I’m really glad Milene agreed to do this interview. This girl lives on the edge!
Even though she says her bank accounts are “mostly empty”, this Dutch girl has managed to travel to more than 30 countries. Milene is currently in Buenos Aires, where she has always wanted to live, learning Spanish and looking for a job.
I’ll shut up now and let her tell you her story about traveling with no money. Enjoy!
You mentioned on your blog that your first flight ever was to South Africa with your best friend. Was this your first trip without your family?
It wasn’t the first time without my parents; it was my first time to another continent, though, and indeed my first flight.
I had just graduated, was 20 years old and worked at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs at the time, so I saved part of my salary. It cost around €1,500 (about US$2,000) at that time.
Before this trip, I mostly traveled with friends; afterwards, I started to travel solo as well.
When was your first trip without your parents, then?
It was to Czech Republic when I was 16 years old. I went with my friend. It was an adventure/active holiday where we visited Prague. We went mountain-biking in the forests, para-sailing from the mountains, hiking through the beautiful landscape — it was amazing. We spent around €300 (about US$400) for 10 days of all-inclusive travel.
You left on your current trip in early 2013. What were you doing right before leaving?
I was working at Booking.com, an online hotel reservation company where I worked as Customer Care Executive. During my time at Booking.com, I traveled to over 13 countries in 1 year.
That’s a lot of traveling! Why was that not enough for you?
It was great to travel to many countries. However, I am not seeking to strike countries off my bucket list. City trips, beach holidays, food vacations — they’re great but I want more.
I like to dive in, embrace the culture, learn the language and get to know the people. This is simply not possible on a three-day or even three-week trip.
The moment that I decided to leave was when I asked myself the question: “is this what I want?”. The answer was simple: “no”. So I decided to do some research about volunteering in Africa and soon I found the right organization to go with.
Financially, how did you prepare for the trip?
I’m quite a spender, thus the economy loves me. I saved some money, but only during the last two months before my departure. I even went on two weekend trips in the last month.
How much did you come up with?
Well, in two months I managed to save up almost €3,000 (about US$4,000), which wasn’t nearly enough. The idea was to live the life in Africa, then find a job in Argentina and work my way back into a healthy bank account. It indeed is lousy preparation but I quite like an adventure.
How did you find out about the volunteer opportunity?
I did some research online. I came across SIW, which is a Dutch organization that has relationships with local organizations all over the world.
The local organization sent me emails with different projects and I chose the school. Many projects were in and around Kampala, the capital city of Uganda. However, I wanted to experience living in an African village and decided to stay in Luwero. The organization provided a host-family for me and there I was.
I would recommend it to anyone as you learn so much from it. It’s a lot different than just traveling through a country.
Did staying with a host family mean you never had to pay for accommodation and food?
I did pay the host family — not for accommodation, but for food.
I also helped them in the garden, which was quite hard, coming from a European city and not being used to digging in a garden with the sun burning on your neck. They had fun seeing the white city girl toil in the garden.
Moreover, I cooked sometimes, helped with the dishes, washed clothes, went to the well to fetch water, fed the chickens, slaughtered the chickens, etc. You can see it as labor in exchange for staying there.
Besides staying there for “free”, I learned a lot from it!
You’re in Argentina now. What’s next for you?
I’m not planning on going back to the Netherlands any time soon. I’m planning to find a job here and to learn Spanish so that I speak it fluently. My plans always change, so I don’t want to plan too much ahead.
You mentioned on your blog that you were worried about finding work in Buenos Aires. How’s the job search going?
The main problem about finding a job here is that I don’t speak the language fluently. However, for now it is going alright. I don’t have a job yet but I never lose hope.
What’s the best and worst jobs you’ve ever had on the road?
The best job was in Uganda, where I worked with boys from the ghetto, making arts and crafts. They called themselves the One Love Youth Development Association and I learned a lot from the way they live their lives.
I haven’t really had a job that I would call the worst. You have to make your own fun at a job and it doesn’t matter how horrible the job is, I always have fun with my colleagues. If you need the money, you can’t make too much of a fuss about it. If you’re planning a career, well, then you better do what you like.
You’ve been to more than 30 countries now. Yet you also said that you had “no idea about the value of money” and that your “bank-accounts were mostly empty”. So how do you fund your travels?
When I’m working, I mostly take weekend trips or one- to two-week trips. Now, on my “big tour”, I try to find real jobs, something I can really learn something from.
In Uganda, I helped a friend start a tour organization. This was amazing; I learned a lot about websites, writing and marketing.
How do you keep your travel expenses low?
While traveling, I don’t buy clothes (well, only if needed). Buying food at the local market, inviting your friends to your place or cooking at the hostel / Couchsurfing host’s place, buying beer from the supermarket instead of going to the bar, avoiding the touristy areas as they are a lot more expensive — all these things help to keep expenses low.
Whenever I like something at a market or souvenir shop, I ask myself, “Do I really need this?” The answer almost always is “no”. However, I do buy some things. For example, I like to collect the flag of every country I visit.
Do you take advantage of frequent flyer miles or other loyalty programs?
I’m not really a very loyal customer. I just go with the cheapest option. I do have frequent flyer miles, so when traveling on planes, I try at least to fly on Star Alliance airlines.
Nevertheless, if I can I travel by road, I do so. It’s cheaper and at least you see something.
Tell me about the lowest financial point in your travels.
I think now I have arrived at my lowest financial point. I flew without money to Argentina because I had already booked the flight.
Nevertheless, I can always, always count on my parents. They will always help me out when I hit financial bottom (of course not unconditionally).
What I do when I hit rock bottom? I eat at home, as cheaply as possible. I skim the whole supermarket for cheap things. I don’t go out for dinner or beers. And I do my ultimate best to find a job, whatever it is.
That’s how I always get back on my feet, wherever I am. My perseverance and optimism will get me where I want to go.
Are your parents helping you with your expenses now?
I indeed owe a lot to my parents. They know how much I want to be here and they are always supporting me and believing that I can make it. So indeed they help me out a bit now. Still, they don’t have a gold mine and so my pockets aren’t filled with pesos right now. I’m focusing on finding a job so I can pay them back as soon as possible.
Do you actively plan for your financial future?
I’ve learned in Africa that everyone should live in the moment. What if tomorrow is your last day on this earth? You’d have wasted all your time planning for a future you don’t have.
I might start thinking about retirement when I have a serious job. However, I’m not yet ready for that kind of commitment.