“We love being together and we love being free, if that’s what drives you in life it is not hard to up and go from the perceived ‘comfort’ of ‘home’ to look for another adventure, it’s less a case of how do we do it than how can we not.”
When I think back on happy moments in my life, I think of people, and some people in particular. I met some particularly lovely ones on the road to Santiago de Compostela back in March. The idea of a zine about the camino started with my mate Sanne when we started the trip together last year. We had to break it off after a week, and I picked it up a year later, alone this time. But two hours after leaving Logrono, where I had to throw in the towel last time, I realized you don’t walk the camino alone, even if you set out to do so.
I met Mark and Ellen in a ruin, where Ellen was doing some stretching and Mark was rolling a cigarette. They belonged to a small group of people from all over the world, some of whom had walked the camino together since they started it. Before heading out on their 800k walk to the cathedral Mark and Ellen worked their way all over the world through the website ‘workaway.info.’ We talk to dramatist turned vagabond Ellen and electrician turned photographer (with a broken camera, sorry about that mate) Mark about their life on the road and budget travel.
Can you tell us a little about yourself? How did you meet etc. Where are you from?
Our story together began a few weeks before mutual friends wedding in Christchurch NZ, Mark came to where Ellen was living and asked the boys if they wanted to go rock climbing, Ellen tagged along. Mark was suitably impressed and next time they met he asked if he could show her round town, this was obviously man code for ‘spend a day showing you how awesome I am and then try and kiss you!’ It was a failed attempt….but only the first time! Ellen is English, she was travelling at the time and this ended up being the beginning of a currently 4 year too and fro across the world for us both.
Please tell us about the time you blow up the van you planned living in.
The last time we left England, there were mighty plans afoot, we would live out of our newly home converted camper van for the foreseeable future and drive back to NZ, with the occasional use of boats. Two weeks in….Middle of France….kaboom. The engine decided it didn’t like mountains despite its shiny new health check. We were stranded in rural France, but not for long, we changed tack and decided to go and tackle a ‘workaway.’
So you pretty much live a life on the road, how are you able to do this? What inspired you guys to leave home?
We live from place to place, we try not to plan too far ahead as we go with our gut most of the time. It has been a case of having a great family base on either side of the world and when we find ourselves completely out of funds, popping back to the closest one to earn some money then heading back into the world and taking whatever opportunities come our way. We love being together and we love being free, if that’s what drives you in life it is not hard to up and go from the perceived ‘comfort’ of ‘home’ to look for another adventure, it’s less a case of how do we do it than how can we not.
Can you tell us about workaway?
Workaway is a fantastic scheme that allows you to live and join in a snapshot of someone’s life anywhere around the world, you find a host that likes the look of you, from any of the thousands around the world, you offer any skills you have to them for however long you want to stay and in exchange they feed and shelter you. Our saviours on our last adventure were an English couple living In the Pyrenees, when the van exploded we lived with them for three months, it was an incredible insight into French country living with the best kind of people around us. Ellen spent evenings learning yoga from Kate and playing with their beautiful children and Mark found a penchant for red wine and arbary in their small woodland with Chris.
Do you have any suggestions for people who dream about packing their bags and leaving?
It’s not a dream, in fact the less you have the easier it is. If you are open to new experiences and a feeling of total freedom then life will gather you up and take you to them, obviously keep you’re head on and don’t take your life in your hands too literally but let your gut guide you and your feet take you and you will feel richer than you ever thought possible, don’t assume too much, know that there will always be scary parts and days that make you wish you were curled up in your parents lounge but that’s life isn’t it, the other days by far out way this, if you can gather up a few months wages, in whatever job you can do, and you don’t mind not having that brand new car or that really pretty 3 piece suit then you can travel to your hearts content. Ellen has been travelling on and off since she was 16, the only money she has ever had has come from fun but low income jobs in between, ‘things’ can’t make you happy, you have to let yourself be free. Stop putting it off. Just go book a ticket, or walk out the door.
What are the things you guys learned on the road?
It is so hard to put that kind of learning into words, but , the lessons We have learned from being perpetual wanderers essentially come down to, the lighter you travel the better, the places aren’t half as important as the people you meet and everywhere in this world you will stumble across human kindness and love. Don’t put pressure on yourself to see that or do this, just let opportunities come to you and grab them with both hands. If Ellen hadn’t taken this attitude to a solo trip in the Southern Hemisphere she would never have met Mark. Mark says the more he sees the more he knows is out there and this fuels his wanderlust, he has learnt wherever you are this is just the tip of the ice burg.
How do support yourselves when you are out there since workaway is a volunteer based project?
You have to be sure that at least for now a life without possessions is what you want, when we are back in either the UK or NZ working for a few months to head back on the road when we can, we don’t start spending on things we can’t take with us. We still have fun, eat at our favourite places and go on adventures to see the beauty of our homelands and we still spend time with friends, but we don’t buy things we can’t leave in a hurry, for example we bought a 1986 Honda City for $1000 and we live with family instead of spending on higher purchase and renting a house with bedrooms we don’t need. This won’t be what we want forever but right now it’s just great knowing that whenever we feel the pull, off we go again, you need enough money to get yourself out to a new place and Ellen likes to have a small safety net but other than that you find a place you would like to go and look for someone willing to take you on. Mark finds it helps being open to hard work, you get an offer from a stranger to fix a gate or rewire a plug….go for it!
Why did you decide to walk the camino to Santiago?
What a wonderful bit of good luck! A serendipitous turn of events meant that the ‘workaway’ we found after loosing the camper happened to be along ‘the way’. We mentioned to Kate an Chris that we had heard about the Camino through a friend but that was just a passing thought, they informed us that we could begin it down the end of the lane if we fancied, they were the villages pilgrim rest. We had no gear, and not much money, we were ill prepared and it was the wrong season. We took all this as a sign and decided that we were meant to do it, we borrowed gear, left the contents of our van at our new friends farm, waited for the flooding to subside and set off for Spain. The best decision we ever made.
What did you take away from the Camino?
That is a hard question, what didn’t we take away from the Camino? We had our own paths to walk and I think lessons learned were personal to each of us and all of the spectacular friends we made, including your good self. For Ellen the main thing was a huge sense of relief and belonging, there were other people in the world with the same ache to do something good and kind and worthwhile in the world, not only did they exist but they wanted to be her friends and use this chance meeting to form bonds and plan great things for the future. It was an awakening and a chance to be truly free and at ease. No demands on her time or worries to plague her but an opportunity to exist amongst fellow human beings who quite happily just let her be herself and let her in to their lives. Mark found it was not actually about getting to Santiago, it was about shared experience and this is something we have taken on in our lives in general.
What is one thing you will never know about the Camino unless you walk it?
How wonderfully quick and how incredibly deeply you can form relationships and feel love with other human beings. It’s super fun.
You are involved with setting up a fundraiser for Nepal in collaboration with Sunday Mornings at the River at the moment, what can you tell us about that? What is your connection with Nepal?
At the time of the earthquake we were meant to be in Nepal, our plan in the van was to drive across Europe and along the old silk routes, we wanted to study meditation in Nepal and meet the loving nation, our plans were not meant to be and this possibly saved our lives. We lived through the 2011 quakes in Christchurch NZ and we know the fear of not trusting the ground beneath you. We want to, with the help of our dear friend Rebecca, alleviate those fears and build with love, a place for generations to come, a school, a meeting place, a safe structure that will act as knowledge, protection and community for the people who have given so much love to others.
What are your plans for the future?
Our goal as a couple is to see everywhere, meet everyone, share our love and eliminate suffering wherever we find it. We do not know where we will one day call home but wherever it is it will be together, it will be filled with love and you will be welcome there anytime.