As I understand it, a Bulgarian farm worker grabbed Andrew Siess’s nuts with his left hand while holding a gun in his right hand. He wasn’t pointing the gun at Siess, mind you, just holding it. Siess pushed him away, but the Bulgarian guy—speaking the international language of aggression—again grabbed the low-hanging fruit, as it were. Siess pushed him away again.
It was pitch black, the middle of the night, in a tiny trailer in the middle of nowhere Bulgaria. “Yeah, that was the closest I’ve come to being raped,” said 25-year-old Siess matter-of-factly. “But you know, this shit happens. It wasn’t that big a deal.”
And then there was the whale incident. On his way to Europe, the starting point for his planned walk around the world, the sailboat Siess was a crew member on hit a whale and sank in the middle of the Atlantic. He and the rest of the crew were rescued by a cargo ship and dumped in Sorrento, Italy. Watcha gonna do? If you’re Andrew Siess you start walking around the world, and three years later haul ass back into Sorrento, joining a very small (and difficult to define) club of people who have traced a bumpy circle around the planet with the soles of their shoes.
“You have to do what you say you’re going to,” said the devoted pedestrian during a brief moneymaking stint in his hometown, St. Paul, Minn.
Other things Siess said he would do, and did, include biking from St. Paul to the southern tip of South America and back, canoeing the length of the Mississippi River, and taking a pass on college. All of his adventures are low-budget, DIY affairs: he says the total bill for the three-year planet circumnavigation was about $6,000.
The product of a Lake Wobegon above-average, college-prep childhood, Siess made a hard left turn out of high school in 2008 and hasn’t returned to a conventional path since. His mom described him as, “not adventurous, in the way of wanting to travel, but extremely determined, with a high tolerance for discomfort.”
In many ways Siess is a hippie throwback—aggressively unkempt, anti-corporate, anti-car, anti-rat race, and anti-establishment. But he is very pro-learning, just not in the way you and I might go about it. “People tell you you can do anything you want once you get a degree,” he said, eating an English muffin with good manners. “I wanted to move to Patagonia and be a shepherd; you don’t need a college degree to do that.” (When he got to Patagonia he found he no longer wanted to be a shepherd, so he worked in a bakery for four months and then pedaled back home. He’s a flexible idealist.)
The main difference between Siess and any number of haphazardly accoutered dudes who, disenchanted with the system, decide to bum around for awhile, is that they wash up in San Diego or Goa or near some other reliable source of weed. Before you know it, forty years have gone by.
Siess is not drawn towards ready weed. He is determined and disciplined. In fact, he exhibits the same sort of hell-bent, single-minded, idealistic, rogue focus more commonly associated with innovators at the top of their field. His medium isn’t painting like Pablo Picasso, or basketball like Michael Jordan, but seeing the world on his own power and challenging himself to do physically and emotionally difficult things. Constantly being the stranger, as well as alone, cold, hungry, and tired, these circumstances that normal humans strive to avoid are what Siess embraces as necessary companions while traveling his way, on about $5 a day.
“Yeah, it may be selfish but I’m not hurting anyone else. I’m not contributing to problems in the world, or saying I’ve got answers,” he said. “I mean, it’s not a career path ... Sometimes I wonder why I’m doing this.”
Passing out in Croatia, early in the global walkabout, might have been the moment to really question the whole venture. “Quitting was never an option,” he said flatly. “They rehydrated me in this little hospital and gave me some drugs—totally for free—but the place closed at 6 p.m.; they said I couldn’t stay there overnight. I slept right outside the hospital, next to a wall, on the ground—it was the cheapest thing. I was in a lot of pain. Definitely the low point of the whole trip.”
“I wish I could say I was totally at peace and relaxed the whole time, but I wasn’t,” he said of his three years on the road. “It seemed like I was always pushing myself to cross a country before a visa would expire, or to get out of the oncoming winter. The deadlines just never ended, and the money got tighter and tighter, so it was tough. I just had to keep reminding myself that no one will let you die. If I really needed food and water, people helped me out.”
It is hard to reconcile comments like those with his assertion that traveling makes him happy. Siess struggles to articulate that his version of happiness includes some fear, suffering, and difficulty, but whatever the exact formula, it’s gotten into his blood. He says he loves St. Paul and misses his friends when he’s gone, but his next trip—canoeing the Amazon from Colombia to the Atlantic—was planned before he’d even finished walking around the world. He’s been in town for six months, making money, but he’s restless, ready to be on the move again.
People make excuses for not traveling, Siess points out. Below he pops those excuses, and and shares some intel that can be used by anyone who wants to see the world, or at least some parts of it: what you need, what you don’t need, who to trust, and how to defuse nut-ugly situations.
“Obviously, I started out with some clothes, and people gave me stuff along the way. I wore a sweatshirt from a Turkish cookie company all the way, and a t-shirt from the cargo ship ‘til it literally fell off me. I tried to avoid being in Mongolia and Alaska in the winter because I didn’t have the clothes or gear for it, but still ended up in Alaska in April, below zero temperatures, with sandals and two pairs of socks on my feet. That’s all I had. Also had a three-season tent and a sleeping bag that was only rated to, like, 58 degrees.”
Prior to riding to Patagonia, Siess worked at a bike shop and got a deal on a Trek 520. He bought a canoe on Craigslist in Minneapolis for $200, paddled down the Mississippi and sold it in New Orleans for $300: “I did upgrade it though, so it was a better canoe.” He started the walk around the world with a backpack but quickly found it too difficult to manage. He turned to pushing his kit in a wheeled cart, eventually going through five wheelies. “The best one was actually a beach chair with wheels given to me by a German police officer on vacation in Croatia.”
Siess trained for the bike trip to South America (6,174 miles as the crow flies) by transporting himself around the Twin Cities. He’d never done a long bike trip, and his parents didn’t think he’d actually go through with the transcontinental journey until he made it through Iowa.
Outdoorsy? Nope. He’d camped once with his family as a child; similar level of canoe experience. He tipped the canoe several times on the way down the Mississippi, losing what little food and gear he had. But resourceful? Yes. He’s pretty adept at dumpster diving.
An active kid and soccer enthusiast, he did no special training to walk from sunup until sundown, covering about 34 miles per day, for a total of at least 17,000 miles. He admits to knowing very little about sailing, but was hired on as part of a sailboat crew crossing the Atlantic. He does, though, know how to bail water rushing in through large cracks in the hull. On May 18, 2012, their sailboat hit a sick or sleeping sperm whale, and ultimately sank.
“My violin was the most important thing. It’s hard to run out of money if you’ve got a violin and a street. Even if you don’t make money, you can make friends and maybe a place to stay. I had a toothbrush, toothpaste, sleeping bag, sleeping pad, tent, extra clothes, cooking pan, a multi-tool. I had one of those tiny stoves but didn’t cook anything for the first two years because I didn’t have water to spare. I drank 5 to 6 liters per day; any water I had was for drinking. I had some books and my journals, some medicine, and a few trinkets that people gave me to remember them by.”
“I’ve never had more than $8,000 in the bank. I’ve worked at a bike shop, construction, at a coffee shop to make money before I go. Before I left [on the world walkabout] I stayed with a friend in Boston and played violin in the street ten hours a day. Made about $100 a day.
Along the way, I played violin for money, too. I’d look for a nice quiet area with pedestrian traffic, and go at it. People would show me Youtube videos of their music—Kazakh, Georgian, Italian, Turkish, whatever—and I’d copy it. Wagon Wheel was one of the most requested songs, and Devil Went Down To Georgia.”
His parents, while “reluctantly supportive” of Siess’s adventures, have not contributed financially.
“CouchSurfing saved me. I’d find a library or internet cafe and try to line up couchsurfing hosts for the next two weeks or so. Warm Showers is supposed to be for cyclists but I used that sometimes too. Even with those two sources, I camped probably 70% of the time. If I could sleep inside once a week, that was nice. Findacrew.net is how I found the crew. On the sailboat. Skyscanner is where I go for airfare. Found a flight from Minneapolis to Bogota for $175!”
“I was out in the middle of nowhere, Bulgaria, a long way between towns. It was getting to be nighttime and I came on this group of farm workers by the side of the road. I tried to ask permission to pitch my tent but none of them spoke English. Finally, they motioned that I could set up my tent, and they all left except this one guy who lived in a trailer there. He had a big guard dog outside. It was a really cold night, in the 30s, and my sleeping bag was only rated to 58 degrees. After a little while, the guy invited me into his trailer and I thought, Ok, no problem. It was a really tiny trailer: The bed he’d made for me actually touched his at the foot. There was a picture of his wife and kids.
He gave me a beer, and then he took this gun out of his pants—it was the first time I’d seen it, but a lot of country people have guns—and put it under his pillow, and we went to sleep. In the middle of night, I woke up and he was standing up, holding his gun, and saying Shhh, like there was someone outside. I didn’t hear anyone, and the dog wasn’t barking, so that was suspicious. He seemed agitated. Then he motioned that I should come over to his side of the trailer which was literally a distance of two feet. I didn’t see what difference that would make but I didn’t want to fight about it, so I sat down on his bed. He still had the gun, not pointing it at me, and motioned for me to lie down. I said no, but he kept motioning for me to lie down. Then he sat down next to me and grabbed my nuts and I pushed him off. He grabbed my nuts again, and I pushed him off again. He was staring at me and I kept saying, Not gay, because everyone understands that. Adrenaline was just pumping. He was blocking the door so I couldn’t get out. He was fat, but I was stronger than him and thought there’s no way he could physically rape me. He’d have to kill me, and even though he was obviously a little crazy, those other people knew I was there, so I didn’t think he’d actually kill me. All these thoughts were rushing through my mind.
So we’re really tense, staring at each other, and I started saying, Calm down, relax, it’s ok, and putting my hands up and open. Slowly, the adrenaline went down and it looked like he wasn’t going to freak out. We’re both sitting on the bed, looking at the ground, wondering what the fuck do we do now? I decided I was going to act like this didn’t happen, so I got up, went over to my bed and laid down with my butt to the wall. I was going to keep one eye open, but I was so exhausted, I fell asleep. I woke up a little later and he’s sitting up in bed pretending to talk on his cellphone, but I could hear the automated voice, you know, when you’re not connected. He hung up and motioned for me to go, get out. I was so pissed—first he wants to grab my nuts, then he kicks me out, and it’s still the middle of the night. But it was a good escape, so I got the hell out of there, walked a few hundred yards down the road. I didn’t have the energy to set up my tent, so I slept in my sleeping bag in a ditch.”
“I don’t trust guys. By themselves. Or maybe it’s guys out in the country. Once, a guy in Argentina grabbed my balls—I guess they figure, if you’re into it, that’s fine, and if you’re not who cares? There’s no downside to grabbing a nut out in the middle of nowhere, I guess.
I’d talk to people, ask questions about their lives, and trust what they’re saying was true. I trusted Peace Corp workers or other foreigners abroad because they’re in the same boat. I trusted families with kids. I didn’t trust drunks or people on drugs. It was hard to predict who might help you—sometimes it was older people, conservative people. Sometimes I’d go to churches or mosques. Once, I went to the co-op in Viroqua, Wisconsin and multiple people offered me a place to stay.”
“I knew English, Spanish, and some Portuguese from the bike trip, and learned some Italian on the way. I had paper maps with me that I’d bought online, and if I didn’t know the language, I would point and say the name of the town I wanted to go to. That’s where the violin came in—I could make friends without speaking the language.”
“I was never robbed. Of course, it helps if you look like you don’t have any money. For the most part, being white and American was helpful. I was in South America during the Bush years, and then, the U.S. was the evil empire—they hated Americans. The world is a friendlier place for Americans since Obama has been president, I’ll tell you that. In some Muslim countries, they thought Obama might be Muslim. I went along with it—sure, why not? I was surprised by how safe Kazakhstan was, and I think it was because they’re Muslim. But I didn’t walk through Pakistan because it’s obviously not safe, and it’s Muslim, so not sure about that theory.
I had a lot of hostile encounters in Alaska and the Yukon: I think the remoteness attracts a disproportionate amount of odd people. For example, a couple days out of Anchorage, my buddy Jake (he rode bike with me for about four weeks) stopped to take a picture, and this woman comes out of a cabin and yelled, ‘Fucking cyclists! I should put a fucking bullet through you.’ It was, though, the most beautiful place in the whole world. I got stopped by police a lot here in the US, for walking, or because I looked homeless.”
“I never paid for transportation [except air travel, Tokyo to Alaska and the US to Portugal], and spent under $100 over the whole three years on accommodations. I’d go to the library or an internet cafe and look up possible Couchsurfing hosts for the next two weeks. Once, I paid $5 for a hostel; I had to pay $5 or so for a campground in Kyrgyzstan, stuff like that. I’d buy bread, dried fruit, nuts, cookies, enough to last to the next town (100 miles takes three days, but I could do it in two if I had to). I picked figs, plums, peaches from trees—never paid for fruit. I got water from taps. A few times I splurged on a restaurant, but it was exceedingly rare. People gave me food, water, clothes, shoes.”
“It was always an open invitation for anyone to come with me [walking around the world] and the last three months—friends walked or biked with me that whole stretch between Portugal and Italy—was by far the most enjoyable part of the whole trip. The only time I cried a little was when my friend Jake left after biking with me in Alaska and the Yukon. It was below zero a lot of the time. He’d ride ahead and then wait for me. He made some hot meals; it just made my life so much easier. It would’ve been very difficult to do that section without him.
But that said, I love traveling solo, ton of benefits:
1. It’s easier for people to host one person and share things with one person than two or three or four, etc. If someone gives you food or money or anything, it’s all for you.
2. People admire solo efforts and might be more motivated to help out, and they see a person traveling alone as more in need of help than if he was with others. Downside is that they wonder why you are solo—you don’t have any friends; you might be crazy.
3. You make your own schedule. You go when you want to go, where you want to go, how you want to go, the pace you want to go, and stop when you want to stop. You never have to ask others’ opinions, thus never have to compromise.
4. There’s no one to fight with or argue with. Even best friends can get on each other’s nerves sometimes.
5. You see the world through your own eyes. The ideas that go through your head are not filtered by anyone else’s perception or comments. There is no other voice formulating an opinion on whatever is happening, so you become more of an independent thinker.
6. You don’t have to worry about anyone else. When you’re with a group, you often get split up—you worry about when to meet up again, where they are, whether they’re okay, whether they’re lost.
7. You eat what you want to eat; no one’s dietary restrictions but your own.”
photo credit: Andrew Siess