It’s difficult for backpackers to escape the package-deal tourism industry. Philipp Laage takes a trip to Vietnam – and comes face to face with his own shortcomings.
I’m sitting on the edge of the Pacific Ocean on Russia’s wild east coast, deep in Siberia, not far from the idyllic port town of Vladivostock. I’m gazing out over the sea, observing the enormous ships in the distance with a vague sense of longing. I’m absorbed in my thoughts, listening to the melancholy folk songs drifting from a small tent not far from our truck.
Recently we were asked why we’re even doing this. The journey. After a brief pause, I came up with a simple answer:
‚Because there was no reason not to.‘
It’s early summer in 2012. Peter and I are sitting in a small pub in my Munich neighbourhood – and trembling. Both of us are clutching a glass of wine and glancing nervously at the placemats on the table. ‚What the hell are we doing?‘ we keep asking ourselves, shaking our heads. Are we crazy? My heart is pounding. It feels like something’s dancing in my stomach. I take a gulp of wine. A big one.
We’ve known each other for four and a half months. Granted, we know each other pretty well for such a short time. But is it enough to set off on an adventure together? We’ve never even lived together.
What the hell am I doing here?
A hand-written bill of sale is lying on the table in front of us. It’s for a truck. An HGV that’s almost thirty years old. Seven and a half tons! It’s going to be our first home together. No problem, right? And in our new home we’re going to head east, as far as we can go. Or as long as we’re still enjoying it.
But can I just up sticks like that? After four and a half months, can I spend a whole chunk of my life on the road with someone? Someone I barely know? What the hell …? Can I just quit my stable and secure job? Put my career on hold? End it, even? Give up on security? Leave my comfort zone? Can I swap my spacious apartment for seven narrow square metres of living space? Can I just drop everything to set off into the world with Peter? I look at him. We’ve got to laugh. Soon we’re in agreement: yes, we can.
When Peter and I first met, we were at a similar point in our lives. We were hard-working people, living intense, socially and environmentally aware lives in Basel and Munich, respectively. We had wonderful friends. We loved to travel. We’d already sown our wild oats. Workwise we were more or less successful – even if we questioned what we were doing at regular intervals. We were active. At the end of each month we were able to put a little money aside. We both considered ourselves happy.
Meeting in March 2012 enriched our lives in a completely unexpected and unforeseen way, making our happiness complete. From day one we’ve converted this wave of happiness and the gratitude we feel for it into positive energy, venturing into a new phase of our lives together. We’re well aware that there are plenty of reasons why this is a crazy idea. But we also know that for us, in this moment, there isn’t a single reason not to do it.
On this rainy evening, I’m thirty-five years old. Peter is forty. We’re at the mid-point of our lives. But we want to take this journey while we’re still young and healthy. We want to see the world as it really is. We want to have our understanding of the world confirmed – or altered. We want to see the world now, while it’s still like this. And we’d love to get to know foreign cultures and peoples.
Above all, however, we want to get to know ourselves. We want to spend a lot of time together – more time than our current lives would allow. We want to know the meaning of freedom, and how we’d handle it. And we want to know what it means to have less and to live more simply. We want to find out how we work as a team and how we grow together. We want to live and be and feel and move. We want to pare down our lives, chuck all the ballast overboard and take some time off. We want to look more closely at what’s going on. We don’t want to change – but we do want to develop together and learn from each other.
Most of all, we want to give ourselves enough time and space for all of the above!
And maybe, ultimately, we want to end up by saying that things are fine the way they were before the journey – and to be happy with that. We want to be pupils, learning from ourselves, from each other, from – and in – this world.
So we’re at the very beginning of a long road. It might guide us in a particular direction, but that doesn’t mean it has a goal in mind.
* * *
A backwards glance. It’s unbearably hot, the road absolutely dreadful. Barely twelve hours ago I set off on the bus in Guatemala City, carrying oily dumplings from my last stop in a greasy bag. My neighbour smells of garlic, and plenty else besides. Utterly exhausted, shaken, sweaty and hungry, I disembark at a miserable bus station. Restowing all my possessions into my rucksack, I more or less get all my limbs straightened out. Deep breath! And then I step out into the brutal reality of travel.
‚Mister! Come come! Taxi! You need taxi?’ ‘Mister! Mister! I know a very good guesthouse!’
Pow! The next blow. Eight of ‚my friends‘ throng around me, shouting things about ‚the nicest‘, ‚the cheapest‘, ‚the best location in town‘, ‚the you-will-never-want-to-leave-again‘ hotel or restaurant … ‚Come! Very good price for you!‘ … how lovely. I’ve arrived!
This is one of many reasons why I preferred to make long journeys in my own vehicle – and still do!
Backpacking is wonderful. I loved it. Jen did too. But non-stop? Round the clock? For one or two years, or some indeterminate amount of time? Maybe I’ve just got older – and fussier.
To be honest, I love having my own space.
No matter how small. A space I can mould as I see fit, keeping my stuff more or less in the same place. Where, just as at home, any chaos is completely my own fault. Now our home is our vehicle! But the most important thing is that we can park our own private space anywhere. And then, wherever we are, we’ve arrived.
Since we’re both very connected to nature, we’re always drawn to rivers, seas, forests, deserts, mountains … to the notion of ’somewhere out there‘. And in our Unimog truck, we don’t have to worry too much about the state of the roads. We (nearly) always find a gorgeous spot to enjoy the sunset from. Then night falls, bringing with it darkness and all sorts of exciting noises: rushing waves on a lonely beach, a concert of birds or insects in a forest, a herd of grazing yaks, moving past under cover of darkness, the perfect silence of the desert. And the rustling – we’re still not quite sure what that is.
Standing in the middle of nature, drinking in the glorious landscape around us, absorbing the scent of earth, woods, water and stone, or sometimes nothing at all, feeling completely alone – those are the kind of special moments that I experience often and intensely when I’m travelling under my own steam.
But above all, I treasure the sense of self-determination, freedom and independence – of being able to move on whenever I want, and only if I want.
I get to dive into life in a foreign country – the street is where life really is. On the street, people are on the way to work, to the market, to their sweetheart back home, or to eat, if they’re not already eating on the street. Bikes are repaired, cars too. Animals cross the road, we ask the way, find it … or not. We get approached by people. At the petrol station they try to rip us off, we laugh, stare in astonishment … and if we want, we stop somewhere and we’ve arrived. Until we set off again.
Obviously, travelling in your own truck isn’t always pure romance and adventure. Technical trouble or ordinary, everyday maintenance often puts a spoke in our wheels. But – and this I learnt on the road – there’s always a solution! And what’s more worthwhile than finding a solution to a genuine problem?
So we travel, discovering kilometre by kilometre what ‚the path is the journey‘ really means.
* * *
I’m sitting ‚at home on the sofa‘ – in a small garage in Vientiane. In the Laotian capital, we’ve got one primary goal in mind: we’ve got to find out what the weird noise coming from the engine is. Peter, along with an extremely nice man, is lying underneath the gearbox, banging out a hearty tune with a spanner. Meanwhile I’m thinking about everyday life on the road while I wash the salad for dinner.
A nomadic life on the road affords us an incredible amount of freedom. One night we’re beneath millions of stars in the lonely Dasht-e-Kaver desert in Iran, and the next we’re in a rundown carpark not far from the vibrant bazaar in Shiraz. We don’t have to worry about accommodation, transport, the usual routes, hunting down food or the infrastructure of tourism.
We could park almost anywhere in the world – and be at home.
With this freedom come a few things that we have to think about more or less around the clock: where are we going to get water for the water tank? Can we drink the water from that well? Where can we top up the petrol? What kind of adapter do we need? Where does that road go? How good is it? Is it even a road? And is it safe at night? Will this bridge take our weight? Are the power lines high enough?
Will we get enough sun on the solar panels if we stay here a bit longer? And are we actually staying? How long are we allowed keep our vehicle here? Do we need a Carnet de Passage? Where do we get insurance? What if the country we’re in right now closes its borders? How the hell do we get out of here? Does this spare part even exist in India? How much does it cost to get it posted from Germany? What if we can’t get any parts in Iran because of the sanctions?
Is the diesel quality here high enough? Will the truck even start at 5,000 metres above sea level? How do you get to sleep at 45 degrees in the cabin? Where are we going to find yeast to bake with? A twelve-volt circuit breaker? A terminal strip? Or a silicone pump? And how the hell do you coax ants out of a storage hatch? We don’t speak Malayalam!
We face all these questions and challenges on a daily basis. At first glance, it sounds like a ton of work. And it is. But, on the other hand, I’ve learned over the last few months that this routine has given us a good deal of stability, enriching our everyday lives.
Routine, therefore, I only find burdensome when it’s characterised by things that don’t bring me joy. A routine that consists of entertaining and exciting things is wonderful. Routine does me good.
Our home gives me the foundation necessary to feel safe and steady.
It’s mostly these little tasks that help me understand life on the road and, above all, myself. Desperately searching for terminal strips in a small, insignificant Indian city of five million people gives me a better sense of India than visiting the Taj Mahal (which is doubtless worth a visit). Discussing our rear axle spring with a Burmese welder is, in hindsight, somehow more exciting than the Golden Rock.
Though now and again, of course, Peter and I do come to the end of our (by now pretty long) tether.
Looking back, these seemingly unimportant experiences were perhaps the most valuable of our whole journey.
Like searching for a decent terminal strip in Delhi or finding drinking water in the deserts of Oman, in many parts of the world safety after dark or easy access to food aren’t a given, as they would be in Germany. I’m aware of that every day, and I hope to entrench this experience deep within myself for the rest of my life, calling on it whenever I want. I’ve learned patience, to just let things happen – and that routine can be something marvellous. And when everything gets too much, I just close the heavy door of our Unimog’s cabin, crawl under my duvet, make myself some tea and head out again the next morning.
* * *
It’s chance encounters – significant and insignificant, people and situations – that have stayed with me, leaving a deep impression.
We’re often asked which country is our favourite so far. And I still don’t have a good answer to that. Often I say that every country we’ve travelled through has been a special experience. There was always something to marvel at, we were always surprised, disappointed – by people. Every country is different, and the rules were never obvious. Every time we learned something about the country and its people, starting to find our feet, the place made that much more sense. We got it. A bit, anyway. For brief moments.
In many countries, people made it very easy for us to get along and to understand. They approached us, these ‘foreigners’ in their strange truck, with great openness. The loveliest encounters were when we were open too, when we were most astonished and learned the most. That’s why every country we’ve visited had something special about it. It’s because of the people we met!
And it doesn’t matter how long we chatted to a stranger, or how in depth our conversation was:
It was their warmth that makes it so difficult to describe.
When, after a long day’s travel, you see and hear the extra-loud laughter of a crowd of schoolchildren, when you’re exhausted and a few soldiers help to change your tyres at 5,000 metres above sea level, when you’re suddenly flashed the world’s most heartfelt smile by a woman at the market, when – just as you least expect it – you’re reminded of the goodness of humanity, it’s not just a wonderful experience. It gives you courage and hope. And it gets you more than a little hooked – to travel, to the unfamiliar and to the many extraordinary individuals in our world.
Sometimes it makes me a little sad that it’s not possible to stay in touch with all the people we met. Social networking and email are a big help, of course, but geographical distance is and remains a hindrance. So these acquaintances are always only short-lived, never as deep as our friendships back home. And that’s fine.
What makes me ever sadder is that in many places so many people approached us that we had to rebuff them, whether because we were dead tired or because we wanted to complete a particular leg of our journey before nightfall. In retrospect I’m ashamed that there were people we met on our travels who must have considered us rather stand-offish visitors to their land.
We try to meet their hospitality, curiosity and sheer excitement over our vehicle with complete openness. And with photos of our home country, a small tour of the truck, and a conversation – mainly conducted with our hands and feet – under the awning over chai and baked goods. We’re also sometimes able to welcome guests to our small, temporary, ever-changing home in a foreign land.
The hospitality shown to us everywhere is simply breath-taking. We bumped into Mehmet, for instance, a hilarious man who quickly took us to his daughter’s birthday party. While they broke their Ramadan fast with delicious Turkish delicacies, we told stories, celebrated, sang and danced.
Then there was Shani, a singer who brewed strong black coffee over a flame – among the rocks of the Turkish Black Sea coast. Later we sang and danced along with the women to his graceful saz music.
There were the wonderful Fathma and her husband Berus, who invited us into their home on our first evening in Iran. Over tea and Persian rice and lamb, the television playing a dubbed Austrian detective series in the background, they told us much about their country, then went apple-picking with us and showed us around the city.
There was the unknown trucker who chucked us several mangoes though the open window as we drove. Or the trucker in Bandar-e-Abbas, who just ‘invited’ us to 120 litres of diesel.
We came across Djavad in Tabriz, an idiosyncratic fellow who lent us his garden, grilled food with us and soon invited his whole family to meet us. Djavad, who accompanied us on the phone throughout our stay in Iran and finally travelled across the whole country to bid us farewell. Djavad, who is still our friend.
Then there were the Indian rangers Steve and Deepti, who let us join their camp fire and told us all about the wild animals in their homeland. Or Michael and Vasan in Kashmir, who invited us into their tent at the pilgrims’ campsite of Baltal, spoiling us with north Indian chapattis and dhal. Or our Unimog-mad friend Kunal, who gave us an insight into the complexity of India and who lost his affection for the Unimog when he got ours stuck in the sand. We all came out the other side, however, and have met up in various parts of India four more times since then.
There were the aging Vladimir and his comrade Dimitri, two dyed-in-the-wool communists who invited us into their Buryat living room for freshly caught fish and pelmeni (Russian dumplings). We brought salad and cakes, and celebrated life to the accompaniment of melancholy folks songs, which the two hunter-gatherers performed on the guitar and accordion. Moved, we left the house on the edge of Lake Baikal with tears in our eyes.
There was the unusual Lamaji Tashi Namgyal, who, out of the goodness of his heart, let us share in life at his Tibetan school for several weeks, allowing us to teach the children and learn ourselves. He will remain in our memory forever, thanks to his selfless behaviour and his positive effect on Spiti.
There were countless people from all nations who invited us to tea or çay, offering us fruit, vegetables and pastries. Or a kilo of dates, ‘just because you’re guests in our country!’
We’re grateful for the smallest screw, every wooden peg, tool and encouraging smile – which, in one situation, was worth more than gold. We were approached with an open mind by all sorts of people who gave us directions or even drove ahead of us on a motorbike so that we wouldn’t get lost.
We’re grateful for every garden we were allowed to use, for the water we downed … for the drinking water we were able to restock, for the firewood that was given us. ‘Do you need help?’ we heard more often than we ever could have expected. And they weren’t empty words, as we discovered. Basically we’re just infinitely grateful for all of those people – for their stories, conversations, parties and celebrations. It would be impossible to fit them all into this account.
But every single story has remained in our memory and in our hearts as one of life on the road’s greatest gifts.
* * *
8.30 a.m. Everything that might fall over is tidied away, the door is shut, the steps stowed away, the motor running – off comes the hand-break and the scene begins. The location: somewhere in the Himalayas.
The cameras roll. We drive two kilometres cross country, back to the so-called main road. We’re being pitched and tossed around – when we arrived yesterday afternoon there was no proper path. We glance back once more at the peaceful field where we spent the night, at the wild horses and the lone shepherd who asked us for some diesel for his lamp.
But then we’re back on the road – or what’s left of it. The tension mounts. We’ve planned to do eighty kilometres today. Let’s see whether we make it. We’re not in a hurry; the road won’t allow that. Our film unfolds in slow motion. Potholes and piles of rubble force us into an elegant slalom. Sometimes. Mostly we admire the scenery around us. It’s as if Jen and I are sitting in a theatre box. We’re not interested in the director’s chair – we just let ourselves be guided.
Anything on wheels is on the road. Goods and wares, fruit and vegetables of all sizes are lashed perilously onto loading beds, car roofs, motorbike seats or the backs of donkeys. Yup – there are animals too. Cows, wild horses, dogs, cats, sheep, goats, yaks and many more. They’re all moving, more or less amicably, down the road.
And we’re in the middle of this flowing choreography.
Some people stare in disbelief when they see us. Others wave, honk or drive dangerously close to us. We’ve got to pick up something to eat. We stop at a small shop on the way to Lossar. They don’t seem to get a lot of tourists here. With a smile and much pointing, we manage to buy vegetables for the next few days off the road.
Tomatoes, cauliflower, potatoes and two other plants we don’t know the name of but which taste nice. In a small tent sheltering us from the wind, we treat ourselves to a hot chai and something fried and delicious before we decide to leave. Suddenly, however, we’re approached by Soma. He saw us a few days ago further down the mountain, and invites us to have some tea. We chat about the impressive scenery, how the people here in the valley are particularly easy-going, how he also likes coming to Spiti to recharge his batteries, and how reaching the valley immediately fills you with a sense of awe and reverence.
We probably won’t manage those eighty kilometres today. Do we have to? We’d rather not. We’re enjoying the moment. We don’t want the film to end just yet. Instead, the main roles have gone to the here and now, and Jen and I feel like miniscule extras on nature’s grand silver screen. We’re passing through scenery that’s too unique, too powerful, too wonderful to describe in words.
A few hours later we’ve found a place to sleep amid these extraordinary surroundings. We enjoy the last rays of the sun, which will keep the screenplay waiting for us, already looking forward to morning. Nobody’s going to come and clear the stage away overnight, are they?
Oh wait, you get terrible films at the cinema too!
* * *
I’m sitting on a beach in eastern Malaysia. The muezzin is singing in the distance. I try and remember the first muezzin we noticed on this trip. It must have been back in Bosnia, more than two years ago. It’s strange to think of the beginning of our journey as ‘back then’. Can it really be? I reflect on the nature of time.
For me the exciting thing about travelling overland is moving in real-time – observing the extremely slow changes occurring in our environment: churches, songs, religious sites, clothing, vegetation, landscape, architecture, infrastructure, languages, dialects, greetings, facial features, modes of transportation, writing, traditions, dishes … their nature alters incredibly slowly, yet continuously. They interlock, disappear and reappear in other places. Dolma’s clothing in Ladakh reminds me of the nomadic women’s clothing in the Gobi Desert. In Nagaland in north-eastern India, the facial features of the people are so different that I could imagine myself anywhere other than India.
Discussing these observations takes up a massive amount of space in my conversations with Peter.
‘Do you smell that?’ ‘Do you hear that?’
‘Can you taste that?’ ‘Do you see that?’
We keep uncovering things new, surprising, rediscovered or familiar. We rejoice in small details or things that once again make a nonsense of our recently acquired insights.
Travelling by truck takes so long that in two years we only just made it from Munich to Malaysia. You could do it in three months, actually, but we prefer the freedom of slowness, the freedom to spend two months in the Pokhara Valley in Nepal or the same length of time on the beach in Goa, the freedom to take a break whenever we need one. For me personally, the last two and a half years feel incomparably longer. I feel like I’ve been on the road for many years. But isn’t that supposed to be the case?
Maybe I need to adjust the term ‘travelling in real-time’. Maybe taking a long journey in your own vehicle leads to an immense expansion of time? I don’t know.
Maybe I’ll have another think about it tomorrow. Or the day after tomorrow.
* * *
Singapore. 15 May 2015. This is our second anniversary. Peter has invited me to a grand hotel. In the evening we’re going out to dinner at a fancy restaurant, for a change. A French one. For two full days we enjoy an air-conditioned room, a shower with decent water pressure, a bathtub, a plentiful breakfast, a large bed, fresh bathrobes and the hotel’s own brand of toiletries, a hairdryer and an enormous swimming pool with clean, chlorinated water.
Happy, grateful and extremely aware of my surroundings, I do a few laps in the large pool on the roof. I’m not really disturbed by the afternoon rain. I’m happy with the unaccustomed luxury my husband has given me – and with the gift that means the world to me: my wonderful husband. And I start thinking – about love and life.
We leapt into cold water together and learned to swim. Mostly we splash around merrily, but we’ve weathered a few storms and the forces of nature that affect us, too. Together. You have to be able to rely on each other when you’re driving a seven-and-a-half-ton truck across the world. Even if we’re not in the mood at that moment. Sulking isn’t a good idea when you’re driving along the edge of a 700-metre-deep drop.
On the streets of India, where they drive on the left-hand side, two eyes aren’t enough.
And if you get the truck stuck in mud or tea spills all over the transformer, fits of anger or accusations of blame aren’t exactly productive. You have to cope. Together. Hand in hand. Round the clock. Admittedly, seven square metres can feel pretty small sometimes – especially when it’s raining. But they’re home to us. Being around each other 24/7 is certainly a serious challenge – but mindfulness is our watchword.
Peter’s sister Elisabeth gave us a candle before we left Munich. We were supposed to light it together when we came to the end of our tether with each other. It’s still in the cupboard. Unused. And that’s a good thing.
So. Before we properly got going on our journey, we decided spontaneously to get married. In Italy. As a symbol of our love and our desire to walk life’s path together.
‘Thank you, Peter, for the courage you showed in throwing over your whole life to travel the world with me. Thank you for looking after all the technical stuff, for which I have no knack whatsoever. Thank you for taking the wheel when my thigh was tired from working the clutch. Thank you for venturing into seven square metres with a dyed-in-the-wool chaos-magnet like me, despite being an extremely tidy person.
Thank you for putting up with my temper – which is non-existent, of course. Thank you for patching up my wounds after what feels like hundreds of accidents where I injured some body part or other. Thank you for distracting people in front of the truck so that I could pee behind the bushes. Thank you for wrapping the duvet around my feet when I got cold at night. Thank you for respecting me as your wife, while also letting me be a scared little girl sometimes. Thank you for thinking twice when I’m about to make a rash decision. Thank you for your perseverance in finding the most beautiful places to park in the world. Every day, without fail. Thank you for counting the stars with me, over and over again.
Thank you for being there.’
Somebody once asked us why we set off in a Unimog. My supposedly sensible answer was, ‘because we wanted a vehicle that can handle our need for total freedom!’ That’s true, but it’s pointless if your travelling partner has no need of freedom. With freedom come a vast number of decisions, and they can sometimes make life a bit more complicated. You have to like that, to love it, actually, when you’re travelling for long periods of time. And that’s exactly why I love my wife more than anything! Not only because she loves freedom, but also because she reminds us every day that we can live it!
‘Thank you, Jen, for loving and safeguarding our freedom. Thank you for always coming up with an idea when it seems like there’s no way forward. And thank you for always having one of your many enchanting smiles at the ready, even in the worst situations. Thank you for always having the time and energy not only to put away our food in our tiny kitchen area, but also to prepare a luxurious dinner out of the simplest local ingredients. And thank you for putting up with me when I screw up repairing the car, even if it means we end up spending hours combing through garages or building supply stores or various other shops.
Thank you for taking my book out of my hand before I fall asleep and it hits my nose. And thank you for giving me the time I need in the morning to go from sleepy to ready for a new, exciting day. I know that’s not the same every day, but that’s why I admire you so much: you always manage to be prepared for me. Thank you for letting me tidy your things, because you know I enjoy it.
But most of all I want to thank you for spending the last two-and-a-bit years being exactly where I was!
* * *
Is this the end? No, we’re not Thelma and Louise. There’ll be no dramatic showdown. The end of our journey announced itself gently and very peacefully. It happened on a beach in Thailand. After a stressful couple of weeks and some strength-sapping visits to the garage we treated ourselves to a few days on a lonely, dreamy beach. We were exhausted, and we needed a break.
After resting for a while, we were intending to set off again. With sand between our toes, gazing over the turquoise sea, we brooded over maps and shipping deals. But as we got into the details of how to continue our long journey via Canada to South America – at our pace an undertaking of at least another two to three years – we felt something completely new and very exciting: that our longing to see family and friends – to see our home – outweighed for the first time our longing to travel. We looked at each other, smiled – and suddenly there arose between us a warm and magical feeling.
Peter looked at the sea and said, ‘I think we’ve arrived!’
The next few days saw a lot of our planning and thinking thrown overboard. Not for the first time in our journey, we re-planned our route! It soon became clear that we didn’t want to go back overnight. No. We wanted to drive back slowly, to finish our lap. To have time and space enough to reflect, say goodbye and prepare ourselves to continue down life’s path. A new stretch will begin at some point in the next few months, when after two and a half years we have travelled the long way from Russia, through Mongolia and Kazakhstan, to Germany.
We’re overjoyed. About what has been. About what has happened. About the here and now. And the anticipation? That’s even bigger.
We’re looking forward to all the roads and streets and detours and gravel highways that life’s path still has in store for us.
* * *