*As published in the May 2009 issue of CitiScapes Magazine (www.citiscapes.com)
The Mobile Lawyer Around the world in 365 days with no planes and (almost) no reservations
On Dec. 15, 2008, Fayetteville attorney Michael Hodson did what most people only dream about doing: he took a year off to travel around the world. But to make things a bit more interesting, he did so with one, or rather two, caveats…no planes and (almost) no reservations. The planned route? Due south from Arkansas, through Central America and the west side of South America, over to Argentina, boat to South Africa, up the east side of Africa, then Eastern Europe, the Trans-Siberian railroad, a bit of China, Southeast Asia, then Australia, New Zealand and the three-week boat ride back home. He’s also blogging about the journey as he goes, and uploading scores of photos for all of his “followers” to enjoy (and live vicariously through). We recently caught up with Michael, four months into his solo adventure and having just completed his 10-day journey across the big pond to South Africa. With two continents down and four more to go (almost 50 countries in all), this modern-day explorer gives us a glimpse of life on the open road. –Aaron Bleidt
Q: It’s a big world out there. How and why did you choose these destinations and this particular route?
A: When I decided to go around without getting on a plane, the route pretty much chose itself. Originally I was going to go through the Middle East, then take a boat to Southeast Asia. But when I was in Columbia, I decided to try to hit the southernmost city in the world (Ushuaia, Argentina) and the northernmost (Hammerfall, Norway), which eliminated the Middle East and added Eastern Europe, the Trans-Siberian and a bit of China. Traveling without getting on a plane obviously limits you to a very linear route.
Q: Have you always had the travel bug?
A: I have always loved traveling, but frankly, I lacked the courage to go to too many places where English isn’t universally spoken until about six years ago. I’ve been to Europe about a half-dozen times. Then last year, from mid-December to mid-January, I experimented with my first longer-term solo trip, which was to Nicaragua for a month. I loved it and decided then and there that I was taking 2009 off to go around the world.
Q: What possessed you to pull the plug on your law practice and leave for a whole year? What do you hope to gain from the experience? And what are your plans, career wise, for when you return?
A: I foresaw the economic collapse a year ago and knew it would be a good time to be gone. Kidding, of course. I basically decided to do it because I could. I have no wife and no kids. Nothing was particularly sticking me into the ground. I figured if I didn’t do it now that I might never do it – and would be disappointed with myself every day. As for my post-trip career plan, it’s completely undetermined. I’d love to embark on a third career, this time as a writer, but we’ll see. I am not going to worry about what I will do after for one minute while I’m gone. Life sorts itself out.
Q: How did your friends/family respond? And, how do you stay in touch with them?
A: It was a combination of “you are crazy” and “I wish I was able to do that.” I actually stay in touch about as well now as I did before, absent happy hour drinks. The Internet is a godsend for keeping in touch. Facebook, instant messaging, email, my blog, Skype…I use them almost every day. It is amazing how many places have Internet these days. Almost every $10 hostel I stay in has wireless.
Q: On your blog, you describe the journey as involving “no planes and (almost) no reservations.” Why such limitations? How much pre-planning was actually involved, and how much time is spent in each destination?
A: I did almost no pre-planning at all. Unfortunately, that is a component of my personality, but frankly, you don’t need to plan too much on these trips or you will miss out on the spontaneity of hearing about a good spot and having the ability to go there because you don’t have pre-set plans. I bought some Lonely Planet guidebooks and that was about it. The no-planes thing is because I just wanted a bit of a challenge, and because I think planes distort the true sense of how far you have traveled. You hop on a plane and six hours later you get off thousands of miles away. It took me three days of bus trips to get from the southernmost city in the world, through Patagonia, up the coast to Buenos Aires – just under 1,500 miles. Looking out the window and seeing desolate Patagonia pass by mile after mile was great. The basic times spent in most places are functions of my route and the time you have to consume traveling, if you don’t use planes. One reservation I had to make in advance was the freighter from South America to South Africa. The only boat going that route left on March 31, so that set the time for the Central and South American portions of the trip. I am estimating about three-and-a-half months in Africa, a month going quickly through expensive Europe to Norway and back to St. Petersburg, a month to take the Trans-Siberian to Asia and make my way to Southeast Asia, a month there and about a month-and-a-half between Australia and New Zealand.
Q: How does one budget for such an adventure? And, do you exchange currencies in each destination, or are credit cards the most efficient way of doing business abroad?
A: I had a rough idea of what I thought the trip would take financially based on other blogs and a couple round-the-world guidebooks. I feel pretty confident I can do the entire trip for less than $100 a day. Money on the road is an issue and it will be an even bigger issue in Africa, which has fewer ATMs. First things first, check what your bank and credit cards charge you to make cash withdrawals. My ATM card was stolen early on this trip (my thanks to the great people at the Bank of Fayetteville for getting me a replacement quickly on the road), so I had to use one of my credit cards for cash withdrawals and they charged a hefty fee for each transaction. Basically, I use ATMs almost exclusively. I tend to get better deals if I use cash over credit cards. ATMs also give you better exchange rates than moneychangers.
Q: Are you traveling solo or with others?
A: I am traveling solo, in that no one from home joined me on the trip. I have a great friend, Tim Snively, who might come over and climb Kilimanjaro with me, but other than that, I’m on my own. That said, there is a big backpacker circuit out there and everyone ends up traveling with people here and there. I have met some of my best friends in the world on previous trips and I bet I end up adding another couple dozen to that list by the end of this one. You end up traveling with a few people for a couple days or a couple weeks, then splitting off in new directions and making new travel friends.
Q: How do you overcome language barriers? Are you multilingual?
A: I speak English moderately well, and other than that, my language skills are very, very limited. Having spent three months in Spanish-speaking countries, I’ve picked up a little bit. But the language barrier really isn’t much of a barrier at all, as you tend to meet fellow travelers who are fairly fluent in whatever language is spoken wherever you are. And if you are going to know one language, English is the one – there are tons of people that speak at least a bit wherever you are. Part of the fun of traveling is having a conversation where each of you knows about 5 percent of the other’s language, and you gesture, hand signal and guess the rest of the conversation.
Q: What are your primary modes of transportation, and where do you typically stay? First class or budget?
A: So far, I’d say I’ve gone about 90 percent budget class and 10 percent whatever class is slightly above that. I’m mostly staying at hostels – not only are they cheaper, but they’re the best way to meet people on the road. I will occasionally get a private room instead of a dorm room. As for my transportation, it’s almost all by bus. The buses in Central and South America are great. Most locals seem to travel by that method, so there are tons of options to get where you need to go. It took a little bit to get used to long, overnight bus rides, but you save money on hotel rooms, you don’t lose sightseeing time while getting to the next spot, the bus seats are at least twice as roomy as an airline seat, and you get to see some really horrible movies in dubbed Spanish.
Q: What about luggage and supplies? How much luggage and what all did you pack to start off the trip? What are the necessities for such a journey, and what are the three items you could not live without?
A: I am a one-backpack traveler. It’s a 70-liter pack, and I have to say that I’ve grown quite fond of it. It weighs about 35 pounds fully packed. Packing light on any of these trips is one of the first tips in every guidebook, and they are 100 percent correct. You can always buy stuff you need on the road and you don’t want to be carrying around 10 extra pounds of something you won’t be using every single week. I’ve got a few pairs of boxers; a few pairs of socks; a pair of shorts; a pair of jeans; a pair of khakis; five shirts or so; hiking shoes; a fleece; sandals; books; a laptop for writing, editing photos and connecting to the Internet; bathroom stuff; and a couple other things. Along the way, I’ve bought a sweater, some sunglasses and some bathroom stuff. Oh yeah, and a towel. My three indispensable items: My iPod – given the time I spend in buses, it needs no explanation. A good book – I meet a lot of travelers but eat alone about half the time and/or wander about towns sightseeing, and I enjoy reading while having a beer or a glass of wine. And, lastly, my camera – you come this far, you better be taking pictures of what you are seeing.
Q: What are some of the most interesting experiences you’ve had to-date? Any “ah-ha” moments?
A: I have really enjoyed every country so far, save for Costa Rica – the rest of the region refers to it as “Gringolandia,” and it’s the truth. On the plus side, Columbia was fantastic. The people were simply wonderful and the scenery was spectacular. One Saturday, three of us went to a bullfight and were befriended by a Columbian guy in his 50s who was a huge bullfighting fan. He took us under his wing for about eight hours that day, first sitting next to us at the bullfight and giving us all the ins and outs of that sport, then introducing us to a bunch of his friends at a post-fight party. I can’t tell you how many times locals have gone out of their way to show me their country. The “ah-ha” moment so far was Machu Picchu in Peru. There are few places in the world that live up to the hype, and this is one of them. I got up there as it opened and hiked up Wayna Picchu, the mountain in the background of all the pictures of Machu Picchu you’ve seen. The view from on top back to Machu Picchu defined a “wow” moment. Climbing up the active volcano next to Antigua, Guatemala, was also great, because they let you get within about five feet of the lava. There was a great conversation among my group about how you could never do that in the U.S.!
Q: Friendliest people/cultures thus far?
A: Columbia so far, but really everyone has been great. The more you go to nontraditional tourist countries and places, the friendlier you are going to find the people – they are just so happy you have come to their country. Nicaraguans were wonderful. Peruvians are used to tourists, and they do it right.
Q: Have there been any disappointments of note thus far?
A: I can’t really think of any disappointments other than my self-imposed time limit of one year. I wish I could’ve had a year to just do Central and South America. Most long-term travelers I run into think I am crazy for packing so much into one year.
Q: Have you encountered any curious or otherwise unique foods, a la Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmer?
A: Fried grasshoppers in Oaxaca, Mexico, are supposedly a local specialty, so I tried them…won’t need to do that again. The taste was dry and bitter, not a good combo. Grilled cuy, which is guinea pig, is everywhere in Peru. It’s incredibly overpriced and everyone I know who tried it said the taste is so-so, and it has tons of small bones in it, so I didn’t bother with it. Mate is a tea drink in Argentina and Uruguay – a ton of leaves crushed up in a special cup and then warm water poured in, drunk, and poured in again. Odd looking, and it would take a bit to get used to the taste.
Q: What about hygiene… Are hot showers and opportunities to shave few and far between?
A: Ah, hot showers… Now you’re talking about the important stuff. I went about 10 days without a hot shower, and when I got to a place with one, it was like heaven on earth. Hot showers seemed to be available in about half of Central America. I had better luck in South America, where I probably had about 90 percent hot showers. The other hygiene stuff has been fine, but getting a haircut when you can’t speak the language is an interesting experience. And, knock on wood, I haven’t yet had the 72-hour stomach situation yet.
Q: Describe an average “day in the life.” What do you try to accomplish in each destination?
A: The average day depends on whether it’s a travel day or not. If not moving, I’ll wake up at the hostel and get some breakfast there. Check the Internet for email and news from home. I’ll then either wander about the town I’m in or join some people for some sort of excursion or tour in the area. Then I head back to the hostel for dinner, hopefully with some new friends, and then some drinks somewhere in town. If it’s a travel day, I’m usually up before dawn, because a good number of the buses leave quite early. I make sure my iPod is charged up and I have a bottle of water, a book, and some snacks to munch on in the bus and go wherever I am off to. Whenever I get to my next destination, I pull out my guidebook (or follow recommendations heard on the road) and walk around looking for a hostel.
Q: We’ve noticed by some of your photos that you’re somewhat of an “adrenaline junkie.” What was it like bridge jumping in Banos, paragliding in Medellin and getting up close and personal with that volcano’s lava flow in Guatemala? And, what other adventures are you planning?
A: The funny thing is that I am far, far from an adrenaline junkie. I just figured that if I was going to take a trip like this that I ought to try some things I’d never done before. Those particular activities were all new and out of the ordinary for me – and they were all a complete blast. I wish I would’ve indulged earlier. In the future, I think I’ll probably scuba dive in a shark tank in South Africa, bungee jump Victoria Falls, climb Kilimanjaro, hitchhike in Africa (you want an adrenaline rush?), and maybe swim in the Arctic Ocean. I’m not sure what else is in store for me…perhaps I’ll get some emailed suggestions.
Q: Have you come across any locales that you didn’t want to leave, or where you would be happy living one day?
A: I am likely going to move to somewhere in Central or South America after the trip to make a real effort to learn Spanish and write a book about the trip. I didn’t get to either of these places on this trip, but I think Cartagena, Columbia, and Mendoza, Argentina, sound pretty good. And I have strangely known since I was about eight years old or so that if I ever visited New Zealand that I would never come home. So I made it the last stop on this trip.
Q: Do you miss home, or rather the comforts of home?
A: I miss hanging out with my friends at happy hour and cooking dinner for them at my house and playing a little bocce in the backyard. Other than that, no, I really don’t miss much at all. Baseball season is right around the corner, so I’ll miss watching those games on TV, but I think I’ve got a pretty good lead on a way to get some of the games free on the Internet.
Q: Everyday it seems we hear about some new conflict or political unrest around the world. Are you concerned with safety?
A: Safety is a big concern on any trip, and it’s certainly one of the things that people at home ask about most frequently. But frankly, I don’t think it’s any more dangerous traveling in the countries that I am in than spending an extended period of time in any large U.S. city. For the most part, you just need to keep your eyes open and be aware of what is going on around you. There are tons of stories of robberies from travelers on the road, and most of the stories start with, “so I was really drunk and walking back to my hostel at 3 a.m.” Then again, you hear stories of people getting robbed in the middle of the day. Some of it is luck and a lot of it is just plain common sense. I have found that most of the countries that are supposedly dangerous, like Columbia or Nicaragua, are some of my favorite places. Since they get fewer tourists, the people are usually incredibly happy you came to their country and are massively helpful to you. There are a few countries that I will avoid, Somalia and Zimbabwe being the primary examples, but if you are following current events on the Internet, you’ll be able to tell whether you should go to a place or not. And once again, asking the locals about the safety of certain locations is your best source of information.
Q: Tell us about the motivation to document the journey in near real time. How long have you had a blog? How many people are following your journey via your blog or Facebook page? And, is there a book deal in the works?
A: I have been writing for a while about some of my journeys. I find that being on the road heightens your awareness of everything around you, since it is all new and different, and is conducive to writing, at least for me. The blog is a nice way to essentially keep notes of the trip and keep friends and family informed about what I’m up to, in semi-real time. I’ve got about 300 subscribers via my Facebook page and 80 or so directly on my blog. Anyone and everyone can join in – the more eyeballs the better. I am going to write a book about the trip. Whether it ever gets published is another question.
Q: Have you encountered (m)any other long-term, independent travelers out there? Any advice for readers who might be thinking about embarking on such a journey?
A: There are a ton of long-term travelers on the road, and, if you do some of the hostel circuit, you will run into them left and right. Americans are incredibly underrepresented on the road, in relation to the size of our country. For instance, I’ve run into far more Dutch (population 16 million) than Americans (population 300 million). The whole concept of taking six to 12 months and backpacking around is one that is far, far more common in other countries than in ours, unfortunately. My advice is to just go do it. If you stay out of Europe, it is incredibly cheap and you will get in the groove quickly. The “On a Shoestring” Lonely Planet guidebooks are the most common out here, but any one will do. All I really use them for are the maps, some ideas of places to see, and occasionally a hostel recommendation.
Q: So far, what have you learned about the world and, most of all, about yourself?
A: Still hoping there is a lot to learn on both fronts. On the world, I’ve learned it is an incredible place to explore – all of it, especially the less common tourist spots. And generally, the people out here are so incredibly friendly and helpful. About me? Not sure—read the blog—my attitude looking outward and inward are openly on display every week.
Q: When will you return back to Fayetteville? Anything else? Final thoughts?
A: I plan on being back at the end of 2009, but at this point, I don’t think it is going to be a long stay. I am pretty sure that I am going to then go off somewhere and learn a foreign language fully and write. I have explored almost all of the United States in my 40 or so years on this planet – time to explore the rest of the world more fully.
To follow Michael’s progress online, visit www.mobilelawyer.blogspot.com.