Globetrotters without a penny - Duo hope to repeat Phileas Fogg's 80-day feat

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By RITH BASU
  • Published 22.10.14
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Two youths with dreams in their eyes, a spring in their steps and not a penny in their pockets arrived at Howrah station on Monday, after 41 days of travel across half the world.

Milan Bihlmann, 27, from Germany and Muammer Yilmaz, 39, a man of Turkish origin from France, set off from Paris sharp at 9.09am on September 9 with a mission to travel around the world without spending any money of their own and depending completely on human kindness to eat, sleep and even travel on.

Milan and Muammer first met on Couchsurfing, a social hospitality network, before the German hosted the Frenchman for three days at his home in Munich. They soon discovered their common interest for travel and hit upon a plan.

Hitching rides, braving unexpected delays and at times running away from cops, the duo have clocked 8,000km already and hope to cover the journey around the world in 80 days, much like Phileas Fogg in Jules Verne’s 1873 novel.

“You just have to open up in front of people. I believe in people’s curiosity and urge to connect when approached with an open mind and open heart,” said Milan, who has studied international business.

Milan and Muammer, who makes documentaries and is an avid photographer, spent 15 hours on the floor of a general compartment of a train on their way from Varanasi to Calcutta, the city “where the Ganges ends”.

After getting off the train, the two introduced themselves to a man and asked him which bus would take them to the “city centre” as they wanted to witness some hustle bustle.

The man asked them to hop on to a bus along with him and paid their fare. But he directed them to Forum mall on Elgin Road, thinking they wanted to go to a mall (there are two malls named City Centre in Calcutta, in Salt Lake and New Town).

Once at Forum, the duo shared their story with a few more people who took them to Iftekhar Ahsan of Calcutta Walks, an organisation that arranges walking tours of the city.

Milan and Muammer are now Iftekhar’s guests. “Once on the road, you always end up somewhere nice in the end,” winked Milan, as he related the morning’s adventure.

Having started from the foot of the Eiffel Tower, they hitched rides on cars and trucks across Austria, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria and Turkey before entering Iran. While the European leg of the tour had been smooth, the first hurdle came up while entering Iran as Milan, a German, was not eligible for visa on arrival. They had to wait for seven days, almost 10 per cent of their target of 80, at the Turkey-Iran border while the visa application was processed.

“In Iran, as we neared the Pakistan border, people started warning us that we would be killed if we went into Pakistan. It was scary because everyone was telling us the same thing but, obviously, we went right ahead,” said Muammer. They were not killed in Pakistan but had to spend the next two days in the carriage of pick-up vans in which the army transported them 600km from the Iran border to Lahore.

“The police told us in Lahore that they would escort us to the Wagah border but only after three days as that is the time it would take to get a no-objection certificate for our departure,” said Muammer, who along with Milan and a Turkish companion of theirs slipped out of the hotel and took a train to Wagah.

“Someone called Hasan invited us for lunch on the platform. Another bloke called Saif and his neighbours welcomed us into their sleeping compartment, shared their beds with us for the night, along with tea, cookies,” recounted Muammer.

The travellers have had their share of generous hospitality as well as hiccups. “Just the other day, we waited for four hours on a highway in Bulgaria as no one was willing to give us a lift. The next day, in Turkey, someone invited us to a wedding house and treated us like kings,” Milan said.

The two men are documenting their experiences on the go on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/80dayschallenge) and their website (www.optimistic-traveler.com) through an agency to whom they keep couriering their recordings with help from “kind-hearted strangers”.

Their first stop in India was Amritsar, from where they went to Delhi, Agra and Varanasi before coming to Calcutta. In Varanasi, they performed a few tricks at the railway station before asking someone to buy them two general class tickets to Howrah.

Now they face the challenge of getting two flight tickets to Bangkok or cargo ship tickets to Malaysia to continue their dream run. “As of now we, don’t know where the money will come from but probably it will. If it does, we will be another step closer to being the first people to go around the world in 80 days,” said Muammer.

From South-east Asia, the travellers plan to go to California and then across the US to New York before crossing the Atlantic to return to Paris.