Author: Bernd Wechner
Published on: September 1, 2000
I'm sure it's been done, time and again, since the first coin was minted, but all the same it's incredible to find modern day folk who are prepared to embark on journey of any great distance with no money in their pockets or at their disposal - by choice rather than need, no less and then publish the tale (or perhaps that's the very point?).
In 1994 Mike McIntyre, a successful 37 year old San Franciscan journalist hits his mid-life crisis full on: "If I were told I was going to die today, I'd have to say I never took a gamble. I played life too close to the vest ... Wiping tears form my eyes, I know it's time to bet or fold. Just this once I want to know what it feels like to shove all my chips in the pot and go for broke". With which he quit his job, packed a bag, emptied his pockets and set off to cross the continent without a penny ... He documents his trip from San Francisco to Cape Fear, North Carolina in The Kindness of Strangers: Penniless Across America (Berkley Books, New York).
Some years later, a young Englishman slumming on the beaches of Goa in India has planted in him the seeds of a similar mission by the freaks still lingering there. Tom Thumb was a dreamy lay-about at age 20 pre-occupied with the spiritual dimensions of living. He read a book by and met the guy who hitched from San Francisco to Argentina without a dime (Robin Brown, Further Up the Road) . Convinced the experience would add dimension to his life he headed back to England only to travel back to Goa once more without a dime "living in poverty to complement [his] search for a simple spiritual sanctity." He set out in the summer of 1997 and published his account in Hand to Mouth to India (Alchemy Books, London).
The two accounts are radically different, on radically different routes, by radically different souls, and yet they are united by a certain introspection, enlightenment along the way, and of course poverty and thumbing (rides, and their noses at common-place, bourgeois values).
Mike seems a typical American, having passed much of his life in the comfort of middle class living, approaching forty, realised he's not really lived yet. He's different though, biting the bullet and trying, however superficially (he still has a bank account after all), to live a hard dream, to test himself and his suppositions. And he has a lot to test. He's full of all the middle class paranoia you'd expect of your average American couch potato. All the way he's stunned and amazed by how friendly, supporting and open the people around him are, how readily they'll help a stranger out. He's not ungrateful, just unable to understand, again and again. Eventually it clicks though and with eyes wide open he remarks:
"I've been amazed on this trip by the stubborn capacity of Americans to help a stranger, even when it seems to run contrary to their own best interests. I think of all the families who take me in. I arrive with nothing but my pack, while they expose their homes, their possessions, their children. As scared as I am to trust them, they must be doubly afraid to trust me. Then again, what might truly frighten them is the idea of not trusting anybody. It's like this woman has just told me – She'd rather risk her life than feel bad about passing a stranger on the side of the road. As I slide into the backseat, I realise she would have stopped for the guy with the gas can I left stranded last year in the Nevada desert."
But he never seems to quite reach the ranks of fearphobics himself. Even towards the end of his journey, well after he'd mused on the trust others had shown, he congratulates himself for saving his own life by turning down (for the first time) a ride from two characters too shifty for the little devil sitting on his shoulder whispering sweet paranoid fears into his ear. (c.f. Jacob Holdt, who never turned down a ride!)
All the same Mike was true. He accepted no gifts of money on the way, and avoided unnecessary mention of his chosen poverty in conversations as long as he could, disdaining the star status it inevitably gave him in others eyes. (c.f. Tony Hawks, who revelled in it).
Mike travelled almost 7000 km in six weeks. "It took giving up money to have the richest experience of my life." he concludes.
Tom on the other hand sees himself very much as the wandering minstrel. He's an avid hitch-hiker, travels with a Clarinet, plays the blues, knows he's a charmer, and refuses to lay a finger on work. In fact, like Howard Marks, I too "bet this guy never worked a day in his life"! He waxes lyrical on occasion spinning passages as colourful and gaudy as any woven tapestry. He's introspective, and displays wonderful insights into human nature from time to time. He's well read and can surprise us with stunning insights into the cultural evolution of the sedentary lifestyle and personal hygiene, but he's also admittedly self-centred, often ill at ease with his own emotional outbursts and judgmental character. He can find fault with people as fast as he can flatter them, and is time and again ungrateful for the favours extended him.
He too battles with his own paranoia, ascribing it to tiredness, to good dope, or simply justifying or dismissing it as he confesses fears of being murdered by some innocent benefactor – a gruff truck driver for example simply because he's pulled over on a quiet highway for a lunch break and doesn't have much to say.
He rides the standard "I'm much better than those people who use travel guides" line of thinking and expresses it time and again in no uncertain terms. "... the fat-walleted fuckers should stay at home" he says. He's obsessed with dope, discovered the inner meaning of techno music through LSD, and can't get women off his mind, but none of that stops him seeing through himself and displaying some wonderful cultural sensitivity and understanding at times. (c.f. Jaime Salazar, for a similar trip without the sensitivity!)
Still, he's not quite as penniless as Mike, he accepts money as gifts, he rides through most Romania and Bulgaria on trains, and most of Turkey and Iran on busses, and even has a travellers cheque stashed on him for that Indian visa he needs on the way (a necessity with which Mike admittedly never needed to grapple). He's also not as discrete or modest about it, often carrying a postcard with his spiritual cash-less mission explained in the local tongue, to solicit offers of support. He's certainly pragmatic about capitalising on his star status. (c.f. Tony Hawks, who was even worse!).
Relaxing in the Indian Himalayas, not far from his goal, he reflects rather sadly: "In truth, I was tired of who I'd become as my whole trip had backfired on me ..." already in Pakistan he noticed "there was nothing glamorous about this whole trek. I now knew it was possible to get from A to B without any money – so what? This trip now seemed to be proving something to everyone but myself but it was me alone who was having to endure it. I felt like I'd been given a ticket for the wrong show."
Well, Tom may think that Kerouac was thinking of Beatific visions when he coined the term, but Kerouac himself confessed it was because he was feeling beaten, and so in his own way Tom joined the Beat Generation in every real sense of the word. He was truly beat.
Mike emerged from his mid-life crisis, and Tom was arguably thrust into an early one, but both of them grew in ways they might never have imagined, by giving up money, and relying on the kindness of strangers, living from hand to mouth.
I can heartily recommend both of these books. Great reading. But specifically, if you've ever wondered what the hitching is like in India or Pakistan, or want to learn about oriental mystics in the Himalayas or the plight of Kurds, then definitely pick up Hand to Mouth to India. Or, if you're convince North America is dangerous place full of serial killers, mass murderers, racism and hatred, definitely pick up The Kindness of Strangers and explore a recent reality that should help ease your fears.
Both books are available through Amazon on-line.