By Beth J. Harpaz, Special to the Los Angeles Times
May 27, 2012
Michael Wigge left Berlin without a penny and traveled 25,000 miles to Antarctica, hitchhiking, bartering and working his way by ship, plane, car and foot, from Europe to Canada and the U.S. and then through Latin America.
Wigge, a travel journalist and videographer, left Berlin in June 2010 and traveled for 150 days through 11 countries, arriving in Antarctica in November 2010. More than 100 people helped, providing transportation, food and accommodations. He planned the journey for a year, collecting contacts, but he also relied on the kindness of strangers.
At first, Wigge scrounged for food from garbage bins, but he soon realized that "Dumpster diving wasn't necessary. I could walk in and do a barter. I offered to clean the floor or the shelf or wash the dishes in the restaurant in exchange for an old sandwich."
In Latin America, he found that "people were very helpful if I went to their door and said, 'Can I sleep here?' There was this helpfulness, this hospitality, maybe because many people there are poor and they know how it feels. They didn't care about my story. But in the U.S., it was more about the story. They would say, 'This is cool. We want to help you reach your goal.'"
He crossed the Atlantic working on a container ship from Belgium to Canada in exchange for his passage, doing jobs as diverse as painting and changing the oil in the engine room. In Las Vegas, he engaged in pillow fights for $1 on the street and offered his back as a "human sofa" for tired visitors. In San Francisco, he collected tips for "pushing heavy tourists up the hills." Eventually he had 300 $1 bills, which he used to buy plane fare to Costa Rica. From there he hitchhiked to Panama, where he worked as a butler for the German ambassador.
To cross from Ushuaia, Argentina, to Antarctica, he worked on a luxury cruise ship as an assistant to the expedition leader.
His worst job, he said, was a stint as a porter carrying tourists' luggage in exchange for a trip to Machu Picchu, the ancient Inca city in the Peruvian Andes. "I was the worst porter the Andes had ever seen," he said.
The other workers were accustomed to handling tents and meals for tourists along the 50-mile, five-day route, then running ahead carrying 60 pounds of luggage on their backs in time to set up the next campsite before the tourists arrived, all at 14,000-feet elevations. Wigge did not have the stamina to keep up.
After two days, the tour operators put his luggage on horses and allowed him to walk at a regular pace rather than staying behind and running ahead to help with campsites.
Wigge kept a video diary with the goal of eventually producing a TV series. He nearly lost the precious tapes while staying with a German expat in Cuzco, Peru. "The whole apartment burned down before we went to sleep," Wigge said. But he was able to get his travel bag — including the videos and camera — out, and looks back on the incident philosophically: "We are still alive."
Once he'd achieved his goal of starting out with no money and completing a one-way trip to Antarctica, he had no qualms about accessing a bank account for return fare to Germany.
You can do what he did, you said. "If you're not too vain to do something like pillow fighting or being a human sofa, you can barter your way from something very small to something very big," he said. Why not travel and be a bit silly?" For more info, check his website, http://www.howtotraveltheworldforfree.com.
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