Red Bull Can You Make It?!
Three American students try to make their way from Budapest to Paris without money, credit cards or mobile phones
I don't know if the Red Bull Can You Make It?! challenge was the first of its kind, but it was the first time I'd ever heard of one.
The team was Brett Morell, Will Lawton, and myself. Three juniors in college, studying together at New York University in Prague; one might say with stars in our eyes. The week-long challenge pitted 200 teams of three college students each in a rat race from one of five starting points (Rome, Madrid, Budapest, Manchester, or Berlin) to arrive in Paris, France on Halloween. Teams would compete by trying to maximize three criteria:
1. The most kilometers traveled over the week. Self-explanatory.But there was a catch. At the starting point, Red Bull locked away our cash, credit cards, and mobile phones, leaving us with nothing. We were given one tray of 24 Red Bulls, and the opportunity to gain a tray at each of 35 possible checkpoint cities throughout Europe. We were also given blue Red Bull neck lanyards, relatively official, and a faux Red Bull Passport that needed to be stamped at each checkpoint to maximize our score. Red Bull drinks would be our currency for the next week, bringing new meaning to liquidity amid the downward-spiraling global markets.
2. The most checkpoint cities visited. Each team had to complete a mission of sorts at each checkpoint. The reward -- a new tray of Red Bulls. And when you got really lucky, a sandwich.
3. The most fans/votes on our team's online blog. The blog had to be updated daily. In the end, it was clear that this feature existed solely for our parents' amusement and sanity.
We joined this competition, officially, about 48 hours before it began. We created our entry video, after Paul, a friend in our dorm, announced he had signed up for this "dope" competition with a few friends studying in Italy. It was going to be "sick." He's one of the nicest guys I've met, save his tendency to hold me hostage on YouTube when I gave him a chance. So, I thought, if Paul was getting to traverse across Europe at a fool's pace and zero expense in a competition that perfectly coincided with our fall break, why wasn't I? Red Bull wasn't accepting any more American teams, so Brett, Will, and I registered on behalf of the Czech Republic and TeamCzechmate from Prague was conceived. Regardless, we were still representing the red, white, and blue.
What follows is a collection of advice, stories, and occasionally silly blog entries from our Red Bull adventure.
Before beginning the challenge in Budapest, we each had our backpacks, sleeping bags, granola, water, pretzels, peanuts (regular and chili), six Snickers bars, bread, budget Hungarian Nutella, salami, cookies, crackers, sesami-snacks, and stomachs full of Burger King -- a final lunch before forfeiting our debit cards. I had two pairs of socks, my flat-footed topsiders, and a headlamp. That first day, clawing our way out of Budapest, we learned the secret to asset-less travel: charm.
It can't really be described in one word, like those posters that announce "Teamwork" beneath the crew of an eight-man rowing shell. It was pure capitalism, and it works in the former Eastern Bloc. With 40 minutes until the ticket window closed at the Budapest bus depot, we had 24 Red Bulls and no means to leave the country. "We're going to sell these now," says Brett in a last-ditch effort. I grab a can, approach an older-looking, well-dressed man on a bench and begin my pitch.
He gives us 15 euros, just like that. Doesn't even want a drink. Was about to give us 20 until his angel of a wife hissed something into his ear. As it turns out, most Hungarians I encountered hated Red Bull and gave us money anyway to help with the competition. The method was simple: engage with genial English, disarm (most important), and throw your best pitch. It helps to make them laugh, but in Hungary this is not so easy. Explain the competition, propose buying a Red Bull, explain why three euros is a steal and cross your fingers.
Thirty-nine minutes later we're crowded around the ticket counter, the blinds half drawn, and we're begging the Hungarian woman behind the glass partition to accept the 42 euros we had just raised for three bus tickets to Vienna, Austria. She hisses something, icing over her half of the divider, and counts the colored bills and heavy coins with the bothered impatience of a bookie. We got the tickets and ran through the bus station cheering like lunatics.
On hitchhiking in Europe
You have to realize our parents were lucky. In 1975, in the midst of an economic/energy crisis eerily parallel to our own, my dad was a senior at a small boarding school in Marion, Mass. The drinking age was 18, students were allowed to smoke outside of certain buildings, and on weekends he would walk down to the gas station just outside of campus and hitchhike out to Cape Cod. Groovy stuff.
In 2006, I was a cliché, excuse me, senior, at another New England boarding school, from which I would have been expelled for partaking in any of the above frivolities. Different times. More restrictions and more worries, despite improved anti-anxiety prescriptions. Not only had the drinking age been pegged back to 21, but also decades of evening news nightmares had effectively tainted hitchhiking as taboo, even illegal.
Our first attempt at hitchhiking was from Graz, Austria to Munich, Germany. We left the Red Bull checkpoint in Graz at 7:30pm, and in four hours rode with five separate drivers, never waiting more than five minutes in between rides. We drove with two beautiful Red Bull checkpoint girls, who felt pity and brought us to a filling station. There was Christian, the Austrian microchip designer who knew of my obscure home village, Noank, in southeastern Connecticut. Then there was Roman, the first Polish publisher of crossword puzzles and TV guides, also an airplane pilot, who drove us from Salzburg to Munich averaging 150 mph on the Autobahn. It was cloudy in Munich so I couldn't see any stars aligned, but our luck had almost seemed pre-ordained. No eagles though.
Scaling and entering: still scary for the neighbors
When looking for a place to sleep in Munich, I recommend not scaling the drainpipe to the second floor outdoor deck of your teammate's German-boarding-school buddy's apartment. If you do and he is not home, I suggest you do not throw his hammock over the side of the porch so it is easier for your two full-sized male teammates to scale the side of the apartment building. If you do, I highly suggest treading lightly on said porch. I especially recommend not waking up any elderly, female, first-floor tenants who might live in the dark apartment below because when she finally works up the courage to throw open her screen door and scream in scared German, well, you'd better hope she can holler a little English as well. When you finally calm her down and convince her not to call the police, leave the premises immediately. Do not ask if you can still stay and sleep on the deck -- Will -- and remember to write your teammate's German-boarding-school buddy a subtle thank-you note around Christmas time.
Blog Entry: Don't Forget to Curb the Hubris on the Way to Innsbruck
When in Innsbruck, Day 3
From: Team Czechmate
October 27, 2008
Today we learned the dual nature of fortune's wheel.
Task point Munich in a nutshell: it was hard, really hard. You'd imagine a bit of consistency amongst checkpoints regarding difficulty -- Vienna took 15 minutes -- but leave it to the Germans to throw us for a loop.
Honestly, we were simply spoiled from Vienna, so having to actually travel all over München for our challenge was not exactly appealing. Here's what happened. We infuriated the spirit of Lady Bavaria. The statue, actually, but I'm still convinced she is possessed. William decided it would be cute to pour two cans of Red Bull into a perfectly wonderful German beer to make it "better" for pictures while standing underneath Lady Bavaria's bronze flanks. Bavaria's beer goddess was right there, watching, and William brazenly taints her beverage of choice. Maybe you are not aware, but that's like Crocodile Dundee pissing into a kiwi. Such poor manners simply never bode well.
It took almost two hours of sweaty jogging around Munich to complete the challenge. For lunch we purchased 6 euro ($7.65) burgers from McDonald's. To add another disappointment in Munich, there were no lovely Red Bull assistants as was the case in Budapest and Graz.
Lady Bavaria set her revenge in motion in the form of a ride from outer Munich to a petrol/food stop just before the split to Innsbruck-Salzburg. Ahhh, so convenient, we thought, we'll have no problem getting a ride from here. Well, 15 minutes passed, no luck, then a half-hour, 45 minutes, an hour, an hour and a half, two hours... Nothing but cold glares and "ahhh zno we travelz to munchien."
This cruel twist of fate is partly my fault as well. Yesterday William was worried I got too cocky with a blog post that stated, "And they said it would be hard for three grownish men to hitchhike."
The combination of my hubris and Will's cultural absentmindedness finally caught up to us. It seemed like Lady Bavaria wanted us to get a good, long, long, long look at her beloved countryside. A time out of sorts.
Well, now it's been three hours and still no one will take us to Innsbruck. This just isn't fun anymore. All the friendly people were going in the opposite direction, or had sorry excuses like "families" or "cars full of luggage." Pathetic.
And now the sun sets. The temperature drops at least 10 degrees. The cars continue to pour through the petrol station, marching one after another. We entertain ourselves watching the Germans, distinguishable by their European Union "D" (Deutschland) license plates, as they pull up to the petrol pump, tank on the wrong side, and proceed to drag the nozzle across their car's hood and jam it into the hole.
It's been four hours now and we've taken up identifying constellations from the curb in front of the station. Another car with Austrian plates and the distinguishing "I" -- for Innsbruck -- pulls into the pump. There is nothing to lose, so I begin to walk towards the car as Brett reminds me to "use the big Red Bull sign we stole today."
A young man emerges from the white Škoda, and an attractive woman exits from the passenger side.
"Excuse me, sir, are you traveling to Innsbruck this evening?" I unfold the sign, exposing the Red Bull cow, and continue, "Because were compet-"
"Holy craps," yells the man with an Austrian accent, "I wanted to do that so bad; it looked so fun! You and your friends need the ride to Innsbruck, right?"
"Uh, well that-"
But he's already walking towards me; arms wide open with the biggest smile on his face. His woman friend is laughing too.
"You come with us to Innsbruck tonight. We'll take you!" he interrupts.
Lady Bavaria must have been appeased. We didn't care if they wanted to dice us into 1,000 tiny pieces; we had a ride out of that damn cow pasture.
And Hemingway was right, the sun also rises.
It didn't take driving past the original Swarovski crystal factory in the mountainous valley of Tirol to realize that we had found a true diamond in the rough. But we did it anyway.
Fanciful feasts: on being a guest in Austria when the going gets good
Coldplay's Parachutes was playing on the stereo when I woke up. I looked out the window above my bed onto the highest peaks of Innsbruck's Nordkette mountain range. In the distance some peaks were blanketed with snow, reaching towards the sky and soaring where only eagles dare.
And then the song changed. "Is this the real life, is this just fantasy? Caught in a landslide, no escape from reality." Good morning to you too, Mr. Mercury.
Our hosts, Jakob Seewald and Stefanie Praouer, were the finest that Austria could ever offer. The smell of cappuccino drifted in from the kitchen. Another 10 minutes of sleep couldn't hurt, I rationalized, and, as I drifted away, the absurdity of the previous night kept me half-dreaming, half-awake.
"Well you can stay with us. We'll cook dinner and have something to drink," Jakob offered as we came into Innsbruck.
His words were heaven to our ears.
The smell of their tiny, clean apartment was a welcome contrast to the manure fields of Bavaria. Stef began cooking, and soon the rooms were filled with the wonderful scent of simmering onions and vegetables.
And they had towels. Glorious towels that we could use… after we showered. What a concept.
Soon it was dinner, and Stef carried a giant, stainless cauldron of pasta with cheese and vegetables to the table. Jakob served sparkling wine in his plus-sized wine goblets.
We ate at least three servings each and enjoyed stories of extraordinary travel and exceptional circumstances.
And then dinner was finished. "But do you want dessert?" asked Stef.
"Yes, please," our stomachs grumbled.
Two bowls of organic ice cream apiece, one doused in homemade chocolate sauce, the other in a rare South African olive oil that Stef's uncle had brought back on a trip some months back. The combination was unreal -- the perfect fusion of sweet trailed by a lingering, salty afterthought.
This was heaven, or at least the Austrian equivalent. Pure, unadulterated deliciousness.
Stef had a big day ahead of her so we said goodnight and took a picture together. Will, Brett, Jakob, and I retreated to the porch overlooking Innsbruck's mountain range, under a sharp sky scattered with familiar constellations. Jakob taught us about Austria, the culture, politics, and also his family's farm. He told us where he would have gone had he done the competition, wearing lederhosen across Europe and hitching as many tractor rides as possible. Jakob and Stef took us in from the curb and treated us like family; one day we hope we can return the favor.
Blog entry: reflections from Shitzerland when the going actually gets tough
The Bridge to Shitzerland
From: Team Czechmate
October 29, 2008
Nothing better highlights the manic depressive nature of our luck than our adventures past the bridge to nowhere after leaving Innsbruck the other night. One night in Innsbruck we're dining on home-cooked pasta and ice cream soaked in rare, South African olive oils, the next, well…
This night is one of those cold, drizzly hemorrhoids of a night that seems to seep its way through every down feather, depositing a glaze of mist on my eyebrows like morning dew on leaves of grass. Sounds beautiful, feels miserable. This was not the night to be stranded without shelter in Switzerland.
It is midnight when the two businessmen across the truck-stop bar decide to leave. They are our ride to the border. Lenay and her Red Bull camera crew had long since abandoned us in search of alternating currents and Wi-Fi connections.
Brett, Will and I are back to basics, again traveling alone on foot.
We have made our journey from Innsbruck to just shy of the Swiss border over the evening but it is slow traveling. Hitchhiking is like that. You never write your own timetables when depending on the sympathy of strangers. So if the two businessmen could take us to the border and nowhere farther, we'd sure as hell take it.
They drop us off next to a bridge. The sign reads "Rhein." The ride over from the gas station was quick; maybe 10 minutes mostly spent talking about Bode Miller's "dangerous" style that the Austrians seem to adore so much.
The overcast sky is dark and the chronic drizzle persists like a stinging cough. It falls down, down on our backpacks and into the Rhine as we cross the concrete bridge to Shitzerland on foot.
My topsiders, those fantastic flat-footed boat shoes that Brett warned me against wearing, are sucking up water like a Trenton hook… err. I watch helplessly as, every stride or so, the saturation mark creeps farther and farther back from toe to ankle. But the novelty of forging the Rhein is too fresh, our spirits have yet to be dampened…just my feet.
On the other side of the bridge a border guard emerges from a checkpoint and demands passports.
"Oh, oh, oh, will you stamp mine?" I ask. What novelty.
We speak with the female guard -- who seems quite nice -- about the village locale and the possibility of finding a hostel or hotel room for that night. But she coldly informs us there are none.
So after taking a rest under the dry border-awning, on cold concrete, we continue our march past the Rhein.
The first night in Switzerland.
We walk through the quiet, sleeping town for an hour in vain. Finally we find the train station (a quiet, unlit, open-air awning) our only and best protection from the rain, though, not the cold or the wind. At 5am a train will leave for Zurich.
It is now 2am.
So we sit, under the awning, and we climb into our sleeping bags and sit upright for the next three hours, fighting the temptation to close our eyes in this quaint Alpine town.
Will wants to catch the 5am train but I argue against it. Brett supports me. It'd be 80 euros and we could likely hitch a ride in the morning. So Will lets himself fall asleep on the cold floor. No matter where we are, Will sleeps like an Austrian princess. Shitzerland is no exception.
Suddenly I shoot upwards, startled by the sound of a car engine. It is 4am -- I had passed out for an hour and it was raining harder now. I couldn't let that happen again.
Brett was up now, just as miserable. There are shooting pains in my ankle from resting on the concrete through my bag.
The air is damper too, colder.
In my bag now, almost fully propped upright, I think of home and my bed in Prague -- with clean sheets that I had freshly made in anticipation of a drowsy return. I think about skydiving, the mundane nature of Sudoku, and Pancake, my family's black cat that was ironically run over by a pickup last summer. I am going deliriously nutty -- sounds like a good candy bar though -- from a lack of sleep.
It seems this place across the Rhine evokes the saddest and most regretful memories of recent past. I have to get out.
"Will, we'll take the 5am train," I say, changing my stance. Brett nods his head, buried in his hands. He is going mad too.
We all need out. Cost is no deterrence.
The station lights turn on at 4:45am and soon after we leave on the first train for Zurich.
TGV bathroom etiquette
If you want to travel Europe for free, you're going to have to get smart with trains.
They are a priceless resource, but usually very expensive. When we left Vienna for Graz, we had enough euros for one ticket, so we bought it. While Brett enjoyed the cabin, Will and I shared the bathroom for 2.5 hours. This was my philosophy; it also worked on the trip from Bern to Geneva later that week. As you approach the train, try and count how many conductors are standing outside of the cars. Locate as many bathrooms as possible. Don't let the conductor see you, ever. It's always best to keep your luggage on hand, but don't let it draw attention. Stand outside of a restroom clutching your stomach and stumble in. Lock the door and flush every 20 minutes. If you're traveling through Eastern Europe, Spanish is a great asset, because few speak it. If the conductor insists on entering the bathroom, shout, "¡Estoy enfermo! ¡Lo que quema! ¡Ughhhhh!" You need to be an actor here, just play it cool, sound sick and every time you leave the bathroom, clutch your stomach again and run back in. Works great, no one dares bother you. Pay attention to the stops and get ready to flush and run when you hear your own.
Sometimes, you just have to lie. We would have never made it to Geneva for free on a TGV train from Bern had the conductor not taken pity on us. You see, I told her that our families were staying in Geneva for two nights, one of which was the previous night. It's important to moderate your breathing and intensity of tone. You need to sound desperate and disparaged. After explaining the competition, and our desire to see our families who traveled so far from America, we were welcome to stand in the companionway for the entire trip. I don't like lying, but it's easier than spending a night outside in the rain.
And don't forget to call your mother
After completing our challenge in Bern, Switzerland, we made our way to the train station to go to Geneva. On the platform we met the Gutmans, a seemingly well-off couple from northern New Jersey. The husband was a loud, small, bald man. He wore a Burberry trench coat and answered his Blackberry every five minutes to discuss sales of his company's stock-trading platforms.
His wife, a bit taller, had the kind, blonde affect of a prep-school mother -- she wore the big sunglasses, nice clothes, and dangling gold jewelry, and spoke with the comfort and concern of a mom.
"When was the last time you all spoke with your mothers?" she asks sternly.
We look at each other, all knowing the answer and not wanting to be the first to admit.
"Oh Jesus, Jonathan," she hits her husband's shoulder with a copy of the International Herald Tribune; he is buried in his Blackberry. "Their mothers must be worried sick. Give them your crackberry and let them write their mothers!"
Mothers always know best.
On October 29, we crossed the Rhein on foot sometime around 2am, and in one day we traversed Zurich, Bern and finally Geneva. In Geneva it was Will's mother, our biggest fan, who set us up with her good friend Maya.
As it turned out, Maya was the official head of Americans Abroad in Geneva for Obama. Scattered across her kitchen table were hundreds of assorted Barack Obama presidential pins. With less than a week until the election I couldn't believe I had the opportunity to begin my Obama-flair collection, once again without spending any precious euros. We each left the next morning with a handful of stickers, pins, and a plan.
That day we traveled to Lyon. In the past eight years, I've only heard nightmare stories of hostility towards Americans traveling through France. So we each put an Obama pin on the front strap of our backpacks and proceeded into France. The effect was almost immediate.
Random people on the streets, the Red Bull girls, our competition, they all loved the pins. They all loved Obama! A handful of French men and women tried to buy them off of us and we actually sold one for 8 euros. Amazing, as only Brett spoke patchy French, but at least we weren't considered imperialist villains. And finally, the abilities of American iconography were put to the ultimate test.
We crossed the park from the Lyon checkpoint to the train station and let Obama do the real work. We found a conductor dressed in blues and explained our story. Of course, he loved our pins. Suddenly there were two conductors, three, now four TGV conductors dressed in their blue suits with black trim eagerly listening to the circumstances of our trip.
"Will you help us to Paris, today?" we pleaded.
They spoke in rapid-fire French, and then the dark-haired woman spoke.
"You will wait here for an hour. We will come back," she instructed with a wink.
And in an hour she returned, grabbed one of the three trays in our possession and guided us out of the waiting lounge and down an escalator. It was on that descent I saw a crowd of nine TGV conductors and controllers talking and pointing. We approached the crowd, and a tall black man stepped towards us.
"Two can travel in front, one in back. Enjoy your trip."
Quickly I looked over my shoulder, and couldn't stop myself from smiling at the sight of a Hungarian CYMI team with their faces pressed up against the lounge's glass window, jaws dropped, glaring in jealousy.
He began walking away in strict fashion, paused, and turned around. He pressed the palms of his hands together and said in broken English.
"We hope for Obama too. Pray for change."
Red Bull Can You Make It?
Yes we can.
• We believe Team Czechmate placed 10th out of between 100 and 200 competing teams. We traveled 2,200 kilometers (1,373 miles) in six days, and accumulated nearly 400 fans
Red Bull Can You Make It?!
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Sam Greenfield is a third-year student at New York University majoring in Metropolitan Studies. He is from Noank, Connecticut. A version of this article was written for the Travel Writing class at New York University in Prague.
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