Jeff Schroeder, a popular alum of CBS mainstays The Amazing Race and Big Brother, has just arrived back in America after completing an inspiring challenge to travel all the way Around the World for Free and document it online through videos and photos for a legion of fans who followed his every move. Schroeder left the starting line in New York City in early July, and after 105 days, 13 countries, countless snafus, and indelible connections, he arrived back in Manhattan this week. Schroeder made a beeline for WalletPop.com, where I asked the budget Ulysses how on earth he saw Earth without spending any cash:
Schroeder (wearing the vest his girlfriend, Big Brother 11 winner Jordan Lloyd, bought him when he passed through in Italy) was accompanied by his producer, videographer, and editor Zsolt Luka, or "Z." He accomplished the same journey, except with the added pressure of having to shoot, edit, and upload video segments as they went. While Schroeder worked to figure out the onward path, often graciously accepting hospitality from strangers who soon became friends, Luka and a third production companion, Josh Bolton, uploaded photos and videos of their adventures daily.
After announcing the trip on WalletPop, I followed the team closely as they traveled over the summer and fall. Not everyone has a network TV fan base to draw upon in assembling affordable travels, but one of the lessons of his journey is that you don't have to be famous to make friends. After all, outside of America, Schroeder's an unknown.
Midway through their odyssey, I noted on my blog the sensitive way that Schroeder handled the financial disparity, even volunteering for a humanitarian group in the poorest provinces of Cambodia. His up-for-anything spirit, which defied a modern American temptation to judge each experience as a product, was just as admirable. But most impressive was watching him navigate the uncomfortable reality of having to ask for freebies from people who were less fortunate than most Americans. In Laos, he is shown going thirsty rather than burdening locals who are all too eager to share the little they have. It convinced me that the way Schroeder traveled was "world class," and I said so.
When I published that, the outpouring of praise from his fans proved that far from presenting himself as an Ugly American who presses his advantage, he taught some emotional lessons about the connections between money and brotherhood, and erased the cultural stereotypes that have calcified in the minds of Americans who cannot afford to see other countries for themselves.
Because international travel is financially out of reach for many of us, some distasteful and dismissive impressions of other cultures have been allowed to rise unchallenged. Schroeder's adventures, accomplished without a cent, blow those false impressions away.
At the time, I also ribbed Schroeder, who's from Chicago, about his enthusiasm for the words "awesome" and "amazing" -- and he told me in our celebratory chat that my teasing became part of a running gag. "It was a joke for the rest of the trip," Schroeder said. "Like: 'Jeff, what do you think this is? Amazing'." (Sorry about that, Jeff.)
Incidentally, he also shattered the legend that two timeworn modes of budget travel were still viable in 2010. He failed to hitch a ride on a freighter in the Indian Ocean (too much paperwork) and to hitch a ride by truck in America (legal obstacles). Those may have worked for low-cost travelers in the '60s and '70s, but Schroeder found them unavailable today.
Schroeder's season of Around the World for Free (the first season, last year, was anchored by Amazing Race winner Alex Boylan) proves it's not about money, but about people. It also slays the myth that you must have lots of cash to see the world. When he emptied his pockets to show one stranger in Asia, he had only his passport and a tube of Chap Stick -- if you ask me, they're the only two essentials in life.
Money may not make the world go round, but it helps you go round it. The minute our interview was over, Schroeder ran across the street for his first visit to an ATM since early July.
But you only live once, and enterprising minds can conquer huge obstacles without spending a cent. Don't let your lack of cash flow keep you from climbing Mount Fuji, skydiving over England, or hitting Germany for Oktoberfest. Where there's brotherhood and gratitude, there's a path.
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