During the last Backpacker experience, we shared with you Cecile and Quentin’s round-the-world trip, which had just been interrupted by the Coronavirus. And it is in the comment section of that interview that Van (or Vanessa) shared with us that after long hours of hesitation, they decided with her husband Fab (Fabien) to stay confined in Malaysia hoping to continue their round the world trip.
This comment aroused my curiosity which led me to spend a few hours on their very nice travel blog. I discovered that they were not only Swiss, but had already been wandering around our beautiful planet for more than 30 months. So we thought it might be interesting to ask them a few questions to find out how they had come to travel so long and why they decided to confine themselves in Malaysia despite the Covid19.
Note: We asked them our questions at the end of May. As their situation has changed a bit since then, you will find some Updates in the Interview section.
Backpackers experiences with Van and Fab
Hello, you two,
Could you quickly introduce yourself and tell us what you did for a living before your trip around the world? Did you travel a lot before you left?
Van: I’m Van, almost 36 years old. I used to work for the SBB (Swiss Federal Railways). I was already fond of travel with the trains! I’ve traveled a lot in my life. As I had irregular schedules, I managed to travel several weeks outside school holidays. This was ideal for me, as I was always cold and wanted to get away from winter.
Fab: I’m Fab, 38 years old in two weeks time, I worked for SBB in train transport for 20 years. I’m a dreamer and a nature / mountain lover. Traveled a bit, but mostly in Europe.
To make it easier for our readers to get an idea, could you quickly share with us the itinerary of your trip (country, duration) and the budget you had before you left?… well roughly because you traveled already more than 30 months and you’re still not back yet 😉
- Brazil : 10 days
- Uruguay: 9 days
- Argentina: 2 and a half months
- Bolivia: 5 days, trip aborted due to floods and strikes
- Chile: 5 days, it was our escape route to Peru.
- Peru: 1 month and a half
- Ecuador: 3 months
- United States: 2 weeks
- Mexico: 1 month and a half
- Los Angeles: 3 days to catch our intercontinental flight to Asia
Asia is a bit more messy because we just followed the opportunities, the encounters and we had a few appointments to honor.
- Hong Kong: 6 days
- Malaysia: 7 months but in several times
- Singapore : 2 times 3 days
- Brunei: 2 days
- Indonesia: 1 month
- Thailand: 3 months, also in several times
- Laos: 2 weeks
- Sri Lanka: 1 month
- Emirates: 5 days
- Oman: 3 weeks
- India: 5 weeks
- Burma : 3 weeks and a half
- Cambodia: 1 month
- Vietnam: 2 and a half months
For the budget we counted 30’000 CHF (28’500€) for both for one year. It took us more than two years to spend this amount.
What were your motivations/expectations to travel around the world? Was there a trigger that pushed you to embark on this adventure?
Van: We were already two travel addicts but one day Fab comes from the library with a book called “They traveled around the World” by Sandrine Mercier and Michel Fonovich. We both read that book and Fab says “We can do that too!” And I took him at his words…
Fab: The trigger was mainly our lifestyle: nice car, nice apartment, material and financial security but little time to “enjoy” our lives together because of our different schedules.
Reactions to the announcement of such a project are often quite mixed… How did your family and friends react when you told them that you wanted to travel around the world?
Van: They weren’t really surprised, since we were already taking advantage of all our days off to travel. It was a bit more complicated when we decided to extend our trip. My family and friends were hoping that I would come back and have a “normal life”. (career, children, nice house, etc.) Missed!
Fab: The announcement to my parents came at the same time as our wedding announcement, which surprised them more than a trip around the world. My mother almost fainted but since she sees that we are happy and not crazy, I think she accepted it.
Van: I think it was good for Fab’s mum to see our little adventures “for real” and it reassured her. She’s been one of our biggest fans ever since! We’re also responsible for giving some of our friends the desire to travel!
Before departure, did you have any fears about any aspects of the trip (preparation, the trip itself and the return)?
Fab: As a good citizen of our society of over-consumption and hyper-security, the fear of lack, (food, emotional, comfort, security, etc.) which after 30 months fades away little by little but not easy in this globalized world, it is a personal discipline of every moment. As a result, the fear of coming back is exactly the same, of having to return to this capitalist and individualistic system, out of breath and lacking any meaning for us.
Van: I’m just a bit of an unconscious person, I wasn’t really afraid. But what Fab says is very true. I’m afraid I’ll have to revise some of my values to conform to Western society when we come back.
You started your journey in Brazil and South America in general… any reason for that? How did it feel to arrive in Brazil with your backpacks like that? (Personally I remember the day we landed in Beijing with our backpacks as if it was yesterday 😉 )
Van: It was a plane ticket offer that decided us. South America was also a country that neither Fab nor I had discovered before and it was a way to start with something completely new.
For me, the departure from Geneva really impressed me, because we were being accompanied to the airport by relatives and friends, and that was something special. The arrival on the bay of Rio was magnificent at sunset on the sugar loaves so typical of the region but I think I didn’t realize yet that we had left for good, not just on a holiday.
Fab: I was sooo busy with the trip preparations and I took it a bit too seriously… and when we landed in Brazil it didn’t make such a big impression on me.
How was the beginning of your trip? I remember on our side that we started the trip at 200 miles an hour to slow down over time…
Van: That’s exactly right! Besides we wanted to test volunteering at all costs and we started to everything at the same time without really benefiting from these experiences. We also had too many things planned. But destiny soon got in the way. We got stuck in Uyuni because of floods and strikes and we had to wait and then change our plans. Since then, we calmed down a lot.
Fab: Oh yes, too fast when we think about it, but I wanted to plan the volunteering and I changed my approach quickly. The trip really started in Bolivia, in a more modest country where we had to adapt our “planning” to the conditions.
Daily life on a round the world trip is very different from the daily life of an employee (or even on a more “classic” holiday), what do you like about this way of traveling? On the contrary, are there things you don’t like?
Van: On a trip like that, having more time is a real pleasure! We sometimes make detours or stopovers in unknown and unlikely places and meet fantastic people. We can afford not to plan ahead and let ourselves be driven by fate or opportunity. We also take the time to listen to each other (hunger, fatigue, feeling tired, etc.) We are just a bit more tight when it comes to budget but Fab manages it like a boss and we adapt very well,
Fab: Having time and flexibility is clearly the ultimate luxury. It allows us to open ourselves up to possibilities and options.
What about your couple? Reading your various articles, it seems that everything is going well for you. Are the hiking therapy and the sense of humor the secrets of a successful trip as a couple?
Van: It wasn’t a foregone conclusion because in our old life, we both worked irregular hours and spent our time seeing each other only between shifts. Going from that to being together 24 hours a day wasn’t going to be easy. In the end, it came fairly naturally. We have to remember to give ourself some space once in a while. But that’s good, because Fab loves to go shopping! It’s his moment and when he comes back, he’s proud to show me the treasures he’s found.
When we have a problem to solve, we put on our sneakers and go for a walk, to get some fresh air and talk. We’ve walked for miles like this! And of course, sens of humor helps to calm down a lot of situations…
Of course, sometimes it clashes and I go sulking in my corner for a while. But seeing Fab clowning around trying to cheer me up is sooo worth it!
Fab: Every week during Skype my father-in-law asks me if I can still stand Van, but apart from the fact that she always wants to deprive me of chocolate (supposedly for my own good lol) she’s adorable and it’s always a pleasure to see her by my side every morning.
Van: I don’t deprive him of chocolate, I deprive him of a chocolate orgy, nuance!
I saw that you had done several volunteer work along the way… What did you get out of this kind of experience besides the trip itself? Is it easy to find volunteering opportunities along the way?
Van: In general, volunteering opportunities are gathered on the HelpX and Workaway websites (Note from Benoit: We also know Worldpacker). They are quite easy to find but some requests remain unanswered. Already, they allow us to stop for a few weeks. Then, we discover new communities that we end up being part of. The human exchanges are generally very strong during a volunteer work. It also allows us to try out some different jobs we didn’t know anything about before.
Fab: great experience (usually not every time). But if you don’t like it, you can always pack your bag and go.
But each time we came across funny managers, crazy but great and most of all human. I recommend everyone to try this king of experience! Beach bartender, I really found this a great job to do!
What has amazed you the most during your trip so far? On the contrary, what has shocked you the most?
Van: What shocked me: the lack of ecological awareness, the mountains of rubbish, the religious pressures (of any religion), the lack of respect for women.
What amazed me: the beauty of our planet, the encounters, tolerance and open-mindedness, especially in Asia.
Fab: What shocked me was the amount of plastic and rubbish on the beaches and everywhere. The conditions of women and the weakest around the world. Humans can be really disgusting sometimes.
What amazed me: the kindness and open-mindedness of some people I met on the way, the improbable encounters, the landscapes, especially the desert for me, but the beaches are cool too.
Reading your last blog post, I see that ecology and environmental protection are topics that matters to you. Do you think that the beneficial effects of a round the world trip outweigh its negative impact on the planet? Has your way of travelling changed since you left (obviously we are not in a position to judge you but the question deserves to be asked and we would like to hear your opinion on this subject 😉 )
Fab: ecology is a vast subject! Being a nature lover for a long time I am aware of our impact, we human beings have on the fauna and flora with our modern ways of life. After participating in a beach clean up in East Malaysia, I realized that it really made sense to me, more than just accumulating useless goods, helping the planet, and educating people if possible. Afterwards, we must avoid falling into extremism because yes, obviously who are we to judge after having spent so much kerosene to travel around the world. Our current goal is not to fly anymore even if with the Covid it will be very difficult but we will try.
Van: We’re far from perfect, but we’re determined to improve. As a foreign tourist coming from a privileged country, I think it’s important to set an example.
You were in Thailand when the Coronavirus crisis broke out… How did you experience those special moments? I guess it wasn’t easy to make decisions with the situation moving so fast, conflicting information, the relatives in Switzerland who were perhaps worried…
Fab: rather pragmatic, and factual: we took a night train to Malaysia and got a 90 days visa there, before the border closed. And they did close two days after we passed through.
Van: It was difficult to realize at first because at that time in Thailand life was going on as usual. It was when we heard about the situation in other countries, the cancellation of flights and the closing of the borders that we realized that we had to take a decision. What was clear from the beginning was that we wanted to stay in Malaysia and wait for the situation to evolve. Continuing to travel was no longer our priority. And we don’t regret our choice.
In the end you decided to isolate yourself in Malaysia… Why did you choose that? What was the total lockdown in Malaysia like for you? Did you feel welcome?
Fab: Especially for the 90 day visa, an excellent health system and easy communication in English which is spoken by 90% of the population. No particular problem of acceptance, people are used to meet people from all walks of life, expats and tourists. Everyone is very considerate, people have offered us masks. The government managed this lock down very well, taking measures quickly without any economic or political pressure. The police and the army enforced the containment measures. Only essential stores were open, a grocery store run by a charming Indo-Malaysian lady supplied us with food for those two months. With a large kitchen and a garden terrace, we don’t complain too much.
Van: We’ve had feedback from travelers locked down in other countries who are victims of racism. Not at all in Malaysia! The people are still very welcoming.
You have a visa that officially lasts until mid-June… Do you know if you can extend it? How do you deal with the uncertainty caused by the Coronavirus (open borders, 2nd wave possibilities etc…) in your travel plans?
Fab: We made an appointment at the immigration office on June 10, after the end of the confinement to see what possibilities are available to us, but as the international situation is changing day by day, we won’t make too many plans, we will go wherever we want to go. By maintaining a self-discipline of semi-confinement and barrier gestures no matter what the country.
Van: What’s really frustrating is the conflicting information from the immigration department. It’s not impossible that we might have to bring ourselves to return to Switzerland. But it’s a fact that we fully accept. It will be an opportunity to hike through our Alps and, if the situation allows it, to set off on a round-the-world 2.0 by land. We will certainly have to review the way we travel with Covid19 but we are curious to see how we will be able to meet the next challenges that await us.
Van: So because of Covid 19, the non-opening of the borders and the conflicting and increasingly restrictive information on Malaysian immigration, we had to end our trip. We found a flight back to Geneva on June 1st. (If the flight is maintained… So we’re a little depressed. We’ll spend the summer in Switzerland and enjoy seeing our loved ones again, after a period of quarantine, of course! We already have a more or less concrete idea of a project for September, but it won’t be a flying start like before.
Fab: Actually we don’t really feel like “going back” except to see our relatives again. It still took a worldwide pandemic to force us to make a detour to the homeland of our passport and to put our travel plans for this year on stand-by.
You’ve been on the road for more than 30 months (you had planned 12 months initially, right?)… Talking with other travelers, we realized that often people feel the need to return home after a while. Even after 19 months of traveling, we were quite happy to come back, to see our loved ones, to get back into a bit of a routine and to start new projects. What’s your secret to keep the flame of travel intact after so much time on the road?
Fab: We left without a real return date and now we don’t know the date yet. Van, I think, will have this flame until her last breath and for my part sometimes I want to settle down for a while and we stop to do some voluntary work but soon we realize that the sedentary lifestyle doesn’t suit us. In fact, moving is in our genes. I don’t feel attached to a territory (or maybe several) but rather as a citizen of the world and Switzerland is not an option in terms of budget.
Van: We don’t travel all the time, we take breaks and we are even amazed at how quickly we get back into a routine. These breaks are healthy and make us want to go back to travel. We’ve discovered that we could be fine almost anywhere, as long as it’s not cold! The only added value of a return to Switzerland would indeed be to be reunited with our loved ones. We have friends and relatives of Fab’s who have come to visit us, twice, and it’s also interesting to see people we know well in a totally different environment.
We’ve changed so much in 30 months and we’ve let go of a lot of things that we’re a little bit afraid we would spoil all this work on ourselves if we go back to the Western world.
I imagine that even if you are always travelling, you sometimes think about the “return”. How do you see life after such an experience? Are you going to take your life back where you left it or are you going to change everything?
Van: Taking our life back to where we left it? No, not at all! Slow travel will still be part of our life, that’s for sure! We would like to turn to environmental organizations or alternative ecological communities. We are curious about how we could get out of this ultra-capitalism.
Fab: Actually, it’s hard to talk about the “after”…I’m looking into eco-villages or working in humanitarian projects, but I’m open to all opportunities.
If you already had a lesson to learn from this trip, what would it be?
Van: Wow, we have at least a thousand! But the most important ones for me are: take the time to live, listen to your body and your instincts, accept that you can’t control and predict everything, smile and never say never. The last one I dedicate to Fab who swore to me to NEVER set foot in India and now he’s dying to go back!
Fab: Time is the most precious thing on this earth.
If you could go back in time and give yourself a piece of advice right after you’ve made the decision to go on a round the world trip, what would it be?
Van: We often joke that we would have liked to start as the “people we are now”. I would suggest us not to plan too much, to trust life and not to take this trip too seriously. In the end we are here to have fun.
Fab: A few practical administrative details and especially leaving with lighter bags, but otherwise there is not much to change.
Anything to add?
Van: Thank you for giving us the chance to speak here! It was a real introspection exercise but it was very interesting!
Fab: Thank you for contacting us and especially thank you for your article about Hpa-an in Burma which inspired us and the one about the administrative procedures in Switzerland because Swiss backpackers are not so common.
This is the end of this 4th Backpackers experiences! We warmly thank Van and Fab for taking the time to answer all our questions and we wish them all the best for the rest of their adventures in Spain and elsewhere. And as always,. if you have any questions to ask them, don’t hesitate to leave a comment below 😉