Working on the Road

Brazilian marchant travelerA large number of overlanders fund their travels by working on the road, from country to country. They prove that a very long, overland journey needn’t consume your life savings. Nor is it required to sell your house.  And in fact there are many strategies for financing a two-year trip around the world – at first glance it seems incomprehensible that you could live cheaper than being at home but its true.

For example there are the social networks such as wwoofing and couchsurfing that will reduce the costs of your board and lodging towards zero. You also have the opportunity to work via the internet, either the job that you’ve always done or something new. More traditionally, of course, there are seasonal jobs around the world that have always hired travelers. But, focusing on overlanders, crossing continents in their own vehicles, living slowly but steadily, every second and inch of the way, there is one mobile occupation that is favored: the making, trading and selling of handicrafts.

Hand-made jewelry display







Before we look at the lives of  two random traveling handicraft merchants I met in Panama City, it’s worth dwelling on why you would want to work around the world at all. Because all of those activities listed in the paragraph above have one core advantage: they all provide you with experiences of distant cultures and faraway lands that you’d never likely to have simply passing through on the consumer end of society. Life experiences that you’ll never forget. So, it’s your choice then, whether to swap a couple of hours tied to a desk, the wrong side of a boring commute home, for a day in the life of Fabianno or Marcus…

You don’t need any experience.

Basically, there are two sides to this game: getting and selling. First you get the stuff; either buying basic materials and making things yourself or taking your time to find the perfect bulk purchase of ready-made handicrafts. And then you sell the stuff: either you import it to the suitable place of your choice where they might be some shops or specific markets. Or you can build a portable stall, display your wares and wander the beaches and the bars as you travel along. Now, the first thing you might worry about is the fact that you’ve never created and sold a handicraft in your life. But you don’t have to worry about that – everyone is making it up as they go along.  Before he swung out onto the roads through Central America in his VW Combi, Fabianno Crespilho, from São Paulo, Brazil, was studying economics. And Marcos (the guy with the biker’s beard) was working with Gilette in Argentina . Neither of them had much idea about handicrafts before they left but they didn’t let that stop them.

Starting his journey in Mexico City, Fabianno drove down to the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico to sell beautifully polished stones to cruise ship tourists.At first, they were ready-made pieces that he’d bought –  after a while, he learnt how to cut and polish his own, staying with the stone seller’s family in Palenque. Over the next months he perfected the art of creating jewelry around the stones using cotton thread or silver wire. And no less importantly he mastered the mercantile techniques of exchanging his creations for hard cash.

You have to be flexible.

Marcos Guillermo VoltzMarcos Guillermo Voltz, 23 years old, set out on a Yamaha 125, with his girlfriend, Mariela riding a second bike, last year.  (Their site is here). Working on the road for them, has brought them north, from Misiones, Argentina, through Brazil and across the Darien Gap to Panama. For them, the important lesson learnt has been to take every opportunity as it comes. In Brazil, they were offered the chance to look after a small hotel and this gave them the time to practice the handicraft skills they had recently picked up. Moving into Venezuela, no one seemed much interested in their handcrafted jewelry – instead of setting up their stall in Caracas they found a store that wanted to buy the coconut beads that they had picked up for cheap in Brazil. So, you have to be ready for anything. Sometimes they try and sell a few pieces to raise the money for a trip to the gas station or supermarket – just a few hours by the side of a busy road with their bracelets mounted on a cloth-covered tube and they might have the few dollars they need. Other times you have to be prepared to linger in a place like Panama City where there’s enough people with money around to make it worthwhile settling down for a month or two into a routine of making jewelry during the week and selling at the weekend around the bars and restaurants of the old town.

Flexibility is required, too, when dealing with your customers and people you meet. Setting the store out on the street can act like an invitation to chat and meet new people. You might get suggestions or offers to sell your stuff somewhere else, somewhere to stay or just a nice welcome. Or they could be drunk: Fabianno once sold the hat he was wearing to a tourist who couldn’t focus on anything but clearly wanted to buy something.

Don’t worry yourself about other people

Indigenous handicrafts from Panama

Panama City is a good place to make money and raise the funds to continue the journey and there is a lively scene of traveling handicraft merchants adding to the more regular offerings from the local Panamanians. So this was my next question for them; didn’t they ever have problems from the local handicraft sellers? Maybe, people working hard to make money for all their family would resent the sudden appearance of an outsider?

Everyone I talked to rejected this idea – none of them had experienced anything more than a few bad looks from their fellow market people – it would be more of an issue if you were to sell the same kind of things as they are, said Fabianno, but, if you make your own things, this is unlikely to happen. There’s certainly a good feeling between the half dozen traveler-merchants I meet, a feeling of camaraderie. They are working at night, long after the locals have packed up their stalls. Generally, it’s true to say that a market person wants to be with other market people. That’s how a good handicraft scene gets started – a greater variety of things for sale will attract more customers to the market as a whole and everyone benefits.

For Westerners – Europeans and Americans brought up in a world of rules and regulations, permits and permissions – the legality of setting a stall up and earning money in a foreign country may be an issue. It must be remembered, however, that most of the world is not so strictly organized. Neither Marcos nor Fabianno have had any problems with the police. Occasionally, you’ll be moved on – it’s better to ask other people who are selling before you start, says Fabianno. Crucially, he added, don’t be shy or too worried;  if you’re in the wrong place, you’ll get the message soon enough. The authorities in Latin America seem especially tolerant though: In Mexico, some immigration officers started to ask Fabianno questions when they found him selling but, in the end, they bought two pairs of earrings from him and left.

Working on the road, create as you go.

How much you’ll make

On a good day in a good place like Cancun, Mexico or Bocas del Toro, Panama , Fabianno can make $100 selling his jewelry that cost $10 and a couple of days to produce. He has a wide range of pieces to sell – their price dependent on the size of the stone in the center – just one of the larger ones would make him $50. Marcos just can’t say how much he makes; sometimes $30, sometimes $50, sometimes $5. He’s selling bracelets and earrings made by knotting and weaving cotton thread and these are easy to sell at night but he also sells small printed pictures – photos taken from the journey – and those sell better during the day. It just depends on when he wants to work and how many hours he feels like putting in. They try and set themselves a target: In Panama it costs 16$ to 20$ a day to live so that is the minimum target.

Handicraft traveling with your own vehicle

On the face of it, since a merchant-traveler is making money from people, it might be better to stay in hotels and travel on public transport. It could be said that having your own vehicle means you can carry around more materials and tools; it means being able to buy lots of a certain thing in a place where it is cheap and taking it to sell somewhere else; and, of course, if you’ve got a four-wheeler you have your own space where you feel comfortable working. The real advantages of having your own vehicle, though, comes from the different experiences and opportunities you have traveling around – so when that is in addition to the challenge of creating and selling handicrafts, your trip is surely going to be the trip of a lifetime.

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