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Northern Sumatra Van Life: One Man’s Story

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This is Mike Blue’s story about living in a van and traveling Northern Sumatra.

Be inspired by his minimalist adventures and read more at The Consumption Cleanse.

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Related: Film Producer Living and Working in a Camper Van Full Time VIDEO

Northern Sumatra Van Life: One Man’s Story

Images via Mike Blue

Don’t you find it curious that the word for all the money, perks, so-called benefits and stuff that comes with a big, fat 6 figure income is called “trappings”?

I have a little story for you about a journey from an unsatisfying, unhealthy, six-figure salaried existence with all of these trappings to a satisfying, creative, and supremely healthy life with no such trappings. You may have heard similar accounts about this so-called escape from the work-consume-sleep cycle. My name is Mike Blue and I live in my bus. Her name is Rosie. We are most commonly found adrift somewhere in Northern Sumatra, Indonesia. On the road with Rosie and I, good times are our guide; minimalism and tiny living are our creed.

This is where ordinarily I would embark upon a tiresome rant about the drudgery of survival in our destructive consumer societies. I’d harp on about the innate human desire for a more meaningful or higher purpose being stifled by the complexity and demands of modern life. But this publication is about tiny homes so I will spare you. I’ll simply state that in June 2014, I realised that no amount of incremental money or material possessions were going satisfy my appetite for something…more. When this voice of realisation, which many of us have heard, finally spoke loud enough, I decided it was time to derail the freight train that was hauling my future and that if uninterrupted was bound for terminal dissatisfaction.

It is December, 2016 and I find myself living a life I could never have conjured with a Chinese-made Foton bus in Indonesia. I’m parked up in Medan, the chaotic, swarming capital of Sumatra. I’m here visiting a mechanic who reportedly can help me with some almost original parts for Rosie. It’s a well needed pit stop. Damage accumulation is unavoidable and swift on the pock marked Sumatran roads. I’ll be here for a few days, spoiling myself with a cheap hostel room before we embark on our next adventure, somewhere to the south of here.

A year and a half ago I finished my last paid gig tapping a keyboard under fluorescent lights, disposed of all of my worldly belongings and bought a one-way ticket to Bali, Indonesia with the idea of living a minimalist, nomadic lifestyle. Fortunately, a girl I was seeing at that time liked the idea of it, and for herself and her daughter agreed to join me at least for a short time. She had already slapped together the interior of her own Isuzu bus so we took a test drive from Bali, through East Indonesia for four months and back, traversing Lombok, Sumbawa, and Flores.

We lived frugally, cooked our own food bought in local markets, bathed and washed clothes and dishes in rivers and waterfalls. We mixed it up with local villagers who could not make head or tail of what we were, what we were doing there, and why the heck we were living in a car. From one perspectives, from the attention received, we lived like rock stars. From all other perspectives, it was quite the opposite.

It was a taste of the big adventure to come. After 4 months, it would end up a bitter taste though, as the pressure of squeezing 3 humanoids relatively unacquainted with each other into 4 or 5 confined cubic metres would prove to be too much for these campers. But I loved it nonetheless. I loved the honesty and simplicity of life on the road. The next adventure would be without said girlfriend, a new set of wheels, and off to the west of Bali. It would land me in the present space time co-ordinates, from where I now write.

As I sit here in the dense and oppressive heat of the Medan wet season waiting for my regular breakfast of boiled eggs, to be cooked by someone else for a change, I lay a mental bet with myself that those eggs won’t arrive to my specification. A hard-boiled egg is not a complicated recipe and yet I am regularly surprised by the variations of this basic dish that the Indonesian folk manage to come up with. I place another bet that the mechanics will have to go ‘Jungle’ on my bus because original parts are hard if not impossible to come by. If Indonesian egg chefs are as creative as mechanics I’ll win the quinella.

You see, when I bought this one-time food van off a government repossession agent, after leaving the first bus and its inhabitants, I didn’t heed the warnings about the availability of parts. The Foton is not an indigenous make or model, they said. Parts will be hard to find was the repeated cry. They were right. They were right but they didn’t anticipate how creative rural and jungle-based mechanics can be. They can make anything from anything. Just today I saw some genius rattle past on his scooter, having applied empty, plastic water bottles to extend his mufflers. I couldn’t figure out the purpose, or why they didn’t melt – amazing. Over the course of the next 12 months I would lose track of which parts are made from scrap metal and bits and bobs of other engines. Locals called this approach ‘custom’; I called it ‘jungle’.

Before driving out of Bali some basic modifications beckoned. Rosie needed some minor bodywork and I needed somewhere to sleep. Somewhere to eat was not essential as road food would fill my belly initially. In my student days, I had a few Kombi vans so I had some vague ideas about van life, but I created no master plan, this build would be incremental and freestyle, building bits as I needed them from what was available to me as I drifted along. So I found a nearby bodyworker and struck a deal whereby he would do the necessary bodywork and I would use his workshop, electricity and tools to get about making somewhere to sleep.

While I was at it I decided on a second story, a top rack on the bus to host another mattress to accommodate guests, if ever there would be any. It took me about 2 weeks to gut the bus, build the bed and storage and give the old girl a few test drives. It took the jungle brothers the same time to fulfill their side of the bargain but most of that time was spent idle, watching the weirdo foreigner build his new home inside his car. The concept was incomprehensible to them.

Something I’ve only recently understood here in Sumatra is why more people aren’t getting around in a mobile home of sorts. In Australia, it’s a different story. There, the tribe of grey nomads has expanded to include all age groups and hair colours, and the trend is spreading. Here, I have not met a single other foreigner driving a car, let alone living in it. I think it’s a combination of the fact that food and accommodation is so cheap anyway and a little bit of fear of the unknown. It is not common…because it’s uncommon, and there’s not many references, travel stories, how to guides or on-line information available.

I decided to live this way simply because it sounded like a good idea at the time and I did not think it through. Sure food, accommodation and transport are cheap, but these are cheaper in a self-drive mobile home. It also enables me to go wherever I want, frequently well away from the beaten track, and allows me to camp in the most beautiful of places. I can sleep on the roof under the stars, cook healthy food to my taste and move from place to place on my own schedule. Van people know what I mean.

But the other big benefit for me, is I get to practice living tiny and simple every day. I thrive on minimalism and practicing what I preach on this topic. I’ve been known to preach. Since my last day of servitude, I also like to think I have become very frugal. Other than human and vehicular fuel, purchases are few and far between and need to pass the test of being necessary, useful or value-adding to my life. After a few months of living like this it becomes habit to not buy things, but create experiences instead. None of this happens at the cost of fun however. Fun is still the main game in town and I know I could not have as much fun as I do, if I was not so light of belongings and abundant of time.

The eggs finally arrive. They are fried.

Related: Couple Transforms Old Campervan Into Cozy Home on Wheels Video

Leaving Bali after the initial bare essentials fitout was completed was a glorious day; it was day one of the next experiment. My new simple life on the road. It was a long-time dream exploding into reality. The other thing that exploded into reality a mere two days later, just after the ferry crossing from Bali to Java, was a couple of decaying seals that served some enigmatic purpose within the engine. They did serve to render my home and my transport immovable. I know that much.

Enter Jungle Mechanic II. At this rate, I would be seeing 183 mechanics each year. Luckily, while I would see my fair share of repairs, this weighty ratio would not hold. A farmer who saw me stricken on the side of the road in the pouring rain applying mathematics to my likely future breakdown frequency gave me a ride on his pre-historic scooter about a kilometre down the road to a reputed scooter workshop, as he called it.

Unable to replace or even know what these seals did, other than allow a noisy geyser of steam to drain the radiator JM2 went to work fashioning new seals from spare bits and pieces found around the workshop’s earthen floor. The result was quite impressive, and would last at least another year and hopefully beyond.

These days I find myself in the bus hospital about every 2 months. I don’t mind. I like hanging out with the guys, learning new Indonesian words and learning about my bus. Labor is inexpensive and they love hearing my clumsy stories from the road. It is not a detour for me, it is all part of the trip. But aside from mechanical work, I get a lot of enjoyment doing internal modifications. I’ve become a part of several on-line van and tiny home communities and never bore of seeing what people are doing in that space. Whether it’s Tiny Homes, Pinterest, Instagram or other similar sources of inspiration, I soak it up and then morph those ideas with my own to tailor solution for my home. I use a lot of hand tools, accumulated as needed along the way, but have also a few crucial power tools such as a cordless drill and a jigsaw. For jobs that require power I save them up until I’m parked up in a carpark of a hostel so I have access to electricity.

I always have a list of improvements that I can make to the bus, but I am in no hurry to do them. Rosie is fine just as she is. If the mood takes me, I’ll get busy on some van work but I have plenty of other stuff that takes priority. Surfing, swimming, yoga and hiking are there most days. If I can find a worthy adversary, I’ll pull out the Frisbee or hacky sack and then some days I just read and write.

It took me a while to realise that my freedom FROM a life and a system I did not gel with was worth nothing unless I explored what I needed that freedom FOR. As it happens I use that freedom for my physical pursuits but also to study languages and to write about something I am passionate about – the environment. I write about it from an uncommon perspective though, as I see environmental destruction and resource depletion as a symptom, not a cause. I see consumerism as the cause. And while consumerism is itself a symptom that has causes, this was the level at which I chose to write. To write about leaving consumer society I needed to practice it, hence my here and now. In this first year on the road I undertook, and wrote a book about, an experiment I created called The Consumption Cleanse. One of the advantages about removing complexity from life is the freedom to do these kinds of things. I also write articles on my website when I feel the need www.theconsumptioncleanse.com.

So, this is life. I am constantly looking for new ways to simplify and minimise in order to reduce my footprint on this awesome planet. I do this always in the context of maintaining personal growth and having fun.

I think back to what a journey and what an education the last year or so has given me. It has taken about a year of design, experimentation, mostly failure and occasional success to remodel both the bus and my life, but I know it is an ongoing process; it is the process of living in this way. There is no end result, nor do I want there to be one. Who wants the glorious Road Trip to end?

I am sometimes asked if I have a longer-range plan. I believe the future is uncertain and getting more and more so. I don’t see any value in planning for a possible future world which I am certain will not be the world I planned for. Immediate and maybe short range planning if it is needed is all that concerns me. So, for right now my bus is my tiny home in Sumatra, the future can wait.


Related: Couple’s Van Life Documentary: Living and Traveling in a Van

Our big thanks to Mike for sharing!

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Natalie C. McKee

Natalie C. McKee is a contributor for Tiny House Talk and the Tiny House Newsletter. She's a wife, and mama of three little kids. She and her family are homesteaders with sheep, goats, chickens, ducks and quail on their happy little acre.
{ 9 comments… add one }
  • Bigfoot
    December 13, 2016, 6:00 pm

    Thanks for posting this, it was a good read.
    At the end of the day, we humans only need food, water, shelter, & minimal clothing but we have been turned into wage/tax slaves as a whole. I suppose (hope) eventually mankind (so called developed economies) will collectively figure out that all the propaganda we’ve been fed since childhood (school, college, career, traditional home, new cars, debt, debt, more debt etc.) are completely unsustainable from a resource/planetary perspective & merely designed to enrich a select few others & maintain a corrupt power structure. – I do wonder if we are too far gone?
    It is amazing how divergent your path in the world unfolds as you are planning for an entirely different scenario. I’ll quit typing now & go flog my guitar as this could end up being a book 🙂

    Enjoy the day!

    • Natalie
      December 14, 2016, 10:59 am

      It’s good to see folks getting back to basics! — Tiny House Talk Team

  • Ynot
    December 13, 2016, 6:10 pm

    I believe this guy knows what counts in life. Keep on keeping on, nomad!
    PS Love the van!

    • Natalie
      December 14, 2016, 10:59 am

      I agree 🙂 — Tiny House Talk Team

    December 16, 2016, 7:28 pm

    Great van…! But I love the coffee from Sumatra better….!

    • Natalie
      December 19, 2016, 11:23 am

      Hahaha 🙂 — Tiny House Talk Team

    December 22, 2016, 4:57 am

    Thanks Guys, I plan to keep on keeping on, living simple but joyously, and hoping to attract more people to tiny living. Tiny living = tiny footprint = happy earth. Mike

  • December 23, 2016, 2:27 am

    So inspiring. I hope I find myself in a similar state of trappingslessness. This was a brilliant read. Thank you.

    • Natalie
      December 23, 2016, 10:31 am

      You’re very welcome! — Tiny House Talk Team

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