Is it possible to travel across the globe on benevolence alone? Well, James Levelle seems to think so! ‘Free Ride’, James’s audacious and ambitious adventure had him team up with environmentalist, Rob Greenfield, on a brazen attempt to cross the continent of South America without any money – ten weeks, six countries and over 9,000km – which James has described as the most mind-blowing journey of his life.
What compelled him to take on such a daunting challenge and how did he successfully travel across a continent without his wallet? We try to find out…
- What made you embark on this trip?
The thing that attracted me most about this trip was the enormity of the challenge – 10,000km across South America, six different countries, 10 weeks and not a penny to my name – that’s no money, no credit card, and no mobile phone. On previous adventures I’ve always had access to cash or a phone at some point but this time I would have to survive without!
- Could you share with us some of your basic beliefs that have evolved in your life that led you to make this decision of willful moneylessness during the trip?
One thing that everyone believes in is money; you might say some even worship it. It plays such a huge part in everything we do that it’s difficult to imagine life without it. If the saying goes, ‘money makes the world go around’? I wanted to find out what happens if you go around the world without money. It seemed like an impossible idea but there was only one way to find out.
- Are you Spiritual? If yes, did that play a role in this decision? And were your beliefs strengthened or was it otherwise?
I suppose I am quite spiritual though if feels funny to admit it. I always look for the good in people but on this epic adventure I expected my faith in humanity to be tested to the limit. What I didn’t expect was such overwhelming love and kindness from total strangers every step of the way.
- What are some of the most important lessons about money/people/society that you learnt over the trip?? And did any of this surprise you or let you down?
I learned that money doesn’t make the world go around, relationships do. When you put your faith in people, when you invest in them, when you care, it doesn’t matter how brief that relationship is, the connection you make has the power to change your life in the most unexpected ways. Rob and I put ourselves in a very vulnerable position travelling without any money but if this trip proved one thing, it proved that people are good.
- Today, most people would never embark on such a journey wilfully; yet you did. Do you believe that your trip offers important inspiration for individuals and families? And if so, how?
Travelling without any money is a fairly extreme thing to do and I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it to everyone. 10 weeks and 10,000km is a long time and a very long way to go without your wallet so I would suggest a shorter more sustainable trip and for those brave (or crazy enough) to give it a go I can guarantee you will go to fascinating places, meet inspirational people, and enjoy experiences that money simply cannot buy.
- Do you have any ideas on practical steps individuals can take to free themselves from their pursuit of money – even if they will never live entirely moneyless?
One thing we humans all have in common is our desire to be loved. Well money can’t buy you that and either way I didn’t have any throughout my South American cash-strapped odyssey. The love Rob and I received throughout that trip inspired me to take more care over my relationships with family, friends, and colleagues. Everybody needs to earn a living but caring about the people around you is definitely more important than raking up a massive bank balance.
- Did you have any dangerous or violent encounters during the trip? And were you intimidated?
Only on two occasions during our ten weeks travelling South America did Rob and I find ourselves in dangerous situations. In Brazil we unwittingly walked into the territory of a gun-toting biker gang. The locals were terrified for us as the bikers could have appeared any second but our only option was to keep walking with our conspicuous big backpacks and my expensive HD video camera on show. Suddenly a car screeched to a stop and a young man urgently called us over. He pointed to the neighbourhood around us sputtering, “Bad bad boys!”, and made gun shapes with his hands. He gestured us into the car and we jumped in. 5 minutes later he’d driven us clear of the biker territory to a spot where we could safely hitchhike and continue our journey. We had no idea of the danger we’d been in and yet a kind local still came to our rescue. Amazing!
- What would have happened in case of a misfortune of having an accident? You would have needed good medical care. How would you have managed that? Did that worry you at all?
I didn’t worry much. One of the most dangerous things I did was mountain bike down Bolivia’s infamous Death Road. With no safety barriers and a 500m sheer drop to the valley floor if I’d come off the road there would have been no saving me anyway. However, whilst Rob and I were unsupported on our trip across South America, there was for insurance reasons and technical support a Discovery Channel chase crew that carefully kept track of our location via GPS. But in the case of a serious accident we would have depended, as always, on the help of local people until the safety crew arrived on the scene.
- Were you absolutely into the moment or having a camera crew all along was unnerving for your mental state?
Originally, I was concerned that filming myself on this adventure would make me less present. However, I quickly discovered that so long as I stayed true and honest, sharing everything that was going on through the camera actually helped me focus on the moment and experience it with greater intensity.
- Any special highlights/encounters during the trip that you may want to mention?
One of the great highlights of the trip for me was the day I found myself completely on my own in the small Peruvian town of Pisac. I went looking for work but couldn’t find anyone. I was at the point of giving up when I walked into the local cemetery. I couldn’t believe how busy it was. Men, women, children, dogs… everyone was busying themselves around the gravestones cleaning, clearing, and decorating in preparation for the celebratory Day of the Dead. When I approached a family, and asked if they needed help they welcomed me immediately and I got to work clearing a year’s worth of weeds from the family graves. The grandchildren delighted in taking my camera and filming me as I worked whilst the older members of the family quizzed me about my life and I quizzed them about theirs. A few sweaty hours later and my work was done. We celebrated with a nice cool beer, first toasting the grave of their late Grandpa and then their Great Grandma. It was a truly heart-warming experience and during those precious few hours I realised for the first time how the simple act of respecting the dead not only celebrates the lives of loved ones that have been lost but of all those that are living. I was deeply humbled.
- Which was your favourite place and worse place during the trip and why?
My favourite place was the wonderful Senda Verde animal sanctuary that we stumbled across in the Bolivian rainforest. Rob and I worked for our food and board surrounded by monkeys and birds and slept in a beautiful tree house high about the forest floor. My worst place was the roadside truck stop in Brazil where we had no choice but to stay the night in a really revolting toilet.
- I am sure you ended the trip with your faith renewed in mankind as people were helpful. But was it tiring to explain the entire thing every time you needed help?
The most exhausting thing about the whole trip was the hitchhiking. I would have to explain the premise of our crazy trip over and over again to dozens of people usually before we found someone who was happy and able to give us a ride. However, the moment someone said yes, the joy and excitement would wash away the hours of frustrated waiting and launch us back into the thrilling unknown.
- Any future ventures in the offing? Any plans of doing something similar or otherwise in the Middle East?
I recently teamed up with Discovery Channel again to retrace the footsteps of the legendary men and women who hiked across the Alaskan mountains and far north into the Canadian wilderness during the last great gold rush of 1897. Since then I have journeyed deep into the Peruvian Amazon searching for the secrets to its survival and I’m currently planning more mad adventures that must remain top secret for now. The Middle East is famous for its hospitality and is a fascinating place – I think it’s ripe for a Free Ride style adventure.
- How did you feel about living every moment during this journey since you did not know what to expect next, did that make you live completely in the moment at a particular point?
Waking up every morning in a foreign land with no idea what I would eat that day or how I would continue the 10,000km journey across South America and no clue as to where I would sleep is definitely a little terrifying and it certainly doesn’t make for an easy ride. However, I was amazed at how soon this nerve-racking reality became my new normal. I had only two choices, adapt fast or quit, and quitting simply isn’t in my DNA. Without money, without a mobile phone, without the ability to reach beyond the immediate and plan ahead, I suppose that living in the moment was all I had, and I loved it.
Source: YogaLife Magazine January-March 2018 Edition