He is happy to have done it, but it was a big trade-off: his 98
job is unchallenging, doesn’t pay well and he only has ten vacation days each year. This is normal here in Hawaii; with the high cost of living and the competition, you really can’t be too picky. However, he concludes that if this is what it takes to live in paradise, then it’s still worth it.
With the move, Martin is up to his ears in work, so I have to find another place to spend the night. Another couch surfer named Noora has agreed to take me in, and we arrange to meet at a garden party between the street canyons of Honolulu. The garden belongs to a 30-story apartment complex near the beach. When I arrive, there are 40 people
Unfortunately, Noora doesn’t turn up. Feeling a little unnerved, I start to ask some of the party guests if they have a place for me. Many of them are thrilled about my story, but none of them have a couch available. With no other options, I set up camp at Waikiki Beach. Along with the Copacabana in Rio, it’s one of the most famous beaches in the world, so it’s really not so bad.
Many tourists are enjoying the starry night with a walk along the beach as I pitch my tent and call it a day. At midnight, I am woken by a group of drunken people in their mid-twenties. While yelling, laughing, and doing silly stunts off the wall directly behind me, a guy’s foot lands on my tent. I unzip the entrance to see what’s going on. The guy, who is about three feet away from me, looks back at me and we give each other the shaka hand signal before he 99
staggers off. I go back to sleep, only to be woken again at 2:00 in the morning by a deafening noise. Startled, I jump out of my tent and wave my arms to draw attention to myself, but am blinded by three huge headlights. This enormous, noisy thing stops and veers to the left about six feet in front of me. I gradually make out that this monster is a huge tractor, pulling cleaning mats for the beach behind it. In the driver’s seat I can see a man laughing. I’m so glad that, at the very least, someone found it amusing that I nearly crapped my pants. I make it to the morning with no other interruptions, but discover that my MP3 player and earphones were stolen while I was asleep.
Flying in a propeller-driven plane over the island of Maui to the eastern coast of Big Island helps me take my mind off the morning’s events. Big Island is the largest, highest, and youngest of all the Hawaiian Islands—its tallest mountain, Mauna Kea, stands over 14,000 feet high.
Even during winter, when it’s covered with snow, the volcanoes still spit out lava every day; it flows into the sea and makes the island continuously grow.
The public transportation system on the Big Island, the Hele-On Bus, connects all of the main areas like Hilo, Kona, the volcanoes, beaches and other areas—and it’s free. I am curious to know why this is so, and am given various reasons by my fellow passengers: the inhabitants of the island rely on it because they are poor and have no money to own a car; there have been too many problems 100
with hitchhiking—with a few hitchhikers having disappeared—and this encourages less hitchhiking; the system is so convenient and connects all of the tourist sites so that it will attract even more tourists to this island. They all sound like good reasons to me, but I’m just happy to know I don’t have to pay a thing to use it.
We land in the city of Hilo (population of 40,000) in the eastern part of the island. Since the clouds come in from the east, the rain falls in front of Hilo’s mountain slopes. It rains 277 days out of the year here, making it the city with the highest precipitation rate in the U.S.
I had been warned before coming here that I should be careful, that there are frequent conflicts between the native inhabitants and the white people who migrated here. It dates back, as all things do, to simple history: the natives here are called Kanaka Maoli and they are now a minority in their own country. The Kanaka Maoli believe that the decline of the Hawaiian culture started when the British discovered this group of islands in 1778; these intruders quickly started exploiting the islands and their resources in the name of the British Crown.
In the 19th century, the Americans arrived and used Hawaii as their chief base for all of their trading business in the Pacific. In 1893, Queen Liliuokalani set out to give her country a new constitution that gave more power to the royal court. The American traders saw this as a threat to their business and decided to overthrow the queen with the 101
Ultimately, in 1959, Hawaii became an official American state, becoming the only one in the country that had a real royal palace. The Kanaka Maoli, meanwhile, are present today at—sadly—the lowermost level of society: their life expectancy is low, infant mortality and high school dropout rates are high, and many members of the community are drug addicts. Living in paradise is, unfortunately, not paradise at all for them.
Jason, whom I am meeting, moved here years ago from the east coast of the mainland. He built his own house in the rainforest and has been living without money for a long time. As I am waiting for him on a street corner just outside of Hilo, a car stops and the two locals inside eye me grimly. Feeling uneasy, I look away until they drive off.
Jason finally comes with his truck and together we travel through the rainforest.
At this point, I begin to wonder if it is a smart idea to make this kind of trip with this guy since I just briefly met him on the internet, but it’s too late now. We travel deeper and deeper into the wilderness until we come to an area that has been cleared for Jason’s house. His property and lifestyle are phenomenal: he has built a wooden house on stilts four yards high, gets his electricity from solar panels, purifies river water in a self-made cleaning device, showers in an unimaginably beautiful waterfall near his 102
Jason has lived here for two years without any expenses and still has a mobile phone and a pick-up truck.
He tells me that he gets his things through bartering and trade; even gas for his truck. In exchange for gas, he lets his dogs hunt for wild pigs in the forest and gives the kill to his friend at the gas station. He does the same with his prepaid mobile phone, which is charged to his friends in exchange for the vegetables he has grown.
We sit over a cup of coffee exchanging our stories. He tells me that he was nervous about our meeting, because he fears that the local government could have him expelled from this property for building a house without permission.
All it takes is one nosy journalist searching for a story to trigger a bad chain reaction.
Later, I visit an artist café in Hilo, which is run by a young local. When I was in Oahu I received a few dollars as a gift, so I now use that to buy a coffee—and even give a dollar tip! It occurs to me that the owner didn’t greet me and also didn’t thank me for the tip. When I move a chair to sit more comfortably, she coldly asks me to use another one. It becomes clear to me that issue here is not the chair but the tension between the locals and white people—in this case, me. When I plug my laptop into the socket at the table, she asks me to leave the café and kindly charge my device at home.
I learn that the Kanaka Maoli people only wish to live again as an independent country. The bronze statue of the last Hawaiian queen in the center of Hilo is a clear symbol of this. Unlike the Inuit in Alaska and the Native Americans in the other states, the Kanaka Maoli do not have any reservations, but they are fighting for that. For many years, the singer Israel Kamakawiwo’ole was the musical mouthpiece of the Hawaiian cause; with his songs, he made the almost forgotten language of O-lelo Hawa popular again. Affectionately called the Gentle Giant, Israel died in 1997 of chronic obesity. Ironically, he is best remembered for his versions of the American classics
“Somewhere over the Rainbow” and “What a Wonderful World.”
For the Hawaiians, the 50th anniversary of statehood in 2009 was not an occasion to celebrate. However, with President Barack Obama hailing from Hawaii, they may now have an important ally for their cause.
The next evening, Lacey Ann, who comes from an old Hawaiian family in Hilo, takes me in. She makes a point of taking in a lot of foreigners and white people in order to introduce them to her local friends: this is her contribution towards rapprochement. She has also become more familiar with American culture. I meet her family and her friends, all of whom receive me warmheartedly.
Meanwhile, during dinner, her brother-in-law Ja tells me proudly that his fourth great-grandfather was involved in 104
the assassination of explorer James Cook at the end of the 18th century. I take it as a joke, until all of his relatives in the room nod their heads in approval. Some even clap their hands as a sign of pride.
Curiously, I look online and discover that Captain Cook was indeed killed on his third expedition in the late 1770s by a mob of locals on Big Island, the reason being a violation in the agreement between his crew and the locals. However, legend also has it that Cook and his men spread sexually-transmitted diseases across the island, which killed about half of the original local population.
Believe what you will.
Back in Oahu, when Cassandra found out I would be coming to the Big Island, she connected me with her friend Veronica, who lives here. So that afternoon, I meet up with Veronica and she takes me to the primeval forest located to the south of Hilo in the region of Puna. It is known for being one of the most famous hippie areas in the United States. We travel in her SUV on a dirt road through the thick jungle for almost 45 minutes until we reach our destination. We see that a house is in the middle of the forest, approximately 50 by 65 feet, without walls and half covered with furry carpet. The vegetation is so thick that the trees protrude into the house. The residents call this house the Playground: about 30 hippies romp about in the evening, some playing instruments while others do aerial acrobatics on the fabric hanging from the ceiling. One 105
During the entire evening, I don’t see anyone drinking or doing any drugs, and there are only a few smokers. The only thing one can overdose on here is free vegetarian food. I’m glad that I have come to such an artistic and peaceful place, but then things start to get a little odd. All of us stand in a circle holding hands and dance together to the music. We form the shape of a heart with the human circle, then back to a circle, and then back to a heart again.
Then it’s time for a partner exercise called Energy Hugs. I stand in front of a guy my own age who has long hair and very much resembles John Lennon. We are encouraged to hug each other and feel the energy of the other person; however, all I feel are the buttons on his corduroy suit pressing into my chest.
Around midnight I leave with Veronica and her friend Natalie. During the drive back, I listen from the backseat of the Jeep as the two women talk about energy, which, when translated from hippie jargon to plain English, basically means sex. Veronica says, “Devan just got done massaging me in that place. He’s given me so much energy.”
“Energy is soooooo great. I’ve been getting so much energy from James. It’s been sort of freaking me out though, because he’s been getting kind of obsessed with me 106
“You’d better be careful,” warns Veronica. “Obsession can totally sap your energy.”
“True, but there’s also Marc, who totally gives me energy on a regular basis.”
“What? Are you serious? So tell me, how was it the last time he gave you energy?”
“He gave it to me straight through the night and into morning,” Natalie confesses. “It was amazing, even better than what Blake and Dan could come up with.”
“It sounds like you should get more energy from Marc.
I’m lucky; I’ve been totally satisfied with the energy I’ve gotten from Devan and Tim lately.”
The only one this evening who doesn’t get any energy is me. The next day, I hitchhike to continue further.
Everywhere, huge clouds of steam are rising up from the landscape; an unbelievable spectacle of nature. The volcanic group of islands is still bubbling violently. In fact, just about 18 miles southeast from here, a new island is forming that already has a name: Loihi. Although Loihi lies about 3,280 feet below sea level, it is expected to be seen in approximately 20,000 years—allegedly, the real estate prices on Loihi are already outrageous.
On the way back I meet Brandon, who is in his mid-twenties. For more than two years now, he has been 107
procuring his food from the primeval forest. This is good because outside of the cities there are no shops where I can ask for food. First, we go for the countless coconuts that have fallen from the palm trees. The coconuts that have 10- to 15-inch long seeds taste the best. We open them with a machete and scratch out the extremely tasty coconut cream. Afterwards, Brandon lists the fruits that grow out here in the wild: papaya, mango, bananas, and so on.
We go through the forest and the pastures and collect various edible flowers. They all look so beautiful, too beautiful to eat; then again, I am very hungry. A long time ago there were more than 50,000 plant species growing on Hawaii, but only 2,000 species still remain today. If I continue at the rate that I am consuming these tasty flowers, there may soon be only 1,999 left. Thanks to Brandon’s guidance, the next day I have another fruitful meal (literally) with flowers as my dessert—a healthy diet for a change.
Flower child: Big Island, Hawaii
Sadly, it’s my last day in Hawaii. I decide to undertake one of the biggest tourist attractions on the island: Mauna Kea, which stands almost 14,000 feet high. The complete view from the top must really be magnificent—no wonder a tour costs 200 dollars. Although I could have hitchhiked from Hilo to the top of the mountain via the Sattle Road, I decide against it; I have heard various stories about hitchhikers disappearing. Since I still have some money left from the pillow fights, I try to bargain a special price with the taxi driver, Albrecht, who moved to Hawaii from Berlin in 1969. He agrees to take me to the tourist center at the half point of Mauna Kea for a good price.
On the way, Albrecht tells me about his life. In 1969 he packed his bags, moved to Hawaii, and, shortly thereafter, married a Korean woman and had three kids. Fifteen years later, his wife left him and their kids and eloped with another man. When he lost his job as a mechanic, he had to sell his house in Honolulu and move to a shabby colony in the suburbs with the kids, and ever since, he has been working as a taxi driver.
Albrecht is now 73 years old. He gets a small pension from the German government; however, due to the high standard of living here, he must earn another 2,000 dollars every month to make ends meet. Albrecht tells me wistfully that he would love to be in Berlin again. A good German beer at the local bar with a few old friends is just what he desires, but since his three kids all live here and are now married with their own families, his only option is to stay put.
From the tourist center I hitchhike further to the top. The surrounding vegetation changes at every step and at about 11,500 feet I break through the clouds. At the top of Mauna Kea the view is absolutely stunning. I can see all the way past the neighboring island of Maui to far off into the Pacific Ocean. The air is extremely thin and each step is strenuous, but definitely worth it.
The next morning I fly back to San Francisco from Hilo.
With a heavy heart I take leave of Hawaii and board the plane. It rains during my stopover in Honolulu, which is 110
I still have four nights before my flight to Costa Rica. I log on to the internet to do a Google search for possible groups or institutions in San Francisco that offer a free night’s stay: the Club of War Veterans, the Society of Bisexual Women and the Self-Help Group of Excessive Smokers may not be the right ones to approach. I then come across some information for the Hare Krishna temple in Berkeley, and enthusiastically send them an e-mail.
I get a response almost immediately welcoming me to stay with them. Once I get to the temple I am greeted by people wearing the customary Hare Krishna garments.
Their heads are also partly shaven, with pigtails on the sides, and they have golden brushstrokes painted on their foreheads. I meet the leader, who calls himself Gran Torasch. He gives me a bed in a large dormitory and invites me for two meals a day.
While we are kneeling in front of the statue of Krishna, he tells me that the disciples of the group also know very well a life without money since they surrender their possessions to the religious community. For them, possession is opposed to strong belief. He considers my trip without money a very spiritual act, one that will bring me closer to God and remove all impurities. I am not sure whether this is true, but lately, I have been weighing the 111
importance of possessions in my life, especially after my time in Hawaii. So many people have generously given me things these last few months without expecting anything in return. I would like to return the favor one day even if that’s only possible after this trip.
In fact, one thing occurs to me: that the media portrays the world as being full of tragedies, violence, war and bad people. But, if all that were true, my trip would never have even been possible. I am extremely thankful and intend to share my positive experiences with others, and let them know that there are many, many great things and people still in the world. Of this, I am absolutely certain.
In the evening we gather in front of the Krishna statue in the chanting room. Everyone bows in front of Krishna—
who, by the way, is half-man and half-woman—and sings over and over: “Hare, hare Krishna, hare, hare, hare, hare!” Joining in, I start to relax. After these long three months, a little time off is badly needed. Thanks to the board and lodging of the temple, I can afford to sit around in Berkeley all day without having to worry about food, money, or shelter.
Berkeley itself is just six miles away from San Francisco and is best known for its university, UC
Berkeley, and for the protest culture that has been rooted here since the sixties. It is an extremely liberal place, where one can protest everything and anything, which is something I become convinced of while I am on campus 112
one afternoon. A woman in a veil appears with three others dressed up as Guantanamo prisoners wearing orange-colored uniforms, handcuffs, and black cloths over their heads. The woman in the veil suddenly shouts,
“Osama is our god!” and “Your fucking president!” Then, she jumps around wildly, throws herself on the ground, plays dead, jumps up again and starts screaming. The police and the students nearby seem unfazed. She tries to provoke them, but no one feels attacked. It’s a tough crowd. The woman soon realizes this and retreats, disappointed.
Since I still have two days left before I depart to Costa Rica, I spend this time with Murph and Bryan in Vacaville, which is about an hour’s drive from San Francisco. Murph picks me up in his car, and I can luckily count on both of them for free board and lodging. I also get a chance to thank Murph’s dad for the flight ticket to Hawaii. In fact, I even have time to do a favor for Bryan: he teaches geography and history at a nearby high school and asks if I could be a guest speaker for three of his geography classes one day and share my traveling stories. Since I do know my geography and I’m always looking for new experiences (both good and bad), I agree.
Bryan starts his lessons and I wait just outside the door.
He asks the 16-year-old students whether they have ever met a German before. The entire class is quiet and shakes their heads. Inevitably, one student calls out that he has 113
seen pictures of Adolf Hitler. While everyone is laughing, I come in and say in German, “Good morning, what’s going on in America?” The surprised students laugh at the foreign words. Once we break the ice, the students start bombarding me with questions, all of which I answer as clearly and politely as possible.
After my successful act as guest teacher at Vacaville High School, Bryan takes me that evening to the San Francisco International Airport. As I am waiting for my flight, I do some calculations and realize that I have already covered more than 12,000 miles. Now Latin America awaits me.
10/ On the Run from Dr. Luck
(Costa Rica to Panama)
Oh, how nice: Panama
Although I have two connecting flights on my way to Costa Rica, the trip passes quickly and without problems.
It’s a funny feeling to fly over the Rocky Mountains one hour, then over the South Coast in the next when it took me weeks to make my way from Ohio to the West Coast. I also find that flying is naturally relaxing; but also, accordingly, 115
When I land in San José, the capital of Costa Rica, my tension starts to come back. I have no place to stay for the night and the parks are not very inviting for sleeping in at night. Although San José has a population of just 340,000
people (which makes it look like a village if compared to other Latin-American cities like Caracas or Mexico City) there is a very high crime rate. At a nearby newsstand I catch a glimpse of the front page of a tabloid paper showing a close-up photo of a dead body. I look even closer at the disfigured victim in the image: lying in a large pool of blood, the victim had received several shots to his upper body and one to the face.
The press here seems to be much cruder than in Europe, where brutal and violent photos are not printed. I read the caption of the photo and can translate only one word: violencia, or violence. I start to get nervous, because I still don’t know where I am going to sleep and I want to avoid wandering through San José at night without money.
However, despite the capital city, the rest of the country has a good reputation.
Costa Rica is often called the Switzerland of Central America: firstly, because it resembles a tropical version of Switzerland with its mountains and forests; secondly, because things here are economically quite stable and relatively peaceful. In 1983, the then-president, Álvarez, proclaimed permanent and active neutrality, which most 116
likely caused the relative calmness. There is also no official army, either, in this country. For these reasons, I am confident that I will be able to make my way by hitchhiking outside of the capital city.
I have sent over 20 inquiries for overnight stays in Costa Rica and Panama via couchsurfing.com, but have received only one response in Panama City. Therefore, there is nothing else for me to do but leave San José immediately and travel to the capital of Panama, and fortunately, hitchhiking goes better in Costa Rica than in the United States. Still, I am annoyed with myself for not having done a little more pillow fighting while there. A bus ticket from San José to Panama City costs only 30
dollars, which would have been three hours of ludicrous pillow fighting in San Francisco.
I spend the first night in a truck that travels along the coast of Costa Rica. During the following day, cars, a school bus, and a Colectivo private minibus take me along.
These minibuses are built to hold a maximum of ten people, but usually up to twenty people crowd into them. It is currently the rainy season in southern Costa Rica and there is a downpour nearly every hour. The roads are not fully paved and have large potholes, so the streets are now filled with huge pools of water. I frequently have to take cover and wait for the rain to stop. During these moments, I get to observe the lively street life.
Later on, I come across mountains almost 13,000 feet 117
high that are covered in rainforest to a large extent; I read in a brochure that 27 percent of the land in Costa Rica is protected. As I head along the coast towards the southeastern part of the country, beautiful beaches and palm trees appear for as far as I can see. I make it to the border of Panama just before nightfall, and spend the night at the bus station.
I pass the next twelve hours happily waiting on the station’s hard, cold seat. I have been given a free bus ticket to Panama City by the ticket agent; nothing, but nothing can ruin my mood. The 50 plastic seats are all facing a large television screen on which advertisements are running in an endless loop. Most of the commercial spots seem to be bought up by a local cosmetic surgeon, Dr. Paul Alegria—
which means Dr. Luck. Every 10 minutes his commercials shout out the benefits of his cosmetic surgery to the people in the waiting room. Dr. Luck appears to be a very ambitious cosmetic surgeon; he even offers silicone implants for men so that they can increase the look of their chest muscles and biceps. Just as I am seriously considering this procedure, I fall asleep. I occasionally get woken up by Dr. Luck’s voice and by my shivering body.
The one air conditioner in the room makes it feel as though I’m already in Antarctica, and even putting on everything I have is of no help.
Before boarding the bus the next morning, I discover from the lady at the ticket counter why she gave me a free 118
ticket. Having grown up in very poor conditions, she often didn’t know whether or not she would eat day-to-day. Her relatives, friends and neighbors had all shown her kindness during those hard times and had helped her. Now that she is able to earn her own money, she wants to return the favor and help other people.
On the bus, the air conditioner is running at full blast and it is as cold as the waiting room. Though there is no Dr. Luck here, the stereo’s bass system thumps for eight straight hours. Like the television, a limited set of songs play over and over again. The most popular one is a current hit from Panama, which combines salsa, reggaeton, pop, and hip-hop. However, the entire time, I only hear the words “Humba, Humba, Täterä.”
Sitting near me is Roger, a 52-year-old American, who migrated to Panama six months ago. He is on the run; not from the police, but from a swine flu vaccination. He is convinced of a conspiracy between the American government and the pharmaceutical industry: the vaccination will only cause other diseases and, as a result, the pharmaceutical companies and government officials will become richer. To avoid falling for this insidious trap, he sold his butterfly collection and relocated to Panama City.
When I express my skepticism, he smiles tolerantly and says, gently, “You must be naive about these matters because you’re still young.” It ends up being a very 119
educational bus trip. I learn about the many parallels between the U.S. government and the Nazi regime; that Roger’s grandfather sighted a UFO in the forties; and that the end of the world is near (which he confirms by taking a Bible from his bag and showing me the psalms where it states this).
Panama City reminds me of Miami with its countless buildings along the water and American fast-food chains on every corner. The Americans occupied Panama at the start of the 20th century and initiated its separation from Colombia. Thereafter, they started to build the rather astonishing Panama Canal, which was inaugurated in 1914. The revenue from taxes (ships pay duty in order not to travel around the whole of South America) had an overall effect on the national income: whereas the average monthly salary in Costa Rica is 600 dollars, in Panama it’s almost 1500 dollars, making it easily the richest country in Central America.
The growth of Panama’s relationship with the U.S. and their distancing from Colombia led to the abolition of the border checkpoint between the two countries. Panama and Colombia are completely separated from each other by the Darién Gap, an area of primeval forest almost 125 miles wide; it is the last gap of the Panamericana, the road that connects Alaska with Tierra del Fuego. Unfortunately, this lack of a border crossing makes my trip from Panama to Columbia considerably more difficult. I ask the locals 120
whether there is any small border checkpoint for tourists, but all of them shake their heads vigorously. Anyone venturing into the Darién region runs the risk of falling into the hands of Colombian rebels or drug smugglers.
First things first: I decide to stay at Roger’s and sort it all out from there. Roger leaves me the house key in his mailbox. Incredibly, after exchanging only a couple of messages on couchsurfing.com, he trusts me to stay there for five days on my own, and lets me help myself to his fridge. His house, secured with metallic grills and fences, has a washing machine, dryer, 500 television channels, and, most importantly, internet. Feeling completely rested, I begin tackling the border issue. I contact the German Embassy and send them an e-mail detailing my problem; I immediately get a reply, and the next day I am sitting in one of their offices.
On the telephone in front of me is written CAUTION: This phone is not secure. RISK OF INTERCEPTION! I feel a little like James Bond on a secret mission awaiting news from the ambassador; well, it is true that I am actually waiting for the German ambassador. The ambassador greets me and takes me to his impressive office. He shows great interest in my travel project and begins asking questions: “Why are you doing this? What do you do for a living in Germany? How is the trip so far?
Are you having fun?” I stammer while replying because I am nervous—he is, after all, the German ambassador. He 121
tells me that, on the coming Sunday, there will be a garden party held at the Residencia Alemana in honor of the parliamentary elections of the Bundestag. Not wanting to miss an opportunity, I offer him my assistance as a butler for the party.
When I arrive at the garden party that Sunday, I see a large yellow board with the Federal Eagle and the inscription: Federal Republic of Germany; I am now entering German territory in the middle of Panama. Behind the gate, the stately premises are made up of a swimming pool, a large entrance hall, and a spacious living room and reception room. The Residencia Alemana is furnished in style. During the party I wear a white shirt with stand-up collar, a silver-gray vest, a black bow tie and black trousers. I serve the guests with a silver tray, mainly rosé and white wine. In the background, the future German vice-chancellor celebrates his win in the elections with Chancellor Angela Merkel on several television screens via DW-TV.
Then, the wife of the ambassador takes me aside: my glasses are not filled properly. Wine glasses should be neither half-full nor two-thirds full; they should be exactly 55 percent full. With the wife being French, I have to admit without protest that she is right as far as wine measuring is concerned. But how am I supposed to learn exactly how much is 55 percent of a wine glass? She tells me politely, but firmly, at least ten more times, that the wine glasses are 122
either too full or too empty. I try my best to reach the 55-percent mark exactly and try not to become nervous during my numerous failed attempts. For the time being I manage it, but then I stumble while I am serving the wife of the French ambassador; wine spills out of the glass and the 55
percent quickly become 47 percent. The guests look a little piqued, but a Cologne businessman saves the situation by laughingly telling the guests, “The boy can make it!” The French ambassador’s wife smiles; however, the ambassador is a little nervous about what I am up to.
I promised to write only the truth: the ambassador pays me from his own pocket and doesn’t waste time with figuring out taxes.
I later meet Mr. Foerster at the party. He is an agent for German opera singers and is currently organizing the first performance of Mozart’s The Magic Flute in Panama City.
For his show he still needs a choir singer (or, more specifically, an extra who can stand on stage in a costume and open and close his mouth). I most certainly know how to stand around blankly while opening and closing my mouth; I accept his offer and find myself that same evening standing on the stage of the city theater among nine other choir boys.
The theater resembles the old German and Austrian ones: balcony seats along the high side walls, gold leaf accents, seats made out of red fabric. The ceiling, painted with angels, clouds and figures, was expertly done—
Michelangelo would probably not have been able to do better. The performance goes off without any problems, as the choirboys sing and I just open and close my mouth without any sound. Mr. Foerster stands behind a panel and indicates to me how I should behave; he seems to be under the impression that I am somewhat clumsy. This is not entirely without good reason, because while I am entering the stage I step on my gown and get stuck; the choirboy behind me then runs directly into me. It is bordering on slapstick. I see the appalled face of Mr. Foerster, which only relaxes when finally I leave the stage.
With the pay from my day’s work, I book myself a flight. The Colombian airline, Avianca, is offering a special, and I have enough money for a ticket to Lima. The flight spares me over 2,100 miles of strenuous land travel through Colombia, Ecuador and northern Peru: a total of two weeks of travel. This eases my mind greatly; after all, I have only six weeks left to reach Antarctica. Still, there is almost 4,300 miles from Lima to Tierra del Fuego, in which I will go through the Andes, the Atacama desert in Chile and the bitterly cold Patagonia in Argentina.
The flight also means, for me, that I no longer have to go through dangerous southern Colombia, an area still quite notorious for its kidnappings by a guerilla group operating out of the rainforest in the South and the East.
The killing statistics in Colombia are unsettling: every year more than 20,000 people are killed in this country, the 124
main cause being drug crime. Seventy percent of the cocaine sold worldwide is grown in Colombia. Despite these shocking facts, I don’t want to completely miss out on Colombia, and so I decide to make a five-day layover in Cartagena. It should be an adventurous trip.
After landing in Cartagena, another passenger drives me into the city. I instantly come across some shady characters. One of them asks me, “What should a gringo like you want here?’ In order not to become quickly labeled as a European, I take my bag to the park and unpack a black-colored wig and a large mustache. Along with this disguise, I put on pilot’s sunglasses and wear a white shirt with my black butler trousers. I test out my new identity and wander in the direction of the old city. Some passersby look at me a little curiously: a six-foot-tall Latino wearing a traveler backpack is probably a rare site around here. Moreover, the mustache and the wig, which are from a costume shop in Cologne, probably give everybody reasons for doubt.
Cartagena is one of the oldest cities of South America and was founded by the Spaniards in 1533. The imposing cathedral, which towers above the city with its large dome, was built a few decades after the arrival of Christopher Columbus. Many other buildings in the old city, the great wall around it, and the fort in the center are also from this period. The residential houses have big wooden balconies and the narrow lanes remind one of Seville or Florence. The residents saunter on the streets 126
Very attractive women smile at me. Salsa blares from many pubs and cafes. Life appears to play itself out on the road.
However, the presence of police and the military here cannot be overlooked or ignored, as large, armored emergency vehicles are parked at the street corners and uniformed cops are present everywhere, including the beach. It is a bizarre picture: tourists sit in their small beach tents, and standing directly near them are soldiers with their machine guns at the ready. In the city center I observe a shoplifter being pursued through the park with a lot of public interest. He is floored by three cops and left lying for twenty minutes in handcuffs and with a bloody face. A man among the bystanders tells me that this is solely for the purpose of demonstrating the strength and determination of the police. Now, this actually takes away my fear of becoming a victim of a robbery, but I still don’t want to spend the night outdoors. For this reason, I start looking for possible places to stay and approach some passersby.
One man tells me politely that his relatives are visiting and that he can’t oblige me. A young woman refuses because she is still living with her strict Catholic parents.
However, she gives me her e-mail address and invites me for a free boat ride. Then I approach a woman sitting in a cyber café. She listens to my story and promptly says, “Of 127
Nora lives with the 13 members of her family in a single-story house that has six rooms. Every last one of them gives me a hearty welcome. The first one is Farides, the 25-year-old daughter, who is quickly pushed away by her 28-year-old sister, Dajain. Dajain is holding her 3-year-old daughter in her arms, who very officially shakes hands with me. Farides’s daughter, Maya Paula, follows directly after her with a shy “hola.” Maya Paula’s grandmother is next, and sits in her wheelchair while critically looking me over. Thereafter, the great aunt edges through the narrow corridor, smiles at me, and then hugs me as if her long-lost son has come back. After this, the grandfather José Louis, the father, Roberto, and Nora’s brother, Eso Maria, greet me. I have to wait some time before Ingrid, Nora’s sister, and her two kids conclude the greetings.
There are two to three people staying in each room. As far as furniture is concerned, there are almost only double beds and I don’t see any cupboards anywhere. Since the only television in the house is present in the room where I am allowed to sleep, the entire family sits all around me until late into the evening. During the day, the grandmother lies alone on a mattress watching soccer. She is an ardent fan of Real Madrid and watches every game. I try to strike up a conversation with her, but she is not in the mood to 128
talk. Silence is called for when futbol is on. For the next five days, we spend six or seven hours in that room together; we don’t speak a word while the Spanish and the Colombian league matches are being shown. Even when there is a goal, she remains silent and only raises her hands briefly to express her joy. When the opponents score a goal, she moves her hand from right to left through the room to show her resentment.
Everyone contributes something to the family budget.
Nora and her husband are responsible for the food, her sister and her brother for electricity and water, the grandmother and the great aunt for the repair costs. Money is short; Farides even had to discontinue her studies, because she could no longer pay the tuition fees. She now sees her future in the cyber café that the family runs. I am touched that this family, what with their own money problems, agreed to take me in without any reservations or hesitations. For the next five days, they also give me a meal every evening.
During the day I search for food using my tried and tested techniques—my first attempt in Latin America. I visit cafés and shops and ask for small things in order not to lose any more weight on my journey. Since the start of my trip in Berlin, I have lost about 16 pounds. As expected, my success rate in Colombian shops is much lower than in the United States. In the U.S., normally eight out of ten shops offer me something to eat, while here it is 129
only three out of ten who have something to give away (a small bottle of water or a bar of chocolate). Unfortunately, then, offers of complimentary food are a rarity. The main reason for this is probably my inadequate knowledge of the language. My Spanish is simply bad; before starting my trip, I was vain enough to think that I spoke Spanish fluently, but now I realize that I speak only utter nonsense.
The people mostly only get bits and pieces: they hear end of the world, about money and food, they hear Germany again and again, and finally don’t know at all what to do with any of it. Many of them refer to their boss uncertainly, who won’t be in the shop again until tomorrow.
Adding to this is something else: in some shops there are people who are very happy if they earn ten or twenty dollars in a day. Therefore, they are understandably reserved in giving something to a traveler from a rich European country. Still, the gifts I receive are sufficient to pull me through without being hungry; the ones who do understand my Spanish, and already seem to have enough, give a lot so that I can sit again at a restaurant in Colombia.
Due to the heat and humidity, I have to drink a lot and refill my water bottle repeatedly from water taps and fountains. I have chlorine tablets with me from Germany and use them to clean the water. In the part of the city known as Boca Grande I meet Katarina again, the girl who had given me her e-mail address and offered me a ride on 130
a boat. She is 19 and her father is the president of the Sailing Federation of Colombia. In Boca Grande, I feel as if I am once again in Miami. There are modern skyscrapers with mirrored facades, Jeeps and German luxury cars are everywhere, and large yachts lie in the harbor. Katarina is a professional sailor and is aiming to qualify for the next Olympic Games.
After we eat our fill in the sailing clubhouse (at her father’s expense), we set out on her catamaran to an island on the outskirts and land in Boca Chica. I’m struck by the unbelievable class difference of the country: poor village dwellers and their children run towards us begging; between the brick houses are provisional wooden and sheet metal structures; the roads resemble mud pits. I guess that the value of Katarina’s catamaran exceeds that of the whole village. At the edge of the village there is an imposing fort, which the Spaniards built in the middle of the 16th century. It towers above the palm-lined sand beach.
At every corner one sees group of men and women sitting and playing queen, chess, bingo, dominoes, cards, or Ludo. Playing board games is no game in Colombia: it is serious business. It takes some hours to get ourselves included in the groups in order to play, and it then that I naturally come across a problem: almost all of them are playing for money. Even when the stakes are very low (mostly just a few cents), it is still too much for me.
Finally, an exception is made just for me, and I am allowed to use stones that I picked up from the beach. A dominoes player explains to me that playing without money doesn’t make any sense, because the use of money triggers the right emotions.
On the beach I start a conversation with a young woman who earns her money with a homemade skin cream that she invites passersby to sample. In this way, she earns just about 300 dollars a month; she and her little daughter live on that. She doesn’t have any other options, and tells me that the economic situation is simply too bad. Despite this, she is not envious of the upper class, because she draws happiness and satisfaction from her faith and from her love for her daughter.
Leaving Colombia unexpectedly becomes difficult for me: the welcoming large family, the life on the streets, the beautiful architecture, the nice beaches, and of course, the openness and warmth of the people have all moved and surprised me in only good ways.
12/ My Life as a Peruvian
(Peru to Bolivia)
Romanticism of the Andes meets kitsch of tourism: Peru Right after arriving in Lima, the capital of Peru, I decide to play my wild card. After all, every game has a 133
joker, right? Mine is called Karina, a 34-year-old Peruvian. We met precisely 10 years ago when I was visiting Peru, and have just recently reconnected on Facebook. She invited me to stay with her for three days in the northern part of town, and it’s great to see her again after 10 years: we hug, quickly rattle off details of the last ten years of our lives, and then hop aboard one of the innumerable, overloaded miniature buses at the airport.
These buses really are miniature—meant for 20 people at the very most. Instead of sitting, people stand tightly pressed up against each other, easy for the Peruvians (they’re hardly ever taller than 5-foot-5). However, for me
—at six feet tall—it’s horrible. For half an hour, I am stuck with my head uncomfortably bowed, looking out the window.
The drive through the north of Lima offers a rather sad view: the streets are overcrowded, and cars and buses keep honking. Wherever I look, the traffic jams are interspersed with people selling chewing gum, spun sugar, fruit, or even old car parts. People keep squeezing onto the bus trying to peddle their goods there as well. Hardly any houses have plastered walls. We pass endless streets with semi-finished brick houses that have metal rods pointing up from their flat roofs. The few trees I spot are covered in dust. Lima is located in a desert complete with brownish, sandy dust that drowns every bit of green, and I see the same dust on the unfinished houses, cars and buses as well. I breathe it in along with the soot from the many 134
They say Lima is caught under an eternal pall of smog and hardly gets any sun at all. That’s just what it’s like today: a gray veil covers the sky, making dusty Lima and its 7.5 million inhabitants look even sadder. The difference between Lima and Cartagena is shocking to me. Karina says that Peru still has huge problems with poverty: the average wage is 400 dollars per month; more than one third of the population is poor; and every eighth person even suffers extreme poverty. I look at the faces of the chewing gum vendors on the overcrowded minibus. Some, I see, are quite desperate. They keep begging me to buy at least a single piece of gum for a bargain price. I’m deeply relieved in a very sad way when we arrive at the house of Karina’s grandmother and close the door behind us.
Her grandmother, uncle, and son welcome me. With the ever-present lack of money, the term patchwork family takes on a completely new meaning here. Karina’s uncle, Miguel, who lives on the roof in a shabby, windowless brick shed, isn’t her uncle at all. The man just appeared one day at her doorstep ten years ago, completely broke, and has been allowed to live on their roof free of charge out of sympathy ever since. Karina’s son is not her son, but her sister’s. She usually leaves him with Karina because she is working 14 hours a day.
Then there is Karina’s brother, Claudio, who—strictly speaking—is her nephew as well. His parents are living in 135
the U.S., but he had to return to Peru due to drug offenses and is now unemployed and living off his grandmother’s money. Karina informs me during the bus ordeal that her grandmother is a strict Catholic, and since Karina is married to Eduardo, an American, she was only able to get permission for my visit by saying that I was Eduardo’s brother. This means that for the next three days, I will be playing her husband’s brother without knowing the first thing about him. The grandmother is as hospitable as she is smart. Here’s an excerpt from our conversation:
“Michael, how is Eduardo at the moment?”
“Oh, quite okay.”
“What? I thought he was very sick?”
I hesitate. “Oh, yes, but he’s better now. Everything’s fine again!”
“Really? Two weeks ago he sounded quite different.”
“Well…sure, but last week he got much better.”
“Remind me: what was wrong with him?”
Stumbling, I say, “The…many trips abroad…with the military…weakened him. But the doctor saw to that now.”
“Yes, poor Eduardo. But didn’t he have something wrong with his appendix?”
Karina then steps in and answers for me, claiming I 136
So I am spending three days with a very welcoming Peruvian family that keeps engaging me in talk about Eduardo: Eduardo’s childhood, his training with the military in Arizona, his first meeting with Karina in the American Embassy; Eduardo and his life at the military base in Rammstein, Germany; Eduardo and his big heart; Eduardo and his bad Spanish (they claim it’s even worse than mine); and Eduardo and his American football with lots of beer. The days with the family are hardly stress-free, since I have to be on my guard constantly in order to not fall victim to the grandmother’s trick questions. At least I manage to play along without being directly exposed. However, I think everyone involved in the conversations about Eduardo knows perfectly well that I am NOT Eduardo’s brother, and I am convinced the grandmother enjoys watching me stumble with wrong claims about him. She confirms this when I later leave by calling after me with a sly grin, “Muchos besos a Eduardo!”
In addition to all of the storytelling stress, I find Lima characterized by poverty, dust and thick traffic, but I also have pleasant experiences waiting for me as well. Karina tells me that the upscale restaurants in Peru have a tradition where, on your birthday, they give you free ice cream with a candle to blow out while singing “Happy 137
Birthday” to you. This all starts when Karina jokingly points out, in a restaurant where we are not even eating, that it is my birthday. We sit down and, a moment later, five waiters appear before me singing “Feliz Cumpleanos, Felizidad” or something like that. They put free ice cream with a candle on the table and a paper crown on my head.
We try out this free phenomenon two more times in the quarter of Mira Flores: “Yes, Micha has his birthday today!” Thus, I spend the 13th of October mostly eating free ice cream.
Muy delicioso: birthday feast in Peru
With my three birthday paper crowns, I take bus to the town of Cusco, located more than 600 miles away in the 138
Andes. At less than 30 dollars, the ticket is very cheap and paid for by good old Eduardo all the way from his military base in southern Germany. Karina had told him about my journey with no money, and the resulting problems: my white lies to her grandmother. Since I had been forced to intensely study his life, he decided to pay for my bus ticket as something of a reward. Now I am traveling first class on a Peruvian long-distance bus: I can fold back my seat and turn it almost into a bed; blankets are distributed and the air conditioning is running at full power, like everywhere in Latin America; and I have a TV in front of me with an American movie playing on it. Peruvians seem to particularly enjoy horror and splatter movies: Friday the 13th, Stephen King movies, and Texas Chainsaw Massacre alternate in the program. The television’s volume rivals even that of the air conditioning, making it impossible for me to sleep. At midnight, the Japanese horror movie The Ring starts playing; now it’s officially impossible to sleep, since this movie is truly one of the scariest horror films that I have ever seen.
The next afternoon I reach the Andes without much rest, but now I’m at least somewhat of an expert in horror films.
The city of Cusco lies at an altitude of almost 11,000 feet and is the starting point for trekking tours to the world famous Inca city of Machu Picchu. Cusco is a very beautiful mountain city with two huge missionary churches directly at the marketplace, which everyone in Peru calls Plaza de Armas (Place of Weapons). Narrow streets run 139
This is where I meet Stefan, a 34-year-old German whom I had contacted by e-mail before my trip. At the beginning of the year, Stefan had moved from Germany to Cusco; he is now trying to set up an agency called Geomundo, which organizes trekking tours for tourists. He aims to do this in an ecological way and with fair salaries to the local workers. Stefan tells me that it was a difficult decision to give up a well-paying job as a management consultant in order to go and start a business abroad. Here, he is struggling with a different mentality: punctuality, reliability and discipline are not the deciding values for his colleagues. I’m able to spend two nights in his new apartment that has just been renovated and furnished.
Stefan hooks me up with a local trekking agency that is ready to take me free of cost to Machu Picchu…if I carry the baggage for them. A visit to Machu Picchu is naturally in order because the Inca city represents a massive cultural highlight of South America.
Machu Picchu lies 50 miles away from Cusco, in the middle of a rainforest in the mountains. The city was built by the Incas in the middle of the 15th century and was abandoned about 100 years later when the Spaniards conquered the region. Still, it was not the Spaniards who drove the Incas out of the city; even today, it is not clear what happened. One theory is that Machu Picchu was built 140
to control the economy of this region, while another theory considers Machu Picchu as a former prison city of the Incas. Other researchers consider Machu Picchu as the home of the former Inca king. Thus, the origin of the so-called lost city of the Incas still remains a mystery to us.
On the first day, there is a lot of amazement and laughter among the 16 members of the trekking group (who come from Germany, Canada, USA, Argentina, Ireland and France). Even the three local porters are amazed that a gringo wants to carry the baggage. How can it be that a German carries food, utensils and tents up the mountain? I explain that I am traveling to the end of the world without any money and that this is the only way I’ll be able to see Machu Picchu. The porters laugh and are happy about the unusual support; the tourists laugh at my rather foolish outfit. Before my departure, Stefan had lent me a traditional poncho and a woolen cap with earmuffs and pompoms, but it looks like the only Peruvians wearing this attire are the ones you would find in European pedestrian zones.
I am lucky and get a grace period on the first day of the trekking tour. The porters halve the normal carry load for me from 80 pounds to 40 pounds. However, this weight is not carried as it would (or should) be in a normal backpack, but is instead made up of plastic bags tied together with ropes that are then carried as a makeshift backpack. While the porters run in front at full speed, on 141
the first day I am allowed to walk with the rest of the group at the normal European pace. We cover almost 12
miles and climb from 8,500 feet to the height of 11,800
Searching for the pedestrian zone: on the way to Machu Picchu
At around five in the evening, I reach the first bivouac shelter with the group and help the porters set up the tents for the tourists and prepare the dinner. The porters have two gas cookers in a small shelter, and for the next two hours, my task is to peel the peas. The evening then becomes a nightmare: while the group can at least sleep protected from the extremely cold temperature in tents, I 142
spend the night with the three other porters in the shelter and only a blue plastic sheet to separate my sleeping bag from the extremely cold, extremely hard ground. Lying near me is Gomerciendo, the cook for the group. I ask him how he endures this and Gomerciendo explains that he only rarely sleeps in beds. While he is snoring away, I remain awake during most of the night; it’s noisy, cold, the ground is hard, and the high altitude of 11,000 feet makes me toss and turn all night.
At four in the morning, Gomerciendo’s alarm clock rings. We have exactly one hour to prepare breakfast for the group. I sit impassively, shivering in the corner. At six o’clock, the group starts for the second leg of the trip; they have six hours to reach the afternoon stop at the 15,000-feet-high Abra Salkantay pass. The porters have to make it in three hours’ time; hence, we have to walk twice as fast, basically running. The reason for this lack of time is that we took 90 minutes to dismantle the tents, wash the utensils, and load up the horses that morning, and the porters must arrive at the next stop 90 minutes before the group does so that we have time to prepare and have lunch ready by the time everyone else arrives.
It quickly becomes clear to me that the decision to go along with the group as a porters and worker was, and is, insane. I can hardly keep up the speed, although I am carrying only half the weight that Gomerciendo, Yuri and Nico have on their backs. After nearly half an hour, I 143
manage to remain standing but pant and bend forward frequently in order to breathe in gulps of air. Yuri asks me to pull myself up and to keep up pace because we are under enormous time pressure; after all, the tourists would like to have their lunch on time. I continue to follow the three porters and the three horses, but physically I am just not able to make it. I am dizzy and my legs feel like rubber.
A short while later I am far behind them. Yuri is up ahead of me as the path goes up the mountain in a serpentine trail. He calls out again and again: “Amigo, vienes. No tenemos tiempo! Rápido!” Translated, that is:
“Come, my friend, we have no time to lose! Hurry!” But it doesn’t help me; the air is too thin and I am not trained. I lie down on the path and breathe in and out deeply. Shortly thereafter, Yuri, Gomerciendo and Nico come down with the horses and look at me hopelessly. Gomerciendo laughs, because he has never seen such an incapable porter in his entire life, but Yuri is annoyed and asks me to stand up. He anxiously explains to me that we need to be at the next camp before the tourists in order to prepare the lunch; if the food is not ready, there will be complaints to the agency and it might cost them their jobs. I realize that I have behaved very carelessly as a porter.
Two evenings ago I had boasted to the boss of the agency (who, by the way, is called Fidel Castro) that I was a thousand-meter runner and that the 50 miles would not be a problem. Now I was a burden on the tour. Due to their 144
care of duty, the porters cannot leave me behind, but also cannot continue to wait for me. I promise them that I will keep up with the pace if we could just buckle up my weight on one of the horses. The three porters consult among themselves and reach the decision that about 20
pounds from my baggage could fit on the horses; any more than this would be unbearable for them, too. So now I carry only twenty pounds up the mountain pass, but the altitude makes it feels like 80 pounds.
Even after this lightened load, I am not able to match the speed of the porters and quickly fall behind. I drag myself through the breathtaking landscape with its snow-covered mountain peaks and glaciers that go up to a height of 20,000 feet, but all these things make no difference to me because I am totally knocked out and overwhelmed. I come across a wooden hut selling chocolate bars and beverages to the trekking enthusiasts. I hear a German couple trying to decide between a Twix and Snickers, and between a large and a small Coke. I am completely envious and can only drag myself frustratingly past them.
Oh, the things I would do now for just a two-liter bottle of Coke and a chocolate bar!
It becomes really cold after 13,000 feet, although we are sweating from the strenuous climb. I can no longer see Yuri and the others. Every step seems like a kick in the teeth; the pain penetrates my entire body. After breaking for the second stretch of the day, Yuri tells me that he earns 145
Shortly before the pass at 15,000 feet, I am able to overtake the tourist group. Yuri, Gomerciendo and Nico have passed them long ago with the horses. The leader of the group is taking a special break so that the porters have enough time for cooking (since they have lost so much time because of me). The group cheers when they see me passing them. They know that my experiment has been a total flop but they all take it lightly; unfortunately, Gomerciendo doesn’t. When I finally reach the mid-day camp, the food is almost ready and lain out on the tables.
Gomerciendo, who is totally pissed off, gives me a lecture about how they can no longer manage having the food ready on time and that something like this could lead to problems with the agency. During the lunch, Yuri takes me aside and tells me that it simply can’t go on like this.
Further reprieves are made for me: I can continue to work as a porter, but I can walk with the tourist group. This means that the speed is only half as fast and that I don’t have to help so much in the kitchen, and in setting up and dismantling the tents—a huge respite for me.
The very next day, everyone’s displeasure over the conspicuous gringo porter changes to sympathy. My service from the second day has become something of a legend: I hear the porters as they again and again 146
In this manner we continue on and, on the third and the fourth day, pass a temperate rainforest. There is even a delightful break to relax, and the group takes a bath in one of the hot springs from the Andes. The hot spring near Santa Theresa is commercially used for tourism: one has to pay a five-dollar entry fee, whereas the locals pay only thirty cents. Dietmar, a police commissioner from Heilbronn who is trekking with us, invites me along and pays the entry fee for me. Unfortunately, I catch a cold at the hot springs and on the fifth day, set out at four in morning relatively ill. We have to climb 1,600 steps and about 1,500 feet to reach Machu Picchu. It is, again, a hard struggle to the top.
The previous evening, Yuri had distributed the entry tickets. I assumed that as a porter I wouldn’t need one, so I didn’t worry about it. Now I stand in front of the entry gate, still dressed in the foolish poncho and the cap and loaded with cargo, explaining that I am the porter and have done the impossible in the last five days. The lady smiles in a friendly way and lets me in without a ticket. Tourists stand in front of and behind me in the long queue, laughing and cheering at the gringo porter entering the Inca city without ticket. But at the second checkpoint, a man pulls me out of the line. He doesn’t say a word and radios someone: “Hay un hombre sin ticket!” (“There is a man 147
In the office I talk to the boss who handles visitor relations. I explain to her that I have worked as a porter for five days and hence have the right to enter. She counters that I am obviously a tourist and hence have to pay 43 dollars. I explain that my work as a porter was part of my journey to the end of the world. She tells me that she finds this all great, but that I still have to pay 43 dollars.
Even when I offer to collect the garbage in Machu Picchu, she remains unmoved.
Yuri and the tourist group are nowhere to be seen. This is the darkest moment of my trip. I sit in front of the gates of the Inca city totally frustrated: 50 miles with 40 pounds on my back climbing a height that, in comparison, makes the Grossglockner and Mont Blanc seem tiny, and now this! I know that from now on, this journey is going to be really difficult. I still have to cover 3,700 miles and have only three weeks in which to do it. I will be lacking the drive of the initial months, the excitement that I felt in San Francisco and in Hawaii. Even after the muscle cramps, cold, and emotional setback of Machu Picchu disappear, the last 3,700 miles will be anything but easy.
Later, a bus takes me back to Cusco. Stefan has agreed to let me spend one more night with him, and the next morning I will travel from Puno to Lake Titicaca on a train 148
I am sitting in Stefan’s apartment and trying to plan my journey further, when suddenly his stove and chimney catch fire. The chimney is probably not completely made of fireproof material, as within half a minute the apartment is engulfed in flames. We run off to quickly get water from the shower, but the water supply has just been turned off in the entire city (as so often happens in Peru). I run frantically to the neighbor and get a fire extinguisher. We try to spray it, but it doesn’t do anything. I then run into the street and explain to a cop in Spanish that a fire has broken out in the apartment, but since I am in a panic, my Spanish is much worse than usual. I repeat again and again:
Unfortunately, in this context it only means a light for a cigarette. Incendio is the word for an actual fire. The cop only patiently repeats that he doesn’t have a light and that he gave up smoking a year ago. In my distress I grab him by his uniform and pull him towards the apartment. Over the rooftops one can hear Stefan shouting, “Incendio!
Incendio!” The cop now understands what the problem is and calls the fire brigade on his mobile phone. Meanwhile, the fire has spread almost to the entire apartment. I suddenly remember my bag with all my belongings: passport, video cameras, recorded tapes. Dios mio. I hold my breath and run through the fire, and luckily find my bag undamaged.
Panting, I come out of the apartment carrying everything out safely. Outside, I stand to the side and watch as the cop rips open all the windows, causing the fire to spread further. Stefan is standing and gasping at the doorway; he has probably inhaled too much carbon monoxide. He is spitting and coughing over and over again. Suddenly, one of the neighbors beckons me. She has a large bathing basin in front of her. Running towards her, I grab the heavy basin, carry it up one flight, and pour the water on the fire.
The fire truck arrives and does the rest.
Stefan now has a fire extinguisher in his hand, which works, and extinguishes the last of the flames. I come to learn how relatively lucky we were in our misfortune. The fire broke out at eleven o’clock in the evening; what would have happened if it had been one o’clock in the morning? I help Stefan to sweep up the mess. The apartment is now unlivable: the ceiling is half burnt, the floor is covered with soot and burnt pieces of wood, and the kitchen wall with the sink and cupboards is completely burnt. At three in the morning we bid farewell to each other, both of us still visibly in shock. I spend the last hours of the night at the train station in Cusco waiting for the Andean Explorer.
Totally blurry-eyed, I try to make my way the next morning to the platform. The Andean Explorer is a luxury train and the eight-hour journey costs 220 dollars. This is ten times as much as the cost of the bus journey for the exact same distance. Every passenger at the station is 150
checked for a ticket. I am checked immediately and sent away in an unfriendly manner, so I drag myself to the bus station, and notice for the first time that a part of my backpack is burnt. What a harrowing night! I decide that I will make use of this stroke of fate at the bus station to get at least a free ticket to Puno. I tell about my five-day trekking, about how I was not able to enter Machu Picchu, and about the fire in Stefan’s apartment. Both of the bus employees watch and listen to me blankly, then exchange glances and start smiling. They give me a free ticket without asking any further questions.
The bus travels at an altitude of between 11,000 and 13,000 feet. I see a chain of snow-covered mountains, pastures with llamas, and then finally Lake Titicaca, which is the world’s highest crossable lake at a height of about 12,500 feet. But I am not able to enjoy much of the attractions. For one thing, I am totally wrecked physically.
For another, I don’t know how I am going to get any further on my journey. In order to get information about some opportunities, I ask a tourist couple on the bus if they could briefly lend me their Lonely Planet travel guide. The woman gives me the book.
“Of course,” she says with a smile. “By the way, we can also talk in German. Tell me…don’t we know each other from Cologne? Don’t you have a friend by the name of Kristina?”
“Yeah, that’s right. We met years ago over a beer, 151
It is said that after every low there comes a high. This is exactly what happens now. I tell my story to Hedwig and her husband Cicki, and we quickly make a deal: they will take care of the costs of my food and my stay in Puno, and buy me a bus ticket to La Paz, Bolivia, if I will chauffeur them around for one day through the area. I am saved!
Sinking ground underfoot: Uru’s village on Lake Titicaca The chauffeuring turns out to be driving a pedal boat.
While Hedwig and Cicki are smooching in the back of the boat, I pedal over the huge lake. It is hard work, but is fun.
I row both of them to one of the famous Uru islands. The Uru are a tribe that lives on self-made reed islands—their houses and boats are made out of reeds, and at times, reeds are also a part of their diet. We visit one of the islands and I get an opportunity to talk to the president of the Urus.
While nibbling on a reed, he answers my questions.
The Urus moved out to sea even before the time of the Incas, because they could safeguard themselves quickly and effectively against their enemies with their maneuverable reed islands. Nowadays there are a total of 42 reed islands with over 2,000 inhabitants. As one walks onto an island, they can feel themselves sinking into the soft reeds by up to ten centimeters, similar to stepping on a cushion. Every year new reed layers are laid on the floor, because the reeds gradually decay into the water.
The president also tells me that reed is used not just as food, but also as medicine for various diseases. Despite their passion for reed, they are not reluctant to accept modern technology: solar panels, engines, television and a radio transmitter are a part of the daily routine in the village. He tells me that part of the Uru system now also involves living off tourism, but on the more remote islands, one still lives off the barter system. The inhabitants on these islands make reed products and in exchange can get everything that they need for living.
“Where are the people happier?”
The president thinks about this question, and then says that tourism and money naturally bring some disadvantages because of the changes to the culture. But he finds it more important that the Urus, who makes a living from tourism, now have enough money for education and medicine.
Hedwig and Cicki invite me to dine with them several times and also give me 20 dollars. With this, I can afford two nights in a hostel and still buy a bus ticket to Bolivia.
The next morning I am sitting with two liters of Coke and two liters of water on the bus to La Paz, Bolivia. At a height of 11,800 feet it is the highest capital city in the world. When we reach the border, my stomach starts growling: I haven’t eaten anything since the previous evening. Unfortunately, I don’t meet any other generous couples from Cologne, only a drunk Brit who invites me to go boozing. I decline with thanks.
By the time I get to the bus station in La Paz, I have gone 24 hours without food. I immediately begin my search for nourishment, asking a total of 30 kiosks, shops and restaurants in and around the bus station for donations, but am met with no success. A shopkeeper advises me to go directly to the German embassy, since he considers my endeavor in Bolivia pointless.
Statistics prove him right: Bolivia is the poorest country in South America. The average citizen here earns less than 350 dollars a month. However, Bolivia is rich in natural resources: 50 to 70 percent of the world’s lithium is found here, and the gas deposits are among the largest on this American continent. But most of the residents of the plateau, where La Paz is located, see very little of this 155
The people appear to me to be withdrawn and cool, quite different from what I saw in Colombia. I become very nervous because my hunger is growing; a pain spreads in my stomach. Luckily, the Coke and a pack of coca leaves, which I chew regularly, suppress the feeling of hunger a little, but the panic remains: should I abandon my attempts here? For emergencies, I have brought my credit card. The trip should not end with me starving in Bolivia, but if I use the credit card even once, then my journey and story would come to a close. The question here, naturally, is not one of survival, but of the goal to bring this project to its desired conclusion.
Meanwhile, it has become dark and it is no longer advisable to wander through the city. Driven by fear, I decide to go back to Peru. Since I am physically exhausted and totally starved, but don’t want to end my project here by using my credit card, I see this as the last way out. I go to different ticket counters and relate to them that I am traveling to the end of the world without money and that I am simply at the wrong place in Bolivia to continue such a project.
Both of the first two clerks whom I address immediately agree with me, but send me away without a 156
ticket. The ticket lady at the third bus company also shrugs me off at first, so I go a step further and tell her that I haven’t eaten anything for almost 30 hours. When she shakes her head the second time, a man, who is sitting at a computer behind her, intervenes. He seems to be the boss and says something in Spanish that must mean: “Come, let’s take him along. He really has nothing!” This assurance is my biggest success in Bolivia.
Since the bus departs very early the next morning, I sleep on a bench in the bus station of La Paz—or rather, doze away in a half-sleep. I feel worn out, I am in a bad mood, and I am no longer hungry. The reason is probably a secretion of adrenaline or endorphins, or my stomach has simply switched over to emergency / survival mode.
The bus is overfull because currently there is a strike in La Paz, and only a few coaches are running. I stand in the aisle. The seated passengers, who boarded the bus in other cities, are having their lunch. I look around to see if someone has something left over—not a chance. However, a man has reclined his seat and is sleeping, and the bus steward has simply placed his lunch on his thighs without waking him up. This is my chance! I gently wake the man up and ask him if I could possibly get his lunch. He looks at me totally dazed; my Spanish only explains the situation in bits and pieces and he is still quite sleepy, but after a second explanation he agrees and gives me the tray.
I have never been without food for almost 40 hours in 157
my entire life; never before have I been so happy about a meal. Although I no longer feel my hunger pangs, I devour the rice, mashed potatoes, piece of meat, and the small gelatin dessert. I am delighted that I trusted myself and asked this man, because the five-hour bus journey becomes a nine-hour one. Due to the strike, the bus driver has to turn off the main roads and drive on dirt roads. Suitcases and bags fall from the overhead compartments, and finally, all of us have to disembark because the bus either cannot or is not permitted to drive on that stretch of road. We wait for another bus for at least two and a half hours in the middle of the plateau. I look towards the horizon and see quite a long traffic jam on the other side of the road towards La Paz. The strike has simply frozen everything.
Arriving finally in Puno, I am still starving. With not a single minute to waste, I run towards the city center where the shops and restaurants are. To my delight, a generous restaurant manager offers me a free meal. Since I’m in Peru, I decide to order the Peruvian delicacy dish: guinea pig. On a plastic tray, my order is served to me with the head and feet still intact, along with a side salad. I sit in front of the restaurant and devour the whole guinea pig—
satisfying, although the texture is slightly tough.
Afterwards, I head to Puno’s fruit market, located in the harbor. Some of the women in the market still remember me from my last visit a few days ago. I tell them about the dead end in Bolivia and about going 40 hours without 158
food. After hearing my story, every single lady at the stalls starts offering me fruit. Overwhelmed and full of gratitude, I collect all the fruit into a cardboard box. The story quickly spreads around the market and soon, even without a word, I am handed an assortment of bananas, tomatoes, apples, potatoes, onions and pears. After about an hour or so I have canvassed all the stalls in the market and filled the large box.
The fruit and vegetables would probably sustain me for a week if I had a refrigerator, but clearly, I do not. I decide to go to the bus station and try selling the extra produce. In no time I sell everything and earn 17 dollars. With this money, I can now buy a bus ticket to Arica, the northernmost city of Chile. After the Inca trail, the disaster of Machu Picchu, the apartment fire in Cusco, and going 40
hours without food, things can only, only get better from here.
14/ The Madman
A foretaste of the end of the world: The Atacama Desert in Chile
At the bus station of the desert city of Arica, the aunt of a Chilean friend picks me up. She has an empty apartment on the second floor of her house, which I am allowed to use. Every morning I get a sumptuous breakfast; every evening I am fed steaks and other delicacies so that the weight loss of the last two weeks is compensated. Both 160
nights I sleep for twelve hours, something I haven’t done in months. My laundry is washed and for the onward journey the aunt packs a plastic bag full of groceries and drinks. It is 48 hours of complete well-being. Unfortunately, I can’t stay any longer, since I now have only twelve days to reach Ushuaia, in Tierra del Fuego. La Paz and the victory lap through Puno have consumed an unbelievable amount of time.
I stand on the corner of a street at the town exit with a large cardboard sign, on which I have written SUR
(“south”). Huge sand dunes are present all around me.
Hitchhiking goes off well from this point. I never wait any longer than thirty minutes for a lift. Sergio, a truck driver, takes me along through the Atacama Desert. It is the driest desert in the world. Only one-fifth of the total rain quantity in (the extremely dry) Death Valley in the U.S. falls here.
The reason for this is that the eastern winds from the continent bring dry air along with them. The Pacific Ocean lies to the west but, because of the extremely cold Humboldt currents, the winds from this direction are mostly rainless. The temperature fluctuations in this desert are also extreme: day temperatures of around 86 degrees Fahrenheit and night temperatures of around 5 degrees are not rare. I am happy to be able to cross the entire desert with Sergio and not have to sleep in a tent at night.
On the road, Sergio tells me stories about his life. He has two families: one in the north in Arica and one in the 161
miles to the south. He laughingly says that, according to him, it is completely acceptable for a truck driver to have a family on both ends of his route. For the next 600 miles random cultural topics pop up in our conversation: the big blonde women in Germany, women in Brazil, cigarette prices in Germany, and, naturally, German beer companies versus the ones here in Chile. During the ten-hour drive, we pass huge sand dunes and the desert seems to be endless. After Sergio drops me off, I am taken along to Santiago de Chile by other trucks, vans and cars.
In 30 hours, I have covered over 1,200 miles.
It is spring and the temperature in Santiago is moderate.
I head towards the city center where the streets are filled with people. I have very little time for sightseeing, as I have an appointment with Reinhard. He is one of the managers of Antarctic Dream, the shipping company and travel agency that has agreed to take me to Antarctica at no charge. The Antarctic Dream offers luxury cruises in which many of its passengers are wealthy millionaires coming from all over the world. He explains to me that, during the tour, for the ten days my role is to assist the expedition leader. “And I expect nothing but your best performance,” he adds, and I know he means it.
On that same day, I travel on a minibus from Santiago to Buenos Aires, Argentina, over 600 miles away. Earlier, my friend’s aunt had me given a care package to take along 162
with me for my journey. The package included an envelope with 25,000 pesos in it—almost 50 dollars. With gratitude, I am able to use 30 dollars of this money to buy the ticket for the minibus. I actually have enough money for the long-distance bus, but I want to save some, thinking this very economical and smart. Later, however, it turns out that this is actually a bad decision. The driver of the minibus is very unfriendly and reckless, and I can hardly enjoy the view as we drive over passes that are 13,000 feet high.
Speedy Gonzales here is keeping us on edge: speed limits don’t seem to exist and the extreme left curves keep me hanging on to my seat for dear life. I sit directly behind him and cannot keep my eyes off the speedometer.
Finally, I can’t take it any longer. In a calm tone I simply point out that he is traveling 30 miles above the speed limit: “Senor, hay 70 y no 120 kilometros, por favor.” He immediately yells something back at me, and even turns around and actually lets go of the steering wheel to wave his arms in the air for emphasis. After he turns around, there is total silence from everyone. The old man to the right of me looks at him, equally as shocked as I am, but we don’t dare say a word.
To take revenge on my protest, the driver inserts a cassette into his tape player, adjusts it to full volume, and systematically tortures us with the strains of Elton John, Meat Loaf and Chris de Burgh. Just when we are nearing another bus, a car cuts across in front of us from the other 163
lane. The people in the car wave at us wildly; the driver of the vehicle starts flashing his headlights. Our driver won’t allow this, so he steps on the gas pedal. We pass the car by an absolute whisker. In the background I can still hear the car honking madly.
I blow a fuse and start shouting at this driver. He shouts back, “Chile, no Alemania! Chile aqui, no Alemania!” He clarifies for me that here in Chile, the Chilean (not my German) rules apply. It makes no difference to me; I spit out the worst possible insults that my Spanish vocabulary allows in such situations: “Hombre sin cara!” (“You’re a man without a brain!”) The driver turns around and shakes his fist at me while the old man sitting in the front passenger seat tries to calm him down and pulls him forward again. After that, it is silent again in the minibus. I get a hold of myself and think of what I should do.
Disembarking in the middle of the Andes is a poor option, because I don’t know whether any other car will take me along from here. Yet traveling another 500 miles to Buenos Aires with this guy is also not an option, as the risk of us either getting into an accident, me punching the driver, or both, are very high.
Some time later we stop for a toilet break at a rest stop.
I jump off with my luggage and tell the driver of another minibus parked there that I have just traveled with a madman, and ask for him to take me along. The first driver notices what I am doing and starts screaming and 164
threatening to hit me. The driver of the other minibus quickly comes between us and holds him back. The crazy driver yells that I should go back to Germany. I won’t accept that and throw it back at him by saying once again that he is a man without a brain.
In the meantime, numerous other passengers gather around us and start laughing. In my hurry, I mix up the nouns and call him “man without a face” instead of “man without a brain.” I hear a boy saying ironically that even he wouldn’t like to travel to Argentina with a man without a face. Others agree with him and chuckle. In any case, the seriousness of the situation becomes clear to the second driver. He disappears with the driver without a face, and shortly afterwards, comes back offering me a seat on his minibus. I can see him still putting away the money he got from the other driver. I am relieved that my commotion has resulted in something. In minibus number two, we travel at normal speed through the Andes to Argentina—the last country of the trip.
15/ Ümit Saves the Day
(Buenos Aires to Tierra del Fuego)
Exactly 0.5 people per square meter: Patagonia Buenos Aires absolutely takes my breath away. I have always wanted to come here and all the good things I have read and heard about the city are confirmed at first glance.
The magnificent house facades in the elaborate architecture of the 19th and 20th centuries—which can easily compete with Paris, Madrid or Rome—shape the overall image of the city; Paris, in particular, appears to 166
have been a big influence on its appearance. The cemetery of the city district of Recoleta, with its tombs, mausoleums and roads, reminds me of the famous Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris. The Argentinean legend and former First Lady Evita Perón is buried here.
Both the Plaza de Mayo, with obelisks as landmarks in the middle, and the early 20th century colorful structures of Avenida 25 de Mayo, resemble the boulevards of downtown Paris. Buenos Aires appears very European to me. However, there is also a whiff of New York because with its population of over ten million people, the city seems to me much bigger and more imposing than any of the European metropolitan cities.
During my five-day stay I don’t see any un-plastered or unfinished houses. Even the poverty, which is certainly present here, is not outwardly visible. In the entire time I am there, I see only one beggar. In contrast, the Porteños, as the locals are called, stroll along the Avenidas and walk through parks and sit in the many cafes of the city. Street hawkers, who shape the streetscape in Peru and Bolivia, are nowhere to be seen. Buenos Aires seems to have money; in fact, a lot of it. I am only about 600 miles away from La Paz as the crow flies, and once again, appear to be in quite a different world.
That evening, my impression of the everyday culture being influenced by Italian and Spanish immigrants is confirmed. For the first time in many weeks, I become a 167
couch surfer again. Noelia and her friend Roberto let me sleep at their place for three days. Both of them are 31, work at an advertising agency, dress very smartly, and live in a well-designed apartment. They tell me that most of the ancestors of Argentineans come from Italy and Spain. The Italian influence can also be seen clearly in the language.
Like most of Latin America, they speak Spanish here, but the pronunciation has an Italian touch. Their daily rhythm is even influenced by the Italians and the Spaniards.
Noelia and Roberto are at home quite often. They offer me dinner, which is always at eleven in the evening, and on weeknights they plunge into the nightlife of Buenos Aires. I am thankful for their hospitality and return their favor by cleaning their toilets, which I had also done at the aunt’s place in Chile. However, I am not in any mood to go out. I am totally exhausted by the trip and had not even been able to enjoy Peru, Bolivia and Chile properly. I would prefer to go to bed at ten, but they both insist that we go out together so that I can get to know the city; and so we go to bed on Tuesday at two in the morning, on Wednesday at three, and on Thursday at around midnight. I feel guilty the entire three days, because I want to offer them something (or someone) more than just a tired tourist traveling with a backpack and no money; but my energy is all used up.
This continues at my next couch station as well.
Micaela, Raphaela and Antonella (by the way, all typical 168
Italian names) are all in their early 30’s and live in the happening scenic district of Palermo. They offer me the sofa in their living room. I anticipate something bad, and not without good reason; it is the weekend and they want to throw a party at home. At midnight the whole living room shakes, because 40 of their friends have gathered for alcohol and music. Almost all of them are drunk and are vociferously singing along with the songs of the karaoke machine. I can hardly keep myself awake and keep drinking Coke and yerba maté tea in huge quantities so that I don’t go to sleep on the floor in the middle of the action.
None of it helps, and by two in the morning I feel physically finished.
I tell Micaela that I am going to just lie down on her bed and sleep. In disbelief, she roars with laughter. The next few hours I spend only dozing in the neighboring room; the bass is so loud that my whole body is vibrating.
The dozing comes to a premature end after a group of drunken people cruises into the bedroom. I am probably a curiosity for them, and am besieged with offers for drinks while I try to straighten myself up. It finally comes to an end at six in the morning, and I can finally sleep in the living room. The next evening is a Saturday: party day, of course!
This Saturday is, in fact, quite a special party day because it is Halloween. Micaela and Raphaela make themselves up as monsters for the night. After an eleven 169
o’clock dinner, we go to a party at a friend’s house. None of my arguments as to why it would be better if I stay at home are accepted as reasonable. Micaela and Raphaela definitely want to celebrate Halloween with their couch surfing guest—no excuses! With a long beard and a pale white face, I stay at the Halloween party of 150 people until eight in the morning. Actually, to be completely honest, I pass out on the couch at four before being taken back home by Raphaela and Micaela at eight in the morning. Still, they cordially bid farewell to me the next day—and crack a few small jokes at my expense.
Along with the five nights in Buenos Aires there are also the five days, which I spend collecting food and finding onward journey options towards Tierra del Fuego.
For the third time on this trip I feel the urge to use my credit card: Oh come on, just this once! It’s not a big deal. You deserve a break! I am sitting in the city district of San Telmo on a bench, and when I take out my passport and my insurance papers from my chest pocket, my credit card falls out and into my hand. Maybe it’s a sign! It would make everything so easy. Presto! One swipe through the machine and I am off. I had the same feeling in La Paz, where I desperately needed the card. But there is no shop near the bus station that accepts credit cards. This fact probably prevents me from giving into the temptation. I really don’t know what would have happened if someone had cried: “Fresh steaks and we accept credit cards!”
The devil kept appearing on my shoulder, coaxing me:
“Credit card, credit card, credit card!” But along with the devil there was also an angel who put up some resistance:
“Don’t do it, you twerp!” Luckily, today, the angel is more forceful, and wins the battle.
I decide not to hitchhike to Tierra del Fuego as I simply don’t have any more energy for that. For this reason, I unpack my friend from my backpack; he has been hibernating there since my departure from Berlin. He is known as Ümit and is a fluffy light blue hand puppet with big eyes and a big mouth. His long-lost twin brother is known as the Cookie Monster, and appears regularly on
Ümit and I wander through Buenos Aires looking for passersby, especially tourists. I keep myself discreetly in the background while Ümit addresses the passersby politely: “Excuse me, I need to disturb you for a minute to tell you how my friend Micha and I have been traveling for more than four months around the world—without money!”
Ümit cannot speak without my help, but I am a lousy ventriloquist, so I wear a fake beard. It is so long and thick and completely covers my mouth, so that any giveaway movements remain totally invisible to the passersby. There is a word for someone like me, and that word is 171
desesperado. In any case, Ümit is the one being heard by the tourists, and many people first laugh and then listen as he iterates the trip. Mostly, the tourists give one peso (about 30 cents) after hearing the story of Ümit, and some even give five pesos.
The locals, though, struggle a little with Ümit, because they can’t understand him properly. Some people go away without saying a word and simply leave Ümit standing there. But the majority of them are interested: How has Ümit fared on the trip? Was it ever boring? Did he feel hungry? And is he looking forward to going back home?
Mainly they want to know more about his twin brother, the Cookie Monster. Ümit can help them with that. He tells them how they were often confused as kids, and how they tried to look different visually. “Sesame Street” then discovered his twin brother, who became world famous, travels a lot, and is known everywhere. But is he also happy? Ümit tells a French couple at the Plaza de San Telmo how his brother is often drunk, and brings women home who are always after his money and his fame. The Cookie Monster had also once become addicted to gambling, and had needed to go to a psychotherapist for help.
The French couple does not understand all the details, but can hardly stop their laughter. Financially, the story of our journey catches on better with the locals, while the story of drugs, drinking and action catches on better with 172
the Americans. A group of students from Ohio cannot get enough of the scandalous life of the Cookie Monster. They keep on asking: “Did the Cookie Monster think about suicide? Was he depressed? How many girls did he sleep with? Did you ever meet his famous friends from the show?” Ümit doesn’t think much about discretion and thus tells all the private stories of the Cookie Monster, while I stand behind him with the caped beard and look towards the ground. The students from Ohio give Ümit a total of 50
pesos as thanks for the indiscreet, rather scandalous details about his famous twin brother.
On the fifth day of my stay in Buenos Aires, the soccer team, La Boca, is playing against Chacarita. It’s a home game for La Boca. The passion for this team here in Argentina is like that for the Real Madrid in Spain. Diego Maradona has even played here once.
Even though I show up early at the stadium, the queue is already curving around the corner. It amazes me that a stadium this size can be sold out on a Thursday afternoon, but it’s probably the norm here in Argentina. Ümit and I reach the ticket checker at the entrance and tell him that we have no money but would like to go inside. The ticket checker looks around several times thinking he must be on some candid camera show, or that this must be a joke.
However, given that he is somewhat disappointed that he won’t be on TV, he still lets us in. I actually can’t believe that I’m going to watch the La Boca play, and for free!
This trash talking is interrupted again and again by loud advertisements from the loudspeakers. As soon as the ads take a break, the opposite rows continue with their screaming: “Tu madre es una perra, una puta!” La Boca wins three to zero. The crowd roars and loud cheers break out all around; there are people dancing, jumping and hugging each other. Gustavo, a man sitting next to me, leaps up. I had a brief conversation with him earlier about Ümit, because he found it strange that someone would bring a puppet to a football match, particularly if that someone is a full-grown, seemingly functional man.
Gustavo tells me that money to him is only a means for him to see his favorite football team, La Boca. He pays 1,000
pesos for the season tickets; but even if it costs 5,000
pesos, he says that he would still pay.
With the 70 dollars I earned with Ümit, I buy a bus ticket. The distance to Ushuaia is just 2,000 miles; the remaining money should suffice until then. I only have four days before the ship departs, but I want to visit Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego. I decide to take the risk: I will take a bus to El Calafate, which covers about 1,500 miles, and from then on I will hitchhike through Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego.
The next 30 hours on the bus basically consist of me 174
sitting and sleeping. The food is included in the price of the ticket, which I hadn’t expected. We eventually reach El Calafate, a small mountain town which has been beautifully restored. It’s the closest town to the Perito Moreno Glacier, making it one of Patagonia’s favorite tourist destinations.
From here I need to hitchhike further. While just three days ago in Buenos Aires the weather was hot and humid at about 90 degrees Fahrenheit, here it is just 41 degrees Fahrenheit. El Calafate lies in the middle of the Andes Mountains so even in the spring (beginning of November) it is bitingly cold. Majestic snow-covered mountains, large brown fields, and beautiful blue lakes surround me, but at the moment I couldn’t care less about the scenery.
My hands are freezing from holding up my cardboard sign in this temperature, so I hang the sign around my neck and put my hands in my pockets. The sun is shining and in theory the warmth from the sun is welcomed, but because I’m high up in the alpine countryside, due to the thinning ozone layer, UV rays are a concern. For this reason, almost every tourist guide warns you not to stay in the sun for too long. Unfortunately, I don’t have a choice; I have to find a ride.
A bus driver sees my sign and stops. He takes me along on the six-hour trip to Rio Grande in Tierra del Fuego. The bus is brand new and is being transferred to a hotel in the city. So not only am I the only passenger on the bus, but the 175
very first one as well. Upon arriving in Rio Grande, the first thing to do is look for an inexpensive hostel with the last of Ümit’s earnings, which I find. The temperature is freezing outside. Despite my exhaustion, however, I can hardly sleep. The whole night, I keep thinking that if I am able to cover the last leg tomorrow to Ushuaia, which is just 135 miles away, I will be at the harbor two days before expected and will certainly be able to catch the ship.
Quite fatigued but full of adrenaline, I get up the next morning and start early with my sign to Ushuaia. Two hours pass before Marcello stops in his pick-up truck. He says the magic word: “USHUAIA!!” We travel past fields of fresh snow, quiet lakes nestled between mountains, and fir trees along the road. Marcello comes from Mendoza, a city in northwestern Argentina known for its vineyards and pleasant climate. Still, he ended up here in freezing Tierra del Fuego, about 1,800 miles south of his hometown, for work and higher salary. Tourism is partly the reason why there is more work in this city, but mostly it’s due to the large tax benefits the government offers in order to attract more companies. Tierra del Fuego is also Argentina’s center for electronic products.
Marcello has recently turned 40 years old and is financially doing well for himself. Although he misses his relatives and friends in Mendoza, he knows that he would never earn as much there as he would here. However, 176
It’s the 7th of November and I finally arrive in Ushuaia.
I can hardly contain my happiness. Marcello is left in wonder when I get out of his truck, and calls out behind me, “Say hi to the ladies in the strip clubs for me!” At this moment, though, naked ladies are the last thing on my mind. Ushuaia has a population of 60,000, and winters here are extremely cold with temperatures down to -4
degrees Fahrenheit; even during the summertime, it only manages to get up to 59 degrees. I see a lot of tourists in Ushuaia who are probably stuck on the idea of seeing the southernmost city in the world. On most of the street corners, what with Antarctica less than 700 miles away, I see many promotional signs reading: Fin del Mundo. That is, of course, “The End of the World.”
After some time I come to the office of Antarctic Dream. In the office, Sabina, the employee with whom I have been exchanging e-mails, welcomes me. I can tell that she is surprised that I have actually made it here. She takes me to a company-owned holiday apartment where I can stay for the next two days. With still one day left before the departure, I make use of my time by visiting one of the highlight attractions.
Near Ushuaia is a tourist train with the name El tren del fin del mundo! (Train to the end of the world! ) It’s an old 177
dollars; since I don’t have this, I decide to sneak on board.
An elderly couple sees me cowering below a seat hiding from the ticket agent. They smile and I know that they won’t blow my cover. After ten minutes, I am given the all-clear signal: tickets will no longer be checked on the train. I sit up and enjoy the beautiful journey through the national park. While looking out of the window, it becomes clear to me how very near I am to the end of the world.
16/ The End of the World
No money, but still quite elegant: penguins in Antarctica It is four in the afternoon on the 7th of November; the very last leg of my trip has started. The intensity, uniqueness and beauty of it outshine the past 140 days as I head towards Antarctica.
The first explorer to cross the Antarctic Circle was James Cook in the year 1773. Cook apparently was in a hurry to reach Hawaii, so he didn’t set foot on the 179
continent. Not until December 14, 1911 did the Norwegian Roald Gravning Amundsen become the first man to reach the South Pole, followed by his rival Robert Falcon Scott three weeks later, who didn’t survive his journey home.
The fact that the first exploration took place only about 100 years ago makes it clear how special this place really is. The climate and the weather records of the continent underscore this: in August the average temperatures here are between -40 to -95 degrees Fahrenheit. Even in February, the warmest month for Antarctica, the temperature seldom exceeds 5 degrees.
Antarctica is also the windiest continent in the world.
During a long-term measurement in the Commonwealth Bay, average wind speeds of 45 miles per hour have been recorded and the highest speed has been 150 miles per hour. Yet despite the snow, Antarctica is the driest of all the continents.
The Antarctic Dream is the ship that I will be traveling on. It was specially built in the Netherlands in 1959 for its rough trips to the South Pole. From 1959 to 2004 it served the Chilean Navy, and after that it was rebuilt for trips to Antarctica. There are 40 double cabins so that a maximum of 80 passengers can be accommodated. In addition, the ship has a crew of 25. On the roof there is a helipad, and Zodiacs, which are the rubber rafts that can be lowered into the water by means of a crane. As compared to the container ship that brought me from Europe, the Antarctic 180
feet; it is also much lighter. This is something I come to learn in the first two days while crossing the Drake Passage, a strait between South America and Antarctica that is about 500 miles long. This passage acts as a floodgate for the winds blowing from the west.
A few hours after departing from the harbor of Ushuaia, I go to the bridge to say hello to the captain. He warns me not to go on either of the side wings of the bridge, because they are not protected against the wind. Naturally, I want to test this out immediately: the distance is hardly 16 yards from the rear part of the right wing of the bridge to the front part. How much time do I need to reach the front? I battle through the wind at every step, mostly with one hand on the railing, in order not to be blown into the water. I take a few more steps before I slip and fall onto the ground. From here, I crawl on all fours until the target: 20
seconds for 16 yards. The forces of nature definitely have an upper hand here.
The next morning I wake up in my cabin feeling very ill.
My stomach is aching intensely. The ship is swaying by about 20 degrees from left to right. Just for comparison: steep mountain passes in the Alps often have straight ascents of 10 to 15 percent. 20 percent swaying from left to right and then from right to left, all in half a minute, are simply brutal. I try to concentrate on other things in order to divert my attention from the pain. That doesn’t help, so I 181
search for the doctor on the ship. He gives me two tablets to take for seasickness. Only five minutes after I take the first tablet, I start to vomit; the same thing happens when I take the second tablet. After a few more encounters with the toilet, I need something else to stop it: plaster. If you place a small piece behind the ear, it will help the body not to perceive the extreme swaying of the ship. I later find out that, at least, I wasn’t the only one who suffered.
Everything at dinner—the décor, four-course menus, the piano player, the friendly service—impresses me. It’s hard to believe that I’ll spend the last ten days of my journey being spoiled in luxury. During the days, when I am not fulfilling my duties, I am allowed to take advantage of their leisure activities. There’s a fitness center and a sauna available at any time of the day, and a library with books and DVDs. In addition, there are presentations held twice daily, talking about both the history and present-day circumstances of Antarctica.
In the beginning, I find it difficult to make use of these offers without feeling guilty, just like not filling up my plate to the fullest during a buffet. One would think that after so many months of little to no food that I would stuff my face given the opportunity like this, but this isn’t the case whatsoever. During my ventures through the many shops, cafés and restaurants, each apple, bun, or even cup of water that I received gave me a feeling of success. The process was strenuous and sometimes frustrating, but in the 182
The age of the passengers at my table range between 25
to 50 years old. They are from England, Canada, USA, France and China, mainly backpackers traveling across the world and wanting to see more than the stamped-out paths.
Blake from the U.S. tells me that the main reason he set out for Antarctica is because it is, without a doubt, the least-visited continent on earth. A total of about 30,000 people visit it every year. Antarctica also has only 3,000
permanent residents, mostly scientists, who live on one of the research stations.
Petra, from Switzerland, booked this cruise because she wanted to see the huge ice masses of Antarctica before they disappear due to climate change. The Antarctic Peninsula, a huge headland, which points from Antarctica in the direction of the Drake Passage, is affected by this change even today. The leader of the expedition, Paulo, tells me that the Antarctic Dream now opens its season two weeks earlier than, say, five years ago, and passengers pay 4,000 to 5,000 dollars for a double room per person for the ten-day trip. During peak season, one could pay up to 15,000 dollars for a single room. Luckily for me, there is an odd number of workers on board, so I get my very own single room.
The temperatures on the Antarctic Peninsula have increased by three degrees since 1950. The Larsen Ice Shelf lying on the east coast has already lost large parts of 183
its area since the beginning of the 20th century. Despite this, the icebergs in Antarctica are still very big: in some places the ice is about 1,600 feet thick. Some tower even higher than the highest mountain in Europe. In all, only 0.4
percent of the continent is free of ice. This extreme data does not come as a surprise, with the record temperature of -128 degrees Fahrenheit being measured at the Vostok station.
On the second day, Paulo comes to me and inquires if I have ever had any experience as a waiter. I am speechless.
Waiters have the hardest job on a ship because even with the
professionally as possible. I fear that I will embarrass the company if the passengers see me staggering through the dining hall and spilling things all over the place, so we decide to test it out: I fill two cups with coffee, which I must carry on a large black tray while walking from one end of the dining hall to the other. The cups slip away from my tray and the disruption startles some passengers. Paulo then agrees that I shouldn’t have any direct contact with the customers, both for the sake of the customers and the ship’s reputation.
I then spend days two and three in the basement of the ship with Rodrigo, arranging the rubber boots and polar jackets according to sizes so that all passengers can be properly equipped upon reaching the shore. Unfortunately, there ends up being a lot of confusion when distributing the 184
On day 4 we finally cross the Drake Passage; the winds have died down, and we land at the South Shetland Islands. These islands come before the Antarctic Peninsula and, like the rest of Antarctica, there is no noteworthy vegetation; only penguins and seals are found here. I stand at the exit of the ship and ask every passenger who wants to go ashore in the rubber dinghy to first disinfect and wash off their boots in the tank of liquid. This is to eliminate the risk of passing bacteria from the other parts of the world to the animals here, which can be very harmful.
Soon we are standing in the middle of hundreds, or perhaps even thousands of penguins; they run around us tolerantly. Since they have never had any bad experience with humans, they don’t consider us as a threat. Directly near the penguin colony are beaches where numerous seals are lying around lazily, and who, like the penguins, are not at all bothered by us. Just beyond the colonies of penguins and seals appear incredible snow and ice-capped mountains.
Unfortunately for me, this excursion becomes extremely painful. I am the only passenger on the ship without special polar-proof pants, instead wearing only jeans. Within twenty minutes my legs are ice-cold and my jeans are frozen stiff. Paulo hands me a bunch of small red flags on 185
long sticks to set up around the colony of the penguins in order to show the tourists that they should not walk directly through the colony. He looks at my jeans and becomes annoyed: “How can you go to Antarctica without polar-proof pants?” I explain to him that I have traveled without money through eleven countries and simply didn’t have any means of buying them. Paulo shakes his head in disapproval.
Deception Island (or, The Island of Deceptions) will be our next offshore venture. It consists of an active volcano, which can heat up the water flowing to the sea to such an extent that one can swim in it. Unluckily, our ship sails straight into a body of thick ice. There is the sound of ice crackling, the engine ramping, and loud squeaking, until suddenly everything comes to a standstill. The Antarctic Dream remains stuck in ice that is 19 inches thick; they try moving it forward, backward, left, and right but nothing works. The engines are ramping at full blast in effort to move the ship, but the force of nature is just simply stronger. Finally, the overhead speakers announce that the scheduled visit to the hot springs is cancelled.
This puts a damper on things because it means that my long-awaited first step on the continent will be postponed.
I look out of the porthole of my cabin and see seals lying on the packed ice about 100 feet away. They seem indifferent towards this new object stuck in their natural environment.
On the fifth day, we finally reach the Antarctic Peninsula. Huge glaciers 70 to 100 feet thick hang down from the steep slopes of the coast. This spectacular view can be seen nowhere else. Huge icebergs float in the water near the coast, which we bypass at a snail’s pace. We travel through the Lemaire Channel, which is just less than 300 feet wide, and which is covered by mountains on both sides. My anticipation to finally set foot on Antarctica—
especially after all that has happened in the last five months—creates a feeling of extreme ecstasy…that is, until I see Paulo, who tells me that today we’ll go with the Zodiac boats through the icebergs, but we won’t go on land. Still, the day remains unforgettable as we travel in rubber dinghies between 70 feet high icebergs.
Meanwhile, I notice that the need for my help is becoming less and less urgent. Despite being available for all-around work, I am probably called on for only four hours a day. For more demanding work, like lowering down the rubber rafts, Paulo tells me to stay away. He explains to me that he doesn’t want to be held responsible if an unskilled worker wearing jeans falls in the water, and only sends for me for smaller legwork, like refueling the rubber rafts or scrubbing the deck.
It’s the 13th of November and the sixth day of the tour: it’s finally time to go offshore! Paulo gives me his spare polar-proof pants so that this day isn’t remembered for any frostbite I will get—the temperatures are anywhere 187
between -15 to 5 degrees Fahrenheit. The expedition gets postponed a little longer because Guillermo and Willi, two adventurers from Chile, have to be dropped off. Their plan is to travel through Antarctica for the next three to four months with a kayak and 770 pounds of luggage. A large part of the luggage consists of dehydrated food (also called “micro food”).
Finally, it is the be-all and end-all moment. I help the passengers squeeze into their life vests, disinfect their boots, and help the elderly ones onto the rubber dinghy.
When we are just about 100 yards away, the mixed feeling of excitement, anxiety and happiness can hardly be contained. Memories from the last five months flash through my mind; I can’t believe I have really made it to Antarctica without a single cent from my own pocket.
The anchor is dropping; once they give the okay to unload, I leap from the side of the rubber boat, and I take my first step onto the continent of Antarctica.
I run about ecstatically through the knee-deep powder snow. Paulo calls behind me, asking whether I have gone totally crazy, but it doesn’t bother me: I have made it!
Towering all around me are mountains draped in deep snow and glaciers. Huge icebergs with a diameter of 20 to 50 yards are floating in the freezing water. The sun is shining so the reflection off the white landscape is almost blinding. The strong polar wind stirs up the powder snow.
The thought that I am actually standing at the end of the 188
world plays over and over in my mind! Finally, I have reached my destination. I throw myself in the deep snow and let out a big cry for probably the most intense five months of my life. I look up at the blue sky and reflect back.
Countries visited: Germany, Belgium, Canada, USA, Costa Rica, Panama, Colombia, Peru, Bolivia, Chile and Argentina.
Continents: Europe, North America, South America and Antarctica.
Temporary jobs: A butler for Harold in Cologne and for the German ambassador in Panama; an all-around first mate on the container ship to Canada; an advertising film producer in Las Vegas; the human sofa on the streets of Las Vegas; suntan oil applier on the beach of Santa Monica; the hill helper in San Francisco; a professional pillow fighter; a moving guy in Hawaii; a chorus boy in The Magic Flute; an unsuccessful porter in Machu Picchu; a fruit vendor in Puno; a ventriloquist in Buenos Aires with Ümit; and assistant on the Antarctic Dream.
Accommodations: Over 40 people took me into their homes, through either couch surfing or friends; a barn in an Amish community in Ohio; the park in Albuquerque; motels in Las Vegas; Waikiki beach in Honolulu; a Hare Krishna temple in Berkley; overnight buses and bus stations; and the freezing heights of Machu Picchu.
Transportation: A container ship; seven aircraft; a horse-drawn carriage; a bicycle; trekking; trains; hitchhiking rides in over twenty cars, trucks and buses; and the Antarctic Dream.
Climates: Polar, desert, subtropics, tropics, alpine, and temperate.
Final Total: 25,000 miles in 150 days.
Most importantly, I want to thank the hundreds of people who have made this impossible trip possible: Harold for hiring me as his butler; my fellow crewmates on the container ship for helping me realize what I have; the Amish community who took me in when I was most in need; Joseph in Albuquerque for teaching me some street smarts; David in Las Vegas for the nice comfort of a hotel room; Murph’s dad for the flight ticket to Hawaii; Brandon for showing me how to live off the land and introducing me to tasty flowers; Dr. Luck for introducing me to bicep implants; Michael Grau for the lovely party at the Residencia Alemana; the generous family in Cartagena from whom I learned that sometimes one needs just five minutes and twenty seconds to get a free accommodation; the Machu Picchu porters for carrying some of my weight 190
and not leaving me behind; Hedwig and Cicki for the tour on Lake Titicaca and the ticket to Bolivia; the bus company in La Paz for the free ticket that crucially helped keep the journey going; everybody on the Antarctic Dream for bringing this trip to such a successful end; and to all of the salespeople and waiters who made it easy for me to get enough food. THANK YOU!
Now that I’m standing here in freezing temperatures remembering what all that got me here, I have to ask myself: what did I plan to do once I got to Antarctica?
During my trip, I have often wondered how I would feel or how I would react once I got here. Jump for joy, do my happy dance, run around like I’m crazy? Well, I’ve done all that, so now what? I could swim with the penguins, but since I didn’t even bring polar-proof pants, I don’t think my swimming trunks will do.
Well, I know one thing is for sure: I need to start moving around before my foot freezes. The tear in my right rubber boot is letting the cold in. But I am too late: my foot is completely numb, so Paulo helps me back to the rubber dinghy. As we sail away, I never imagined my much-awaited landing on shore would be like this. “So long, fucking Antarctica!” escapes loudly from my mouth. Paulo, aghast, questions me in English about whether I have a screw loose: first I leap off the dinghy with inexplicable cheer, and now, here I am cursing the continent.
Back on the ship, my foot finally thaws so that I can 191
make peace with Antarctica again. This also means that I can now look forward to returning to Germany: my jeans are almost in shreds; the crown of my tooth has fallen out and urgently needs replacing; my thick beard needs a good shave; my diet in the last 150 days consisted mainly of fast food, little vitamins, low fiber and high sugar. I am looking forward to get my life back in order.
What I am taking away with me through this experience? In life it’s not always about more; more is more than enough. Personal happiness depends only to some extent on consumption. Despite having to carry on with no razor, torn jeans, a toothache, no food and total exhaustion, I didn’t ever really feel unhappy. All the conveniences and amenities I have back home I didn’t miss. The Amish community, the Filipinos on the container ship, and the family in Cartagena taught me that having less doesn’t mean you have to be less happy. Rather, the lesson appears to be that it is better to give than take. Not everything in life needs to be a deal; one should give instead of investing. This is a lesson I need to keep in mind. When you really give without seeing a benefit in it or expecting a return, you open up, learn new things, and become unbelievably richer.
In retrospect, I would encourage all travel enthusiasts to travel to the remotest corners of the earth, even in an unconventional way, like I have done. One thing is for sure, and though I said it earlier, it bears repeating: the 192
negative image of humanity, shown to us by the media, is not in alignment with reality. Naturally there are such incidents and such people. But with a certain caution, knowledge of human nature and curiosity for people and cultures, you can meet people from whom you can learn a lot.
On many occasions, I’ve have been carried forward by people as if riding on a wave. I have experienced different reactions towards travelers—especially those with no money—from various cultures. In North America, my individual approach was very forward in most of the encounters. People seem to appreciate creativity, innovative ideas and goals, even if it may seem unattainable at the moment. Most likely the history of North America has contributed to this attitude: European settlers who tried their luck in the New World were entirely on their own. For this reason, going from rags to riches is the American dream. Although I haven’t made any actual riches, traveling to the end of the world certainly comes very close.
Everything was a little different in Latin America. I wasn’t able to explain my idea of the trip to the people as well as I had in North America. Then again, my bad Spanish didn’t help. However, despite being a blatant foreigner, people helped me just the same. They consider giving a natural part of their lives, because many of them know how it feels not to have anything…just like the 193
family in Cartagena who had taken me in for five days, and the lady working for the bus company in Panama who gave me a free ticket.
The warmth and support I have received in all of these countries has been simply overwhelming.
Destination reached: what now??
To find out more about the trip, visit:
Copyright: 2012 by Michael Wigge.
All rights reserved.
All images: Michael Wigge
To learn more about the author, visit:
Edited by Nadya Bondoreff
Layout by Dominik Stahl
ISBN: 978-3-00-037543-9 (ebook)
ISBN: 978-3-00-037542-2 (paperback)
Table of Contents
How to Travel the World for FREE
About the Book
About the Author
1/ Even Basic Needs Aren’t Free (Berlin to 7
2/ All Hands Below Deck (Antwerp to
3/ True North, Land of the Free (Montreal
4/ Go West, Young Man (Cleveland to New 38
5/ All-American Gigolo (Albuquerque)
6/ No Gifts in the Wild West (Las Vegas)
7/ Everybody Has a Dream (Los Angeles)
8/ Advanced Pillow Fighting (San
9/ No Trouble in Paradise (Hawaii)
10/ On the Run from Dr. Luck (Costa Rica 115
11/ Katarina’s Catamaran (Colombia)
12/ My Life as a Peruvian (Peru to Bolivia) 133
13/ A Kingdom for a Guinea Pig (Bolivia)
14/ The Madman (Chile)
15/ Ümit Saves the Day (Buenos Aires to
Tierra del Fuego)
16/ The End of the World (Antarctica)