I attended the University of Texas directly out of high school. Being from a small town, Austin seemed like living on Pluto. People had tribal tattoos, dread locks, and road skate boards everywhere. Musicians played in their front yards, fraternities threw parties that could be heard for blocks, and my neighbors were from foreign countries. I was hooked on this world and wanted more.
My senior year was about half over and I had no idea of what I wanted to do. It seemed like everyone around me was getting internships and polishing off their resumes. But that didn’t suit me at all. I’d manage to work and scholarship my way through school so I had no debt. I’d actually managed to save a little money along the way, of which I was very proud. My neighbors who came from other countries used to tell me stories of travelers, that they were a common site and how they were hospitable to them. I began writing down the specific places they’d talk about, ways of getting jobs, and how to cross borders without much hassle. Strangely enough, while I was secretly planning to start traveling, I ran into someone who would change my life forever.
I’ll call him Tom. Tom was from Austin, attended Texas A&M University, and owned a tour guide company in Paris, France. He specialized in English guided tours of Paris, Monet’s gardens, Versailles, and Normandy. All of this was done either by a walking tour or bicycle. He had two apartments rented out in Paris that his tour guides stayed in, and he was looking for people with good personalities to come on board. I couldn’t believe it. I turned on my best personality and begged for a job. One week later, I was hired.
The City Of Lights
I did everything the cheap way, which means I did everything the hard way. A backpack was my only companion. In it I brought along one nice set of clothes, a copy of ‘Let’s Go Europe’, a map of France, and an eagerness I’d never felt. I literally walked the stage at graduation and was on a plane 6 hours later.
Flying to Charles De Gaulle airport I ran into my first taste of not being in America. People smoked on the plane, drinks were free, and everything was in French. I sat beside a Scotsman named Albert who worked for the city of Glasgow, married a woman from Liechtenstein, and drank like a fish. Albert had wild eyebrows like those you see on the movies, and the more he drank the less I could understand him. But I didn’t care. Albert and I drank the flight away while he regaled me with stories of his younger days and how he used to ‘pull birds’. This means hooking up with girls for all of us Americans.
I landed and hopped the train to the 7th arrondissement. Paris is laid out in an interesting fashion. The sections, known as arrondissement, are mapped out like a snails shell. From a birds’ eye view, it twists in a circle outward. The 1st arrondissement is the city center, and the circling starts from there. So as one moves outward in the city, the sections look strange. The 7th arrondissement could be beside the 13th and 14th. So you better know where you’re going because nothing makes sense. You could get lost easily. It’s why so many directions in Paris are given using landmarks such as metro (subway) stations.
Tom wasted no time in getting me started. He handed me a printout of all of the history of every major stop. I was to memorize it in one day, and I started work the next. The tour I was giving was of the center of Paris: the Louvre, the D’Orsay, Rue Rivoli, etc. And for a small town boy from East Texas, guiding 25 people on Schwinn beach cruisers through one of the largest cities in the world was scary. But I loved it, every stinking minute of it.
I stood underneath the Eiffel tower with a flag of the tour company and waited on my customers. They came from New York, Michigan, Australia, Finland, and everywhere else you can imagine. I once guided people through Paris while the Tour de France went on around us. When the tour made it to the Champs Elysees, we stopped as a group on the bridge and watched as the best cyclists in the world descended upon the Arc de Triomphe (pronounced Ark-de-tree-umphh). Lance Armstrong was the celebrity of the day and we Texans cheered him on.
During this amazing time in my life I met others, made friends, and traveled on my days off. I ran with the bulls, drank at Oktoberfest, tipped vodka in Moscow’s red square, and danced the Flamenco on the beaches of Barcelona. I was young, broke, and happy. I would email stories back (this was before one could attach pictures) and regale my friends of my travels.
Traveling is Neither Hard nor Expensive
As a tour guide in Northern France, I was astonished by people who came over for two weeks and swore that they could never do it again. I would hear, “Oh you’re so lucky that you can do this!” or “I could never get away from home.”
I’m here to tell you that travelling the world is not that difficult. Let me place a preface out there. Traveling is much easier when you are young. Don’t get me wrong, in my travels I met hundreds of men and women in their 40’s and 50’s who were backpacking. They were in great health and shared with me conversations that I will never forget. But the common thread amongst them was that they didn’t have anyone to take care of. They were either lifelong single or their kids were grown.
The easy part of traveling is that outside of the US, people tend to be very nice. You find certain people that are rude, but most of the time they are helpful. They are more fascinated by you than the other way around. This is mainly because overseas people tend to live in smaller countries closer to their neighbors. This gives them a closer look at a different culture, making them more understanding of others. Many times I was backpacking through an undeveloped nation and slept in someone’s front yard. I would make friends with the homeowner, drink with them, and then throw my hammock between two trees. The understanding was that I would leave the next day.
Making money, eating, and other necessities
Getting a job overseas is not hard. To the beginner I would advise woof-ing. Woof stands for ‘Worldwide organization of organic farms’. These farms are all over the world and allow travelers to live, eat, and sleep on the farm in return for labor. Most of these farms have maximum staying times. This will be advertised as either ’30 day max’ or ’90 day stay’ or something similar. But I have met many people on these farms that were there for years.
Personally, I picked tulips in the Netherlands, milked cows in England, and herded cows using an old Kawasaki motorcycle in Spain (that was really fun). Each farm was different. I met fellow workers from Argentina, Russia, Greenland, and every other corner of the globe. We drank by the campfire, romanced a little, and made memories that I still look back on and smile about.
Many of these farm jobs can lead to other jobs overseas where you are paid cash. Also, trading labor for room and board is not uncommon. I met travelers who’d worked for the same hostel for years in exchange for a place to live.
Don’t be afraid
All journeys start with a first step. Take it from a small town kid who did it. The world is fascinating and beautiful. Don’t be afraid to go see it. After a few mistakes with language and customs, you’ll find that people over the world are basically the same.