Today, we bring you a very special post — the first in an ongoing series of interviews with other travelers, be they round-the-world trippers or digital nomads, who have inspired us and others to pursue an anti-9-to-5 lifestyle of long, slow travel.
Known to the Internet as the Dangerz, Bryan and Jen (above) saved their money and downsized their lives over a five-year period in order to embark on a 10-month overland trip from British Columbia to Costa Rica in a ’67 Volkwagen bus, which — I’d like to emphasize — had no windshield wipers!
Sounds crazy, right?
That’s exactly what we loved about this couple’s adventure along the Panamerican Highway.
Recently, Bryan took some time out to answer a few questions we had about their trip planning, long-term travel with a dog, and their future plans.
Can you tell us a little about yourselves and your backgrounds?
Bryan is an artist at heart but seldom got to use it — trained in architecture, hired as a graphic designer but then spent the next 15 years traveling way too much and doing sales/marketing/client management. He’s the thinker, the worrier, but looking to live life through Jen’s eyes for a while.
Jen was a numbers girl at work (but you’d never know it). She worked for several top name retail sports/apparel companies and basically told them how much of what to buy. She’s the hippy at heart, never worries about anything, always smiling and always meeting new people. She’s the driving force behind the trip.
We were both good at our jobs, but something never quite seemed right. We never had enough time together, and we never had the time or energy to chase our true creative souls.
We always wondered why we couldn’t just “be normal” and go through life with everyone else rather than always searching and wondering what else was out there.
How far in advance did you begin preparing for the trip and where did the idea for it come from?
Jen wanted to run away as long as I’ve known her. She’s a hippy at heart and its always been easy for her to simply say “let’s leave it all behind.” I was more stuck on the “how’s” of finances and retirement, etc. Society had a firm grasp on me, and I couldn’t see how it was possible to leave and not regret it later (despite the fact I knew we’d have a great time).
I was sitting in a doctor’s office one day when he asked if I had ever been warned about high blood pressure. I wasn’t there yet, but one positive test is an indicator of things to come. I went home and said I was ready. We started planning that day.
It took us 5 years of downsizing, paying off debt, and saving money to leave. It was important to us (mainly me) that we weren’t just taking a vacation, but that we would buy ourselves enough freedom to see things from the other side, or possibly even not have to return. If we decided to rejoin society, we wanted to make sure it would be by choice and that we never felt like we were running back on our last dime and with our tail between our legs.
We likely overprepared…but so far its totally been worth it!
What was the biggest challenge in getting yourselves prepared?
Breaking the norms. Retraining ourselves to be different people.
We had lived together for 10 years and lived to the full extent of our means. When we started the process we lived in a 5+ bedroom house (with garage and basement) that was completely full. We spent every dime we earned and had nothing in savings. By the time we moved into the bus five years later, we had only what we could take with us and a few small, other things stored in a closet-sized space.
Without ever leaving we had changed our lives entirely. But we couldn’t have done so without the light at the end of the tunnel that was provided by chasing our dreams and the idea of the adventure to come. Without the goal and a firm date, we never could have stayed true to the plan and made the hard decisions to stay on track.
What did you hope to learn or accomplish by doing an overland trip like this?
Happiness and freedom.
For us, this entire experience was about re-centering our lives and focusing on the things that truly make us happy/free.
We never knew the word “overlanding” before we left and had no idea how far we’d go. We never really were certain we’d leave Mexico.
We’ve always loved travel and exploration, but all of our other trips took place once a year and lasted only about 10 days, because that’s all the time we could get off from work or afford. We simply wanted to leave for long enough that we actually missed home and were happy to come back. We wanted to have time to fully immerse in local culture and people and experience their world through their eyes rather than just stopping in.
Mostly, we went in search of our happy place — physically and mentally.
Sadly, this has become extremely rare in our society. We know only a handful of people that truly enjoy their jobs, and given the number of hours we all spend working, it just doesn’t seem fair. We wanted to shake up the status quo and see what fell out.
What did your friends and family think when you told them your plans?
Mostly everyone was supportive. Obviously we heard a lot of “are you crazy?” or “really, Mexico?”. But, overall, everyone supported us. It wasn’t until we were leaving that we figured out that it may have been because they didn’t actually believe we were leaving. We had dreamt about and talked about this for so long that I think others eventually just rolled their eyes and thought it would never happen. When we actually drove through town headed south, we actually got a lot of “you’re really going?” comments that made us realize that many people thought it would never happen.
Did you ever question your decision?
Never. Wait, always. Wait.
In the 5 years leading up until our trip, I questioned it all the time: “Are we crazy?”, “Who would leave in the middle of the worst economy of our time?”, “What will we do about retirement?”.
The moment we left it all became crystal clear and I’ve never asked the question again. Jen (to my knowledge) never asked it at all.
Why the VW van? It seems kinda crazy to do a trip like this without windshield wipers!
For the record, the ’67 VW bus rolled off the factory floor with wipers. Ours even had them when we bought it.
We started out looking for a vehicle that we could live in comfortably and that anybody could fix. We kept hearing about how hard (and expensive) it was to get newer vehicles worked on if they break down, and kept hearing how a VW bus could be fixed by anyone anywhere — perfect for a couple with zero mechanical skills and knowledge.
We sought out a Westy Camper from the ’80s, equipped with stove and pop-top and all, but when we drove a split-window bus we fell in love. End of story.
Now, looking back, we wouldn’t change a thing. When we ran into others on the road who spent five or 10 times on their rig [what] we spent on ours and had fancy rooftop tents and, yes, air conditioning, they would talk about the positives of our choice: We didn’t have to find a campground at the end of a driving day; we didn’t have to pop the top and expose ourselves to sleep comfortably; and when we broke down (which was often), almost anyone could put us back on the road. Do I wish we had power (anything) and a smoother ride? Yes. Do I wish it [had] four-wheel drive? Yes. Did either of those things ever stop us from going anywhere? No.
All that doesn’t even begin to describe the VW factor: the community of people that come with it — the VW lovers around the world that are willing to help out when you’re in need.
Nor does it cover the average person who sees the bus and immediately falls in love — especially true in Mexico. They consider the bus their own and part of their culture. Making friends in the bus is as simple as returning a wave of a peace sign. That’s how we want to arrive in a new town.
Most would be amazed to learn that, even as often as we broke down and with all the problems we had with the bus, it was one of our smallest expenses.
We had repair bills before leaving (from a day or two in the shop) that eclipsed all of our bus bills on the road combined.
How much actual trip planning did you do once you got out on the road?
Almost none. Other than saving money and maybe jotting down a few towns we wanted to hit, we did almost no planning. This is also the opposite of how I worked in our past lives. I used to plan every trip down to the day and hour. This time I agreed to try on Jen’s approach. We would wake up in the morning and decide if it was time to leave, and we would pull over when a town looked good or when we got tired.
We had no map and no GPS, so we made most of it up as we went along.
We also chose not to buy the typical guide books because we felt like they cause everyone to end up in the same spaces as everyone else. This was both good and bad. It meant we didn’t make as many overlanding friends and didn’t hang out with the same group at every campground, but it also meant we got to meet more locals and experience more things along the way.
Any tips on long term travel with a dog?
It was easy, but Karma (our dog) also made it easy. Karma is the most submissive dog we’ve ever met, which diffused most possible situations. She’s also really well-behaved and low-maintenance, so she made things really easy on us.
She did get a tick-bourne disease en route, and we had a stressful go of it, but it’s hard to blame that on the trip. We actually had family members battling the same disease back home with their dogs. When it did happen we got excellent vet care (and at a small fraction of the price we would have paid back home).
Karma is a member of the family. We never considered doing this without her.
Did you have any “oh shit” moments where you thought you might run out of money or you were in serious danger?
No. Never. Seriously.
This is almost everyone’s first question. Thanks for putting it further down the list. And when we reply, they look at us as though we’re lying.
Somewhere we got to a point (thanks to mass media) that everyone believes the United States is safe while Mexico is dangerous. We found quite the opposite.
We almost never locked our doors and slept almost every night (even if we were in a city of 8 million people, or on the side of the highway, or parked on the beach) with the cargo doors wide open and nothing but a screen between us and the outside world. I can’t think of many places in the States I’d be willing to do the same.
We had no weapons other than our smiles and a can of wasp spray (which came in handy when attacked by ants), and never questioned whether that was a bad idea.
Do you have a favorite destination that you can’t wait to get back to some day?
Mexico — hands down. We were and are infatuated with Mexico — its people, its culture, its food.
We almost didn’t leave for Central America because we knew we would miss Mexico (and the first time we left we returned two weeks later). While we loved the countries in Central America, every one still earned the “but its still not Mexico” badge for one reason or another.
Any places that just didn’t live up to your expectations or that you would skip now knowing what you know?
We’re always game for anywhere, but if we had to choose one: it’s Costa Rica.
Costa Rica is awesome (eye candy, really), and we loved our first vacation there years ago.
On this trip, after staying and playing in every small pueblo in every country along the way and experiencing their culture, Costa Rica was the first country that didn’t seem to offer the same. It’s three times more money than its neighbors and, in our opinion, doesn’t have the strong local feel that the same neighbors offer.
Our bus is there now, and we’re looking forward to returning in the fall, so we certainly aren’t anti-Costa Rica, but you did ask.
What advice would you give for somebody looking to take a similar trip?
To us this wasn’t so much about the trip as about changing our lifestyle.
But if you’re driven to do either, just do it. And do it now!
How many times have you met people a generation older that told you not to wait, to go off and chase your dreams? And why do we all nod and then go right back to life as though they were just kidding? There will never be a perfect time to jump and chase your dreams, but there’s also no telling how long we’ll each be here.
I was nothing short of terrified in the years leading up to us leaving. Thats what society tells us to do. Now, looking back, I can’t even figure out what I was afraid of. I look back at our trip and it seemed like a weekend drive to the coast — nothing special, nothing terribly exotic or hard, just a choice. Every decision we make in life seems terrifying from the front end and really small once you’ve made it. Seriously, what have we all got to lose?
I found it helpful to keep the goal in mind when you had to make the hard decisions when saving and preparing. Set a date and stick to it.
What’s next for you guys?
Unknown. We are currently loving summer in our “hometown” of Portland, Oregon, and trying to solve the question of how to live here (at least part of the year) for cheap.
We will likely be returning to Costa Rica to reunite with our bus in the fall, but anything after that is unknown. Drive back north to Mexico? To Portland? Ship to South America? Ship somewhere else?
Planning has never been our forte.
To find out where The Dangerz will end up next, follow along at thedangerz.com. You can also support their quest by purchasing one of their awesome T-shirts. (All photos courtesy of The Dangerz.)