One year, one goal: Blugold alumnus travels to 31 countries

| Jesse Yang (story + video)

If you want to travel, there’s no better time than to do it now, says UW-Eau Claire alumnus Andrew Kleist.

Kleist made traveling a top priority over the past year, going on a yearlong expedition to 31 countries, spanning five continents.

“It was the most eye-opening experience in my life and more valuable than I can put into words,” he says.

Kleist, a 2013 graduate of the environmental public health program, says he never studied abroad while in college and seldom traveled outside of the Midwest.

“I’d never even flown until I was 22. I didn’t even have my passport until I was 23,” the Eau Claire native says.

Having interned at the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, Georgia, during his senior year at UW-Eau Claire, Kleist says he met fellow interns who also had a passion for traveling.

“Hannah, who I traveled with, is an environmental engineer. It’s something we wanted to do. We talked about it for a while, and then all of a sudden it just kind of became real,” Kleist says.

After reading online forums for some traveling tips and tricks, Kleist and his friend embarked on their worldwide adventure.

“We had one flight booked to Guatemala City, and then from there, we just kind of figured everything out as we went. We had a list of countries we wanted to get to, but we were very fluid with how we moved around.”

The environmental duo traveled to dozens of countries spanning Central and South Americas, Africa, Southeast Asia, Australia, New Zealand and Nepal. By following a simple diet and backpacking for the entirety of the trip, Kleist and his friend made their dollars stretch and traveled well under their budget.

“We learned that both of us are very comfortable with being uncomfortable, which when that is the case, it isn’t that unaffordable to travel. We cut a lot of corners that I think most people wouldn’t be comfortable with,” Kleist says.

The pair spent most of their nights camping in the wild and cooking most of their own food.

“At one point, for 60 consecutive days, we ate oatmeal for breakfast and spaghetti for dinner. When you’re carrying all your food for weeks at a time on your back, you try to keep things light. There were stretches where we didn’t even have pasta sauce,” Kleist said through laughter. “It was just plain spaghetti — put a little salt on it, maybe, but we kept it light.”

Being on the move with fluid plans also brought its challenges, Kleist says, making the trip memorable and an experiential learning experience.

“I got chased by an elephant in Zimbabwe, had hyenas outside my tent in the Serengeti. There’s all sorts of things like that that sound crazy now, but over the course of the trip just kind of became normal.”

With a critical lens on the environment, Kleist couldn’t help but think about the current and future state of planet Earth.

“With my background in environmental public health, one of the goals of this trip was to see the places around the world that maybe are changing quickly that maybe won’t be the same in 10 years if we wanted to go visit them again. We went to a lot of glaciers around the world because they’re receding so quickly. We also saw coral reefs — there’s a lot of coral bleaching and it’s changing so rapidly. Who knows what it’s going to be like in 10 years.”

Traveling also presented endless opportunities for networking with people along the way, allowing Kleist and his friend to immerse themselves in a plethora of cultures and customs.

“Now that I’m back home, I think just seeing how other cultures operate will make me a better employee when I start my next job," Kleist says. "Other cultures are so much more accepting and friendly. I’ve tried to take some of that back with me and be more open.”

Kleist says he’s not certain when and where his next travel adventures might take him, but this trip has given him some ideas.

“The problem with traveling like that is you want to keep seeing more. You realize all the other places you haven’t been that are worth visiting.”