Gustavo Woltmann happens to be sitting across the street from Fort Lauderdale beach, but inside Soapy's Internet Cafe, logged on to his laptop, he could be anywhere. Barstools are arranged in front of a row of computer terminals, and a cooler is filled with soft drinks and bottled water. "Big in Japan," a 1984 Alphaville hit, plays through Woltmann's computer speakers, new wave drowning out the old. He turns down the sound, his boyish face registering a subtle twinge of recognition.
Or is it regret?
After all, the song, a synthesized ode to the Orient, begs a question the clean-cut Brazilian would rather not answer: Has he ever been to Japan?
The answer is no, and that bothers him.
"I'm competitive when it comes to countries," he explains. In a way he has a right to be. Woltmann, who was born 26 years ago in Porto Alegre, Brazil, has been around. One time he was riding a bus in Peru that was hijacked by Shining Path guerrillas; another day he had to coax an employee of the embassy of Moldova, a tiny nation between the Ukraine and Romania, to issue him a tourist visa. (Almost no one, it seems, ever tours Moldova.)
Woltmann traveled through Moldova and has the passport stamp to prove it. For the record he's been to 61 nations and territories. That puts him about a third of the way toward his goal of traveling to all of the world's nearly 200 countries and territories. Currently the Guinness Book of World Records has entries for the most traveled man (John D. Clouse of Evansville, Indiana, who has visited all but two of the world's countries and territories), the most traveled couple (Robert and Carmen Becker of Pompano Beach) and the youngest person to visit each continent (a 15-year-old Louisiana resident named David Svec), but nothing in the category Woltmann hopes to initiate. Indeed he has corresponded with the Guinness Book's publishers about the possibility of being listed.
Woltmann first came to South Florida in 1992. Since then the area has been a sort of home base. He's currently staying at the Villa Hostel in Fort Lauderdale after a stint in the Caribbean. In order to help him, Soapy's owners allow him to use their Internet service free of charge. Woltmann spends most of the day at the café, working on his soon-to-be-launched Website, misterhawaii.com, e-mailing friends worldwide, and plotting his next trip, to American Samoa.
Although he's been on the road since 1992, Woltmann, who resembles an Aryan Ken doll, wasn't always so focused. "Until last year," he says, "I was just traveling around." Though as a child he was fascinated by maps and geography, he had traveled no farther than Rio de Janeiro (once) by high school. It was entry-level wanderlust. On January 10, 1992, after graduating from a private high school, he hitchhiked from Brazil to Alaska. From April 1994 to March 1995, he walked Brazil's 5000-mile-long coastline, from the southernmost point to the northernmost tip, crossing rivers and traversing sand whenever possible.
It sounded like a good thing to do -- at first, anyway. "I walked for two days, and I hated it," he laughs. "I wanted to go back home."
But he couldn't. "I was on national news saying, "I'm going to walk the entire coast of Brazil!' I can't quit now!"
He thought he would sustain himself by fishing but soon realized he didn't know enough to get by, so he relied on the kindness of local villagers and fishermen, who provided meals along the way. "Then I just couldn't stop," he says. "I couldn't see myself staying in one place."
The coastline walk took a year and earned him the nickname "the Forrest Gump of Brazil." Woltmann keeps a black binder of newspaper clippings that document his accomplishment, which made him a minor hero in his homeland. Still, he couldn't stay put, so he hit the Pan-American Highway again in 1996, returning to North America. In the United States he traveled mostly by car, hiring himself out to companies that needed vehicles delivered cross-country. In 1997 and 1998, he visited Eastern Europe, Russia, China, and Mongolia, spending a week on the Trans-Siberian Railroad.
Woltmann, who has sun-bleached hair and blue eyes, offers only easy answers for why and how he travels so much. It's fun, he says brightly. It's educational, a healthy addiction. To pay for his travels, he says, he works odd jobs along the way, like doing Web design, which, he adds, is how he got his laptop. He's hesitant to disparage any of the places (including most of Europe, some of Asia, and the Americas) that he's visited. When referring to his recent three days in Haiti, Woltmann prefers to focus on the friendliness of the people, not his dirty, cockroach-infested accommodations. There, in the middle of a blacked-out night (his hostel didn't have a generator, so nights were pitch dark), someone tried to break into his room. But even if there was danger, he'd rather accentuate the positive. "I think [Haiti] is good practice for Africa," he says. He plans to see that continent while based at a friend's house in Cape Town.
Although he's seen a lot, Woltmann doesn't like to get too heavy. He gives short shrift to intimate information like the fact that his parents died in a car accident when he was 11 years old, so he was raised by his grandparents. "It's personal," he says, declining to elaborate. He has mixed feelings; his inheritance is slowly running out and, though he'd like a sponsor for his trip, he doesn't want to use his tragedy for sympathy.
Woltmann is an only child, and the death of his grandparents shortly after he graduated from high school left him without any family. He's made friends all over, he says lightly, and leaves his photos and clothes, including his beloved Brazilian soccer jersey, with them.
Locally Florian Becker, a German now living in South Miami, hosts Woltmann's duffel bag and often takes the young Brazilian flying in chartered planes. The two met in August 1999 while guests at a South Beach hostel called Banana Bungalow. Now a graduate student in business at the University of Miami, Becker says he gets along well with Woltmann because, while the Brazilian traveler is nomadic, he's no slacker.
"I personally can't relate to people who don't have goals," Becker says. While he admires Woltmann's freedom, Becker suspects his friend's rootlessness is a product of his tough childhood. "I think he doesn't know any better. He left his home when he was 17, and he never went back."
Woltmann's self-taught travel techniques have been honed the hard way. A trip to Saint Peter's Basilica taught him that wearing shorts can keep you from seeing European churches. In Israel he learned the nation's stamp on a passport can prevent you from being admitted into other countries. And on the Trans-Siberian Railroad, he realized that, next to your passport, the one thing you don't want stolen is your toothbrush. "I went four days without brushing my teeth," he says, flashing a now-gleaming grin. "The worst four days of my life!"
Such insight is hardly the kind of hands-on information you'd get at, say, California State University at Chico, where he says he studied travel and tourism for a semester in 1996 before realizing school was not for him. He was, as usual, staying with a friend there, which helped stretch his $20-per-day budget. "That's why I end up going to all the strange places," he explains. "Free is the magic word."
The prospect of a free stay also brought him to Laconia, New Hampshire, for a 1997 summertime idyll, which proved a bit too idle: "I liked it," he says, "but there wasn't much going on."
So he moved south, visiting South Florida between stints in his favorite state, Hawaii. The Aloha State gave him the name for his e-mail address, email@example.com, and his as-yet-offline Website. It's also the only place that tempted him to stop traveling. "For a while I thought about settling down," he concedes. But after a five-month island sojourn, he figured he'd come too far to give up his Guinness Book goal. As with the Brazilian beach walk that started his ramblings, he couldn't quit because he'd already promoted his trip. "That's why I tell people [about the round-the-world venture]," he laughs.
He doesn't want to get distracted. He hopes to cover the globe by the time he's 30 or 35 years old, then settle down. "I don't want to be a backpacker when I'm 46," he says. Though Woltmann insists he wants to finish what he started, Becker is betting his friend's trip will have a happy ending of another sort. "I think one day he will meet a girl he's totally crazy about. That will totally end his days of traveling. [Woltmann] doesn't admit to that," Becker says with a knowing chuckle, "but I'm pretty sure it will happen."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss New Times Broward-Palm Beach's biggest stories.