Five weeks after my early 30s crisis of why, what, how and where my life was going, I hit the road and drove from Melbourne to Darwin, boat-hitched to Indonesia, island hopped to Malaysia, hitched from Kuala Lumpar to Bangkok, then Bangkok to Koh Samui, then to Phuket to boat-hitch to South Africa where it took two years hitching from Cape Town to Jerusalem.
Traversing 47,000 km without flying, through 21 countries, 27 islands, hitched 233 rides from scooters to long-haul trucks, boats and even a train. Every stereotype and many personal walls crumbled down to continue the path, crossing it around this amazing global village called Earth, full of nothing but amazing human beings, slightly blinded by societal demands that, really, when you step out and observe society, you realise how warped and lead astray we all are.
How does one travel with no money? You barter. Here are 9 ways to utilise your skills – your full potential – and experience a stress-free lifestyle, without the limiting bits of paper with numbers on them.
1. Try hitchhiking
Image credit: Rohini Das, 2015
Each country has its own style of hitchhiking and its laws. For instance, in Asia, a thumbs up with a sign will get you further than without one. In Africa, the thumbs up will be returned with a thumbs up from the passing driver who smiles as he doesn’t realise you’re asking for a ride, leaving you to inhale his dust. The Windmill works wonders: flapping your arm up and down.
I’m a restless individual so I’d always walk until a ride picked me up. But only where it was safe. When hitching, you must take into account a safe place not only for you, but also for the driver to be able to pull over safely. Drivers expect payment, so be honest and direct that you’re not using money. Sure, some will drive off laughing, but most are curious and want to know more.
This is where you sharpen your people reading skills. Get a vibe of the driver and the car. If there’s any doubt, for whatever reason, politely thank them and step away, wishing them well. Use excuses such as, “My friend\partner\relative is coming just now.” Always entertain the driver with stories or philosophy. Best to avoid topics of religion and politics. Use the time in the ride to learn what you can about the culture and traditions and some phrases in the language used. You’ll get a lot more respect by being knowledgeable about the country you’re hitching through. If you can make the driver laugh, it builds trust and laughing is as good as breaking bread. And even if a driver says he’ll only take you to the next town, if you have a great connection, they’ll usually take you all the way.
2. And boat hitchhiking too
To cross bodies of water, there are dedicated websites to hitching rides on boats like Crew Seekers, Crewbay and Cruisers Forum. You can read captains’ and boat owners’ ads or place your own. The sites are free. When meeting the captain and crew, always ask for their experience. You don’t want to be crossing the Indian Ocean in cyclone season with a first timer (I crossed with a Captain who sailed out of his mother’s womb and took us directly into cyclone season). Always remember to respect the boat and the Captain’s ways. It’s his home, you’re the guest. On some boats the Captain will cover all costs, some are shared costs which should never exceed $10-15 USD a day which includes food, petrol and marina fees.
Be prepared that even if the Captain predicts a passage of one week, it can turn to two or three as the weather does what it wants, when it wants.
3. Be an entertainer
One volunteer gig I snagged was in Mossel Bay, South Africa. My job description? Socialise, get the guests to drink, play pool or Jenga, light the fire and jam some music around it and guide them around Mossel Bay if they wanted. Basically, all I had to do was be me. And in return? Food, bed and life-long friends with an open invitation to return whenever for a full-time job.
4. Make connections (and graft)
In Namibia, I ended up at the Caprivi Houseboat Safari Lodge for a month of maintenance, entertaining and river guiding. I was rewarded with a 3-day houseboat safari tour on the Zambezi River. This gig was connected via some amazing people I met in Swakopmund who I connected with via a woman I met in Thailand. These awesome people then connected me to the folks at the Houseboat Safari Lodge. They in turn, connected me to a lodge in Zambia that had me for three weeks doing pretty much the same.
It’s all about connections and the impression you leave behind.
5. Trade your skills
In order to barter for experiences like white water rafting, bungee jumping and ascending Mt Kenya, I traded the skills I had, that most suited the companies I approached. Mainly, writing up promotional articles that appeared on my website and with the good fortune to have landed a guest blog spot with Africa Geographic Magazine (15 million readership). I also offered photos with ongoing promotions during interviews or when people ask for tips. These connections were conducted mainly via email, chance meetings at bars with owners and managers, and via connections made where people would recommend a friend’s company or a service I might find up my alley.
If you can play a musical instrument (that you can travel with) then use music as your currency. It’s rare that people will decline a musical gig and all they have to give you in return is a plate of food and a safe place to sleep, either a room or somewhere to pitch a tent. Music has saved my arse from rainy downpours on more than one occasion. And often, I’d find myself jamming tunes in a truck or car in order to give back.
6. Embrace cultural interactions
I approached every encounter with someone as a sign. I’m meeting this person for a reason, whatever that may be. You are in prime position to learn all you can from various people of various backgrounds. Don’t be shy to ask about cultural norms, why things are practised like this or that, how to say phrases that will help you along the way, what’s good to see that tourists wouldn’t know about.
7. Eat all the food
Don’t be the traveller that travels to out-of-your-comfort zone places to eat a burger or pizza. Embrace local cuisine. Odds are that it’ll be healthier for you, organic and unprocessed. And it’s a great way for your taste buds to get a feel for the world. Even the weird stuff like insects and hot sauces that you’ll feel the morning after. Try things once. Even if you don’t like it, it’s great entertainment value for those you’re interacting with. And comedy breaks many barriers. Especially when it’s at your expense. So, don’t be shy on getting embarrassed. Embrace it! You are on the world stage and the curtain is up so let go of all boundaries.
8. Learn the language
Learn the basics. The most important phrases to learn are salutations as that’ll earn you respect and opens many doors. ‘Hello, how are you? Please, thank you’ and ‘goodbye’ are the very first phrases I’d learn in each new place. And remember, some countries have various dialects so it’s good to know if you’re in new tribal lands that speak something completely different to what you’ve just learned.
9. Embrace unusual accommodation
Although, the last thing you want to do is be in a police station in foreign lands, I utilised the law and order services of each country. If I didn’t score a gig for a bed or wasn’t offered to be hosted by locals, I’d simply pop into the local police station, speak with the chief and, a few questions later, would be granted either an office to sleep in or a safe place to pitch a tent.
About the author:
Psyman OChen traversed 47,000 km without flying, using money and surviving on barter trade over three years. How? Even he isn’t quite sure. Read more on The Nomadic Diaries to find out