Editor’s note: This is one in a series of profiles in the Humans of Wausau series, which is funded in part through a grant from the B. A. & Esther Greenheck Foundation. Follow the Humans of Wausau Facebook page here.
By Kelli Oligney for Wausau Pilot and Review
Matt Rusch, 33
Q: Where are you originally from?
A: I was born in Wisconsin Rapids, but I’ve probably lived in 15 different cities in Wisconsin.
Where do you live now?
I just moved downtown, Wausau. I was in Kronenwetter and lived in Schofield for awhile.
How do you like downtown compared to the other places?
Downtown is cool. I’m about six blocks from The 400 block so I can be down here in a couple minutes. I’m also right by the river.
What do you do for a living?
I’m a software engineer and I started that in 2009, but I somewhat grew into it — I always did computer stuff. We were one of the first people in our neighborhood with a computer so I became familiar with it and played video games. It was really easy, fun, and I liked to figure out how things worked. It was a lot easier than figuring out people. So, I did that and then started school and got into the job; moved around a bit, but ended up back here.
Have you been with the same company?
No, I graduated in 2009 during the recession, which was awesome because no one was hiring at all. I got my degree and started working at a hotel as a front desk person. I was then living in Rapids and got a job in Sheboygan; moved there and eventually migrated into Milwaukee, but now I’m working at Merrill Steel.
Are you able to stay with that career while you travel?
Sort of. I was working there and I asked if I could take a long-term break and go travel. They said they couldn’t do that and so I turned in my resignation. They told me if I came back and the job was still open, I’d be able to come back since I did great work and left on good terms. I left, came back, called when I got back, and I was able to get my job back.
How did you decide to become a world traveler? Was there a certain trip or experience that began your journey?
I had done a little traveling as a teenager, but when I was turning 30, on the 30th, I wanted to do something cool. I decided to take a week-long trip, solo. I had never done a solo trip and wanted to see how it’d go. I told work, friends, and I decided to make it into a two week vacation, solo. It was eye-opening in a lot of ways.
Where was your first solo trip?
I went to Costa Rica and it didn’t go as planned. I showed up and I thought I’d be able to jump on WiFi and get wherever I needed to go and be fine since WiFi is typically everywhere. I was very naive at the time. I got there, got out of the airplane, walked outside and couldn’t get a connection. I thought my Spanish was definitely better. The taxi drivers asked, “So, where are you going?” I’m like, “I’m going to this Hostel.” They asked, “Do you have a reservation?” I said, “….No.” So the taxi driver gave me his cell phone to call the Hostel and they told me they had availability. I hung up the phone and the guy that was helping the taxi driver walked away. The taxi driver asked for the address and I said, “I don’t know.” The taxi driver knew of a different place so he said he’d take me there. This was at one or two in the morning in San Jose, Costa Rica. He took me to this random hotel and I got out of the car and got my bags. I walked inside and asked if they had rooms and they said, “No.” I didn’t know what to do because I walked outside and the taxi was gone and I was stuck in the capital of Costa Rica in the middle of the night. You hear horror stories so I just started walking around and was freaked out. I thought, “Great, this is how I die. I’m going to get killed.” Eventually, I found a random hotel and a room with two beds for 20 bucks. The trip smoothed out after that, but that is what got me into starting.
How did you decide where you were going to travel next?
For Costa Rica, I had been there before, but not to that area. I had heard from others there was a festival that I’d want to see, so that helped me decide there. After that, I really liked the area so I thought I’d want to see more of Central America. I researched more about other compact areas that are easy to get around that you don’t need to know the language. I also talked a lot to other travelers. Now, I look at travel sites and recommended places to go and listen to advice from friends that I’ve met along the way.
How many different countries have you been to?
I’ve been to 20 countries. Every one that I’ve been to, I’ve tried to stay for at least a couple of weeks. I wanted to get a sense of what each country had. Younger, a goal of mine was to do a really cool trip in my retirement. Obviously, I’m not retired, but I thought it would be cool to take a year and spend two weeks in all these places. It was something I always thought about doing and so I give each destination a chance.
Which country has been your favorite and least favorite?
My favorite would be a toss-up; there would be a three way tie. All-around, I really loved Guatemala because it had everything. Colombia had most of that and it’s modern, but after my last trip, I really liked Vietnam. Guatemala has culture, food, ruins, mountains, nature, volcanoes, beaches, the Caribbean coast; it has a lot. The Vietnam region has very friendly people. The South and North are super different. It’s packed and the food is by far some of the best food I’ve had in my life.
Good to know! I like food.
Right? Who doesn’t like food and it’s really cheap. I think it’d be between Guatemala and Vietnam, but Colombia is an enormous country. If you go from Bogota to Medellin, it’s about 150 miles; not very far, but the drive is about eight hours. The country is magnitudes larger; about the size of four Wisconsin’s. Colombia has a rough history and people are typically scared since it’s known for Pablo Escobar, cartels, and a lot of shady things. Now, the country is reformed or currently reforming and has a lot of interesting things to see. The climate is one of the best. Vietnam is tall with not a lot between it and Guatemala is about the size of a quarter of Wisconsin. You can get around the whole country from one end to the other end in about four to six hours.
Which country you’ve visited was your least favorite? If not a least favorite, one you didn’t have as great of a connection with.
I tried to see the good in each place I went and find interesting things; culturally. I had a really great time in Malaysia because of all the amazing people I met, but I think the country in itself didn’t have that identity that other places did. I could name each country I’ve been to and name a huge identifying factor about their culture and who they are. Malaysia was beautiful, but there was something missing. Just like you said, maybe I didn’t connect with it the same way. I think they’re struggling culturally too. It’s a blend of Chinese immigrants, South Indian groups, as well as the Malay people. The food was delicious, but they’re struggling to find who they are.
What was one of the most memorable experiences of your life?
I was in Guatemala and I did a hike next to an active volcano. We left from Antigua, which translates to Antique. It’s an old colonial city in the middle of Guatemala; which is just cool. There’s volcanoes around the city with beautiful colonial architecture and cobblestone streets. An hour or two drive from there, you can start the base of a different volcano and you carry your pack, tent, sleeping bag, food, and everything you would need for the night. It takes about seven to eight hours and it’s tough. You go through all this chaos and the active volcano is on the other side. You weave through little farm fields, horses, and different sorts of climate as you get higher. As we started reaching towards the top, it got colder. Once we got up and around this cloud mist – they say you actually have a rare chance at seeing the volcano because of the altitudes and the clouds that come in. Some people try the hike three or four times and never see anything. Once we got up and around this cloud mist and this mist forest, there was moss hanging on the trees and you are just done. There were some people who cheated and would have donkeys carry their things up. We got to the top where we were going to camp for the night; I was with this woman Karen who I had met in Guatemala City and we traveled together for a bit back from Vale, Colorado and a group of French people. All of a sudden, when we were setting up all our camp, the volcano exploded. It was almost like the sound of a gunshot with a crazy low rumble. We were just standing there and could see the cone of the volcano; it was about a half a mile away. We just heard this bang and the cloud was huge. It’s something I’ve never seen in my life and in that moment, makes you realize how insignificant we are; we are so vulnerable.
What was one of the hardest moments of your life?
After I did my short trip, I came back to work and told people how cheap they could travel. Before this, I thought of the type of family trip where people go to Florida and spend two grand for a week. I was like, “You guys, you can stay in a place for $10 a night, all your food is $5-$10 dollars a day, and you can get around for relatively cheap!” I started asking people if they thought it would be crazy if I quit and traveled and everyone said, “Yeah, but you should do it.” I started planning for my trip at that point and bought a ticket during Christmas break and it was $100 for a one way ticket to Cancun and at that point I was thinking, “If I do it, great, but if I don’t do it, that’s fine.” The day came closer and closer to the day to leave and I had to get out of my apartment, sell all my things, and plan for everything. It was a lot of work and preparation. As I got to that final week, I started to question myself. “Am I doing the right thing?” I had been at my job for five years and had to give up everything and throw it all to the wind. It was scary. I felt unsure and didn’t have many people connected to me that had gone through something similar. That final week was tough and started wondering if I should ask for my job and apartment back. What if I couldn’t do it? What if I didn’t like it? The last few days leading up to boarding the flight – I felt like I was saying goodbye to my family and friends and had no clue what to expect. I knew I had a one way ticket to Mexico and knew I’d travel through Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala; dangerous countries. I should say I thought more dangerous, but I was thinking, “Maybe, I don’t come back from this. Maybe, I’m making the worst decision of my life.” It’s all those crazy questions and definitely one of the hardest things I’ve done; to make that decision and follow through with it. Once I got on the flight and landed, a wave calmed me and I knew it was going to be alright. I learned self-reliance and I showed myself I was capable of doing this and didn’t need to worry so much. The subsequent trips weren’t like that at all.
Would you say that was one of the best decisions you’ve made?
Yes, by far.
What is your favorite memory of living in Wausau?
My family lives here and we camp here every year. We all get together on the farm on Memorial Weekend and it’s one of the reasons I came back from my last trip. It’s one of the rare occasions where everyone gets together. We sit in the barnyard, catch up, fish, and share in each other’s company.
What is your favorite local spot here?
I like all along the river. I’ve seen a lot of different places and I enjoy the calm. It’s nice knowing when you’re walking in the woods there isn’t poisonous spiders, snakes that will kill me, or mountain lions. I love that you can walk up the trail and find your own peaceful spot; grab a book and find some serenity.
What motivates you each day?
Realizing there is so much to see and do; it’s a big world and there’s a lot.
It’s pretty big.
Kind of big. There’s over 200 countries and for me, the motivation is that I haven’t seen it all, done it all, and haven’t met all the people or experienced the cultures. There’s so much to do and so much left undone. Whatever I do, I’m never going to be an expert; I thirst for knowledge.
What’s your favorite quote and why?
It’s a song lyric, but also a quote from “The Nights” by Avicii. This is one of the things that got me to get into traveling as I did. He says, “So, live a life you will remember.” That stuck with me and I realized, before my trip, that we do so many things that are routine. We do so many things that don’t really mean anything so when I heard that song for the first time, it stuck with me. When I started traveling, I knew what I did and saw in the country, but back home I couldn’t say that. You go to work, go home, watch your shows and then you do it again. That’s when I thought, “What am I doing with my life?” I’m not doing anything important or memorable when we are all capable of doing amazing or interesting things. It’s so easy to push things off and say you’ll do something next year and stay in that rut. Anytime I think of that quote, it makes me want to do something more and it resonates with me every time.
What is a hidden talent of yours?
I have a couple. I can walk on my hands.
You’re going to need to show me outside. What’s the other talent you have?
I can sit on the handlebars of a bike and pedal backwards.
I never tried that. Here I am, thinking I should try it when I get home, but I’d probably kill myself. What was a moment good or bad that has changed you as a person?
I’d say it is a collective of me moving to Milwaukee and getting into yoga and going to music festivals. When I took my short trip, I went to a festival called Envision in Costa Rica, which is coined a transformative festival. The summer leading up to it, I visited community-driven, Eco-sustainable, meditation, and yoga festivals. I think before these things, I harbored resentment towards things in my life or viewed things negatively depending on what happened. Coming out of my trip – I got to sit with certain tribesmen and certain groups and it gave me a whole different outlook on life. I try not to see anything negative; there’s always a positive light.
Even if it seems negative, there’s always something good that will come out of it.
Yeah, I broke my foot in Mexico. Things like that, you can look at it being horrible and going to ruin your life, but you can choose to see the good in it or the bad in it. This experience allowed me to connect with different people and allowed me to find my own strengths and grow as a person. I think anything negative that happens to you, what you choose to do with it is going to shape your future. It’s very telling of who you are.
If you had any advice to give anyone, what would it be?
People are stronger, smarter, and more resourceful than they realize. People assume they’re only capable of so much. I was a perfect example leading into my trip, I thought, “I could fail. I might have to come back home.” Doing all this, made me realize what we are all capable of. We are all tough and capable of doing amazing things. A lot of us will never realize how tough we are until we are put in a position that we need to call on that strength, but we all have it. We all have the courage within us. If you never challenge yourself, you’ll never know. Challenge yourself. You can do it.
What has made you stay in Wausau; for the time being?
My family, job, and friends. I was born in the area so I have ties. My grandma and grandpa live down the road. My mom lives in Kronenwetter, but I’ve spent countless days, weeks, summers, winters, Christmases, here in Wausau. I’ll always return here. It’s home.