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Asia travel

How a Hong Kong financier quit the rat race to help others fund their dream trips

Unhappy in a toxic office environment, Zach Glassman set off to travel the world. Now he helps fellow travellers find their calling by funding their ‘bucket list’ dream trips via online start-up Passion Passport. See what one group made of Hong Kong on a recent visit.

PUBLISHED : Friday, 04 March, 2016, 3:34pm
UPDATED : Friday, 04 March, 2016, 4:11pm

Former Hong Kong finance trader Zach Glassman soon discovered his passion lay elsewhere when he took a job in metals trading in Hong Kong after graduating. Three years later, he decided to quit when he realised his work life was taking a toll on him physically and emotionally.

Without a clear plan for the future, Glassman embarked on a nine-month global tour that eventually led to him founding an online travel start-up, Passion Passport, in 2013. His goal? To help others fund their dream trips and share their travel stories creatively.

The 29-year-old entrepreneur, who grew up in Canada, was in Hong Kong last week with a team of nine creative professionals as part of a Cathay Pacific-sponsored Asian trip.

Glassman says what makes his trips different to the usual group tour is the focus on creativity and mentorship. “We want to help more people travel purposefully and help them find their calling – kind of like what I did,” says Glassman.

During his stop in Hong Kong, Glassman revisited his former office building. “If the environment I was immersed in hadn’t been so toxic and anxiety-inducing, I wouldn’t have ejected myself from it so quickly,” he wrote on Instagram.

Everyone should be able to take on their dream trips at some points of their life
Zach Glassman

‘Travelling meaningfully’, as Glassman puts it, means learning from each other within a group of creative heads with professional guidance. During their time in Hong Kong, the team camped overnight in Tai Long Wan, learned to make dim sum from local chefs, and attended workshops taught by journalists and photographers.

Only nine out of 1,300 applicants won the chance to spend six days in Hong Kong, plus an additional three days in their choice of one of four South Asian cities. The winners were selected based on their answers to travel-related questions as well as photos and captions they posted on Instagram.

All the trip’s participants, from freelance writers to illustrators, shared their moments during the journey using short videos, photo essays, and watercolour sketches posted on social media, though they weren’t pressured to deliver a project when the tour ended.

“Our primary role is to inspire them and place them in an environment that gets them excited and stimulates creativity,” Glassman says. “Naturally, stories emerge. Once they are on the ground, they kind of know what kind of stories they want to tell. And we trust them and tell them to do what they want.”

'Let us go then, you and I. When the evening is spread out against the sky.' _______________ #PassportToAsia #LifeWellTravelled

A photo posted by Michelle Starin (@lightlyanchored) on Feb 26, 2016 at 6:16am PST

Jonathan Collins, a part-time photographer from Australia, had visited Hong Kong before joining in the adventure, but was still surprised by how fast the city changes. “It is like watching Lego constructed higher and higher, expanding as more and more people are welcomed by the city. That is the true beauty of a city always in transition,” he wrote on the trip’s blog.

Mentors, some of whom had been on various reporting trips overseas, got a different taste of life. Neil Shea, a staff writer for National Geographic Magazine, says travelling to Hong Kong without a particular story to chase and a translator at hand felt “both good and frightening”, but also provided him a different prism through which to see the city.

In a temple on Shanghai Street the goddess of the sea is seated on a dais and surrounded by fruit and candles. She is resplendent in a red dress and before her face hangs a veil of white plastic pearls. One by one the old women approach and bow before her, mumbling a few small words. For safety. Luck. Money. No one knows the proper way any longer. How does one worship a goddess as old as the sea? In dim corners the attendants are taking their lunch and watching. Noodles, tea. The glowing tips of their cigarettes. Even they cannot say, exactly, how to ensure the goddess Tin Hau will hear you. These days form means less than intent, though a few things endure from the old times. First, ring the enormous iron bell which weighs as much as many cannonballs. This may draw Tin Hau’s attention. Next, feed her with apples and the sweet scent of smoke, honor her with three bows of submission. Then, buy a coil of incense and hang it from the ceiling where it will smolder for days and carry your desires up into heaven. It’s all right that you’re unsure. Everyone is. Once, this temple sat by the seaside and Tin Hau’s domain was much nearer: fish, boats, and men who sailed. But things change. Cities grow. The harbors are slowly filled in. Fewer men now seek fortune at sea and other gods have arrived with the high rises and rents. So just do what you can. All a goddess can ask. Linger and you may notice the whisper of water. You may see the rafters stained black with wishes. These days luck is a coin falling into a box and hope is the hard ringing iron. - #china #中国 #hongkong #香港 #tinhau #天后 #temple #prayer #fragrantharbor #PassportToAsia @cathaypacific @passionpassport @randyolson @severalpictures @salvarezphoto @zachspassport

A photo posted by Neil Shea (@neilshea13) on Feb 17, 2016 at 8:49am PST

“I learned specifically that you could spend a lifetime in Hong Kong and be in danger of dwelling only upon surfaces,” says Shea. “I also learned that from a teacher’s point of view, it’s so valuable to be able to take a group out onto the streets and practise observing the world with them, directly, unmediated.”

Glassman’s business has expanded fast over the past six months after organising its first group trip, sponsored by American railway operator Amtrak, last September. On that trip, more than 30 mentors and guests journeyed by train across the United States, from Washington to San Francisco over two weeks.

For his next project, in partnership with Adobe, he’ll be sending six students and three mentors to Kenya, Patagonia, and Lord Howe Island off Australia this spring.

Glassman also helps aspiring adventurers get travel grants through The Bucket List Initiative, which is open to applications from individuals around the world and granted to one person every three to four months. Each time it funds a trip of their own design.

So far six people have won the grants, which were funded through Zach’s own savings in the first few rounds. Since the company has recently earned some income from brand partnership and creative content production, he says, the grants are now financed by the company’s income aided by brands.

“It’s open to anyone at any age. We’ve had people as young as 21 and as old as 60-something apply,” says Glassman. “Everyone should be able to take on their dream trips at some points of their life.”