Geraldine Le Roux Matthews’s flight from Kathmandu to Lukla Airport was frighteningly beautiful. The day before she and her husband took off, a plane on the same route had crashed and killed 19 passengers. And Lukla Airport is infamous for being the world’s most dangerous airport, with an angled runway and mountains on all sides.
Thanks to the crash and some cloudy weather in the days following, Matthews and her husband found few crowds while trekking Mount Everest, even though it was tourist season. They also hiked to the Kala Patthar overlook, where you get an unobstructed view of the peak of Mount Everest. This was around September 2012, a year after she and her husband had left the States to embark on a nearly two-year trip around the world.
“A year and a half goes by so fast when you’re just working and doing your thing, whereas you take that year and go travel around – it’s such a life-changing experience,” Matthews says. “It’s definitely the best experience I’ve had.”
Before leaving, Matthews had been working at DC startup HelloWallet doing marketing and product. When she and her husband married in summer 2011, they asked guests to contribute to their travel fund and set a budget of around $50 per day each. To raise additional funds, they would work intermittently while traveling, staying in affordable hostels, couchsurfing, and camping.
“A lot of people – especially Americans – don’t realize that you can travel for cheap,” says Matthews.
Along the way, Matthews decided to teach herself web design and front-end development, with the help of her techie husband. He got her started with Ruby on Rails, she watched some online tutorials, and she began making her way.
“Whenever I encountered something I needed to do, I would just Google it and figure it out. There are so many resources available out there,” she says.
Early on, they put on their entrepreneurial hats and launched GigaBadger, a pay-as-you-go VPN service for travelers like themselves. But Matthews’s first real test was designing a website for a barbecue restaurant in Bali called Naughty Nuri’s. She didn’t quite have the skills she needed when she took the contract, but she did it anyway:
“Act like you’re an expert and you’ve got it under control, and then figure it out when you hang up the phone,” advises Matthews. She ended up modifying an existing WordPress theme to create something she was happy with in a month or two.
In Vietnam, they stayed in different cities for a few weeks at a time and took a trip to the rural north, cruising around on motorcycles and garnering strange looks from the locals. Matthews also landed a gig creating a website for a small business app consultant. By then, they were a year into their trip.
But the worst was yet to come. In Laos, Matthews got in a tubing accident and fractured a vertebrate. Breaking your back anywhere is a harrowing experience, and it was even worse in Laos. She recalls her husband rushing to check out the local hospital and quickly concluding, “We’re not going here.” So Matthews had to travel the whole way from Laos to Thailand, from bus to train to train, lying down because she couldn’t sit up. Bangkok greeted her with cheap medical coverage – $140 for the whole treatment – and a bed to rest in for the next month.
When they landed back in the States, Matthews picked up a contract for a nonprofit and kept traveling, meandering around the country and visiting friends. And they reached their final stop in San Francisco, where Matthews landed her current job as product marketing manager at Locu. It may not be as harrowing as flying to Mount Everest or tubing in Laos, but startup life has its own ups and downs and bumps along the way – and she still has the travel bug.