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How to travel the world with no money – by people who have done it

The Guardian logo The Guardian 5/01/2017 Will Coldwell
Laura Bingham, pictured cycling across a snowy landscape on a blue-sky day. She cycled across South America, surviving purely on the kindness of strangers: Two wheels, one mission … Laura Bingham cycled across South America, surviving purely on strangers’ kindness. © Laura Bingham Two wheels, one mission … Laura Bingham cycled across South America, surviving purely on strangers’ kindness.

Laura Bingham: 7,000km cycle across South America, July 2016 

What was the high point of your trip?
When my sister joined me for a short while in Argentina. We’d been there for two days and a man stopped on the side of the road and began speaking to us. He told us how he’d cycled around Spain last yearthen offered us his place to stay that night. When we arrived at his home, his mum greeted us with open arms and fed us so much food that we ate like kings for the first time in months. The following day we met another cyclist who invited us to his home for lunch and made arrangements with his friend for us to stay a day later. After a generous lunch, we went to his friend’s place and were stopped in the local town by a man who gave us a large bag of oranges. He, too, offered a stay in his home … This level of generosity shocked me to my core. I think we forget how giving people can be and how a kind stranger can look after you without expecting anything in return. It’s funny how kindness and a warm smile can be the highlight of your day. 

The low point?

The moment that stands out was on day 16, just over two weeks in to my trip. I had been pushing my bike up the Ecuadorian Andes for four days; it was pouring with rain and I was extremely hungry. I had passed house after house of rejection: no one would help. Nothing. We reached a house and I fell to my knees in tears, begging the woman for help, even just her garden to put up my tent. She looked at me, looked at how desperate I was, the tears streaming from my face, and shook her finger. Nothing. I could do nothing and I felt like nothing. I dug deep to source any shred of energy or willpower to keep going.

What’s your advice for anyone who wants to do a similar trip?
If you’re planning a cycling trip, pack light. Very light. Weight will hold you back and you’ll be surprised by the amount of stuff you don’t need. Think practically and essentially. I would recommend Gore gloves and rain jacket as they are lightweight. I also loved my down jacket: it kept me warm and worked as a pillow too! Finally, it is important to keep positive. I was raising money for a charity called Operation South America and the thought of them got me through my darkest days. And download some motivational videos or podcasts. I liked to listen to Motivational Madness – it keeps you strong if you’re feeling low.

Rob Greenfield: 72 money-free days travelling from Brazil to Panama

What was the high point of your trip?
Stepping off the plane in Brazil. I had no money, no contacts, no solid plans and 7,000 miles of mystery and wonder ahead of me through lands I’d never set foot on. With so many of us on a quest for more stuff and more money, this is a perspective on Earth that few of us get to feel.

The low point?

The daily challenge of finding a new source of food and water, a place to sleep, and a ride made the whole trip through South America strenuous. To hitchhike 7,000 miles when you don’t like cars isn’t always the most fun. One day in Peru I accidentally got off the Pan-American Highway and ended up in the middle of nowhere. It took me around 12 rides to go just 130 miles. But hitchhiking is worth it because it takes you to places and introduces you to people you never would have seen or met in any other way.

What’s your advice for anyone who wants to do a similar trip?
Be prepared and have the gear to be mostly self-sustaining. Carry a tent and sleeping gear, water purifier, cooking equipment and comfy clothes. Travel light and leave behind what you don’t need. Make connections for places to stay, and earn meals through websites such as wwoof.org, helps.net, and workaway.info. Ditch your expectations before beginning the journey and keep an open and curious mind.

Rhinal Patel: travelled from her UK home to Hong Kong

What was the high point of your trip, so far?
There is no better feeling than when someone, without knowing who you are, holds out a hand to help you. One memorable experience was hitchhiking in Banda Aceh, Indonesia. My friend Paco went to ask an elderly Muslim lady how far the next town was and she looked at us like we were crazy (hitchhiking is not common in Indonesia). We started waving at the cars going past when suddenly she came over, calmly stood in the middle of the road and made a stop sign in front of a car going past. It stopped immediately, and she told us to get in. This old lady had more power and courage than most kids today! I was truly inspired and impressed. The power of social media also amazed me. People would find my blog online and contact me, inviting me to stay with them.

The low point?
The lowest point was in Germany, I had two days to get to Poland for my flight and I had planned to travel 300km across the north. On the way, a Brazilian guy who picked me up found out that there were growing neo-Nazi towns in the north and I could be entering a dangerous situation. I rerouted via Berlin, adding another 300km to my journey. I arrived late at a service station and decided it was too late to hitchhike, so I slept in the toilet. Then I got a message from someone in Berlin saying that he had read my blog and asked what he could do to help. I told him my situation and he offered to come and get me as well as pay for my bus ticket and a hotel. But before I could reply I lost Wi-Fi connection. I spent the next 90 minutes asking people if I could borrow a phone to call him: everyone said no. Finally, one girl agreed and we waited for her boyfriend to come out of the toilet so I could explain my location to my contact in Berlin. As soon as he came out the look on his face told me he was not going to help me, but I did not expect what was to come out of his mouth: “I am sorry we cannot help you. You might be trying to organise a bomb somewhere.”

What’s your advice for anyone who wants to do a similar trip?
There is the risk something bad can happen to a lone female hitchhiker, but it was important to me to show the importance of freedom and independence, especially for women. I did almost back out after hearing the story of Pippa Bacca (an Italian hitchhiker murdered in Turkey in 2008), but I decided to proceed with caution. I didn’t hitchhike at night with people I didn’t know and I started using other methods, like hitchhiking trains, car shares, or with friends of friends. Asking locals for advice, learning how to read people’s body language and researching countries beforehand is also important.

Emotionally, you need a positive attitude and determination. You are going to hear “no” a lot along your way and sometimes dirty looks and nasty comments. But you cannot give up at the first “no” … try, try, and try again until you get a “yes”.You are much more likely to hitch a ride when you’re smiling than when you are down and depressed. Usually when someone does stop, it ends up being a beautiful experience. Sweden was a difficult place for me to hitchhike because of the prejudice that has developed there, but the best advice that someone gave me is: “Focus on your end objective and don’t let anything or anyone get in your way.”

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