In new Discovery show Free Ride, Californian Rob Greenfield and British film-maker James Levelle cross South America without spending a single dime, or that's the plan anyway. We caught up with 29-year-old Rob at Tiny Leaf, a vegetarian, organic, zero-waste (and surprisingly chic) restaurant in Notting Hill, to find out why on earth he thought it was a good idea...
When you travel with no money, it forces you out of your comfort zone and to see the world as it truly is. When you have money, you have all the choices, you get to do whatever you want. Travelling with no money takes you to people and places that you never ever would have chosen to go.
It’s not just because you’re stingy?
If I have money, I’m far from stingy. When I used to drink, my credit card was at the bar and everybody was drinking.
Any time that I’ve tried to save money, it’s really about saving resources. I find that when you don’t have money, you have to be more creative about the way you do things. Whereas when you have money, you can buy anything you want, without ever having to think about how it impacts the earth.
Rob and James enjoy Bolivia's salt flats
The publicity blurb describes you as "an adventurer, humanitarian, environmentalist and dude making a difference". How would you describe yourself?
I’m definitely a positive person and one that aims to have a positive influence on others. I aim to be as beneficial as possible to people and the planet and cause as little harm as possible.
So did you manage to travel 7,000 miles in 72 days without spending a dollar?
You’ll have to wait and see!
Did you spend any nights on the street?
22 out of 72 nights in total. I had a bivy sack, which is like a small tent, and I slept in the town square, in a lot of gas stations, outside police stations, fire stations...
There were certain countries where you had to be careful of the police. If you’re ever in trouble, go to the fire station. They will almost always take in someone who’s in need.
Radio Times Travel offer (for those who prefer to travel in comfort) :
Natural Wonders of South America, 21 nights, from £2,999pp
How close did you come to giving up?
I thought about giving up a lot. I would think about the comforts of back home like dark chocolate. I love good-quality dark chocolate and I could never get any. One of the ways that I forced myself not to give up was by telling a lot of people what I’m doing. Then I couldn't give up because I’d look like an idiot.
Rob and James look over Rio De Janeiro, Brazil
What was the highlight for you?
After James and I took a break from each other, I camped by this incredibly beautiful river in the middle of nowhere in Peru. I'd been hitchhiking for a couple of hundred miles and got dropped off at a bridge and camped there. I swam, cooked up some little fish that I caught and foraged for greens.
Why did you and James have to take a break?
There was a lot of tension. Just imagine spending 72 days with anybody: 24 hours day in, day out. It‘s enough to really aggravate anybody and eventually the healthy thing was to take some time apart.
Did his British outlook have anything to do with it?
Well, he really liked his tea hot and he complained if it wasn’t! Man, did he complain. Our characters are different in many ways and I don’t know if it’s because we're different nationalities, or just very different people.
Travellers' tiffs aside, what were the day-to-day difficulties?
It was really hard for people to understand that I had no money. I would explain and they’d say: "Take a bus." Even a lot of lower income people have never ever thought of the concept of having no money. No money is very different from 200 dollars a month.
You’re American with a cameraman in tow... Did people turn round and say "How dare you pretend to have no money for kicks"?
I never felt any anger or anything like that. I understood that and I would expect scepticism because they’ve never met anybody before that was travelling with no money.
Did it test your faith in the kindness of strangers?
It reinforced it – in the vast majority of cases people are very kind. One of the challenges of our time is that the mainstream media paints a very negative picture of the world. But if people go out there without a lot of preconceived notions, they’ll see that’s not the real world. The real world is full of good people.
So what's your top tip for backpackers who'd like to save a few pennies and get off the beaten track?
Hitchhiking is an incredible experience. We ended up in the wildest places because we took a ride with a random person and they dropped us off in a random place and then we ended up meeting people we never would have met.
But don't go to the road and stick your thumb out. Go to gas stations and talk to people so that they have time to get to know you for a couple of minutes, and so you can get a better judgement of who they are. Never take a ride unless you’re really comfortable with that person.
And for people who want to travel without spending any money?
The way James and I did it made travel with no money a huge challenge, but if you plan ahead and have places to stay, it makes travelling with no money vastly easier. You can do things like Workaway or WWOOFing, which is where you work on an organic farm in exchange for food and lodging.
What would you avoid doing again?
Don’t try to cover so much ground. Don’t try to cover thousands of miles and spend 12 days in each country. What we did was beyond strenuous. It was just ridiculous.
My girlfriend and I are going on a three-month trip to Central America to plant fruit trees and start community gardens for orphanages and women’s shelters. At the same time, we’ll be learning from them and making videos about what we learn.
Free Ride begins on Wednesday 18th May on Discovery at 8pm
Radio Times Travel offer (for those who don't fancy hitchhiking):
Natural Wonders of South America, 21 nights, £2,999pp
Imagine standing at the foot of the iconic Christ the Redeemer statue, being soaked by the spray of Iguazu Falls, navigating around the southernmost tip of South America and cruising past icy, blue-tinged glaciers — this adventure offers it all. You’ll begin with a two-night hotel stay in Buenos Aires.
Here, you’ll enjoy a city tour taking in exotic tango salons and stunning French architecture, before visiting Puerto Iguazu, home of the mighty Iguazu Falls (above), which you’ll see from both the Argentinian and Brazilian sides on your two-night stay. Next, two nights in Rio de Janeiro, where you’ll tour the awe-inspiring Christ the Redeemer statue (inset right) and Sugarloaf Mountain.
Then you’ll board the P&O Arcadia for your cruise through the Falkland Islands, around Cape Horn, past glaciers, fjords and amazing wildlife including penguins, culminating in colourful Valparaiso. Read more and book.