Just before we left on this trip, I heard author Elizabeth Gilbert explain that 90 percent of anything worth doing—whether it’s writing or raising small children or travel—is pretty dull and routine.
A whole lot of travel is sitting in airports, train stations and traffic jams, Gilbert told Krista Tippett in an “On Being” podcast. Or being in a museum that isn’t all that interesting when you’d really rather be eating lunch. Or getting lost in a town that isn’t as cool as it sounded in the guidebook But then there’s the transforming, amazing ten percent, which Gilbert says is the reason you decided to travel in the first place.
I’ve thought about that 90 /10 percent quote a lot in these last ten days because most of what we’ve been doing so far is the routine nuts-and-bolts stuff about learning how to live out of a campervan.
There’s a romantic myth about campervan life in which you drive around in a spacious, neat vehicle that at night magically transforms itself into a spacious well-lit bedroom, kitchen and living room. It’s sort of like the van version of Hermonie’s magical handbag in the Harry Potter books, which is charmed to allow her to carry clothes, medicine, an amazing tent with bunkbeds and cooking supplies, all in a small, beaded purse.
Alas, our van did not come with an Undetectable Extension Charm. Don’t get me wrong. The crew at Slidepods did an amazing job adding a pop-up roof, putting in a kitchen that slides out the back; driver and passenger seats that swivel around, a diesel heater for cold nights, and a great electrical system with USB plugs and lighting.
But still, it’s also only a little bit bigger than a mini-van. And we’re carrying clothes, food, raincoats, two folding chairs, books and toiletries, etc. So it’s sort of like living in one of those 15-piece little puzzle squares with one tile missing. You’re always shoving stuff around, trying to an open space for whatever you’re doing.
So it only took us a couple days of shoving our stuff around and observing how our fellow campers in the campgrounds were living to come to this fundamental truth: either you sleep in a tent and store a lot of stuff in your vehicle. Or you sleep in your vehicle and store your stuff in a tent.
Since we are sleeping in our vehicle, it was a clear choice. We bought a cheap utility tent-–it’s basically a storage shed. I didn’t even know such things existed and in an earlier life, I would have mocked it. But man, now I think a utility tent is pure genius. If we’re going to be staying in a campground for a few days, we put it up, shove all our stuff in there and then, the van feels a lot more spacious. (Even then, it’s still small.)
Anyhow, I’m glad I heard that podcast with Elizabeth Gilbert because we have spent 90 percent of our time on the road so far doing routine thing: driving, going grocery shopping, finding the address of our next location, getting lost, fixing little things that broke, packing up, filling water tanks, buying utility tents, buying bicycles, figuring out how to get them on the bike rack, etc.
We travel to discover encounter new things, new worlds, but that also means you’re continually dealing with the unfamiliar. Which means you spend a lot of time every day trying to figure basic stuff like how to unlock the grocery cart at Sainsbury’s (it takes a one pound coin and you get it back when you return it); how to top off your British SIM card; how to find the bicycle paths in a crowded city or figure out the bus system or a hundred other things. I’m learning the key is to stay curious and patient (because on a practical level, impatience doesn’t help; it just makes everything harder.)
There are ways around having to constantly deal with unfamiliar details of life in a new place. Five-star hotel, guided tours or cruises can buffer you from it. But those options come with their own trade-offs and John and I have always preferred traveling as low to the ground as possible,, i..e. camping and hosteling, not only because we save money, but because it comes with its own rewards.
Last night, we took the car ferry from Pembroke, Wales to Rosslare, Ireland. The ferry docked at 7 p.m. We arrived at St. Margaret’s Beach Caravan and Camping Park around 8 p.m. It’s the last week before school starts, so the campground was full of kids chasing each other, riding bikes and scooters.
We set up our van for the night and met our neighbors, Rebecca and George, who were camping with their four kids. They live only 20 miles away, but she said they come because the campground is only 500 meters from the beach and her kids love playing on it.
“It’s low tide, “Rebecca said, “so you could go right now and see it.” She looked at our bikes. “The sand is pretty hard,” she added. “If you can get your bikes down the rocky path, you could ride on the beach.”
The light was fading, so we jumped on our bikes. The campground is surrounded by farmland, so we rode down a narrow lane, past herds of cows, wandering around very green fields, amid vine-covered ruins of what looked like an old monastery or manor house. Is this Ireland or what? We went around another curve and then suddenly, there was the beach—-a huge, sandy bay with tiny fishing boats at one end. We walked our bikes down a rocky path. Rebecca was right—the sand was hard. So we rode around the bay. Below is a quick snapshot of the beach as the sun faded.
There were only a handful of people down there, enjoying the last few minutes after the sunset. A young woman waded out into the sea and carefully tied her long hair into a bun. While her companion watched, she took a quick, plunge underwater and squealed. He snapped a photo. I admired her fortitude. The sea is cold here. It was windy and only about 60 degrees.
We rode home and made tea out of our back kitchen. I stayed up for another hour, reading about Irish history in our van, which has lights and can feel very cozy on a cool, windy night.
I don’t know if this was transformative or amazing, but I think this was the ten percent that Elizabeth Gilbert was talking about.