Jailbreak: How Far Can You Go For Free?
There have been four distinct moments in my life when I’ve thought, “I probably won’t live to see how this pans out,” and it is in no way coincidental that they have all been during backpacking trips (caught in the crossfire of an elephant fight in Chiang Mai, falling on a bend whilst cycling the World’s Most Dangerous Road, being led out to open water at night by an angry longtail driver after having haggled too far, and getting mugged at gunpoint on Copacabana Beach in Rio). I love telling these stories because they epitomise those things I love about backpacking: the risks, the chance encounters, the unpredictability... or so I thought until I met Jailbreak, backpacking’s even less predictable, more competitive little cousin.
I was invited to take part in the QMU’s annual Jailbreak challenge as a means of fundraising for a summer of volunteering with the charity Kenyan Orphan Project. The premise is simple: to get as far away from Glasgow as possible in 72 hours without spending a single penny. My head filled with Jailbreak folklore such as The Boy Who Got to Hong Kong One Year, I turned up to the union armed only with a backpack so well-stocked it would make a German blush, and a pocketful of dreams (...cereal bars). My team and I bid our rivals a somewhat insincere ‘good luck’ and headed off in the direction of Anywhere, quietly smug about the fact that we had enough backpacking experience between us to emerge victorious. I once dived the Great Barrier Reef on the mother of all hangovers; this would be nothing. Fast forward 2 hours and we were aboard a train headed for East Kilbride. I was beginning to wonder whether it had been wise to have discarded my map in favour of a bikini, and was desperately missing the maps and guidebooks and itineraries that make unpredictable backpacking... well, sort of predictable actually.
I don’t know exactly who came up with the idea of handing over money for a service and then receiving exactly what you paid for, but it really is a beautiful concept. This discovery comes on the back of another discovery: that Jailbreak is basically glorified begging. It requires breaking off a little piece of your dignity in exchange for every freebie train and bus ticket that you receive. Luckily, my dignity was in relatively short supply to begin with, meaning that our team had soon found our way to the futuristic mothership that is Manchester Airport. From here we systematically made our way around every desk, delivering our spiel and being sent packing. In terms of life lessons, Jailbreak has taught me more about rejection than any boyfriend ever could. “But the orphans!” I wailed to a stony-faced employee, promising not to complain to the authorities if she let me stow away in the luggage hold (the story goes that this is how Hong Kong Boy did it.) How could she give me a free flight? Her airline wouldn’t even pay for those little nets on the back of the seats to put your book in. It soon became clear that just because I hadn’t heard of Jailbreak before didn’t mean that no one else had either. In fact, we were told that its growing popularity meant that these airlines were receiving around 10 requests per week and getting heartily sick of the experience.
Deflated, we spent the night under the fluorescent stars of Terminal 2 before dragging our collective wounded pride to London. This was where the journey would end. Or so we thought, until we met Kasia (her name is of vital importance as I have vowed to name my first-born after her), the celestial travel agent who found us four remaining seats on a bus that would have us in Warsaw a mere 26 hours later. Now, I am no stranger to long-distance buses – my last backpacking trip involved spending 137 hours on them to be exact – but it became apparent very quickly that no one on this bus was going to offer me a beer and tell me all about the time they were nearly eaten by a shark in Byron Bay. Instead they would stare at me incessantly whilst eating giant sausages straight from the packet until the bus smelled like an abattoir. My book choice of Animal Farm had perhaps been a foolish one.
We had left London barely able to stop smiling or contain our adrenalin, but a strange thing was happening with every border crossing we made; France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany... reality was setting in fast. My giddy, unable-to-stop-laughing sentiment had gradually been replaced with something that can only be described as blind panic. I was due to sit the first of my Finals just three days later and failure to do so would cost me my degree. With no plan of action and no possible get-out clause, I was forced to sit back, shell-shocked, and watch a film where Jennifer Aniston’s voice was dubbed by a Polish, male actor (a vast improvement on her recent body of work). As we travelled through the night past the lights of Berlin, I thought about trips I had made in the past. My memory was cast back to a night spent at a popular Irish-themed hostel in La Paz. I am standing on the bar, singing along to an Irish folk song at obnoxious volume. Around my head is a ninja-style headband that has been lovingly fashioned out of paper towels. My singing is momentarily interrupted by a barman dressed as a Smurf who wants to pour alcohol straight from the bottle into my mouth. Obediently, I comply. The following morning, I will cycle the World’s Most Dangerous Road. I will fall on a bend, inches from the edge of a 900m drop and I will think to myself, “I probably won’t live to see how this pans out.” I’ll get back on the bike and keep cycling.
Why, then, did Jailbreak seem so much more risky?
You’ll be pleased to hear that my panic eventually subsided and I lived to tell the tale. In the early hours of the next morning we crossed the Polish border and decided to cut our losses at Wroclaw, where we made the winning call home from a payphone in a bus station. The rest of the day was spent walking aimlessly through the streets, taking in the sights and trying the local food. No maps, no guidebooks, no itineraries.
I recently watched The Beach for what must have been the fourteenth time. As always, I smiled when Leonardo DiCaprio’s character said “We all travel thousands of miles just to watch TV and check in to somewhere with all the comforts of home.” The truth is that all backpackers are looking for The Beach, but we sometimes get sidetracked by the ‘2 for 1’ Happy Hours along the way. We like to think we’re treading virgin soil – and some of us have probably come close – but we are all too aware that for every authentic tea house there’s a Western Union to bail us out if it all goes wrong. In Jailbreak I found the road less travelled, but it just so happens that the road less travelled is also often the road less welcoming, less fun-loving, and less comforting. It takes no prisoners.
As you read this, I am somewhere off the coast of East Africa, looking for The Beach and trying to avoid one of those “I might not live to see how this pans out” moments. Guidebook cold turkey might be the backpacking Holy Grail, but will it help when I’m walking straight into the path of some Somali pirates? It turns out that the planet is a whole lot lonelier without Lonely Planet. And as for Jailbreak – it was one of the most exciting, unpredictable adventures of my life so far, but the irony is that there’s a time and place for it. Trust me – three days before an exam is not it.