THE VAN LIFE
(February to April 2018)
Soundtrack: Automobile – Kaleo
Imagine myself in an automobile
A hundred miles an hour, if you know how I feel
Alone with my mind, leave my worries behind
Might even reach the border, it’s just a matter of time, yeah now!
I said take me where the wheels take me, far away
Wheels take me, I can’t stay
Wheels take me, any place today
In the days that precede my departure, I feel somewhat “off beat”. The idea of being on the road again is a bit overwhelming and I surprise myself wondering if this is really what I want. Did I decide to travel again just because I wanted to be with the girls, because I was so happy with them? Or was it something I really wanted for myself? I feel as if I haven’t had enough time at home, time with my family, my parents, my brothers, and my cousins, Manon and her little boy, the rest of my friends, time to take it all in and recharge my batteries before leaving again. Time to reconnect with people and let them know I did not forget them and hope they do not forget me. I am anxious about the long journey ahead just to get to New Zealand and the few days on my own before the girls meet me. It is a bit ridiculous when I think about it. After all this isn’t my first rodeo! But it is as if I lost all my solo traveler reflexes. I hope I get them back when I land. In the midst of all of this, it seems pretty obvious to me that this will be my last long trip for a while, as it seems quite clear that this isn’t what I long for in a longer term perspective. Not right now at least. But I know myself all too well now and if there is one thing I have learned in my previous trips, it is how fast your mind can change when you are travelling and I know for certain that as soon as I reconnect with the girls, I might feel differently. So I will try to keep an open mind and see what happens.
As expected, my trip to Middle Earth (for all of you out there who aren’t Lord of The Rings fans, New Zealand is where the movies were filmed, hence Middle Earth. Get it? No? Ok, moving on!) starts with a journey from hell. My first flight departs from Paris at 1 pm, I am unable to check in my luggage all the way to Auckland, (just because!) So arriving in London I have to pick it up and wait 4.5 hours for the check in to reopen, recheck it, wait 4 more hours for the flight to China to depart, fly 11 hours, and wait 6 more hours, and finally board my last 11 hours flight to Auckland. This is where I am right now, in the airport in Guangzhou waiting for my last flight and writing down these words in the journal Leo and Sab got me. As I write I remember that I CAN DO THIS! And it is going to be one hell of a ride once more! Whether it will last for 3 months as currently planned or a year, it will be properly amazing, as always!
The rest of the trip goes fine. I fly 11 hours to Auckland and when I land I am completely exhausted. My eyes are injected with blood and painful, my hair is all greasy and I feel a bit sick to my stomach. It’s funny how confused you can feel after spending 40 hours in airports. I haven’t seen any natural day light since I left Paris, I ate at the most random hours, I barely slept and yet, while I spent the last two days under neon lights, the world outside kept turning. My friends and family went on with their lives while mine was put on hold somehow. Maybe I am just too tired and delirious. Anyway, I reach the hostel without trouble, check in and head directly to the shower! Best. Feeling. Ever. And now, to bed!
My first week in New Zealand is somewhat wasted, as far as travelling goes. I am alone in Auckland, the weather is very bad with lots of rain and I have nothing to do but wait for the girls. I spend most of my time between Starbucks and the library, where there is wifi (contrary to the hostel). I do some research on what I want to see during my trip and I try to find a van that the girls and I could buy, but it is hard to decide on anything before they get here. Instead, I try to start working on the book I want to write. I occupy a lot of my time building the characters and sketching the story-line. Trying to remember where I wanted it to go when I first had the idea of the book. I write the first chapters and read them over and over again and when I am not writing I catch myself thinking about the story all the time. It is constantly in my mind and yet I also know that I will have to put it aside soon to focus on the current adventure.
Léo meets me after a few days on my own and when we reunite, it is as if we never really were apart. We haven’t talked much since I left Hawaii, yet somehow it is as if I never really left at all. We spend our first evening together catching up on everything that went on when I was in France and she was in Australia. I am so tired but I don’t pay it too much attention, my soulmate is here!! I can sleep when I am dead. We spend the next two days almost exclusively looking for a van. We quickly realize that with our budget, our choices are limited and it will be hard to find a van that can accommodate 3 people and isn’t too old. We see our first potential van the first day, after hours of online research and even though we are somewhat seduced by it, probably because we are eager to get on our way, we quickly realize that we shouldn’t get carried away and that buying this van would be a mistake. Disconcerted, we start over with our research. Thankfully, we find a van that we like quickly after that, and after discussing with the owner and amongst ourselves, we decide to take the plunge and buy it. Unfortunately, that purchase marks both the beginning of our road trip around the country, and the end of our adventure for three. I have debated with myself a lot on whether or not I should go into details about what happened and the things that were said and done that led to the three of us splitting, and Sabrina going on a trip of her own. All in all, I think this part of the story would differ greatly depending on who would be the one telling it, and when I look back at my adventure in New Zealand, I want to remember the best parts, the countless miles driven, the endless hikes, the dozens of meals shared, the hours-long discussions, the nights reading in bed and the mornings sharing stories of our respective books and every single day spent building my friendship with Léo on the foundations that we laid down back on Maui. Even though it was a difficult time realizing that this trip wouldn’t unfold the way we had all planned, I believe it all turned out for the best. We went our separate ways but these ways turned out to be amazing and we all had an life changing experience and that is something to be grateful for.
After we buy the van, we spend the first few days setting it up, buying some equipment at a shop called The Warehouse, our new favorite place to be. We buy kitchen equipment, a new set of sheets, we clean up everything and set up our new bed and we are ready to go. We learn how to drive a big vehicle on the other side of the road, and even if it proves to be challenging at times, we quickly get the hang of it. I teach Léo how to drive manual but do most of the driving in the beginning. After a few days alone, we pick up Sabrina at the airport and spend a few last days with her before going our separate ways. The girls go on a kite surfing weekend while I spend my time exploring alone for a little while and after the weekend I drop Sab off at her bus stop and Léo and I reunite. And so the van life begins!!
At first, everything we do is a little project of its own: cooking dinner or breakfast, doing laundry, setting up for the evening. But very soon we get used to everything and it becomes a sort of routine that we perform each day. Everything has its own spot in the van and everything is perfectly accessible in a matter of seconds so life becomes quite easy after a while. Every day the same, every day very different still. Before we left, I didn’t really know what to expect about the van life but I love the way our life turned out to be. I love our morning sipping coffee or mokas and having breakfast, talking about the books we are each reading. I tell Léo everything I know about Game of Thrones and where I am at in the books and she tells me about this depressing book she is reading as well. We plan our day and get ready for whatever challenge we decided to take up that day and then the day goes by and we come back to our beloved van to have dinner. We usually find an unusual way to shower before cooking dinner and cosying up in bed. As time passes, the weather gets colder and colder and we spend most of our evenings watching Netflix in bed or reading and drinking tea to keep warm.
We named our van the Glam Van, mainly because we quickly realized how unglamorous the van life can be. In fact, living in a van means taking more cold showers than hot, at the beach mostly, outside of course and in your swimsuit, and when you don’t find a shower then you resort to washing yourself out of a bucket, living in a van means doing your laundry by hand out of that same bucket and sometimes your dishes too, going to McDonald in the morning in your pajamas, because you haven’t seen yourself in a mirror for weeks so you simply stopped caring about the way you look, sleeping amongst your drying clothes for days because the weather is getting cold and they just won’t dry, playing cards or dice in your bed when it rains outside because you have nowhere else to go, using public restrooms all the time and peeing in the woods when you’re out of options. But it also means that you have a cosy “pied à terre” everywhere you go, you don’t have to live out of your backpack for the time being, you can prepare yourself a hot coffee before a hike or a good salad afterwards no matter where you are. Sometimes, if you are very lucky, you get to take a hot bucket shower instead of a cold one and in the best days, that shower comes with a breathtaking view on the mountains or the most stunning sunset. This is our life for now, and this van is our home, and we sure love it.
I drag Léo to McDonald more often that she would want to, sometimes willingly, sometimes by force. I try to convince her that only good things happen in McDonald because once we went there and heard some of our favorite travel songs for the first time, and once we read in the newspaper that there were still tickets available for the nearby Ed Sheeran concert and ended up going. But most of the time we cook lunch and dinner in our little kitchen, drink five teas a day when the weather gets cold and eat our own weight in cookies. Léo is our main cook while I am more the driver/mechanic. And while I write this article, the trip is coming to an end already, and we’ve had more than two incredible months visiting one of the most beautiful countries on earth (I’ll write more about what we’ve seen in another article). It would take me hours if not days to try to recount all the stories that made this trip what it was and I wouldn’t even know where to start. So instead, I will just share some of my favorite moments. Here again, the simplest moments of the van life are the owns that held the most special place in my heart. Taking aside the incredible outdoors adventures that we lived and that I will recount later, the moments I will long for long after I am gone are our quiet mornings, reading in the sun with a moka in my hand, our Netflix evenings, cuddled in the van, where Léo still falls asleep almost every single time, our hours on end driving on the most beautiful roads, listening to our favorite Shawn Mendes songs and the unexpected evenings bonding with fellow travelers, like this night we spent in Arthur’s Pass, while Lisa, who I met in Canada, was traveling with us for a while. There was a fire place in the free camp we were staying at and we cuddled around the warming fire with everyone else, playing a role play game involving knights, magicians and quests. We stayed up for hours and as we were about to go to sleep, we were surprised to run into a possum, roaming around in hopes of finding some left overs. There was also that one night we went out in Wellington to dance in a bar called the Danger Danger and improvised dance moves that impressed everyone around and when they asked us where we had learned these, Léo answered jokingly “it’s called Pilates“. One day in Wanaka, after a big hike and following a few days without showering (See? Glamorous!!), Léo and I decided it would be a good idea to wash ourselves in the lake. The weather wasn’t really good at all, the sun was barely shining and it was starting to get late, but we needed “a swim” to freshen up so we decided it would be a good challenge to just go and take a dip in the freezing lake. We agreed that the only way we would ever make it there would be if we didn’t look back and immersed ourselves directly. As soon as we were in the water, the freezing cold sizing us to the bone, Léo let out a cry of despair, something along the lines of “God, we are so stupid!” and we both laughed. After a few minutes the water wasn’t so cold anymore, or maybe our bodies were just numb, but Léo’s eyes shined a deep bright blue and our lips soon turned blue as well, and while we drunk our hot tea afterwards, we were pretty proud of ourselves. This was probably the wildest shower we took on this trip, closely followed by that one time we showered directly under the rain, in the middle of nowhere. Finally, there was this one morning where we had to wake up at dawn to drive down from the Golden Bay before the road closed due to some ongoing road work to fix the damage caused by the recent cyclone. We went for breakfast at McDonald and while we were about to leave, Léo went in the back of the van to fetch something and locked the keys there. As we were trying to find a way to get them back, an old man passed by and offered to help us. He carried me threw the back window so I could open the door from the inside and retrieve the key, all of this while I was still wearing my pajamas. It was slightly embarrassing, but we still laugh about it till this day. Our trip in New Zealand involved a lot of driving around, and while I drove most of the time, it seemed that when it was Léo’s turn to drive, the stars aligned to make her experience miserable. Not all roads in NZ are made out of concrete, and some days we had to drive for miles at a time on dirt roads, sometimes on these dirt roads, we found animals let loose, horses and cows, possums or herds of sheep, vehicles parked (crashed?) in extremely strange positions, and one time we even had to drive through a few fords. And no matter what the challenges were, no matter how slow we would be up hill or how unstable we might be in the wind, our faithful Glam Van always brought us safely to our destination.
On the last few days of the trip, Léo and I get a matching tattoo, the GPS coordinates of the Aloha Surf Hostel, where our story began. I get mine on my right arm, right below the elbow, and Léo hers on her left feet. It has a personal significance for each of us and is also a symbol of our friendship. Very soon it will be time to go back to the comfort of my own (parents’) home, to say goodbye to public restrooms, cold showers and manual laundry, and no matter how much I look forward to being home for a while, this trip will definitely stay engraved in my memory forever. If I ever had doubts about coming here in the first place, I now know for certain it was the best decision I could have made. It reinforced my friendship with Léo, I discovered what is probably the most beautiful country I have seen so far and it helped me learn a few things as well that I hope will serve me in the future, mainly how much water we truly need and how much is just wasted, how to better use our resources and protect our beautiful planet.
And most important of all, a lesson I will gladly learn over and over again: to never say no to an adventure with this soul mate of mine.
Until next time,