Meet the Frenchman who hitchhiked from home to Hong Kong on 1 euro a day
From the warmth of Afghans to the mistrust and indifference he met in Hong Kong, ultra-budget traveller Maxime, who tries to live on HK$8.50 a day, has had a 40,000km journey full of contrasts. He tells Paul Letters why he took to the road and chooses to rely on strangers for his needs
As a kid, I was the same - energetic and always trying to have fun. At primary school (in Valence, southeast France), I was top of the class, but from preschool through to university, I regularly got into trouble for messing around. I was a stupid teenager, overly familiar with alcohol - and worse. When I was 20, after dropping out of a business degree at university, I realised my life was going in the wrong direction, and I stopped hanging out with the wrong crowd. I worked as a hotel entertainer and did odd jobs in ski resorts. My last job before leaving France was guiding kids from tough backgrounds - who had been taken into social care - up into the mountains on camps.
I just want to be happy. When I'm on the road, nothing else matters, and I came to realise that travelling fulfilled my happiness. I love to push my limits, mentally and physically, and that's what this journey-cum-lifestyle is about. I've long understood that a nine-to-five routine was not for me. I simply want to have great stories to tell my kids one day.
I don't carry any computer device or phone: why waste my time on technology when I can get the information I need by talking to local people? Underpinning my one-euro-a-day (HK$8.45-a-day) lifestyle is that I don't see the world as being a place full of strangers but rather one full of friends. I travel with no camping equipment or sleeping bag: my full backpack weighs only five kilos. Getting food can be hard, and sometimes you need to accept and endure hunger. But after sleeping rough and not eating for some time, it makes each piece of bread or night on a mattress that much more enjoyable. I ask strangers - or, rather, new friends - in an indirect manner, "Do you know any safe place where I could sleep for free?" It's the starting point of many wonderful encounters. I don't want money to spoil my trip. I'm challenging myself to find creative ways to travel without spending money. Most days, I don't spend any money at all. At the end of one month travelling in Europe I had spent only 60 cents, but I celebrated by buying a few beers.
My original objective was to hitchhike from France to Iran, a country I had grown up thinking was a dangerous state, closed to tourism. But Iranians love tourists - they just don't get many. I received countless invitations to stay with local families. I worked in Shiraz for a couple of weeks, translating a website from English to French for a local tourist agency. They provided me full board and enough money to pay for visas for onward travel.
After checking online sources like couchsurfing.com, I discovered tourists who had risked visiting Afghanistan and survived to tell the tale. I wanted to form my own opinion about this country, to see what's happening with my own eyes. I spent a week there and never felt unsafe, although I took precautions and hitchhiked only a small fraction of the country. With a bushy beard and local clothing, I tried to blend in. Although they have so little, the people are so welcoming and warm-hearted. In Iran and Afghanistan, there's no notion of losing face: locals gather round and want to try to help you.
In Uzbekistan, every driver who stopped asked me for money for a ride. On day one, without explanation, the police picked me up and interrogated me for four hours, stripping me down to my underwear. At the end, they explained to me that they were concerned about terrorism. Then, after six months without paying for accommodation, I had to set aside the dream: the law requires that tourists register in a licensed hotel. That was a huge disappointment. I left the country as soon as possible.
Just as bushy beards are treated with suspicion in Uzbekistan, so they are in areas of Xinjiang, where the clampdown on Islamic culture means big beards are a no-no. People were kind, but it was the first place where I couldn't communicate at all: it felt like Christmas when I eventually met someone who could speak English. It was freezing cold in northern China in December, and 2,000km of desert lay before me. People were considerate; I gave in to some insistent locals and let them put me on a night bus to cross 300km of the Gobi Desert. But I hitchhiked the rest of the northern deserts, sleeping in [service] station toilets, and then on down the east coast.
(In Hong Kong) I spent three consecutive nights sleeping on the streets - not something I had had to do in eight months of travel before I got here - and suffered from indifference and mistrust. Local people clearly didn't have time to get to know me. The city has problems with space, making it difficult to find a spare bed. But I was not ready to give up. Eventually, I found a place in a hostel in To Kwa Wan, where I stay in exchange for some volunteer work. I've hitchhiked about 40,000km to get this far, but getting around Hong Kong is tough. People don't pick up hitchhikers in developed cities and a bus across town costs more than my one euro a day. To continue living on one euro a day, I'm giving French lessons for which students pay with food. After a rough start, I'm now feeling good in Hong Kong and I look forward to experiencing Chinese New Year here.
It's exciting not knowing where I'm going next. Maybe I'll wander down Southeast Asia. My dream is to hitch a ride on a boat - across the Pacific.