Students, the elderly, history buffs and tour operators — these are the kinds of people who typically guide visitors on sightseeing expeditions around their city. But Barcelona is proving tour guides really do come from all walks of life, thanks to a new program that puts homeless people in charge of leading tourists.
The Spanish city says it’s aiming to improve the lives of the unemployed and give tourists a unique perspective on the city by offering some of Barcelona’s 3,000 homeless people the chance to guide travelers on the Hidden City Tours walk. The tour will provide visitors with a historic look at the city and hopes to open their eyes to the “social reality” of the region.The concept was inspired by a similar program employing homeless guides in Britain. The tours will begin in mid-October and be available in English and Spanish.
However, it’s not just in Europe where you’ll find travel industry workers who are homeless. The New York Times revealed today that many of the Big Apple’s homeless shelter residents hold down several jobs, including positions as security guards at JFK Airport.
In case you’ve never spent time in the common room of a youth hostel, either nursing a hangover, mingling with strangers, or ogling at the opposite sex, the conversation always starts with a simple and genuine phrase:
“Where are you from?“
Once initial pleasantries have been exchanged and conversation materials run thin, the discussion naturally turns to where you’re going, where they’re going, and where you both have been.
Get ready, because the competition is set to begin.
Although it starts gradually, what was once an interest in your fellow traveler slowly turns into a comparison. “Oh, you hiked that trail. Cool. I hiked this trail.” “You spent two weeks in Bolivia, cool, I spent five.” “You’re 16 months into a two-year trip? Damn.”
And so on.
Then, of course, there are the country counters, where the entire purpose of setting out on the road is to increase your own personal number (as evidenced by this recent article on insanely competitive travel).
The “how many countries have you been to?” bomb inevitably gets dropped as conversation progresses, and it’s much like that moment with your new love interest when you raise the sensitive topic of their number. It’s in the back of both of your minds, and it’s finally just laid on the table.
As is to be expected, exaggeration is common.
At the end of the day, however, the largest competition on the budget backpacker circuit revolves around one thing: money. Namely, how much, or how little, are you managing to spend?
How far are you stretching your budget?If you saved $10,000 for your extended trip, do you travel for two weeks at $5,000/week, 10 months at $1,000/month or ten years for $3/day, fortifying your trip along the way with some under-the-table cash jobs, extended sessions of hitchhiking and sourcing your meals from the leftovers of strangers?
Amongst “travelers,” there is an unspoken credo that your traveler legitimacy is inversely proportional to your daily budget and level of comfort. How so? Let’s take a look at this purely hypothetical, yet all too true chart regarding the way your traveler status is determined by something as simple as where you’re sleeping.
All-inclusive resort = Fraud
Hotel = Tourist
Private hostel room = Upper-class backpacker
Hostel dorm room = Middle-class backpacker
Cleaning dishes at the hostel in exchange for a bed = Lower-class backpacker
Tent = Camper
Train station/Overnight Train = Resourceful
Build your own shelter/sleep in a sewer/smuggle self aboard a Thai fishing boat = Legend
All half-hearted joking aside, either way, amongst competitive, long-term backpackers, he who travels longest and visits the greatest number of countries in the most frugal of ways possible, as recognized by the unwritten constitution of budget backpacking law, ultimately is deemed the winner of a non-existent competition. I know because I once felt like that, and it can easily render you homeless.
I was 22 years old, with $7,000 saved, a fancy degree in one hand and a copy of Rolf Potts’ “Vagabonding” in the other (which despite my tone is a tremendous read).
My timeline: two years. On seven grand. Not a problem.
After three months of living in a van in New Zealand and surviving on canned beans and corn, I found myself in a fetid hostel in the inner city of Melbourne, Australia. My money was nearly gone, I couldn’t legally work and the $20/night bed was simply too pricy.
“If I could just cut a few of my expenses,” I thought, “I could continue this loathsome existence for maybe a couple of weeks longer.” I checked out of the hostel, grabbed my backpack and ukulele, and spent that night in the train station.
The following day involved half-priced, day-old baked goods, using free Internet in the public library, and playing ukulele on the banks of the Yarra River. I made $10, I spent it on pizza and spent another night in the train station.
The following day was much of the same, and my two-year trip around the world began to take on an element of survival. I made another $12 playing music by the river, and I decided I needed to accelerate my earnings. I walked in the door of the city casino, doubled my money playing roulette, and with $25 graciously in hand I smiled at the idea of a shower and a bed.
That was, of course, until I saw a table that hadn’t hit red in the previous 14 turns. Despite having studied probability in school, the nice, round $50 I would walk out with when it surely hit red was simply too much to pass up. When the tiny white ball clinked into a black space for the 15th time in a row, so too did my immediate reality descend into a very dark place.
I was no longer traveling, I realized. I was homeless. I was not a frugal, resourceful, earn-your-badge-of-honor traveler by shaving expenses to extend your trip. I was a smelly, unkempt, ukulele-playing, college-educated, homeless immigrant who trolled the public library by day and inhabited the train station by night. I was no longer punch-drunk on seeing the world. I was hungry, tired and largely miserable.
To add fuel to the fire that fellow Gadling writer Pam Mandel so eloquently raised, I didn’t start a Kickstarter campaign and ask strangers to bail me out. I bought an airplane ticket back home on my credit card, got a job and I dug myself out of the hole.
I decided to move in with a girl I’d left at home. Today that woman is now my wife, and we travel together to this day.
Since that time I’ve continued to travel for the better part of seven years, taking time every now and then to hunker back down and work. I learned that your global backpacking excursion doesn’t have to be a one-off affair, and it’s not as if when the money runs out you’re destined for a life of non-travel. Purists might claim that I gave up too soon. I like to think I reset.
Granted, there is definitely a difference between being “houseless” and “homeless,” and thousands of travelers successfully find ways to stay on the road for extended periods of time. This man walked around the globe for 11 years. This man gave up money.
The distinction, I suppose, comes in accepting the reality of your situation instead of the romanticized version. If you’re eating out of dumpsters, sleeping in the park and patting yourself on the back for being the world’s most resourceful traveler, you might want take a step back for a moment and look at the bigger picture.
Consider it a word of caution to potential long-term travelers. Trying to win the traveler game might earn you a few badges of respect, but employing the strategy of extreme cost-shaving will only take you so far.
For me it was the Melbourne train station. A ukulele, an empty stomach and a call to head back home.
Homeless people can often be found outside of many landmarks in Bath, England – but now instead of begging for change they’re leading tour groups.
The initiative is the brainchild of Dr. Luke Tregidgo, a former student at the University of Bath, who is working to solve one of Bath’s biggest social problems by leveraging the city’s greatest asset – its tourists.
Dubbed Secret City Tours, the new program promises, “the most entertaining guided walking tours of Bath, combining the city’s most popular destinations with hidden gems and undiscovered stories that you won’t find anywhere else.”
Bath’s homeless are already biting at the chance to become guides, and a local theater group is helping to train them. And don’t worry: they won’t be showing off the underside of bridges or abandoned buildings – the homeless guides will actually be taking tourists through Bath landmarks like the Crescent, the Roman Baths and the Abbey. And soon, the guides will hopefully earn enough money that you can’t call them “homeless” after all.
I live in a very left-leaning community just outside of Chicago, a city that would sooner elect a Martian than a Republican to office. But even though I’m accustomed to mingling with people who listen to NPR’s “Car Talk” in order to feel like honorary members of the proletariat and cast stink eyes at people who fail to bring their own bags to Whole Foods, traveling to California, the state that invented cool, still presents a kind of culture shock.
We went to the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, traveling in a carpool lane for much of the way, and noticed that all the best parking spots were reserved for hybrid cars. On our Africa tram ride at the park, our driver gave us a lecture on how to drive (slow down, come to complete stops, use proper tire pressure) in order to help us be more green. Afterwards, we repaired to a nearby mall to get my sons, ages 3 and 5, slices of pizza and noticed a Caucasian family all eating with chopsticks in the food court.
I approached the mother and told her I was impressed that her children, who ranged in age from 4 to 15, were using their sticks so deftly.“They’ve been eating sushi and using chopsticks almost since they were babies,” she explained. “The trick is to tie them together with rubber bands for them to practice.”
My son, James, is such a bad eater that he actually nibbles around the exterior of McDonald’s chicken nuggets so as to avoid eating the stuff that is supposed to resemble chicken in the middle. If we can’t find pasta, pizza, mac-n-cheese, grilled cheese, McDonald’s or peanut butter, my kids are in trouble, but these kids eat sushi for God’s sakes?
In Laguna Beach, we had dinner at a fast food Mexican place called La Sirena Grill and when I asked the cashier why the food was so good, I got another dose of eco-California.
“Everything is all natural,” he said. “The fish is wild, sustainably caught. The mixed greens and the rice and beans are all organic. The meats are humanely raised and even these containers are made out of corn.”
We stayed at my brother’s home in North County and noticed that he has three cans for different types of garbage and recycling provided by the city. And if you’re anywhere near the Pacific, you’ll see legions of surfers, cyclists using bike lanes and nary an overweight person in sight. (Although there are a startling number of people in this state who supposedly need medicinal marijuana for various health problems!) Chain restaurants in California are required to display the calorie count next to menu items and many other restaurants do so as well.
In San Diego, our hotel encouraged us not just to keep our same sheets and towels but also to decline housekeeping altogether. And in a La Jolla cupcakery (organic, of course), we encountered an eco-friendly waterless toilet. Is it any wonder that 7 of the country’s top 30 greenest cities are in California?
And if you’re looking for a psychic, a tarot card reading or some kind of eastern style wisdom seeking, California is certainly the place for you. In Encinitas, I saw this enormous complex with golden domes (see photo) and a sign advertising “Self Realization Fellowship” and thought, only in California.
One of the other things a traveler can’t help but notice in California is that there are homeless people everywhere. A 2011 study by the National Alliance to End Homelessness put the total population of homeless in California at 135, 928, while other estimates put the figure at closer to 200,000.
As a traveler who covers a lot of ground on foot, I’ve encountered dozens of homeless persons every day so far in my travels around Southern California and it isn’t possible to help them all. Southern California’s mild climate makes it about as good a place as any for homeless people in the United States but it’s hard to know if most of the homeless here are native Californians, people who moved here on a wing and a prayer to follow a dream that didn’t work out, or people who were already homeless and moved here to take advantage of the warm climate.
Whatever the case may be, at least some of them apparently still retain their good taste in beer. I saw a young, heavily tattooed and pierced homeless man drinking early in the morning in San Diego’s Gaslamp Quarter and at first I thought he was drinking some kind of cheap 40-ounce beer. But upon closer inspection, it appeared to be a 22-ounce bottle of Rogue’s Dead Guy Ale.
Along that same brighter culture shock angle, it’s practically illegal to drink Bud Light or other bland, mass-produced beers in San Diego and other parts of Southern California. In hipster circles around the country these days, it’s socially acceptable to drink either very, very bad cheap beer, like PBR or Old Style, or craft beer, but certainly not Bud, Miller and the like. There might be people drinking bad beer in San Diego, but I certainly haven’t noticed them.
Last night in San Diego, I was in the mood for some good beer, so I did a quick Google search of brewpubs in the area and found that there were at least 32 to choose from. It’s no wonder that Men’s Journal named San Diego the best beer town in America. I ended up at the Coronado Brewing Company, which serves up a pretty damn good English Brown Ale, but the dizzying selection of places almost had me feeling nostalgic for the days when cities had just a handful of places to drink good beer and it wasn’t so hard to figure out where the hell to go.
Last week, thousands of residents along the East Coast had their homes destroyed or were left without electricity and heat by Hurricane Sandy. This week brought yet another injustice as a vicious Nor’easter storm bearing snow and frigid temperatures left victims scrambling for shelter. That’s why we were heartened to hear about a just-announced partnership between NYC.gov and apartment rental service Airbnb to coordinate free housing for New York area storm victims.
Since the storm hit New York and New Jersey last Monday, Airbnb has seen a surge in last-minute bookings in storm-affected areas like Atlantic City, New York City and the Hamptons. As a result of the surge, Airbnb announced it was partnering with NYC.gov to waive all fees for all Sandy victims looking for shelter on the service and put in a new call for generous New Yorkers with extra space to donate extra rooms and couches to those in need.
Airbnb is one of several services that let savvy apartment owners make money off their unused space, but what sets them apart is the site’s emphasis on community. Rather than just a place to rent apartments, the site’s users can now help displaced New York, New Jersey and Connecticut residents find help in a time of need. We hope more travel brands will look to this example and continue to encourage this kind of generosity and community among members.