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The International Writers Magazine
:
People: Justin Breen

Modern Odysseus
Lauren Smith


It seems unlikely that many cars would stop for a lanky, 6-foot-4-inch hitchhiker with wavy hair falling past his shoulders and only a backpack to his name. Yet that is exactly how Justin Breen has traveled the world for the past six or seven years of his life. This 27-year-old took his post-college disillusionment worldwide by relying on luck and the kindness of strangers.


While this might seem an unusual life to pursue, Justin claims he started out "like many Americans who think there’s no better place than the United States." Even considering this admission, he was hardly the average college student. As a creative writing major at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Florida, Justin soon found that nicknaming all of his friends "Johnny" made it difficult to tell a good story without confusing his audience. Between classes, he entertained himself and friends with his epic "Competition of the Week" and "Date of the Week" programs. The competitions included a sundae-making contest (which probably fit in nicely with his all-ice cream diet), a scavenger hunt, and eating a designated, enormous amount of food before his fellow competitor could finish a mini-triathlon.

Soon, his restlessness and love of adventure would become too great to deny. The real catalyst, according to Justin, came through a TV show. While watching "The Crocodile Hunter," he was inspired by Steve Irwin’s fearlessness and the enthusiasm with which he faced every situation. "Yeah it really started when I started watching The Croc Hunter. Just watching him on these crazy adventures, I wanted to go explore and wrestle animals, too. That show inspired me to search the Australian wilderness for lizards, turtles, kangaroos, koalas, sharks, dingoes, leeches, reef fish, and crocodiles."

With this inspiration, Justin set out on his first major voyage to Australia. Here he would experience some of his best and worst moments to date. This adventure would make up the first journal of his adventure log on travelpod.com, entitled Modern Oddysseus. Although he did not notice the misspelling at the time, Justin felt the "odd" part suited him better anyway.

Once in Australia, Justin was lucky enough to work at Irwin’s Australia Zoo and work closely enough with Steve to realize his TV persona was completely genuine. "He wore pretty much the same uniform as on the show only it was olive green instead of khaki. He was always busy, usually doing manual labor of some kind, like helping build a fence with all of the interns and other workers. And he was always so enthusiastic, even answering the phone he would sound so excited like ‘G’day mate! Oh yeah it’s a beautiful day, bet the animals are happy….’ He was so great to talk to." He always had a kind word or a bit of advice for Justin, like which mountain to climb or area to explore. It is no wonder that Irwin’s recent death was a bit more of a shock and heartbreak for Justin than the average "Croc Hunter" fan.

Justin’s own childlike enthusiasm and lack of inhibition led him to his first near-death experience down under. He decided to take a snorkel mask and flippers to go explore a reef by himself. Soon, the tide and crashing waves had pulled him out farther than he realized. He tried to swim in to shore to no avail, and was too intimidated by the waves tossing him around to float with the tide. "At one point I remember looking up and seeing a tour group get off a bus and take pictures for a while and I thought for sure they saw me but then they just got back on and drove away. It was awful." After nearly an hour of struggle, he was washed up on a rock that led to a trail of rocks that led back to the shore. This would be merely the first in a long line of such life-threatening experiences. Justin’s roommate at the time, Ewan Smith, remembers the trip as it was told to him from the safety of his dorm room. "Oh yeah, we were all pretty sure ‘Johnny’ wouldn’t make it back from that trip, but I guess he’s luckier than we thought."

This, along with many other adventures throughout Australia, including attempting to play the didgeridoo with Aborigines, was only the beginning for "Johnny" Breen. Since that inaugural trip in 1999, Justin has traveled through 41 countries, getting to spend time and know 14 of them well. He has also spoken nine languages fluently, although he admits he has lost a few without constant practice. As of right now, he speaks Swedish, Icelandic, Czech, French and Spanish. Yet another way Justin has become a somewhat atypical American, who is proud to possess at most bilingual skills.

While most who hear his stories are amazed at his lack of planning and inhibition, not all find this the most admirable life to lead. Upon each return to the United States, Justin lives with his parents, working at the local Steak n’ Shake just long enough to afford another plane ticket to his next destination. On each adventure, he has only this money and one or two bags of worldly belongings to support himself. Therefore, he often makes friends quickly and relies on their kindness, food and shelter for a few days survival.
At this point, most of Justin’s peers have settled into "real" jobs and maybe even started families. Like many twenty-somethings, they learned that they must suppress their desire for adventure and tame the restlessness of spirit in order to become a responsible, working adult. Justin seems a descendent of Kerouac’s restless traveler’s spirit. He wishes only to experience as much of the beauty, pain and mystery of life as he can through a lifetime of travel. Although some may not understand or appreciate his lifestyle, it seems Justin truly believes that one day all of this travel and experience will provide him with the wisdom and ability to help mankind. Perhaps one day his lack of adult responsibility, and therefore complete lack of cynicism, will inspire readers to remember the spontaneity of youth and to regain faith and trust in others.

An essential feature to Justin’s travel blogs is his Top Five list for each of his adventures, in which he names his favorite, or least favorite, aspects of each city. The lists can represent anything from quality of food, friendliness of natives or reasons never to visit a particular location again. Perhaps this is one of the reasons he found it difficult to pinpoint an overall favorite country. After some thought, he decided his "heart is with Columbia." According to Justin, the Top Five best things about Columbia are peaceful, creative and intellectual people, strong people, things to see, Carlos Vives, and street food (with sweet, lovely girls earning an honorable mention.) "They are such good people, but because their lives are harder than most, they don’t smile as much as they should. I would like to one day maybe go back and help them in some way so they can enjoy life as they should." Such a sentiment makes it hard to believe that his actions are guided by purely selfish wanderlust.

South America was also the location for one of Justin’s favorite memories. He shyly admits that kissing a pretty Argentinean girl was one of his better travel moments. Another favorite occurred halfway around the world when he traveled to the Czech Republic. To earn enough money to live, Justin taught English to high school students several days a week. Eventually, they invited him to their ballroom dancing lessons, where he spent a lot of time that he still treasures. "All of the kids were around 14 or 15 and they are so expressive at that age. The shorter girls were a little intimidated by me at first but ended up cracking jokes and the guys just looked happy to be dancing with the girls at all." Although the waltz was his favorite dance, his recent attempt to use his skills at an American wedding failed miserably. Of course, he still had a good time trying.
Unfortunately, one of his worst memories also happened in Eastern Europe. After hitchhiking illegally into Russia, Justin was taken to a small house where two guards were supposed to keep an eye on him. After a few restless hours sleep, he awoke and was certain he heard them talking about how he must be a rich American and that they should kill him and take his things. Needless to say, he quickly grabbed his things and snuck out the back as quietly as possible.

Such wonderful and horrible experiences have made Justin a seasoned traveler and quite adept at acclimating to foreign cultures. For each language, he would learn the grammar and rules, "which is almost mathematical" usually took him about two days. Then he would try to think and write in his journal in the native language, which sometimes led to frustrated, short entries. Eventually, reading childrens’ books and interacting with friendly locals helped him conquer each one.

The cultural acclimation is a different story. Despite his friendly demeanor, Justin’s physical appearance does not help him blend in with local people. His only advice is to try to pick positive cultures. "When I was in Greece and Russia the atmosphere was so negative I just couldn’t fit." The culture of South America was much more appealing, where "it is different but good, everybody is always happy and dancing." He recommends making as many friends as possible and always accepting an invitation if you are invited somewhere.

For the moment, Justin is trying to acclimate back into American life from his latest Eastern European adventure. He is back at the Steak n’ Shake to save up money for his next destination, tentatively scheduled for Lebanon. Although he sells his stories while traveling in order to survive, he does not plan on selling them in America. "I might publish them one day, but I don’t want any money from them." As a self-pronounced communist, selling his stories would probably only play into the capitalist system. More distant future plans include becoming a philosophical leader and conducting social experiments, beginning with "The Romantic Revolution." This is hardly the accepted career path of a typical young American man.
Perhaps, though, he is a modern Odysseus who, after years of adventure and trials and tribulations, will one day reach the home he was secretly searching for all along. In the meantime, we can live vicariously through his adventures posted at http://modern-o.com/.
© Lauren Smith June 2007
laurenbennettsmith@hotmail.com

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