"I WANT TO GO TO PLACES BECAUSE PEOPLE WANT TO TAKE ME WITH THEM AND NOT BECAUSE I PAY THEM TO"
Fernando Souza is a Spanish hitchhiker and a one man army who has been traveling the world for the last year and a half without flying. He has written for VICE, made videos for GoPro and has even exchanged them for free cargo boat rides. His story, writing and videos have entertained and inspired thousands around the world. I'm honoured to have hosted him and to present him as the first ever Mukha. Here, he talks about his love for truck drivers, his experiences as an escort, why we’re living in the best of possible times (even though he got punched in Russia) and why he sends postcards to the Spanish President.
- Yashas Mitta
I'm sure you get this question a lot - "What do you do?"
You do get asked the same questions all the time, but people generally assume that I do ‘Touristy Things’ and prefer to ask where I’m from. Sometimes an old friend will ask me what I’m doing, but I’m not sure of the answer. When you travel for so long, you come to re-think and redefine your life. Routine makes you assume too much and stick to old answers that may not be true anymore (even though, now I’m also probably stuck to a routine that just involves hitchhiking to lots of countries).
But I don’t usually explain this to everyone, I just have simple answers like “Oh, I used to work for television”. Sometimes I make up answers too, I should do that more often.
You used to work for television?
I worked for a production company in Spain. Given the economical situation of my country I was very fortunate to have a job, but there was less writing and creative endeavours than I would have hoped for. The office bound part of the job ended up getting to me. I became half machine and would even go to the bathroom at the same time everyday (HAHA). That is a good sign of needing to change things up!
When did you decide that you wanted to get out and travel?
It’s something that I’ve always wanted to do and is quite a common dream, but we keep pushing it off searching for the perfect time, trying to save up the ‘right’ amount of money or something. I used to yak about how I wanted to do it, but I think I never fully realised that I ‘had the permission to do it’.
I've always had this in mind. It was probably the combination of my cliche reading of "On The Road" and my optimistic belief in the general good of people. If you don't get in the way of their interests, they'll alway always ALWAYS try to help you, or at the very worst just ignore you (from this Sesame Street view of the world I'm only excluding people with serious mental illnesses).
Initially though, I only wanted to hitchhike in Europe but I fell in love with it and decided that I'd do it all the time. The only times when I haven't travelled this way has been due to external major circumstances like being separated by a body of water from my destination, travelling with my mother for a while and other things. (More on that in a bit)
"you feel every kilometre in your body. You have to work for every minute you move because you really need to earn the trust of people."
How many countries have you been to?
I’m really not too sure. Close to 30 I guess. I understand the curiosity, but ultimately believe that the number isn’t important at all. It doesn’t represent your experience with each country. It also adds an element of competition to travelling. You hear that question a lot, particularly in hostels. It’s a bit like comparing dick sizes in school.
Most people jet around countries spending a week in each capital, enough to tick countries off. I knew from the start that I wanted to travel in a different way, not because I think I’m better (well…) but mainly because I’ve already travelled like that in my tender teenage years.
So now I flee if I spot tourists. In some places it’s impossible to not run into them, luckily all you have to do is just take two steps to the side and you won’t see most of them. All of them follow the same path, looking for signs in English and white people to talk to.
So, you've not taken a single flight in this trip at all?
Nope. I’ve not taken a single flight in the last year and 5 months I’ve been traveling. But the purity of the trip has been impossible to preserve: I’ve taken 2 cargo boats, some train rides, one (mandatory) guided tour and a couple of buses. For example, my mom came to see me and I had to take buses to travel with her. I didn’t have the heart to go our own separate ways and meet up later.
It's a very alien concept to not take flights. How do you manage that?
I’ve taken a million flights before I started hitchhiking and I obviously love it. Nothing beats how convenient it is. It’s not very cheap but again, I’m not really sure that hitchhiking helps you save that much money, because sometimes you will end up staying in a random hotel/ motel that you don’t expect to in the middle of the night only because you can’t get to a place that you already have a CouchSurfing accommodation sorted. You end up saving less money than people think. But that isn’t even the point.
It's all about the experience right?
Exactly. It's very uncomfortable to go about without plans or certainties because we're brought up doing everything as per schedule and striving to be in control. I like this too, of course, but I also find it exhilarating to throw myself in the opposite end. This to me is hitchhiking.
It's really beautiful because you feel every kilometre in your body. You HAVE to work for every minute you move because you need to earn the trust of people. It's deeply touching (in a very hippie sort of way)
"Traveling at such a slow pace erases the differences between places, cultures, countries and allows you to see the transition."
Hitchhiking can be extremely difficult. Sometimes I really hate it and I often need a break after a long stint. A beautiful thing about the experience is that traveling at such a slow pace erases the differences between places, cultures, countries - how the landscape smoothly changes and how cultures shifts slowly from one strong idea to another. When you get to any border, cultures merge in to each other and differences almost disappear. It creates a strong idea of unity in the world.
This is a smartass sentence but, I want to go to places because people want to take me with them and not because I pay them to. I acknowledge there is something douchey about that phrase: a lot of people can’t hitchhike, even if they want to. Women are the first to come to mind (though I have some female friends that take lifts).
Do you think it's easier for a guy to hitchhike than it is for a girl?
I actually think it’s easier to hitchhike if you’re a girl but obviously there’s a high risk factor. You will get picked up sooner but you’ll have to be much more careful about which car you take.
After all the hundreds of lifts I’ve taken, I rejected only one. I had just crossed the border from Estonia to Russia late in the night. It was dark and was conditioned by all the internet videos and horrible things I’d heard about Russians so I just said no to this friendly-slightly-scary-looking dude.
I believe that normally, people are very transparent and you get a general idea of what they want or might be thinking. Someday maybe, I’ll get decapitated in a highway, but for now I can say that my trusty instincts have never failed me. I’m very happy this trip has proved my optimism for strangers right. No psychos, no crazy serial killers...
It constantly amazes me how closely you can connect with people with whom you have zero things in common. Gestures or shared moments can normally do the trick. But I have had rides were no communication works and I’ve ended up spending 4 hours in silence and just falling asleep in their car (that happens VERY often)
So, you go out there, put your thumb out and someone is willing to take you?
I don't really like to do the whole thumb out thing because you look a little silly (and in a lot of places, most people don't understand this very western gesture). I’m more from the cardboard school. I actually have some at your house (In the kitchen). I always carry a marker and write the name of the place that I want to go to.
Maybe you'd want to go new age and buy a digital display board?
That's hilarious! Sounds like a great idea though. I might just do it. Some people carry a white board which makes more sense because you can draw more things and doodle around and stuff. I think drawing smiley faces is a little psycho. I prefer having a smiley face on MY face.
Out of all the places you've been to, which is your favourite and why?
I said Thailand yesterday when you asked me but I’m not entirely sure I would say the same today.
Why is that?
I spent a lot of time there. I was there for almost 3 months and as a result, I have a lot of feelings, friends and experiences in that country. So it’s unfair to say it’s my favourite.
In terms of cities I’d definitely say St. Petersburg - It’s the first town that I really spent a long time in. I hitchhiked for nearly 20 days for the first time and I thought I was done with it (because, you know, outside of Europe everything is dangerous! Haha). An older couple picked me up, we had a massive language barrier and I had to draw things to explain myself. They drove out of their way for hours to take me to the center of the city. I was overwhelmed with their generosity and the beauty of the city, I couldn’t stop crying we arrived. I’d made it to my first destination!
For me, a very important part of traveling is to have least amount of expectations as possible. I knew that St. Petersburg was an impressive city but I was not prepared for how much more beautiful it was.
I enjoy having few plans and that’s the beauty of hitchhiking: all your plans will get thrown out of the window. It’s just throwing yourself on the highway and hoping somebody will catch you. It’s really hard because you don’t know if you’ll get there today or tomorrow or even get there at all. I love that element of adventure and chaos. It’s really addictive.
You mentioned traveling for you is not about seeing 'old stones'. What does that mean?
For me, the concept of ‘seeing things’ sounds so touristy. All the big monuments in the world are inspiring and captivating but they can’t teach you as much as sharing a cup of hot chocolate (like right now) with someone from a completely different culture who sees the world with a different lens. This is exactly what I want.
It’s true that you don’t have to leave your country to meet interesting people but I’m fascinated by different ways of being and cultures.
What are the most interesting experiences you've had?
On a general level nothing can top how ceaselessly people have helped me (I have to really thank them all). I was brought up not to trust strangers, not to ask for favours but you find out that people are really willing to help you. Strangers have been the most inspiring people for me through out. Even by doing simple things like pointing me in the right direction or driving 100s of kms. out of their way just for me. They’ve offered me dozens of meals all along (even if I probably had more money than a lot of them) because I was a ‘guest' in their country.
You said that working as an escort really changed your life. But before you explain, how did you decide to take that up even?
So, I’ve worked as an escort in Thailand and Singapore. The ‘Why’ part of it is easy, I’m always looking for things that can introduce me to completely new experiences and escorting couldn’t be more different to what I’ve lived previously.
I was couch surfing with a ladyboy in Thailand and she was a very interesting woman with a very strong personality. We got along well and flirted a bunch, but we ended up having a massive fight in the middle of a night out. She said we were both “too fierce”. That night, I slept in a buddhist temple. Later, stalking her online I came across an article about how these men were entertaining women for money in Bangkok. This fascinated me because you only hear about such things and never see them.
It took me a week of painful searching but in the end I found the establishment I was looking for. First night, I went to this place where there were 20 boys and no women so it was a little depressing but super interesting so I hopped clubs because this other escort told me to do so. (You don't usually do that because you have to stay faithful to the club or else they won't pay you). It ended up being the biggest escort club in Thailand which had like some 80 Thai guys and then me - a short, hairy Spanish guy who had no clue what he was doing there.
The whole thing was one of the most intense, and stressful experiences because it is both physically and mentally taxing. It’s different in Thailand and Singapore because every country has it’s own ‘escorting culture’ which is hilarious. It goes something like this - You get there at 10 pm and if you are late, they penalise you and fine you for it. Clients get there much later but you need to be ready. In Thailand, they had a hairdressing salon in house and for one dollar, they’d give you ten minutes worth of professional hairstyling. Every day I would try out a new and ridiculous hairstyle. It was an important part of getting into character and becoming Torres.
The first thing the club asks you to do is to choose a name. You cannot be you. You need to be somebody else, hopefully more interesting. It’s not smart to have your real name because it makes it easy for clients to find you outside. It also makes a ton of sense because you’re a character and you’re playing a role. It’s not healthy to be yourself because you need to separate yourself from the shenanigans that go on inside the club.
So on my first day, I went in and told them that my name was Fernando and they were all like “Oh! Fernando Torres, Torres TORRES!” (like the famous, once great, Spanish football player). So I really had no choice about my name!
Moving on to an incident which we've spoken a lot about in the last couple of days, how was it to get punched in the face in Russia and why did you get punched in the first place?
It was for the silliest reason ever. I really wish I had a better set up… Returning from the Polar Circle in Russia (which is one of my favourite places in the world) I spent some 18 hours hitchhiking around and by the time I decided to stop it was around 3 in the morning and the streets were teaming with drunk Russians. I saw this small hotel through a dark alley and instead of going through the normal entrance, I took a shortcut across that alley. Halfway through I realised there was a small fence separating the alley from the hotel, so I climbed the fence trying to save five minutes and someone yelled at me. I thought he was worried that I was up to something fishy.
I yelled out saying that I’m a tourist (I don't know why I said that) and that I just wanted to get to the hotel. I got back down to explain what was happening and before I knew it, he sent a left jab directly to my jaw breaking it in two places! He took out his phone and I got super scared because he started calling more people. I really feared for my life then so I took all the money out (28 Euros, which is hardly anything). He looked through my pockets but did not take my phone or anything. I guess he only wanted money. Strangely he ended up apologising and asked me not to call the police.
I went to the hotel holding up my dangling jaw, I expected to get upgraded but the woman at the reception did not even flinch at my story. She asked me to sit down and wait for three hours until the hospital opened. I was receiving absolutely no help so I opened up my computer and googled "What to do in case of a broken jaw?" and wrote down basic Russian phrases to explain myself. I waited until the hospital opened up and they were really nice and more apologetic than the hotel. I had to have a very primitive wire wrapped around my mouth for almost two months - This is the story about why I took a train once. I purchased a blender so that I could make my own soup and took the Transiberian across Russia. I surprisingly don't regret any of the experience because I did not give up and go home but continued.
That sounds painful. Now about your most talked about experience, which is quite popular on your Facebook and Youtube too. The cargo ships you've taken from HK to SG and then to Chennai.
I wanted to take the boat from China to India because getting to India by land is very difficult due to the super stringent immigration policies of the countries that surround India. When I got to Singapore I got very sidetracked because I couldn’t get the cargo boat directly to India, so I decided to travel around Southeast Asia.
I absolutely love the videos you've made of the ships.
Cargo ships are very impressive places. It’s difficult to not make it seem awesome! You are hardly aware of their existence, but they drive the world. Access to cargo boats has become almost impossible to obtain due to security concerns and companies protecting their reputation to outsiders. I’m ridiculously lucky to have taken two trips on them, even if it meant months of hard work.
The first two days, you are dragging your jaw on the floor because everything is so overwhelmingly beautiful in a very industrial sense. Everything that is on the ship is designed for the clear purpose of surviving brutal conditions at sea.
It’s a work environment, a floating factory. There’s literally NOTHING to do for you. Fortunately, I was working on shooting promo videos for 12 hours a day. The sailors are not so chatty and are slightly depressed as well because they live very difficult lives and can go 9 months without seeing their families. A sailor told me that they were voluntary prisoners and the truth is that they make a lot more money than in their home countries. In any case it’s not an easy job.
So, the list of some of the most amazing experiences:
- Traveling and depending on others' kindness and connecting without languages
- Escorting and the Russian punch
- Traveling on cargo ships
You said your most favourite people in the world are truck drivers. Why?
I think at one point in my life, I want to become a truck driver too. (No, really!) They've helped me out so much, probably more than any other sector. It’s interesting because this remains true across borders and across countries. I think almost every country I’ve hitchhiked in, I’ve been helped by truck drivers. They are normally people with little income, but they are always extremely generous and make it impossible for me to pay anything while I’m with them.
My first trucker (and lift!) was a Portuguese guy who was so thin he looked like a heroine junkie. I was a little scared at first, but then I ended up falling asleep.
It’s also a very maligned profession plagued by harsh stereotypical ideas. I’ve hitchhiked with about 45-50 and only once did I end up in a brothel. They were two groups of truck drivers and they always drove together - They saved gas by taking out the gear when going downhill and then they sold the extra gas to make some extra bucks and use it for ‘recreational purposes’. When they stopped at the brothel all we did was dance with the prostitutes and have one beer! They must have missed their families. It was during the holiest day of Ramadan in Sumatra, Indonesia.
You have to tell us about the Presidential Postcards Project! What is it?
I’m not sure of how exactly I thought of it but it basically started off as a fun thing to do. Most countries have the addresses and other contact details of their presidents and all the important politicians’ offices out in the open to make you feel like they’re accessible and approachable but they really are not. They want to create this false sense of personal care. I’m pretty sure they never touch any of those letters/ mails etc and for all you know they might think there’s some kind of poison in there. It kind of fascinated me because it is such a naive thing to say “Oh yeah, send me a letter and I’ll read it and solve your problems”. I wanted to pretend like he would. So I pretended to be the Spanish president’s fan and I just sent him letters praising him in a very obviously sarcastic manner and now I plan to send a lot more.
I think it's a really cool idea. I'm sure Mukha's readers will be excited to be part of it and send letters to their presidents too!
Yeah I think I should do it more often. This is the thing and I know that you know this better than lot of people - You have so many ideas and projects that you want to do but sometimes, you end up doing absolutely nothing. I’ll hopefully start sending the postcards more often.
But I guess that's the thing with travelling - Things are always changing. You're blown away by one thing and before you know it, something else tops that.
Yeah exactly. You do get used to that. But your excitement about the project makes me want to do it even more because it’s not that time consuming too. Also, I don’t want to disappoint you man.
HAHAHA! I'm totally going to send postcards to my president. Maybe throw in a couple to Obama and Kim Jong Un (Although, I'm not really sure if they have his address up!)
HAHAHA! Go for it.
Now coming back, apart from the romantic things about travel, one of the main reasons most people can't or don't travel is because of money. And more so in the eastern countries because our currencies are much weaker. How do you fund yourself?
Before going into how I “fund myself”, I think it’s important to dispel the notion that travelling is expensive. Nothing is going to be cheaper than staying at your parents home eating rice, but if you CouchSurf and are smart about transportation (hitchhiking, low cost airlines…) your only constant cost will be eating food. It’s true that some countries have an unfair advantage due to exchange rates, but there are plenty of cheap countries to visit!
About funding. We live in a great time to make money online and be location independent. This is probably the first time in history when such a significant percentage of the population can work outside big companies, be their own boss and enjoy the freedom and stress that come with it.
That being said, it’s embarrassing how little I’ve made during my travels. What has funded me are my lifetime savings (and I really couldn't think of a better way to spend them). I’ve written articles for VICE, but they don’t really pay that well. I’ve gotten some money from licensing videos to GoPro and from cargo boat companies from the promotional videos. Most of the money made in the trip definitely came from the escorting stints, specially in Singapore.
Doing what you are doing takes a lot of guts. What is that one tip that you’d like to give to others?
Now that I’ve done it, I’m actually super convinced that anybody can do it. All you need to do is have an open spirit, the willingness to go through some moderate hardships like sleeping in uncomfortable places and living on a tight budget.
I think the key is to realise that you have choices, there’s a wealth of things that you can do in this world and you are free to choose your own path, quitting a job isn’t as traumatic as you think. A lot of people are miserable with their jobs and still they can’t fathom a life outside of ‘the system' (I couldn't either).
You don’t have to live by the old rules of yesterday. The problem is that we adopt external expectations and desires, you know: the big house in the suburbs, the 2.5 kids, the fourwheel drive and the labrador. It makes no sense that billions of people want to live exactly the same kind of lives. I try to always remember that you can do anything you want and that the possibilities are endless. You can always go back to the job, your knowledge won’t expire because you quit and decided to do something completely out of the box. In fact, it is quite the opposite.
You've been in Bombay for ten days and in India for 3 weeks on a whole. How do you like it?
I really didn’t know I’d love it so much here but I literally, LOVE everything about this place. The food (especially because I'm vegetarian), the people and the vast, varied culture. It is definitely one of my top destinations. I really wanted to come here and that’s why I went back West a couple thousand kilometers even if I was travelling Eastbound and was already in China. I travelled the opposite direction to be here. Just like you were mentioning, people live very very different lives sharing the same space. India is a country in its own special league, an unmissable destination and one that teaches you more than any other.
What are your top 3 favourite foods?
It’s super difficult to narrow down but let’s see -
1. Khao Soi in Thailand - It’s a kind of a coconut, soupy noodle dish from the North of Thailand. I over ate it because I loved it. I don’t think I have gotten enough though.
2. This cheap street food from Beijing called Jianbing. It’s a sorta crepe with an egg, a lot of cilantro, some lettuce, a crunchy wafer and sauce. It was my de facto breakfast/all purpose food while I was there. You HAVE to try it.
3. Parathan - Onion Parathan. Although, the pickle got stuck in my throat and I almost choked on it. But really, I could have said a million other dishes, no country can take the food crown from India.
What about music?
I really would like to know a lot more local bands wherever I travel to. I know some Indian bands now because of you guys. But I’m obsessed with Kanye West always. Not just for his music but because he’s such an interesting character - He has this god complex but is also so obviously flawed. Whatever it is, he always pushes the envelope. My music taste is pretty standard indie pretentious crap though, very Pitchfork-y.
What is that one thing that keeps you going?
Hmmm.. that’s a super good question. Sometimes, not much, almost inertia. We were talking about how we get used to things. You get used to traveling too. You forget the reason why you started out in the first place when you’ve been going for so long. I love what I do and I love my life, but I have to keep reminding myself about why I started doing this. Just like with everything else.
If you could give one piece of advice, what would that be?
To try to remember that you are allowed to do anything you want and your only responsibility in this planet is to make yourself happy. Whatever that is, climbing up the corporate ladder or collecting stamps. Take chances for your dreams. Don’t live someone else's life.
Sometimes we try to answer the questions of this era with the answers of the previous one and I believe that is a massive mistake. As more or less young adults, part of our job is to piss off our parents. This is how the planet moves forward.
How would you define success with your kind of life?
We tend to see success in a very fucked up way which is not healthy. We only define success in materialistic ways. Success could be and should be limited to happiness. Being happy = being successful. We need to stop comparing ourselves and our paycheques to understand that. At this moment, if you’re happy, nobody is more successful than you. That’s all you should aspire for. These constantly refreshing unattainable goals make for so many of unhappy people everywhere.
"We live in times where there is a need to redefine our understanding about everything and each one of us should play an active role in this. Happiness shouldn’t happen in shots, It’s a state of being and I really hope people understand this."
Must reads from Fernando's blog:
Jawpocalypse - A detailed account of the Russian punch and how Google Translate was a saviour.
24 hours with Russian TV - A hilarious and brilliant account of spending Halloween watching 24 hours of Russian TV.
A year and a bit of travel - A very insightful summary of a year spent traveling.
All images used in this interview (apart from two) including the cover photo are selfies by Fernando.