Slow Travel with Mobile Lawyer
In December 2008, Michael Hodson (aka the Mobile Lawyer), an attorney from Northwest Arkansas, left his litigation practice to circumnavigate the globe – all without ever getting on an airplane. The adventure took 16 months as he ventured through 6 continents and 44 countries. He’s currently in Colombia writing about his adventures on his site Go, See, Write as well as a book.
Basically, I wanted a challenge. I didn’t really do any research before my trip (which almost ended up a big problem, since you do actually have to reserve cabins on those cargo freighters I had to take, my only reservations), but I was aware there were plenty of people that had circled the world before. I thought that never leaving the ground would also give me a much better perspective of the size of our planet.
And that it did. I do love flying, but you get a much better sense of the size of things if you travel overland. Getting on a plane, having a couple drinks, watching a movie or two, falling asleep and waking up in Bangkok gives one an incredibly false sense of how small our wonderful planet is. I never had a second thought about doing my trip overland and I am incredibly happy I stuck with it.
How do you go about crossing the ocean on a freighter – learning about it, reserving it, preparing for it, and keeping yourself occupied for the long trip? Did you ever get seasick?
Luckily I don’t get seasick at all, which I have tested in some moderately bad conditions before, though all my freighter rides on this trip were actually very calm. As to the how-to part, there are 3-4 travel agents that book freighter travel. I used a guy named Hamish Jamieson for all four of my crossings, and then got to met him face-to-face when I arrived in Napier, New Zealand.
I wasn’t prepared for how incredibly boring this type of travel was on my first crossing, but luckily had five other passengers on that leg that were interesting and provided some conversational entertainment. Be forewarned, you get a cabin and three meals a day, but that is about it for entertainment. As I went through Africa, Europe and Asia, I stocked up on lots of DVDs to watch on my laptop and bought a Kindle for reading material. Without those, I might have blown my brains out on the 22-day Pacific crossing back home. It is mind-numbingly monotonous.
Surprisingly, overland travel is more expensive than air travel, especially the freighter portions, although I haven’t tallied up my travel costs yet. Those bookings cost 120-140 Euros a day, so the cost of my freighter ride back home, for instance, cost more than some people’s entire round-the-world air fare.
I say that overland travel is more expensive than flying, but that isn’t completely true. Overland travel was more expensive for me, because I had a limited time to make it around the world (originally I wanted to complete the trip in a year — it ended up taking 16 months). Because I had to keep moving fairly constantly, in order to keep making progress, I wasn’t able to get to know the ins and outs of places as well, in order to save money. As an example, if you stay a couple weeks in a major city, you are normally able to figure out how the local buses work, instead of having to take taxis, or you’ll be able to find the best hostel and food deals. Since I never had more than a week or so in any spot, saving money that way was more difficult.
Did taking slower transportation slow down your travels?
I love road trips. Back in the States, I have driven through 45 of the lower 48 states and learned long ago that I do some of my best thinking in long rides. That proved to be true on this trip also. Hours upon hours (longest non-boat stint was about 58 hours on buses between Cusco, Peru and Santiago, Chile) were the times I learned the most about myself during mind wandering time.
But to answer your question, slower transportation actually sped up my trip. I wasn’t able to stop and sit in any one place very long, because I had to keep going, in order to complete the trip. While others could spend a month in a place, then fly over me and beat me to another city a couple countries over, I was traveling a good bit of that time. That isn’t to say I disliked the fact that I had to move on constantly — the mere fact of moving ended up being a big high for me. I started just getting excited at the thought of moving to another place, seeing the things in between, and getting briefly acquainted to a new location.
Africa overland is tough. There is just no other way to put it. If you are going to try to do extensive overland travel there, you really need to be mentally, and somewhat physically, prepared for it. Then again, it is amazing — you will be riding on a bus or train somewhere and look out the window and there will be a herd of elephant or zebra wandering around, and you won’t be within 500 miles of any official park.
Three tips: (1) the easy way to do it is with an overland company. I didn’t even know these companies existed, until I got to Cape Town, but there are a dozen or so that will take you overland through all or part of your overland trip. I actually ended up hopping on one of the trucks for three weeks in Ethiopia and Sudan, because I was just wiped out from doing it on my own for three months.
(2) Excepting South Africa, bus ticket prices are negotiable and more importantly, no bus leaves until every single seat is full. There really is no time table of departures. The important tip is this: don’t pay for your bus ticket until you literally walk onto the bus and see how many empty seats there are. If it is almost full, you might be lucky and leave in less than a half hour or so, but if you buy a ticket on an empty bus, you might sit there for hours waiting for it to fill.
(3) The last tip is a minor one and one amused me to no end, once I figured it out that is. I never met an African that answered “I don’t know” when you asked them for directions. Never. The obvious other side of this coin is that you regularly got directions that were wildly wrong. The tip is to ask a number of different people for directions to the same place. I usually asked 5-8 people, until I got some sort of consensus of opinion and then struck off in that direction.
One of the earlier “O’ Shit” moments was on a long, long bus ride from Guayaquil, Ecuador to Lima, Peru. A couple of points about Central and South American buses you need to know: First, the air conditioning is on full blast the entire time. I dress in jeans, T-Shirt, fleece pullover, boats and wool socks for every bus ride, even if it is scorchingly hot outside. Second, the music and/or movies being played on board are going to be cranked up to an obscene volume (though it will somehow be louder in Africa). Lastly, the bus driver, and other drivers on the road, are going to drive worse than anything you can possibly imagine and you will narrowly avoid head-on collusions dozens of times — bottom line, sit near the back and do not, under any circumstances, look out the front window.
This particular bus trip was on a two level bus and at the front of the top level was an area with a table and a couple couches where you could see out the big front window. They played seven movies on this particular ride and five of them were horror/slasher movies (incredibly, including one called ‘Severance’ were a bus broke down in the middle of nowhere and everyone got brutally killed). Needless to say, the volume was at its maximum. If something is on TV, my eyes inevitably head there, and that combined with the sound of people getting slashed to death was making me regret my overland quest. I ended up moving to the front of the bus, under the TVs, so I couldn’t see the gore, putting my iPod on its highest volume, and tried to not watch my impending death out of the front window. Fortunately all the death on screen was not a foreshadowing, though I had my doubts a number of times.
I think I’d say the biggest adjustment from being a lawyer was the obvious — a lack of income. In my working life, I’d always justify a spontaneous splurge by saying to myself “guess I need another DUI to come in the door.” I obviously didn’t have to think nearly as much about spending money when I was making it.
The bigger adjustment had nothing to do with leaving my career and all to do with leaving the 1st world. Traveling in the 3rd world, which I did in a good bit of my trip, made me go with the flow even more than I did before, and I was pretty relaxed beforehand. The first time a bus breaks down and your driver gets out for a few hours to repair it himself, or the power in your town goes out all day with no explanation, or you order a meal by the “point and pray” method, since no one speaks any English and you don’t speak any Swahili or the variety of other things that will happen to you out there make you either just relax and deal with it mentally. Well that, or you just go crazy and go home.
God, I love it out here.