More and more travelers are becoming aware that the Bay Islands are a place where one can enjoy a Caribbean vacation without spending a lot of money. But who would expect to sojourn here without spending anything at all?
That’s what Tomi Astikainen and Lea Rezic did last October. The intrepid pair visited the Voice office in search of a map two days after hitching a ride to the island on a cargo boat from La Ceiba. They were working on finding a free ride back to the mainland on another freighter so they could continue, slowly, south toward Colombia.
“We know that there’s two boats leaving on Wednesday,” Tomi said.
Tomi, an economist and business consultant from Finland, has spent the last four years traveling the globe to show one can subsist on this planet without money. He met Lea while passing through her native Croatia in 2012. They have been together ever since.
Tomi said that while running his own consulting firm in Finland in 2009 he became “disillusioned” with the global monetary system, based on fiat money and fractional reserve banking. It’s a system that dates back centuries and that he says “99 percent of the people on the planet use today.” But he considers it flawed.
“All the money is created out of thin air,” he said, “and interest is expected to be paid for that money.”
He said he spent the next year thinking about how he could “lead an example without money.” He decided the best way was to stay on the move.
So in 2010 he headed out to an annual beach gathering of hitch-hikers in Portugal, because he expected to meet some experienced shoestring travelers there and because, “For many years I had been cheering for the Portuguese football team.”
It was supposed to have been a one-off trip, after which he would return home, he said. “But I just continued … That was more than three years ago.”
He spent two years wandering throughout Europe, Turkey and Morocco, then “hooked up” with Lea in Croatia while both were heading for Albania. Lea, a psychology student, said she had recently taken up traveling, decided she liked it and opted to take an indefinite study break to follow Tomi around the world. They spent five months and logged 12,000 kilometers in Mexico before hitting Central America in October.
Lea’s parents, whom she describes as a couple of “old hippies,” were supportive.
“When I told my dad I was leaving, he had like a really serious face,” she said. Then after giving her some words of advice, he said, “I’m jealous.”
Tomi said, “Her dad told me, ‘You take care of my daughter,’ and I said jokingly, ‘She will take care of me.’ And it has been that way. She is a courageous girl.”
One way Lea has taken care of him is that, being, as she puts it, less “ideological” about money, she picks up discarded coins she finds lying on the ground and hoards them for emergencies, like when Tomi came down with dysentary and needed medicine shortly after arriving on Roatan.
“We call it ‘ground money,’” she said. “He’s not allowed to touch it.” But he did take the medicine, which he said took care of his diarrhea but “might have caused me a slight heart attack. … That was scary.”
Fortunately, though, Tomi said he got over his fear of death while working in war-torn Sri Lanka shortly after earning his masters degree, for AIESEC, a student-run organization dedicated to “impacting the world through leadership development experiences.”
“Every day I could have died in a bomb blast,” he said. “I guess I learned to care less about my safety.”
That tolerance for risk came in handy shortly after he and Lea crossed the border into Honduras from Guatemala. It was the day of the Honduras vs. Jamaica World Cup qualifier. They watched the game in San Pedro Sula, then somebody gave them a ride in a pickup truck to a nearby suburb, where they said they were surrounded by teenagers with sub-machine guns. They pointed the guns at the driver and questioned him, then lowered their weapons and walked away.
“I think they were just checking who we were,” Tomi said. “It wasn’t even intimidating. It was just like watching a movie.”
In contrast, the biggest hazard they said they had faced on Roatan was the sand flies. “They’re annoying creatures,” said Tomi. After two agonizing and sleepless nights on the beach, they found a place to sleep at the fire station in Dixon Cove. Tomi said it was the second time on their travels they had enjoyed the hospitality of fire fighters. “They’re just amazing!” he said. “They’re super nice.”
At the time we interviewed them, Tomi and Lea had not eaten for 12 hours. But they said it was rare for them to go that long without food. Sometimes they pick things off trees or dumpster dive, or ask supermarkets for expired items. But usually they eat in restaurants, after explaining themselves and asking for leftovers or whatever they can spare. “Usually they have something,” said Lea. “It’s not bad.”
“Food on this planet is abundant,” said Tomi, the economist. “We produce more than enough food for 10 billion people. Somehow half of that goes away. And that’s why we have people who starve … It’s a very inefficient system.”
Tomi says he has found that “if you really want something, you get it. That’s an interesting way how the universe operates.”
For example, he said, on his trip to Portugal in 2010, he developed an inexplicable craving for a mojito. After two days unable to get the cocktail off his mind, a friend invited him to go meet his aunt, who worked at a nearby café. “The first question from the aunt was, ‘Hey, what do you guys want to drink? Mojito?’ And I thought: ‘You’ve got to be kidding me!’”
Tomi’s parents are less accepting than Lea’s of his lifestyle, he said, especially his father, who he said did not complete sixth grade, considers having money to be “a matter of honor” and considers his son to be a “homeless bum” who is “wasting away” his education (Tomi was the first in his family to attend university).
In fact, Tomi does sometimes work for his upkeep, including a stint on an olive farm in Turkey. Mostly, though, he operates under what he calls a “living gift economy.”
“I’m a writer,” he said. “I give it out for free. And there are tens of thousands of people who read this writing.” His father asks, “What’s the point of writing anything if you don’t get paid for it?” And Tomi responds, “Dad, look at it this way: My last book, it took me one and a half years to create. And during that one and a half years, people took care of me. I was paid.”
He said a glint of understanding came into his father’s eyes at that point. “But his next comment was, ‘You still need to get a job.’”
Tomi admits his father has a point. “Maybe I have to stop doing this at some point and get a job.” But first he intended to head to Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Panama and on to Colombia, then keep heading south and catch the World Cup in Brazil (Croatia and Portugal both qualified).
Then what? “Who knows?” said Lea. “No idea.”