A ship from the British Empire. A captain singing karaoke. Spirits at dawn. Martin Schacht and Ken Schluchtmann travel down the Ayeyarwaddy from north to south towards Mandalay.
‘You’re crazy,’ some people tell us. Others think we’re brave. Us? We see things a little differently. We’re doing something we really want to do, that’s all. Are we crazy? Maybe. Brave? No idea.
Brimming with naïve optimism and blind faith in life? You bet!
So we sell our house and book a one-way ticket to Bangkok. ‘From there we can just see how things go,’ we think, our hearts almost bursting with anticipation at the mere thought. We feel lighter and freer than we have in years. Our house is gone, our debts are paid. I’m taking my job as a freelance translator with me, because what we’ve got in the bank won’t last a whole year.
Nature has an important role to play in this adventure. Long before our journey begins, we sensed a deep longing within ourselves: we want to live a simpler life, one closer to nature. We decide to mostly visit places where we’ll be surrounded by the natural world, keeping our eyes open and letting ourselves be inspired along the way. And who knows? Maybe we’ll even find a place we could imagine living.
Our first destination is Norway, the country where Maria and I were born and raised. We spend three weeks living in a tepee in the middle of the forest, sitting in a wooden tub until late at night and making daily excursions into the natural splendour around us. Our closest neighbour lives four kilometres away, and the silence that descends when the children are asleep by the campfire in the tepee while Maria and I sit on a bench outside and gaze up at the starry sky is as wonderful as it is slightly uncanny. There are no sounds except the forest’s.
Despite the wonders of nature right outside our tent, however, I struggle to really find peace. The stressful months before we left are still deep inside my bones. ‘Relax, Thor,’ I tell myself, but I just can’t. My head’s too busy. It was all much more exhausting than I’d thought, and we still haven’t worked through our ‘before the journey’ to-do list. Shortly before our stay in Norway comes to an end, however, I suddenly feel my shoulders sink, and I can exhale. I’ve arrived. A bit late, perhaps, but nonetheless. A few days later we’re on a plane to Bangkok. Excitedly, the children switch on the entertainment stations fastened to every seat, and I lean back.
‘Now we’re getting going,’ I think.
We’ve only bought this one plane ticket to Bangkok, where we’ve booked a hostel for two nights. What comes next is undetermined. A whole year lies before us like a blank sheet of paper, and it’s up to us to shape it. We can let ourselves drift. We’re going to fill that year with life, with adventure, and I can hardly wait.
We land in the million-strong city of Bangkok in the early morning. For the first time in our lives we go to a Thai market, but buy nothing but fresh coconuts. There are too many new sights and sounds for the children, too many unfamiliar smells, so after a few minutes we return to the hostel. We meet two backpackers who encourage us to give the market a second chance. ‘It stinks, but the food tastes awesome,’ they assure us. So Maria goes back a few hours later, returning to the hostel with a delicious meal: grilled chicken skewers with sticky rice and loads of fresh fruit for dessert.
Then it’s time for us to think about our world tour. Torn, we weigh up which islands we want to visit. Before setting off we researched the various islands, but now the pressure is on: we’ve got to choose. Eventually we plump for Koh Samui, and the very next evening we’re on the night train to Surat Thani, a city in southern Thailand. After a night on the train, a bus trip from Surat Thani to the coast and a boat crossing that takes about two hours, we arrive on the pier at Koh Samui in the early afternoon.
Disembarking, we’re immediately struck by how purposeful the other travellers seem. ‘Just keep walking,’ I answer, as Maria glances uncertainly at me and mouths the words, ‘What do we do now?’
Everyone else seems to know exactly what they’re doing.
Some of them are being met by travel-agency reps, while others stride determinedly towards something or somebody, making us feel even more plan-less and directionless than we already did. It’s two in the afternoon, and we still don’t have accommodation sorted. I know people who fly into a panic if they don’t know where they’re going to sleep three months in advance. Now even we’re feeling a little uneasy at the thought of finding accommodation after a long journey and with four children in tow. Too late, perhaps? We know there’s plenty available at this time of year, but for the moment it seems a bit strange, all of it. Almost like an adventure. Spontaneity amps up the tension, in both a positive and negative sense. But this is how we wanted it, so we can’t grumble now.
‘Just keep walking,’ I say – and we both can’t help chuckling at this, and at the whole situation – ‘pretend we’ve got everything in hand.’ I don’t want the children to realise we’re playing things totally by ear. So keep walking we do, just as purposefully as everyone else.
A few minutes later we bump into a taxi driver who immediately reassures us with his friendly manner and infectious smile, despite his inflated prices. He asks where we’re going and I say we don’t know yet – can he recommend a nice, family-friendly spot, ideally with bungalows directly on the beach? Maria gets a bit more specific, asking what it’s like on the north of the island, at Mae Nam Beach, a place recommended to us on Facebook by another travelling family two days earlier.
‘Nice and calm, good for families,’ declares the taxi driver. Does he know a good, reasonably priced resort there?
‘Yes, my friend,’ he assures us, and we set off. His English is relatively good, although he speaks with a strong accent. It’s pleasantly cool in his seven-seater, and the awkward minutes on the pier are soon forgotten as we relax in his roomy taxi and watch the landscape and buildings go past. After a roughly twenty-minute journey we reach the taxi driver’s suggested destination.
We immediately fall in love with the beach and its shady palm trees, remaining at the resort for four weeks. We enjoy the sun, the sea and all sorts of delicious Thai food. The extreme heat ensures I take things easy. Even my thoughts move more slowly, which somehow does me good.
One day Maria brings fried cockroaches back from the market. Everybody tries one, except me.
I just can’t bring myself to. ‘Delicious, tastes like crisps,’ says Aaron. But he can’t persuade me either.
After almost a month we say goodbye to Koh Samui and take a ferry north. Three hours later, we reach a small island that looks like a green, overgrown hill rising out of the sea. It’s named Koh Tao, and it’s going to be our home for the next five weeks.
Lydia and I learn to dive. After two days of theory and practising in the swimming pool, we take a boat out on the sea, put on our gear and leap into the water with our instructor. It’s an indescribable feeling, gliding through the underwater world of Koh Tao. It feels like we’re drifting in slow-motion, surrounded by coral and fish in all colours and sizes. ‘It’s a totally different world down here,’ I think to myself, hovering about a metre above the ocean floor and absorbing everything I can see around me. Above me life proceeds as usual, whirling, loud and noisy. Down here it’s quite different – so peaceful, so harmonious, so silent. Somehow it feels slower, almost as though time were standing still.
It’s nice just watching the fish, which are so beautiful, moving so languidly and apparently unconcernedly. As soon I get the chance, I swim closer to them so I can observe them close-up, which usually doesn’t disturb them. Lydia swims up to me and points every which way in excitement. There’s an infinite amount to look at, and she wants to share everything with me. She’s got over her initial fear of the big wide sea, and I’m pleased to see how much fun she’s having.
After four dives over two days, it’s time. Our diving instructor loudly announces to everybody on the boat that we’ve both successfully completed our diving tests. Lydia beams, and I’m insanely proud of her.
We eat lunch in the same restaurant almost every day, and as time goes on we get to know the staff. The locals often take us round, showing us the most beautiful bays and sandy beaches you can imagine. Our two eldest are even allowed to help out at the restaurant, spending two days assisting in the kitchen and taking guests’ orders. The German backpackers are especially surprised to see a blonde girl with a notepad in her hand approach their table and ask them in German what they’d like.
Our time in Thailand is absolutely wonderful, but also very tiring. We do so many exciting things, see so much beauty. We realise, too, that we need time to get used to travelling, the children especially. Thailand is so new to them, and it’s so hot. Of course there are some stressful days, when everything’s ‘stupid’. Sometimes I even start to doubt whether we’re doing the right thing. Surely we didn’t imagine it would be like this?
Eventually, however, in a quiet moment on one such day, I manage to see the situation from outside. I don’t do it deliberately; it just happens. I see the easy and the difficult, the beautiful and the ugly, the good and the bad. And the whole thing forms a coherent picture. ‘Life can’t always be easy,’ I think. ‘Anything worth having comes at a price.’ Sometimes that price is high. I sense I’m ready to pay it, knowing that everything will turn out well.
At that moment I realise that, in a strange way, even ugliness contributes to life’s beauty.
As our stay in Thailand comes to an end, we spend three days in the jungle of Khao Sok. The walls of our bungalow end thirty centimetres below the roof, leaving a large gap all around that keeps fresh air circulating. At night, when the nocturnal animals come to life, it sounds like we’re sleeping outdoors. But it doesn’t bother the children. Having adjusted somewhat, they’re sleeping like logs within a few minutes. Our bungalow is on the bank of a river, and next morning we discover a family of monkeys living in the tree directly opposite.
The children and I walk roughly two hundred metres upriver, then let ourselves be carried back down to the bungalow.
‘Again,’ shouts Filippa as we climb out of the water.
‘Sure,’ I answer, to the delight of all four of them.
* * *
In Bali we stay in an open ‘eco-house’ similar to the bungalow in the jungle. The kitchen and bathroom are outside, and there’s a constant, gentle breeze. It’s situated on a large rice field on the edge of a city called Ubud. The climate is more agreeable here than in Thailand, and both us and the children really get the chance to calm down.
We absorb the relaxed atmosphere, cool off in the pool and enjoy the food, which tastes very different from in Thailand. For €2.50 per day we rent a scooter, so we can go shopping. We eat an endless supply of fruit, and the children are overjoyed that we have our own kitchen so we can finally cook for ourselves. Some good friends from Germany come to visit. We like spending as much time together as possible, and on the first evening we stay up chatting late into the night. After a week together in Ubud we take a boat to the Gili Islands, rent a house, swim with turtles and eat grilled corn on the cob with garlic butter on the edge of the road.
* * *
We land in Perth, where we pay my sister and her husband a visit. Barefoot, we walk the short distance to the beach and leap into the cool water. Lying on their bodyboards, the children let the waves wash them up onto the beach as they shriek with delight. They spend hours playing together, giving their imaginations free rein.
‘Maybe they’ve finally got used to being on the road,’ muses my wife, as we sit and watch them during a peaceful moment – one of many here.
‘Maybe,’ I answer, thinking how tightly a father’s or mother’s happiness is bound up with that of their children.
We spend two nights at my brother-in-law’s granddad’s place. He’s eighty, and lost his wife three weeks earlier. I tell him I think his apartment is beautiful. ‘We really like it here,’ he responds out of habit. I can see in his sad eyes that he realises his mistake as soon as he says it, but he doesn’t mention it, just smiles at me quietly and changes the subject. I think about death and how it’s part of life, just like birth and everything in between. ‘I’d like to live as long as him,’ I think, ‘and be married as long.’
The journey then takes us to Tasmania, an island southeast of Australia. There we visit another of my sisters, who lives with her family on a small ranch. We stay in a converted shed that’s only thirty-five square metres, enough space for a kitchen-living area, a small bedroom and a bathroom with a shower and sink. Outside there’s a compost toilet.
Our life there is anything but luxurious, yet despite that – or perhaps because of it – we feel very much at ease here. The extensive property, all the animals roaming freely, the wide pond and the magnificent landscape. It does us a world of good to live among all this nature. To feel we’re part of it and that we don’t need much to be happy. The children are occupied all day long. They play with their two cousins, learning English as they do. They go on little excursions, build a hut out of old wood, help Uncle Marcus with the composting, swim in the pond, go canoeing and feed the ducks – they’re always begging outside our front door – with our food scraps. They learn a lot about agriculture and animals, and for the first time in their lives they understand that nature is a cycle: a cycle of which we’re a part.
The bathtub, too, is outside our modest – in the truest sense of the word – dwelling. If you stand next to the shed and look towards the pond, you see it immediately. An isolated steel construction with a fire pit underneath it. One day I fill it with water, build a fire underneath and ignite the small firelighter I placed beneath the logs. Two hours later, when the water’s pleasantly warm, the impatient children are allowed to jump in, all six at once. They stay in for a whole hour, laughing, splashing each other with water and telling jokes in English, while my wife, my sister, my brother-in-law and I drink tea, natter about unimportant stuff and enjoy the evening sun on the wooden terrace outside the small cabin.
Later that evening, once the children are in bed and it’s already dark, two naked figures sneak out of the shed. A few little kangaroos, loitering unsuspectingly outside, recoil from these uncanny creatures and bound back into the woods as quickly as possible. We – the ones without clothes – watch them go then move swiftly through the cool night air and into the bathtub. There we lie, enjoying the warm, almost hot water and gazing up at the clear, starry sky, our heads tilted back. We’re practising living in the now, being aware of the moment and totally blocking out the past and future, memory and hope – and we succeed. For this moment, at least.
The two months we spend here go by much too quickly.
We all agree the little shed that was our home for a while is the coolest place we’ve ever lived.
Having been so small, the outside world grows huge. We’ve really enjoyed the simple life we’ve been living here. It didn’t cost much money, which would also make this lifestyle more relaxed in the long-term.
So we let ourselves keep dreaming, of a life with fewer possessions, less luxury, but nature all around us. A life where we have more time for ourselves, which is important to us.
* * *
It’s the first time we’ve properly travelled around inside a country. Thus far we’ve mostly spent extended periods in single places, because we’ve realised it’s better for the children. They need a certain amount of time to get used to a new environment, and they don’t like being torn away again too soon. This time, however, we’ll be taking our home – a tent and rented car – with us, so all goes swimmingly and even the children love these weeks.
New Zealand is simply overwhelmingly beautiful. The majestic mountains, the lakes, the crystal-clear rivers and boundless expanses. Heavily overdosing on nature, we get addicted; we keep wanting more. We drive to a beach where we see more dolphins than we can count. From a clifftop we watch young sea lions apparently racing each other and penguins waddling slowly back to their caves after a long and tiring day in the sea. We stand on a pebbly beach full of seals basking in the sun and staring at us curiously.
We thought our life in the small Tasmanian shed was simple and minimalist, but this is the real thing. We spend so long sleeping in the tent that even the thin mats start to feel like comfy mattresses. All we have are the bare necessities. We wash in cold rivers, eat mainly vegetables and other food that doesn’t have to be kept chilled, and wash our clothes in a plastic container we fill with lake or river water.
In our luggage we only have clothing for warm countries, and the closer we get to the bottommost tip of the South Island the chillier it gets. So we pick up a few cheap things from a second-hand shop. We buy warm blankets there too, planning to swaddle ourselves at night in our sleeping bags.
At Curio Bay we meet Bernhard, a fifty-two-year-old from Swabia in southwest Germany who’s been travelling the world for more than two years. We spend four days at the same camp ground, and we’re heartened by the sense of ease and good cheer he radiates.
‘I’m worried about what will happen after the journey’s over,’ I confess to him one day.
‘What do you mean? What are you worried about?’
‘About the decisions we’ll have to make. Will we keep travelling, or will we find a place we want to live? And if so, where will that be? If we didn’t have children, this wouldn’t be a problem, but I’m painfully aware of our responsibility for them. There are so many choices, and I just don’t want to make the wrong decision.’
‘Don’t stress, Thor,’ he answers after a brief pause. ‘There are no right or wrong decisions. There are only decisions. If you’re not 100% happy with a situation, you can always make adjustments. Don’t think about it too much, Thor. Just follow your heart!’
His words have a profound effect. We were following our hearts when we sold our house to explore the world. ‘I’ve got to find my way back, regain the confidence and attitude that made us leave everything behind and embark on this journey,’ I tell myself. ‘If we keep listening to our hearts, everything will be fine.’
We fly to Brisbane, rent a cheap car, drive to the Sunshine Coast and spend six weeks in our tent at a lovely spot called Noosaville. There we meet Troy, a friendly young man in a wheelchair who’s a passionate fisherman. The next day he brings fishing rods for the children, and over the following weeks we often go fishing together. One day two stingrays appear on the beach, and Troy gives us a bit of his bait so we can feed them. We wade out to the rays and stand knee-high in the water as they eat from our hands.
‘Can we touch them?’ I ask Troy. ‘Yeah, sure,’ he says, so I cautiously reach out and touch the larger of the two rays, slowly moving my hand along its back. It doesn’t move its tail – with the stinger – so much as an inch, so I try it again while the children feed it another piece of fish. I’m a little annoyed that I can’t capture the experience on camera, but it doesn’t really matter. It’ll be stored in my head for the rest of my life.
This is probably the loveliest and most relaxing place we’ve been on our journey, and we treasure our time there. We even consider staying longer, but deep inside we’re growing increasingly uneasy. Probably because the year is inexorably drawing to a close, and it’s time to think about our next step. We consider flying back to Europe via Hawaii and California. But is that really what we want? Another new place where we don’t know anybody? It feels empty and pointless.
Suddenly we’ve had enough of the world, and feel a powerful urge to see friends, family and the familiar.
* * *
When we find relatively cheap flights back to Norway, the thought of returning feels like a massive relief. We compare that sensation with what we feel when we think of Hawaii and California, and immediately realise what we have to do. Follow your heart, Bernhard said. So we go ahead and buy them, the tickets to Norway. Nine days later we’re on a plane to Bangkok, where we spend five peaceful days.
We stay at the same hostel, go to the same market and eat the same chicken skewers with sticky rice as before. For the children it’s now completely normal to be in Bangkok – they feel at ease here, quite unlike ten months ago. I think of our flight to Norway and feel lighter. It seems surreal that only a thirty-minute taxi ride separates us from the airport where in a few days’ time we’ll board a Norwegian plane back to Europe.
Finally, we arrive in Norway. We climb onto a train, and when we disembark an hour later my wife’s whole family is standing on the platform.
Aunts, uncles, cousins, Grandpa and Grandma. People we love, people we haven’t seen in too long.
Our children, who had no idea they’d be meeting us, totally flip out. They laugh and cry with joy, flinging themselves boisterously into their relatives’ arms.
We enjoy being back in a familiar environment, surrounded by people who are important to us. And since the summer weather over the next couple of days is genuinely beautiful, we make several trips to the beach to cool off in the Oslofjord. Childhood memories are woken, and I realise how much I love this fjord.
After a few days, however, we’re serious again. We start looking for an apartment in Germany. Ideally we want to live in nature, like we did in Tasmania. Although we’re aware this may be difficult in Germany, we want to try. No luck. The more apartments we look at, the more lost we feel. ‘Maybe we’re a bit spoiled,’ I think. We simply can’t imagine living with so little greenery. We want to be in the heart of nature. Surrounded by lakes and forests. ‘A place on a farm would be nice,’ we say, still clinging to the hope that we’ll find something. Then, suddenly, Maria’s brother calls. ‘Hey, I’ve got the perfect apartment for you!’
‘What, in Norway?’
‘Yeah, take a look. I’ve sent you a link. It’s on a farm. Another family lives in the same house, and they’re looking for nature freaks just like you!’
We take a look at the advert, and it does seem like it was written for us:
‘We’re looking for a family that wants to live close to nature, and can see themselves growing organic veggies with us for us all to eat. It would also be nice if we could do things outdoors together and help each other with the kids.’
There are also wonderful pictures of the setting. Forest, fields and hills as far as the eye can see. A river borders the farm, and there are many beautiful lakes nearby. A settlement of other families with children is only five hundred metres away. It looks almost perfect. There’s only one problem: it’s in the wrong country. I really wanted to go back to Germany. So did Maria, although she finds it easier to warm up to the idea.
A few days later we drive down to take a look at the place. It’s even more gorgeous there than we imagined, and we instantly get on well with the family already living there. Maria wants to say yes on the spot, but I’m torn. I need a whole week to get there, but day by day I can feel something growing inside me. Every time I think of the farm, I start to itch. And suddenly I realise – I want that house. The location is simply perfect for the children, for all of us. Dammit, it’s exactly what we want!
So we put in an offer, and two weeks later we’re delighted when it’s accepted. All of us, children and adults, can hardly wait to live on a real farm.
It might be the end of a long journey, but for us it’s really the beginning of a new adventure.
* * *