Last month, while on vacation on Jeju-do, my friend Oskar was waved over by a man wearing a cat head and his friend carrying a sign that read “Penniless Travels.” I soon came to learn that they were part of a community called “없는놈들의 있는무전여행” (the broke guys that have nothing but their penniless travels) that relied on the charity of strangers to travel domestically and that they had made it all the way here from Seoul. Back at work, I got a chance to talk to the group’s founder and leader Han Chul-hee and member Lee Chang-kyu.
How did this group start?
Chul-hee: First, I was just traveling alone. Some of my friends became interested in what I was doing and decided to join me. We go part of the way alone and meet up later. This time around, we started off in Yongsan, met up on Gyeongpo beach, traveled down the East Coast, touched base in Busan and then flew over to Jeju with some donated money we had collected. We planned, made signs together and spread the word via SNS and people reached out to us.
How did you make the signs by the way?
Chul-hee: All of us went to the E-mart in Yongsan, took some ramyun boxes, asked to borrow some tape and markers and drew for almost three hours!
How did you manage to travel without any money?
Chul-hee: There was a lot of hitchhiking. And sleeping in churches. We’ll go to taxi-drver restaurants (which are delicious, by the way) and do the dishes afterwards. People are nicer than you would think. They ask if you’ve eaten and a lot of them buy you meals afterwards. They’ll hand you 10,000 won bills for sharing with them your vision. They also give me a lot of advice about life. What should I do after I graduate? Is it really important to go to college? Things like that.
Chang-kyu: I really like walking so I don’t mind walking a long time on my own. It can be hard without any food, though. I remember being on my own one time and having nothing except microwave rice. I snuck into a convenience store, used their hot water and used their microwave to heat up the rice. It was so good, I even licked the lid clean.
Do you think that it’s harder in a city like Seoul as opposed to more countryside places?
Chul-hee: I initially thought it would be. There’s one night I slept with my sleeping bag at Yeouido Han River Park, but even here, taxi drivers have taken us around for free and strangers have given us leftover food from picnics and stuff. I think Seoul’s just as kind as any other city.
Do you ever have to sleep out on the streets?
Chang-kyu: One time I almost had to because I was turned down by seven different churches but I met this pastor who just told me to wait on the church steps for a while. He came back with these coupons for jjimjil-bang and I realized that he just went there to buy them for me.
Do you ever feel bad getting things for free?
Chul-hee: Of course and in our way, we do our best to make other people part of our experience. I have a lot of faith in the sense of community and worked with youth suicide prevention programs for a long time. One way we try to thank the people we meet is to give them a handwritten note with a question and a phone number. “What makes you happy” is one example of a question we could ask and people text us answers for us to post on our SNS, and I try to answer them as earnestly as I can with my responses too.
What significance do the travels have for you?
Chul-hee: I guess one day we’re going to start working but for now, we’re young and we want to figure out who we are - a time for us to reflect and challenge ourselves before going on into the real world.