Traveling the World: Grassroots Style
Originally published on PassionPassport.com
Matt Horspool wasn’t ever completely sure what he wanted to do with his life.
For a while, he thought he’d be a mechanic. But the training program was full, so he applied for university instead. He was studying for a degree in exercise science and secondary teaching when he took a trip, like many young Australians do, to Thailand.
Like many other travelers, Matt became obsessed with seeing the world.
He left Australia and hopped around for a few years. Peru. Brazil. Patagonia. Back to Australia for six months. Then on to Southeast Asia. Europe. Northern Africa. Over to the United States, Canada, and Mexico.
Sometimes he volunteered or found teaching jobs. He worked as a nanny, lifeguard, snowboard instructor, and bartender in various locations. While he occasionally settled for longer stretches of time, he always took photos.
After returning to Australia, Matt took a job as a special education teacher and relegated his photography hobby to the weekends. He took a few jobs as an event photographer, and met other creatives in Sydney, but he just couldn’t shake the feeling of traveling.
It was the grassroots style that he loved — being on the road all the time, seeing places that others might not want to visit, finding where the real people lived, that sort of thing.
Then Matt heard about the Olympus Vision Project grant.
He actually completed two applications, the second of which (with his friend Kel) was a project about a road trip along the M41 highway — a route through the Pamir Mountains in Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan that was once part of the ancient Silk Road trading route.
Not many people had done this trip, so there wasn’t a lot of information to be found. Matt was fascinated by the idea itself, despite not being able to spell the names of the countries he’d be traveling through.
Then, Olympus got back to them. Their application had been chosen as one of the nine Olympus Vision Projects.
From then on, it was all research and planning, just trying to figure out how they were actually going to complete the road trip. It was decided that Matt would drive the whole time (his travel buddy didn’t have a driver’s license) and they’d take the general route along the Pamir Highway, with slight deviations along the Wakhan Corridor between Tajikistan and Afghanistan.
But everything changed when they got there.
As it turned out, Google Maps wasn’t reliable at all — where it had calculated only a few hours, it was actually eight to 10. Matt was exhausted from driving all the time. And just eight days into the trip, their car stopped working while they were driving through Kyrgyzstan.
So they hired a driver and their plans went out the window. They rerouted the trip, cancelled flights, and took the honest travel times into account.
Then they got back on the road.
Their project — the Stan Collective — was about seeing the cultures of the countries they traveled through as a whole, instead of bits and pieces. It was about adventure and the very nature of travel itself.
Matt and Kel stayed in yurts in the middle of nowhere. They had dinner with multigenerational Kyrgyz families, took photos for hours on end, and watched the landscapes slip past them as they drove through the terrain. Once, Matt taught some young girls English phrases to help when they had visitors. Sometimes Matt would just set the camera up and sit, taking in the surroundings and not paying attention to the screen at all.
The trip was less socializing, and more trying to soak up the culture. In some of the cities, Matt felt like he was back in Eastern Europe. But out in the country, with clean air and perfect lighting and not a single tourist in sight, he felt more free than he had on any of his previous travels.
They spent thirty days in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, but it wasn’t enough.
The places the Stan Collective took them were the kind of places that stay with you long after you’ve departed. Matt thinks about his time there constantly — and not just because he’s in the process of editing thousands of photos and writing about his experience for their website.
Matt hopes that he’ll be able to parlay this project into more professional travel photography work — and he already has a few projects lined up for next year. While he may not have known what he wanted to do with his life when he was younger, he does now.
He wants to travel the world and photograph what he sees. That might just be enough.