations of it, improving on the design and content each time. People seemed to notice, as my hit counter was recording a few hundred visitors a day. Encouraged by the results, I prematurely decided it was time to grab my piece of the dot-com bubble. My next project would be an online store, career sorted! I repeated all the steps I took with my fan site and waited for the money to begin printing.

My store saw few visitors and no sales. Worse still, all the trial and error had come at the cost of many calendar pages. As my 18th birthday arrived, expectations were high for me to produce a paying job. So for a new experiment, I combined my fan site and store into a single idea, placing links to "otaku" gaming products from an online Japanese import store on my Final Fantasy fan site. Over the course of a few months, I made enough sales commissions to reach the minimum payout threshold of $60 USD. Yes! It was the hardest earned money I ever made, but it was also the most exciting.

Unfortunately it was too little too late. I soon found myself employed by Sam's Club as a forklift operator, working the night shift as a freight runner and stocker. I hoped to continue developing my website ideas into a side income until it was enough to quit the day job, but frequent overtime and constant fatigue proved that task difficult. After a particularly busy Christmas month of 100+ hour work weeks, followed by an unpleasant meeting with a tree trunk after falling asleep at the wheel, I began to wonder if the job would literally kill me. I saved all the income I could and turned in my notice to leave at just short of two years, getting out before the next holiday season and forfeiting my yearly bonus. The drive home on my last night was not unlike the scene of Jesse driving to freedom on Breaking Bad.

I calculated my savings to be sufficient for roughly a few years on a shoestring budget and told myself I needed to create a successful website in that time frame. I stopped thinking "Can I do this?" and began thinking "I have to do this." If I could make $60 before, then why not $600? Why not $6,000? Seven months later, on July 7, 2003, I launched Creative Uncut, a website based on the idea of curated collections of video game concept art.

I sought advice from other website owners about how to make my website profitable, but the recurring suggestion was to pursue a different niche because gaming sites are low-profit. I ignored the advice and decided to compensate low CPM (revenue term; cost per thousand page impressions) by relying on a gallery model in which each piece of artwork had its own page, thus increasing page views.

CU exploded in popularity. The site growth outpaced my ability to figure out how to monetize it, and I resorted to self-sabotaging my search engine rankings so that I wouldn't have to upgrade my bandwidth as often. However, monetization soon sorted itself out as advertisers were quick to find me. Offers came pouring in, and by 2009 I was working half the hours of my old job and earning more money. The site was serving half a million visitors and 5 million plus page views per month. It felt as if the formula to a good life had been solved. I celebrated with trips to Japan and the United Kingdom, and used the opportunity to explore the field of travel photography. I invested in a DSLR camera and a few lenses in spring of 2010 and began selling photos on microstock websites in August of the same year. The plan would be to travel somewhere new every year, which I kicked off with a 3-week trip to Italy in 2011.

Life was good before the death of image search.
The golden age. The first 10 years for my concept art website were hugely successful. (Data before July 2007 recorded with a different service.)

However, the plan was short-lived. January 23, 2013 is a date I remember better than my own birthday. In a Thanos-like move, Google – after living by a corporate motto of "Don't be evil" for years – donned its metaphorical Infinity Gauntlet and erased the incomes of half the world's webmasters by redesigning their image search to hotlink full-resolution images, thus displaying other people's content without delivering a single page view. Lawsuits ensued, including a high profile one from Getty Images, but they were tied up with legal negotiations for years. Meanwhile, my numbers plummeted month over month. The loss was unbearable; 50% of traffic in the aftermath of the change, 80% when it bottomed out.

Fortunately, Google's highly trained PR folks were quick to step in and let everyone know that this was a "better" image search because it delivered "truer" visitors by eliminating traffic from people who might bounce after only one page view. Thank goodness for "truer" visitors, because otherwise the $3,000 USD I was losing every month would have been a disaster!

No matter how hard I worked, the numbers continued to free fall. Ten years of work upended in an instant by one company. Every day became depressing and I lost the motivation to work. Even MMORPGs, which were usually a calming escape from the stresses of life, couldn't take my mind off the loss. If only life could be as simple as my virtual one, roaming from place to place with everything I needed in one bag. I could magically fit 20 swords and gear for 18 class changes in there and still have enough room for a king size be—"Hey, hold on...could I really do that? Roam the world with just one bag?"

It seemed crazy, but when you're at rock bottom, all sorts of previously unrealistic options start sounding a lot more viable. An extreme change of lifestyle might be just what I needed. Looking around my apartment, I mentally organized my possessions into 'needs' and 'wants'. The list of needs was quite short, maybe even one-bag short...

You have succeeded in life when all you really want is only what you really need.

— Vernon Howard

I then remembered my cousin once mentioned living on a monthly budget of less than $700 USD while traveling in Asia for 9 months. After some research into living costs around the world, I realized the idea was indeed plausible, even enviable. Just the thought of limiting the influence that money has over my life felt freeing. The more I read about budget travelers flourishing on such modest incomes, the more I realized how many opportunities were available to me. There was a whole world waiting to be explored if I would just embrace poverty learn to develop the capacity to enjoy less.

Still, I wasn't willing to subsist on instant ramen and wash my clothes in a bathroom sink if an unexpected expense broke my budget. Nor was I willing to fall short on contributions I'd been making to my retirement account for years. So with a rekindling of motivation, I focused my energy on developing a new source of modest but liveable income.

Attention turned to my previous foray into stock photography. I had amassed a small collection of 300 photos in my microstock portfolio since 2010, and although I hadn't taken it seriously, it consistently averaged a couple hundred dollars a month as a side hobby. Not bad for a no-maintenance passive income. What if I had a few thousand photos...? That might be liveable. I didn't have immediate access to a few thousand quality photo subjects though.

While scanning through ideas from other stock image creators, I realized that many strong concepts were increasingly being produced with 3D instead of photography. The advantage of covering abstract subjects with less competition and reusing or repurposing 3D models to speed up production flow was clear. This was how I would rapidly achieve my goal. Beginning in spring of 2014, I learned to make a few images with Photoshop's 3D features, then switched to the free open-source Blender software. Within a few months I was selling my first 3D-rendered images.

In early February of the following year, I found myself sitting in the reception office of Parkway Crossing Apartments to renew my lease. In my mind I was already exploring distant lands as an itinerant, but in reality there was still no timeline to make it happen. In front of me was another prison sentence masquerading as a rent contract. I already knew the terms; I had signed many of these agreements, and always for the longest lease duration of 15 months to stave off rent hikes, but this time I was staring blankly at the paper and twirling the pen. In my mind I was fancifully thinking "If I sign for 15 months, then my next renewal will be in May of 2016. But if I sign for 12, I could leave the contract in time to see Kyoto's cherry blossoms in March."

The landlady, noticing my gaze, suggested, "You can take some time to think it over and sign tomorrow if you like."

"That's okay, I can sign it now," I replied.

I touched the pen to the paper, thought a few more seconds, and then signed for 12 months. Sure, I could still renew at the end of that period or even find another apartment, but in my mind I raised my sails the moment I jotted down my signature. It was a personal commitment that in one year I would be in Japan. I shared my 12-month plan with everyone I knew in order to reaffirm it further. That mental resolve helped everything else become a little simpler. With one year to make things happen, my motivation was at max level. By the end of 2015 I had created more than two thousand 3D images and photos, recovering my monthly income by about half.

Stock images rendered with Blender open-source 3D software.
A handful of the many images I created with Blender's free software, which I sold through microstock websites.

As 2016 arrived, I sold or donated all but one backpack full of possessions, charged all my initial travel preparation expenses to a new credit card with a nice sign-up bonus, and used the rewarded air miles to purchase a one-way ticket to Kyoto, paying only $13.90 USD for taxes and fees on what would have been about an $800 ticket. The day I left on March 5, 2016 felt like the end of normal. The end of home ownership, saying "goodbye" to friends and family, leaving behind a familiar English environment, abandoning U.S. customary units – okay, so it wasn't all bad.

There was a feeling of dread and "Did I really just do that?" ...and then that feeling dissipated somewhere over the Pacific. Yeah, that was it. I don't know if that's normal, but my mind switched to adventure mode before the plane had even touched down, and I haven't missed American life since.

A series of planes, trains, buses, and boats have taken me through a slowly growing list of countries, accommodated by hostels, homestays, share houses, and apartments as I travel at a tortoise's pace. There have been a few grievances, but the lifestyle has quickly become second nature, and far easier than I anticipated.

Whether you're a seasoned or sporadic traveler, or just enjoy living vicariously through the adventures of others, I hope you'll follow along with my exploits and misadventures. I offer several social media channels to make it more convenient, as well as a mailing list that sends no more than a couple updates per month. If you're not sure where to start, how about having a look at how I spent less than $800 a month living in Kyoto during my first month abroad to see how affordable life can be on a minimal budget, or explore destination highlights from some of the beautiful countries I've visited, or read some travel tips to start planning your own trip. And if you're only interested in pretty pictures (to which I commend you for reaching the end of this rambling page), you might enjoy a selection of my travel photos showcasing the individual beauty of the places I've been.

Welcome to Roads and Ridges!