Marko Ayling grew up traveling. Born to a Pan Am stewardess and a Kiwi backpacker who met on a Swiss train, Marko caught his first flight at just 2 months old.
Marko’s globetrotting mother showed him the world at a young age and he quickly saw how different cultures have more in common than most people realize. But as he grew up in San Diego, California, he watched as the 9/11 attacks divided the world and his country became more militant.
Marko took his first solo trip at 18 and found the world had become much more hostile to Americans. A lifelong believer in the power of travel to connect strangers, he was determined to change the direction of his country - and the world.
“I wanted to make an impact so I studied politics and economics with the goal of becoming a diplomat. But after an frustrating internship in the State Department in Washington D.C., I realized that I could have more of an impact as an individual.”
After graduating from UCLA in 2008, he moved to rural India to work in economic development. The constant culture shock awoke a strong drive to share his experiences with the world through an informal newsletter. His readers encouraged him to start a blog, and soon Marko started to wonder if travel storytelling could be more than just a hobby - maybe even a calling.
2008 was a difficult time to become a writer. The publishing industry was collapsing and the world economy was in free-fall, but Marko passed up a full-time job offer in Mumbai in favor of pursuing writing. He found a job teaching English in Spain and spent three years traveling, writing freelance articles and guidebooks and sharpening his storytelling skills on his blog.
“Everything I wrote for my blog started off as an oral story. Something crazy would happen while traveling and that night I’d share the story over beers in the common area of the hostel. Noticing how travelers reacted helped me understand what worked and what needed to be tweaked when I wrote it for publication.”
But after years of freelance writing, Marko was still struggling to make ends meet as a writer. That’s when a friend suggested he team up with his younger brother Alex to pitch a travel concept for television. Marko typed up the concept, his brother filmed and edited a sizzle tape and they sent it off to the production company. But the producers’ enthusiasm quickly faded when they saw the brothers’ first video. “You have no chemistry,” the producers said, “Are you even brothers?”
Despite the sting of rejection, Marko and Alex doubled down on their concept. From their homebase of San Sebastián, they taught English midweek, filmed travel videos around the Basque Country on the weekends and edited the films after work.
Little by little, they gained traction. But when Marko’s visa was about to expire, it seemed impossible to avoid giving up and “getting a real job” back in the US. But just as he was about to book a flight home, he went on Twitter and found an opportunity that seemed too good to be true - a global travel filmmaking contest to win a six-month trip around the world to host a YouTube travel show and win a $50,000 prize.
Marko convinced his brother to give their project one more shot. They filmed a video about how to spend 24 hours in San Sebastián. They made it to the final round of the competition in London.
The brothers ended up winning the grand prize and traveled for six months to six continents, 25 destinations, and 22 countries. But in the end, the company declared bankruptcy and they received just $10,000 of the prize money. They decided to repurpose the content from the trip and launch their own YouTube channel, which they called Vagabrothers, short for “vagabond brothers.” Over the next six years, they made hundreds of videos from over sixty countries and amassed over 1 million followers on YouTube.
But just as they hit peak success, the unsustainability of the lifestyle became too great to ignore. Instead of bringing them together, travel was driving the brothers apart. And after years of constant travel and the endless pressure to post on social media, Marko collapsed from burnout.
“I’d lost my path - but I didn’t know how to find my way back. I was making content to avoid being dropped by the algorithms. I stopped following my heart and just followed trends. My passion for travel had become a job. I didn’t know why I was doing it anymore.”
Then came the pandemic. The world ground to a halt and the brothers decided it was a good time to end their collaboration. Alex got married and moved to New Zealand, but Marko didn’t know what came next.
“My YouTube channel was suddenly over. I didn't want to go back to LA. I knew I needed to change. I didn't know what. Then I met a Mexican girl through a dating app, and soon I was traveling for a new reason - love.”
Marko came to Mexico City to be with his new girlfriend but soon fell in love with the city as well - the perfect place to begin a new chapter of his creative career.
“That’s when I started Cuéntame, a monthly storytelling that meets at HAAB on the first friday of every month to share real life stories around each month’s theme. After years of online-relationships and social distancing, I sensed a need to create an event in person. And personally, I needed a way to heal from burnout by getting back to my roots to remind me why gathering together and sharing stories is so important.”
Clearly, Marko’s hunch has resonated with many others. Since the first Cuéntame last July, the event has grown from six people to a loyal community that fills the rooftop of HAAB every month.
“The pandemic allowed me to take a step away from the craziness of social media to focus on creating from a place of authenticity - even if its on a smaller scale. That’s why the events here at HAAB have been so beautiful. It's bringing me back to being 22 in a hostel in India, telling strangers the crazy stories about what just happened to me - and really appreciating that spark of connection.”
Marko’s story teaches us not just the importance of grit on the road to success - but also the importance of slowing down, listening to your heart and always staying connected to your purpose.