In 2011, 20-something Joe Garner sold all is possessions and crossed America living off the generosity and goodwill of people he found along the way using Craigslist, a classified advertisements website. His amazing story was captured in the 2012 documentary Craigslist Joe. Inspired by his journey, the Swiss-born Eric Freymond is embarking on his own journey across Eastern Europe’s Carpathian Mountains.
While Freymond is not using Craigslist to find housing and rides, he will be relying completely on the kindness of the people he meets along the way. If he can’t secure a couch for the night or a ride to the next town, he pitches his tent and hitchhikes. But his journey also has another twist: he’s raising money for a South Sudanese NGO. After reaching out to friends and family back over the summer, he’s collected $150,000 in donation pledges if he can make it to his destination without breaking the rules he has set for himself.
Freymond’s journey will take him through Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Ukraine and Romania, from the medieval town of Tren?ín in Slovakia to the beautiful Iron Gates Gorge of the Danube River, just downstream from Belgrade. He started his journey last week, but has made slow progress. “The first few days have been tough,” he said. “I knew there was going to be a linguistic and cultural barrier, but it’s been really hard to connect with people and explain what I’m doing.”
He remains undaunted, however, finally making his way from Tren?ín to Dubnica nad Váhom, a small town on the Váh river in the Ilava Basin, between the White Carpathians and Strážovské vrchy mountains. “I was feeling pretty down when I connected with a young archeology student,” Freymond remembers. The meeting with her led to a ride to a small town just over the border in the Czech Republic with another man he met and then a ride on a bus to Dubnica nad Váhom.
“The bus ride has definitely been the most exciting part of my trip so far,” Freymond laughed. In exchange for a free ride, he found himself herding goats on and off the bus and making sure they didn’t try to jump out of the vehicle. “If you had described that scenario to me a week ago, I would have thought you were out of your mind!” After three days of sleeping in a tent and wandering around the city all day alone, he says, “it felt really good to finally connect with people and get on the road.”
After making the first friends of his trip, Freymond realized that learning a few things about the local culture could really go a long way. “I was walking around the streets and thinking that the town was absolutely desolate,” he remembered of his first days in Tren?ín. When he met a local archeology student, she let him in on a little secret. “Apparently, a lot of Slovakians spend their free time at the municipal pool,” Freymond said. “A half hour after we went to the pool, I had found a guy willing to give me a ride.”
The 33 year-old Swiss man has had anything but a typical life. Born in Lausanne, an idyllic university town on the ritzy Swiss Riviera, he had a relatively quiet and normal childhood. His early passion for music, however, would push him to leave Switzerland and forge his own unique path in life. “When I finished my schooling at 19, I only had one thing in my head: going to the States,” Freymond said in an interview earlier this year. He eventually ended up in Silicon Valley, joining a small mobile tech startup called BuzzIn where he worked in sales.
Listlessness and a broken heart brought him back to Switzerland in 2011, where he secured a fundraising and partnership manager job at a Geneva based international aid organization. He excelled in the new job and had the opportunity to travel. It was a trip to South Sudan that would send his life on a course he could have never imagined. While in the country, he came across a local NGO that was helping put technology in the classroom for the country’s poorest children. “It was one of the most interesting projects I have ever come across,” Freymond said.
Upon returning to Geneva, he quietly began working with NGO leaders on the ground to raise money in Europe. Then, last year, he made the decision to hitchhike 1,500 kilometers through the Carpathians, continental Europe’s longest mountain range. “I needed some time personally to reflect about my professional future and I knew I could raise some money for the NGO,” he explained. As he began organizing the trip, he spread word to friends and family. “I though people would be skeptical,” he said, “but the pledges and support just came pouring in.”
Freymond will be keeping his friends and family, people he meets along the way and the general public up to date on the progress of his journey through his own personal blog. “I want to stay in touch with everyone I meet along the way,” he said. “I even have this crazy idea of getting all the people I met along the way at the end for some type or party.”