by Gilbert Carlson
Have you ever had the desire to be totally liberated? Wanted to hit the road with only a few things in your backpack, little or no money, and trust completely in the world around you? Travel not caring where you sleep, how you move about, or where your next meal will come from?
This guide to carefree travel is based on an overland trip from Palestine to Paris, focusing mainly on the last part, which took three friends and I through the Balkans, Italy and Germany before reaching France.
The trip was motivated mostly by necessity; we had to make it home on an extremely small budget since we had spent the past few months volunteering. One of the self-imposed conditions was to keep a two Euro limit on accommodation every night. The other was that transportation would have to be kept in the same proportions—that meant hitch-hiking most of the way.
When traveling long-term in this manner, it is necessary to first eliminate the negative anticipation otherwise referred to as worrying. The needs that a traveler usually worries about are essentially transportation, accommodation and food; assuming safety is not an issue. Carefree travel eliminates the first two and very often the third. The main requirements are optimism, creativity and a tent.
Carefree travel is very much a faith-based concept. The traveler must believe in himself and the world around him. Remaining optimistic is crucial. For those who favor realism to optimism, keep in mind that reality is your worst enemy. The minute you start believing in reality you’d better go book a flight and a hotel room. That is to say give up.
This form of worry-free travel only works for those willing to walk out randomly into an unknown situation and trust their luck and the good nature of other humans to take care of them.
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The trip: How we did it
The free-spiritedness really kicked off with our meeting point in Bulgaria. After a few days together in Istanbul, the four of us had to split up and arranged to meet at an Ace of Base concert in the very small town of Lovech, in central Bulgaria. Our meeting time was as vague as our meeting point. The instructions were to be in the town by early afternoon and be as visible as possible.
All this turned out to be completely unnecessary as we all naturally met up near one of the beer stands at the town’s festival. So there we were in a small town in Bulgaria where we knew absolutely no one and had no plans beyond the Ace of Base gig. We never once thought about accommodation even though we were in a mountainous area in early May and only had a two-person tent and two sleeping bags for the four of us.
We met some Bulgarian ravers who invited us to a weekend-long house rave party with drum and bass playing all day and all night, an endless supply of alcohol, as well as strange characters and language barriers. We walked out of town the next morning, found our highway and hitched to Sofia.
Our plan had been to get to Skopje that night, but after a bad decision in one of the cars we got stuck on the ring road. We ended up spending the night in Sofia with a last-minute-arranged couchsurfer and hitched out the next morning. Leaving Sofia was slow and painful and we thought we’d never make it to the capital of Macedonia before nightfall.
We arrived at the very quiet border crossing in between Bulgaria and Macedonia in the late afternoon. The sun was getting low and the altitude meant the air was already a bit chilly and there were not many cars traveling this road. All signs pointed towards a cold and uncomfortable night in the mountains. We walked through the border crossing and looked around at the mostly deserted shops and buildings welcoming us to Macedonia. After a couple minutes on the side of the road a car took all four of us all the way to Pristina, which was our first-choice destination before reason made us opt for the more realistic goal of reaching Skopje by the end of the day.
These stories may sound like a series of lucky breaks but it’s interesting to consider that they all took place in the same 48-hour period which also happened to be the very beginning of the most absurd and random leg of our trip. To say, upon reaching Pristina, that we felt unnaturally lucky is an understatement.
How to liberate yourself while traveling
By traveling free, and I mean truly liberated, you are detached from obligations, reservations, hassles and other related problems. But how to get to this state?
Determination is key. Things don’t come easily when you rely on other people’s generosity for your necessities. Things might not even come at all but you still have to hang in there. Hitch-hiking is the most random and unreliable means of transportation and waiting for a car may keep you on the side of the road for as little as five minutes or as long as five hours.
Flexibility is a must. Accommodation may turn out to be a spare room in somebody’s house, a hotel lobby’s couch or perhaps a field in an empty lot. The uncertainty is what makes it exciting. It also makes it difficult for those travelers who expect everything to be handed to them. Of course we want the world and we want it now, but if now is five hours from now you’d better find a game to play on the side of the road.
Creativity one of the essential prerequisites to carefree travel, after optimism. Creativity comes in handy in every situation. You have no car, no house and no food and you have to make one or all of these elements appear. The important thing to keep in mind is that everything you need is out there and available. In any given city at any given moment there are empty rooms, almost every car has an empty seat in it, and every restaurant has extra food or leftovers waiting for you. All you have to do is figure out how to cross that bridge that separates you from what you need.
Obviously, things won’t come easily, at least not quite as easily as if you were to book ahead and pay full price for them. Being creative means being able to come up with unconventional ways of obtaining things. It means coming up with a quick story when required and being able to communicate on little or no common language through ideas and signs. Creativity allows us to overcome all the challenges that can’t be ignored.
Don’t be shy. In many situations all you have to do is ask. We walked into a Pizza restaurant in Pristina asking for free food and were served fresh hot pizzas made just for us. We asked a bar owner if we could stay after closing time to sleep and he let us. We asked internet cafes for a couple free minutes and they let each one of us use a computer for more than an hour. If you don’t ask, people won’t think to offer. We were sitting outside a mall in Croatia on our way to Venice when a man walked up and offered us rooms for rent. Instead of just declining the offer I randomly asked him if he was driving to Venice in the afternoon. There was absolutely no reason to believe he might be and as it turned out he wasn’t, but after a couple minutes he came back and offered to drive us to the first rest area on the highway. That ride saved us hours of waiting in the suburbs of Zadar.
Lower your standards. Chances are you won’t be getting a shower and a hot meal every night. You’ll probably sleep outside many nights and go several days without washing. Most personal hygiene can be taken care of with a bottle of water, but you have to learn to live without showering for days at a time. Travelling near water is a good way to ensure basic hygiene. Lakes, seas and rivers are great to wash in if you’re traveling in warm climates. Sleeping outside is not as bad as it sounds, especially when the weather is nice. In Trogir, Croatia, we found an open building and borrowed cushions from the nearby cafes. It turned out to be one of our most comfortable nights. Keep your expectations low and you’ll be pleasantly surprised by what comes your way.
Travel light. Anything beyond one change of clothes, a sleeping bag, tent and a basic set of toiletries is excessive. Unfortunately, we had two hookah pipes and three guitars for four people, but things would have been a lot easier with just the minimum. Keep in mind that you will be carrying everything on your back, throwing your stuff into and out of cars all the time, and during some rides you’ll have to hold your stuff on your lap.
Why travel this way?
One question I feel obligated to answer after giving all these tips for carefree travel is: why do this to yourself? Why wouldn’t you just get a job and save up the necessary money to go travelling in a more comfortable, typical way?
The most important benefit is the feeling of liberty that comes with such an experience. Rarely have I felt as free as when I found myself standing on the side of an unknown road in an obscure country with no local currency in my pocket, no knowledge of the language, and no sense of direction or time. Nowhere to be, nothing to do, no deadlines to meet, trains to catch, or bookings to confirm. When you know that you’ve just traveled a certain distance in one direction but you could turn around and go another direction and it wouldn’t make any difference to anyone, you know you’ve reached a certain degree of freedom that few people will be fortunate enough to experience in their lives.
The second major benefit is all the opportunities that arise only for the , carefree traveler. Could I have gone fishing in the rivers of southern Kosovo and spent the night in a farm in the mountains if I’d been taking trains and staying in hostels? Would I have spent the night in a sixteenth century monastery in Montenegro if I hadn’t been picked up by an Orthodox monk on a small country road? Would I have met so many interesting people if I hadn’t had to walk up to them and ask for assistance? On this trip I experienced a lot more of the Balkans than I would have, had I travelled like the typical Euro-rail-pass-carrying backpacker.
The third benefit is the complete absence of hassle. No longer do you have to get up early on your last day in a city to make it to the airport in time. You don’t have to find out how to get to the airport nor how much it will cost you. You don’t need to worry about making it to your hostel before they cancel your reservation. All these problems come with conventional travel and make it painful at times.
The fact that this way of traveling happens to be a very cheap way of doing things is a benefit, but in comparison to the other advantages, it seems so minuscule that it is hardly worth mentioning.
Is carefree traveling for you?
You don’t become the ultimate carefree traveler overnight and it isn’t a philosophy that everyone will embrace. But if you already have a tendency towards detachment from objects and you enjoy peace of mind more than a warm shower, then you should get used to it pretty quickly.
You’ll probably want to phase into it gradually: first by replacing overland flights with buses and trains, then switching to hitching when you can. Then you’ll start replacing hostel nights with couchsurfing, camping or urbancamping.
Before you know it, you’ll be wandering the streets of a city you’ve never heard of looking for cardboard and a bus stop to sleep in while looking forward to hitching to a lake the next morning to take your first bath in four days. You’ll find yourself sitting by the lake on a sunny day with nowhere to go that day and you’ll lie in the grass, stare at the sky and think to yourself “life is sweet!”