It’s been 2 years and 10 months since we started this journey, and as we wrap 2017 we can’t help to think back on lessons we’ve learned during this time on the road. Back in the day when I was researching for this trip the only thing I could think of was to prepare as well as we could for the ultimate freedom. life on the road sounded easy going, liberating, and much much more fun than it is sometimes… On top of it the hashtag #vanlife which has 2 388 273 posts at the moment pictures a lifestyle that looks more like a curated magazine than the real day to day living in a vehicle. So as a little present for the Holidays, we are going to share our most painful moments which we have kept mostly private but from which we’ve learned so much. hoping they can help you prepare for your departure a little better.
Living in a small space full time with your partner and traveling to beautiful places with no schedule comes at a price, and its not a vacation. I am completely sure that even though I love it, this lifestyle is not for everybody. It’s a journey that will make you or break you as a couple. We want to kill each other pretty often, even several times a day, but we have grown a lot through this journey.
Water can, and will be an issue. It will test your patience. Once we were driving on a highway close to Todos Santos in Baja California, Mexico and we hit a big, unexpected bump(not strange), so our 1 gallon container which was in an awkward position fell, letting all the water flow like a river under the vinyl floor, which got all the insulation wet in a very hard to reach place. After realizing what had happened, trying to clean it, failing, and blaming each other for the problem, I ended up crying for a long time since apparently it was all my fault.
A few days later at a lonely beach on the East Cape we had emptied the van completely for the first time(but not the last), peeling the vinyl floor, letting the insulation air dry and cut some pieces out to sun dry, hoping it would all be ready by sunset so we could put all our belongings back in the van before bed. It was a royal pain in the ass but we did it and it was all fine. So the lesson in this case for us was to deal better with our reaction time, getting upset doesn't solve any problems so may as well not. We are still working on that one.
2017 was the first year we didn't go back to NY to work for the summer so we end up in Costa Rica for the rainy season, which is the best time for waves but the worst time to live in a van. We didn't know at the time that we were about to start the hardest struggle against mildew and space. We had to battle mildew once already but in a different situation, we had flown to NY for the summer leaving the van behind in Mexico, the big mistake we made was to cover it with a giant tarp to protect it from mangoes rotting on the roof since it was resting under the shade of a giant mango tree.
When we came back after 3 months we discovered the interior of the van was covered in mildew, walls, ceiling, seats, anything that was not in a plastic bin, including all our clothes. We had to take everything out for the second time, deep clean every single corner and wash all our clothes, bed sheets, towels, rags, you name it. So don't ever cover your vehicle if you are gonna leave it behind for some time.
Back to the rainy season struggle. We made the decision of not installing an awning and using a big umbrella set up instead for strategic reasons. In order to keep a low profile while urban camping we wanted to keep the look of our van as a work van, not too flashy. This was extremely efficient for this purpose before the rainy season. When it rains in Central America, it pours, which means the giant backyard we used to have is reduced to being inside the van. Cooking inside, reading inside, all with our semi wet towels and bathing suits inside with us, and of course the heat, the humidity and the mildew. Had we installed an awning our hanging out space would have been a little bit bigger giving us a couple more square feet to live and give each other space as well. At that point it was too late and expensive to buy and install an awning so we learned lo live without it but if I were to do it again I would definitely buy one.
The other big problems that came with the rain were mold and rust. We had to find a place to stay twice during those 3 months in order to empty the van completely again, clean and launder all our clothes. I wish we had been staying at a nice room for a week just to chill and take a break from the van but instead we were staying at a cheap place to work hard on Beast. The rain also uncovered a couple of leaks that were rusting like crazy while we weren't watching.
Matty being the handy man he is fixed the leaks and the rust spots as well. We reorganized a lot of our stuff and bought a couple more plastic bins to store our clothes, I got rid of my vintage leather bag that was moldy beyond return. The set up inside our van is simple and minimal, no cabinets or doors, but I think that what will protect your stuff from mildew the best is tight sealed plastic bins. And a trick I just learned that can help a lot is to use silica gel packets(the ones that come w your brand new shoes or to preserve certain products) to absorb moisture, as many as you can!
I like to call living in a van the Tetriz game. Have you played it? If you are planning on moving into a small space you better like this game, I am very good at it. Being that our home is our vehicle, office, nest, kitchen, dining room, etc. all in one, we have to shuffle things around. A lot of times and weather permitting we spill out of the van, and the kitchen ends up outside, which I love and Matty hates. For me its easier to cook and way more enjoyable, for Matty its the back and forward dance between the van and the cooking station bringing things I forgot too many times in a row.
This spreading out and expanding our living area depends on the camp site, and choosing wisely between free or paying camping. We have free camped a lot but that comes with less comfort and keeping our home contained ,or playing the Tetriz game more often. Having to put everything away every night sounds easier than it really is. Peace of mind is the one thing we consider the most when choosing a place to park for the night. Saving a couple dollars might not be worth it if your vehicle gets broken in and you lose your camera or passports, or if every noise at night wakes you up worried, or if you have to pay for a coffee anyways in the morning in order to use the bathroom. Follow your gut, if you don't get a good feeling find another place. Even when we started using I-Overlander(useful app to find campsites) if we got to a place and it seemed sketchy, we'd look for another. It's key to leave early so you have enough time for situations like these.
How much privacy do you need? How comfortable are you without a bathroom or a shower? For us, those things don't matter much if we can be close to the wave we want to surf, we manage. But that might not work the same for you. Every situation is different, and also how we approach it.
We parked in front of the most epic surf spot in Tamarindo, it was a public parking lot, surfers and beach goers would come and go all day, at night we were basically alone. The guys who charged for parking were camping in a tent close by, they were nice guys, we made friends, we'd share some meals with them, make them coffee. Cars were broken in before we were there, while we were there and after, somehow nothing got stolen from us in 10 days, I am pretty sure these guys were looking after us. At the end when we left they barely charged us.
Is this enough? Well let me tell you this ain't all. There is so much more to van life that we don't hear about. The dark side is real too, but don't get it wrong, its all worth it!
Beast was chosen with a lot of thought, she is the right vehicle for us. Even though we had to fix her, and she broke down a few times, wear and tear is inevitable. Choose your vehicle wisely. We decided based on practicality, not nostalgia, that works for us. We have spent plenty of days sleeping at the mechanic, waiting on parts, not knowing what was wrong. But we know people that had spent way more time and money fixing their vehicles, living in a constant struggle, wearing out their patience on the vehicle they chose.
These are some of our experiences traveling long term through Central and South America. As you can see it's not all peaches and cream. This lifestyle, with its ups and downs, will challenge your relationship constantly. We have learned a lot about ourselves and each other, the most during these last 3 years. I know now that having my own time is very important, and making a space for it is key for a healthy relationship. It could be going for a walk, or hanging my hammock somewhere alone to read, or just not talking for a few hours. Be sure to find that time for yourself.
Life on the road is incredible but we didn't know it would be so challenging. I wouldn't change my life in the van for anything though. The experiences, the people, the strengthening of our characters, the growing pains, it all comes in a bundle that we appreciate, cherish, and are grateful for. Good luck with your journey, hope our stories help you on the road .