In October 2013 we left home with a little cash and a long road ahead . Our aim was to reach India over land or sea. As conscious hitchhikers and travelling pirates, we had quite some experience with low-budget adventures and had taken our first steps into simple living – we were baking bread, foraging wild food and moving slow within the boundaries of a city. We had a short history of failed squatting attempts and a more or less successful dumpster diving career. But this time we decided to go a bit further and thought of travelling the whole way to India with a small budget of 3 Euros per person per day.
Why? First of all, because it was time to leave Bulgaria before getting trapped in its net of wonders forever, secondly because we wanted to get as far as possible with our travel savings and we wanted to travel in a way as simple as possible, leaving behind unnecessary comforts. And last but not least because we believed and claimed that travel is a right and not a privilege, voluntarily participating in an experimental travel to simplicity. Also because of Taylor (RIP), a traveller who posted in CS that he had been all over Central Asia for a year with 800 dollars – we thought that if he had made it, we could probably also find our recipe to what we now jokingly call “miserable travels”.
After a year of many happy experiences and some disturbing episodes, with a lot of adaptation, we can claim to have graduated a Master of Minimal Travel Economics, with subjects ranging from Reasons why Turkish beer is cheaper in Georgia to The post agricultural state and the price of tomatoes in the steppe or The key to successful hostel negotiation in China. In this pseudo-academic journey we have come to a few essential conclusions that are worth being shared for the benefit of future “miserable travellers”. First of all, Asia is not so cheap; we have not gotten to Thailand or India yet, but so far we have been surprised by the standard of living and aspirations of people in many of the countries of this vast and diverse continent. The costs of living are often not much different from those on the Balkans – certainly a tragic revelation for a native Bulgarian and somebody who’s been earning a wage there for a while. A second discouraging discovery was that most of the people we meet do not want to travel like us. Although we planned to tell to each and every one “you can do this too”, we soon realized that our target group has already been reached by another bullet and prefers a plane and a hotel than a backpack and a tent; they often do not believe we have no Iphone but a map and most of the time are greatly worried about our future career and curious about family planning. Gradually we reached the conclusion that we had looked at the travels in Asia through the pink spectacles of a post-graduate novice, with our preconceptions influencing a misconception of reality. But we are not the only ones. We are just one couple of travellers among the thousands that flood the roads, all of us armed with suitcases and backpacks stuffed with delusional constructions of the world.
Only when we totally freed ourselves from the self-imposed responsibility of recruiting unwilling travellers for the roving caravan, we started properly enjoying the road and the peculiarities of local idiosyncrasies, completely immersing ourselves in everyday life wherever we went. In family gatherings or religious celebrations, while feeding camels or milking cows – life was a joy for the passing observants. However, we now know that we were only happy due to our idle ignorance. In fact we were milking more cows than we supposed…Have you ever heard of sponging? A traveller we met in Kashgar poured an ice water bucket over our astonished heads: ‘Hitchhikers and even worst cyclists, are a gang of self-centered extruders, only getting but never willing to give back’. Identified this way, as thirsty vampires roaming the world and maliciously sucking the limited resources of good-willed humanity we felt a heavy judging look upon us and although we fastly stroke back with the basic defensive argument that “not everyone is lucky enough to have a job in Germany or the UK and pay for an expensive holiday”, we actually took the baton and dedicated some time to reconsidering our whole philosophy.
Money definitely matters. Money stinks, its pretty pictures printed in the cellars of infamous institutions, it passes from hand to hand gathering the grease of our greed and, essentially, is a filthy matter that we can’t do without. Some accumulate it, some waste it, others ration it, and a few try to completely avoid it. But in any case, we are all “worried about money”, no matter in which box each of us falls. It is a means to finding our way when we can’t provide for ourselves, it’s a way to get anything we cannot produce, to food to water or a roof, it’s a way to little or big luxuries, to anything we want. When it comes to travelling, money seems to be considered absolutely paramount, since the elusive dream of complete self-sufficiency is incompatible with the nature of moving and exposing oneself to the vulnerabilities of the unknown. Some travellers say that money is not just the easiest means to finding their way through but also a form of contributing to the local economies of the places and communities they visit. The obsession with “giving back” follows each of us on our idle days on the road, but we believe that every traveller looks for a different way to share whatever s/he can. Money is a tool to sort our basic needs, maybe including the need to give, but we want to remember, it is not the only and universal way. We think that to meaningfully engage with people on the road, we do not need to have a stack of dollars in the pocket, that the time spent, the skills shared and the friendships made might be just as important, of even more, than a few pennies spent in finding our cheapest way to comfort. In the end, all of them might just be excuses for our own inability to truly contribute to the local issues we observe while passing by. But in any case, we can only advice, give what you have, and go beyond the money paradigm.
How can one travel with 3 Euros a day?
Travelling with 3 Euros a day is more of a hurdle race than a holiday. It is about getting to one’s basic needs and finding out what is truly essential. In other words, it is about eating ice-cream on special days instead of every afternoon. It is a way of putting oneself in unknown hands, of trusting the stranger and of finding creative solutions to the issue of giving back. But anyway, we do not really know what it is. We failed. After counting and adding numbers in twelve currencies, using our excel skills for the benefit of truth, we can only openly state that we have actually failed the challenge. Our average budget has been 3.30 Euros per person per day, including all food, accommodation, teas, beers and internet. To travel this way has not been easy, and we often tell people that 4 or 5 Euros would be a wiser amount, that ten or twenty would mean comfort, that more might be splurging but in the end, it is an individual choice. There is no perfect way to travel, but for those poor “supertramps” who want to see the world and travel towards simplicity, here is our 3.3 recipee:
Additional costs during our first year of travel:
– Visas: 240 Euros p.p. We keep visa budget separate from everyday life on the road, because they vary according to where we are. In Georgia, Armenia, Turkey we stayed for almost half a year with minimal (or zero) visa expenses, while in Central Asia these costs raised to their heights.
– Travel Insurance: 140 Euros p.p. for one year. A gift from Boris grandpa for us. Our insurance is very very basic, covering only health emergencies (no robbery, no flights cancelling, no fancy stuff). It helped us out in a couple of occasions, but it’s a whole new post to discuss whether it’s needed and for what.
– A laptop: 200 Euros. This is an extra (and big expense) which luckily you will probably not have. But we got stolen our old netbook right at the time when we were starting to write travel articles for magazines, so we invested our combined birthday gifts in that.
1. Food is all that matters
Food is the main reason we decided to travel with money, instead of surfing bravely the world with empty wallets. When we planned our long journey we thought we did not want to depend on the fridges of our potential hosts, or fall into the trap of taking from those who may offer more than they can afford. We also wanted to be able to bring a meal to any table.
In the quest of not carving new dents to our belts we are always happy to try the delicacies of local street food (provided it has no flesh or bones), and enjoy exploring all the labels in foreign supermarkets finding new flavours and learning from the mistakes of our curiosity. However, it is in markets that we feel like children in an attraction park. We jump among the stalls of fresh vegetables and dry fruits, gather tiny packages of tea, and eventually, as we leave the markets behind, we always find out that our backpacks are well overweight. Dumpster diving has not been an option in Asia for us (due to the hygienic state of the trash bins), but we did some community food gathering in Tbilisi, collecting disposed vegetables from market stalls for group meals in a cultural center and the response from the sellers was amazing.
In the course of our travel, we were happy to discover, that 3 Euros per day is enough to feed more than only two people and that beyond simply ‘belly stuffing’, satisfying the whims of our gastronomic palates, proved to be also perfectly doable with a little dose of creativity. We forage in the forest, we buy in town, gathering flavours from everywhere around. And just like at home, we cook every day. Either on our stove, on fire, or at somebody’s kitchen. Vegetarian meals are what we offer to our hosts. We eat as local as possible, which means stuffing ourselves with oranges in Turkey all over November, with beetroot and cabbage during the Caucasian winter, with rice in Iran and bread in Central Asia. Food is the way we often participate in family life. And an occasional visit to a local restaurant is what gives names to the recipes we try in any home.
2. Transport is something else than a way of moving from A to B to C to A
India has become an excuse more than a destination and we have learnt that every spot on the map could be a station. We hitchhike all the way, no matter the season, and have discovered that this is a universally recognized way of moving, even in countries when it is claimed to be uncommon. For us transport is rather about ‘stuffing’ gaps, in trucks, cars or caravans, than simply moving fast. Hitchhiking is our way to fill the map with the most interesting stories and encounters.
Walking is how we discover any city, the tourist centers, the marginal neighbourhoods and the hidden tracks to nearby hills. It is also the way we get out of most cities, suffering and enjoying every step of the way out of town in equal terms.There is something special in treading out of a city, in letting it unveil its ugliest corners, the roads to the highway, the train lines. We walk for miles on dust or asphalt, hiking in nature whenever we have the chance has been the way to the scent of herbs and forest fruits, to natural hot springs, to forgotten ruins, to the rough kindness of the mountain dwellers.
That does not mean though, we have decided to completely turn back to public transport. Although we are not big fans of long bus drives, sometimes we ride around town on trams, trolleys, buses or underground. And we like catching a train from time to time, to rest from the hitchhiking dynamic and watch the landscapes pass like in a trotting movie. We love trains.
3. A roof if a roof when the rain is coming
Most of the evenings, our work starts when the sun sets, and we need to get clever at least for a couple of minutes – find a flat and clean spot hidden from the road, be careful not to step on people’s fields, calculate where the sun rises from, make sure we will won’t freeze and wake up with a toe or two out of order, cross our fingers, combined with a passionate pray to the clouds just in case, that it does not rain inside the tent again.
We sleep under the stars or sheltered by an old tent (the best gift we could have received when ours got lost), at the end of villages, in meadows, by rivers, in forests and mountains. And although we love urban camping, and sneaking into abandoned places, we must confess that Couchsurfing and BeWelcome have spared us many sleepless nights in big cities or dusty towns and has brought us some of the best company. But the hospitality of people is boundless, and doesn not thrive only in social networks. While hitchhiking, drivers are often brilliant hosts, that take us home showing proudly around what they found by the roadside. Also while walking around villages we are invited into yards, verandas or homes, and in the mountain we have fallen asleep around the boiling stove of simple shepherd’s huts. Entering somebody’s home is a gift for the travellers, that never ceases to surprise, it is a micro-universe of interior landscapes to be re-discovered every day.
Of course, we sometimes sleep in guesthouses or hostels too (although we do not like talking about it, hehe!). Dormitories, pilgrims shelters, simple rooms, gardens and rooftops. The only thing we need is a window and a place to cook. And we have to confess that a couple of days of foreign travellers talks and fresh air makes us feel accompanied along the way.
4. Culture is everywhere
One of us loves museums, it’s something she can’t deny, and suffers with the astronomic prices of some entrance tickets, and saves on drinks to visit art. But there are many times when free stuff is the best stuff, when discounts apply, or when a blog can be a visit card to some pricey location. We have learnt that there are no “must sees” (ok, just a few) , and that cheaper alternatives to the tourist hot spots often hide unknown surprises.
Culture is music on the streets and in scented gardens, is art that tattoos the skin of the cities – its architecture, sculptures, frescoes, murals or grafitties. Culture is the story that an archeologist tells you over bread and tea, or a student lets you guess, it is history written on each wall and every cracked tile. We believe that learning about a place is way more than collecting beautiful entrance tickets.
We have discovered that artists and artisans live in the most unexpected towns and villages, their creations completing the beauty of what is around. To appreciate and support their work, we like buying what they make, but our backpacks are too heavy to become a roving gallery and we keep nothing for ourselves, sending treasures to some of our readers instead (and thus getting the chance to explore the shadowy world of post offices in every country! uff! visiting them over and over has not helped us unraveling the puzzling riddle of how on Earth do they work – we are still surprised most parcels reach Europe safe).
Water is a human right and should cost no more than the air, do not stay thirsty. Cold with lemon or mint, warm with tea, with ginger and honey, with powder chocolate. There is always an affordable drink in every country. Turkish tea in every petrol station, Iranian tea in every park, in Central Asia the same fermented leaves served with milk and in the Tibetan mountains in a peculiar combination of salt and butter. In China, littres and littres of hot water stored in plastic-thermos.
But, what about beer? – here comes the tricky question. We wished we had carried Bulgarian bottles for three months in Turkey, the weight we saved in our backs got heavy on our pockets. Georgia was a blessing for our drinking half – morning cha cha (vodka) in the villages, evenings of home-made wine, the post-soviet version of homeopathy. In Iran we stepped into underground wineries, in Iraq walked the Christian neighbourhoods and later on met the spirits loving version of Muslims in Central Asia. We are not the best clubbers, but can enjoy an afternoon under the sun, a drink in a park or some sort of party, specially in the countries where it is part of the official culture, or the hidden one. And if you happen to have some time and the right herbs at hand, why not brew yourself some drinks on the way?
6. Wifi comes served with a cup of tea
We have found free internet in an Armenian park, in Chinese hostels or Kyrgyz caffes. If you carry your own device, there are better ways to update Facebook than sitting on a loud and hectic internet caffee. For emergencies, we have sometimes asked in the lobby of fancy hotels. And, for us, there is no better place than a cozy teahouse to catch up with reading, writing and Skype.
7. Showers are your only concern
Well, this is what you may think at the beginning of your travel, when one day of dirty hair is a nightmare in the photo album. Although in a few places, maybe only in Iran, shower is offered as often as tea, it’s not the case in the rest of destinations. On sunny days one can get hot water in Turkey, once a week is bath day in Kyrgyzstan (and their hot “banya” are worth the waiting!), and we are still to discover the shower pattern in Tibet. Our advice: dip into river and lakes whenever you can, and never ever say no to a shower invitation. You never know when it is gonna be the next time!
8. And back to giving back
Everybody has something that someone else may need, and we do not speak only of materials things. Languages, knowledge, tips and random skills. Share what you know and be generous with your time. And whatever you give, a coffee to your drivers, some hours of work, meals, gifts, hugs or smiles, do so with joy.