Hack’d is our series that details how to travel for free or cheap. Today’s installment comes from Davina Ugo

As any sensible 24-year old, I blew through my summer travel money on a three-day birthday bash in Chicago. With a two-week Technology and Law study abroad program in London followed by a six-day stint in Italy looming over me, I had to find a way to live abroad for three weeks with no money.

After days of researching “how to live abroad for free”, I learned about free boarding with like-minded travelers. My first experience with this type of stay was in London. For two weeks, I couchsurfed with a guy who is still one of my good friends. I spent most of my time walking around the city and checking out free and cheap galleries and museums.

Even on a tight budget, London was easy to navigate since I had some loan money to carry me through the study abroad program; but, by the end of the two weeks, I had no more than 15 euros left in my account and six days in Italy. It was my luck that prior to leaving the United States, I had just enough money to buy return plane tickets between London and Italy ($80 USD with Ryanair) and return train tickets between Venice and Florence ($40 USD).



Couchsurfing in Venice

My absent host was gracious enough to have stocked his fridge with bread and butter I was allowed to eat.  I decided that for the next three days, bread, butter and water would be my breakfast and dinner; to me, this was a blessing. However, the bigger blessing came when my host’s renters, a francophone husband and wife from Senegal, offered me dinner of homemade Senegalese rice and vegetables the two evenings I spent in Venice! Even though we could not speak much to one another due to my limited French abilities, the couple saw that I had no food, and the language of love covered everything else. I am forever grateful to them.

The City of Venice

Venice was built to enhance the notion of beauty — from the web-like entanglement of waterways complete with singing men on gondolas, to the narrow walkways lined with brick buildings that abruptly open up into grande piazzas. My three days were spent ambling from one neighborhood to another, beginning with Santa Croce and San Polo. On the second day, I meandered across the busy Rialto bridge towards Campo San Marco and Castello while my last day was spent moseying through Canneregio and Dorsoduro. My trek through the various neighborhoods rewarded me with visits to two Gallerias D’arte, the Museo della Musica nestled inside the Chiesa di San Maurizo, the Basilica di San Marco, the Chiesa di San Vidal, the Chiesa di Santa Maria del Giglio and the Chiesa di San Rocco. Everyday, the temperature reached between 33 and 35 degrees Celsius, leaving me hot, thirsty, and with a very dry TWA, but genuinely satisfied, nonetheless.

After two nights and three days of no internet connection, I was ready to head over to Florence.  Before leaving, I decided to try a small pizza worth 2 euros. I also had to spend 2.5 euros on internet and phone minutes in order to find a last minute host in Florence, since my previous host had suddenly disappeared. Luckily, I was able to find another host quickly, before heading to Florence on a train, but not before being approached for sex, of course.



Couchsurfing in Florence

My last-minute host was a Tunisian activist who had visited dozens of countries in constant pursuit of work. When I arrived, he struck a deal with me: he would buy groceries for the both of us if, in exchange, I cooked breakfast and dinner during my stay. This was a wonderfully helpful deal, as I only had 12.5 euros left in my! That first evening, he bought an assortment of seafood, an array of vegetables, potatoes and crusty bread.


The City of Florence

“T’amo, Brown Sugar” was the phrase that welcomed me into Florence. As I walked through the San Larenzo Market, on my way to meet my host for the first time, several men shouted this phrase at me while others rambunctiously kissed my hand or gave me high fives. I finally found my host, who worked at a leather jacket shop in the market. After a quick introduction to his co-workers and boss, we tramped off to see the Duomo in all of its magnificence. We then walked through the Piazza della Signoria, a piazza embellished with dozens of replicas of famous sculptures. Soon afterwards, it was time to head home for some eats. That evening, I baked the seafood and bread with a little oil, salt and black pepper. We washed this down with several glasses of chianti, and topped off the night with pistachio gelato and fruit.

The next two days were filled with multiple waves of extraordinary beauty. Between art galleries that had been frequented by the likes of Michael Jackson and Tina Turner, following my ears to the drumming of a Pinocchio parade, and walking for several hours over many, many, many stairs to the grandeur that is the Piazzale Michelangelo, I did not even try to contain my tears. All of it was overwhelming; I could not believe that even though I had no money, I was still able to see so much exquisiteness.

On my last evening, my host’s boss invited the both of us to his home for a special barbecue. Joined by one other co-worker, the four of us fired up the grill and roasted lamb, red and green bell peppers and some eggplant. We finished dinner off with wine, bread, and a chocolate cake while talking politics, jokes, racism, and the state of Black people in Italy.

The Takeaway

This Italy trip opened my wandering soul to a way of traveling that I never would have experienced had I a bigger budget; I am forever in debt, not only to all of the people who helped me during my trip, but also to my 24-year-old self who was a bit careless with her money.


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