Juan Pablo Villarino on Travel and Trust (Ep. 44)

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Travel writer Juan Pablo Villarino had visited 90 countries before making the trek to exotic Arlington, Virginia for this chat with Tyler. Amazingly enough, this recording marked his first trip to the mainland United States, which is now the 91st country in an ever-expanding list.

The world’s best hitchhiker talks with Tyler about the joys of connecting with people, why it’s so hard to avoid stereotypes (including of hitchhikers), how stamp collecting guides his trips, the darkest secrets of people he’s gotten rides from, traveling and writing books with his wife, the cause of violence in the Americas, finding the emotional heart of a journey, where he’s going next, and more.

Listen to the full conversation

Read the full transcript

TYLER COWEN: Today I am very honored to be with Juan Pablo Villarino. He is from Argentina. Otherwise, his name would be pronounced “Viyarino.” I have now had over 40 conversations with different guests, but there is only one of them I have envied, and that is Juan Pablo.

He has sometimes been called the world’s greatest hitchhiker. He also has a recent book. He has four books. The most recent now is out only in Argentina. He is looking for a publisher in the United States. It is called Hitchhiking in the Axis of Evil by Thumb through Iran, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Juan Pablo, welcome.

JUAN PABLO VILLARINO: Hi, Tyler. Thanks a lot for the invitation. I’m really honored to be here.

COWEN: If you could just start by telling us who are you and what have you been doing?

VILLARINO: [laughs] I’m a travel writer. I have been busy in the last 13 years hitchhiking around the world in an attempt, let’s say, to document hospitality. This adventure has taken me across over 91 countries, including the United States, which is my last addition to the list.

COWEN: Given what you do, do you ever think, “Well, why doesn’t everyone do this?” Have you come to the point where you see your way of life as a default, as actually posing a question about the alternatives to mainstream culture and normal life with family, kids, rent, walk the dog? Or do you think it’s just a strange niche taste that only you have?

VILLARINO: I think that actually more and more people should choose their own place in society on the road. I don’t think this is for everyone, but I do believe in the whole . . .

A lot of messages I’ve received on social media has led me to think that a lot of people actually want this — to have a much more nomadic lifestyle or to redesign their own lifestyle. That’s pretty much what I am aiming to while trying to motivate my readers.

COWEN: Is it that you think living this kind of life makes you happier, or it’s a form of aspiration where you like the kind of person it will transform you into? Maybe it’s actually in some ways tougher or more burdensome on you, but you want to be a different kind of person?

VILLARINO: You mean like this life I would have intrinsically make you happier?

COWEN: Right. Or you simply think it’s a better life.

VILLARINO: I think it’s the kind of life I desire and I have desired since I was a student. I think everyone should pursue his or her own dreams, but I don’t think it’s like a universal formula that should be exported in a massive way and everyone should do this.

If you look at a world map and you look at a strange place like Kyrgyzstan or Greenland, and then you feel butterflies in your stomach, then you should pay attention to signals and then go for it and not just pretend it’s not happening.

If you look at a world map and you look at a strange place like Kyrgyzstan or Greenland, and then you feel butterflies in your stomach, then you should pay attention to signals and then go for it and not just pretend it’s not happening.

COWEN: What’s the single most concrete feature of this new life that has so drawn you in? Is it seeing new faces every day or the thrill of the unexpected? Simply being able to walk so much, talking with drivers? What would it be?

VILLARINO: What’s drawn me into this — it’s the chance to have something to do, at least, with more and more different cultures each time. When a country is mentioned on the news — call it Syria, Afghanistan, Romania, Norway, any country — you have something to recall which is not abstract.

It’s not a tag or a flag, but you can recall in your memory real people you have related with. Then I feel much more threaded with humanity and with mankind, in the broader sense.

COWEN: Living as a hitchhiker, how much social freedom do you think you have on a permanent basis? If you think of people in mainstream society, there’s so much expected from them in terms of conformity at work, in the family.

You’re out there on the road. But over time, is there a restriction of social freedom that sets in? Like the other hitchhikers expect you to be a certain way? Your readers, your fans — they expect something on the Instagram account?

VILLARINO: [laughs]

COWEN: Have you evolved into more social freedom or ended up just as constricted? Are you in a different box?

VILLARINO: It’s a nice question, I love that. It’s always stereotypes. The reason why I travel is because I want, in a way, to dismantle these stereotypes that there are about certain nations like Colombia or Muslim countries. But as well, there are stereotypes about people, not only about nations.

There is certainly a stereotype about what type of life a hitchhiker should live. People actually have expectations on me. I don’t think I fit with the stereotype. Some people have described me in some newspapers as “Oh, he leads a nomadic life with no bills, no fixed direction, and no bills or taxes to pay.” [laughs]

But I also have a house and have a point of reference in the world. We have a place . . .

COWEN: That’s in Argentina?

VILLARINO: . . . when we come back, in Argentina.

COWEN: In Mar del Plata?

VILLARINO: It’s actually in another city, in San Nicolás, because that’s where my girlfriend comes from. When we met, it was kind of a pact, like, “OK, we’re going to live traveling. But whenever we are not on the road, I want to be near my family.” That was her condition for being nomadic, so we live there.

We go back there only to write books because we need our concentration, our space, our archive of notebooks and everything. But then we go back to the road, like 50 percent and 50 percent. One year or one year and a half traveling. Then we go back home one year in order to start a book project.

Yeah, the thing about stereotypes, people would think . . . they just would feel surprised. I am, for example, a philatelist. I collect 19th-century stamps, and that would be as far away as a stereotype from a hitchhiker as it can be.


People just expect you to be like a hippie. I’m also attached to things, but I just decided to hitchhike around the world not out of an economic condition or out of being poor. There was a journalist who stated that “Oh, he chose the way he wanted to be poor.” [laughs] It’s not about that.

COWEN: You buy the stamps online? Or you hitchhike to places where you think you might want to buy stamps?

VILLARINO: [laughs] No, no, I buy online, but it’s actually interesting to say that my first approach to world geography and history was through stamps when I was a kid. I have actually designed trips in order to fit with territories that I have learned about from stamps. Collecting old colonies in Africa and stuff like that.

On how to get a lift

COWEN: What strategies do you employ so that drivers, indeed, strangers trust you more?

VILLARINO: As a rule of thumb, I always like to say that you stop cars with your smile and not with your thumb. There are actually a lot of things you could do to improve your chances of getting a lift.

It’s not like go there, stick out your thumb, and get a ride. Definitely, smiling as a car is passing — it’s a really important thing. Then there are very subtle things that people wouldn’t guess that have an impact, and they do.

COWEN: Like what?

VILLARINO: Which ones?

COWEN: Just tell us one.

VILLARINO: For example, a driver has on average three seconds to decide whether he’s going to stop or not. He sees you, he’s driving maybe 80 miles an hour, and you suddenly pop out. There are a lot of things going on unconsciously through his mind to decide whether he’s going to stop or not. You have only these seconds to convey any message of trust, and so you have to do things.

For example, one is smiling. The other one is, when you manage to get eye contact, then I reinforce. Let’s say, I’m showing my thumb, but I also switch my hand signal and point it to the direction in which I’m going as I’m smiling. This makes a more personalized link over the general link you are already doing, which is thumbing.

Then the way you are dressed, the way your backpack is positioned . . .

COWEN: How do you dress?

VILLARINO: I try always to be neutral. I really don’t think the road is a place to manifest your aesthetic principles . . .

COWEN: [laughs]

VILLARINO: . . . if you like dreadlocks and a lot of things.

COWEN: So social conformity rears its head again.

VILLARINO: Yeah, just a shirt, normal cargo pants. I guess, neutral. I try to be as tidy as I can. People pay attention to that, and that’s a way to make them develop more trust in you.

COWEN: In the 18th century a French political writer, Montesquieu, claimed that poorer peoples show more hospitality to strangers on average. Do you think he was right?

VILLARINO: I think it has to do with many things, not only with economic factors. For example, if you go to countries like Ethiopia in Africa, where you can find really poor people by our standards, then you will not find or receive as much hospitality as I had received, for example, in Muslim countries like Iran or Syria.

This has to do with the place that interdependence has as a value in that society. For example, in the Middle East — and it doesn’t necessarily have to do with religion, but with geographical things — in the Middle East, I have found that people have been through millennial years to depend on each other because of the long distances.

They’re living in a desert scenario, where you could eventually need the help of your neighbors tomorrow, so you help them today. This I have found in the Middle East and the Muslim countries. I wouldn’t consider them poor, but I would put them in a middle scale if we consider Africa as well.

In general, countries which are used to sharing resources for whatever reason, whether religious or because they were part of the communist bloc, which also developed some social structures in which sharing resources was very common, then it’s easy today to hitchhike in Romania or Poland.

So there are many, many indicators or things that could make that part right, but in general, yeah, I could say that Montesquieu had a point, let’s say.

COWEN: Do you have a thought on why some of the societies that seem to show the most trust with respect to hitchhikers in other ways, perhaps superficial or misguided, but seem to show lower levels of trust?

You mention Iraq as being a good county to hitchhike. Iraq is not known at the macro or political level for always having a high degree of trust.

VILLARINO: [laughs]

COWEN: Do you have thoughts on that possible contradiction?

VILLARINO: I think that the problem is that we perceive countries just because of what we heard on the news. Most people would only know about Iraq or Sudan — they say “Sudan” and they will only know it suffered a blockade and sanctions from the US in the late ’90s.

Then people would know about the Taliban in Afghanistan, about the war in Iraq, but we never get to know about the real people living there under those facts. That’s what I’m trying to compensate with my travel literature.

You can say it’s a contradiction, but I would say it’s the way that information is treated. The stereotypes and the kind of news that the media like to show is always about the wars or the things going on between leaders, but the normal people — they just never make it to the headlines.

COWEN: There are some published estimates you’ve offered — how long it takes to get a ride in different places. If I may just quote: the quickest is listed as Iraq, 7 minutes on average. Next quickest is Jordan, 9 minutes on average. Then Ecuador, 10 minutes; Romania, 12 minutes. The slowest of them all seems to be Tibet, where your estimate is 3 hours 16 minutes. Now, why is Tibet an outlier on the other side of that equation?

VILLARINO: [laughs] That’s right. The thing is, in the case of Tibet, vehicles were so scarce. It’s just like a plateau with one road crossing it and maybe you would see 10 vehicles a day.

COWEN: Just not that many cars. It’s not a lack of hospitality.

VILLARINO: Exactly. You should consider different factors when you want to measure how good or bad hitchhiking is in a country. You shouldn’t actually only take into consideration the waiting time, but you should consider the amount of cars that pass you during your hitchhiking. That gives an estimate, but there are many factors that should be considered.

COWEN: In your six slowest, you have in that worst six Sweden, Norway, Finland, Denmark with slow times.

VILLARINO: Oh, yeah. Scandinavia.

COWEN: Those countries have plenty of cars. Why are they so slow?

VILLARINO: That’s amazing. To be hitchhiking in Scandinavia, you see all this row of Volvo cars passing you by [laughs] and they will never ever stop.

I had talked to a Swedish friend of mine, and she just said, “Yeah, I wouldn’t stop either,” she said, “because it’s so cheap and affordable to have a car. Then if someone is hitchhiking and doesn’t have a car, you would think he has second intentions or something wrong is going on here.”

What I think happens is that somehow our society has driven us into the idea that you have your own house, and when you get out of the house, you just move into your little bit of moving private space, into your car. And it’s sometimes difficult to break that cycle and be ready to share, to meet, to mix.

That’s pretty much the norm in Nordic societies. It makes it a bit more difficult to hitchhike there.

What I think happens is that somehow our society has driven us into the idea that you have your own house, and when you get out of the house, you just move into your little bit of moving private space, into your car. And it’s sometimes difficult to break that cycle and be ready to share, to meet, to mix.

COWEN: In a typical year, how many months of the year are you out there hitchhiking?

VILLARINO: I won’t measure it how many months a year, but what happens is we — Laura and I — we always do long trips.

COWEN: That’s your wife, Laura?

VILLARINO: Yeah, that’s right. [laughs] For the last eight years we have been traveling together, and we always do long trips. That means that the shortest one together, it has been eight months, and the longest one like a year and a half.

Each trip is made with the idea of making a book afterwards. After the trip is done, then we go back home and start the book project, which normally takes another year. So it’s 50/50, I would say.

COWEN: Would you describe yourself as a workaholic hitchhiker?

VILLARINO: Yes. [laughs] I am. People would be so surprised to see how much time there is involved on the backstage behind the screen because you hitchhike, you have books, and you have a blog. The blog is so time consuming.

When I’m not traveling, I literally spend 10 hours a day working either by making new posts, posting social media, and preparing projects for publishing houses. It’s like an 8-to-10-hour routine. I would qualify as a workaholic, I guess.

COWEN: You don’t always travel with your wife. Is that correct? Some trips with her, some trips alone.

VILLARINO: That’s right.

COWEN: How do you divvy up which trip is with her, which trip is not with her?

VILLARINO: Long trips, we do them together always because it requires like a year and a half. Our last trip together was Africa from Egypt to South Africa on the eastern side, going through Sudan, Ethiopia, and so on. That we did together, of course.

Then after that, I came here, and she’s going to Thailand next month. Or she, for example, last year she went to Iceland. We have a friend, a hitchhiker on Iceland, and they had some project to do, some challenges their audience were suggesting her and her friend, challenges to do while traveling.

We do these little side projects on our own. I was in Cuba, as well, two years ago. But the long trips, we always do them together.

COWEN: Your wife is doing some trips on her own. Your general lifestyle — how much harder do you think it is for a solo woman to do what you’ve been doing? It could be your wife, but there are plenty of other women who do or might want to do this. What would you say to that?

VILLARINO: It’s a good question. There have been, and actually, some of my inspirations have been girls traveling alone by hitchhiking. One of them is Kinga Freespirit — that’s just a nickname — a Polish girl who hitchhiked around the world from ’98 to 2003 and did amazing stuff. [laughs]

I was barely there to do crossing from Burkina Faso to Niger on a camel back, not through an official border crossing, and amazing stuff like that. I know a couple of girls who have hitchhiked across Africa alone.

COWEN: And done fine?

VILLARINO: Yeah, fine. That doesn’t mean that it’s 100 percent pink experience in which everything is going to be fine. You definitely have to know your limitations, and you know your own template, and it must not be your first trip, for sure.

But I think that the general difficulties of traveling as a woman are not really different from the general difficulties of living as a woman in our society.

But I think that the general difficulties of traveling as a woman are not really different from the general difficulties of living as a woman in our society.

On dark secrets shared

COWEN: Right. What’s the deepest darkest secret you’ve ever heard from someone who has picked you up?

VILLARINO: There’s something called taxi cab effect. It translates into people telling you [laughs] all sorts of secrets after giving you a ride, from the most simple things like someone picking me up — it was a rural worker in Argentina — and telling me, “Hey, you know? I have just been with another woman who is not my wife.”


VILLARINO: He was just jumping around and telling me all details that I didn’t want to hear.

I had all sorts of people. I remember a truck driver in Spain who took me all the way to Italy that was like one day and a half of driving, and he had been in a Foreign Legion.

He had been in the Iraqi war, in the Gulf War, and he had all sorts of traumas that the Spanish health system hadn’t been able to solve, it seems. Every time he would go down the track, it would be a chance to fight with someone. He wouldn’t be able to establish normal relations.

After a day and a half of traveling, when I left, he was just crying over the wheel because he had been able to build a relationship with someone inside the truck one day and a half. It was so difficult for him then to see me leave.

But the most interesting one in the list — it was an Italian guy. He didn’t give me a ride, but he hosted me in his house. After many bottles of wine, he acknowledged he had been in jail for trafficking drug between Naples and Milan and that he had done terrible things.

An hour later he confessed he had killed someone, and that he had a physical thing from his past that he needed to get rid of. Five minutes later, he presented me with a knife, and it was basically a piece of evidence of a murder.

COWEN: That was the murder knife?


COWEN: What did you do with it?

VILLARINO: I felt that I had to carry it because he needed to get away with that, and if I could help in any way for his rehabilitation, because he had legally already paid for that anyway. He had been in jail for that. I felt I had to take it with me, and I did.

COWEN: The American author Jack Kerouac — in his book On the Road, he suggested that maybe the real problem with hitchhiking is you feel obliged to entertain your driver on and on, and this can be quite monotonous. Do you ever find this to be the case?

VILLARINO: Sometimes you can get bored, but that’s the reason why I hitchhike in the first place: to mix and meet people. Besides, it hasn’t been a matter of money — like, I do hitchhike in India or places where transportation is so cheap.

Sometimes it can be boring to repeat over and over your story of “Where do you come from? What are you doing?” in each car you board. But it pays off because people then have such amazing stories to share. It’s actually my default setting. My typical approach to explore a country is hitchhiking — that’s why I do it. So I think it’s worth.

COWEN: What’s the biggest danger you face?

VILLARINO: Definitely, I don’t have to think too much about this. It was in Afghanistan because, actually, there into hitchhiking across the country posed a threat because there were — even though my trip was meant to show that 99.9 percent of the people there were just nice people — I knew there was still the 0.1 percent that could be harmful.

When getting close to Kabul, I was hitchhiking with an American guy who was a volunteer in Bamyan Province where the big Buddhas used to be carved before the Taliban attacked there.

He was so excited about my hitchhiking thing, and he said, “I want to join you.” I said, “Yeah, you can, but remember that your life here is much more [laughs] valuable than mine. They could take you hostage but not really to me because Argentina won’t pay any rescuer, and they know that.”

We hitchhiked, we got to Kabul, and we got a ride with an Afghan police jeep. They were patrolling, so they stopped and said, “Guys, we can take you to Kabul, but you have to know that we are the target. The last patrol we sent here was attacked by the Taliban with the rocket-propelled grenade, and everyone died in the ambush. Now we’re going to see if the territory is better. You can come with us, or you can do the same but walking.” [laughs]

I say, “OK. We should better stay in the car — at least it’s faster.”

The next two hours were the most difficult hours of my life. These guys were with the AK47 with the finger in the trigger, ready to fight, and they told us to have a look at the roofs of the houses because they were expecting snipers.

Suddenly I was in an army scenario that has nothing to do with my life. I think definitely that was the closer I was to potentially fatal situation.

COWEN: Do you feel there’s something you understand about terrorism in, say, Iraq or Afghanistan that most other people would not?

VILLARINO: First of all, people would unfortunately relate just a reason to the names of these countries, and they would miss the broader picture, which is the whole people living there.

I can also understand how terrorists come to be because those being in these countries where they’re absolutely open to foreigners, but at the same time, it’s an easy ground in which to recruit people because of their overpopulation.

Religiously speaking, Islam needs an instance of self-criticism. I think the societies haven’t been able to go through a process of updating and allowing self-criticism. I think that in this sense, they are a bit close-minded. It has been easy for insurgent groups to recruit people. I have seen the social mechanisms behind it and the way they really — some time ago, I was in Egypt, and there was a school. The motto of the school was that they wanted to produce good citizens and good Muslims, that they would be able to repeat the Quran by heart. As long as they keep their goals of education as being able to repeat the Quran by heart, then it’s always leaving a gate open for people who are so fervent about it.

COWEN: If you consider your longer trips — say, the trip through Africa — and I were to suggest a hypothesis that every longish trip has at its core some central place or event or a kind of emotional heart, maybe not planned in advance, probably not planned in advance, but at the end of the trip, you realize this emotional heart of the trip is there. And if it’s not there, you did something wrong.

Agree or disagree?

VILLARINO: [laughs] I agree, definitely. There are moments, big moments in which you really feel the whole mystic of the trip embodied there. Africa had several of these moments.

COWEN: What would be the central core of your Africa trip if you had to say?

VILLARINO: There would be more than one, but Tanzania was one because there I did find an Africa proud to be Africa. It was a bit more different from the situation I found in South Africa in which there have been so many ongoing tensions between different groups and ethnic groups. I really loved Tanzania.

Now, I recall a moment in which it was a very dense moment because it shows that you can learn from anyone on these kinds of trips. It was in Malawi, and we were looking for a place to camp outside the capital in Lilongwe. It was raining like hell. We asked a couple of people. They didn’t give us any solution.

Then we arrived to a place which looks like — you know these places where they organize children’s birthday parties?


VILLARINO: The place was closed, but there was a caretaker. This guy was 25-year-old, he was a refugee from Congo. He had crossed all Tanzania on foot to reach there, crossing rivers infested with crocodiles . . .


VILLARINO: . . . being chased by Tanzanian police who wanted bribes from him. He had managed to reach there and find this little job. And he allowed us to sleep in this house he was taking care of. That was the inversion of the logic. There was the refugee who was a provider for us that night.

Interesting thing was that all the situations he had to go through and the war and so on — it hadn’t converted into resentment but into love. The guy said this sentence, and I can recall. He said, “Mountains are not meant to meet, but men are meant to meet.” And that’s why he opened the house to us.

We were talking about international situation, and he said, “About Mr. Trump, I understand him,” he said. “If I could tell something to him in person, I would tell him that I understand him because he’s not the bad guy,” he said.

I want to say his words here because he would only dream about coming to the US, but I feel like a messenger now. How he said that he understood he was not a bad guy but that he hadn’t gone through any hardship in his life and that’s why his heart was so hard.

I felt you can learn from anyone in the street. This guy is a caretaker. He was a refugee, and he’s now talking like a Buddha in Malawi. I feel like when you have these little encounters with random people, that’s when the trip becomes really meaningful.

On the countries he’s traveled

COWEN: My favorite song about hitchhiking is probably Marvin Gaye, “Hitch Hike.” You have a favorite song about hitchhiking?

VILLARINO: I don’t think I can recall any song about hitchhiking. Probably Pros and Cons of Hitch Hiking of Roger Waters. Yeah, that would be.

COWEN: Try also Vanity Fare, “Hitchin’ a Ride.” That’s fun.


COWEN: Now, you told us this is actually your first time in the United States.

VILLARINO: That’s right.

COWEN: Your 91st country. Is that right?

VILLARINO: It is because I was actually for a week in Puerto Rico three years ago.

COWEN: Yes and no.

VILLARINO: Officially in US, yes. Let’s say it’s the first time in the mainland.

COWEN: How long have you been here?

VILLARINO: Less than 48 hours.

COWEN: What has surprised you the most so far?

VILLARINO: [laughs] What has surprised me? Looking at the suburban areas from the plane was quite interesting because . . .

COWEN: Which areas?

VILLARINO: Suburban.

COWEN: Oh yes, the houses.

VILLARINO: Houses, states, and areas because they look as Latin American textile pattern.

COWEN: [laughs]

VILLARINO: It’s very strange. I didn’t know, the icon of the US looks like an original art piece.

I’m in Arlington now. How the city gets depopulated at night. After 8:00 p.m., there’s very few people on the streets, at least in the downtown. Nobody lives there. It’s just office blocks and buildings. This is a bit curious for me because I’m used to living in a more lived-in city, you know?

COWEN: Argentina is almost a polar opposite in this regard. Buenos Aires at midnight can be quite teeming with people.

VILLARINO: Sure. You can get out on the street at 1:00 a.m., go to a kiosk and buy a drink [laughs] or whatever you want. Sure, that’s Latin America. It’s like that.

COWEN: Now, in a sense, you started this journey — if I understand your history correctly — in Belfast, Northern Ireland.


COWEN: How did Belfast come to pass?

VILLARINO: That was pretty random, actually. I was a student of psychology in Argentina before I decided to take this nomadic lifestyle. At some point, I decided it was much more consistent with the subject I was studying to go and see history unfolding in front of my nose than just staying at university.

I used to have a summer job at a hotel. It is like a bell boy or receptionist. There was a family from Northern Ireland who I had talked to them, and I had explained to them I wanted to travel around the world, but I wanted to save up some money to get started.

In those years, Argentina was going through its worst economic crisis. All the banks had fled the country, taking savings of the people [laughs] with them, so they get chaos. And I was the only weird guy dreaming about un-attaching from things and going around the world. It was a pretty strange thing — people were trying to get stability, not trying to get rid of their stability to travel.

This family from Northern Ireland, they offered me, “If you ever come over here, you have a place to stay, and we can keep you going until you find a job.” And that was what I did in 2003.

I moved to a small town near Belfast, found a job in another hotel as a receptionist, and then slowly started to move jobs. I worked there for a year and a half before I found I had small budget for the first year of the trip.

COWEN: Given that most people in the two Irelands are no longer formally religious, if you had to describe, in your vision, the core cultural difference between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, what would that be?

VILLARINO: I couldn’t even tell you the difference between [laughs] East Belfast and West Belfast. West Belfast is typically a stronghold of the Republican Catholic, let’s say, the Irish who are trapped there but would like to join the Republic of Ireland, while North and East Belfast are Unionist attached to Great Britain.

It’s interesting because, actually, the family that gave me the chance to go there — they were British, they were pro-Irish. I like that because it breaks the stereotype, and it’s a good starting point of the biography of this trip, which is trying to dismantle stereotypes.

They were not on the side they were supposed to be. I met great people from both sides, but most of my friends tended to be from West Belfast.

COWEN: From a hitchhiking point of view, how do the two Irelands differ, if at all?

VILLARINO: No, they don’t. The same way they share a rugby team, they share their position in the hospitality ranking.

COWEN: OK. As we know, you’re from Argentina. Argentina has its own history as being a victim of colonial occupation. There is still an ongoing issue with Malvinas, the Falkland Islands as we say in English.

Your background as an Argentinian — how do you feel that has shaped your understanding of Syria, Afghanistan, Iran, and Iraq?

VILLARINO: It helped my understanding and their understanding because it was very easy. It’s actually easy to travel around the world with an Argentinian passport. It’s good because people feel empathy because you also come from a, let’s say, developing country. We are in the middle. We are not a rich country, we’re not a poor one.

We know what it’s like to live in a place where the traffic lights don’t work and people just cross with the road cross. It has made easier to relate with people from Africa, for example, when I was explaining that we also had colonial rule in our country. They were so surprised about that. That was a good point of connection with people.

COWEN: You’ve written that Colombia is one of your favorite countries to travel in.


COWEN: What makes Colombia so special?

VILLARINO: Colombia — ahh! People, they have poetry when they speak. You can speak with anyone there. It doesn’t matter which walk of life that he belongs to. It can be a coffee collector. It can be the owner of a company. They will have the same cautious way of speaking.

Colombia — ahh! People, they have poetry when they speak. You can speak with anyone there. It doesn’t matter which walk of life that he belongs to. It can be a coffee collector. It can be the owner of a company. They will have the same cautious way of speaking.

Even though it’s not actually easy to hitchhike in Colombia because of all of the problems they have had with guerrillas and kidnapping. They are a bit cautious at the time of giving you a ride, but once you are there and you are talking to people — I really wish everyone could spend a couple of days and months in Colombia to take all the stress away.

COWEN: You’ve also cited Transnistria as one of your favorites. Depending whose side you’re on, that’s either part of Moldova or a breakaway republic from Moldova. Why is that so interesting?

VILLARINO: I like Transnistria. I wouldn’t put it in a rank — the better, the best, one of the best countries in terms of hospitality — but as a traveler who is obviously trying to also collect the difficult stamps in his collection, then of course breakaway republics, they are a very precious place.

COWEN: They may not be here for much longer, right?

VILLARINO: Yeah. You have to go there if you can. That was the same case with Somaliland in the last African trip.

But the special thing about Transnistria — it was bizarre, the place in itself. It’s the only place in the world, I guess, where you can order sushi and sit down in a restaurant, eat sushi only 100 meters away from a Lenin statue, which is still standing. It embodies a lot of contradictions in itself.

COWEN: Here’s a question I also asked Chris Blattman, I asked Charles C. Mann. If we think about the New World, it seems to me that, systematically, a lot of countries in the New World are much more dangerous than countries in the other hemisphere.

If you think about Colombia earlier on — not so much now — you think about murder rates in Honduras, Belize, El Salvador, many parts of Brazil, there does seem to be a difference in the level of violence. Gun deaths in the United States compared to, say, Western Europe.

Why is this? It’s not just one country. There’s something about the New World that makes some significant parts of it more violent. What is that?

VILLARINO: Probably because in our evolution as territories, we have had violence as a part of it much more recently in the timeline. We were conquered by means of powder. I think that’s probably in the genetic of our culture. I hope not.

But it’s interesting what you said about the shootings here in the US. It’s something that, of course, as an outsider and as someone who it’s his first visit to the country, it would be not proper to give a very deep reflection on that.

Going back to the hitchhiking issue, there is some sort of relation I can establish. When you hitchhike, you’re trying to establish social links with random people.

I feel that in a very developed society like the US, where the value of independence has been stressed over interdependence too much, and much more than in Latin America, for example, or even Europe.

I feel that when you are absolutely independent and you don’t need help from your neighbors, then also, no one is needing your help.

Then how do you feel that you are needful for your community? I think that we are losing…probably something happening here that some people — just some people — don’t have the chance to demonstrate their value to the community. This leads to social anomie.

COWEN: Yes, anomie.

VILLARINO: Anomie. That may be the case when you have someone climbing to the roof of a building and shooting people.

COWEN: That’s the best answer to the question I’ve heard so far.

Consider the South American nation of Chile. There’s a semifamous, you might call it rivalry, between Argentina and Chile. If you’re hitchhiking in Chile . . .

VILLARINO: I love hitchhiking in Chile, actually.

COWEN: It’s a beautiful country. A Chilean driver picks you up. Do you in any way feel that rivalry when you connect with him and he learns you’re from Argentina, hears that you’re from Argentina? Or is that just not at all present?

VILLARINO: No. First, I love hitchhiking in Chile. It has a very low waiting time as well. Rarely . . . actually it never happened. People are really, really — I remember being in some kind of hiking refuge deep in the mountains in Chile, but there was a road. Then a truck came. Laura and I were camping inside this little hut. The truck driver stopped. They took a cooking kitchen and started cooking food for us because we had been under the rain for a couple of days. I really had nice experiences in Chile, even if we’re talking about supposed rivalries.

I once got a ride with a guy that was from the Malvinas or Falkland Islands. The guy used to be the coach of the soccer team of the Malvinas, of the Falklands.

The interesting thing was, it’s the first time I see a guy from the Malvinas in person. We are supposed to what, kill each other? I think he was also like, “Oh, Argentina? OK.” What do we do now? We were in a car. We were in Britain. The first thing we say, “Would you have a pint?” “Yeah, let’s go.”

We stopped the car. We drink. We drink our problems away. It was a way of healing individually the problems of our countries, and I like that.

COWEN: Where is the food the best?

VILLARINO: Food? I actually like a lot in the Balkans. I like the Balkans because it’s Europe, but it has a lot of Ottoman influence, which means they are — having fresh ingredients in their food is a priority for them. The way they have this breakfast with the olive, and this yogurt, but naturally processed yogurt.

I like that. Nowadays, you have genetically modified food. Everything you can get in the store is like poisoned and stuff like that. I like this middle point, like Bulgaria and Albania.

COWEN: Macedonia is for me the best food in the Balkans.

VILLARINO: Macedonia, yeah. Not far from there. All the region, I think. Romania, definitely. Yeah, I like that.

COWEN: Which country has the most beautiful women?

VILLARINO: OK, I should go for Lithuania. [laughs]

COWEN: The most beautiful men?

VILLARINO: I don’t have an opinion for that. [laughs]

On the biases travel brings

COWEN: OK. The knowledge one gains from travel — it’s very strong, it’s far reaching, it makes one more cosmopolitan, maybe instills some wisdom in us. But what biases does it bring to us? Just as people who don’t travel have biases, if you’ve traveled a lot, what biases are you likely to end up with that you need to guard against, precisely because you’ve traveled so much?

VILLARINO: It’s a hard question to answer, actually. [laughs] A bias is something you are conditioned by your trip, you mean, and then you . . . things you take for granted?

COWEN: You start taking new things for granted.

VILLARINO: Probably. Yeah, that’s a thing, probably. When you just go to a country and the people are just ticking off the bucket list thing, like sightseeing. Probably I’ve seen a hundred Buddhist temples already and ruins and that.

I feel that that makes me focus much more on very, very specific things, on people, and not sightseeing or stuff like that. That as a traveler, I mean. In other areas, I can’t recall now, probably there are.

COWEN: Do you think travel makes people more conservative? I don’t mean that in the political sense of any party, but conservative in the literal adjectival sense, that you’ve seen many different ways of life; you see that in different ways they can work, or many people can be happy within them.

Tolerance is one half of that, but a kind of conservatism or acceptance is another part. Do you think that’s a bias of travel, a benefit of travel, not the case?

VILLARINO: You mean like if you have seen a lot of countries in which people are striving to make a living, and then you mean that that would cause you to accept that?

COWEN: That you’ve seen the possibility that people can be happy in many different settings.

VILLARINO: Yeah. I think that definitely makes you stronger. Stronger in the sense that it helps you to be happier with less, I think. Also, it helps you to not take for granted what you have at home.

When we were in Africa last year, no one had a tap on his house where they would switch it and have running water. They would have to walk to the next little river.

Normally, it was the women doing that, and they would have to walk like one mile to get a big full load full of water to their house. We all have taps with running water. So it really helps you not to take things for granted.

COWEN: While preparing for this talk, I looked up quotations about travel. I like to do that. I was shocked at how ordinary or banal all of them were. “Travel opens up your horizons.” “Travel makes you a new person.” Arguably true, but they seem so trite and uninteresting.

So the question I have for you is, what is it about travel that no one else will tell us?

VILLARINO: What is it about travel that no . . .

COWEN: Getting past the trite and the banal, which may well be true. What will no one else tell us?

VILLARINO: The problem is that traveling, and even our role as bloggers, has fallen for some people only into promoting these nations, and you fall into the touristic aspect of it, while I try to enhance and stress the way travel can change the way you relate to the whole planet.

This also is a responsibility because the more you travel, and the more you get out of the abstract tags, and the more you’re able to relate to real people, then you start feeling empathy for real people from Colombia, Albania, Iraq, wherever.

The problem is that traveling, and even our role as bloggers, has fallen for some people only into promoting these nations, and you fall into the touristic aspect of it, while I try to enhance and stress the way travel can change the way you relate to the whole planet.
This also is a responsibility because the more you travel, and the more you get out of the abstract tags, and the more you’re able to relate to real people, then you start feeling empathy for real people from Colombia, Albania, Iraq, wherever.

Then you’re less prone to subscribe to any or to vote your own government in your home country, which is then going to declare war or sanctions on these countries.

Traveling has this little twist that can make you a more aware person, and then you have this responsibility of transmitting this at home and in your own levels of influence. I think that’s the most interesting potential traveling has.

COWEN: If you’re going to visit a new country or region where you’ve never been, other than simply going, what kind of preparation do you do in advance?

VILLARINO: The fact that I hitchhike doesn’t mean that I leave everything at random. People sometimes tend to think that I will just land there and start hitchhiking randomly in any direction, which is not the case.

I always travel by hitchhiking. That’s a rule, but of course, I always read a lot about the country, about its history, and I try to identify regions that have their own identity within that country. That’s normally the case. If you go to Ethiopia, you have the Omo Valley, and you have the highlands. Everything changes between each region.

I try to read a lot of history about the country. But then I will stick to my standard approach, which is choosing small roads, minor roads, and visiting random towns along them. That would be my average strategy of trying to get to the stories and to the people.

COWEN: In two weeks, I’m going to Ethiopia for 11 days. Given that you’ve been there and done some research, what advice or tips would you give me for my trip?

VILLARINO: For Ethiopia and for 11 days?

COWEN: Eleven days. I’ll have some time. Not enough time to go around the whole country.

VILLARINO: I would definitely stick to the north, which is the place where you have Gondar, which used to be the imperial seat of power of the Ethiopian emperors. I would go to Gondar to see the castles and to understand all this history and lineage of the Ethiopian empire.

I would definitely put Lalibela, the rock-carved churches, the underground churches of Lalibela, which is something amazing. You should actually be there on a Sunday because then you can even . . . It doesn’t matter your religious position — you should go and witness a mass service there. Lalibela, Gondar, the monasteries in Bahir Dar.

COWEN: Conceptually, what should I understand about the country and its cultures that maybe I don’t know right now, never having been?

VILLARINO: Oh, get ready. [laughs] Get ready for Ethiopia. It has been one of the most difficult countries for me to hitchhike, but if you’re going to be there 11 days, and you will have some things already organized . . .

COWEN: I will use plane tickets rather than hitchhiking.

VILLARINO: Then you will not be hit so much, but you will be hit. [laughs]

COWEN: Hit by what?

VILLARINO: People in Ethiopia — it’s not so huge a country with 90 million people. It’s a bit crowded. I felt that they had a history. Ethiopians have a very interesting case because they combine the pride of an empire. They are so proud the empire has never been beaten or conquest, just leaving aside six hours of Italian presence during the Second World War.

But besides that, they have never been conquered, and they have their pride. It’s so much there. When we went to Kenya after Ethiopia, we were telling Ethiopians our next step. They said, “Oh, you’re going to Africa? They are so different from us. We are Ethiopians.”

They consider themselves a different lineage. You should be ready for that, in contradiction with all the poverty they have. It’s this mix of so staunchly proud people with a very, very challenging present. They are not able to identify it.

On Argentina

COWEN: I have a few questions about Argentina, if I may.


COWEN: The elites of Argentina — wealthy, highly educated people — do they understand their own country, or are they insulated and removed from it?

VILLARINO: [laughs] No. They understand but that doesn’t mean that they can feel empathy for them, or that they want to do something to improve it. Of course, they know who are they governing, but they are so far away from it.

Our country is an interesting case in Latin America because it’s composed of a high percentage of people who descend from European migrations. Same scenarios in the United States. Probably, if you were European in the 19th century and you wanted to emigrate, your choices were New York or Buenos Aires. The most probable places would be those. Probably Australia as well.

That made Argentina very complex demographically speaking. Then we have a lot of provinces which are a world away from the standard of living of Buenos Aires, like the north and the far north. Definitely, our elites just don’t get there, and that’s the areas of the country where development never reaches.

COWEN: Why is Argentina today not as wealthy as Australia? As you probably know, it was in the 1920s.

VILLARINO: Yeah, it was. It used to be in the top 10 richest countries in the world. That’s actually why my grandparents went there in the 1920s. I still have the ship ticket — the steamship ticket — on which they came.

COWEN: Where did they leave from?


COWEN: What part?

VILLARINO: They came from Sicily, but normally, they would take the ship from Genoa, which is the standard place where you would board a ship. My family is half Italian, the same as probably 50 percent of people in Argentina. That’s the average case.

Sorry, your question was why we’re not as rich as Australia? I think there was a turn in our history, somewhere in the late ’60s, where the military government had an economic agenda which was not set by our own people but by international entities such as IMF and the World Bank. I think we owe a big deal to that for changing the tide.

COWEN: To what extent do you understand Argentina as being a kind of Italian country or offshoot, rather than Hispanic in the sense that we might consider much of the rest of Latin America?

VILLARINO: The richness of the country relates actually on the complexity because you couldn’t say Argentina is a European country. We have an important percentage of the population who descends from Europeans, but these people also mix with the original inhabitants of our land.

It happened similarly in the US in the way that you also had your original people living here, which were gradually moved west. It happened with us in Argentina the same as it happened here. Most of the culture was erased.

But those who stayed, they combined and they made the society we have today. So it’s definitely a mix, and it’s not a European country. Though some people like to see it as we are elite, we are different, we are better, which is different but we are not better.

COWEN: Are you optimistic about Argentina?

VILLARINO: We have survived so many crises that I think we still have the will to stand anew. As we talk now, there’s a huge climate of uncertainty. The exchange rate with the dollar has switched 10 percent in two days.

COWEN: This is May we’re speaking in. It fell about 10 percent last week — for the listeners — but you are optimistic.

VILLARINO: I think I’m optimistic, yeah. In the long run, but not in the present government we have now. I’m not optimistic at all about the present government we have now.

COWEN: Are you optimistic about Pope Francis?

VILLARINO: [laughs] The church hasn’t really changed in 2,000 years. They just hold their romantic and symbolic positions. They’re not fighting any battle I can ostensibly see. I don’t know over what I have to be optimistic or not. [laughs] I just find it funny that we have a pope from our country.

COWEN: Who is your favorite author from Argentina? And why?

VILLARINO: I like two authors actually, which people tend to consider contradictory. One is Julio Cortázar, which I love, especially — how to translate Rayuela?

COWEN: Hopscotch.

VILLARINO: Hopscotch, yeah.

COWEN: One of my favorite novels also.

VILLARINO: Yeah, definitely. I love Hopscotch. The other writer is Borges.

COWEN: Those are also my two favorites from your country.

VILLARINO: Cool. [laughs] I like the way they complement each other. I like Cortázar because he mixes the intellectual game of writing with the very bohemian sense of his lifestyle when he was in Paris. That probably inspired me a lot when taking the decision to leave as a wandering artist.

COWEN: If you had to tell a person who had traveled a lot, understood something about the world, but they had never been to Argentina before, and they had two weeks, how would you outline the ideal trip through Argentina for them? What should they not miss other than the obvious? So yes, they go to Buenos Aires, they go to Iguazú. But what else?

VILLARINO: That’s the thing. Everyone wants the bucket list. Probably I would add the Perito Moreno glaciers in the south because Patagonia is an extensive place, full of wonderful scenarios. Definitely you should at least eat an asado, our barbecues, which we call “asado.” That’s a typical Argentinian experience you should eat.

COWEN: Where is that best in the country?

VILLARINO: You have to meet local friends and do it on a Sunday with local people. You can go to a restaurant and ask for the best steak they can produce, but you’re going to be seated there in the restaurant alone.

There’s a whole social ritual around preparing the barbecue, the asado, and that’s something that will make you understand a lot of things about Argentinian culture, people speaking about soccer results and so on, politics. That should be something that shouldn’t be missed.

COWEN: What’s the best place to visit in the north of Argentina?

VILLARINO: In the north? Definitely, I love the northwest, which is also the grounds in which randomly I happened to take the decision of becoming nomadic. It’s Salta Province, in the Calchaquies Valleys. That’s where in 2002 I had this insight. I said, “OK, yeah, I should go for this.”

COWEN: If you think of your own future for yourself, what is it you’re planning next?

VILLARINO: You mean in the short term or with my retirement? [laughs]

COWEN: Start with the short term.

VILLARINO: The short term, I think I keep doing what I’m doing, no?

COWEN: So you will write more books and take more long trips?

VILLARINO: [laughs] That’s something that is definitely going to happen. I think the next move is trying to make the books available in the US or in the UK because I feel that’s a place where the books are necessary — even more than my home country — because that’s where decisions are being made.

That’s my whole concept of travel literature, is to try to change people’s views and make them have empathy and also affect the decisions they take in life. So that would be my next big challenge, to get published in the US.

As regards to lifestyle, I think I will continue making long trips and publishing books. That for sure, yeah.

COWEN: And in the longer term, what is next for you?

VILLARINO: In the longer term, [laughs] you know that when I made this decision of traveling for life, one of the things I was afraid of was, of course, this economic stability. People were asking me, “OK, but what are you going to do in the long run? OK, you can do this because you’re young, but what are you going to do when you are 40?”

The thing is I’m already 40, but they were [laughs] asking me this when I was 20. They were forecasting, “Oh, when you’re 30, you’re going to understand. You should have kids and this.” Then I turned 30, and now I turned 40, and I keep doing the same stuff. I think Oscar Wilde said that the only way not to get old was to continue repeating the same mistakes. [laughs] He would be proud of me.

When I took this decision, I imagined, “OK, what’s the worst possible scenario? What can the worst happen to me?” In that time, my books were not like they are now. They were handmade, photocopied books, just a bunch of A4-size papers stapled together, and I would sell them around in bars and hostels.

I decided, OK, it cannot get worse than that. If the worst possible scenario is I would be an old hippie going around Southeast Asia, sharing inspiration with his younger travelers and making a living out of it, welcome. I can go for that. It will look nice in my biography. After that, I never again had fears of the future, retirement.

COWEN: Obviously, you’re managing to persist as it is, but do you ever think how your business model might evolve over time?

VILLARINO: It evolved a lot already, actually.

COWEN: Tell us.

VILLARINO: [laughs] As I said, this started as photocopied books, like 50 to 100 pages. When I published . . . [laughs] Published is a very generous word for going to a photocopy place and ordering 50 copies of this!

COWEN: It’s all publishing. We write blogs, right? Everything is publishing.

VILLARINO: [laughs] When I first wrote the book, I had just finished my two-year trips from Ireland across Middle East and Iran, Afghanistan, and I arrived to Southeast Asia. I took a rest there. I made a pause and started writing the book.

In the first format, it was 100 pages, photocopied book. And I would walk around the streets of Bangkok and the beaches in Thailand to sell it to other travelers. When I came back to Argentina, I decided to try to get it published properly. The first thing I did was expand the book to 200 pages, go to a printing place, so it wasn’t photocopied anymore.

But I was still self-publishing and selling it in person. Then over time I was invited to a book fair with my own self-published books. I managed to sell a lot of books because there was a bookstore that had a lovely little space. I was with my backpack and a big world map showing my route.

It was very curious. I had my Afghan hat with me. So the first thing people would see when I entered the book fair was this weird guy with an Afghan hat and a backpack, [laughs] selling these little books.

It was a success. Then the big publishing houses from Buenos Aires noticed that. “OK, which was the best-selling book in Mar del Plata’s book fair? What’s this, Hitchhiking in the Axis of Evil? Who is this guy? He doesn’t even have a publisher.”

Then I was published by Del Nuevo Extremo and RBI publishing houses in Argentina and Spain, respectively. I stayed with them like seven years. But during those seven years, social media really changed the way the artists can promote their products.

In Argentina at least, I decided, even though I had contracts to publish my second book, which was Caminos Invisibles or Invisible Routes — even though I had offers, Laura and I decided to just self-publish it because people could directly ask the book from us. We didn’t need a middleman.

That is effective for a middle-size market like Argentina, but probably wouldn’t be the case in the US or the UK or countries which are not my stronghold for followers. That really changed a lot. The decision of switching from published books with a large publishing house to self-publishing through social media afforded us to have a better standard of living. That was definitely the case.

But now it’s again the turn of finding a partner in a publishing house if we want to expand to new markets.

COWEN: Could you imagine doing a big long trip through the United States and maybe Canada? Or is that logistically too difficult and too expensive? Because hitchhiking was much more popular here, say, in the 1960s than it is today.

VILLARINO: No, I think it would definitely be possible. People tend to think — which is normal, of course — that the more expensive a country, then the most difficult or expensive it will be to travel there.

The interesting thing is that, for example, in a country like Norway, which is probably more expensive than the US . . .

COWEN: Sure, much more.

VILLARINO: Yeah, there I have my record. I only spent $30 in 22 days. I think also in this kind of countries, first of all, food in supermarkets is never expensive. Normally, you always receive help from people because they have hitchhiked before, or they have heard about it.

It’s not even necessarily related with the fact that they still hitchhike or not, because no one else is hitchhiking nowadays in Norway or even here, even though here it’s part of the culture that’s in the ’60s. I think it would definitely be doable.

COWEN: After you leave here — Arlington, Virginia — what is your very next country other than Argentina?

VILLARINO: My next planned trip you mean?


VILLARINO: I think in the long . . . not long term, but next year, we want to go back to Africa because we really loved Africa.

COWEN: Where?

VILLARINO: Tanzania.


VILLARINO: That was the place. But I think now there’s a trip I would like to do to a place called Kaliningrad, which is a Russian exclave in mainland Europe.

COWEN: Königsberg, it used to be called in German.

VILLARINO: Königsberg, yeah.

COWEN: That’s where Immanuel Kant lived, yes.

VILLARINO: That’s where Kant lived, exactly.

COWEN: I’ve always wanted to go there.

VILLARINO: Exactly. It’s on my list. What I want to do is, actually, to get 19th-century maps in order to go from Berlin to Königsberg — or Kaliningrad — following the road of old towns which used to have German names but now they have Lithuanian, Polish, or Russian names, and to see what is left from that time.

I have seen there are ruined palaces and ruined Lutheran churches. I want to check that out, and I want to play with this thing of traveling with a 19th-century map.

COWEN: That sounds wonderful.

My very last question, totally obscure.

VILLARINO: [laughs]

COWEN: But tell me, why should I visit Suriname? I’ve long been curious, but what exactly is there that I would find of interest? Suriname, you’ve been there, I haven’t. I said at the beginning, I envy you, and that’s one reason why.

VILLARINO: [laughs] OK, Suriname is a must, I think, for any person who wants to explore a present destination. I mean, if you want to explore a place . . . in this world, everything is explored. But Suriname is a place . . . first of all, people in South America don’t even know anything about Suriname.

The amazing thing is they are probably the only Hindu country in South America. A huge percentage of their population descends from people who were brought as a cheap labor force from either Java by the Dutch or by the British from India. The people from India — they brought their religion with them. Some of them are Muslim, but some of them are also Hindu.

You are traveling on the main road in Suriname and you would see a 20-foot-tall statue of Shiva. Then you will ride to a town, and people are having Javanese food. It’s definitely a melting pot of places that you wouldn’t expect in South America.

COWEN: Again, I’m with Juan Pablo Villarino or Juan Pablo “Viyarino” [with Argentinian pronunciation]. He’s the author of four books, most notably Hitchhiking in the Axis of Evil. Juan Pablo, thank you very much. We all look forward to much more from you in the future.

VILLARINO: Thanks a lot, Tyler, for the opportunity. Last word for the audience: every dream is given to you with the power to make it come true, so go for it.