As we rolled up to a dusty covered porch on the side of Highway 1 in Baja California Sur, we were greeted by our friends Matt and Zoe…
... And a mysterious third, in a weathered blue jacket, who greeted us knowingly; as though our reputations somehow preceded us.
“I’ve been trying to catch up with you two since Malibu,” the stranger said, his green eyes alight with humor, as Matt and Zoe passed around hot coffees in tall Styrofoam cups.
This is how we met Adrian – another Englishman, hailing from outside London, who left one set of relatives in San Francisco (bound for another set in Costa Rica), on an old 9-speed bicycle he found in their garage.
The thing about Adrian, as we came to find out, is that he’s been living “without money” for the past 5 years.
A self-described workaholic, Adrian makes his way around the world by doing whatever small jobs people need him to do; stopping to “make himself useful” by cleaning the hull of an elderly man's boat, acting as a builder slash painter slash general handyman wherever such things are needed, in exchange for friendship.
The guy has his Masters degree in exercise physiology, started a band with his cousin that got signed to a label right before he decided to quit, and emptied his bank account of thousands of pounds, which he gave in totality to his cousin when he decided – at just 24 years old – to try something different.
“Money doesn’t stick to me,” he said. “People try to give it to me, but I just give it away.”
What about the ferry crossing to the mainland over the Sea of Cortez? We asked. Wouldn’t he need money for the ticket?
“Something will come up,” he said, with a whole-body shrug-and-grin that I couldn’t help but suspect that everyone, no matter how old or jaded or predatory, must find instantly disarming.
What struck me most about Adrian, among many other things, was how forthcoming he was with his story.
He spoke enthusiastically and answered questions at length – about how he lived on the streets and dumpster-dived in London, all he’s learned about squatter’s rights, how a generous benefactor flew him to the States, how various people in various countries have given him everything he’s needed – including a pair of fresh bicycle spokes, when two of his broke in Ensenada.
And while it was downright impossible NOT to feel inspired by these stories;
I also couldn't help but feel exhausted, putting myself in his shoes and imagining having to tell my story constantly to everyone I met, on account of being so wholly dependent on their understanding and generosity.
When I finally got around to asking Adrian about this, he listened intently, with his whole attention – and then dismissed it.
“I suppose I get a lot out of it,” he said, with his signature shrug-and-grin.
Meeting a character like Adrian...
You can’t help but reflect on your own choices around money, independence, control, value, vulnerability, and trust.
Looking at his bike alone – which doesn’t fit him right, has two different tires and little muzzles for his feet and a basket in the front – I thought of the HOURS of planning and research I did, so as to get just the right stuff.
I thought of how money, to me, has always symbolized freedom and opportunity…
Only now, I thought, freedom... fromwhat?
Freedom from having to spend too much time with other people?
Freedom from being too vulnerable to influence by other people?
Freedom to enjoy the illusion… that I am in control?
It’s true, in a way, that money lets you “opt out” of having to engage deeply with others.
Money tends to get you what you want, with little resistance and few questions asked.
But when money leaves the picture, suddenly you’re left with just a set of people, a variable set of other resources, and an open playing field between them...
... a giant question mark, as to what kind of relationship will grow to fill the space.
As though to make this point:
Long after Adrian had cycled off, and the rest of us assumed he was miles ahead...
... We arrived in San Ignacio (an unexpectedly gorgeous oasis in the middle of the Desierto de Vizcaíno, filled with blissful shadows cast by leafy date palms and a wide green spring-fed river for surreal, where-the-hell-are-we-again afternoon swimming)...
... To the Casa de Ciclista (the home of a man named Othón who lets cyclists camp in his yard and use the wifi for a mere 100 pesos a night, unless you don't have that, in which case it's free)...
... Where the caretaker (Juan, although he insisted we call him "Negro," as his friends did), informed us, after much hanging out...
... That the other Englishman had been there; had in fact just left 10 minutes before we’d arrived.
Then Negro told us how he’d met Adrian; learned his story, welcomed him to the casa, took him around town, showed him the iconic church, treated him to lunch...
... And gave him an extra hundred pesos, to boot.
Hearing this, a cynical person might be tempted to raise the question of whether Adrian’s chosen way of life makes him somewhat opportunistic – in the sense that he, an educated and formerly privileged white European with access to plenty of resources that he voluntarily gave away – is actually taking advantage of people like Negro, to whom a hundred pesos (roughly $5.50 USD) may well be no small amount of money.
But all you had to do, was take one look at Negro’s face;
At the joy it gave him to confront the possibility of living without money; at the pleasure it gave him to have been able to help the man who was doing it; at the pride he took in representing his town and country with such warmth and hospitality…
To be immediately convinced that he got just as much – if not more – out of their interaction, as Adrian did.
Sitting here now by the river down the path from our rented yurt, intermittently hopping on the phone to counsel MBA students who are “having a nervous breakdown” in the face of tough interview questions from companies like Amazon and Google…
I admit there is a part of me still reeling from the questions that meeting Adrian, with all his casual open-heartedness and genuine joie de vivre, has raised.
Questions of value, and interdependence, and reciprocity, and worth...
... And what it is, exactly, that we’re ALL trying to get -- in such a diversity of ways -- out of this one wild and precious life.