How to Travel
I did it, and you can do it, too!
Is it really possible to travel from Berlin to Antarctica without a single cent in your pocket?
Michael Wigge is on the adventure of a lifetime, where even simple necessities become a challenge. What will he eat? Where will he sleep? How will he get from place to place? Every day, these questions (among others) will occupy his thoughts.
Right from the outset, his journey hits the ground running with action and excitement, from playing hide-and-seek with ticket agents on the train to being put to work on a container ship while crossing the Atlantic Ocean to Canada. And this is just the beginning of his trip!
Who will he meet along the way? And—most importantly—how will he get across North and South America to reach Antarctica, his final destination?
This book is full of surprises; some more pleasant than others. Nevertheless, it’s an adventure you won’t want to miss!
Author and journalist Michael Wigge began his career as an anchor for the German VIVA program London Calling in 2002. Since then, the world has been his newsroom and playground, whether he is living with the native Yanomami Indian tribe in the Amazon rain forest, taking the longest recorded donkey ride in the history of music television, or fighting Sumo wrestlers in Japan.
Whether reporting from prison for MTV or entering Buckingham Palace solemnly attired as King Henry VIII, Wigge has always thrown himself into the most unusual of situations.
Michael Wigge’s most recent adventure involved traveling throughout 14 different countries with the goal of turning a half-eaten apple into a dream home in Hawaii, using only the bartering system. Prior to this, Wigge’s other globetrotting escapade found him journeying from Europe to the Americas to, finally, Antarctica (literally the end of the world) without a penny to his name.
Wigge currently lives in Berlin, Germany, but far prefers to be on the move.
It is the 21st of June, which means it is officially the summer solstice, and the longest day of the year. I can actually feel this all over my body. For more than three hours, I have been standing at a freeway exit trying to continue my journey towards Cologne. Thinking of the 25,000 miles I still have yet to cover, it’s hard to imagine that five months from now, I will actually set foot on Antarctica— the end of the world, as my friends would say
—without having a single penny in my pocket.
It may be the longest day of the year, but it also feels like the hottest day of the year: this, together with the equipment on my back, makes the sweat pour down my overheated body like a nasty waterfall. The sun is laughing at me; the cars that pass by also, somehow, snicker with amusement. I’m hitchhiking with a sign on my back that reads The End of the World! , so this could possibly have something to do with it. But none of this bothers me, since my mind is already far, far away in Antarctica.
At some point, what I count as the 2,420th car whooshes past me. You see, I have noted eleven cars driving past me about every minute, bringing me to a total of 2,420 cars in exactly 220 minutes—amazing what the mind can do in the 7
Discouraged and soaked with my own perspiration, my Antarctic visions completely dashed, I am just about to give up and call it a day when a red van pulls up. The driver’s side window rolls down and a grumbling voice calls out, “Need a ride?”
Arndt and Marius are returning from a convention of Leftists in Berlin. I now sit in their backseat telling them about my crazy plan of reaching Antarctica without having a solitary cent in my pocket. However, as I talk, I realize that I am in desperate need of relief. After being in the sun all day, one would think that I would actually be dehydrated, not needing to expend excess liquid, but my bladder is calling and Marius is kind enough to make a pit stop in my honor. I run as fast as I can to the public toilet, only to be blocked by a gate with a sign that reads: 50
Before starting this trip, I had thought of all the possible scenarios that might require money and how to get around them, but even I have to admit that this is one I didn’t take into consideration at all. Something like this should be free anyways, shouldn’t it? Desperate, I try charming the toilet attendant—not as easy a task as it may sound. I tell her that I have no money, that this is an emergency, and if she could 8
“Get a job.”
Knowing that there is no way to convince her, I instead find a few nice bushes around the corner. When I get back to the van, I tell Arndt and Marius about my little…
situation. They are both fired up after the convention and effortlessly compare my problem to that of society’s class struggles. “You wouldn’t find anything like this in socialism!” rants Marius. He’s probably right, actually.
Maybe socialism isn’t so bad after all.
Finally, we reach the first stop on my trip: Cologne, the city in which I lived and worked for six years. From here, the plan is to travel to Belgium, where a container ship is waiting to take me across to Canada. Since the ship won’t set sail for five days, I can make use of this time to visit some old friends. However, I’m not completely without ulterior motives: I’m hoping that by catching up with them, I’ll also have a free place to crash for the next few nights.
My friend, Hardy, lives with his girlfriend in a perfectly pleasant garden bungalow near the edge of the city, and when I ring his doorbell, I am greeted warmly and immediately offered a comfy couch to stay on—an offer I swiftly accept. As I tell him about my first day, my stomach demands attention by beginning to audibly growl, but Hardy’s refrigerator is as empty as my stomach.
We both start wondering where we can get something to eat at this late hour. Now, luckily, some supermarkets in Cologne are still open in the late evening, which is a simple solution if you have money. However, I’m not traveling with any whatsoever, and don’t want to ask too much of Hardy’s hospitality, so I have another idea: Dumpster diving it is, then.
A humble act of foraging that apparently originated in the U.S., dumpster diving is new to Germany, and involves getting—quite literally—down and dirty as you search for food in a supermarket’s dumpsters. The food is often perfectly edible, if not good, but is simply no longer sellable either due to its expiration date or its not-entirely-appetizing appearance.
I take the local train downtown, which is free for me but which still requires a ticket. (Like in many German cities, public transportation in Cologne allows students and employed monthly ticket holders to participate in a public rideshare, permitting them to take another person along on their pass free of cost, but only after seven in the evening.) Since most shops in the city are closed by now, it will be the perfect time for my…shopping expedition. I set off for the largest supermarket near the city’s park, almost more curious than hungry to see if dumpster diving is possible here in Cologne.
Tiptoeing like a burglar and armed with just a flashlight 10
and some plastic bags, I ease behind the building and stand in front of the gate to the supermarket’s courtyard. From here I can see the dumpsters, and, motivated by my growling tummy, I somehow manage to climb over the six-foot tall fence. I flash the light into the first dumpster and I nearly die of terror: the beam lands directly onto the face of a man.
“Hey, wait your turn!” he snaps.
I eventually learn that this man is named Peter, and that he studies social work in Cologne. For years now he has been looking for food in this manner—not because of a shortage of money, but because of his ideological refusal of consumption.
“Freeganism comes from the word free and means free of cost—much in the same way that veganism and vegan relate,” explains Peter as he picks out his culinary treasures. “There are proper Freegan scenes here in Cologne. We meet regularly and cook together.” Peter gets by with 200 Euros a month, which mainly is for his insurance costs. He gets his food from dumpsters and lives in a construction trailer.
After filling his backpack, Peter lets me have my way with the dumpster. As I fill my bags with yogurt, sausage, bread, cheese, milk, and even some gummy bears, Peter explains to me that, unlike other countries, dumpster diving is actually illegal in Germany. “Even garbage has an 11
A few years ago a woman in Cologne was sentenced to do social work, all because she took yogurt from a supermarket dumpster.”
It turns out to be a lucky night for Peter and me, meaning we don’t get caught. Even Hardy is astonished when I surprise him with two plastic bags full of food.
The next day, I decide it’s time to go to work. I stand in the city’s main pedestrian area holding a rather enticing handmade sign: A butler for a train ticket. In order to make my offer more attractive, I’m dressed up as an English butler with a bow tie, white shirt with starched collar, button-down vest, black trousers, and white gloves, all of which I had purchased from a second-hand shop (for just 15 Euros!) before leaving Berlin. Who could resist my impeccable butlership?
I expect more of a reaction—any kind of reaction—
from the people of Cologne. However, the residents appear to be no longer easily amused, thanks to all the hidden-camera antics and wacky street performers that have begun to take root in the city. After an hour with no success, I decide to take control of the situation and address the passersby directly.
“A train ticket to Belgium in exchange for the best butler in the world!” I confidently exclaim to an old lady 12
“I am in no mood for a circus today!” she retorts, adding a few arm gestures for emphasis.
The embarrassing confrontations continue until I approach one of the more interesting-looking citizens of Cologne, a man I soon learn is named Harold who is 49
years old, but eternally young at heart. Against his suntanned skin he wears a white, open, laced-up vest tucked into tight pants, a look that is finished off neatly with a pair of snakeskin boots. His thinning blond hair is long and partly covered by a headband. He likes my idea, and for the rest of the day, books me as his personal butler.
When we arrive at his place, the first thing I see is a red Ferrari parked in front of his house—or, to put it better, in front of his property. Harold tells me that he bought the car in the 90s for 400,000 Deutschmarks (DM), the old currency of Germany. Now, I am not a car fanatic by any means, but I’m still impressed with an actual Ferrari.
Harold quickly thrusts a sponge and cloth into my hand saying, “Now wash the car until it’s spic-and-span!”
Dutifully, I place the cleaning rag against the rim in order to make it shine, sending Harold into a complete panic.
“Be careful! Ferraris have been damaged from being cleaned in the wrong way! Do it gently! Never, ever on the same spot for too long!” Harold knows exactly what he 13
Two hours later Harold takes me to his garage, which is actually a separate portion of a public parking block. In the garage there are many, many more luxury vehicles: shiny Lamborghinis, gleaming Corvettes, majestic Cadillacs…
am I dreaming, or have I, in fact, hooked up with the Russian mafia?
Harold selects a Cadillac convertible from the seventies that must be at least sixteen feet long. I then chauffeur him throughout downtown Cologne, despite the challenge of taking curves with this gigantic car. After successfully parking the Cadillac, we dine at a fancy restaurant…or, to be more accurate, Harold dines while I keep replenishing his wine glass. Again and again during the course of the evening, various women approach our table. Harold seems to attract a certain type of woman; the kind who is even willing to kiss his eccentric boots for a bit of his attention.
They look right through me. I continue pouring wine for Harold.
The remainder of my day as Harold’s butler passes quite amusingly. Unfortunately, I never do find out how Harold has made his vast fortune. He tells me that he has no money, but lives only from objects of value. The twenty sports cars he has parked in his garage have already 14
“You could marry well there.”
Though I’m curious to know what he means, I know it is time to press on. I politely decline his intriguing invitation and receive 55 Euros for my pay: exactly enough money for a ticket to Antwerp, Belgium. Thankfully, it also means that I will be able to make my free passage to Canada, something that was more difficult to find than I had anticipated.
EU (European Union) law not only discourages, but prohibits anyone’s romantic notions of becoming a sailor; luckily, I know a solid man by the name of Peter Doehle whose shipping company rather enterprisingly offers a certain brand of tourist the option of traveling on a container ship. Since he considers my project quite exciting, he is allowing me to travel free of cost.
On the train ride to Belgium, I decide to save my 55
Euros for later and don’t buy a ticket. My brilliant plan is to hide in the restroom for the entire trip. I can already visualize myself triumphantly disembarking from the train in Antwerp with 55 Euros still in my pocket, not having spent a single cent. While hidden in the toilet, I smile and congratulate myself on my genius plan until I hear the frantic knocking on the door. Caught by the conductor I not 15
Everything up to now has been going so well, but then I tried to be too clever. As a result, I’m now stuck here in Brussels with no idea of how to get to Antwerp. My backpack feels even heavier on my burdened shoulders. I am not sure of what to do, when I suddenly think of one solution: I will board the next train to Antwerp and use the blind-spot trick.
Yes, the blind-spot trick.
I go immediately to the last compartment, which is only about ten by twelve feet, containing only six folding seats.
In most of the local trains, the bicycles are usually kept here. I put my backpack in the left corner that faces the other compartments, and stand motionless in the right corner facing the same direction. Normally, the conductors only glance through the window of this compartment’s door, and if they don’t see anyone, they move on, not thinking to check the blind spots.
(Ladies and gentlemen: the blind-spot trick.) I spend the rest of the journey tensely pushed up against the right corner of the compartment. Suddenly, the door opens and I have only one thought: Busted again! It is not the conductor, or any sort of train official, but a waiter coming through with the coffee cart.
I keep looking at him. He looks right back at me. I think we’re saying things with our minds, but I can’t be too sure.
I nonchalantly try to act as if I’m just standing there to gaze out of the window, perhaps even propping my chin up on my fist and managing a small smile. The young waiter pushes his coffee cart to the other side of the compartment and proceeds to fix himself some lemonade while keeping his eyes on me—he knows exactly what’s going on. I continue staring out the window with an expression of wonder, though I’m not paying a bit of attention to the scenery.
After a few minutes, the waiter pushes the coffee cart back out of the compartment, barely hiding a smile. I arrive in Antwerp both overjoyed by success, and utterly exhausted from holding myself in that position for almost an hour.
My next challenge is to find some food. What if I approach, say, five different shops, and simply explain to them that I am traveling to the end of the world without any money and ask if they would donate some food for my cause? How many of them do will say yes? It’s worth a try.
So I first approach a nice café run by a young man. He thinks my adventure sounds great, and offers me a coffee 17
and a muffin. The Latin American music playing in the background only increases my anticipation for traveling throughout South America. I then go to a hotel where I manage to refill my two-liter bottle with tap water without any trouble. At my next stop, a fish store, the saleswoman must refuse my request since her boss isn’t there to make the decision.
The fourth place I try is a bakery where the employees are very generous: slices of quiche, various buns, some bread, and pastries are packed up and handed to me. The three employees have fun debating which one of them will accompany me on my trip. Finally, a fruit vendor gives me two apples. With four out of five of my requests met with success, I’m left feeling hopeful about the rest of my journey.
2/ All Hands Below Deck
(Antwerp to Montreal)
My new life XXL: Passage to Canada
Antwerp’s harbor is about 16 miles long and quite difficult to explore on foot. All around there are trucks driving and numerous cranes incessantly loading and unloading the huge container ships that come from all over the world. Everything must be done quickly, as there’s no time to lose. After much searching, I finally find my ship and I’m immediately filled with a sense of adventure.
million liters of beer, or 365 million cups of coffee, or 7.1
billion spoons of sugar. I feel quite humbled in its presence.
Upon entering the ship, I am politely greeted by a Filipino steward: “Hello, Mr. Wigge.” He introduces himself as Julius and brings me to my cabin. To my astonishment, he insists on carrying my backpack although it’s quite heavy and almost as big as he is. I’ll be spending the next twelve days in a comfortable sleeping cabin that includes a small private lounge with a stereo system, a satellite television with over 900 channels, and a minibar.
Julius tells me that I can always reach him on the ship’s phone system—“Extension 148! ”— then politely takes his leave. I sit on my bed feeling unbelievably happy, for I had never expected to find such luxury on a container ship.
I meet Julius again while I’m having a look around the ship, and he tells me that meals are at eight o’clock in the morning, noon, and five in the evening, but that it’s not a problem if I’m a little late. Near the dining hall is a fitness area, and beyond that is the ship’s cinema, stocked with plenty of DVDs. Julius proudly goes over everything, explaining, “Our passengers should be happy!” I realize that they must have booked me as a tourist and not as a helper, as was discussed on the phone, but I certainly am 20
There is plenty to eat. I listen to the news on the BBC, Russia Today, France 24, Deutsche Welle, and Al Jazeera, comparing the different views of each one. I enthusiastically begin selecting DVDs to watch over the next twelve days: Casino to prepare myself for Las Vegas, Back to the Future to relive memories of my childhood, all three parts of The Lord of the Rings so that I wouldn’t be the only one to have not seen this trilogy, and classics featuring Joe Pesci and Al Pacino. Just as I’m reaching out to grab the Steve Buscemi film The Interview, the German captain, Mr. Kamrad, approaches me.
“Mr. Wigge, I’ve just heard that we have an extra helper on board!” His smile is massive. It is not unlike having a bucket of ice-cold water dumped over me in order to wake me from my dream. I keep my cool and simply ask him how I may help.
For the rest of the journey, I become a proper sailor.
Every morning I get up at six, put on my work gear, and sorrowfully glance back at the stack of 35 DVDs, waiting to be watched in my cabin. My work schedule unfolds as such: on Monday I paint the railings of the ship with a fellow named Ramir, while waves 15 to 20 feet high rise up all around us. On Tuesday I help do inventory of all of the food and supplies. On Wednesday I accompany a man named Victor to check the cooling systems, requiring us to 21
go 70 feet above deck and look down into the never-ending chasms of the 1,800 containers, all stacked on top of the other at least five or seven times. On Thursday I am on the bridge with the captain. On Friday I’m with the chief engineer in the engine room where the main engine has a power of 23000 HP (note: that would be approximately 50 of Harold’s Ferraris) and needs about 425 gallons of oil.
For me, a successful oil change on my car brings me vast amounts of pleasure, so I can already imagine how much I’m going to enjoy an oil change on MS Valentina.
Even though I’m only allowed to change the oil of an auxiliary engine, the procedure is much the same: I unscrew the caps, lid, filters and filter safeguards; I lay them out in the order I remove them so that I know in which sequence they are replaced; I pay attention to how the heat regulates itself so that there are no burns; I unclear any and all clumps from the 20-series Allen key; I take out the oil filter with a myriad of devices; I let the old oil drain out before putting in new oil; and finally, I reassemble everything. The satisfaction this brings me is immense.
During those twelve days aboard the ship, it occurs to me that the entire 20-member crew—the captain, the officers, the engineers, the cook, the helpers, and even the steward—all have a strictly regulated routine. Everyone knows exactly what he has to do, and everything operates 22
without anyone having to say anything. What’s more, the people are very polite to one another, there is never any tension or bickering, and after completing the day’s work, everyone retreats to his cabin.
This is, quite frankly, nothing like how I imagined seafaring people to be. I had romantically envisioned gruff, six-and-a-half-feet tall, tattooed Russian sailors living in dark, dingy cabins below the deck, playing vicious games of cards every night while pounding back endless quantities of vodka. In fact, when I had arranged the trip with the shipping company, I had even mentioned that I would like to sleep with the sailors below the deck.
(The stoic Mr. Doehle must have thought that journalists have a tendency to exaggerate, and didn’t say anything further about my offer.) Before my departure, I had asked myself how the sailors would react when they came to offer me vodka, only to find out that I don’t drink, but I now see, much to my shock, that no one drinks alcohol here at all. Well, maybe with one exception, on one night…
On Saturday evening, the ship’s cook, Capriano, organizes a grill party where steaks, chicken drumsticks, and spareribs are laid out on the table of the dining hall. I sit with the captain and the officers and we talk about the ship hijackings off the coast of Somalia. I, of course, waste no time and begin spouting off all of my expertise, points of view, and opinions as a journalist while they listen 23
All of a sudden, the stereo system behind me starts playing “Lambang Layassayh, Lamam Hanang.” I turn around to see my fellow sailor, Ramir, vociferously singing karaoke to a Filipino love song. Accompanying him is a video clip of bikini-clad babes (judging by their hair, from the mid-80s) running along the beaches of Malibu. The captain grins and says that 11 of the 20 sailors are from the Philippines, and so they have a great fondness for love songs from their country. Ramir appears to be feeling little to no pain, and is completely immersed in his rather admirable rendition of the tune.
Images of Ramir from the last few days spring to my mind. Every day he calmly paints the handrails of the ship for ten hours a day, while 20-foot waves occasionally rise up over the deck. I know that he is away from his family during the six to eight months of his contract, working six-and-a-half days every week, getting only half of his Sundays free. The only entertainment is karaoke on Saturdays and, on rare occasions, a brief shore leave.
Viktor, a Ukrainian who works in the engine room, has revealed to me that the best part of his job is that it feels like he’s on vacation for six to eight months. Since he’s away for such long periods, he’s able to enjoy his time at home more with his wife and family without the usual stress. It’s the first time I’ve been acquainted with this type of lifestyle, and so I’m lost in my thoughts, until “The Time 24
3/ True North, Land of the Free
(Montreal to Niagara)
Walking on sunshine: Olympic Stadium, Montreal After 12 days at sea, we arrive in Montreal’s harbor, and I once again, mercifully, have solid ground underneath my feet. I am officially in Canada.
Some citizens of the neighboring United States enviously look to the rights that all Canadians have, and even sometimes refer to it as the “land of the free”, a rather ironic nickname as it is taken from their very own 26
American national anthem. A public healthcare system, legal same-sex marriage, abortion rights, low poverty and crime rates, and an abolished death penalty are achievements that the Canadian people can be proud of.
Through www.couchsurfing.com I meet Raphaelle and Jessie, with whom I will stay for the coming days. For those unacquainted with the service, Couchsurfing.com is a global social networking community where people offer backpackers their couch for a free night’s stay. The basic premise is that you create a profile with a description of your personality, and then you can either search for, or post a place, one that is rated by other travelers who have stayed there.
In the past, I have let couch surfers stay in my apartment who came from all over the world and who all turned out to be very interesting and kind: guitar hippies from Sweden, a couple from California who were on a world tour, and, most recently, an intern from Senegal named Ken who was excited to stay with me because he had seen me on television. (My report series, The Truth about Germany, is aired on Deutsche Welle TV, which broadcasts in 160 countries. Ken claims that his German has improved by watching my series, and actually knew 50
of the 65 episodes by heart.)
I also occasionally take advantage of this network and stay overnight with some couch surfer hosts, mostly when I am traveling for Deutsche Welle.
When traveling, I always bring my small netbook so that I’m easily able to contact my respective hosts. Despite the extra weight, when I’m already weighed down with my backpack and video equipment, its hardware allows me to surf the net for free wherever there is free Wi-Fi. Since cyber-cafés cost money and I don’t have any, I’m more than thankful for all of the free networks available in North America. The website www.wififreespot.com even seems to think that the number of free networks here is inexhaustible.
…but back to Raphaelle and Jessie, the two girls I will be staying with: they live in a two-bedroom apartment in the eastern part of Montreal, both 29 years old and very attractive. A lot of couch surfers have already passed through their bright, friendly apartment, which is kept minimally furnished but still quite stylish. Since neither of them travels much, they are very happy to have guests and get to know people from other countries.
My first evening at their place, we all sit around their kitchen table exchanging stories. Raphaelle, a fashion designer who loves colorful stripes in her designs, is enthusiastic about my travel attempt. Jessie, who works as a kindergarten teacher, is curious to know all about my trip up to this point. As I begin to elaborate, my stomach once again interrupts with a growling noise, but Raphaelle and Jessie are far too excited and engrossed in my storytelling to hear it.
Unfortunately, I wait in vain, as the girls are much too fascinated by my travel stories to realize that I may be hungry (and without money). Finally it gets to the point where Jessie can no longer ignore the growling of my stomach, so she places a bowl of cookies on the table and offers them to me. The cookies are large and round and sugary-looking, resembling those of the sandwich-chain Subway: in other words, just the right thing to satisfy my hunger.
Greedily, I grab the cookies and quickly shove three of them, one by one, in my mouth. Delicious. Raphaelle and Jessie both look at me wide-eyed. What is it? Am I being impolite? No, that isn’t it. Jessie calmly offers me by way of explanation: “These are space cookies, so you really shouldn’t eat too many.”
“Space cookies”? Space…is she talking about hash cookies? Alarmed, I put the fourth one down just as I’m about to put it into my mouth. For this trip I had given up smoking and wouldn’t be drinking any alcohol, so this is the last thing I need. Gradually, a warm, fuzzy feeling slowly works over me, and I begin to wonder if I can manage a free visit to the Betty Ford clinic during my trip.
At this moment, the doorbell rings and Felix, a good acquaintance of the girls, comes in. It turns out that Felix is much like a best friend and stylist to the girls. He cuts their 29
hair and advises them how to dress when they go out in the evening. Today, Jessie ignores his suggestion of the white summer dress with black polka dots and, instead, wears something a bit more subtle. Felix doesn’t mind, as it just means that he can wear the dress instead.
A little later Felix is standing in front of the mirror wearing the dress and proceeds to stick out his butt proudly. I don’t know whether it’s the space cookies working their magic or just that the situation is so funny, but I suddenly can’t stop laughing. Felix is six foot two, broad and lean. I wonder, if I squeezed into a schoolgirl’s outfit, whether I could pull it off as well as Felix.
A while later (five minutes? Five hours?) we are in Raphaelle’s car and I am sitting in the backseat beside Felix, who is still wearing the dress. He only gives me a grin but it’s enough to make me start laughing again.
Apparently the space cookies must still be working since Jessie, Raphaelle and Felix can’t understand what is so funny. We drive up the 765-foot-high hill called Mont Royal, from which the city gets its name. The view from there is breathtaking. The skyline is brightly lit under the night sky and one can see both the skyscrapers downtown, as well as the old city with its alleys and houses reminiscent of Paris.
Raphaelle and Jessie tell me that Montreal is, linguistically, a divided city. Raphaelle points out the area just to the left of the old city where French is mainly 30
spoken, and the area to its right where only English is spoken. This divide dates back to when the French immigrants founded the city in the 17th century. However, in the struggle for supremacy in North America, the British were victorious, and all of Canada came under British rule in 1763 despite this province being inhabited only by French settlers.
From 1844 to 1849, Montreal was the capital city of the British colony, bringing a whole new wave of English immigrants which led to the division of the city between French and English. The official language of Quebec is French: shops are obliged to tag their goods in French; all signage is written in the mother tongue of Céline Dion; and there is even an alarmingly-named language police who monitor the compliance with these regulations.
Raphaelle, in her strongly French-accented English, tells me that the citizens of Quebec are increasingly demanding complete freedom from Canada because they feel discriminated against by the Canadian government.
Jessie, on the other hand, comes from Ontario and considers the demand for independence quite unnecessary and arrogant. While discussing this social issue, it becomes clear how very different the two girls’
viewpoints are, and how quickly the tension builds when discussing this topic. Despite all this, they make a good example of city’s English-French integration and how harmonious relations are, in fact, possible.
I slowly begin to notice that the others are equally as stoned as I am, because the topic abruptly changes and we begin laughing over everything—even at Quebec’s perpetual drive for independence. We speak by mingling our French, English and German, and all magically understand each other. Luckily, the language police are not on patrol this night.
In order to avoid eating more space cookies in the days to come, I head off the next morning to get some food for myself. After my positive experience with dumpster diving in Cologne, I decide to give it a try here in Montreal.
However, the aroma coming from the bakeries and the tempting food on display in their windows spoils my motivation. Instead, I again decide to ask the shops for free food. To my great relief, I have surprisingly good results and my food supply for the next few days is quickly secured.
Now I must face my next problem: how am I supposed to continue my journey from Montreal without a single penny in my pocket? The only possibility is the long-distance bus, but it costs money that I don’t have. Early the next morning, I go to the bus station filled with a sense of anxiety and concern that, if I don’t succeed, I’ll have to sheepishly go back to Raphaelle and Jessie’s place. At the bus terminal I talk to the manager of Coach Canada. She finds my stories bewildering, but amusing as well. I talk, she laughs, and I turn up the charm.
So I tell her: a free ticket to Niagara Falls. She is astonished at my honesty but not at all annoyed. “In my eleven years as manager for Coach Canada,” she says, “no one has ever asked me for a free trip. I’ll see what I can do.” She takes me to her colleague Bill, who promptly issues me a free ticket for the nine-hour trip. Bill then shakes my hand and wishes me all the best for my journey.
I feel extremely happy and lucky when I arrive later that evening in the town of St. Catharines (where Niagara Falls is located). It’s there that I continue my couch surfing by spending two nights with Nicole, a teacher in her early 30s who lives in a house with her two cats. Apart from her book club, she appears to hardly have any contact with other people, so couch surfers are a welcome opportunity for her to get to know other people and socialize, which makes perfect sense to me.
However, we do not seem to share any common interests and I can’t help but feel that the atmosphere is somehow too formal. On my first evening at her house, we sit more or less quietly in her kitchen, and then Nicole offers to prepare some food for us. When I first offer to help she declines, but she finally gives in when I refuse to be dissuaded. It doesn’t take long, though, before she is raising her eyebrows; apparently, I am not cutting the vegetables properly. I even begin to doubt myself and, 33
accidentally, drop a carrot on the floor. That’s more than enough to make Nicole request in a friendly but firm manner that I wait in the living room. I offer to at least set the table, but seeing her appalled look I instead go sit in the living room and play with the two cats.
Breakfast the next morning is also quiet. Nicole suddenly breaks the silence by mentioning the English comedian Sacha Baron Cohen, who is famous for his roles as Ali G, Borat and Brüno. I’m relieved to finally find something in common we can talk about, and begin repeating lines from his films and telling her how awesome and funny I think he is. Sacha Baron Cohen! A comedic genius!
“I find him flippant,” says Nicole abruptly.
“I don’t like him either,” I meekly respond.
In the evening I come back from wandering around town and proudly show her the apples, bananas and sandwiches that various shops gave me for free. Nicole just gives me a skeptical look which clearly tells me that this isn’t a way she would ever go about getting food.
Putting our differences aside, the next day Nicole invites me to go with her to see Niagara Falls. Comprised of two waterfalls approximately 3,937 feet wide, about two-thirds of which lie in Canada and one-third in the U.S., seeing them in person is overwhelming (and, thankfully, free). We manage to get unbelievably close, 34
Nicole and decide to ride the boat that goes directly beneath the falls. When we get to the ticket booth, I see that two tickets cost 29 dollars. I present my usual spiel to the ticket saleswoman about being a reporter who is traveling to the end of the world without money, and then brazenly ask her if I can take the boat ride for free. The woman briefly looks over the papers I hand her that confirm my itinerary, waves Nicole and me through, and wishes both my assistant and I a nice boat ride. Nicole tensely watches me the entire time I’m talking and clearly doesn’t approve of this approach, but she’s also equally impressed that we get to ride the boat for free.
The boat ride soon changes the mood. Before us, water pours from 165 feet above and makes the tourists slide all around, screaming with either delight or terror. Directly in front of the falls we can only see a solid white wall and hear the hellish, deafening roar of the water. Both Nicole and I are completely enthralled. That evening, perhaps elevated by the excitement of the day’s adventure, she offers to drive me the next day across the American border to Cleveland, which is about 220 miles away. Lost for words, I offer her a hug of gratitude and, for the first time, see the beginnings of a smile on her face.
At the U.S. border, we are successfully directed out of Canada. I have to explain to the immigration office why I am entering the United States without any type of return 35
Back in 1997, I had an encounter with customs when I was living in California for a year. For spring break, my friends and I decided to go to Mexico. On our return I had difficulty re-entering as I had only brought my American driver’s license, but the border officer wanted to see my passport, which my friends were supposed to have faxed overnight to the immigration office. After waiting for hours, all of us had to pay a fine of 100 dollars before we were allowed to continue with our journey.
This time, the female officer looks over the official details of my end-of-the-world-without-money concept, makes further inquiries, and then decides to let me enter the country without a return ticket for a fine of only six dollars. Nicole, who is breathing tensely beside me, is probably already having second thoughts about taking me with her, and signals me to quickly pay the fine. However, as I do not have a single cent, the officer only gives me an irritated look and goes to get her boss.
He reads through my concept, looks directly at me, and says in a strict tone, “Sir, you will not enter the United States of America!” Stunned, devastated and shocked, I try to think of what I’m going to do now. But within seconds—
though seeming much longer to me—the supervisor laughs and tells me that I can enter and that it sounds like a cool project. This is what I can only surmise as being “border 36
Once we get to Cleveland, we make a visit to the art museum, as it has free entry. We then bid each other farewell, and I can’t thank her enough for her hospitality.
4/ Go West, Young Man (Cleveland to
No bed in the cornfield: on the way in Ohio I am standing near an on-ramp at the edge of Cleveland holding a large cardboard sign that reads, quite simply, SOUTH. Luckily, I still have no idea what is in store for me in the coming weeks.
Hitchhiking here appears to be more difficult than in Germany. Although not prohibited officially, it is no longer in fashion. Gone are the times when one could experience adventures like those of Jack Kerouac. Today, a man standing with an outstretched thumb on the road is only looked at with suspicion. Nevertheless, except on 38
On average about eleven cars go past me every minute, but not one of them stops. I spend a good eight hours in the same spot until an old couple traveling to the Hamburger Festival in Akron finally picks me up. But Akron isn’t that far, and after a short while I’m stranded at the Hamburger Festival where, unbelievably, no one is willing to even donate a solitary hamburger to my cause. So, using the few dollars that I received as a gift from Nicole, I take the bus to the neighboring city of Canton.
On the bus I soon get into a conversation with Harold, an African-American man around my age. He is excited about my journey and keeps crying out, “It’s so amazing, man. You’re so cool. I can’t believe that I’ve met you!” He tells me that he has two kids in Miami from his first wife and two kids from his second wife, who lives in a trailer park just outside of Canton. Suddenly Harold invites me to spend the night with him and his girlfriend. Everything happens quite quickly and, spontaneously, I agree and get off at the next stop with him.
As we make our way to the trailer park, Harold calls his girlfriend to excitedly announce my arrival. But he then becomes quiet and I can tell that her reply doesn’t make him happy. He finally interrupts her and furiously yells into the phone: “Hold on, relax, pull back!” But not letting him speak, he suddenly begins shouting at her into the receiver:
“Shut up, you fucking bitch! Shut finally the fuck UP!”
It is then that I realize I won’t be staying at their place for the night, and try to make Harold aware of this by hand gesturing. He moves the phone away from his ear and gives me a huge smile. “She’s only a little drunk…it will all work out.” He then goes back to swearing and hurling abuse at her, using English slang that I have never, ever heard before. I turn around and wave once again to let him know that I’m leaving. How could I be so careless? I suppose the whole thing could have ended much worse.
I wander on a country road, somewhere in Ohio, facing the evening sun. I decide to keep going for a while until something happens. But the only thing that happens is that it becomes very dark, so I set up my tent behind a McDonald’s and sleep under the star-filled sky of Ohio.
The next day I keep moving along the road, my backpack weighing nearly 88 pounds. I start to walk more and more slowly, and it begins to feel as if I’m pulling against a huge rubber band that is tied to my backpack. I wander through a beautiful stretch countryside full of small hills, alleys and farms until later that afternoon when Mickey, a rocker girl around 40 years old with a cigarette stub balanced in her mouth and a leather jacket on her shoulders, takes me along for a few miles in an old van.
She talks very patriotically about her part of the country and comes quickly to the point: “It’s a nice area because there are no black people living here.”
“What is the problem with black people?” I ask 40
“No worries, I do like them, as long as they don’t live in my area.”
I have arrived in the legendary Midwest of the USA, the part of the country where every foreigner is first under suspicion. The locals apparently leave liberal thinking and open-mindedness to those maniacs on the West Coast; here, they prefer to stay conservative. I grow rather uneasy and I’m immediately reminded of a report project my buddy and I wanted to do during our film school days in London, where the basic idea was that I act as a reporter and ask people on the street for various favors. The next day, I would do the exact same thing, only as a person of African descent, and we would then compare the results.
To change the color of my face and skin, we thought of applying shoe polish or chocolate cream—an experiment in blackface that is embarrassingly naïve in retrospect. The project, unsurprisingly, was shelved, as our film professor found it to be beyond politically incorrect.
A few hours later, after being dropped off by Mickey, the number of cars passing me become fewer as the traffic of black horse-drawn carriages increases—carriages carrying members of the Amish community.
The Amish are not allowed to use cars, and live almost as if they were in the 18th century. Men wear straw hats, full beards, and suspenders on their pants; women wear 41
colonies in 26 American states. They lead their lives in the countryside, are known for rejecting modern technology, and only accept some innovations after careful thought.
I try to stop a carriage with my thumb, but the members of the Amish community react as indifferently as the 5,000
car drivers did in Cleveland yesterday. I become even more exhausted and ask myself where this trip is actually taking me. I will certainly never be able to reach Antarctica this way. The first doubts begin to creep into my mind about actually being able to accomplish this project.
At around two in the afternoon, I finish the last of my water and continue to be ignored by the carriages—even my efforts at waving, hopping, laughing out loud, and making funny grimaces don’t stop them. After walking for about six miles with my unrelenting backpack, I finally start to physically break down. The afternoon sun is shining down on me and I’m dehydrated. I have to stop every 500 yards and take off backpack to rest.
In an earnest effort to pump myself up, I turn on my MP3 player and listen to “The Greatest Party in History”
by Kante, vaguely aware that there probably is no place where the greatest party could be further from than Amish county in Ohio. (I later read that no alcohol can be served 42
in the entire county and that the Amish refrain from modern forms of entertainment like music, television, and the internet.) A short while later, the German singer Peter Fox is roaring in my ear with strong bass tones, singing mightily about cocaine, needles, how Tarek wants to punch Sam, and about how “blood splashes”. While I’m listening to this, I see Amish kids by the roadside and adults and families on their way to the church. Along with my extreme fatigue, this audio-visual mix creates a very surreal music video.
At this point, I can probably manage only one more mile before I fall down by the side of the road in a state of complete exhaustion. My head is spinning, I’m overheated, and I need water badly. Although I have given up hope by now, I still squat on the roadside and hold my thumb out to the carriages passing by. Astonishingly, an Amish man stops his carriage and offers to take me to his farm.
“Thank you,” I somehow manage to croak. He smiles back at me in reply.
As we drive, we approach a town sign that says Berlin, and I literally rub my eyes to make sure I have read this correctly. Am I hallucinating? Did I lose consciousness and get sent back to Germany? It would, somehow, be amusing if I really did get driven back to Berlin in a horse-drawn carriage. Mark, the driver, seems to have read my thoughts and begins explaining that the Amish are Christians who get baptized between the ages of 16 and 20
When the Christian reform movement arose in the 17th century, they were put at a disadvantage in many parts of Europe where the rules did not accept the Amish refusal to do military service and swear an oath. They were persecuted by authorities and finally forced to migrate to the new world. Since the Amish originally came from the region of Europe where German is spoken, they gave names like Berlin and Hamburg to their new colonies in America, something that I find genuinely fascinating.
Changing the subject, Mark cheerfully asks me what I’m doing here. “Why aren’t you cultivating your land at home?”
“It didn’t go so well with the land,” I reply.
“Now I understand why you don’t have any money.”
Then he offers me his barn to stay in for the night, an offer I gratefully accept.
Over the next few days, his wife Elizabeth and his brother Ernie make sure that I am properly fed and rested; it actually takes me three full days to fully recover from my exhaustion and near-dehydration. Once I am restored to health, I offer to help with the field work in order to thank them for their kindness and hospitality. Perhaps this isn’t enough, since Mark instead suggests that I sweep the stalls.
It’s a job that is usually done by the women in the village, 44
Ernie has seven kids with his wife, which is about average here. During mealtimes, all of the kids—who range in age from three to fourteen years old—sit well-mannered at the table. There is no jumping, screaming, complaining or talking. It’s a disciplined atmosphere, but also relaxed with the father and the mother talking. Before our first meal together begins, Ernie reads aloud a benediction from the Bible in German. I’m flabbergasted.
Although their language is an old German dialect, which I understand only partly, the prayers themselves are said in standard German.
Mark and his wife, Elizabeth, live in a nearby house.
When I first see Elizabeth, I have to wonder if I have landed on a Hollywood set and, like Harrison Ford, am actually searching for the witness. Basically, Elisabeth looks a lot like Angelina Jolie, and I have to ask myself why such an attractive, eloquent young woman is leading this rustic kind of life.
Elisabeth married Mark when she was 19 years old and she does everything in the household, raises the kids, and has never traveled more than six miles with her carriage.
When we are lighting the gas lanterns one evening, Elizabeth tells me that she is happy and has never thought about another kind of life.
This makes me remember a conversation I had had with Karthik, an Indian physicist who took in both Nicole and me as couch surfers for one night in Cleveland. The main discussion that evening had been how we in western society have so many choices, that it in return makes us unhappy. He put forward the argument that arranged marriages have the advantage of not giving people very high expectations. Naturally, I had disagreed with this.
However, while I am wandering through Ohio this one evening, I begin to think about my own life as a bachelor: the party acquaintances, the women I know through work or through my group of friends, plus the new contacts I make through online dating. Within one month I could get to know about twenty women, yet I had never fallen in love with any of them.
So who’s happier? I think.
After my few days of recuperating in this Amish paradise, Mark gives me his bicycle for my journey. At first I don’t want to accept it, but Mark insists that it’s my salary for my work, and also shows me in which direction to head if I want to go west. I’m happy and excited about my impending bike trip through the idyllic landscape of Ohio. Upon saying goodbye to Ernie, he gives me a Bible, enough food for the next few days, and, unbelievably, a 100-dollar bill. I’m totally speechless. Mark urges me to take the money: “You have worked for it. Take it for a bus ticket. Or do you want to travel to Antarctica with the 46
Cycling with 88 pounds on my back is—how do I describe it?—not fun. After an hour, the gearshift on my bike breaks so that I can only cycle in sixth gear. The region is very uneven and the entire day consists of me riding uphill and downhill, so my progress is very slow.
My water disappears by the early afternoon. I ask an old lady standing in front of her house whether I can get some tap water from somewhere. Wordlessly, she points in the direction of Danville, which is three miles away, and turns back to her house.
These three miles are, again, uphill, so I really must push, but I’d much rather just pedal. I just want to get to the end of it. I feel like I’m getting into an anaerobic situation; my body consumes more oxygen than it is getting. I know this feeling quite well from the thousand-meter races that I participated in when I was younger. My body is aching and my oxygen is low, but I must persevere until my body pumps out so much adrenaline that I no longer feel any pain…and so, while climbing up towards Danville, I find myself in this state for the first time in 15 years.
After about two more miles I no longer feel any pain and I start pedaling with full force. Sweat is pouring from my whole body, but I keep going. I travel almost 56 miles this day. Sometime later I come to an area with farmhouses close to the road. I stop and talk to a calm, white-haired 47
man in jeans who is repairing old cars in his garage. He listens to my story with interest, but hesitates when I ask him if I could spend the night camping on his land. For that he must first speak to his wife.
Even without hearing what he and his wife say, it’s obvious that this question allows for a lengthy discussion between the two. Matthew and Deborah first offer me water and, after eyeing me suspiciously for a while, finally decide to let me set up my tent behind their house for the night. I immediately conclude that the retired couple leads a very secluded life in their small white house: while Matthew works a lot on his cars, Deborah is completely absorbed in the maintenance of her garden and reads the Bible a lot.
That evening I sit with Matthew on his terrace and we exchange travel stories. He tells me of his experiences of traveling through the U.S. in the sixties and sleeping in the back of his Chevy box van in the parking lots of supermarkets, and I can’t help but notice how my presence seems to re-energize him. Eventually he even takes out his guitar and plays old Johnny Cash songs.
The next morning I wake up in my tent but can hardly move: the muscles in my upper and lower legs, back, chest and shoulders are completely stiff. Today, I need to cover the same distance once again in order to make it to the next major city. However, it will be impossible like this. I move and cycle at a snail’s pace throughout the day, 48
By evening I at last reach the major city of Columbus, population 700,000. I enter the city and find myself in the middle of what appears to be a ghetto. Entire streets of houses are boarded up with plywood, deserted and abandoned, while some buildings are gutted. Along the roadside young Latino and African-American men are casually hanging around. From the land of the Amish straight into a gangster’s paradise! They wear undershirts, baggy pants, gold chains and do-rags. Many of them are smoking small pipes; I am fairly sure that it must be crack, though I don’t want to jump to conclusions based on what various Hollywood films have portrayed.
At a red traffic light, one of the youths makes a gesture to me which can only interpreted as a hearty fuck you. I decide to go through the red light; after all, I seem to be the only white person and only cyclist in the area. Slowly, I feel like I am becoming something of a professional cyclist.
At the Greyhound bus terminal I try to exchange my bicycle for a bus ticket so that I can travel faster and cover more distance to the west. The 100 dollars that Ernie gave me is still not sufficient for a ticket to New Mexico. The assistant, supervisor, and manager do not show any interest in my traveling-without-money tales. They don’t even care enough to want to hear about the concept. What’s going on 49
In the waiting area of the terminal, the atmosphere is anything but comforting. A woman is screaming at the ticket seller. A man curses at the screaming woman. A strung-out Mexican guy runs completely mad through the terminal while provoking other travelers. Finally, an employee advises me to go to the organization called First Link. Apparently, at First Link they help pay for the tickets of needy travelers.
When I get there, a lady who seems to love meeting new people greets me. She talks and talks and does not let me utter a word. She talks about First Link, her role there, surely exaggerating how many people have gotten help in Columbus, and so on, without ever coming to the point of why I’m there. Eventually she thrusts something resembling a phone directory in my hand, which contains the numbers of the organizations I am supposed to call. I try to explain to her again that without money I cannot make any of these phone calls. She still doesn’t seem to understand or care, so I go back to the terminal and try again to talk to the manager, Mike. I call him Little Mike, like I hear his colleagues doing, because he is only five feet tall. I try to convince him to take the money I have and the bicycle in return for a ticket to the West Coast.
Little Mike merely has me thrown out of his office.
—a distance of about 1,500 miles, but I will now be able cover it all in just mere hours. Finally I am making some headway!
I quickly run through the shops downtown and ask for food. The success rate is surprisingly high: 80 percent, just like in Antwerp and Montreal, something I didn’t expect in this city after my recent experiences. Of the 20 shops I visit, 16 give me food. The McDonald’s on High Street is totally staffed by students of Ohio State University who go completely nuts when I tell them about my trip; they give me a few free burgers and talk about calling the local television station to have me interviewed. However, my bus is waiting at the station, and so I have to walk away from all the fun. I board the Greyhound coach with my trash bag full of food and relax for the next 35 hours. After all of the cycling and the trekking, any other means of transportation is more than highly-welcomed.
Sitting on the bus doesn’t make my body ache or sweat or get sunburned; I am, as they say, a happy camper. The bus takes me through several states and time zones. I see the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, travel through Oklahoma City, and continue to follow the green landscape as it turns into the desert.
We arrive in Albuquerque, New Mexico, early Sunday morning. I step off the bus and feel pretty good, given that I have just slept for two hours in some previously-untried acrobatic position. Now it’s time to find some food, so I head to the nearest McDonald’s. The successful experience I had just two days ago makes it seem promising and fills me with confidence; I instead only get thrown out.
A man standing outside of the door starts to preach about how everyone is accepted in the local Baptist church. I am in no mood to attend a church service; I am hungry, plain and simple. However, he won’t let me get rid of him and insists that I meet him at the Noonday Church at, appropriately, noon. Since I haven’t much planned for this first day in Albuquerque, and it’s slightly less than 95
degrees Fahrenheit in the shade, I reach the church at noon sharp.
There is a line of at least 300 people in front of the church, all filing into the house of the Lord. I can see that the majority of them are homeless. A generous meal of beans and steak is waiting for everyone inside. After a sermon by the priest and a few songs, I devour my lunch 52
A wearied woman who looks like she is in her fifties, but whom I learn is, in fact, only in her thirties, has a rubber strip tied around her arm and visible track marks.
Behind her is a policeman with a pistol ready in case any violence breaks out. In front of me are two guys who strategically hold newspapers in front of their faces while I am filming with my video camera. The man sitting next to me advises me to pack away my camera immediately, because he suspects that the gentlemen across from us may be wanted criminals.
On the far left side of the main room I also notice some hairdresser’s chairs—the very type you’d find in a salon.
Apparently, after eating, everyone is entitled to a free haircut. Meanwhile, there’s a lottery draw taking place and the names of the winners are announced over the microphone. The prizes are donations by the local shops so they are generally different every day. This is all very new to me, and quite fascinating.
While hanging around in the church, surveying my surroundings, I start up a conversation with 57-year-old Joseph. He has been homeless for almost two years but looks surprisingly well groomed: tennis socks, sports shoes, a clean T-shirt, and a new baseball cap. How can this person be homeless? I wonder, as he doesn’t fit my mind’s stereotype. He invites me to spend the day with 53
While we explore Albuquerque, he shows me the contents in his sports bag: a razor, shaving cream, shampoo, a toothbrush, and other toiletries—all packed in an orderly fashion—along with extra T-shirts and trousers.
He also smells considerably more pleasant than the others.
Joseph tells me his life story, about all the events that led him to his current situation, and I listen attentively. I learn that he joined the military when he was 16 years old.
Just when he was supposed to be sent to Vietnam, he refused and was sacked. He then got a job as a truck driver and supported his wife and his two kids for 30 years.
Eventually his wife could no longer put up with his drinking habit and they divorced. Shortly thereafter, Joseph was let go from his company, and he then became a full-blown alcoholic. His cousin took him in for two years as a sort of babysitter until his cousin’s wife kicked him out.
Since then he has been sleeping in homeless shelters or on park benches. “The churches in the U.S.,” he adds, “take over the responsibility for the poor, whereas in Europe it’s taken over by the government.”
In the afternoon he shows me his free voicemail box where people can leave messages for him. He also introduces me to the clerics who provide the homeless with opportunities to shower. Finally, a shower. It is very, very much needed after my long bus trip, to say the least.
We continue further to the Good Shepherd Mission, where 54
I can see that a free dinner is offered here in which at least 300 people are trying to get in. However, the seats are limited and the mood feels aggressive. Joseph tells me that many of the needy here have done time in prison.
For the night he offers me three possibilities: first, under the bridge of the city freeway, but I run the risk of being robbed there. Second, I can take a bed in the Good Shepherd Mission. He explains that I have the best chance there because seven nights are allotted to each new visitor.
Finally, I can sleep in the park between the military hospital and the military base. The choice is obvious to me since I don’t want to get robbed, nor do I want to take a bed away from someone who actually needs it when I’m merely conducting a no-money experiment. “Take me to the park by the hospital,” I say.
The hospital is on the outskirts of the city; there are hardly any people in the park at night. Every once in a while we see a couple making out at the nearby parking area, or a truck secretly dumping garbage into the hospital container. I want to set up my tent, but Joseph stops me by waving his hand. He says it is too risky because the police can spot us. I agree and look forward to a warm, open-air night admiring the starry sky.
This optimistic thinking is short-lived; at midnight it starts to rain. There is no chance of staying dry, even after we pull our sleeping bags under the trees. The dampness, the constant fear of getting robbed, and the risk of getting 55
caught by the police all leave my mind exhausted. At one point the thought of taking a bed at the shelter doesn’t even feel so bad anymore—at least then we would be dry and with a roof over our heads. Totally drenched, I try to sleep but only manage a mere few hours, and wake up at three in the morning feeling miserable. How must Joseph feel?
Joseph, who has been doing this day in and day out for two years?
The next morning he tells me that he has hopes to fit back into society because the military will soon be paying out his pension. I want more details, as I get the impression that he has been waiting for this for a very long time. I then have to leave Joseph, and promise to leave a message for him in his voicemail box at the mission, and during our farewell we both have tears in our eyes. It has probably been a while since Joseph has had someone keep him company; I am sad to leave him behind.
At this point in time, I have no idea that I will receive a call from him months later, long after I am back in Berlin, with the great news that he has an apartment and is working again.
Soon, I am heading west towards Las Vegas with Dan in his 1965 Mustang Fastback. The perfect car for a road trip: not only is it easy on the eyes, but it is quiet and purrs like a cat. Women can’t help but stare, and men come up to talk to us at gas stations. I found Dan through an advertisement on www.couchsurfing.com. His life is 56
anything but boring: he is 35 years old and, up until three years ago, he served as a pilot for spies in the military. He says that the only way he survived those 18-hour shifts was with caffeine and alcohol. After two years he was so burned out that he decided to leave the service, and so armed with a proper compensation, he then started his career as a day trader. He tells me how he was able to double his assets in just a single day, and triple them within a month. The business was soaring until the recession hit. In a short time, 70 percent of his wealth was lost; his remaining wealth is being spent on leasing installments, rents and insurance. He decided to look for a new career, which he most certainly found.
Dan offers favors to older, wealthy women—a.k.a.
sugar mamas. An all-American gigolo! It isn’t a personal sexual fetish—sleeping with older women—but rather, an excellent business. For this reason, he is traveling to California to visit a woman 20 years his senior. He tells me that her annual income is in the six figures and that she has requested for him to come to California to install her kitchen. “If I spend a few weeks installing her kitchen,”
he tells me with a wink, “I can expect to get 10,000 to 20,000 dollars. I’m pretty good at installing kitchens.” He turns away with a grin.
We travel in the Mustang through New Mexico and Arizona for 10 hours until we reach Las Vegas, Nevada.
The landscape is stunning; I silently take in the sight of the 57
Driving that Mustang on Route 66 towards the sunset is one of the best experiences (and soon to be best memories) I have from this trip thus far.
Early in the evening we reach the Grand Canyon. Dan somehow has an entry pass for all national parks, so we get to enjoy the phenomenal view in the huge chasms of the canyon for free. The color of the setting sun makes the red rock formations glow. Dan and I sit beside each other in silence for the next hour admiring the view. It all feels so surreal, like a dream; when I think back to just 24 hours ago, it feels as though I have moved between two very different planets.
6/ No Gifts in the Wild West
Everything or nothing: work in Las Vegas Dan and I reach Las Vegas at around midnight. Prior to this I have written to numerous couch surfers in the city, almost without any success. Luckily, a woman named Elyssa agreed to my request, but according to Dan’s navigation device, she lives at the other end of the city.
A woman my own age receives me when I finally arrive at Elyssa’s. She lets me into the house without any words 59
Sitting next to me is a young couch surfer from India who is equally unsure of Elyssa’s behavior. He tries to start a conversation and break her silence by making funny faces; his attempts remain unsuccessful. She continues to stare at us, utterly expressionless.
I wonder whether Elyssa has taken drugs and is high, or if she’s simply depressed. From what I can see, her apartment is a huge mess. Adding to this is the unforgiving stench coming from what can only be dirty kitty litter. I lie down with the other couch surfer on a bunk bed in Elyssa’s kitchen, but can only sleep for three hours; I tiptoe out of the house at six in the morning, determined to find a hotel room for myself.
Las Vegas is a city that shouldn’t be there at all.
Originally it was a Christian settlement, but in 1931, the legalization of gambling in the federal state of Nevada laid down the cornerstone for the rapid growth of the desert city. In 1941, mobster Bugsy Siegel built the first hotel with a casino; today there are more than 1,000 casinos that border both Fremont Street and the Strip, each magnificently built next to one another and attracting tourists from around the world. Every year more than 30
million visitors come here, of which only five percent admit that they come only for the entertainment; that leaves 95 percent falling for the temptations offered by Sin City.
Most people end up trying to score with Madame Lady 60
It shouldn’t be too difficult to get a free room in a city full of hotels (one would think). Unfortunately, that is not the case. I start my quest at eight that morning, first at the Rio Hotel, when the temperature is still at 86 degrees Fahrenheit.
At around ten, at Excalibur, the temperature has risen to 95 degrees.
By noon, at over 105 degrees, I am politely directed to the exit of the Mirage.
Las Vegas may appear to be a happy place, but the fun is soon over if one has no dough. Many receptionists look at me with distaste, and some assume that I am homeless, a liar, or both. I am also tired and thirsty. The water taps in the hotel bathrooms provide only short-term relief; after a few minutes back in the heat, I am again as thirsty as earlier. I feel myself as being the human version of the Sea of Galilee: water flows in and nothing flows out, but the water level reduces constantly. I refill my two-liter drinking bottle about four times, which means that I have drunk about six to eight liters of water already. The highest temperature that day, even in the shade, is 110 degrees.
After about fifty rejections I decide to change my approach—sometimes with humor and sometimes more reserved—but there’s still no sale. My motivation to persevere comes from the thought of having to spend 61
another night on one of Elyssa’s bunk beds; unsurprisingly, I would much rather nurse my cold by watching movies in a cozy hotel room than sleep next to the kitty litter. Hot, thirsty, but undeterred, I continue on my mission.
The casino hotels in Las Vegas belong to three big resort companies. Naturally, a floor manager cannot decide whether someone can stay overnight for free without consulting the head office first. However, because it is a Saturday, this makes it impossible because no one will be available before Monday. I remember the film Casino with Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci. The plot is built around the Las Vegas of the sixties and seventies, when the biggest hotels belonged to the mafia. At the end of the film, Robert De Niro, playing Sam “Ace” Rothstein, is the only one to survive the mafia war and the police. He describes how Las Vegas will change by the end of the seventies and that the resort companies will take over the role of the mafia and they will manage the hotels.
Had the mafia not been so greedy, a Robert De Niro lookalike may have been sitting in a hotel office, serving as the boss, wearing a silk suit and with a cigar stuck in his mouth. He probably would willingly offer me the presidential suite where the only catch was to be in the Mafia’s debt for the rest of my life: Sure, you can stay in the best suite. Your life just belongs to us now. After eight hours of fruitless search, I seriously consider accepting such a deal if it is offered to me at this moment in time; I 62
Another reason why it’s impossible for me to find a free room is THE BIGGEST FUCKING SHOE FAIR
EVER! The fair is taking place this weekend, attracting a crowd of shoe wholesalers who have filled up all the hotels. I could understand if the biggest shoe fair took place in the Thuringian Forest, or in the Spanish Way of St.
James where one certainly needs a lot of shoes for trekking, but why here and why now in the desert of Nevada with temperatures of 110 degrees? Here, one needs many things, but shoes certainly can’t be at the top of the list.
Despite all the obstacles, at around four-thirty in the afternoon I come to a classic west coast motel from a much earlier time. The eight-meter-long neon sign reading TOD
Motor Motel has certainly seen better days, but the furniture in the reception area is rather stylish…for 1968. I speak to Fred, who is the manager of the motel. Without any hesitation, he says that I can have a room for a few days simply because he finds my story interesting.
This would have had a happy ending were it not for Tod, the owner of the motel. There is a Tod, and he exists, and this is his motor hotel. Fred introduces me to Tod and explains that I don’t have any money. Tod, aghast, asks me if I’m going to be staying there. When I nod, he gets going:
“Now this is a fucking story. You never travel without money!”
Tod is really pissed off. I tell him quickly and nervously about my whole trip. Tod asks, though it feels more like interrogating, specific questions to every last detail. I rattle off everything in bits and pieces: working on the container ship, Montreal and space cookies, a hundred dollar bill and a bicycle from the Amish, being homeless in Albuquerque…am I forgetting anything?
Tod looks taken aback, as if he isn’t expecting such a response made up of all these unusual facts in 30 seconds.
Still, he persists, claiming that I’m “a fucking scam” and asks why Fred can’t see that. Fred stays relaxed and asks me to continue with my story. I pause for a moment when Dan, with his sugar mamas who finance his life, comes to my mind. I narrate in detail the story about him and the Mustang Fastback and how I drove it on Route 66, sparing no adjective in describing the magic and power of the vehicle.
Tod smiles now for the first time. He likes this story much better than that of the homeless or the Amish. “Okay, it could be true,” he snarls. “But you only stay here if we make a deal first!” He offers me several nights’ stay in the motel if, in exchange, I make an advertisement video for his hotel. I accept gladly and finally get to lie down on a real bed.
For the next few days I survive solely on the pancakes offered by the motel. Normally I drink tap water, but owing to the high chlorine content here, it tastes horrible, 64
so I find a new source of hydration. On the Vegas Strip I go through the different outlets with an empty cup from McDonald’s, in order to refill my drink from the McDonald’s soda machines. No one really checks to see who refills the cups, so it goes rather smoothly. I am growing more and more innovative by the day.
After three days in the TOD Motor Motel, Tod thanks me for the small advertising video that I made for his motel. However, since he needs the room for paying guests, he also politely suggests that I continue on with my journey. I still haven’t found any way of traveling further and haven’t made any preemptive arrangements, but I have to find another place to stay.
The Rodeway Inn agrees to take me in for the nights to come. The manager, David, responds to the tale of my trip:
“Oh, that’s kind of cool!” And I also find it kind of cool when he promises me a three-night stay with breakfast included. This hotel also has a pool and offers higher-standard rooms compared to the TOD Motor Motel: cable TV, good air-conditioning, and two double beds. For breakfast, they offer hot cereal, cornflakes, and a variety of cakes. Even though cakes are not the healthiest choice, I manage to fill myself up with so much food that it keeps me full until well into the afternoon.
David also wants a return service for the three-night stay. He hasn’t a clue as to how or when or where he will use this video, but he wants a full interview with himself 65
Naturally, I can and will do this for him. On that same day, I set up both the cameras in the entry area of Rodeway Inn: one camera will be on the tripod and the other, with a super wide-angle lens and a microphone attached to it, will be held by hand. I even see to it that the microphone also has one of those fluffy windsocks on it so that everything looks professional.
The interview lasts for about 30 minutes and David speaks about his career as the manager for the Rodeway Inn, starting from when he first arrived from the East Coast and applied for the manager position. He adds that, since then, the Rodeway Inn has expanded by so many rooms, but that the pool is still the same as it was eleven years ago. I ask him about the guests. He tells me that many are very young, often college students, but that there are also older guests who come in the fall to visit the numerous fairs. This is then followed by the story of the new paved roads in front of the hotel; he muses that it must have been unbelievably hot for the road workers while tarring in the desert heat.
We also talk about the many drunken tourists in the city, which are not at all that bad. I ask him about his favorite city, his greatest desires in life, and also how it feels to live in a desert. He answers that there are many beautiful cities in the world, including New York and San Francisco, but that European cities are also very beautiful.
We then talk about his expectations; for example, a salary raise, or a certain type of guest. He informs me that the desert around Las Vegas is not at all that bad, and apart from the months of June to August, the climate is excellent.
I again think of the film Casino and the countless wise guys buried in the desert. David then talks about bowling: a wonderful sport. Twice a week he meets his friends for bowling, but lately many of them have been quite irregular for the training.
After the interview David and I shake hands with respect, because we have completed a fair deal in which both of us have gained something. David is satisfied with his interview, and I with the hotel for three nights. The following day I set out to organize my trip; after all, I do want to reach Antarctica at some point. In this 110-degree heat, it is a destination that seems too far away. Now that I know hitchhiking doesn’t really work here, I have to somehow earn some money for my journey ahead. As I stand in front of Bellagio, one of the biggest hotels in the city, I can’t help but be distracted with a spectacular water show that takes place every hour between the hotel and the street.
This seems to be the perfect place for introducing the human sofa. Since there are a lot of tourists here and it’s over 104 degrees Fahrenheit, no one is really walking…
it’s more like crawling. I ingeniously find my niche market: I will offer the overheated and tired tourist a place 67
Anyone can sit and relax on my back for just one dollar.
At first none of the tourists understand what I am offering because they don’t see a sofa anywhere, so I decide to make my human sofa concept more apparent by going down on all four limbs. I put a white pillow on my back so that the human sofa can also offer a little more comfort. My cardboard sign hangs from my neck and dangles before me on the pavement. The passersby now understand my offer and they laugh, chuckle, and even cheer for the human sofa. Just when my first customer takes a seat on me, the security guards of the Bellagio interfere in my business and indicate that the pavement also happens to be the property of the hotel and I must get off of it.
I move further away, nearer to the bus stop, and kneel down on all fours posing as a human sofa again. Business is getting busier as families all want to take turns and relax on my back. There is hustle and bustle all around me; people distributing flyers or selling concert tickets. I decide that I need to look for a new spot for the human sofa, far away from the security guards and the street hawkers, so I enter St. Mark’s Square, which is modeled after the one in Italy: it even has a replica of Campanile von San Marco in its center.
The church tower here is the entrance to Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum. Hordes of people come in 68
through the tower on the moving walkways. The perfect spot for the human sofa! I kneel down again and this time it draws in even more people who see me from afar. I call out again and again, “Human sofa, take a seat for just one dollar! Special price! Just one dollar for the human sofa!”
People are enthusiastic and a few actually take a seat. A group of extremely drunk college students comes along.
One of the guys feels like he must (and wants to) help me, so he starts shouting over the moving walkways: “Haaaave a seat on thiiiiis huuuuuuuman sooooofa!” The people feel rather intimidated now, thinking that the drunken guy is with me; nobody dares to take a seat. I call it a day and count my earnings. In total, only seven dollars, but I am still proud.
With this loot I go to Circus Circus, which is one of the casino hotels on the Strip that attracts people with neon signs, roller coasters, and extremely loud music. I exchange five of my seven dollars in the casino for a chip.
There is a free introductory course here for blackjack, so I attend. Actually, blackjack is very easy if one knows the game—the aim is to get as close to 21 points as possible with the cards, without going bust. If one does not go beyond 21 points and has more points than the dealer, then one wins a round and doubles his money.
I decide to let it all ride on my five-dollar chip. Both of my cards tally up to eleven points, so I draw one more card. It’s a seven—safe! A total of eighteen points, not 69
Feeling quite frustrated, I spot a big old man sitting at one of the poker tables with heaps of chips in front of him (which must equal around 3,000 dollars, at least). With his XXL T-shirt, shorts, and old gym shoes, he doesn’t appear to be very wealthy. Within a few minutes his heap of chip halves. Intrigued, I go to talk with him, and he introduces himself as Sam. But Sam doesn’t want to talk about himself or his passion for gambling; he finds my trip without money more interesting. He calls his buddy over, a fellow named Roy Cooke, and briefly shares my story with him, then invites me to his house, which turns out to be in one of the so-called gated areas, i.e. a fenced-off area for the rich.
His friend Roy is a stout man, around 50 years old, with a mustache that makes him look like a snuggly teddy bear.
He tells me that he has worked as a professional gambler for 15 years, which has made him quite rich. He doesn’t want to mention the exact numbers, but I’m sure he has certainly made over five million dollars easily. I am excited to learn that one can be a professional gambler by trade and actually win money (in direct contrast to my awkward attempt today). Roy tells me that in his earlier days he had been a misfit in school, a guy who was teased by everyone. His father was a professional chess player and had introduced him to the game quite early on. During 70
college, he noticed that he could make a lot of money with it. He quickly progressed and became a famous personality in Las Vegas. Eventually, he married a beautiful woman and started a family. I am touched by this story’s lovely development.
I ask Roy whether money has made him happy. He replies quite differently from Dan or Joseph: “Yes, money has made me a much happier person!” Thanks to his riches, he has now become someone with whom one would like to be photographed with in Las Vegas. He says he is gifted, or something of an exceptional talent; someone who is extremely good at something. In his case, it’s gambling. Five years ago, he decided to start a new career as a real estate agent. At first everything went well and he could almost double his five million with his lands and houses, but then came the economic crisis, and now 90
percent of his assets are gone; he faces total ruin.
I am shocked that this unbelievable story unfolds without a Hollywood ending. He became rich through gambling, and lost almost everything by working. How Roy can sit there, totally relaxed and without bitterness, continues to bewilder me to this day. Before I take leave of him, he gives me a useful tip for the rest of my journey:
“Shut up and deal!” He grins and closes the door.
The next morning I stand at the exit ramp of Freeway 15
with two dollars in my pocket and a big cardboard sign with the letters LA on it. I assume that almost every semi-71
literate adult all over the world can interpret these two letters as an abbreviation for one of the greatest metropolitan cities in the United States; however, a middle-aged woman stops. No, she doesn’t want to take me along, but instead is only curious to know what the two letters on the signboard are supposed to mean. She doesn’t see LA as L and A, (two separate letters) but instead as the word “la” , and asks me what my sign is trying to say. I am, for one of the only times I can recall, speechless.
Wayne, who finally takes pity on me on the Las Vegas roads, drops me off on the outskirts of Los Angeles. I feel lucky because soon afterwards, I get to know Fred at the nearest gas station and he offers to take me along. “I just need to do something quickly,” he tells me. So I watch him as he drives his huge pick-up truck to the parking lot by the gas station and meets a young woman there. They kiss and there is continuous hugging, again and again. In this vein, the short meeting becomes a two-hour affair, and I occasionally glance over at them as I attempt to amuse myself with my thoughts. Finally, my patience pays off when Fred (who is in a really good mood) offers to take me along to Santa Monica, where I have received an invitation from a couch surfer named James.
Fred is in his mid-40s and looks like a cross between Danny DeVito and Dirk Bach, the rotund German television comedian. As we drive through the endless sea of houses in Los Angeles, he tells me about the details of his relationship and that for the first time in his life he is ready to move away from the coast for a woman. They have already made plans for their future together.
“She is the most wonderful woman in the world,” he 73
“Eight days, man. Today was our second date.”
In Santa Monica, James receives me in an elegant apartment near the beach. He truly appears to be the Los Angeles cliché: he is 34 years old, very good-looking, and has three jobs—all of which are somehow connected to Hollywood. His main job and source of income is as a masseuse for Hollywood celebrities. Every now and then, he tells me, a good-looking masseuse connects with famous Hollywood actresses, sometimes offering a little extra relaxation. He recently completed a course in Thai massage, and says that by adding a few Thai words here and there during a massage, he can heighten the overall experience and bump up business.
His second job is as a scriptwriter for various television shows and films. I conclude that James is probably the typical Starbucks writer— a writer without much success who sits in front of his MacBook every day (any other laptop would be completely unacceptable) and writes the next big blockbuster. The Oscar for Best Poser in Screenwriting will certainly 100 percent go to him—
emphasis being on the poser bit.
The third job is obvious: he is, unfailingly, an actor.
James also talks about some smaller jobs: he works as 74
a DJ in a small bar, and also regularly sends out his modeling photos. With a moderate record of success, he doesn’t give up. At some point in time he will live the all-American dream and make it big in Hollywood—or at least he hopes to.
On the first night, James tells me a lot about his life: about how he left the countryside in order to make a career here in Hollywood, about how he believes in himself and that anything is possible, and about how cool it is to be part of the glamorous Hollywood life. During our one-sided conversation (James is more of a talker than a listener) he keeps glancing at the large mirror in the living room and moves his hand through his hair. He asks me whether he is good-looking. Naturally I say yes, and for a flourish, add, “You look like the Swiss singer Patrick Nuo.
He is known for his good looks.”
James likes this: a resemblance to a European celebrity sounds great. He asks me what women like the most about Patrick Nuo: is it his eyes? His mouth? His body? Then he takes his shirt off, shows me the muscles he’s been training for, and asks if I can clearly see them; then, whether or not his hair is too long. The questions about him are never-ending, and at some point I just doze off.
The next morning James takes me to the Santa Monica airport. The small airport mainly serves rich business people hopping from one meeting to the next in their private jets. In front of the terminal I am tempted to present 75
myself as an air-hitchhiker, as just maybe there is a businessman or woman who is heading to South America for a meeting and wouldn’t mind taking along some company or a personal butler. Thinking it a brilliant idea, I change into my butler uniform in order to increase my chances.
About 500 aircraft take off and land every day at this airport. I ask the clerk at the information counter whether any more flights are planned for the day. She replies in a reserved, severe way, requesting that I leave the premises immediately. In front of the building I ask the passengers how one can hitchhike with a private jet, but no one wants to help me.
Disappointed, I wander through the endless streets of Los Angeles. It’s not because of my butler attire that I raise suspicion with the locals; it’s the fact that I am walking and not driving. All Angelenos seem to have cars. If you do not believe this, just take look at one of the overcrowded freeways: the City of Angels is a city of cars. Although there is a local public transport system, only a few residents seem aware that a fully functional subway exists.
Los Angeles is simply not made for pedestrians. The city is much too spread out to reach any destination by foot. If you want to visit friends or go to the movies, you have to travel long stretches. For instance, it takes almost an hour to get from Hollywood to Santa Monica by car 76
(provided that there are no traffic jams). Above this reality, Hollywood actually tries to promote greener lifestyles; stars like Leonardo Di Caprio, Cameron Diaz or Justin Timberlake all buy hybrid cars. But you have to wonder if, secretly, they miss their Porsches and Hummers.
After walking for a few miles, a patrol car stops behind me. A cop steps out and says that some of the staff from the airport has filed a complaint against me. I assume that my journey-to-the-end-of-the-world-without-money story
won’t be met with much interest here, so I tell him that I am a German tourist and was asking about flights to Mexico. He asks for my passport. I rummage through my bag, but I can’t find it. As I search deeper, I notice that the cop doesn’t take his eyes off my hands. I struggle even more with my bag and he takes two steps back, observing me carefully with his right hand on his gun. I try to lighten the situation with a few stereotypical jokes about the German tourists in Los Angeles, but he continues to remain serious.
I find the document and swiftly hand it over. After examining my passport, the police officer scans me from top to bottom. There is an uncomfortable silence between us until he asks me whether I always wander around dressed like this. I look down and I realize that I am still dressed as a butler. Shaking his head, he gives me back my passport and goes away with the request to “clarify the 77
I change my clothes behind a KFC restaurant and carry on. People I ask during my walk tell me that the Los Angeles International Airport is just around the corner.
After walking for almost three hours and around 400
corners, I finally reach it. I enter the terminal and begin asking the ticket counters of United Airlines, Delta, Continental, and American Airlines for a free air ticket to Mexico. The employees of the airlines refuse, saying that such matters have to be clarified in writing with the central offices, which happen to be elsewhere in Chicago, New York and Seattle.
Exhausted and frustrated, I follow the sea of houses back to James. I tell him about my day while James listens and nods sympathetically. However, in the next breath he asks when I will actually continue on with my journey.
Hint taken: I have overstayed my welcome. In the late afternoon I find free Wi-Fi down the street and log onto the internet to search for a ride to San Francisco. The city is not actually on my route to Antarctica, but I know a German couple living there who, before I started my trip, had offered to take me in if I happened to pass through. A small detour to visit them is exactly what I need.
Now I need to earn some money for my ride, so I head down to the Santa Monica beach. In desperation, only one idea pops into my mind: I will go around with a tube of 78
The majority of men find my concept to be intrusive and wrong. Who would want another man rubbing cream all over them? It isn’t that kind of beach. The women are even more repulsed—not only is this strange man offering to rub cream all over their backs, but he is also charging them a dollar for it. I have to change my tactics. Instead of a complete sun-creaming session, I now offer people the opposite: for one dollar, not only will I not touch them, but I will also not bother them again.
This offer works much better. Within two hours I am able to make 13 dollars, which brings me a step closer to San Francisco. I go back to the Wi-Fi corner at Santa Monica Boulevard and check my e-mail, where I find that a woman has written back to me, offering to take me to San Francisco the next day for 35 dollars.
When I arrive back to James’s place, his roommate opens the door for me. I tell her about my situation, and how, before tomorrow morning, I need to make another 22
dollars in order to pay for my ride to San Francisco. She nods, grabs her purse, and puts the money in my hand. I can’t decide whether she is just being extremely generous, or if she just wants me out of the flat. Nonetheless, I am off to San Francisco in the morning.
8/ Advanced Pillow Fighting
Campsite with a view: San Francisco
The next morning I travel north with Sarah, who responded to my query on the internet. Interstate 405 is the busiest interstate of the U.S. and runs from San Diego to San Fernando. Sarah is very familiar with this route, and flies down the interstate despite the speed limits. She is in her mid-twenties, has Vietnamese parents, and works as accountant in Los Angeles. For weeks she has been 80
attempting to retrieve a parcel from Vietnam that is stuck in the central post office of San Francisco for inexplicable reasons. Sarah is trying again today for the third time to pick up her parcel. Like her previous two trips, she rents a car and looks for a fellow passenger to minimize the travel cost. In the last two trips she was turned away by the post office with the argument that the responsible person was not available. However, she is convinced that this time it will be different.
Six hours later, she parks the car at the post office in San Francisco, directly in front of the No Stopping sign, and requests that I wait for her. She hurries into the building as I sit in the passenger seat. Shortly thereafter, she comes back. There is still no trace of her parcel.
Disheartened, we part ways, and she returns to Los Angeles.
When I reach Thomas and Kathrin, my German friends, there is a surprise waiting for me: my very own parcel from home that a good friend sent to this address. The parcel contains whole-grain bread, cereal bars, sweets, spreads, a package of sauerkraut, shower gel, and much more. I have never been so happy to receive such a package. While I am arranging my new treasures in front of me, Kathrin and Thomas talk about their life here in America, which they moved to a year ago. Thomas is a computer scientist and is looking forward to a career in the Silicon Valley, not very far from San Francisco. They 81
We speak in German, eat German treats, and watch the Tagesschau (German daily news) over the course of the night. Sitting on the sofa with a woolen blanket over my legs, I feel like I am at home in Berlin. Since my package provides some reserves for the next few days, the next morning I take a tour of the city.
It is, so far, the highlight of my trip. Architecturally, San Francisco can probably compete with any European city.
Every house is an original; no two are alike. Because San Francisco is at constant risk of earthquakes, large parts of its buildings are made of wood. San Francisco is also known for its Victorian-styled homes that were built during the Gold Rush era in the middle of the 19th century.
Although many houses became victims of the earthquake and the fire of 1906, there are still about 15,000 Victorian structures existing in the city today.
There are also some buildings here, quite old ones, which you don’t see too often in the United States. The Mission Dolores Church, for instance, is really a magnificent building that was built by the Spaniards in 1776. Contrasting this is the downtown core, which comes across like a smaller version of New York. I run through the deep street canyons that were built in the various decades of the 20th century, and gaze up at The 82
Transamerica Pyramid, probably the most well-known landmark in the downtown area. My tour takes up the whole day, from the Golden Gate Bridge to zigzag Lombard Street, and I even ride on the cable cars up the steep hills. It is mild and sunny; the weather this city is known for.
I am blown away by San Francisco and would like to stay here forever. However, time is pressing. It is now the middle of August and if I really want to make it to Antarctica, I must reach Ushuaia—the most southern city of Tierra del Fuego—by the 7th of November.
Before and during the trip, I send out e-mails to research companies, scientists, and tour operators who can register me as a worker on a ship. Many of them do not respond, or simply refuse, but eventually a Chilean shipping company agrees to my request. In their e-mail, they tell me that I can travel with their ship to Antarctica if I can work on board and take the first ship of the season on the 7th of November. Apparently, during that time there aren’t so many tourists on board. Since there is no choosing the ship’s sail date, I stake everything on reaching Ushuaia in twelve weeks and plan out my next few days in detail.
Every morning I get up at seven. From nine to twelve, I go to a different part of the city each day to collect food from the shops. This way I can see more of the city and also avoid making the mistake of asking the same shop 83
twice for donations. So within ten days, I visit the artsy and alternative Mission District, the colorful and gay Castro District, Union Square (where the men wear suits), and the vibrant Haight-Ashbury neighborhood with its organic markets for hippies, eco-activists and health fanatics. Every morning I manage to collect enough food to feed myself for the whole day.
The plan for each afternoon is to earn money, as I need an air ticket to Central America. Only with an ambitious leap over Mexico, Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador, Belize, and Guatemala, and finally over to Costa Rica, will I be able to make it on time to board the Chilean ship to Antarctica. Moreover, it currently isn’t the safest time to travel to these countries alone and without money: in Mexico, the crime rate linked to the drug trade has recently soared. In Honduras, a military coup has taken place within the last month. I need to find money to reach Costa Rica, but how?
I can’t offer any talent for the street arts. I can’t sing or paint or do pantomime (as I love the art of talking too much). So what can I offer? On the first day I sell myself as a “hill helper”. I paint my offer on a big cardboard and hang it around my neck: Hill Helper for just one dollar! I go and stand at one of the extreme slopes in San Francisco: the world famous Lombard Street, which Steve McQueen hurtles down in the film Bullitt.
This appears to be the best spot, because the incline 84
here is a whopping 27 percent. The tourists laugh and find my service offer interesting indeed. However, there is just one problem: the hill helper is required to support the customer with his hands in order to push the groaning customer up the hill. For many tourists, this may be too close of contact with a complete stranger. Many give me a thumbs-up for the good idea, but make it up the hill on their own. However, there are some who do take me up on my offer, and I push some Brits, French, and Germans up the steep hill. Depending upon their comfort level, they are allowed to lean back and rest their entire weight onto me.
Each dollar earned is a real backbreaking experience (almost literally), as some of the tourists exceed 200
pounds. At the end of the day I have collected 30 dollars.
On the second afternoon, I have another idea. In Berlin, I once participated in a huge pillow fight in the trendy pub Bar 25. It was incredible to see how the cool Berliners suddenly shed all their inhibitions and participated in this childish game of striking each other upside the head with huge pillows. Would this work with…Americans?
In Thomas and Kathrin’s kitchen I make a huge cardboard sign saying Pillow fight me for just one dollar!
that covers two-thirds of my body. They both lend me their pillows—at least this way they will get nicely fluffed-up.
Kathrin suggests that I try going to Fisherman’s Wharf, one of the biggest tourist spots in the city. Upon my arrival I can see that the sidewalk where the street artists are 85
permitted is about 100 feet long. Standing on one side are the hip-hoppers, pantomimes, and spray painters, while on the other are the beggars with signs saying Please money for weed! Please money for beer!
The new guy holding two pillows causes a chuckle amongst most of the street artists, what with my unusual idea, but no one is welcoming the competition. However, the passersby are coming up to me and saying either
“Pillow fighting for a buck? That is so cool!” or “Man, you’re funny, just take two dollars!” Many tourists seem to love my idea. A class of junior high kids takes turns. When the group finishes, completely out of breath, one of the students puts a five-dollar bill in my moneybox and says, in absolute seriousness, “One day I want to be like you.”
Often groups of men walk by, and when one man strays slightly from his group, I take the opportunity to attack him with my pillow for a quick dollar. Whenever there is a fight, many people stop to watch, cheer, and share the fun.
Later in the afternoon, two men in suits want to fight with each other, and I find it quite amusing to earn two dollars without having to fight either of them myself. Both of them strike each other with pillows as if they have some unsettled score to settle. The bigger of the two falls down after missing a blow, and is properly strangled by his adversary with his pillow. He lies like a tortoise on his back, struggling to get onto his feet, and finally succeeds in freeing himself from his opponent with a kick. I laugh out 86
After 45 pillow fights, I am 68 dollars closer to my goal. A group of college students makes me 18 dollars in one go; during this battle, instantly, the innocent pillow fight becomes a matter of patriotism between Germany and the U.S. It is the Olympics, only Wigge-style. I have to compete five times with different athletes representing the U.S. The rest of the group is cheering, of course, for the American competitors, chanting “U-S-A, U-S-A!”
During an intensive pillow fight with one of the girls, one of the students shouts out: “Hit him for the bad Audi the Germans have sold me!”
The rest of the group laughs and another student adds,
“Hit him also for the VW Fahrvergnügen!” Some years ago, Volkswagen had run a very successful advertising campaign in the U.S. in which the German word Fahrvergnügen was introduced into the English language.
The word even acquired a cult status in the United States; as a result, stickers with similar sounding phrases, like fuck the fuel, are sold across the country.
For this reason, the rest of the group seizes this phrase vociferously: “Yes, the Fahrvergnügen was bad. Hit him for that fuckin’ Fahrvergnügen!”
Another student adds: “And the Germans love David Hasselhoff! Punch him for that!” It continues like this for a while, and I get further blows with the pillows for German sausages, Boris Becker, and Schumacher’s Formula One successes.
The following day, I fight 40 more pillow fights for 50
dollars in a small downtown park. Many professionals manage to squeeze in a small pillow fight between their work duties, lunches, and business meetings. On this day I meet Justin, who is 23 years old and originally from Florida. Over the past six months he has been traveling across the country, and for the last two months now he has been living voluntarily homeless here in downtown San Francisco. He is fascinated by my pillow fights and plans to organize his trip in a similar fashion to mine; he also finds my ideas for pillow fighting, the human sofa, and the hill helper much cooler than simply begging.
Justin tells me that he left his old existence in search of the true purpose of life. In the meantime, he has also realized that homelessness and begging do nothing to help him develop spiritually. He now puts everything into the pillow fights. I wish him the best of luck and I’m happy to have inspired him. The next day, Monday, it is slightly rainy and I earn only 15 dollars; but when it clears up later in the afternoon I make another 40 dollars over 30 pillow fights in Dolores Park.
With each fight I become more of a pillow fight expert, 88
and by the end of my stay in San Francisco, I can even differentiate between different pillow fighting techniques: Windmill: the fighter holds the pillow in the right hand and rotates the arm like the sail of a windmill. This rotation makes for a very dangerous pillow-fighting technique.
Sword fight: although no swords are used here, the pillow is moved towards the adversary in the classical sword fight position by thrusting it at the opponent in a diagonal slice from top left to bottom right, and from top right to bottom left.
Shot put: in this technique, one jabs the pillow directly into the face of the adversary; no swinging, no wrestling, and no rotating, simply straight in. This technique is simple, but very effective, as I come to know every time I get struck and fall to the ground.
Deceive: this one is frequently used in Dolores Park.
The opponent tricks you by starting with one technique, but changing fight strategy at the very last second. The attack is then mostly made with a horizontal rotational movement (known as the Propeller).
Strangling: as the name already implies, the person using Strangling waits for the opportunity to gag her adversary properly with the pillow after making him fall to the ground through the Deceive. Women like to use this technique.
dollars. I start looking for cheap one-way tickets to Costa Rica on the internet. All the flights cost between 400 and 500 dollars, with one significant exception: I find a flight on the 11th of September for a little less than 300 dollars.
The Americans are still recovering from the 2001 tragedy and many just choose not to fly on this date, so the airline companies drop their prices in hopes of once again attracting passengers. I go ahead and book my flight for the 11th of September, but what am I going to do for the next two weeks?
By chance I meet Bryan and Murph, two Americans in their mid-30s, during a particularly intense round of pillow fighting. Both of them live one hour away from San Francisco in Vacaville (which translates to “one-cow town”), which probably explains their interest in my crazy stories. I tell them that I have two weeks to kill and ask for some suggestions. They offer to buy me a flight ticket to anywhere in the USA if I do something crazy for them.
Anywhere? Hawaii! This may be my only chance to see it on this trip. We look at airfares, and the flights are between 400 and 450 dollars. This is quite expensive fun for the both of them, and so they would like to see something special. Bryan suggests that I should run naked with pink angel wings across the Golden Gate Bridge while they film it. I would consider this trade-off fair if there were no YouTube, or internet in general. We go over 90
The next day I meet up with Murph again, and he is ecstatic. He has spoken to his father, who was a pilot for United Airlines for 25 years, and as a benefit he can still get standby tickets. These are air tickets with which one can fly for minimal cost, or even for free. The risk, however, is that one could wait for hours—or even days—
at the airport for an available seat. In many cases, if you are lucky enough to be put into first class, the airline can demand a special dress code. But it seems I don’t have to wait: Murph tells me, beaming with joy, that he has gotten a ticket for me to Honolulu which departs tomorrow morning. I can hardly believe this news and my luck.
How very often I have dreamed about going to Hawaii.
Even if it is far from Antarctica, Hawaii it is for me.
9/ No Trouble in Paradise
The early bird catches the worm: Waikiki Beach, Hawaii At first glance, Hawaii looks exactly how the travel brochures promise. Honolulu is the capital city of Hawaii and has almost 400,000 inhabitants. At the famous Waikiki beach, tourists can literally walk from their hotel rooms and straight onto the beach within mere minutes. The warm sand and the crystal blue water, together with the mountainous backdrop covered in tropical greenery, truly 92
make Hawaii a paradise. This group of islands is named the Sandwich Islands in honor of John Montagu IV, the Earl of Sandwich, who financed the expedition of the islands by British explorer James Cook.
I’m again couch surfing, spending the first two nights at Martin’s. Martin lives with his girlfriend in a very small and overpriced apartment. The housing prices are very expensive in Hawaii for one simple reason: everyone wants to live here on an island where land is limited.
During the day I wander around the center of Honolulu, and conclude that the Hawaiian mentality seems really relaxed. This makes the popular shaka hand gesture, which means hang loose, a more fitting greeting than the typical wave. Wherever I ask, everyone seems to have an extra apple or banana they can spare to a hungry tourist. With this experience in mind, I decide to check out one of the most happening restaurants on Waikiki beach.
I approach the manager of the restaurant and, in a very polite and respectful tone, ask if he has anything he could offer me to eat since I don’t have any money and I’m trying to travel to the end of the world. He takes some time to think before he responds that he’s sure they must have something. He likes my travel story and invites me to take a seat and order what I like. I am ecstatic and in awe at how easy it is. I sit down at one of the nicest tables and order the steak with a side of vegetables, as it has been several weeks since I have had any vegetables. As I am 93
Later on, the manager, Sam, takes a seat at my table and explains why he had said yes to my request: “I like people who go travel and see the world. It’s important to open our minds to other cultures so that we can be more tolerant and stop the prejudice against other races.” Realizing that I couldn’t have put it any better myself, I sink my teeth into my big, juicy steak. I can hardly believe that I am getting this delicious 48-dollar meal for free.
Later I head to the North Shore, where Victor, a 28-year old couch surfer, has agreed to take me in. For most of the year, the waves here are perfect. This reason alone is why Victor has moved to Hawaii. Surfing, also known as the sport of the kings, is the most popular sport in Hawaii, though it was once reserved only for the royals. Gracing the water was considered a form of mystical meditation by the monarchs who were worshipped as gods back then.
Today, of course, surfing is much more liberated: the North Shore is a surfer’s paradise and it holds the famous Triple Crown of Surfing competition every year.
Besides being a passionate surfer, Victor also works in a camp for the disabled that is operated by the Salvation Army. I join him and the other staff for lunch that day. At the table, the topic of interest seems to be a naked man that been spotted on the beach. Instead of giggles and giddy 94
Feeling inspired, I tell Victor that I would like to give surfing a try—or at least, have him take some cool photos of me on a surfboard. He gives me a hesitant look but then agrees, and early the next morning we head to the beach with a couple of surfboards. With a lot of patience, Victor shows and explains how one should stand on a surfboard. I practice again and again on the sand until I get it. Now into the water! My rhythm seems to be slip, flip and fall; I haven’t managed to pull myself up on the board yet. Victor just laughs and encourages me to keep at it. A little while later, he discreetly leaves me alone with my board and goes out further into the waves with the other surfers.
I continue to try on my own but this process doesn’t see any improvements, other than adding “gasping”,
“crawling”, and “hanging on” to my overall rhythm.
Finally, I manage to catch a wave and ride it standing rather than all of the other positions I was doing. What a feeling! Although I quickly fall down again, I paddle back out and start all over again while wearing a satisfied grin.
The other surfers watch me as I make my best attempt at their sport. They probably have never seen such an embarrassment before. One of them actually comes up to me and asks me whether I am shooting a comedy and if that is the reason why I am surfing the way I am. I politely 95
reply no, and explain that I simply cannot surf. Natalie, a friend of Victor’s who is also there surfing, observes my unique surfing style and comes over to say, only half-jokingly, “That is the weirdest thing I have ever seen!”
With that, my future surfing career comes to a premature end.
Anyways, I have other things to do: my clothes have become quite dirty during this trip. With the ocean right here, it’s a good time to give my trousers, T-shirt, underpants and socks a good scrub. I can see Victor shaking his head from a distance as he tries to take the next wave. A surfer passes by me as I am scrubbing and sarcastically remarks, “I didn’t know that the North Shore was a part of India!”
After the washing, I notice that one of my socks is pretty ruined. Since I have only the one pair on me, I’ll have to manage without it. Washing clothes has been a constant challenge throughout this entire trip: after the nice Amish couple had washed my clothes, the next opportunity was the bathtub in my hotel room in Las Vegas. When I had reached San Francisco, I had hoped to wash my clothes at Kathrin and Thomas’s place, but—just my luck—their washing machine wasn’t working. So this washing is long, long overdue.
Now that my clothes are clean, I have another task. A few days ago, I lost my toothbrush. I was staying with Martin at the time, and I was so desperate that I secretly 96
used his toothbrush. Not wanting to do anything like that again, I spend the rest of the day wandering through the district of Waialua asking for a free new toothbrush. Most of the people I approach don’t even know how to take my story and just walk away from me. After three hours of random encounters, I spot the only supermarket in the city.
I go in and give the cashier my spiel, and she directs me to the department head, who in turn sends me to the marketing manager. Understanding my money situation, he tries to sell me the most economical toothbrush the store carries.
During my earlier encounters on the street, prior to coming into the supermarket, one lone person had shown pity on me and had given me a dollar towards a toothbrush. The cheapest one that the manager can offer me is for $1.79, but, even after he generously gives me the employee discount, my dollar is still not enough. We stand there for a while; he then remembers something and goes into his office. Rummaging through his bag, he pulls out a brand-new toothbrush. He tells me that he was at the dentist earlier in the week and that he was given a new toothbrush, which I’m told is a normal procedure for dentists in the U.S. I happily leave the supermarket with my new gift.
All the different districts on the island can easily be covered by bus. One can see the entire island for just $2.25. Of course, I don’t have this fare, so I discreetly slip onto the bus without the driver noticing. I travel to meet 97
Cassandra and her 11-year-old daughter Odessa, who live on the East Coast and have offered to put me up for a couple of nights. They live in a small house on the beach, and to me, the whole scene looks like something out of a movie: tall palm trees shading parts of the white sand beach, the sound of water splashing up against the rocks, and even the view behind the house is a huge hill covered in forest. Adding to this scene, Cassandra is sitting in her garden playing the ukulele. It’s all very…Hawaii!
That evening, despite my best efforts to wash my clothes, Odessa asks her mother, “Why is he so smelly?”
Cassandra is completely embarrassed and quickly explains that Odessa says this about everyone. However, I fear that Odessa is right; the smell can no longer be ignored. After washing my clothes in Las Vegas and at the North Shore, I didn’t have enough time to let them dry out completely —
so now they are reeking.
I go back to Martin’s place to spend my last day on Oahu. He asks me to help him move into a new apartment, for which he will repay me with a plane ticket to the largest of the Hawaiian Islands, Big Island. Compared to the tiny place he was in before, the new place is literally a huge improvement and all for the same amount of rent.
While we are carrying his sofa to the new apartment, he tells me that he moved here from Boston 15 years ago in order to fulfill his fantasy of living under the palm trees.