Vagabond Tales: The Thin Line Between Backpacker And Homeless

Long-term backpackers can be a competitive bunch.

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.

Want more travel stories? Read the rest of the “Vagabond Tales” over here.

Train In Vain: Four Days With A Pair Of Uzbek Prostitutes, Final Part

Read parts one, two, three and four of this story.

I said a tentative goodbye to Marina, not knowing whether she wanted to lose me or not. I didn’t have the mental capacity to deal with the chaos and uncertainty of a new place, so I was pleased when Marina said we should share a taxi into town. But before we could leave the station, two soldiers at the exit tried to shake me down.

Marina managed to shake them off and we hopped into a taxi that, although nameless, looked like a vintage ’57 Chevy. We headed out of the station at an absurdly cautious speed and began rolling through deserted vacant fields when an argument broke out between the driver and Marina. I had no idea what was going on, but Marina said it was just a disagreement over what route we’d take.

I couldn’t help but fear that perhaps they were planning to rob me and were having a spat over who would get what. I had expected an ancient Silk Road city like Bukhara to have a small city plan, with an old center right near the train station. Yet either I had thought wrong or I was being taken to a field to be slaughtered.After about 15 minutes of driving through a barren wasteland, we pulled up in front of a dismal, Soviet era housing project that arose almost out of nowhere amidst a backdrop of vacant lots. Malnourished looking children were playing with sticks in front of one of the buildings and a few mangy looking stray dogs were picking through an overflowing trash bin.

I didn’t need to enter Marina’s building for everything to suddenly make perfect sense. I had judged her harshly for prostituting herself in the Middle East but I hadn’t considered the fact that she had grown up in grinding poverty and had no other way to improve her lot in life. Who was I to judge her and the decisions she made? I was also pretty certain that her argument with the taxi driver was over who would get dropped off first. She probably didn’t want me to see where she lived.

Marina got out of the car, and I asked if we could meet up so she could show me around town.

“That probably isn’t a good idea,” she said, much to my chagrin. “But here’s my address, send me a letter, OK?”

And with that she leaned into the cab and gave me a quick, surprising kiss before retreating into her apartment building. I planned to write, but I lost the scrap of paper and couldn’t. As we made our way towards the B & B I had picked in the old town, we passed an inconspicuous looking restaurant called “Italian Pizzeria.”

“Stop the car, STOP please!” I called out.

I paid my fare, grabbed my bag and walked in as images of hulking slices of gooey New York style slices danced in my addled brain. The “Italian Pizzeria” had a ’70s décor complete with swiveling chairs, drawn flowery curtains and a room temperature of about 90. I was the only diner.

“Hello!” called out my young waiter in English.

“You speak English?” I asked, pleasantly surprised.

“Of course!” he replied.

“What kind of pizza is best here?” I asked.

“It’s likeabobolihorsemeatpizza,” he said, so fast that I couldn’t understand him.

“Can you repeat that, please?” I asked.

“You know Boboli?” he asked.

“Boboli pizza crust?” I asked, feeling very much like I’d entered the Uzbek Twilight Zone.

“Yes,” he said.

“Wait, how do you know Boboli?” I asked.

“I was an exchange student in North Carolina,” he said.

“I see, well, what did you say was on this Boboli-like pizza?” I asked.

“Horse meat,” he said, smiling broadly.

I’d been warned that horsemeat was considered a staple in Central Asia, yet after a grueling 75-hour death ride with very little food, a Bobolihorsemeatpizza was not precisely what I had in mind.

“I’ll take the Boboli horse meat pizza without the horse meat, OK?”

“You are American?” he asked.

“That’s right,” I admitted.

“I think Americans don’t like horse meat,” he said, smiling.

“I think you’re right,” I conceded.

“But how do they know, you never have eat it I think,” he said.

I was in no mood for a discussion on the merits of horsemeat, I just wanted a goddamn pizza and eventually I got one, for 600 som, or less than $1. I paid for the pizza with a U.S. dollar and wondered if any pizzerias in the U.S. would accept Uzbek som.

Feeling much better with some food in my belly, I set off towards the old town, looking for a place called Sasha’s B & B. It turned out to be an ornately decorated old place with two levels looking onto a serene courtyard. (see photo of the author at Sasha’s below) I had decided sometime shortly after I’d discovered the turd on the toilet back on the Exile Express that I would splurge on accommodation when and if I reached Bukhara.

I hadn’t defined what “splurge” meant, but since I was spending only about $3-$10 per night on accommodation, I envisioned forking out something more than that. I was shown a room that looked fit for Genghis Khan himself. It was ornately decked out with fabulous Bukhara rugs, a big bed with a hand-caved headboard that would have sold for $8,000 in a SoHo furniture shop and a fancy TV set.

“How much?” I asked, fully expecting the woman to say something like “4 billion som.”

“Twenty dollars” she said.

It was a bargain, but in three months on the road, I’d never spent more than $15 per night, so I hesitated. The woman saw me vacillating and added, “If that’s too much we have basic rooms across the street for $10.”

I didn’t want a basic room; I wanted the kind of room a sultan who travels with a harem would occupy if he were in town. Yet, for some odd reason I couldn’t permit myself this little luxury. It seemed extravagant, gluttonous, and unnecessary.

“I’ll take the more basic room for ten,” I said.

In speaking those words, I felt like a reluctant groom at a shotgun wedding grudgingly saying, “I do.” And as I headed off to my “basic” room I felt like I’d changed. I’d become a man of simple taste.

[Photos by Dave Seminara, sly06, Sarah Lafleur-Vetter, and Adam Baker on Flickr]

Can’t Afford To Travel? Bollocks! You Can’t Afford To Stay Home

“How do you afford to travel so much?” This is the question I get all the time from disbelieving friends, colleagues and relatives who want to travel more but think they can’t afford it. No one’s ever come right out and said it, but I know some must wonder if my wife and I are drug mules, or if we have some other illicit source of income we’re not owning up to (the answer is no).

After returning from a three-month working trip in the Mediterranean a couple months ago, I told a good friend that we were heading off for a camping trip on Cape Cod and he quickly shot back a text, which read: “I don’t understand your lifestyle. Please explain.”

We are fortunate to be able to work from just about anywhere because for those who want to see the world the problem is always time, not money. The other day, after spending around $200 at Target on a whole cart full of random items, it suddenly dawned on me how affordable travel can be. When we were traveling, I didn’t need most of the items that were in my shopping cart. We put all of our things in storage prior to our long Mediterranean trip and cut out a lot of non-essential items we wouldn’t need while out of the country. So while we were traveling, we were paying $248 per month to store about 7,500 pounds worth of household goods (for a family of four), but we had no rent/mortgage, utilities, mobile phones, cable, or Internet service bills.

In calculating how much a trip will cost, we tend to estimate our total expenses and then consider that the cost, but that’s not really fair because it’s not as if you spend nothing while you’re at home. If you live in an expensive city in the U.S., like us, you might actually save money by being somewhere else.

When I looked through our cart at Target, there were so many items in there that we either didn’t need while on the road, or simply didn’t bother to buy, because we like to travel as light as possible. Napkins, paper towels, household cleaning products, light bulbs, zip-lock bags, condiments, snacks of all sorts, toiletries, toilet paper, spices, Kleenex, hair spray (for my wife), coffee and humidifier filters, a printer cartridge and a dozen other miscellaneous things at least.

When traveling, especially without a car, you have to carry all your belongings, so every time you consider a purchase you are forced to ask yourself if you really need it and if it’ll fit in your suitcase. But while at home, we can accumulate as much junk as we like, so we tend to buy more random stuff we don’t absolutely have to have.

I can’t tell you how much we would have spent had we remained in the U.S. for the three months we were in the Mediterranean, but I’m pretty sure we spent less while in the Greek islands and about the same or perhaps slightly more in Italy. In Greece, we spent about 50€ per night to rent budget hotel rooms with kitchenettes or apartments and we could have gone cheaper than that. We also traveled by ferry and lingered in each place for at least a week, which is usually the key to getting a good deal.

If you look online, renting apartments by the week in many destinations both here and abroad can seem very expensive, but if you spend a night or two in a hotel and then negotiate in person, you can often get a much better deal.

To be fair, there are some expenses, like laundry and car rental, for example, that crop up on the road but not at home. But the bottom line is that travel, especially overseas travel, can be cheaper than staying at home if you travel smart and eliminate your rent or mortgage by renting your place out or putting your things in storage while you’re away. And even if you can’t or don’t want to give up your base, even temporarily, don’t forget that your utility bills will be cheaper while you’re away.

Now for the hard part: finding the time to travel. The truth is that these days, many of us have jobs that can be done anywhere via the Internet. The problem is that many bosses are control freaks and they want to have your close by, supposedly to facilitate communication, but maybe also just to keep an eye on you to make sure you aren’t slacking off.

Here’s my suggestion. If you want to try a working holiday somewhere, start modest and tell your boss that if he feels that your work suffered while away, you’ll consider those days to have been vacation days upon return. It might not work, but it’s worth a shot, and if that fails, make the case for unpaid leave.

And when it comes time to plan your next trip, look around your house and just think about all the things you aren’t going to need while you’re away. It’ll make you feel great about getting the hell out of town.

When Living Out Of A Suitcase Becomes A Way of Life

After four months of living out of a suitcase, I should be eager to go home. But the truth is that I’m quite content to be on the road and free. My wife and I and our two children, ages 2 and 4, moved out of our home and put all of our things in storage on April 1, in order to spend three months traveling in Europe.

We’ve been back for a month, and plan to relocate to a new home, but have been procrastinating settling back down again. The truth is that the traveling lifestyle can be addictive, and once you get used to living with only your essentials, you don’t miss very many of your possessions.

I’ve moved more times than I care to count since leaving college many moons ago, and every time I’m tasked with boxing up my things, I come to the depressing conclusion that I have way too much stuff. So I sell and give plenty away, but then inevitably start accumulating again at the next destination.As I’ve written before, if you’re planning to move, it’s a great time to put your things in storage and hit the road prior to settling in your next destination. But be careful, because you might not want to settle back down again.

On our trip, we brought just two large suitcases for a family of four, but my wife and I also left two smaller suitcases at a relative’s house in the U.S. so we had some other items not locked away in storage. I recovered the second suitcase a month ago, and haven’t even bothered to open it since. It’s amazing how little you really need and when you evaluate all of your worldly possessions, most of it begins to feel more like a burden than a blessing.

What do I miss? My books. Sometimes I miss my Tempurpedic mattress, and, when I’m watching sports, my DVR, which spares me from watching commercials, and allows me to fast forward if my teams are losing. But that’s about it. As a family, we have 7,400 pounds worth of stuff in storage, and I only kind of sort of miss about 10 percent of it.

My wife jokingly remarked the other day that we should just move and start all over again. Leave all of our stuff in storage and let the guys from Storage Wars bid on it. She was kidding but it was kind of tempting.

How do we stay sane on the road with two small children in tow? Most of the time we’ve been in holiday apartments and hotels with at least two separate rooms, which helps. Still, there are days when we’re all sick of each other, but we manage to coexist, somehow, and have actually grown closer together. In some ways, toddlers are kind of like high-energy dogs. Get them plenty of exercise and good food and they’re fine.

You can tell a lot about travelers by how much baggage they’re dragging around. With kids, we can’t travel anywhere near as light as we’d like to, but we still do our best to stay lean and mean. The great thing about travel is that every time you consider making a purchase, you’re forced to ask yourself: do I want to carry this thing around with me. In most cases, at least for me, the answer is no.

Travelers who want to prepare for every eventuality by dragging around an enormous amount of luggage are missing one of the real delights of travel: learning how to live with less.

For a few blissful months, I had no mobile phone, no bills, other than credit cards, and no home address, and I enjoyed every moment of it. The truth is that the longer you travel, the harder it is to settle back down again. In some ways, it’s because being settled represents commitments and responsibilities – scary things for a restless traveler.

Soon we’ll be moving into a new home and, like it or not, dozens, if not hundreds of boxes of stuff will arrive at our new doorstep. But every time you leave home for a long time, you come back a little different. In life, I’ve made a few bad choices and, like Sinatra, I have at least a few regrets. But I’ve never taken a trip that I later regretted. Travel is always money well spent, especially when it teaches you to spend less at home.

[Photos by geishaboy500 and Dave B on Flickr]

Moving? Put Your Things In Storage First And Hit The Road

How can you afford to travel for more than a week or two? If you’re planning to move, use the occasion to put your things in storage and hit the road. If you want to travel for a month or more, it’s hard to pay a mortgage or rent plus travel expenses, unless you’ve got plenty of cash to burn. But if you have no rent or mortgage payments, you might actually be able to travel for less than you ordinarily spend living at home.

I’ve done the storage/travel combo four times over the last 15 years and have found it to be the most economical way to travel for a few months at a time. My wife and I both work from home so we have the ability to work from remote locations, as long as we have Internet access, so we’ve taken advantage of this freedom when we were planning to move anyway.When I was in the Foreign Service, we were also without our belongings in between posts, usually for a few months at a time, so I have plenty of experience traveling while my belongings are on a container ship or in storage.

No matter how carefully you pack, you’ll miss some of your stuff. But I’ve always found dumping all my things for a few months very liberating. You realize how much you have that you do not need and moving helps you pare down all your junk. And when you get your worldly possessions back, you’ll have a new appreciation for your favorite things. Here are a few tips for putting your things in storage and hitting the road.

Negotiate Free Storage with a Moving Company. Meet with moving companies that also offer storage, tell them your plans and try to negotiate a few months of free storage. Two years ago, United Van Lines offered us three months of free storage in order to secure our move business, and just a few months ago, we got two months of free storage from Allied Van Lines. After our two months are up, we’ll be paying $248 per month to store about 7,500 pounds, which is probably a typical weight figure for a family of four.

If you’re only doing a local move and have a much lower weight, it’ll be tougher to negotiate free storage, but if you’re a family doing an interstate move, you can almost certainly get at least a month for free.

Organize Your Belongings Very Carefully Before the Move. You’ll need to pack very carefully, keeping in mind what the weather will be like at your destination and also when you return. It’s usually complicated and expensive to extract things from storage, but mark the boxes you think you might need access to while in storage “high priority” and ask the moving company to place those boxes near the front of your storage unit, in case you need to get into them.

If at all possible, pack a suitcase or two of important items and leave them with a friend or neighbor, especially if you won’t move right into a new home or apartment when you return from your travels. Resist the urge to take loads of clothing with you on your trip. If you have to buy some new clothes on the road, so be it.

Pick The Right Destination. Whether you plan a domestic or international trip, do some research on sites like FlipKey, VRBO, HomeAway, Wimdu, AirBnb, and 9 Flats to get an idea for what it costs to rent apartments in your destination. Unless you have a huge budget, you can’t stay in hotels every night for months on end. And even if you did want to spend the money, you’d get tired of eating out every night.

Unless you’re traveling to a very popular destination during the high season, I recommend that you book a hotel first and do your longer term apartment search on the ground, in person, to make sure you get something you like.

We’ve spent most of this recent trip in Italy and Greece, and so far, we’ve found the Greek isles to be significantly cheaper than Italy. In Greece, we’ve found good quality apartments with Wi-Fi in Kos, Patmos and Samos ranging from the equivalent of $62-$68 per night (see videos of apartments below). Italy is about 20-25 percent more expensive, and in major cities like Rome or Florence, it’s probably more like 50 percent more expensive.

Given the fact that we were paying nearly $100 per night to live in our home in the pricey suburbs of Washington, D.C., Greece seems like a pretty good bargain to us, even factoring in the monthly storage costs, especially since we have daily maid service and a buffet breakfast included with our apartment.

Dealing with your mail and bills. Being officially homeless is a complicated affair, as you’ll need some sort of address for a variety of purposes. Pick a close relative or very good friend and ask them to receive your mail, or have the post office hold it for you, if no one can help.

Set up auto-bill pay for as many of your bills as you can, and if you do have a friend or family member willing to help, give them some checks and deposit slips so they can help you manage your financial affairs while out of town. This is especially important if you’ll be outside the U.S.

Skype. Skype is a terrific lifeline if you’ll be out of the country. We looked into buying mobile phones while overseas or using our U.S. mobile phones, but decided to save the money by discontinuing our U.S. service and just using Skype. For about $6 per month, you can get your own Skype line that includes voice mail and a U.S. telephone number.

Coming Home. As soon as you have your plans in order, let your moving company know when and where to send your things. This is especially important if you want to move at the end or beginning of the month in the summertime. It might seem complex, but keeping your things in storage in between moves isn’t actually much more work than moving straight from point A to point B, and the money you save on your rent or mortgage can help you see the world.

(Photos and videos by Dave Seminara)