Just before heading back to Piedra Parada, I was interviewed as part of a research project on globetrotters conducted by a lovely French Canadian woman, a fellow gypsy-mama named Valarie Bertrand. As per the consent form, the intent of the study is
“To discover and understand the views and perspectives of globetrotters in regards to their motivational factors and subjective wellbeing…While most individuals enjoy the comfort of their home, the stability of their work and the predictability of their life, globetrotters prefer living on a day-to-day basis in a constantly unstable and unpredictable setting. What exactly pushes people to dedicate their life to long-term traveling, then?”
Why do I subject myself to peeing in a bottle, moldy showers, communal living, micro closets, a single-burner stove, and driving ten hours straight with a toddler?
It’s pretty simple, really. WATCH OUR PIEDRA PARADA VIDEO and you’ve got the ANSWER.
As I write this, I am sitting along a tranquil green river, relaxing after a hard day of climbing, staring out at the Piedra Parada, a famous 200 meter free-standing rock that looks like a giant guitar pick strumming the wide Patagonian sky. Soleil is helping Tree collect firewood. Kiki is asleep under the hammock. And, all I can think is…
This is why we’re homeless. This is why we live in a van.
In trying to better understand our ‘push factors,’ Valarie asked me if I knew I was unhappy when I was living in Los Angeles and, therefore, set out to become a nomad. But, the truth is, I didn’t think of myself as particularly tormented.
It wasn’t until we started this Pan-American trip that we realized that we didn’t want to go back to our old way of living–or, rather, back to ‘normal.’
“So, what happened?” Valarie asked. “How did a trip become a lifestyle? Why did you become permanent nomads?”
It wasn’t one particular incident that changed us, but rather a slow shift in perspective, a redefining of values that happened on the road.
1) A life of less is a life of more
“Wanna fly? First you gotta give up the shit that weighs you down.” –Toni Morrison
Neither Tree nor I were very materialistic to start, but somewhere along the way (maybe Nicaragua?), it really hit home that a life of less stuff means a life of more authentic experience—or, as Tree likes to say, “of doing more rad shit together.”
Logistically, this makes sense. With less stuff to weigh us down—as in, we don’t have a house or the comfy things inside it—we’re able to pick up and follow our heart’s desire in less than an hour (so long as there’s internet, of course). Also, by consuming less, we need less money, which means we don’t need two incomes to pay for the house and all the comfy things inside it.
Ecologically speaking, the nomad life has reduced our carbon footprint, an ethic that’s increasingly important to us. Plus, it makes us feel more accountable to the wellbeing of the planet by virtue of actually engaging it.
Most importantly, though, we get to spend enormous amounts of time together as a family, sharing adventures, getting some fun out of life. And, what’s better than that?
Granted, I don’t think van life is for everyone–it’s rough–but I do think a life that deepens intimacy, invites adventure, allows integrity, and respects the planet should be.
2) Experiencing wild nature
We have a deep biological need to experience the wild.
A few months ago I had a conversation with an old L.A. friend who told me that recently he had been struggling with thoughts of suicide. I asked him if he ever gets outside, meaning outside the city, to experience nature. “Never,” he said. My heart ached for him, but I understood. Before I met Tree, I very rarely got beyond the matrix of freeways, the motherboard of buildings and lights, and the endless suburban sprawl that is Los Angeles.
I read an interview with the British environmental writer, George Monbiot, in Orion magazine last month, and his summation of modern society succinctly captures my sentiments:
“My sense is that people like me are ecologically bored, that we possess the psychological equipment required to navigate a world that is far more challenging than our own—a world of horns and tusks and fangs and claws. Yet our lives have been reduced to the point at which loading a dishwasher seems to present an interesting challenge.”
In the last week or so, I’ve seen countless rheas (Patagonia ostriches), jackrabbits, skunks, swans, parrots, and wild horses; still, each time, I am filled with a sense of wonder and excitement. In the wild, I am routinely awed by the magnificence of our planet and am so grateful for the rare opportunity to be alive.
I wish I could reintroduce my friend to the wild.
See photo below: It seems that in Spanish, risks are “occasional,” whereas in English, “dangers are eventual.” Somehow this is more true than the translator ever intended.
(Sometimes I do wonder what my husband is getting me into. Rockfall, lightning, pumas, and snakes… lovely. Let’s go.)
Today, I have a more intense and emotional engagement with the living world, and it has strengthened me in ways I could never have imagined. For instance, rock climbing—a powerful dance of body and mind, a sort of extreme vertical yoga—has been a game-changing gift that has completely reshaped the way I regard my body and experience the outdoors. It’s like I just discovered sex. What!!? We can do THIS with rope and a harness?! Don’t stop! Give me MORE MORE MORE!
Honestly, I have too much to say about it. The experience deserves its own post.
What I can tell you, though, is that from now on, we’ll definitely be weaving our way from crag to crag, from continent-to continent, around-the-world. Just another reason why I love being a nomad.
3) The kindness of strangers.
“Whoever you are, I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.” –Blanche DuBois in “A Streetcar Named Desire”
I’ve always believed in the kindness of strangers, but there’s nothing like traveling through 15 countries in a van to test that hypothesis.
Fortunately, we always seem to meet great people. This time we met a traveling French couple who were camped not far from us. The girl, Sara, walked over and introduced herself, and we got to talking, so we invited her and her boyfriend Nu Tan (French-Vietnamese) over later that evening to share our campfire. Since we’ve been living in Latin America, I’ve become fluent in Spanish, but my ability to speak French has suffered greatly. I was looking forward to getting a little tipsy and practicing. Oui, oui!
They came by after we put the baby down in the van to sleep. I opened a bottle of wine, and Sara brought over some homemade crackers. Since Tree doesn’t speak French, and lately when I try it comes out half Spanish, the night was filled with a sort of Franco-Spanglish that resembles Sol speak.
As we drank wine and blithely butchered three languages, I finally asked Sara how she made the crackers we were eating. They were super crunchy, lightly salted discs ‘baked’ over a campfire. They both laughed, and Nu Tan sheepishly explained that it was a simple recipe they had been living off of for days since they hadn’t been able to catch any fish.
“Flour, d’eau, salt, et comment dis-en anglais? Fumier de vache?” Nu Tan said.
Now, I know my French is rusty, but I was pretty sure he just said that they used manure, which couldn’t be right.
“You cooked the crackers in cow shit?” I asked, wondering if this was one of those lost-in-translation moments where I accidentally insult someone.
“Oui! Bien sur! That’s what it is. Cow shit!” Nu Tan exclaimed.
“We saw it on the National Geographic channel, and it really works. You just use a match,” said Sara.
I could tell Sara and Nu Tan were very proud of themselves, and I was just buzzed enough to dish out the encouragement.
“Wow! Now that’s innovative sustainability! I’m always telling Tree we need to be more creative. I can’t believe you can just light a cow pie on fire and bake a frickin’ biscuit. That’s AMAZING! We gotta try that sometime, right Tree?”
“Yah,” Tree said, as he stuffed the remainder of his cracker under his chair.
Later that night, lying in bed, Tree asked if I was really going to start cooking with cow shit. “Well, you know, having a second burner might be nice,” I said.
(Take note overlanding cooks: THAT is how you get a kitchen upgrade in your vehicle).
The next morning, we saw Nu Tan up early, already fishing. His pole consisted of a long stick and fishing line with a piece of pasta tied to the end. I was thinking how he looked extra tall and skinny, and then I remembered our conversation the night before. Not the cow pie part, but the part about how they had shared the very last of their provisions with us. And I thought about how kind and generous of spirit that was—to value new friendship more than food. And then I thought about the incredible people in Lima who gave me rides, brought me meals, and helped me take care of Sol when Tree was in the hospital. And about the trucker who siphoned gas out of his tank when we ran out in Venezuela. And the random driver in the Land Cruiser in La Paz, Bolivia, who shepherded us to safety through that crazy-ass city when we were lost, and of all the strangers who have given us directions and warnings and warm smiles.
So, after coffee, I brought Nu Tand and Sara over a bag of non-cooking-required goodies to eat, and I thanked them for the good conversation, the cow-poo crackers, and the fun “recipe” to tell my friends.
In short, I guess I could have told Valarie that the biggest motivation for becoming globetrotters was that ultimately we realized we could never buy a big enough house, with a wild enough backyard, to fit all of our new friends, as we have now in our nomad “home.”
We’re back from Piedra Parada now and working our way north.
More fun photos:
Daddy doing yoga
Sol doing yoga
Mama and Sol doing acro-yoga
And, then, of course, savasana
Happy hour for Daddy
Happy hour for Mama
Happy hour for Sol
Thank you friends for following the adventure!