HAPPY CAMPER

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Written by Veerle Helsen 

For more than half a year, I travelled alone through Spain and Portugal in my camper, Connor. I spent the first night at Praia da Bordeira, at the end of the world, thirty metres above the sea, surrounded by shifting colours. The Algarve was dressed to impress. It was the start of a journey that would change my life.

 

Living in a camper is something you have to learn. Connor, a 20-year-old Fiat Riviera, is about 15m² on the inside – which means it takes two steps to get from one end to the other. Everything is minimalistic, but the bare necessities are all there: bathroom (toilet with a shower head above it), stove (2 hobs), fridge (complete with a little freezer) and even a 'garage' in the back. I slept in a small alcove above the front seats, where sitting up straight was impossible.  But I would wake up each morning with the sun’s rays glittering on the sea. Connor and I cruised through magical Iberia with the Atlantic Ocean always in our backyard.

 

I set off on this road trip despite having everything back home that people hope for: a house, a job, a relationship and friends. Why? Because I was stuck on the treadmill of life and I wanted to jump into the unknown. 

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Connor the camper. A cool name, but it wasn’t chosen for the alliteration. He’s named after the tragically deceased son of Mieke and Madou, two of my best friends. Our hearts were broken when Connor died. I bought the campervan at around the same time, and we made the decision together. That way, he’s still around. His name lives on. Connor the adventurer. Connor the surf boy. The more we say his name, the more it warms their hearts. Their Connor has been on one hell of an adventure. He and I became inseparable, overcoming all obstacles in our path.

 

Salt & wonder

It takes a while to get to Dreamland. Literally, of course: 1,500 miles takes two days in a normal car, three in an old campervan. But spiritually as well. You don’t just flip a switch in your head when you get behind the wheel of a campervan. I drove and drove and drove. There isn’t a place in the western Algarve that I haven’t seen. I explored like a maniac, without a goal or a compass. Watching, driving, hiking, searching, chatting. Gradually, the Algarve got under my skin. It broke down my wall of bottled-up stress, haste and indecisiveness, brick by brick. 

When I look back at the trip, memories glide by like summer clouds in a blue sky. I never realized how beautiful and how pristine Spain and Portugal could be, but more importantly I never expected to see their wild, rugged side, where time stands still and the views haven’t changed in fifty years. I learned a lot: the best beaches in Spain are not in the sunny south but in the untamed north, and Portugal is infused with a melancholic yearning called saudade. Everything runs slowly in both countries. It can be frustrating when you’re making appointments, recording interviews or trying to get your campervan, but the secret is patience. The locals are simply cut from a different cloth. They’re not in a hurry – and that’s something to envy.

 

I met the loveliest and sweetest of people. Strangers find each other: that’s the way it goes, especially when you’re travelling by yourself. The American author Kio Stark wrote a book about it: When Strangers Meet. It was in the glove compartment of the campervan for six months. She writes about the pleasure of an unexpected chat. When was the last time you spoke to a stranger? And do you really talk to people or do you just text them? In São Pedro de Moel, a whole village seemed to come together to help pull Connor out of the sand. In the surf lineup, on campervan spots and in seaside bars: ocean people are everywhere. You can’t define us by age, nationality or sex, but a strong bond brings us all together.

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To mention all the episodes that sparkled my heart would be impossible, but here’s the top sixteen in geographical sequence:

* The magic of a long drive, taking to the road day after day

* Spending the night in a campervan under a perfect sky (Bordeira)

* A haphazard drive through cornfields, ending up on secret cliffs (Almagreira)

* From the sea to José and Joana’s barbecue (Mar Dentro)

* Fish and oldfashioned potatoes at senior Moreira’s – and his wife’s chocolate mousse! (Porto)

* An unexpected knock at the door on my birthday (Moledo)

* Drinking a Sagres at a hidden picnic spot (Lanzada)

* Collecting firewood and making bonfires on the beach (Area Grande)

Surfing with dolphins (Furnas in Galicia)

* Parking Connor on a rock at the end of the world (Finisterre)

* Carpool karaoke in northern Spain – tune your radio to Kiss FM (Between Galicia and Cantabria)

* Driving from one river to the other over never-ending bridges (Galicia)

* Unwittingly barging into a Michelin-starred restaurant wearing flip-flops (Pepe Vieira)

* Wandering about in a Milka advert (Picos de Europa)

* Scoring wave after wave in a longboard dream (Oyambre)

* Cracking open a bottle of Basque bubbly on my own, in a vineyard with a sea view (Getaria)

Salt and wonder: two words to sum up my trip. Salt was on my skin every day, when I got up and when I went to bed. I’ve been surfing for four years and I still don’t always get it right. But I improve with each wave. I’m determined to make it. The thrill of getting in my car and checking out different spots to compare – it’s an obsession, an addiction. Surfing is hard work, and progress feels painfully slow. If you’re not on the right part of the wave, it rolls under you or crashes over your head. If you paddle too slowly, the sea says you can forget about it. You have to catch the momentum.

But even when nothing seems to work, the sessions still make you happy. The feeling of being in the sea is incomparable, as if that great blue mass is taking control of your mind. Surfing is like daydreaming: your hard disk is wiped clean and your problems disappear. It doesn’t matter how badly you just surfed, you always – okay, nearly always – come out of the sea feeling better. The sea is a buddy that never lets you down.

My greatest supporter

Was I never lonely, everyone asks. Of course I was. But never in a way that made me unhappy. Being alone helped me to think things through and gave me time to stand still. Back home in Belgium, the land of haste, the treadmill is stuck at high speed. But on my trip in the land of dreams, there was time and space to reflect on the path my life was taking. Was I going in the right direction?

Besides which, I had plenty of visitors in my mobile home – and I could easily put them up, because the breakfast table doubled up as a guest bed. On my birthday, for example, I heard a knock on the door. Wild camping leads you to expect the worst in such situations: I figured it was probably the police. Instead, it was the perfect surprise: Mieke and Madou, Connor’s parents, who had secretly worked out my location and were here to celebrate my special day. We gathered wood from the forest to make fires on the beach and we chilled our bottles of Sagres in the sea, the rocks forming a fairy-tale landscape all around us. We slumbered with Connor and we sang ourselves hoarse to Wouldn’t It Be Nice by The Beach Boys.

Did I not miss my boyfriend? That’s another common question – and although people phrase it that way, what they really mean is: are things not right between you two? If you don’t take the standard paths that society expects, people are quick to make assumptions. I spent 151 days without him, and I counted every one of them. But he also came to visit me several times. We’ve now been together for 20 years and he remains my greatest supporter. It was he who dried my tears via Whatsapp after a break-in. He who sent me hearts on Messenger when I was feeling lonely. And it was he who whispered in my ear: ‘If you want to go on a great adventure, do it. Be a butterfly.’ Being alone for a while brings many benefits: one of the greatest is that it reminds you who and what you truly care about. 

Behind the Pinterest-perfect image

Is van life always great? Does it live up to your dreams? Mostly it does, but not always. Instagram and Facebook only show the good life: the adventures and the ocean views. Things can go wrong: what if you scratch behind the Pinterest-perfect image? 

In Lisbon I drove Connor under a bridge and got stuck. There I was, in a foreign country, under concrete, with the roof smashed to bits. I cried and I panicked – but this was nothing compared with some of the situations to come. I had a stalker at Playa de Razo. A man kept hanging around the campervan, taking photos and knocking on the door. Barely two weeks later, while I was working inside, Connor was broken into. All the curtains were closed, so the burglars must have thought there was nobody home. I heard them fiddling with the lock, and all of a sudden they were inside. Thankfully my movement in the van was enough to scare them away. It seems funny now, but it wasn’t at the time.

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In northern Galicia, Connor’s roof window blew off during a storm, leaving a seven-foot hole in my home. Buying a new skylight wasn’t an option because Connor was too old and the window was no longer in production. From then on, I had to replace the rain-soaked tape every three to four days. It wasn’t exactly in the most accessible part: I had to dangle from the roof to get to the window. 

One day, the brakes failed as I was going down a hill. That was panic with a capital P. Reflex: haaaandbraaaake! Connor came to a stop, spinning on his axis. He was towed away five times on this trip and taken to the garage doctor eighteen times. I now know the engine inside out and I even learned to stick spare parts together with wetsuit glue! I’d bought Connor for 11,000 euros and in the end the repair costs came to 6,000 euros. An old beast is not made for such an intense trip.

Towards the end of our travels, the tyres lost their tread and could no longer cope with shingle or gravel going uphill. I put my foot down, but we didn’t move. The tyres started smoking and smelled of burning rubber. The only thing I could do was reverse back down and check the map for a way to circumvent the hill. Just imagine how much fun that is when you’re on a single-track road with five cars behind you. Connor was too old for this trip; by the end, he was doing everything he could to signal that enough was enough. Things broke one after the other: the steering wheel, gas, fridge, electricity, water. The bumper was disintegrating and almost scraping the ground. Connor was tired and fed up.

Now, scroll back to the passage about Connor and the meaning behind his name. My head told me he was too old and run-down, and the amount I was spending on repairs was increasing exponentially. My heart, though, couldn’t let go of Connor. I had to call the towing services again and again, but Connor and I were not prepared to throw in the towel. Never. I had to get him home safe and sound, and I was going to do it. And today, the sweet little adventurer, the surf boy, still lives on! 

Dreams are like surf wax

I wanted challenges and I got them. Those setbacks are now water under the bridge, and I’m super proud of myself. Salt and wonder, I wrote? Sometimes you sink your teeth into something so hard – you invest so much time, love and energy into it – that you just can’t turn back. Survival mode kicks in, even though you know that the effort you’re having to put in is bordering on the absurd. Dreams are like surf wax: they won’t let go.

 

The negative experiences I listed above fit in a few paragraphs. The unforgettable moments stretch over three hundred! My guidebook Surf & Stay came out this summer, full of tips for surf and camper spots, hidden hotels and the best fish restaurants. It’s a visual travel guide: the poetry of the ocean is presented in spectacular photos as well as in the words of the locals.  I began the trip with a couple of major aims: I wanted to reinvent myself and get started on my own project. I’d been doing my job for 15 years already and felt the urge to try something new.

 

Did I fulfil those aims – has the adventure really changed my life? Yes. A few months afterwards and just before my book got published, I gave up my job. Fixing my van with duct tape versus getting stuck in a traffic jam on the way to work: it’s a no brainer for me. Returning to a ‘normal’ life isn’t an option.

© Géraldine van Wessem

People of my generation often live according to the TINA philosophy: there is no alternative. Work, home, family. They take out a mortgage and work themselves to death, because that’s what they’re meant to do. An open-minded view of the world is difficult when your path has already been mapped out. But there is another way. There is always another way. It’s a lesson I’ve finally learned, and I wish I could put it in the drinking water. When I was younger, I thought it was great to have material stuff. Now I’ve managed to live on a tight budget for months, and I was fine. Better than fine. Who cares if I couldn’t shower every day?

 

Staring up at an inky black, starlit sky is something we don’t do often enough. Embracing inertia. Sauntering, getting lost. I may not have a fixed income at the moment, but the chance to live my own life, free from deadlines, is worth every euro of my savings. I have no doubt that the future will bring more salt and wonder. Greetings from Dreamland.