Michael Wigge endeavored to travel the world without any money, driven only by the necessities to eat, get to the next destination and find a place to sleep. In “How to Travel the World for Free,” he discusses his amazing, arduous and life-affirming experience. Here’s an excerpt.
Chapter 12: My life as a Peruvian (Peru to Bolivia)
The tourists laugh at my rather foolish outfit: Before my departure, Stefan had lent me a traditional poncho and a woolen cap with earmuffs and pompoms, but now it looks like the only Peruvians wearing this attire are the ones you would find in European pedestrian zones.
I am lucky and get a grace period on the first day of the trekking tour. The porters halve the normal carry load for me from 80 pounds to 40 pounds. However, this weight is not carried as it would (or should) be in a normal backpack, but is instead made of plastic bags tied up together with ropes that are then carried as a makeshift backpack. While the porters run in the front at high speed, on the first day I am allowed to walk with the rest of the group at the normal European pace. We cover almost 12 miles and climb from 8,500 feet to the height of 111,800 feet.
Around five in the evening, I reach the first bivouac shelter with the group and help the porters set up the tents for the tourists and to prepare the dinner. The porters have two gas cookers in a small shelter, and for the next two hours, my task is to peel the peas. The evening then becomes a nightmare: while the group can at least sleep protected from the extremely cold temperature in tents, I spend the night with the three other porters in the shelter and only a blue plastic sheet to separate my sleeping bag from the extremely cold, extremedly hard ground. Lying near me is Gomerciendo, the cook for the group. I ask him how he endures this. Gomerciendo explains to me that he sleeps only rarely in beds. While he is snoring away, I remain awake during most of the night; it's noisy, cold, the ground is hard, and the high altitude at 11,000 feet makes me toss and turn all night.
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At four in the morning, Gomerciendo's alarm clock rings. We have exactly one hour to prepare the breakfast for the group. I sit impassively, shivering in the corner. At six o'clock, the group starts for the second leg of the trip; they have six hours time to reach the afternoon stop over the 15,000 feet high Abra-Salkantay pass. The porters have to make it in three hours' time, hence, we have to walk twice as fast, basically running. The reason for this lack of time is that in the morning we took 90 minutes to dismantle the tents, wash the utensils and load the horses that morning, and the porters must arrive at the next stop 90 minutes before the group does so that we have time to prepare and have lunch ready by the time everyone else arrives.
It quickly becomes clear to me that the decision to go along with the group as a porter and as worker was, and is, insane. I can hardly keep up the pace, although I am carrying only half the weight that Gomerciendo, Yuri and Nico have on their backs. After nearly half an hour, I manage to remain standing but pant and bend forward in order to breathe in gulps of air. Yuri asks me to pull myself up and to keep up pace because we are under enormous time pressure; after all, the tourists would like to have their lunch on time. I continue to follow the three porters and the three horses, but physically I am just not able to make it. I am dizzy and my legs feel like rubber.
A short while later I am far behind them. Yuri is up ahead of me me, as the path goes up the mountain in a serpentine trail. He calls out again and again: “Amigo, vienes. No tenemos tiempo! Rápido!” Translated, that is: “Come, my friend, we have no time to lose! Hurry” But it doesn’t help me; the air is too thin and I am not trained. I lie down on the path and breathe in and out deeply. Shortly thereafter, Yuri, Gomerciendo and Nico come down with the horses and look at me hopelessly. Gomerciendo laughs, because he has never seen such an incapable porter in his entire life, but Yuri is annoyed and asks me to stand up. He anxiously explains to me that we need to be at the next camp before the tourists in order to prepare the lunch. If the food is not ready, there will be complaints to the agency, and it might cost them their jobs. I realize that I have behaved carelessly as a porter.
Two evenings ago I had boasted to the boss of the agency (who, by the way, is called Fidel Castro) that I was a thousand-meter runner and that the 50 miles would not be a problem. Now I was a burden on the tour. Due to their care of duty, the porters cannot leave me behind, but also cannot continue to wait for me. I promise them to keep up with the pace, if we could buckle up my weight on one of the horses. The three porters consult among themselves and reach the decision that about 20 more pounds from by baggage could fit on the horses, any more than this would be unbearable for them, too. So now I carry only twenty pounds up the mountain pass, but because of the height it feels like 80 pounds.
Even after this lightened load, I am not able to match the speed of the porters and quickly fall behind. I drag myself through a breathtaking landscape with its snow-covered mountain peaks and glaciers that go up to a height of 20,000 feet, but all this makes no difference to me because I am totally knocked-out and overwhelmed. I come across a wooden hut selling chocolate bars and beverages to the trekking enthusiasts. I hear a German couple trying to decide between a Twix or Snickers, and between a large or a small Coke. I am completely envious and can only drag myself frustratingly past them. Oh, the things I would do now for just a two-liter bottle of Coke and a chocolate bar!
It becomes really cold after 13,000 feet, although we are sweating from the strenuous climb. I can no longer see Yuri and the others. Every step seems like a kick in the teeth; the pain penetrates my entire body. After breaking for the second stretch of the day, Yuri tells me that he earns 50 dollars for a five-day trip. I am speechless that the tourists have to pay so little for such an effort on his behalf
Adapted from "How to Travel the World for Free" by Michael Wigge. Copyright © 2012 by Michael Wigge. Excerpted by permission of www.howtotraveltheworldforfree.com. All rights reserved.
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