There are so many ways to travel cheaply and even earn money on the road – sometimes it just takes a little imagination. This week I’m talking to Maria and Ben about their incredible journey busking their way around the world!
How to busk your way around the world!
Maria and Ben, a couple from Romania and Germany, have been exploring Asia for almost a year now. They enjoy traveling slowly, taking the time to immerse themselves into a place instead of rushing from one country to the next, collecting passport stamps. They hitchike, camp, walk, stay with locals, travel by bicycle or even once on a donkey! Maria and Ben supplement their savings by earning money on the road by busking and playing street music. Busking for them is so much more than a source of income, but rather a very essential part of the journey and a source of countless amazing moments that enable them to connect with people. You can follow Maria and Ben’s adventures on their website: www.wonderlusters.com or on facebook: www.facebook.com/wonderlusters
So, tell us a bit about your travels so far.
We gave away our possessions and in September 2014 we left home with a direction but no plan: eastwards! We cycled until Iran, but as winter came we sold the bicycles and went on by hitchhiking and sometimes took trains, boats or buses. We are very bad in planning things so we’ve changed our minds and directions many times in this trip. Normally we prefer spontaneity, but nowadays is not too easy to travel freely and unimpeded in some parts of Asia – especially when you want to avoid flying – mainly because of all the visa issues, closed borders and conflict zones. As experienced low budget travelers, we set our limit to 10 Dollars a day for the two of us, but usually manage to stay well below that limit on average.
You seem to be masters of traveling on a shoestring budget and even traveling for free! What are your top tips for budget travel?
It starts with knowing yourself well enough as a person in general, but as a traveler specifically. You have to understand your personal needs, limits and priorities. What do I really need while traveling to be content? How far can I stretch my comfort zone in the way of traveling: Is hitchhiking a possibility? Do I feel alright accepting invitations to homes of strangers, to use Couchsurfing, to camp in the wilderness or even to crash a few rough nights in parks or petrol stations? How pretencious am I regarding food? The more flexible one is regarding the financial main categories (transportation, accommodation, food) the higher the level of freedom and possibilities – and the lighter the burden to your wallet.
But stay balanced! Don’t be stingy in the wrong moments, stay reflective about your needs! Just try to avoid mistaking traveling with being on holiday.
And you’ve topped up your travel funds by busking, tell me more!
I play violin and Ben plays ukulele. When we want to have fun, we play together. When we want to earn money I play alone. Not only because Ben is a beginner at ukulele, but also because the instrument is not loud enough for the noisy streets of Asia. An ukulele might be one of the best instruments to travel with, but definitely not among the best for busking, unless you carry an amplifier.
Although we are no city lovers, every now and then we end up in one for visa issues, good conversations in English with nice people or other different reason. We see it also as a good chance to improve our budget. Once a month we donate the money from a busking session to a project (www.wonderlusters.com/project-of-the-month) we like and we consider worth supporting. We write our busking experiences from every country on this page: www.wonderlusters.com/street-music
So can you actually earn enough money to keep yourselves on the road just from busking?
It’s important to mention that we did have some savings before. Ben worked and saved some money for one year – not much though, as he worked in Romania. I earn the money while traveling which, depending on the country, can cover from half of our daily expenses to all. In Central Asia, where we are now, the only cities where you have some chance to earn money are the capitals. This is one of the downsides when you love nature and busking at the same time: one side is telling you to go hiking in the mountains, the other is telling you to spend more time in big cities to play. In my previous solo trips I managed to cover all my expenses by busking, but that was Europe and a different story. If you stick to cities most of the time it is possible to keep yourself on the road just by busking!
Are there any destinations that are better for earning money by busking?
Of course! Wealthy cities with no street art like Kayseri and Trabzon in Turkey or Muscat in Oman bring more money than an Indian city for example. Western Europe is also great for earning money: although busking is nothing special there people have money and are willing to support artists. My record in earning was in Iran. There are some major cities, a great appreciation of culture and art, some wealth and respect for brave girls who just go in the street and play music despite the rather conservative ideas about women rights of the political and religious leaders.
What do you like the best about life as a traveling busker?
I like how strongly I connect with so many types of people from all over the places. So many times I ended up in new situations thanks to busking: getting free food or accommodation, getting invited at festivals, weddings, parties, playing with local musicians etc. I also like that I can work whenever I want, however I want, as long as I want and wherever I want. And I enjoy it a lot! Who doesn’t enjoy playing an instrument for fun? And when you’re even paid for that and have the ability to travel the world while having a fun “job”, what else can you wish for?
But nothings perfect right? Are there any downsides?
After spending too much time in a city without thousands of daily tourists, people start to recognize you and won’t support you financially anymore, at least half of them. Busking requires moving all the time and it can get exhausting! Another downside is having such a sensitive instrument like violin and exposing it to so many climate changes or hits. In Kyrgyzstan my violin got damanged, but we managed to fix it fortunately. An obvious disadvantage of busking as a source of income is the fact that it is limited to cities of reasonable size with some alright spots to play.
Do you have one standout highlight, achievement or a favourite destination?
I have so many highlights! Sharing my income with Syrian refugees in Turkey, playing in Istanbul in front of Hagya Sophia while Ben was teaching the policemen English to distract them, being invited to a fancy lunch by the ex-Chief Security Officer of the Indian Prime Minister, being asked to play in the biggest bazaar of Istanbul by a jewelery seller – he shooed away all the policemen and I became rich in 5 minutes. These are just a few. But in the end I always say that the beauty lies in the simplest things. Will I ever forget that old lady giving me a rose with tears in her eyes? Or that Indian sadhu meditating on my music? Or the shy letters of appreciation I found in my box? Or all the people dancing on my music and hugging each other? Probably never.
As a favourite destination I think Iran is well deserved to be here! I had the strongest feelings for people living there. In a supressed country where singing in public was banned until a few years ago you will not find many street musicians and even less girls doing that! Many women came to me to hug or kiss me, to thank me for what I am doing for them – a small revolution in their eyes. As a foreigner I was not too much bothered by the police, but I know if I was Iranian I would’ve had big trouble.
And what has been the greatest challenge?
Winning fights against policemen! Most of them are very nice and they politely send me home or to another spot. But this gets annoying when you are sent five times in one hour in a different spot, or when the policeman is drunk! In Iran our passports got taken by the police for two days from our hostel, without notice and no information what the situation is all about. Fortunately it ended well. In India it was rather the fight against the ever persistent noise, the challenge of finding any spot to play where people actually hear the music.
You even busked in India! How did that go?
Together with Iran, India is in my list of favourite busking countries, but in a different way! Everytime I started playing there was a big crowd around me staying there from the beginning until the end of my ‘show’. People were very sweet with their questions and song requests and I was happy I could also play for poor people who have never seen a violin before. Another thing that made busking in India great was that English is widely spoken so we could easily communicate with the audience. And after all, India is the land of hearts, so many people were just immensely happy to listen to me – holding hands, having tears in their eyes or being speechless. On a downside, the noise in India is, like mentioned, incredibly challenging.
What do you wish you had known before you started busking?
I wish I had known how amazing it can be! I would’ve started busking much earlier!
So, what are your plans for the future? Where’s next?
Plans are there to be changed, as we like to say. The only real plan we have for now is going back to Iran as we both fell in love with this country. Slowly we are heading back towards Europe, but who knows where the wind will lead us?
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, what tips would you give for people wanting to follow in your footsteps and make money on the road by busking?
Get your instrument, pack your bag and GO! Don’t be discouraged if you have a slow start – try to be inventive, interact with people, smile, write funny messages, integrate your audience in the performance! If you’re not confident enough, connect with local artists through e.g. Couchsurfing or other online platforms and busk together! A great way of showing appreciation to the people around you can be to learn a local song, something popular that people recognize.
Thanks so much Maria for such a lovely insight into a beautiful way of traveling, connecting with people and earning money! Keep enjoying your travels!