Explorer Al Humphreys Reveals Why You Don’t Need Anything To Travel And Make Foreign Friends

Judging by Instagram, ‘perpetual traveller’ is the world’s most desirable lifestyle. Despite this many of us sit stuck behind a workstation, dreaming of escape while listing excuses (mostly around money, time and other tiresome details) for why we can’t have an adventure, right now. Al Humphreys is a pioneer of ‘micro-adventures’ – expeditions small enough to do overnight – and his ‘pick up your coat and go’ approach to travel seems like an ideal solution....

As an author, blogger, film-maker and photographer, Al Humphreys has spent four years cycling around the world, has walked across Southern India, ran six marathons through the Sahara and rowed across the Atlantic ocean...

But it’s his latest project that RISING thinks most proves the idea that you don’t need to have wads of dough, or a genius for logistics to embark on a remarkable adventure. Humphreys is terrified of public performing but busked his way across Spain with no cash, travelling light and accompanied only by his ‘trusty’ violin, with which he was useless, as a tool to leverage the kindness of foreign strangers...

RISING You recently challenged yourself to cross Spain with no money, relying on your lack of ability to play the violin as a way to busk for bread. How did that go?

Alastair Humphreys ‘It’s one of the most interesting adventures I’ve ever done. I did it just as a personal thing because I loved the book As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning, and I wanted to walk some of the same route. But it was also about the whole process of starting from scratch at the violin, and being rubbish at something. I can’t play the violin at all, and one of my big fears is singing or dancing in public. It’s my idea of total hell, so just the idea of doing it terrified me. I started from zero and I had seven months to learn so that became a thing; learning the new skill.’

RISING Did the sight of a bedraggled Brit committing anti-social behaviour create, you know, a tough crowd?

AH ‘I had to stand up in town squares without a penny in my pocket going: “If I want to eat tonight, I’d better play.” I was rubbish, but the reception was really nice. People were amused, but nobody ever told me to fuck off. Before I went I thought about making all these cheating excuses like making a placard saying: “I’ve only been playing for seven months; I haven’t got any money; please help.” But that is cheating.’

‘I can’t play the violin and one of my big fears is performing in public – it’s my idea of total hell’

RISING So, you didn’t even have reserve cash for food – did you starve at the beginning?

AH ‘I didn’t have to resort to cheating – the least I ever earned was two Euros, so I could always buy a loaf of bread. But yeah, no sign, so all anyone saw was me standing in a square going “skreee, skreee” on this violin.’

RISING Sounds awkward! Did you improve and develop any crowd pleasers?

AH ‘Well, a bit. My most popular was The Muppets theme tune. I could play five songs, all that calibre, all about 30 seconds long. I was using the Grade One playbook, which is something that five-year old kids use. I definitely got better at busking. By the end I was almost too good: I wasn’t in the category of incredibly bad, I was just bad, which is a bit different.’

RISING Did you really annoy anyone or were people generally friendly?

AH ‘Oh, absolutely. With all my travels, I found that if you can make yourself different, then people automatically have a reason to talk to you. I once walked round the M25, and just because I had my hiking gear and boots people had a reason to talk to me, which they wouldn’t have done if I’d been dressed in my normal stuff, or a suit or whatever. So, it’s nice to have an in; travel’s good for that. People wanted to talk about Brexit a lot, people were friendly. They weren’t as gushingly friendly as in the middle east, where they’ll invite you into their homes.’

RISING That’s interesting – how have people generally reacted to you in the Middle East?

AH ‘Well, the first time I went to the middle east was when I cycled around the world and I was very worried about going there for all the obvious reasons. But equally I was surprised by how worried I was, because I thought of myself as very open minded, and I knew I was judging an entire region on what I’d seen on the news. I rode through Syria before the war started, went through Lebanon and Jordan, on other trips I walked across Oman and Sudan. I love the Middle East, the people are so kind, and unquestioningly welcoming, and generous and hospitable. I felt safer in most of those places than in most other places I’ve travelled, which is so at odds with their outside perception. Just the impact that a few bad people and a few crazy government leaders can give to the perception of a country, which, er, is obviously relevant to a few other countries in the world.’

RISING Did you get a sense of how the West is viewed by everyday people who live in the Middle East?

AH ‘I rode through a few countries in the Middle East that profess to hate America, but actually everyone loves the minutiae of American life: Hollywood, jeans, McDonald’s. Then when I got to America, I was surprised by how similar it felt. Both very religious, both very welcoming, both very insular – they think their way is the way – but both very welcoming.

My very idealistic wish when I went around the world was to get everyone in the middle east to backpack in America for a bit, and vice versa, which I think would solve all the world’s problems.

RISING Looking back, what have been the most pleasantly surprising moments when dealing with strangers in foreign lands?

AH ‘Lots of random anonymous people in random anonymous towns, so I don’t want to single out one place, because then I’m being unfair to the others. One thing that’s a constant: dusk is always quite a lonely time, you see people in their gardens or kids playing and it’s always crushingly lonely. When that happens, being invited into someone’s house totally changes your mood, and it’s happened on every continent I’ve been on: similar things always happen, the wife gets annoyed with her husband because she thinks the house isn’t tidy enough. Things like that.’

‘Everyone in the middle east should backpack in America for a bit, and vice versa, which I think would solve the world’s problems’

RISING We fancy going on a proper adventure – are there any do’s and don'ts?

AH ‘Well, anywhere you go you need to be a little bit streetwise and trust your gut – there are quite a few countries where I look like I’m rich, so people want to get you drunk and rob you: it’s about getting a feel for them and leaving the situation. But otherwise, travel is fantastic for chatting to people. In England I’m quite shy, I would never walk up to someone in a bar. When you’re abroad, it’s a lot easier – especially if you’ve got a rucksack or a violin.’

RISING A lot of people are nervous about stepping outside the tourist bubble without knowing the lingo first – how do you deal with that?

AH ‘The more I travel the more frustrating it is to not be able to speak the language even a little bit. But if you choose the areas that are off the beaten track, there’s an element of full-on immersion: you listen to people and do sign language and you do your best – that’s a very good way of overcoming your inhibitions. I find that going by myself is very good because I’m not shy or self-conscious and I can just pile in and make an idiot of myself.’

RISING Do you have any time-saving tips to learning the basics quickly?

AH ‘There’s a cool website called iTalki where you can pay people to talk to you based on their level of expertise, which I used for Spanish. At first this lady tried to set me homework and I never did it, so eventually she went, “Okay, shall we just chat?” and we’d just talk shit for an hour, and she’d point out mistakes that I made.’

RISING Say I’m heading somewhere ‘on’ the beaten track – what’s the best way for me to work in a bit of adventure?

AH ‘Well, it’s just about taking random detours and embracing the spontaneity of travelling. I never regret the times I accepted an invitation or took a detour instead of taking the motorway, but I sometimes look back and slightly regret the times I just boshed out 1,000 miles down a main road just to make some time up. If you go to Egypt, for instance, you want to see the pyramids, but the most interesting part is probably what happens on the back streets you take to get to the pyramids. You’ve seen the pyramids before you get there – the real downside of travel now is the difficulty of being surprised. But I try in my trips to make scope for being surprised. I walked across Southern India  from coast to coast and deliberately didn’t pick a bit that had any tourist landmarks – I just bought a plane ticket and went, so that anything I discovered would be a surprise. So, one morning I walked down a hill and found this huge gold temple full of Nepali monks – it was vastly better because I came across it by accident rather than scheduling it in.’

WHAT NEXT? Check out Al Humphrey’s guide to Microadventures and plan your own 5-9 mini-break, even if it’s just heading to the nearest wooded area with a hammock and a micro-brew or two.