INTERVIEW: JACOB LAUKAITIS AND HIS ADVENTURE TO NORTH KOREA
Jacob Laukaitis isn’t your typical 22 year old. In fact his biography smacks of a true life adventurer, having traversed all points of the globe at an age when most of his peers are still trying to figure out what they want to do with their lives. The young entrepreneur and explorer has equally seen his share of the harsh realities of the world in which we live, having visited the hugely secretive country North Korea. We talked with Jacob about his travels and his ambitious enterprise. And he was nothing short of forthcoming about life on the road and in the boardroom.
AKIL WINGATE: Jacob, You’ve been bitten by the travel adventure bug it seems. At 22, you’ve seen more than most people have in their lives. Going all the way back to the very first, maiden voyage as it were, how would you describe your first exotic travel? How did it change you?
JACOB LAUKAITIS: I would say my first real exotic travel was when I went to Southeast Asia for 2 weeks (I spent a week in Kuala Lumpur attending an entrepreneurship event and then a week in Singapore and Jakarta). It was my first time in Asia and it literally opened my eyes to the wonders of the world. I realized how much I had not seen and had not explored, how many people I had not met and how many cultures I knew nothing about. At that time I felt like it would be a sin not to go out and explore a lot more.
AKIL WINGATE: You’ve come a long, long way from what you’d call your hometown. Have you had moments when you were somewhere abroad and were instantly reminded of home? What happened?
JL: I don't think I'd say. It's funny how one's perception of home changes after they've traveled extensively. To be honest, I don't really know what home is any more. I'd say there are at least 5 cities where I do feel at home and a lot more where I feel really good as well. I don't think I've ever been homesick. I mean people obviously miss their childhood friends and family, but the way I look at it is I love them, but every minute I spend in a place I had grown up in, I lose on learning new things.
AW: Those of us who are explorers typically discover something about ourselves when we venture out into the unknown. What have you discovered about yourself? What did you discover about strangers/ people around the world?
JL: There have been hundreds and thousands of discoveries, it's really hard to choose one! But I'd say one of the major things I realized was that the world is not black and white. You can't put labels on things and mark them as good or bad. Things or actions that are believed to be good in some cultures are considered to be totally unacceptable in others. So I guess I'd say I've become a lot more tolerant, open-minded and stopped judging.
AW: Imagine that you’re packing one single tote bag with you around the world into possibly some of the most extreme and even possibly dangerous climes. What is your must have gear (tech, etc)? What items do you find invaluable no matter where you go?
JL: Well I always work on the go. To be honest, I don't think I could travel as much as I do if I wasn't boring, because sometimes it'd feel a little boring. So my most important items are obviously my MacBook Pro 13-inch, my phone and my cameras - one pocket Sony camera and one GoPro. The rest of the stuff I really don't sweat about, since I can always buy them anywhere I go. I have very little clothing and if I do need something more thick or more protective, I rent it or buy it for the trip and then sell it or give it to someone in need.
AW: lot of people find that travel is a luxury they can’t afford because of finances, work, kids, or even just plain old fear of leaving home. How did you find the resources to travel like you do? Walk us through how you plan out a year of travel and how you initially found the funding to support your travel.
JL: I'm a co-founder a Chameleon John , which is an online coupons website in the USA. Since all of our work is based online, I can work from literally anywhere as long as I have my computer and a Wi-Fi connection. And traveling is often a lot cheaper than living in some of the bigger Western cities, like London, Paris, Barcelona, New York, San Francisco and the likes. So I don't have any financial plans or so. I never lose my income and thus finance-wise traveling is exactly the same as living in one place.
AW: What advice would you give others thinking about packing it in at the 9 to 5 and hitting the road to see the world?
JL: 1.Put your work first and complete your tasks before exploring; 2. Don't rush it - quality is better than quantity. What's the point in visiting every country in the world if it's for a day per country?
AW: You recently visited North Korea. If we tackle this head on, we know that the country has been ruled by 3 generations of dictators and the people are largely impoverished. How did you reconcile yourself with that knowledge when you visited the country? Did you have any trepidation going into this trip?
JL: North Korea is arguably the world's strangest and weirdest country on so many aspects. I've been interested in it ever since I was 15 and have always wanted to visit. Speaking of trepidation, I finished reading the book 1984 by George Orwell literally one day before I flew into North Korea and that's one of the reasons why I got quite paranoid at times. I felt like there were a ton of similarities between what's written in the book and what I managed to see in North Korea (though obviously it isn't as high-tech as described in the book). But many things seemed controlled and it did make me paranoid at times.
AW: Did you have a chance to honestly dialogue with your guides about the conditions there in the country and its larger relationship with the rest of the world? What was said? Or not said?
JL: Yeah we would have time to talk to our guides face to face. Usually when we'd go to a bar or a shooting range. And those conversations did seem honest, though how can one ever tell if they were? How can you know if what they say haven't been pre-arranged and were really their honest thoughts?
AW: How much of this experience was a personal breakthrough? Did you feel any pressure to act as an ambassador for the west, to extend an olive branch?
JL: It made me not take my freedom for granted.
AW: How do you respond to the recent criticism of Youtubers and others who’ve recently gone to North Korea and were accused of having a blind eye to the reality of daily life there?
JL: When I made my short documentary North Korea I made it very clear that we were only shown what they wanted us to see, that they've jailed a guy for trying to steal a poster, we had to give up our passports and were monitored all the time. The reason I didn't want to talk about politics was simply because a lot had been said and shown and there was no reason for me to repeat the others. I wanted to show people what we were shown so that they could make up their own minds about whether things were staged or not. However, I still offered a single thought of mine at the end of the video. For those reasons I don't think I qualify for a person who turned a blind eye to the reality there. Because I'm aware of it and I don't agree with it.
AW: What would you say in your opinion is one of the biggest misconceptions about the North Korean people?
JL: I wasn't allowed to mingle with them, so I can't say I know them.
AW: Any place you’ve not yet been that is lurking on your radar for the future?
JL: New Zealand, Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Australia and quite a few others.
AW: Outside of travelling the world, what do you do professionally? Any projects that you undertake separate from that of explorer?
JL: I've been focusing my energy on Chameleon John for the past few years and currently have no plans of switching. I see myself as an online entrepreneur, who travels full-time and I don't think I'll ever stop working while I travel.