Friends, join me in the Trust Tree for just a moment and let us speak honestly. Let us speak honestly about the realities of travel, or Everything Is Not Always As Perfect As It Seems. As you are all well aware, we live in a manufactured world, where fake news and social media dominate our feeds and our brains. And the truth is…well, not everything is as it seems. This is especially true when it comes to travel.
No, camping next to an airport won’t be loud at all. Why would you think that?
When you see beautifully Instagrammed photos of your friends and family sunning and sipping fruity cocktails on some pristine white sand beach, you might think, “What jerks! Why are they on vacation and I’m slaving away in this hellhole?” But what you don’t see in that perfect photo is the tortuous four-hour ride in a rickety school bus over gravel roads to get there, the thousands of sandflies currently attacking them, and the bar bill where those cocktails were $25 each.
What a stunning beach! Is there a backstory?
Travel is not always glamorous. In fact, unless you travel at a pretty high level (which we do not), travel is actually rarely glamorous. And this is where in a normal travel article I would pleadingly claim, “But that’s where the best experiences happen! You know, when everything goes wrong!” Rubbish. The best experiences happen when you accept that many, many things are going to go wrong, or at least take ten times longer than you thought they would, and you learn to deal with it anyway. That’s what good travel actually encompasses. Before we left, I clipped the following unattributed quote and pasted it in my travel journal: “I’ve always felt that lowered expectations are the key to a great holiday.” This has proved relevant on more than one occasion during our travels.
Kyoto’s futuristic train station.
Allow me to provide merely one example: N and I wanted to do some laundry. Simple enough. We’re each travelling out of one large backpack, so doing laundry every week to ten days (unless we’re on a farm in Japan wearing all of our clothes at one time) is adequate. One Saturday, we decided to do our laundry early the following morning as we had to leave our campsite by 7AM, and the museum we wanted to visit that day didn’t open until 10AM. Three hours should be more than enough, right? So we do what every modern traveler might do: we Google “24 hour Laundromats in Wellington” and find two likely candidates.
This backpack has served N well since he first ventured to Honduras more than fifteen years ago.
We wake up Sunday at 5AM and get ourselves together. By 5:30 we’re on the road, but our GPS has decided that it’s taking the morning off for reasons unknown. We have a vague knowledge of downtown Wellington from walking the previous day, but the Laundromats we’re heading for are definitely not in the touristy areas. So we opt to troll a few downtown hotels, waking up sleepy front desk staff and asking for old-fashioned paper maps. When we finally get one, it just reaches the outer edge of the area we’re headed for, meaning we’ll have to wing it from there. (Oh, and if you’re wondering why we didn’t just use GPS on our phones? When your American cell service provider swears that you’ll have “really fast unlimited data in over 140 countries,” THEY ARE ABSOLUTELY AND TOTALLY LYING.)
The interisland ferry from Wellington on New Zealand’s North Island to Picton on the South Island. The photo was taken at 5:15AM; travel isn’t always about sleeping in.
So. Now the sun is just coming up, and I’m trying to use a paper map (remember that you always have to be in the map to navigate) to guide N through the narrow, twisty, turny, windy streets of Wellington (much like the hilliest parts of San Francisco) in a campervan definitely not designed for such silly Fast and the Furious games. We just make it to the first Laundromat when the GPS decides to show up for work. And the Laundromat is out of business.
No worries; onto the next Laundromat. It’s open! We grab all of our laundry and load up two of the tiny washing machines. Seeing that we’ve put our clothes in and are clearly ready to start washing, the young couple next to us asks if they can just pay us to use our KeyCard because the minimart next door where you buy them doesn’t open until 8 and it’s only just after 7.
Sometimes travelers need a little guidance; Japanese train stations helpfully provide that. We could have used the assistance in Wellington.
Wait, what? What’s a KeyCard? We’d loaded up with coins, which shows you how long it’s been since we used a Laundromat. No, it turns out that this Laundromat doesn’t use coins (presumably because the machines have been broken into repeatedly) and instead uses a KeyCard that we don’t have and can’t buy. Remove all laundry from machines and climb into van, dejected.
Search for next Laundromat on non-working but unlimited data; it doesn’t open until 9AM. We find a supermarket parking lot where we can sit comfortably for about an hour; of course, the area we’ve chosen is the site of an annual charity run attracting about 15,000 runners to the waterfront. We may actually be blocked in unless we can find an alternate route across the city. We are making poor choice after poor choice and our quiet Sunday morning is quickly imploding.
Race volunteers chalked encouraging messages along the course in Wellington. We definitely needed them too that day.
A few minutes before 9, we manage to make it to the day’s third Laundromat. It’s open! They accept actual money! We’re in! (And we’ve been to more Laundromats in one morning than in the entirety of our previous fifteen years.) We load in our laundry, then spend the time canvassing the neighborhood for potable water taps, clean public bathrooms and free Wi-Fi. Truly, when you’re campervan hobos like we are, these things matter. (And please note that we’re trademarking Campervan Hobos as our band name.)
Two hours and fifteen minutes, 30 kilometers, many wrong turns and $20 later, we have fresh, clean laundry. If you’ve been keeping track, it took us over six hours – six hours! – to wash and dry one large load of laundry, and we accomplished virtually nothing else during that time. And that, my loves, is often the reality of travel. So the next time you look at some glossy photo on social media and find yourself filled with envy, just remember the sandflies. And don’t forget your KeyCard.