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The Van Plan

I’ve been wanting to go on a year long trip for a very long time. But for some reason (mostly being a student), I never had the money and the time (mostly money). So once I got my first real job I started saving some money for the travel fund. But my long term travel ideas were mostly ideas. Life in Switzerland was pretty good and I already got to travel a lot. But the topic kept coming up when talking to friends (mostly in late night “What-will-you-be-doing-in-five-years?” discussions after enough drinks). Finally in November 2014 when I was travelling in Australia I had enough time to myself to think things over and I decided to go for it. Somewhere I had once read a story about a guy who drove his 4WD starting with his back tires in the Arctic Ocean in Alaska all the way until his front tires were in the Antarctic Ocean in Argentina. That sounded like a great plan! To make sure I didn’t chicken out I started telling some friends that I had ‘decided’ to go on a trip like this too. Surprisingly, the response was extremely positive and almost nobody thought I was crazy.

So I started planning. There are a surprising amount of people doing trips like this so information wasn’t too hard to find. I would fly to Alaska, buy a car and drive to Argentina. I can nicely start in the part where people still speak English and the roads are relatively good. So that by the time I would get into language problems at least I would know how to do the driving/camping part. Turns out cars in Alaska are expensive. New plan: start on  the East-coast of the US and drive across to Alaska from there. Cheaper cars, cheaper flights, perfect. Funnily enough you can just type in your route in Google Maps (except for the bit between Panama and Colombia where there are no roads). It sums up to some 28.000 km. Add some cool places (Montreal, a bit further north in Alaska, Seattle, San Francsico, Cusco, Bolivia, Chile) and you get to 34.000 km, add some 40% for detours and you get to a nice 50.000 km. Sounds doable.

In the meantime I told almost all of my friends and my family about my plans. The last step to make everything happen was to quit my job and cancel my apartment. That wasn’t an easy step. I was working for a cool medtech startup and I had been working from them from when they first started hiring people. But this is where my friends came in handy. At some point I had friends asking me every day whether I had quit my job yet. At the end of November 2015 I told my boss I would be leaving and so at the end of February I could get started.

Then I changed my plans again. Camper vans were cheaper in New York than in Alaska, but most of them were too big and often in a very shitty state. The kind of van I wanted (a Volkswagen Westfalia) was way cheaper back in Europe. Turns out shipping a car across the Atlantic is actually not that expensive and only takes some three weeks. And as long as you don’t leave your car in a country for a year, the import regulation is pretty easy too (at least easier than trying to buy and register a car as a non-resident). So I moved my flights to New York back by a few weeks and started looking for a car in the Netherlands. There are plenty of Westfalia vans in the Netherlands, but the good ones are sold before you can reply to the ad. The second day I was back, me and my dad drove to the first van, which was really close to my parents’ house. Parked at a farm filled with loads and loads of broken cars,  it didn’t look too bad (after seeing some other ones, this one actually quite terrible). The next week we drove half way across the country (luckily the Netherlands is small) for a van that we found on some obscure, well hidden website. This van looked great, the owner had been taking good care of it and in the last years it got its engine completely fixed up, it had a new pop-up tent canvas, new fridge and new power convertor installed. When I told the guy about my trip, he insisted on getting it fully checked by his garage before I would take it. So a few days later only a week after arriving in the Netherlands I went to pick it up and was now the proud owner of my first ever car!

Getting all the paperwork approved for the shipping takes quite some time. This gave me a nice three weeks to work on the van in my parents’ garage. Time to fix up the paint a bit, get a new radio, add a third brake light, some extra power outlets, fix some small loose parts and much more. I also took the car for some test drives visiting friends, making sure everything worked they way I wanted. Everything looked great.

And then it was time for the first drama! The evening before the car would be picked up for shipment I noticed quite some oil underneath the car. It didn’t look good… How could it be leaking oil when it had a full checkup just two weeks ago? How can it be leaking oil now and not after all the drives I did the last few weeks? So I called off the transport to the harbour (luckily the departure from the harbour had just moved by a week too). The next day we went for some more driving and brought it to the garage of a mechanic who happened to be standing behind us at the fuel station. Now things were getting from bad to worse…. When we arrived at the garage the engine didn’t even switch off anymore (you could take the key out but the engine kept running) and when the car was lifted up at the mechanic there was oil everywhere. I was expecting problems with my car, but not just after a checkup and especially not before leaving the Netherlands. So we called the mechanic who did the original check-up and he offered that we could come by for him to have a look.

Turns out it wasn’t all that bad. When they replaced the oil in the checkup some valve wasn’t closed all the way, obviously causing the leaking. And when we tried to clean the oil off, we accidentally loosened a cable a bit causing the engine not to stop. (Now I know why in medical devices you have to use connectors that can only be loosened with a tool.) So yesterday they picked up my car (a day later than planned because extra border checks between Belgium and the Netherlands) and to make things even better I received the import approval from the US.

I’ll wait another week in the Netherlands until the car is really on the boat and on the second of April I will fly to New York (via Iceland!).

Song:

The van isn’t going to Boston. But it is being shipped and while I wait for it to arrive I will go to Boston. Close enough…

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