Wizard, a member of the Vagabonds, an eccentric community of street people, stays on the streets throughout the winter surviving on a mix of alcohol and food donated by passers-by. Fredericiaarhusvejle, Denmark. 22nd February 2011
In the harsh months of winter, when temperatures in Denmark plunge to as low as -20°C, the natural instinct of most residents is to cuddle up in their homes in the evening and avoid the driving gales outdoors.
Wizard, a member of the Vagabonds, an eccentric community of street people, takes the opposite path.He stays in the streets throughout the winter, surviving on a mix of alcohol and food donated by passersby and maintaining his links to the streets he has chosen to call home.
The Vagabonds or “knights of the road” as they are also called are a wandering, homeless people in Denmark that have formed a subculture involving living in the streets. They live without a permanent residence and observe their own code of principles, donning a kind of uniform with medals and badges, and walking the streets with their belongings in decorated prams.
Vagabonds do not use their real names. They prefer using road names which are given in a ceremony where they are soaked in beer. To get a name, a newcomer has to be recommended by at least one of the more elderly baptized Vagabonds. The newcomer should also have been walking on the road for one year and must subscribe to the rules of community.
I first learned of the Vagabonds while doing a study project in Denmark in November 2010. I was intrigued by encounters with two Vagabonds, Wizard and Mursejler with whom I spent five hours while taking pictures of them and interacting. I was surprised at how they lived their life and I was curious to know more about the Vagabonds.
“The peace of mind I get from the life on the road is worth the hardships,” says 40 years old Wizard, a Vagabond for four years. Wizard never prospered in his past life because of what he describes as his ‘relationship’ with alcohol. He lost his carpentry job because of alcohol abuse. He drinks a bottle or two of Vodka daily (whose Alcoholic Volume is 37.5%). His body trembles if he does not drink enough. According to Wizard, alcohol and the lifestyle are damaging the health of many Vagabonds. Very few live to the age of 70, and most of them are quite sick. Vagabonds believe that drinking is important to them, and getting the right amounts in the body makes one talkative and able to approach people to ask for money on the streets.
In February 2011, I communicated to Wizard and explained the idea of doing a visual project and being his partner for weeks on the road. He accepted. The first three days we stayed at a house of a Vagabond called the seven stars in Fredericia city. Most of the time was spent drinking alcohol. At midday we walked to the city center where they begged for money and sold hair combs.
Wizard does not receive money from the government, despite being entitled to it under the welfare system. He prefers to beg, he says, and he has to present himself in such a way that people understand that he needs their help and assistance. I noticed he was able to relate, joke, ask, and communicate with people in a way that makes these people give him what he needs in his everyday life, and be glad to give it.
“It’s an honor to be a Vagabond because of the good treatment I receive from people,” says Wizard, as he empties coins from his coffee pot. When Vagabonds walk together begging, they eventually divide what they have made from well-wishers between themselves.
During winter, many Vagabonds scatter around Denmark. During this time, Wizard walks alone because he does not have a permanent apartment. To him, walking alone is quite a lonely vocation, but he is satisfied with this way of living. “I know all the warm spaces in the streets and I don’t plan to rent an apartment, the road is where I want to be,” he says while pushing his pram which contains his sleeping bags and valuable items.
The next four days we spent at a house of a Vagabond who had a birthday party in Vejle city. It was the first time the Vagabonds were meeting after months apart. The excitement could be seen clearly when drinking and interacting. The party started on a Thursday and it went on until Sunday. The morning was especially hard, due to the hangover from the last day’s drinking. To get rid of the hangovers more alcohol consumption was recommended in the morning hours.
“It’s now a week and I can’t remember where I kept my tooth brush” says Wizard as he refills his cup with vodka. The bathroom was mostly active for peeing but not taking a bath. Eating was an option and food was cooked during the evening only .This was prepared by someone who will not be too much drunk during that day.
The movement of the Vagabonds is usually slow. The distance we walked during the time I spent with Wizard was between 4 km - 10 km a day and almost all the people were waving or honking their horns to greet us as they passed. “These are some of the gestures that help me continue this way of life” Wizard asserted as he waved and smiled back.
When travelling from one city to another, we mostly used the train since it has a reserved space for prams. Sometimes we were not lucky because certain trains you needed to have an early reservation to bring the pram onboard. This made us wait for many hours at the train station because of being denied entry by the train inspector.
Vagabonds need to have a network of friends and good sleeping places in all the cities around Denmark. According to Wizard, Vagabonds don’t stay in one city for more than a week, and it is not advisable to have many of them in the same area. It should take some time before a Vagabond goes back to a given area to avoid boring people, who may develop negative attitudes towards them.
It is -15°C as we arrive in Arhus city, both of us walk to a sheltered parking lot to find a perfect spot for the night. For him it is just another day, but for me it is an experience I have never thought of, considering where I come from (Kenya) where the weather is warm all year round, with plenty of sunshine and cools nights.
Sleeping on the streets during winter was a tough dream but a worthwhile experience. We needed to get off as much clothing as possible from our bodies and remain with long underwear, as too much moisture in ones clothes makes one cold as the moisture evaporates. We put all the clothes inside the sleeping bag for the rest of the night. Wizard never fastened the sleeping bag zipper because according to him, he needed to be ready in case of an attack. Those are some of the important and tough instructions that needed to be followed before sleeping. The sleeping position was quite uncomfortable and since my sleeping bag was not insulated enough for the temperature I had sleepless night and very cold one.
The Vagabond community has their own of chain of command. They elect their own Monarchy, the King, Queen, Crown Prince and princes whose duty is to make sure all Vagabonds live by the rules. When there is a conflict or disagreements among the Vagabonds, it is the highest monarch that has the last word. One has to comply with the rules while on the road. Among the rules are that one has to be courteous to people: not to lie, no hard drugs and not to steal. The rules are summarized to honesty, love and mutual respect.
There are no reliable records on the exact number of Vagabonds in Denmark but according to Wizard, it is estimated that 100 of them are left in the whole of Denmark many of them have died due to cold during winter and excessive alcohol consumption.