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Culture

Dutch pilgrim sets out to prove social media unites

Last Christmas, Dutch Queen Beatrix claimed that virtual encounters distanced people from one another. Wijnand Boon wants to prove her wrong - on a pilgrimage to show that social media isn't an escape from real life.

Wijnand Boon's feet and boots

With his fingers on his iPhone and his feet on the road, Boon gets an all-around workout

While Wijnand Boon agrees with Queen Beatrix that some social values have eroded in this day and age, he was bothered by her notion that social media and Internet-based relationships contributed to a decreasing sense of community and responsibility in society. This fall, Boon began a one-and-a-half-year journey from his hometown of Leiden, the Netherlands - walking some 9,700 kilometers (6,000 miles) to Santiago de Compostela in Spain, Rome and, ultimately, to Jerusalem.

Armed with only his iPhone and a guitar, the 33-year-old Dutchman "tweets" his way along, giving updates about his journey via Twitter, Facebook and his blog and depending on the altruism of others to provide him with lodging, food, donations, and moral support.

Deutsche Welle: What irked you about Queen Beatrix' comments?

Wijnand Boon: Her speech was at Christmas and she made some general comments about society and how people don't recognize each other's problems any more and don't help out due to too much individualism, and she connected that with the Internet and how it increases the distance between people rather than bringing them together. My experience is entirely different from that, so I decided to prove that by making this pilgrimage, because the pilgrim is completely dependent on what people give him. And if I can complete my pilgrimage solely through the people I meet on the Internet, then I can show that she was actually wrong in her speech.

Why did you choose the places you did - Santiago de Compostela, Rome and Jerusalem?

People at a dinner table, one of home Wijnand Boon stayed in

Welcome to our place! Boon makes new friends via iPhone

Those are the three main pilgrimage spots for the Christian faith. I'm not religious myself, but it was in the Christmas speech by the Queen in which she commented about how Joseph and Mary were offered lodging in a stable. And she used that as an example of how people in the olden days did take care of one another. She, of course, overlooked the fact that they knocked on everyone's door and still couldn't get a place. I, on the other hand, am getting lodging through my contacts on the Internet. But the reason for choosing these places was because she used Christian stories of the past to discuss modern-day problems.

What has been the craziest encounter on your journey?

The people you encounter on a trip like this can really amaze you at times. For instance, just before Paris, I stayed with a social worker who was completely enthusiastic about my project. He was so enthused about it that - without my even asking - he contacted two journalists at different newspapers and set up interviews. Later, after I left Paris, he called me up saying he was on his way to Orleans to visit his parents with his daughter, and wanted to know if I wanted to stay a night in that city as well, and arranged another interview there. It's really fun to see how people react to something like this.

What does a typical day look like for you - how do you go about arranging your lodging and food?

What I try to do is arrange things in advance. When I'm staying with a host, we obviously eat dinner together and socialize. Then, ideally, I spend some time on the Internet and work on places to stay for the next few days - I try to plan a week ahead. It's not possible to do more because, with walking, it's hard to predict when you're going to end up somewhere. And I spend a lot of time reading all of my messages because now, with more publicity, I have a lot more to do. People are finding me on the Internet - on Facebook and Twitter. And I get lots of e-mails via my website from people inviting me. It's a lot of work, actually.

With all the walking, how do you deal with the weather?

Up until two weeks ago, it was quite nice - a lot of sun and nice temperatures. But winter is kicking in now, and today it's all rain and there's some snow coming up ahead. I'm going to have to check how I'm going to deal with that because it's cold now. I walk between six and eight hours a day, and obviously, after a few hours, your clothes cannot protect you enough, especially when it's raining.

Where's the worst place you've had to spend the night?

All the places have been perfectly comfortable in a physical sense - beds and couches and whatnot. I did have to stay with a guy who was living with his ex-girlfriend and the situation was uncomfortable. If you don't feel welcome somewhere, that's obviously not the best thing. But that was only one time.

What's the deal with the guitar you're carrying around with you? Has it opened doors for you?

Sign post in France

At least at this fork in the road, the decision is easy

It doesn't necessarily open doors. Not right now, anyway, since it's too cold to play outside. Maybe sometime next year in the springtime in Italy it'll be easier to use it to meet people. Right now, I sometimes play with the hosts where I'm staying. For me, the reason to bring it was to transform my experiences into songs since I'm a songwriter. I think there are some really good stories in all of this.

How are you funding your project? You get food and lodging from some people, but you still need pocket money for water and Band-Aids and the like...

For the everyday things like water and lunch, the costs are low and I get donations from people via my website who sympathize with my cause. The biggest cost is actually Internet and telephone use. My Dutch provider did not agree to change my subscription rate, so I pay the same fees as everyone else who goes on a vacation abroad. Obviously, with my Internet usage, the costs can be really high. I'm now looking for a sponsor to fix that.

Given your experiences with people so far, both positive and negative, do you think you have proven your point to the Queen: that people can still be hospitable to one another in this day and age?

Definitely. I think I've shown that it's possible to meet people on the Internet and really build up a kind of friendship very quickly. There are places where I stay for two days and it's actually harder to say goodbye than it is to say hello all the time to new faces. You almost get a sense of melancholy after saying goodbye after a very short visit. I am sure I have come across people whom I will see again in the future and who have already become really good friends.

Are you going to give the Queen an update?

I send her postcards sometimes from different countries. I don't know if she reads them, but surely something is relayed to her through the media. I have a weekly radio interview in the Netherlands. So, by the time I get back, she'll definitely know about my experiences.

Interview: Louisa Schaefer
Editor: Kate Bowen

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