Traveling penniless with Emanuele Vicalvi

It’s pretty common that people say: “I would love to travel the world.” But when you ask what stops them, the answer is usually: “I don’t have that much money.” Yet, Emanuele is a perfect example of a traveler who spends very little to no money on all of his journeys. Believe it or not, he never starved. He told us about his travels, hitchhiking, wild camping, and dumpster diving.

You’ve traveled quite a bit. How long have you been traveling and which countries have you visited?

I started traveling two years ago, first on and off, and then I’ve been on the road continuously for the past year. I have visited the United States, Greece, Portugal, England, Macedonia, Serbia, Hungary, Slovakia, Czech Republic, Germany, Poland, Austria, Bulgaria, Sweden, Norway and a good deal of my home country, Italy.

Everything by hitchhiking?

During the past year, yes, except for a couple of flights across the Atlantic ocean. I have hitchhiked over 27,000 kilometers by land and a few hundred by boat when I was in Norway.

Emanuele Penniless nomad hitchhiking
Hitchhiking in Kentucky towards California.

Which was the best country for hitchhiking and which one was the worst?

Poland, Norway, and the US were the easiest, while Sweden was definitely the worst. People seem to not notice you at all there, and most drivers that gave me rides were immigrants.

You’re traveling on a very low budget. How much approximately do you spend or do you travel completely without money?

If we only look at the past year, the one I’ve spent on the road continuously, I used money for the first nine months and no money at all for the last three. Since I hitchhiked and camped all the time, I only needed to spend money on food, and that was five bucks a day. That money easily came from busking with my ukulele. When I flew to Norway from the United States three months ago, I got introduced to dumpster-diving, and that’s when I stopped using money altogether. Sure, I would still occasionally buy some stuff (thanks to my uke), but I didn’t need to rely on money at that point unless I wanted to.

Tell me more about dumpster diving. How did you start? Are there some tricks and tips on how to find food?

I first heard about a lot of people doing it as a reliable way to get food. I started doing it myself when I was in Norway. My host in Oslo, a boy from the Czech Republic, used to do it every week, so I decided to go with him one night. That’s how I got my first hands-on experience. You basically just check out the dumpsters at a few supermarkets, put on your gloves and start getting stuff out. It’s incredible how much good food you can find. Sometimes my excitement and astonishment faded out almost immediately and panic took over because I genuinely did not know how to handle all of that food myself. You need to wash it, store it and carry it, and mostly, eat it before it actually spoils, or you’ll have to throw it away – again. If the dumpsters fail you, here’s a good trick: walk into a store a few minutes before it closes and ask any employee whether they’ve got anything they’re going to throw away. It works a lot!

Camping Yosemite National Park
Camping in Yosemite National Park, California.

Have you ever got really hungry on your journey or do you always find some food?

Never. It’s actually impossible to starve in Europe or in the US in 2016. Food is everywhere. Either you find it, or busk for it.

What was your biggest ‘catch’?

It was in Norway, in a tiny village in the north of the country. My pockets were empty and I only had food for that night, nothing for next day’s breakfast. I walked into a store and got THIRTY loaves of fresh bread. They were going to throw them all away.

What has your journey taught you?

Countless things. A very important one is that we can’t judge people on their appearance. That’s a cliche, but it’s true. I was once stuck at the Greek-Macedonian border. I uselessly asked drivers for a ride for over 4 hours, until I realized I wasn’t asking anyone that looked untrustworthy. I decided to go for it, and a middle-aged Albanian man, with twisted and distorted facial features, a man that most of us would avoid, ended up being willing to help as well as a very friendly guy. I was happy that day.

Sunset in Nevada
Riding a motorcycle through the Nevada desert at sunset.

You’re a traveler and you see the everyday reality of different countries from your own perspective. How did the travel change your view on life?

I now look at myself from outer space. I don’t see myself as a member of an organized society in which everyone plays a specific role, but as a free living being that has been given a possibility to be alive for some time on planet Earth, only one of an infinite amount of worlds in the universe. According to this view, everything that is not essential to survival is just made up by our minds. This way, any geographical borders, governments, and political laws lose any meaning they have in ordinary people’s view. I am just like a dog that wakes up in the morning, hunts for food, gets some shelter, finds some company and goes to bed at nightfall. A dog doesn’t care if he’s trespassing on anyone’s private land or jaywalking. He doesn’t care what time it is. In the same way, I am given the freedom to move around with no ties, to live my life as it develops moment by moment. Is anyone not okay with me pitching my tent somewhere? Who is anyone – a president or a mere passer-by – to rip me off of my right to sleep? Who says we need jobs and houses to sleep in? Who is a president to make laws? We give that president the power to, but without us, they’re no one. Who says some land is private and that no one except its owner can step on it?
With this, I don’t mean to encourage a state of anarchy, but only to take down all the mental barriers we’ve had since we were born. We are free to do whatever we want as long as we’re not harming anyone or anything.

Grand Canyon
In Grand Canyon, Arizona.

Some people who travel for a long time tend to become more spiritual and deepen their belief in God, the universe or whatever you call the higher power. What about you?

I do believe in Nature. Nature has put us all here and it will take us back in the end. No proof of human existence on Earth will be left in 15 million years, and climate change and all the pollution we cause don’t look so big from that perspective. I used to stress out a lot over shrinking glaciers and increasing pollution levels until I realized that Nature will restore its balance in the end. We are the only victims of ourselves. Nature will go on unaffected.

You have traveled for some time already. Are there any downsides of a long time travel?

Sure there are. Your body is active all the time and you do get tired. You hitchhike, walk a lot, look around for food, sleep in a tent every night… Doing all of that at the same time can really wear you down within a week or two. So you can either travel at a slower pace or get some cash on the road to provide for nights in hostels or food. As soon as you don’t have to deal with camping or dumpster-diving, you have a lot more energy to spare.
Also, you’re basically never alone. You talk to people when they pick you up or host you, plus you never get your own place. You have to be up to someone’s schedule all the time, so it becomes very much needed to get your alone time. So I just pitch my tent somewhere, I make sure I have enough food for a few days, and just rest my soul there.

Knivskjellodden, the northernmost spot in continental Europe.

Would you exchange the life on the road for a stable one at home?

I would not. I have tried to get a job and settle down a couple of times. Each time I was drawn to the stability of that lifestyle, but my enthusiasm always faded out by two weeks. I belong on the road. I would gladly get a van or a sailboat at some point in the future, though. That would enable me to have a solid base for myself, but I can still move it around whenever and wherever I want.

What was your strongest moment on your journey?

Gosh, I really don’t know. The whole experience of low-to-no budget traveling is very intense itself. Sure, my experiences across the United States and up to Nordkapp in Norway were very strong, but it would be hard to sort them out. It was what it was.

You met people from different countries and cultures. Is humankind hopeless or you can always and everywhere find a person who will help you?

Humankind is everything but hopeless. Good, generous, kind-hearted people outnumber hate-driven people by far, but only the latter make the news. No one really reports about acts of kindness, and that’s why we get this distorted picture that “humankind is doomed”. During my wandering, people drove me further than they were going, offered me meals, hosted me for a night or two and even gave me money. Some people told me how I could make them smile and boost their confidence in humankind, too. I also believe that positive-energized people draw similar people to them and repel negative-energized ones away.

Emanuele and Steve
Emanuele and Steve, an old hippie living in his RV, that he met in the Nevada desert.

Which culture was the closest to you? Have you felt like you don’t belong somewhere?

I felt the closest with rural American culture. Although the United States is entirely taken over by capitalism and a profit-oriented mindset, more and more people are turning their backs to that and looking to self-sufficiency now. Such movement has been going on in Europe as well, but it’s advantaged in America by their huge, uninhabited and unsettled spaces. There, lost in the wild, you can really feel like life is all about you and the surrounding environment.

What does your family say about your traveling? Aren’t they scared and panicking?

My family aren’t scared or too worried about my safety but don’t really appreciate my life choices. They have never stopped me from doing anything, but they have never really supported me either. They’re somewhat indifferent, especially my mom, but I know they only mean well and are afraid I won’t succeed in life doing what I do. It’s just a matter of completely different viewpoints.

What do you want to do now?

I am gonna keep on traveling. I have many ideas for my future, but it seems too early now to realize any of them. For now, I just need to be free and explore this wonderful world we live in. I am going to start a YouTube channel as soon as the upcoming fall to make more people aware of alternative lifestyles. Next year, I would like to fly to the US again and then hitchhike my way up to Canada and Alaska, to visit Christopher McCandless’s Magic Bus.

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