Manila, Philippines: Back in 2001, a new TV show aired on the travel channel here that changed the landscape of how I viewed traveling forever. The TV program originally called Lonely Planet later changed to Globe Trekker, featured different travelers trekking across the world (my favorite was Ian Wright), each toeing the line between tourism and tradition.
That show inspired me to want to travel the same way; refusing to partake into the world of manufactured cultural experiences and taking the road less traveled instead. I was glued to the TV, following all their expeditions, living vicariously through them. The travelers danced with indigenous tribes, rescued wild animals, participated in local traditions and experienced all that Mother Earth gave them – in a non-touristy kind of way.
Seasons in, it seemed every Filipino wanted to be a ‘backpacker’. Lines were blurred between authentic travel experiences and contrived authenticity. The new breed of ‘backpackers’ seemed only concerned with posting highlight reels on their Facebook pages to score social status points.
I haven’t experienced that same profound connection with any other travel show since Globe Trekker, nor Instagram travel bloggers for that matter. Not until travelers Filipino Marco Ilagan and his Argentinian girlfriend, Francina Cassaniti invaded our Facebook newsfeed in 2018 with updates of their travel adventures via their page Map the Unknown.
How it all began
After 15 years of working as an Agile Coach and Senior Project Manager for Accenture, Marco decided to leave the world of financial security, status and stability to pull a Chris McCandless (you know, the guy who rejected the world to go Into the Wild). He left the ‘normal’ life, the one dictated to us by society. While his exit wasn’t as radical as depicted in Into the Wild where McCandless burned all his money and left worldly possessions behind for good, Marco opted out in a more practical way: by saving up for a year and selling all his stuff to fund their new life pursuing global experiences.
Watching their videos, it’s evident from the couple’s faces how exhilarated they are with what they have chosen to do. Why wouldn’t they be happy? Their nomadic lifestyle isn’t your check-the-box bucket list garden variety; the pair have come to know the world as their school, as their mother, as their home.
To repay and honor the earth for their experiences, they made the conscious decision to travel responsibly and tread lightly.
Low impact, low cost travel tips
Luxury isn’t a part of Marco and Francina’s travel adventures. For the couple, luxury travel and the convenience it brings just isn’t authentic enough. They see travel as a way to assist in their personal evolution, to detach from their first world privileges; but on other hand, they also understand money spent thoughtfully can empower small business owners and their families.
Accommodation is one travel expense that can eat up into any budget, but for these backpackers, finding a place to sleep isn’t hard; they offer their labor assistance in exchange space to crash. So far they have visited 38 cities and slept at 67 places. On average, they change lodging every 5 days, but if the hosts want them to stay longer or if they like the place, they negotiate to stick around a few days more. To date, they have stayed in eco-hostels, house sat and even slept on a couch.
Flights and transport
Since the couple rejects convenient luxe travel, the couple have never paid for an international flight. Instead, they use miles or credit card reward points so they can stretch their budget and squeeze in more.
They also use public transit, share rides and hitch hike.
Packaged tours and activities
Furthermore, these ambassadors of the world don’t participate in packaged tours or participate in activities that involve human control over wild animals such as riding the elephants in Thailand and India or feeding whale sharks in Oslob, Cebu. Instead, they choose to witness and experience wildlife in their natural habitats. So far on their treks, they’ve encountered a green turtle, bears, foxes, an armadillo, moose and an American eagle to name a few.
Minimalist travelers and their zero waste travel kits
Living a sustainable lifestyle whilst traveling can still be a challenge for the couple as they struggle with country-specific waste management issues, plastic covered items and water safety concerns so they aren’t zero waste travelers but they have switched to reusables in an effort to reduce single-use plastic. They have eco reusable bags and other reusable items such as water bottles, metal cups, utensils and food containers which they have been lugging around in their knapsacks for over a year now.
The trick they say, is to treat these tools as ones you can’t leave the house without. That way, it helps to resist the temptation of buying or using another plastic bag or plastic water bottle because you’ve got it with you at all times.
Embracing plant-based meals while traveling
Since Marco and Francina are nomads, they don’t have a place to go home to where they can store food so they’ve had to change their diet and eat mostly plant-based. The pair reckon they’re happier and healthier, and by vetoing meat, it’s just another of their contributions to saving the planet while exploring it.
Leave with memories, don’t leave waste
The adventurous couple travel with nothing more than bags slung onto their backs. They travel and create memories with those they’ve met along the way, and then leave a place wiser, taking many life lessons with them, as well as their waste (disposed of correctly in the right bins).
They are proof that freedom from the status quo can be attained; albeit for a short while. They show us that you can enjoy and explore the beauty of the world in an ethical way. The travel path they have chosen is littered with spiritual and cultural experiences and they openly share this with us. Their honest smiles have earned them friends from all over the globe. Through them, I have again found my spiritual connection to the planet.
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All images courtesy of Map the Unknown.