British idealist tries to travel without money, fails miserably

hitchhiker's guide to the galaxySo did you hear the one about the young British idealist, the one who subscribes to the Freeconomy movement, which says the world would be much better off if we didn't spend money and just shared stuff with each other? Well, this guy, Mark Boyle, decided he would walk all the way from England to India without bringing any cash or credit cards. He said he'd simply rely on the kindness of strangers to prove it can be done and to drum up supporters for the Freeconomy Community. He chronicled his journey on a blog. Of course, the press was notified, too.

Seems possible, right? Except four weeks into his trek, barely on the other side of the English Channel, he quit, claiming he couldn't get enough food or sleep. The French, he complained, wrote him off because they thought he was a "freeloading backpacker."

There's some things about this story that make me skeptical, such as:

* It hinges on an Englishman dissing the French. But let that cliche pass.
* He departed in January, the middle of winter. In Northern Europe. Mistake one.
* How many sensible travelers don't keep enough extra provisions on hand to get them through the lean times? A case of granola bars, perhaps? An old tent? Even those can be gotten for free.
* In almost any country around the world, English speakers often have a hard time speaking the native tongue. English is quite simply known as the language of currency, and in many places, people crave any chance to practice it. Perhaps not so much in France, of course, but let that cliche pass, too.

I don't think for a moment that his endeavor was a flop because of foreigners. People are still nice everywhere. Any traveler can tell you stories about unexpected generosity, and often, the folks who give the most are the ones who have the least in their cupboards.

Sure, it's noble to think the world can turn without the traditional definition of commerce. The hippies thought so, too, and the idea worked, but only for a few months before San Francisco was overwhelmed with hungry mouths.

It would be a shame if anyone came away from this incident believing the world is no longer a generous place. It is. A thriving travel community called Couch Surfing is based on a similar something-for-nothing concept--using the site, people invite visitors to crash at their place for free. And between 2001 and 2003, a Dutch dude named Ramon Stoppelenburg traveled around the world under the same no-cash principle. Both of those endeavors tapped the Web for advance planning, which is why they succeeded.

No, Boyles' trip failed because his failure to plan was obvious to all. He also thinks everyone in the world views resources the way an Englishman sees his own, as plentiful and expendable. There's something unseemly about someone from a land of plenty turning up anywhere expecting handouts. People around the world respond generously to starvation, but not always to stunts.

Sadly, we've started viewing the kindness of strangers as an unnatural phenomenon. In 2001, a reality TV show on NBC with the name of Lost stranded travelers in the middle of poor, rural areas, such as deepest Russia, without a penny in their pockets. The game, if that's the term, was to make their way back home to America based purely on handouts. Picture it: Americans being chased by fancy network cameramen and sound engineers as they begged peasants for food and train tickets. That was unseemly, too.

Lost was entertainment. Boyle's trip was propaganda. Both operated under the assumption that generosity by strangers would be some kind of surprise to most of us. What made them both so grotesque was that neither experiment was undertaken out of true need. The most generous people are smarter enough to see that, even if they speak French.

I'm just glad his cavalier experiment in poor preparation was halted in France, rather than reaching countries further east where it would have insulted disadvantaged people who truly live on subsistence. This guy was planning on crossing Afghanistan, but he surrendered after his sandals broke in France.

Travel may make for smarter idealists, but idealism doesn't necessarily make for smart travelers.

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