Driving around the world? Hell, yeah! Now, that would be an adventure. Except what’s the saying? “It’s not an adventure until something goes wrong.” Right. Drive a 29-year-old Volkswagen van from North American to Tierra del Fuego, ship it to Asia and start driving again, and you’ll find out exactly how much of an “adventure” it can be.
Brad and Sheena Van Orden have been on the road for more than a year and have encountered seemingly every nature of problem, challenge, and opportunity for personal growth. Now in Asia and attempting to drive across China, they face their biggest obstacle yet. AJ recently caught up with Brad to find out more about how one solves the road’s Rubik’s cubes without losing your mind or your marriage.
Most people dream about traveling around the world like you guys, but rarely anticipate the problems and challenges they’ll face. What kinds of issues have you had?
Our issues pretty much fall into two categories: mechanical breakdowns and logistics. Lots of people look at what we’re doing and they assume that it’s a big vacation.
While it’s true that we’re not working traditional jobs, keeping on top of logistics seems to take up most of our time. If we’re not driving, we’re likely figuring out where we’ll sleep or what we’ll eat next. At home these tasks are trivial, but on the road it can be a constant struggle. And now that we’re in Asia, we have to stay on top of visas, travel permissions, and the fact that we’re stuck in Southeast Asia with political and natural borders on all sides.
We’ve had a lot of mechanical issues as well. We used to break down every hundred miles or so. Try telling me I’m on vacation when I’m lying under our van on the side of a busy road in a downpour trying not to drown in a mud puddle while replacing a CV joint.
Is there a secret to dealing with them effectively?
The key is to try not to freak out. We’ve learned to keep a cool head and break our problems into small pieces and start by tackling the first one.
As for dealing with mechanical failures, after lots of practice we’ve developed a system that works. It starts when we hear something fail. Let’s say we’re driving along and our axle falls off. The next step is to allow the van to come to rest. I turn the car off, remove the key from the ignition, and place it on the dashboard. I stare out the windshield and wait for my breathing to return to normal. Sheena says nothing, gets her book, and starts reading. Next, I get out and go for a walk. Where I go isn’t important, just as long as it’s away from the van. When I return, I get my toolbox out and see what the heck happened.
Every time I think about taking an ultra long road trip, I remember that I’m piloting a 30-year-old van that wasn’t well built to begin with. You’re driving essentially the same vehicle. What kind of prep work did you do before you left?
Anyone with any sense would have taken the two years that we had to prepare and replace every mechanical part on the vehicle. We didn’t really do that. We replaced the tires, suspension, CV joints, battery, and a laundry list of other mechanical doodads, but when we finally hit the road it was with a poorly performing engine with over 200,000 miles on it. Instead, we focused our attention on making Nacho into a comfortable place to live for three years.
Being an engineer with too much time on my hands, I started by modeling the van’s body in CAD, and then designing all new cabinets and a raised false floor for the interior. I installed a solar electric system, designed and built a heat exchanger that allows us to generate hot water while we drive, and I plumbed in a hot water shower. I also spent considerable time designing a water purification system that lives under the floor. Now we can dump moldy, spore-laden, toilet water into our water tanks and know that it will be purified and drinkable by the time it reaches our faucet.
So while we’re broken down for days on end, at least we can take hot showers and drink clean water.
You mentioned you’ve had some mechanical problems. What were they?
Some mechanical problems? That’s a nice way of saying it. Our wheel bearings failed in Mexico, and then again in Guatemala. In Costa Rica our brakes seized up and then failed, our brake caliper fell off, and our axle fell off while we were driving. In the middle of the mountains in Colombia our transmission failed. This one was serious, and we ultimately had to fly back to the States, buy a new transmission, and smuggle it back into Colombia in a suitcase. Our brake master cylinder failed in Ecuador, as did a tie rod and our upper control arm bushings. We had another wheel bearing failure in Argentina, followed by a string of six or seven flat tires in Patagonia.
You’ve written it’s better to fix things yourself than trust some mechanic in a village somewhere. How did you learn your chops? What if you don’t have a clue what’s wrong?
It’s not just better to fix things yourself, it’s absolutely essential. If I hadn’t learned this, we would have ended our trip months ago. We were ready to throw in the towel after Colombia, but then I started doing all of my own work and decided never to let anyone else touch our van. This is when the problems essentially ended. I had been letting others work on it because of the low price of mechanics in Latin America, but quickly learned that most of our new problems were a result of things the mechanics had ruined while trying to fix other things.
Before we decided to do this trip, I didn’t even know how a car worked. I knew how an internal combustion process worked from my thermodynamics courses at university, but the ways of the automobile were completely foreign to me. After buying our van, I bought a shop manual and a quality collection of tools, and then learned on the go. If I would get in a corner, as I did quite often early on, I would open the manual or get on the internet and describe the symptoms on a forum. Chances are someone else had had the same problem, and could walk me through it.
As it turns out, the way a car works is an orderly series of interconnected systems. Once you take the time to understand how it works, then diagnosing and fixing a car becomes much easier. It becomes a process of isolating the problems level by level, by observing causes and effects, until you’ve isolated the problem to a single component or process. After enough times it starts to become enjoyable, like playing with puzzles.
A few months ago, there was a controversial incident where American road trippers were attacked in Peru. Have you experienced any hostilities? Hairy eyeballs? How did you deal with it?
I feel really badly for the couple that was attacked in Peru. The chain of events seems like something out of a horror story, and I can only imagine that it was the result of a terrible miscommunication followed by a string of poor decisions by the villagers.
We took to the road with the idea that in general, people are good. So far, that idea has held true. When we get into trouble, people are always there to help. We haven’t had any notable bad encounters with locals since we left home 16 months ago, but we did have our van burglarized when we were in Argentina.
We had parked next to a river out in the wilderness, and then left for about 15 minutes. When we got back, someone had broken a window, gained entry, and stole every valuable thing he could find. We were devastated, but in the end we were able to replace many of our things thanks to the generosity of friends and people who follow our adventure on our blog and through Facebook.
What country has the best roads so far? The worst?
So far I’d say that Chile had the best roads. You would think that this would come as a relief, but actually it didn’t. When I thought about driving around the world, I pictured us on dilapidated dirt roads through the Himalayas, winding through the Andes on single-lane tracks, and negotiating river crossings and landslides. That’s an adventure. Chile felt more like driving in England. We were happy to cross back into Argentina where Patagonia’s endless dirt tracks awaited.
Aside from Honduras, where we only spent one day, I would say that Guatemala had the worst roads. One day we spent twelve hours picking our way across a one hundred mile section of road that had been wiped out by landslides a few years earlier. I was terrified at times, but that’s why we’re out here.
Now you’re coming up against your biggest challenge yet — your dream of crossing China is going to cost you $20,000. Could you have anticipated this before you got there? Why or why not?
We knew China would be expensive, but we didn’t think it would be this much. We had heard stories of people spending $5,000 to $7,000, but never imagined that we’d be up against a $20,000 bill. The money mostly goes to tour agencies that cut through the red tape, register your car, get you a Chinese driving license, and give you a certified Chinese guide to ride in your car with you the whole time. It’s a mess.
We knew that China would be an issue, and never really confronted it. We kept it in the back of our minds, assuming we’d either figure out how to do it when we got there, or else ship around it. Part of the adventure, I think, is not knowing all of the answers going in.
You’re asking for help via Kickstarter. What are your plans if you don’t raise the funds?
We received our quote for the cost to enter China about a month ago and decided that it was out of reach for us. We decided we’d have to go around. To do this, we would ship our van from Thailand to India, and then ship again from India to Turkey, basically missing most of Asia. But then a couple of weeks ago we met a really inspirational Muslim man who lived in a tent with his family in the Malaysian jungle. He told us a story about how he had always dreamed of touching a Japanese battleship, and how without any money he managed to make it to Hawaii aboard a ship, where he finally placed his hand on the side of a Japanese battleship. That night, Sheena and I decided that we’d revisit the idea of China by thinking outside the box.
We started a Kickstarter project as an outside-the-box way to raise the money to cross China overland. If we are able to raise the money, we’ll stop in Istanbul when we’re done and write a book about the experience of driving the Silk Road. We have until May 17th to raise the money, but if we don’t reach our full goal we’ll get nothing; our project can be found here.
If we don’t raise the money, I suppose we’ll revert to our old plan of shipping to India, and then shipping again to Turkey. Lo que será, será!
Read more about Brad and Sheena’s road trip at Drive Nacho Drive.
Overlandia is the art, science, and romance of driving in the dirt.