"My main principle was, I don't want to beg. I always want to offer something in return."
Michael Wigge travels light, and not just with his luggage, but also his wallet. The 36-year-old German video journalist, author, and comedian spent 150 days in 2010 traveling through 11 countries, from Germany to the United States and all the way down to Antarctica, starting without a dollar in his pocket. He changed the oil of cargo ship engines for rides across oceans, offered one-dollar pillow fights with strangers in San Francisco, and failed miserably as a porter in Machu Picchu. Now he's gearing up for another strange farce: riding a children's scooter 2,000 miles across Germany in 80 days, starting this April. We caught up with Wigge to see what he learned in 2010 and how preparation is going for his next adventure.
What was your most desperate moment during your previous trip around the world?
Las Vegas was actually a very difficult place to get by without money. I stayed there for over a week. The main problem was that I couldn't drink the tap water in Vegas because it has a lot of chlorine, since some of it probably comes from the desert or from far away. So I had to find other possibilities on how to get drinks for free. I used an old cup from McDonald's and got water from several different McDonald's.
Food was also very difficult in Vegas because it's a very commercial place and people would say: "This is about money. It's not about free." I worked out a barter deal with two hotels, but I probably visited 250 hotels in two days trying to find a place to stay. And it was hot, like 100 degrees.
Did you have many defeatist moments when you felt lost and unsure of what you were doing?
Some. Hawaii was actually very difficult. I went to California and met a guy who's father was a former airline pilot who gave me a free 10-day round-trip flight, which was really cool. Then I washed my clothes in the ocean and they didn't really dry so I was wearing these wet, salty clothes for a while. I had these, I think you say blisters on my feet and they were sort of broken, so all this dirt and salt came into my feet and I had heavy pain for like a week or two. So Hawaii was quite ironic because outside was paradise but then it got really weird and physically very difficult.
Who was the most helpful?
The Amish community in Ohio. I met this Amish farmer on his horse and buggy when I was walking across Ohio and they let me stay in their barn for a few days. They gave me a possibility to have a look into their lifestyle—their non-developed lifestyle without Internet and electricity. And at the end they gave me three presents. One was a Bible since they're very religious and I'm medium religious. Then they gave me a bike and 100 bucks, so later on I could buy a bus ticket to Albuquerque. I didn't expect that.
Did you get any adverse reactions to your trying to mooch all the time?
My main principle was, I don't want to beg. I always want to offer something in return. Funny ideas like pillow fighting for a dollar or pushing tired people up steep hills in San Francisco and the human sofa. In stores, I would always offer to help and say "can I sweep the floor, can I clean the shelf, can I tell you a funny story?" Just offering this made people not find it rude and they typically just gave me a sandwich for nothing.
Did you learn to recognize any signs of danger or bad situations?
In Peru, I stayed with a German ex-pat who built his own oven with a plastic chimney into the wall. It went on fire from the oven to the chimney to the whole room. Then the apartment burnt down, so that was really bad but it was more like a clumsy mistake of his. At that same time in Cusco, Peru, sometimes they don't have water for like half a day and that was exactly the time when it happened so it was really bad. After that he was like, "Yea, let's hang out." And I was like, "I'm done with this," and I left to Lake Titicaca and on to Bolivia.
What were some of the more inventive food options you explored?
One was eating flowers on the Big Island in Hawaii. There I met these kind of alternative lifestylers—people who just left society and live in the woods and they explained to me which flowers can be eaten that just grow along the road in Hawaii. There was one plant called Red Potato that I would never imagine biting into. It looks dangerous, it's so red. If you eat 20 or 40, it's like a small meal. It's good, you know; you eat it and it tastes like a flower. I also did some of the so-called "dumpster diving." You have a lot of stuff that is just done for a day and it's still good.