Joey Briggs had three weeks to quit his job, obtain travel visas and say his goodbyes before he embarked on a 100-day journey across the world.
Briggs, who graduated from UF in 2017 with a degree in chemical engineering, was one of six out of over 30,000 applicants to be selected for Yuujou, an international media art project emphasizing the importance of friendship.
“Yuujou is essentially a social experiment to prove we are all connected,” Briggs, 23, said.
The six travelers, who were strangers before the journey, were divided into two teams of three people: Team East, which Briggs was a part of, and Team West.
Both teams started at the same place in Berlin, Germany, on April 11. From then on, the two teams would be sent in opposite directions, traveling from city to city for 100 days until reuniting in Tokyo, Japan, while documenting every step of their all-expenses-paid journey.
The only rule? At each new location, they had to stay with a friend of their previous host, creating a chain of friendship across the globe.
Briggs first heard about Yuujou—which means “friendship” in Japanese—in November through his cousin, who also applied.
Corinne Eisenring, co-founder of Yuujou, said Briggs caught the selection team’s attention immediately.
“We were looking for people who want to celebrate the diversity of the world and focus on the good,” she said. “We were looking for creative spirits who seek the challenge and who are happy to document and share their experiences with the world.”
She said when Briggs talked about his experience working for the Peace Corps in Liberia, it convinced the team he was “very adaptable and strong.”
After a competitive selection process involving a casting video and Skype and in-person interviews, Briggs was flown out to Germany for a week of training, where he met the two other people he would be traveling with for the next three months: Paula Savelkoul, 30, from the Netherlands, and Renata Millington, 30, from Brazil.
“I started to backpack in 2016,” Savelkoul said. “Sold all my belongings, with only my backpack [and went] to Asia, Australia and New Zealand.
“But this time it was so much different,” she said. “It's a whole new way of going from place to place.”
Although Briggs had also traveled before, such as his time spent building an artificial coral reef in Cambodia as part of a UF research position, he agreed Yuujou was different because of the unpredictable nature of it.
“We never knew where we were going to be the next day or who we were going to meet,” he said. “I never expected to go to countries like Macedonia, Georgia or [the] Philippines on the journey from Germany to Japan.”
Briggs described some of his favorite experiences as those which allowed him to be immersed in the culture of the host, such as 22-year-old Sasha Svinar, in Kharkiv, Ukraine, who showed Team East his grandparents’ World War II bunker, which was still stocked “just in case.”
“[He] took out some of their preserves for us to try,” Briggs said. “We tried his favorite, which was the preserved apples that were a few years old. They tasted still very fresh but were mushy, so while it looked like an apple, it was more like one of the best applesauce I’ve ever tasted.”
The Yuujou project also involved documenting every aspect of the travelers’ journey, filming everything from interviews with the hosts to the team going from place to place.
“We received a crash course of four years of film school in four days in Berlin from the Yuujou team,” Briggs said.
“[The trip] was in some ways much more than I expected. I have traveled a lot, but never on camera 24/7, for months on end all over the world. That added much more excitement, as well as being much more exhausting.”
Briggs’ travels, however, didn’t culminate on the 100th day, July 20, in Tokyo. He spent the following three weeks with his cousin in Vietnam, where he got some much-needed rest and relaxation.
“I think we [the travelers] survived on adrenaline alone,” Briggs said. “I have never had bags under my eyes like I did the entire journey, and once it was finished I slept for three weeks. No joke, I would sleep like 10 hours every night and take a 2-5 hour nap during the day, every day. I didn’t know it was possible to sleep so much, but our bodies had reached a new level of exhaustion.
“Diving in and out of people’s lives every day, on top of being in a few countries each week, on top of filming everything we do added up. But I never once felt it during the journey.”
Briggs’ travels exemplified the purpose of the Yuujou journey, which “aims to show that if you explore cultures authentically, you will meet new friends, and not strangers,” Eisenring said.
“All around the world, I believe people are inherently kind and compassionate,” Briggs said. “Especially to travelers and people in need of a helping hand. Everyone we met was amazingly open and friendly, even though they had no idea who we were or even really why we were there. They just had received a phone call from a friend saying these travelers were coming to visit them.”
Briggs described the journey as being the most formative experience of his life.
“This trip has made me more comfortable and confident in who I am more than anything else I’ve ever done in my life, and I think, to me, that’s the best thing I took away from it.”
Briggs plans to pursue a doctorate degree in chemical engineering at the Colorado School of Mines next fall.