It’s 4am on our last day in the van and I can’t sleep. Chelle & Abbie are also awake – an illustration of the powerful emotions we feel at the end of our adventure.
2014 has been and always will be a huge year for all of us. The four of us have spent nearly a year living in a 8m x 2.35m campervan, traveling 37,000kms, through 22 different countries and staying at over 220 different places.
From huge cities to the remotest of wildernesses and from baking heat to freezing snow, it’s been an incredible journey and a wild ride.
For whatever reason, 2014 hasn’t been a good year for a lot of our friends and family. Relationships and health have suffered with many of our loved ones so maybe it’s good we escaped what will go down as a ‘bad year’ for so many.
Of course, our relationships have also been put to the test. Living on top of each other for so long, being together 24/7 and dealing with the pressures of a sometimes difficult lifestyle has meant there have been plenty of blow-ups and tantrums. However, cliched as it may be, as a family we are stronger for it. We survived intact and we know more about each other than ever before. We’ve been lucky enough to get to know each other more intimately than could ever be the case when work, school, activities with friends take precedence.
But shortly, we will be returning to the real world. Whilst we can’t wait to see family and friends, pets, colleagues, our house and stomping grounds, it’s daunting for all of us. For one thing, we won’t have that flexibility and freedom, we now take for granted. We’re going to know where we will sleep tonight and will have to once again adhere to the timetables of work, education and social norms.
Chelle and I are, naturally, worried about work – are we going to be able to summon the motivation to spend 8 or 10 hours a day and remain engaged even though, compared to this year, much of it may seem trivial. Maybe our minds have dumbed down over the year or we won’t be able to rekindle the ambition necessary for a successful career. We will see.
We are also going to be seeing so many people we actually already know. People who speak English, no less! We’ve met many hundreds of unforgettable people – it’s been the clear highlight of the trip – but largely these have been fleeting relationships… limited by time and language. It’s going to be very different now. However, I hope we can resist the babble of the social whirlwind and talk a bit less and listen a bit more.
We will miss our little protective cocoon called Frosty. More than a home, Frosty has given us a way of life – a haven for traveling, sleeping, eating and being together. I was going to say we won’t miss the many difficulties – the banging heads, broken cupboards, beeping alarms but actually I think we will. Dishwasher will be nice, as will a shower longer than 30 seconds but you get used to what you have, quirks and all. Also, I think because it’s so small and we’ve spent so much time in it, we’ve become intimately familiar with every little nook and cranny and all the tricks and traps within.
The big question after such a trip is what’s changed? What have we learned? There’s no life-changing epiphanies, I’m afraid. We’re not going to come home quit our jobs and live off the grid.
But there are changes. We have learned do make do, and in fact thrive, with so much less. Back at home if the dishwasher was broken for a couple of days it would be a major drama but we haven’t really missed having such luxuries. No TV for a year and we survived! (OK Breaking Bad on the computer excepted…)
We’ve also become more resourceful – not having your usual set of shops and services on hand means we’ve had to make do with what we have and grab an opportunity when it arises. Broken stuff we’ve had to fix ourselves, nothing for dinner… just got to make what we do have work. At home we’d throw out a heap of food stuff every week – here less so. Small cupboards & fridge means frequent smaller shops and Chelle has become a master of making a gourmet meal out of leftover bits and bobs. Not much goes to waste – everything is recycled (easier to find public recycling bins than general waste so admittedly our hand has been forced) and, apart from a rather large use of diesel, solar power and simple living has meant a tiny carbon footprint this year.
Hopefully we are more appreciative of how lucky we are back home in Australia. Europe’s a wealthy continent compared to much of the world but we’ve never seen so much poverty, so many homeless people and so many people struggling. Back home we whinge about people’s car parking going over the line whilst, even in Europe, so many people fight every day for food and shelter. However, we saw more smiles and laughter in the gritty backstreets of Naples than the richer more affluent areas in Northern Europe – evidence that money doesn’t buy happiness. Hope we can retain this perspective when we return.
We have all become more comfortable talking with strangers (although I still can’t get past the casual chat whilst emptying the toilet!) and used to being stared at. When you drive into a tiny village in Portugal in a massive rig like ours, you get stared at the same as if you were in a convertible Ferrari bristling with supermodels. Even when we are out of the van people gawp – be it Abbie’s blond hair or me in shorts, there’s no hiding the fact that we are different. I’ll actually miss that – after a while I enjoyed it – almost like a brush with celebrity. And it gives you freedom – you’re already a weirdo so why not act like one. Never going to see these people again so let’s go crazy, kind of thinking.
We are more patient and relaxed about things when they don’t go to plan. But I’m not sure we have ‘slowed down’ like we might have expected. This trip has been a lot faster than anticipated. No lazy days sitting by Frosty reading. In fact, we’ve had an itch to move on whenever possible – one night and it’s time to hit the road. I think that’s a good thing though… that we never got jaded and lost the will to keep exploring. That’s still there as strong as ever.
The kids have changed enormously too. I’ll be intrigued to see what others think after not seeing them for a year when we return. They have become much more independent and are comfortable doing things many kids their age would struggle with – eg going to the shop to buy bread, going to the toilet on their own in weird places, plugging in the electricity, reading maps etc. They’ve also learnt to be creative when entertaining themselves. Limited space, toys and friends have forced them to invent new ideas and play with each other and they have been great with that. Probably the biggest thing we have missed this year is other English speaking kids – we thought there would be lots of people doing what we have but there have been very few. 90% of regular motorhomers and 99% of the longtermers are retirees.
So, what other reflections while it’s all fresh in my mind? Was it a success? Hell yeah! Would we do it again? Yes, but not a year, I don’t think – not with the kids anyway.. maybe when kids have moved out. However, we do love the motorhome lifestyle so rest assured there will be more ‘regular’ road trips in the future but more like a couple of weeks in WA for example.
Perhaps these little adventures will seem insignificant compared to 2014. But one thing we have realised, that the highlights of the year are the little, unexpected things. Meeting a local in a village grocery store, appreciating the simple beauty of an empty city street on a morning jog. This is extremely encouraging – need you don’t have to devote a year to have these experiences, just need to get out there.
However, I’m so glad we did something extraordinary. Personally, I have a terrible fear of a mundane life and not making the most of every second which I know can be very difficult. Chelle doesn’t like getting up at 6am on a weekend, for example. But it’s like an addiction – I can’t help it and if I try to fight it and settle into a humdrum suburban life, I’ll just be miserable. I’m thankful that I have the support of my family to quench this thirst by doing crazy stuff like this year. It’s rubbing off too – Chelle doesn’t cop ‘average’ quite as well as she used to either! As for the kids, who knows what they will turn out like. James wants to live in New York asap (That’s where Percy Jackson comes from, I think) and Abbie wants to be the first person to step on Mars.
To end off this little monologue without too much sentimentality, I’ll sign off with a quote from a book I identified with very strongly, ‘There Are Other Rivers’ by Alastair Humphreys:
“Life is too brief and too rich to tiptoe through half-heartedly, rather than galloping at it with whooping excitement and ambition.”