Anywhere But Here
The Memories of a Hitch-hiker
© Copyright 1996–2004, Bernd Wechner

Appendix C: The Wall

When Pink Floyd sang of it, they were tapping into one of the most powerful metaphors I know - The Wall. They wove it into a complex rock opera touching so many variants on the barrier theme, so emotively that it won a significant place in the history of music. And yet, one Wall I didn't see addressed in that piece is the one I encountered most, as a traveller - the Wall of Wealth.

I was a vagabond, a hitch-hiker, a homeless wanderer for some years, and yet I was wealthy, I had money ... eccentric? different? Maybe, maybe not? Let's walk through some of the themes that money raises when we cross cultures and open our eyes ...

A New Class

I consider myself well rooted in the middle-class of Australian culture, Australia being a developed nation, one of the 10 or 20 wealthiest nations of earth. Unsurprisingly I have a lot of contact with my peers in that regard, be they American, European, Japanese, it matters not, the middle-classes tend to mingle.

I'd like to call these people the new bourgeois just to distinguish them from the more classic and more general notion. What distinguishes the new bourgeois from the bourgeois in general is purely temporal. They are the children of the 60's and onwards, they are at home in developed nations, and they are middle-classed, not overly poor, not overly wealthy, have probably to work for a living in some way. Many will or do live in houses or decent flats, will or do have a car or comparable mobility. Most have, or could have, a television, radio, stereo, refrigerator, stove, and some furniture.

I am a member of the new bourgeois and will refer collectively to myself and my peers as we or us .

We have seen many new things - a man on the moon to kick it all off perhaps. Novelties have characterised our lives. One of those novelties I think is a rather new and unique relationship to money ... unlike any seen before.

The Evolution of Greed

Money is a wonderful thing. It buys us the things we need. Food and shelter at least, a few luxuries maybe, and yes, even love sometimes! We need it. Some, at least - or life becomes an endless chase for charity, which usually means money in any case.

My grandparents were poor. Many of our grandparents were poor. They had little money, and few means of securing it. They had to secure their daily bread, the roof over their heads, against the very real risks of hunger and homelessness.

Heck, millions of people today still face that battle! Are still concerned on a daily basis with the inadequacies of their standard of living and pursuing, in whatever ways possible, to better that standard.

But we, the middle-class youth of developed nations, the X-generation and on, most of us have never faced those dramas. All the same we've inherited a pattern of thinking forged by our grandparents. For the better part, we - the new bourgeois of the developed world, focus our lives on securing a future, on staving off the poverty we fear may strike us down in old age, or the craving for new toys which is so well planted within us by our media driven societies.

But we are for the better part spoiled. How many Europeans and Americans have I met bemoaning the state of the economy, the state of the nation, some new tax, some new cost cut, some new expense, some new price rise ... ? More than I can count. I always find it ill conceived, slightly arrogant even, for the citizens of the 10 or 20 wealthiest nations on earth to bemoan their standard of living. Yet it seems an overly common habit.

A short trip through the developing world with open eyes is a wonderful panacea for this mind set. It generally bestows upon us a new awareness for the enormous web of securities we have around us. Be it a social security system, a comfortable family, the Red Cross, Salvation Army, or Samaritans ... whatever it is we have, visiting the have-nots opens our eyes to it. Many of us don't even have to travel so far to find them, they may be living in our local slum or ghetto - some place we like not to go for fear of seeing first hand how well off we are ...

But we, of the middle-classes have a luxury many people don't. That is security. The bottom line is, it would take a very very serious catastrophe before we ever go hungry or homeless. When we have security concerns, it's much rather a question of whether we'll always have that car, that colour TV, that hi-fi and so on ... Insofar as those things have become overly important in middle-class culture, our perception of wealth has become seriously skewed.

We have become greedy. Audaciously so. Our pursuit of security, has shifted from "securing life" to "securing comfort" and that is a luxury that should engender in us some humility.

I'm not trying to suggest it's wrong! Not at all. Such luxury is a good thing. It's a great thing. That we should be so privileged as to pursue comforts is a measure of our success, of the success of our grandparents in staving off hunger and homelessness. We have a come a long, long way this century ...

What I am suggesting though, is that we can wear our wealth with humility. That most of us seem instead to wear it with a subliminal arrogance. I propose that the arrogant pursuit of wealth is greed - its humble pursuit is reason.

Buying Independence (A million islands)

Our pursuit of wealth often seems very one sided. We seem to see that which we stand to gain, mostly what we can buy but pay little attention to that which we lose. Each coin has two sides and we do indeed lose something very tangible when we buy.

Independence instills in us great pride, is a mark of achievement and respect. There seems a background belief that it can be bought - that enough money will win you independence. You'll not be relying on your parents anymore, nor your community or state or country for handouts after all ...

But there is a substantial degree to which this is a mere illusion. Nothing can buy independence, except perhaps a good deal of talent, stamina and grit (in the manner of your average live it alone in the woods Grizzly Adams kinda guy). Buying things relies inherently upon someone else providing them after all.

We cannot buy independence This is an oxymoron. Buying implies dependence.

It is not independence then which instills us with great pride. So what is it? Ironically, it would seem that it is the formalisation and depersonalisation of relationships which does so - under the guise of independence. That is, the act of buying is relatively formal - a calculated exchange of goods or services for a measure of wealth (money). It demands no personal relationship between the buyer and the seller, indeed they aren't required to know one another, or like one another at all.

Freedom can be bought. Freedom from the need to know one another. Freedom from the need to please one another. Freedom from the need obey one another.

And that is, after all, a good thing. Freedom is rightly I think and even higher ideal than independence. We pursue it relentlessly. And the new bourgeois has a great deal of freedom ...

That is good after all. I certainly cherish it. Everyone who has some, no doubt does.

Still, it comes at a cost. We thrive, after all, upon relationships and the less justice we do them, the more we depersonalise them, the more isolated we feel. Ever noticed that happening?

The Economic Divide

In 1991 I was in the newly created Czech-Republic, in Prague. Roman, a guy I had never met and only knew through an hospitality club thrust his keys into my hand as he left on holidays ... I had his one room apartment to myself for the duration of my stay. One room in the Czech Republic meant one room - the kitchen, bed and toilet all occupied the one space, with a curtain that could be drawn around the toilet.

I had some exposure already to this no-holds-barred hospitality of Eastern Europeans, but still it was a thought provoking situation. I left the key in the mailbox with a tank you card and never really met Roman - he remains a fleeting memory of disarming hospitality.

Lest you think this is a phenomenon reserved for very poor countries, Jacob Holdt reports very similar situations in the United States (c.f. American Pictures, American Pictures Foundation, Copenhagen, 1985). It happens wherever money is scarce and relationships are important.

The conversation that sticks in my mind most poignantly from that stay was with a taxi driver in Prague. There was a festival of sorts on, we were at the river side, and somehow I'd got to talking with this taxi driver. He reflected solemnly on the changes that had swept over his country and his life. The borders were open, there was more freedom, and much more money about - that was good, to be sure. But somehow he felt, something had gone missing, something very important to him. Before the changes, they weren't as well off perhaps, but they were together. Now, he had lost some good friends he noted. People he'd known all his life, best mates ...

"How so?" I wondered aloud.

Well, the money hadn't flown in very equally. The first people to see some were the entrepreneurs - that is, people who could buy and sell ideas and goods, who had that special twist of personality that we associate with bold merchants, traders and businessmen. This was, after all, one of the new freedoms: that anyone who was willing and able to take on risks, borrow money to make money, buy foreign goods sell them locally and vice versa ... could do now so.

Well, this guy wasn't like that. He wasn't a wheeling dealing kind of guy. So he drove a taxi and studied on the side. But he had friends who were.

As they made more and more money, a certain discomfort entered the relationship. Not anyone's fault in particular, but the themes of conversation drifted apart. Different things were important in their lives as the economic divide grew. Those with money talked more and more about making and spending money, rising crime and burglary rates, security and so on. Those without money had different things to talk about. They had less and less to say one another.

He saw the same thing going on in many peoples lives.

This was the evolution of Czech society he felt - in the 1990s.

To a degree, this was nothing more than a readjustment of relationships to the new situation. Not a bad thing really. The world was changing after all, and so relationships would change to meet the new reality. But it is sobering all the same to be reminded so poignantly of the hidden costs ...

All through the 1990s I met Easter Europeans who mirrored those feelings. A nostalgic melancholy seemed to afflict many people, reflecting on the unity they felt as a people when they were being oppressed by the state and how that seemed to be in decline.

Hollow Smiles

I haven't travelled the developing world very extensively at all - parts of Asia, even less of Africa. Wherever I went though I found the most amazingly friendly people. It is not a unique experience, almost any traveller will report the same. It never ceases to amaze people how charming and giving people in poor countries are.

There is a very genuine and very human hospitality that underlies this friendliness. You will find it at home too if you look. Generally you'll find it in cultures or sub-cultures in which human relationships are still as important as fiscal relationships, where people need one another.

It is predominantly from where the illusion is fostered that people don't need one another, where this faux sense of independence has risen to the fore, that the travellers reporting this phenomenon come. "Wow," they marvel when they first encounter it.

Tony Wheeler first wrote about this kind of amazing friendliness in Southeast Asia in the early 1970s and from the success of that has grown the Lonely Planet publishing house.

Still, the same people over time notice that wherever there are tourists, an industry to exploit them emerges and the way that industry markets itself is with smiles and hands of friendship. Where the tourism is most evolved so too is this industry. In parts of Bangkok and Kathmandu for example you cannot walk for 10m without someone accosting you as a friend ultimately with a sting (a string, or a sales pitch). They might be selling rugs, parchments, gemstones or their bodies, it doesn't matter, they're selling something.

It is so extreme in places that the tourists learn to protect themselves with stares of knowing and threatening malice. I learned this skill in Kathmandu. I was so tired of being accosted every few paces from my hotel into town that I could see the touts approaching me form the corner or my eye and cast them a glance that had them retreating. It's not a pleasant skill to acquire - you need to learn how to say "I know your game buddy and I don't wanna play" and "one more step this way and I'll tear you limb from limb you lousy scumbag" all with a look.

It won't even work everywhere. There'll be places where the returned smile just says "You, tear me limb from limb, ha, have you considered buy a ..." Topkapi bus terminal in Istanbul struck me that way. Nothing short of taping your already purchased bus ticket to your forehead would empower you to walk through it without having to say "no thank you" about 20 or 30 times a minute.

Tourists the world over bemoan this phenomenon. Wheeler in the Lonely Planet guide books of the 1990s reflected in his introduction how Thailand had changed since the 1970s when he first visited. Little does he stop to consider what role his own guide books have played in creating the industry that brought this about - by helping to popularise Thailand among western holiday makers.

Some tourists even deigned to distinguish themselves from those responsible for creating these "everything is for sale" cultures by adopting the label traveller. "I'm not a tourist, I'm a traveller," they would recite with pride - and then go and find a room to stay in and buy food and trinkets in the streets and a good many of them indulge in the drugs and sex on offer - creating and sustaining the very demand which the industries about which they complain are fuelling.

The simple act of being there and having money to spend, and spending it, brings this about. It is not wrong, it isn't bad, it is just so. The have-nots prostitute their friendliness for the haves. What else should we expect?

The reality is though, that many of the smiles are hollow. So ubiquitously so, it becomes incredibly difficult to distinguish them from the genuine; even impossible. The only relationships I remember forming in these areas which I valued in retrospect where with people to whom I had some kind of contact prior to arriving. Some were pen-pals, some were friends of friends, some were in hospitality clubs, others in WWOOF or esperantists. It mattered not how I knew them, the mere fact that we were people with a context broader than my both being there and having the funds to be there.

Of course many who know this will tell you now, that another way to forge towards real relationships in developing nations is to walk where no tourist has walked before - or relatively few. They will preach this continuously in fact as will all the most precious tourist guide books. When I was in Thailand in the mid 1990s Vietnam had just opened its borders and this is where everyone in Thailand and every new travel guide directed me.

I refused steadfastly to go - a decision made easy by commitments elsewhere I confess. Still, I had good Vietnamese friends at home, but none in Vietnam and I felt a very hollow ring to these directions. Yes indeed, I am sure Vietnam would be a paradise for the backpacking adventure tourist with no great exposure to foreigners or their wallets yet. I would experience this later in Romania, and it is indeed most refreshing. But I had no reason to go and at that time was collecting reasons. No friends, no ties, no themes I wanted to explore.

It was the endless hordes of look-and-see travellers, directed to places like this by the Lonely Planet and similar guide books, that effected cultural transformations such as had been bemoaned in Thailand. I had no desire to be part of that wheel without more thought or reason.

I felt increasingly uncomfortable being the rich man in the poor world and turned instead in the years to come to playing the poor man in the rich world - a role with which I was far more comfortable, in which I knew better how to judge the relationships emerging from my travels - more reliably genuine.

Temporary Insanity

Wealth is extremely difficult to let go of. Very few succeed voluntarily. We are squirrels by nature. Only the insane would after all, give everything away and start again from scratch, no?

Perhaps, but many do succeed in play acting the part, for a while at least. Tom Thumb for example travelled from Britain to India without a penny (Hand to Mouth to India, Alchemy Books, London 2000), and Mike McIntyre across the United States without a cent (The Kindness of Strangers, Berkeley Books, New York, 1996). They aren't alone by any measure though. Many people take it upon themselves to live without any money for a while, be it on the road, in a monastery or some other way.

My only encounters without any money at all have been temporary and through poor planning or bad luck. Typically crossing borders without any local currency or losing my wallet on a Friday night with no access to money until Monday when a bank would open.

The first time I remember this happening I hitched into Italy from Austria, it was a Friday night and en-route noticed I had only Schillings on me not Lire. A rather manic woman picked me up and spent the next three weeks showing me Northern Italy (see Don't try for Spain via Italy).

Another time it was Turkey and I arrived from Greece on a way overdue ferry from Xios with no Turkish lire nor any whiff of a chance to acquire any. And it happened again from time to time that, through no direct fault of my own except perhaps poor planning and carefree spontaneity.

I had gotten lax, it was interesting that way - I had time after all on these journeys, no agenda, no hurry to be anywhere, just keen to see some of the world from a different perspective, happy to take what came and no great penchant for comfort.

Many people do this or something very similar to find moments in their lives where money is not the focus of their lives, but something else. Some take time out in spiritual retreats, in extended wilderness experiences or just plain old pre-paid holiday escapes.

Hitch-hiking is just one such opportunity. Especially when combined with a small tent. It is for some a temporary escape from monetary relationships. One of the few opportunities that the new bourgeois have of letting go of preconceptions, and engaging strangers on a very different level to that which we are accustomed to.

Most modern western hitch-hikers can after all afford the alternatives after all. Bus and train travel for the better part is quite affordable. They are often very ordinary people, letting go of bought relationships - a temporary insanity. This is their attack on the wall.

The Grand Irony

A subtle principle that many low budget travellers discover is this:

The more money you save, the more fun you have! If, that is, you think social adventures and a little hardship are fun, if you think discovering how helpful foreigners are is fun ...

That is the grand irony we discover. That money builds walls around us, and we tear them down by removing money from our relationships and that makes for very inexpensive travel indeed!


© Copyright 1996–2004, Bernd Wechner
The Memories of a Hitch-hiker
Anywhere But Here