In the old days, during my late teens and my early 20’s, it was the InterRail: spending a summer on a train across Europe, sleeping on a bench in a station in Berlin or Amsterdam and traveling across Spain from North to South gave the traveler a year-long lasting status of “cool-one” . As we all know, the Internet changed ways to do things for many, even for backpackers, giving them the chance to organise their trips in a way that was out of the imaginary in the 90’s.
Recently I spent a weekend in Bristol with two dear friends of mine, Caterina and Francesca and after visiting the pirate Blackbeard’s hometown, I can say that no other place would have been more appropriate to get to know a local community of active couchsurfers, house-sitters and backpackers.
Francesca had already told me about couchsurfing, which she has been practising for a while now. What is couchsurfing? Couch-surfing means joining an online community where to find people willing to make their couch available for whoever wants to crash on during their trips. Obviously, in respect of one of the main rules of every respectable social-network, this needs to be shared and the favour returned, even if during the couchsurfer meeting I went to on that occasion I met people who are happy with offering their couch or spare bed even if they are not travelers themselves. They do it for the very same simple reason that should motivate whoever decides to practice couchsurfing: getting to know different cultures and people and making the best of the enriching experience that comes along. You might think that the first reason why one decides to sleep on a completely stranger’s couch is saving money but it’s not always so. Usually people who makes their couch available don’t live in the city centre and there are transportation costs to be considered. Furthermore, whoever has a bit of commonsense won’t show up at the host’s doorstep with empty hands but will at least pay his or her share on the weekly grocery list. Eventually, what we end up spending might be comparable to what we would spend in a cheap hostel down the city centre. Where’s the convenience then? The convenience is the experience one gets.
That meeting was my first step into the community, thus I simply observed and listened, until Chris came up and started talking to me and Francesca.
Chris is a 38-year old Brit man who, in the last few years, has been living his life with a rucksack on his back and miles of road to walk under his feet. The chat with Chris was interesting and enlightening, one of those that leave you wondering: What am I doing? “Often” said Chris, “actually, almost always, we end up being victims of our job. The more we earn, the more we give ourselves reason to be earning even more. Eventually, we’re stuck and will never get out of there. Whoever can do what I do, all it takes is to be done!”
I’m going to sum up the conversation here in few points that both neophytes and experienced travelers who want to endeavour the backpacking activity on the other side of the world might find interesting. If you have read Chris’s blog you know that he recently hitchhiked from Perth to Brisbane (about 4,300 km), at times even pitching his tent on the edge of a highway. What follow are not my personal suggestions to you, nor am I advising anyone to do likewise. A good dose of commonsense as well as the ability not to spoil anyone’s holiday are the first things that should be packed. This is the only piece of advice I can give, based on my inexistent experience.
How does Chris manage to save on flight tickets? For his last trip, Chris told me, he paid about £300 for a one-way flight to Perth, Australia. The initial flight from London took him to Sri Lanka, where he travelled for a while before reaching Perth through internal flights. Sometimes it’s more convenient to get to the geographic area rather than the exact destination where we want to go, which we can reach using internal, low-cost airlines. Obviously, it takes much longer but when one goes backpacking, conventions such as time should be left back home perhaps.
How can Chris support himself during month-long trips? “Everywhere there’s somebody with a garden to loan or a wall to paint. All you need is to be in the right place at the right time“. So spoke Chris, and for as much as it sounds much easier to say than to do, I think the meaning it’s quite clear here: even in those countries where usually people don’t pay a gardner we can find someone who needs a bit of help with the harvest in return for a meal or a lift to the next city. If you’re lucky, Chris went on, you can always work as house-sitter. What’s a house-sitter? Easy to say: a babysitter is a person who looks after somebody else’s children while the parents are away. A house-sitter is somebody who looks after someone else’s house while the owners are away. We’re talking about big houses here, often with animals to feed and gardens to tend to. There are agencies online were you can sign up and apply for positions. The salary varies: mainly it consists in an accommodation, usually boarding as well and sometimes something more.
What about those countries where a working visa is required? You can always find something to do, says Chris, blinking. As a person who lives and works abroad and who went through the long and tedious path to get a visa (a US one), I would add: don’t esagerate and be cautious.
How do you travel internally? You walk, you travel on cheap and packed coach or sometimes you can get a ride, risky perhaps, but in some countries quite common. You’ll find that especially in South-East Asia, people show to be quite welcoming and eager to help visitors as they can. Chris’s advice: travel by night if you can, you will save on accomodation.
Is it ever dangerous? Just use your head and avoid all those situations that might be dangerous. For those situations which don’t depend on us, there isn’t much we can do, is it? Don’t show off your iPhone or iPad, look simple with nothing worth it to steal.
Our chat with Chris went on with his stories of places he went to and people he met in South-East Asia, Australia and the islands of South Pacific, until the bell rang the last round of drinks and the coach-surfers took their way. With no backpack this time.
Is there the right age to do these things? This is the one question I didn’t ask Chris. I like to think that one is never too old for anything, not even to hitchhike across Australia at the age of 38. Perhaps, on the threshold of 35, this is just what I want to think to reassure myself that there is still time. I don’t like to think though that this might become THE excuse to sit down in complete laziness and postpone instead of just put our backpack on and take the road. If not now, when?