The European latter day hippies, the vagrant vagabonds scrimping from hostel to hostel, the yuppie Ivy Leaguers on their spring break, champion Kenyan marathon runners, American Muay Thai kickboxers in training, German magicians, Filipino musicians, poets and prophets, and then there’s Manuel “Tote” Gallardo – a free-spirited cross between a Caribbean pirate and an Aboriginal bushman with a true humanitarian soul in every sense of the word. A self-proclaimed “international homeless” nomad, Tote is on a globe trekking quest for self-fulfillment achieved through the wide-eyed wonder and beaming grins he elicits from the orphaned and sick children he teaches around the world, whom he calls family.
“I don’t have family. My family is all the children around me,” Tote says in an intense Amazonian accent while reaching in his bag for photographs of children across the globe to whom he has taught his technique of finger painting on glass.
From the apartheid townships of Cape Town, the cancer clinics of Vladivostok and the land mine rehabilitation centres of Cambodia to the jungles of Papua New Guinea, the missions of Fiji and the deathbed wards of New Caledonia, Tote has journeyed through 76 countries across five different continents spreading his benevolence and promoting his art to underprivileged children living in the most remote corners of the Earth.
In 2018 alone, Tote ventured through over 20 countries, making it his challenge to visit each and every Pacific state starting with New Caledonia, Fiji, Tonga, Vanuatu and Papua New Guinea.
With the sense that his mission, as an ambassador of goodwill, is accomplished when seeing the eyes of the children when they’re happy, Tote feels that his life is solely about the experience.
“I have no material, three times nothing, you know. I am happy like that. You know, I am really happy. Less I have, more happy.”
“I am born in Roraima,” he says with a distinct roll of the tongue.
“Rorororararaima,” he repeats it, even more distinctly in case you missed it the first time.
“It is a place in the Amazonian jungle,” he continues without being anymore precise, so I surmise he is either Brazilian, Venezuelan, Peruvian or any combination of the three.
“You can write whatever you like,” he says with a hearty laugh.
“My first trip is at 16 when I just cross the opposite side of the Orinoco river in a canoe into the jungle on the Colombian side, so all my life I’ve travelled,” he explains in his wildly animated tone.
“My philosophy in life is to travel, don’t ask me why. I don’t know why. Because I want to. Because I don’t like to stay in one place. When coming the routine, pshew,” he whistles, snaps his fingers and waves his hand in a fleeting, parting gesture, “I have to go, like international homeless.”
Just as the routine was catching up with him in Phuket, and, as a monumental music aficionado, chronic concert goer and die-hard fan of Keith Richards, whose worn and wrinkled autobiography he carries with him like a sacred bible, he talks me into attending the last leg of the Stones’ On Fire Asian tour with him in Macau. Following the concert, Tote stays on in Hong Kong and goes to work selling his art on the streets of Kowloon.
“When working on the street, you interact with the people, you know,” he says producing a letter received from a 15-year-old Hong Kong admirer.
“Hong Kong lady, 15 years old, she don’t know me, I don’t know her, but she gives me this letter, and her sister painted this one. And, my friend, these Hong Kong people are amazing.”
He turns and speaks to a customer shouting out an order from the onlooking crowd then takes a pane of glass out of his bag and begins smearing a dab of midnight blue paint on its surface with his middle finger.
“Well, my friend, this is like a spiritual life, you know, a philosophy.”
Tote finds that in most societies people keep to themselves and don’t open up easily, but once he strikes up a conversation and shows them his art, they are very receptive. Art is universal and he uses it to connect with people the world over.
– Gregg Greening
Gregg Greening is a freelance writer, world traveller and author of ‘Out of Paradise – A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the World’, currently living in Phuket.