Welcome to the Newsletter Series. Ivy and I co-write a periodic newsletter. This piece is adapted from an edition of it, dated when the newsletter came out.
As our time in New Zealand comes to an end, we think it’s time to reflect on #vanlife and its impact on us.
#vanlife is the way to go
If we were to go back in time to the start of our trip, we would definitely still choose Red Rover (our van) as the way to see NZ. The country is very friendly to vehicular camping with many free or low cost campsites pretty much everywhere we go (there is no freedom camping where you can sleep anywhere, you must camp at designated campsites). Buying a van was very affordable, ours was $4.5k USD, and many people we met sold their cars at price while those who rented because they were here for a shorter period paid about the same (e.g. 6 weeks for $4k).
If you plan on doing your own trip in the future, below is what we’ve found to be great and not so great purchases.
Unexpectedly nice to haves:
- Camping chairs - we were skeptical we’d need them but everyone else had them so we hopped on the bandwagon. Turns out if you’re chilling at a campsite for an afternoon, you don’t want to just stay cooped in the van
- Tarp - useful for blocking wind and rain, a picnic blanket, ground cover for tent, and we even used it a couple times for covering a window to block the rising sun
- Tinted windows - our van came with these and we had no idea how useful they’d be. Many other cars used curtains or other manual mechanisms for privacy. Tinted windows require no effort to put down, we can still see out our rear view mirror, and it’s like a one way mirror where we can spy on the outside world
- Second set of sheets - boy have we spilled a lot of food on our day sheets… It’s quite nice to have a set that’s completely clean and comfy (that 500 thread count!) for bedtime
- Hydration Packs - when we’re too lazy to turn on our faucet for washing or boiling water, these have come in handy. Also great for hikes of course (thanks Mama Wang for giving us one before we left)
- Vinegar - not only great for cooking (see ‘Salt Fat Acid Heat’) but also really useful to pour some into our greywater tank to help with the smell
Bad to haves:
- Freeze packs - we got some of these with the hope of keeping meat around for longer when we’re on the road. Turns out it’s very inconvenient to freeze them and they don’t stay cold nearly long enough to be useful
- < $5 water bottles and forks - we both lost our water bottles early on in the trip and had to buy some new ones. We first tried to get some from the cheapest one stop shop here, Kmart. Quickly we found many issues with the designs. How do so many of them fail at their one function? Don’t buy cheap versions of things you’ll use everyday because they will crack and break
- Wine opener - everything is twist off in New Zealand (and Australia too I think?). We’ve yet to touch ours sitting in the corner of our pantry, accumulating food detritus
#vanlife is very couply
99% of the people we met on the road who were living out of a van were couples. Sometimes for bigger vans it’d be two couples. We have seen a few people go at it with a friend, but we’ve yet to see anyone do it completely alone. Sorry single friends.
They also all seemed very in love (like us). When we left, some friends asked us if we were ready to contemplate life, in a metal box, for an extended period of time with just each other to talk to. Turns out we actually were ready for it. Most days, we don’t end up speaking a word to anyone else.
Which leads into how van life has impacted our relationship.
Everything together, all the time
We have been together 24/7 for the last 3 months. By that I mean we are never more than 50m apart, the longest being on opposite sides of a grocery store or the distance between male and female bathrooms. We wake up together, go to sleep together, eat together, read together, cook together, hike together, do everything together.
Spending this much time with each other has forced us to be on the same beat in how we operate and divide tasks. Ivy does all the trip planning and I do the execution (driving and feeding us). Day to day cleaning and such we share the responsibilities. Our morning and night time routine pretty much happen like clockwork now.
It’s also allowed us to go from 0 to 100 in seeing the worst of each other, and talking through how to handle it. We’re forced to work through any issues so that no resentment builds up, because there’s no room for that when you’re glued at the hip. Of course some of it has been difficult, and some days one of us is not feeling up to the planned activities (mostly it’s me since Ivy plans the activities). We’ve just taken the punches as they come, making sure we communicate as much as we can about what we’re thinking. We’re honestly both pretty surprised we’ve been able to get through this and not be tired or bored of each other’s company.
Collaboration strengthens bonds
Working on our newsletter has been a wonderful experience for us. Every newsletter we decide on the topic and then write it together. We come into conflict almost every week on what we should share and how we should share it, yet we’ve always ended up with a result we’re both happy with.
Writing the newsletter gives us an open space and opportunity to share with each other first how we felt about each week and discover what we liked and didn’t like about the places we went, experiences we had, and how we felt about everything in between. It’s been a good exercise in talking through differences and so incredibly fulfilling to see our shared final product which people end up reading. We think our combined voice and result is better than if we each did it separately.
We’d highly recommend others to try collaborating on projects with their loved ones, whether it be significant other, family, or friends.
Making our relationship a focus
Whether it’s on the road or at home, it’s very easy to do our own things together but separately, especially when we came in with separate goals on what we wanted this time to be like. We realized early on that one of the goals should also be to take time to enjoy each other’s presence and value this time together since we won’t always have the opportunity to be with each other to the extent we are able to while van-life-ing. We learned that our relationship deserved, just as much as career and personal goals, to be an intentional priority of ours.
Time away from the hustle
Taking time away from SF has helped us reflect on recent events there. We’ve been listening to a lot of podcasts, reading, and journaling – there’s not much else to do on long drives / nights without electricity or internet.
The space to look back and the new ideas we’ve encountered has helped us both. I’ve gained closure on how I could have done things differently in recent conflicts, and how to further improve at work. Ivy recognized that she had been burnt out and had been afraid of her own lack of motivation, thinking her state without ambition, curiosity, and drive was permanent.
This time and space has allowed us to design our own learning curriculums, heal, and become more intentional about the direction in our lives.
You can be more than one thing
We came to see you can do a lot of different things in your life – at the same time, at different times, you don’t have to fit into a box. This was especially impactful for me. When we started off the trip, I felt like I needed to find “the one thing I’m meant to do”. I spent a lot of time mapping out my wants, skills, and what problems the world needed solving, trying to find The Correct Intersection amongst them.
From meeting so many people doing many different forms of living, that perception slowly faded. The world does have many problems in need of solving, and we still want to contribute to solving them, but we don’t have to dedicate our whole lives to solving just one. The really complex issues can’t even be solved by just one of us from one silver bullet – many people are tackling them from different angles, solving different parts of the puzzle. We can find fulfillment through many separate purposes, we don’t have to have just one big one, nor is there one correct one.
We can live with less than we thought
Not super sure if #vanlife qualifies as minimalism but we have been living out of the same 3-4 t-shirts for months. Ivy cannot believe that before leaving San Francisco, she donated 6 garbage bags full of clothes, including over 50 dresses. Our meals are constrained to one pot and one pan, and most days we can’t have meat or dairy because we don’t have a fridge to store it. Traveling light and having our life belongings fit into Red Rover grants us a lot of freedom and adventures. For this duration, living with less has been worth it.
When we come to rebuild our lives in a permanent place, we will keep that in mind before hoarding things we don’t need and making more mindful and ethical choices on the things we do buy (where you at Mari Kondo?).
…But nice things ain’t so bad
Despite being able to live with very little and priding ourselves on being able to slum it, this period has also helped us appreciate the comforts and nice things we do have. We miss our regular size kitchens (I still want a big one in my future home), access to good food (good Asian food especially), a space to host people, a hot shower anytime we want it, and even a bathroom without needing to go outside in the middle of the night when it’s cold. This experience has helped us build out a vision on the standard of life that we want, what we can live with, and what we’d like to not have to live without.