Hitching a ride was, is and always will be evoking images of young, reckless, crazy travel. It is for adventurers, because you do not know who will pick you up and when you will arrive at your destination. And it is indeed for adventurous drivers too: our imagination is so full of hideous stories based on this phenomenon that, before you would pick up that random guy standing at the crossroad, you would definitely think twice.
Luckily, this kind of popular culture has not invaded the Asian media as much as the Western ,and seeing a foreigner at the side of the road generally does not ignite serial killer’s thoughts: on the contrary, it is quite easy to be picked up and helped out.
You may think that only someone with a very low civic sense or a very desperate need for money would be thinking of hitching in Asia. Sorry friends, but you are dead wrong: there are many people, surprisingly foreigners and local Asians alike, thumbing at the side of those roads.
Furthermore, in countries with a big exponential growth such as China, where transportation and fuel prices have doubled or tripled since the last decade, buying bus and train tickets to get around can be killer for low budgets. Hitching is on the contrary a great way to travel the extra mile, trying to have a more authentic experience observing what actually happens inside of those Asian cars you do not have to pay for. Sounds strange, isn’t it? Well, it is not, in reality: you just have to try.
The same opinion is shared by a young French guy I met recently; he arrived to China fromT urkey thumbing along the Caucasus andCentral Asiafor four months. He claims that he not only got lifts, but also met people and got to visit their homes, was invited for dinner or sleeping over, and overall he had a fantastic, genuine vagabonding time.
Westerners are not the only ones: the biggest number of hitchers I recently met is constituted by Chinese students in their early 20s to 30s. They complained that transportation costs inChinabecame unbearable, thus they are forced to hitchhike if they want to get out and travel their huge country during the summer holidays. Others just strike off toTibeton a pushbike!
To test if the great tales of hundreds of kilometers travelled at no cost was part of the Asians’ travel folklore, or if it was actually true, I had to personally give it a go myself. The equation worked out fairly well in favor of the road folklore: I was able to hitchhike and get lifts by several people. However, as I had to reach a particular destination in time to catch a train connection, I also had to resort to some private minivans I had to pay – sometimes less than the ongoing rate. Truck drivers seem to be the best bet to move long distances, although many of them – at least the Chinese – require you to make a money offer. Have clearly in mind how much you should pay for a bus or a train, and work your way around this fare, of course bargaining it down.
Sometimes you may be even lucky and get to hitch out of the ordinary, as it happened to me in Tibetan Kham, where me and a group of friends could flag down a local police car driven by two young officers who gladly took us for a 3 and more hours ride to the next town… where we got stranded for the night at the side of the road because the next chunk of highway had been submerged by a nearby river’s high waters! So keep clearly in mind that if you want security and reaching a place on a particular time, you should not attempt hitchhiking, especially in countries with roads as bad as the Asian. Of course, all of these unexpected problems would make the best travel stories, later… but do not say I did not advise you on the potential risk of natural catastrophe. For other risks, well, I do not think the Asian drivers would be one.
Cost: $50 a day
What’s the strangest thing you’ve seen lately?
Two days of trekking through muddy paths deep into the mosquito infested jungle of Northern Guatemala’s Peten region brought me and nine other adventurous travelers to the ancient Mayan city of El Mirador. Upon first viewing the ruins I was struck by how thoroughly nature can reclaim its territory after human abandonment. Thick layers of soil and dense vegetation surround, infiltrate and in some cases completely cover structures that are believed to have been abandoned almost two thousand years ago.
Even the higher reaches of the mighty, multi-tiered La Danta temple rising roughly seventy meters (230 feet) from the jungle floor are covered with trees. Archeologists have deliberately left the vegetation there to provide shade and protect the antiquated walls from the debilitating effects of the sun. Without our leather skinned Guatemalan guide Antonio, I’m sure that myself and my compadres would’ve been largely unaware that we were standing on the most massive ancient Mayan structure in the world. Unlike at the more popular site of Tikal it’s easy to mistake parts of the structure for normal contours of the land.
Over time it appears that the wilderness can erase almost all traces of a civilization. El Mirador, which is thought to have been populated by as many as 200,000 people at its peak was engulfed by the jungle and only discovered in 1926.
Sitting atop the 55 meter (180 foot) El Tigre temple as the sun set and pink oozed over the horizon like a slow bleed, I pondered the tenacity of nature. As if to punctuate my thoughts some howler monkeys started a chorus of guttural roars, spider monkeys crashed though the canopy and a diminutive humming bird the size of a large insect helicoptered onto a near by branch. Left alone the wilderneas is raw and formidable.
Chartering a boat isn’t cheap. If you are lucky and know the right people you could however, get a job as crew, stewarding, cooking or being a deck hand if you don’t have sailing qualifications. If you are not working then watch out for hidden costs such as moorings, docking, water and tips for the crew which may not be included in the bill.
What’s the strangest thing you’ve seen lately?
There is an excellent musician in St.Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands, called Kurt Schindler, he has a catamaran style boat which he uses as a stage. He parks it a few meters off the beach in Cruz Bay, St. John or off White Bay, Jost van Dyke and plays his gigs from there. I saw this rickety contraption with only an outboard motor, no sails and with banners flying in the wind, making it’s way considerable distances between islands.
On the 7th of June, 37 year old Andy Campbell and his team set out from The Royal Geographic Society in London. Over the next two years he’s making his way around the world without a distinctively planned route. Eight years ago, Andy fell while rock climbing and became paralyzed from the waist down. As an able-bodied person, suddenly loosing the use of your legs can come as quite a shock. Mobility takes on a whole new angle of thinking. But it hasn’t dampened his adventurous spirit.
A few years ago I vividly remember standing in the doctor’s office blinking at X-rays of my spine hoping magically they’d look “normal” the next time-no such luck. My own gypsy spirit drifted beyond the walls as she said the words, “scoliosis” and “phase two, spinal degeneration”. Putting on the recommended back brace my view of the world changed. For the next year and a half it became part of my daily clothing. I began to take notice of little things like the weight of doors as my hand opened them. Seven months after I was told not to lift over 15lbs for a long while; our very own vagabonding inspiration, Rolf, traveled around the world on his “No baggage” journey.
“Disability does not mean inability” as one Michigan based Service Dog training facility promotes. And in that light, Andy of “Pushing the Limits” is making his way around the globe and would appreciate your ideas on where to visit! Check out his blog, drop an email and give him suggestions on where to go next!
I’ve applied to join the expedition when it reaches North America…
Traveling isn’t limited to putting one foot in front of the other—especially after the invention of the wheel–it’s all about attitude.
When writing a novel involving places that actually exist, you need to get the details exactly right or the boat won’t float. And the details aren’t just in the names and locations. It’s the sensory data that pulls the reader in.
I’m currently in the process of writing such a novel. The story takes the main character on a treasure hunt from the dusty archives of Barcelona to the ramshackle seaport of Lisbon and finally to the humid jungles of South America.
Suffice it to say there’s lots of research is involved in such an undertaking. But that’s not to say it’s drudgery. Quite the opposite, actually; the joys will be familiar to many fellow travelers, trip planners, and history buffs.
The details of the various locals matter, big time; I’ve needed to get a sense of the atmosphere of these places to portray them on the page. Take for example one of the books early settings: The Archivo General de Indias in Seville, Spain. The building houses the world’s biggest repository of documents about the Spanish Empire’s expeditions during the Age of Discovery.
I had to be there to breathe in the mustiness that hangs in the air. I had to smell the dust from the ancient, historic parchments flanked by soaring pink marble columns. I had to feel the stale air settle into my lungs as the leather of an old journal’s binding cracks under my fingers as I open it. I had to watch other researchers trawl through yellowing documents, handwritten by real people lost to time. I had to wander the opulent library as historians pore over documents in hope that the faded ink scratches will yield insight.
The majestic old archive in Seville was, as in so many cases, merely the starting point of a larger and greatly enriching journey.
Some call book research “work”. I call it the fun part.
During my recent adventures in the Indian Subcontinent, I tried to steer off the beaten tourist trail as much as I could. Thanks to some contacts and friendships I cultivated in other parts of the world – very often a great key for successful connections in other places – I was fortunate enough to venture well far off the beaten path, in places so small that not even a detailed map would carry their names tagged somewhere in microscopic scripts.
Being one of the first foreigners coming to a far flung destination is definitely a great experience, one of those you would write off your book of memories as an anthropological quest, or, as I fondly call, a Marco Polo Experience: a case when, like my Venetian ancestor, your visit and yourself function as a cultural representation of the outside world, an important link between a community and their stereotypical – or plain false- ideas of the outsiders.
After a few forays into the deep backwaters of Bangladesh’s unknownia, I feel like sharing a few tips to maximize your –and your hosts’- experience during one of those rare Marco Polo encounters…
Be modest in your hospitality
You have come a long way and you have crossed unknown territory to reach here, but this does not mean that you have to exploit the generosity of your hosts. Especially in the South Asian context, where a guest is treated as a gift sent from the Gods, you will be pampered with attention, buried under tons of food, and taken around as a trophy. As much as not indulging in these offers would create a misunderstanding and offend your hosts, it would not be right and not polite to overindulge in their favors. Be modest and considerate when accepting gifts, food or shelter, and possibly bring some gifts to give back. Even a simple print out of a picture of your family would create the most unpredictable awe, and make your hosts extremely happy of having you.
Be aware of the local culture
You do not want to be the example of the ugliness of the Western race, don’t you? Respect their traditions and stick to their rules: in a conservative Muslim society such as the Bengali, for example, shorts are a no no, such as revealing clothes for women, who are also very badly considered when seen smoking. Reserve your mundane pleasures for the outside world or the backpacker’s pad, and try to act decently according to a culture’s rules and regulations. Which of course you have to acknowledge before you go. And pay respect to the village headmaster, if there is one, before entering any of the premises.
Be a worthy ambassador of your own culture
The language barrier should not put you off from trying to communicate with them. Bring along pictures of your family, friends, city, house, sport team or children, and show them around, as they would love it and this would help to foster great communication overcoming any language barrier. Try not to impress too hard tough, and refrain from showing culturally sensitive pictures/objects according to your hosts’ culture.
Be extremely patient
Of course, as we can be ugly, your hosts may be ugly as well. Be very patient, and come armed with an extra dose of chillness before you go. Some people may want to show you around the whole village as a trophy, take you to an unlimited number of houses for sampling an unlimited amount of food or drinks, or just be plain rude according to your own code of cultural rules. Moreover, consider that your personal space will be highly violated: I had dozens of people staring at me as I was brushing teeth, washing clothes, dress up or even just plain eating!! Their curiosity will be endless and as much as you may feel like a lion in a zoo’s cage, this is part of the experience. If you are not ready to find 20 people around your bed staring at you as you wake up from your night’s sleep, you may consider this kind of experience is not suitable for you.
Be ready to act like a rockstar (or a clown)
Because in this situation, you are one. They will feel so enticed by your odd presence – at least for the first couple of days- that any odd request will be asked. If you have a musical instrument with you, be prepared to play it and sing at all hours of the day and night. Be ready to dance and talk as you never did before, answering all of the most personal questions you may be asked. They are just as curious about you as you are about them, and they will show as much as they can. This can lead to some highly entertaining moments, alternated with other frustrating ones when your only desire would be to be able to switch the whole town off with a remote control… once again, keep your cool and be patient. You will miss all of this attention, once you are gone back into the main trail!!
Did you have any similar experience? Do you agree with my suggestions? I would be interested in hearing some other similar stories and share more ideas for untamed independent travel in the backwoods of the world!!
What is the strangest thing you have seen recently?
The South Kaibab trail winds its way from the south rim of the Grand Canyon to the canyon floor, roughly 5000 feet (1525 metres) below. It is extraordinarily beautiful and offers spectacular vistas at various points over its seven miles. Because of the brilliant views and easy access it receives lots of foot traffic. So much traffic, in fact, that the rock squirrels in this ‘wilderness’ have become extremely comfortable around humans. Turn your back to admire the view and your trail mix disappears in the clutches of a clever rodent. Squirrels are intelligent creatures and some have worked out how to suckle from hydration bladders. If you leave your pack on the ground one of the little guys may creep up, grasp the bite valve in its fore paws and start quenching its thirst. Extraordinary.
Some people, particularly up on the heavily visited south rim decide to offer up little morsels to the inquisitive squirrels, an act that can end painfully. The squirrels aren’t above biting the hand that feeds them and there are signs warning tourists as much.
Hitchiking, working our way around the world or couchsurfing are all good ways to save some money on the road, but being able to travel without spending anything has always seemed impossible to me. As Anna recently posted, we may get free flights with credit cards’ air miles; however, as far as I know, travelling without spending a single cent is a dream. And believe me, I am one who really stretches his pennies as only few would do.
Let me tell you, I was wrong: I discovered that Michael Wigge, a German TV travel comedian, has actually succeeded. His efforts are documented in the self published book and DVD aptly titled “How to travel the world for free”. Check a video trailer here.
According to Wigge, as travelling 25.000 miles from Europe to Antarctica wasn’t challenging enough on a budget, he decided to attempt it without a single cent: as the book’s synopsis states, “on his journey, Michael immerses himself into fascinating subcultures, sleeps on the street with homeless people and nourishes himself with flowers”.
Michael’s trip is a story of determination and adventure: by crossing the Atlantic working on a container ship, being hosted by the Amish community in Ohio and reaching Antarctica employed as a luxury cruise’s crew member, it seems like he found the real recipe for free travelling around the globe.
Nevertheless, as this sounded too good to be true, I decided to reach him and ask a few clarifying questions.
First of all, why did he do this? Michael says that he mostly wanted to show other travellers how such an accomplishment is possible. “I decided to travel moneyless to Antarctica since it has always been my dream to let things behind me, including all worries about money… Antarctica was pretty much a dream for a long time, as normally it can only be reached paying a lot. I started planning this trip for almost a year, researching contacts and developing ideas how to travel for free”.
Michael supports the idea that, wherever you go, you will always be able to find help from good people: “I crossed eleven countries. My experiences where overall really good: people were willing to help me out in my special situation. The best example happened in Colombia: I knocked at a house’s door in Cartagena and directly asked for free accommodation. A family of 13 didn’t even bother to ask why I was in such a needy situation. They just offered me a place to stay, although their house was already super crowded…”
Of course, having no money to travel at all also put Michael in some challenging, nasty situations. He confesses that “the worst penniless situation happened in Las Vegas: as the tap water contains too much chlorine overthere, my lips got heavily burned. Consequently, in order to drink I had to resort to a used McDonald cup I fished out of the rubbish, refilling it at the restaurant. After a couple of days, I got caught by a Mc Donald’s worker!! It also sucked to sleep on Waikiki Beach, Honolulu and get some of my things stolen”.
Ok, yet another travel beggar, you may think. Instead, this answer led me to ask Michael how he managed to survive in such a world where money has, sadly, the uttermost importance. His answer is simple: of course, he had to work. Instead of money, however, he applied a concept which has been lost in the sands of time. “The principle is easy: always use the barter system”.
Barter was the way he got around the big life necessities such as food and accommodation. Michael gives some interesting suggestions, indeed: “I got free food in shops or restaurants in trade for a good story, floor cleaning or dish washing. This strategy worked 80% of the times. I also had a netbook with me and could use many free wi-fi networks and use Couchsurfing. Here, same strategy: I helped out in the household in trade for free accommodation. Lastly, I got free transport hitchhiking, working on a cargo ship across the Atlantic and on a luxury cruise ship from Ushuaia to Antarctica.”
And when he had to work for cash, the jobs he invented were some of the craziest and funniest I have ever heard from a traveller: “I was a Hill Helper, or better I pushed tourists up the steep hills of San Francisco for 1 US $. I also did Pillow Fighting by offering a decent fight for a dollar. 300 people joined me within a couple of days, and I earned enough money to fly from San Francisco to Costa Rica. I was also a Human Sofa: tired tourists could sit on my back in Las Vegas to relax for just a dollar. Moreover, I have been a butler for the German Ambassador in Panama: as I worked for the great man, he helped me buy a plane ticket to Colombia. The worst nightmare of a job though was working as a porter at Machu Picchu, to see it for free!!!”
Michael Wigge’s story may not be the ideal trip for most travellers and vagabonds, but clearly shows how resourcefulness, hard work and sharp wits can actually get us closer to our dreams. He concludes saying that he hopes his story would motivate other people to travel and explore the world, because his approach can be used by anybody, anywhere in the world. With or without money.
What do you think? Would you be able to travel the world for free as Micheal Wigge did and promotes? Please write your comments below. Hate him or love him, we surely have to check his book out.
The Caribbean isn’t really that cheap. However, if you’re creative and have some skills, anything is possible. Most of my money went on beer and bus tickets.
What’s the strangest thing you’ve seen lately?
Three men waving a live lobster, barracuda pizza and and an Ugly Man competition.
A few weeks ago, Marcus Sortijas published an interesting piece on Vagabonding describing the Couchsurfing experience in the United States. As I am a Couchsurfing aficionado and have travelled more than 10 Asian countries using it, I would like to spend some words describing how this beautiful service works in another side of the world.
I would like to start introducing an important, ever present concept in Asian societies: a guest is considered as a gift from the Gods. Of course, only when it is a real, genuine guest. I feel important to describe this duality, because Couchsurfing in Asia works on the same, subliminal dualistic level: it is either great, or totally awful.
Why? Because you may be very lucky and get to experience unique moments of true hospitality and kindness with some of the most humble, accommodating people on earth. Or you may end up in the hands of some businessman – tourist operator, tour guide, hotel manager, shop owner, restaurant owner etc. – interested in giving you a free – and sometimes dirty – bed in order to push his/her services.
On account of my personal experience, most of this “second category” people are to be found in the Indian Subcontinent: flashy profiles peppered with a bunch of predominantly local users’ references are generally marks of the Devil. To cite an example, in mid 2010 me and my girlfriend visited Alleppey, Kerala. We were welcomed by an apparently friendly Couchsurfer who took us to an ayurvedic center he was working at. We were accommodated in a dirty room which probably caters to paying guests during the regular season, when it is actually cleaned and functional: there was no electricity for the best part of the day. That night we spent simmering in the horrid heat – our bodies the feast of a thousand mosquitoes biting as hard as a gang of hungry living dead – still remains one of our fondest travel horror stories.
This Couchsurfer talked to us for about 10 minutes during the whole stay, and tried to sell us a Backwaters’ tour a few times before giving up. At last, as we were about to board a little boat hours after our arrival, we found out that our host wanted to charge us three times the going rate.
Nevertheless, like the ying and the yang, Couchsurfing in Asia – and also in India, let me clarify – can also be a dreamy experience: to give some credit to Indian Couchsurfers, I must say that I have also received some of the most amazing hospitality in this country, and have been able to exchange deep, meaningful relationships with its Couchsurfing community. I have been treated as a family member, almost spoon fed daily – and free of charge – and brought to experience places and situations as deeply as it can get.
I have got to know Couchsurfers’ family members as my own, and have been helped immensely in many aspects of my vagabonding. If this is not enough, I can also tell you that the reason why I met my lovely girlfriend and settled down in Malaysia is only because one odd night I decided to attend a Couchsurfing meeting in Penang!! So, for this and many other reasons, I can just recommend using this amazing community as you travel across Asia because it still gets you the easiest and purest access way into Asian cultures: as the members are English speaking locals looking for a genuine interaction, you will be able to receive a real insight into their lives and homes.
And if it is not… oh well, horror Couchsurfing stories make great conversation topics at the bar back home. People will look you in a different way after you told them you survived a night at the horrific ayurvedic clinic… or that you slept in the nest of a tour guide viper trying to poison you with a bunch of hiking tour options… and most importantly: happy surfing in Asia to anyone!!