Hi again. It’s Marlene from Mali Mish. Thanks for signing up for our monthly newsletter. We are excited to start sharing more of our family’s adventures, thoughts and updates in this new format.
In our last newsletter, we answered some of your questions about our current situation, future travel plans and what we’ve been up to since the start of the pandemic. In this month’s newsletter, I will be answering all the questions I received on Instagram in regards to full-time family travel and our self-built home on wheels, a 2017 Mercedes-Benz Sprinter 4×4 170 crew van.
“Can you drive the van or is it exclusively Dan?”
We both can drive the van but Dan enjoys it more than I do so he drives 99.9% of the time. I think I would drive a bit more if we were in the US since the roads are wider and more predictable than they are overseas. You should see the roads Google Maps tries to send us down sometimes. So I usually find myself at the wheel only when Dan wants to capture our driving through pretty scenery with his drone for our videos. The last one I drove for was for our Van Tour video.
“How do the kids feel about sleeping in such close quarters in the van?”
I just asked all the kids and they all responded with “Ummm, that’s what we always do.” Haha. I guess the difference with our kids and other kids in this lifestyle is that this is all they know. It’s not strange for them to share a bed or a small living space or have a non-private bathroom or roadschool because they were born into this lifestyle. It’s natural for them. They did actually have their own beds when we traveled in a Casita trailer for a short time. Ava (our oldest) says the van bed is larger thus better, Mila (our middle kid) actually enjoyed the personal space of her small bunk but likes the van too, and Luka says he doesn’t like sleeping alone so the van wins.
“Do you have auto insurance? Is it US auto insurance?”
Yes, we do have auto insurance. Actually we have two plans for two different reasons. First, we actually have liability insurance in the US which allows us to keep our van legally registered in California during our travels overseas. Second, we have Green Card Insurance in Europe which is what they call their liability insurance. It is the minimum you need to drive in Europe. As Americans, our Green Card Insurance, via a German company called TourInsure.de, only covers us in European countries that are part of the EU. So when we travel to non-EU countries, we buy separate insurance at the border for that specific country. How about comprehensive insurance? There was an option to buy comprehensive insurance from a US based company for Europe but it was really expensive and we opted not to get it.
“How do you manage to stay out of the country with CA plates/tags so long?”
Our van is currently registered in California and to keep it legally registered, we have to pay for liability insurance. When it is time for its yearly renewal, we pay for the fees online and get our new sticker and paperwork shipped to my parents’ address. When our new registration and sticker arrive in the mail, my mom forwards it to us. In California, we have to get diesel vehicles smog checked every two years. Last year, they asked us to smog our van as part of the registration but luckily, California has a temporary smog exemption program for vehicles that are currently out-of-state. They accepted our exemption form and we got our renewal with no issues. Not sure how many times they will allow us to use that form. If it becomes a problem for us, our back up plan is to switch our van’s registration to a state that doesn’t require smog checks. South Dakota is a great choice for full-timer travelers because the state will allow you to register your vehicle without being there in person.
“Steps you have to go through going from country to country… like registration, insurance, fees?”
While traveling in European countries who are part of the EU, it is really simple. There are no border checks (unless the EU country borders a non-EU country) and our van’s liability insurance (called the Green Card) covers us during our stay. When we cross into non-EU countries or other continents, things change. At each of those borders, we pay for country-specific liability insurance. We haven’t needed to apply for any visas so far with the exception to Turkey. And in all non-EU countries, our cell phone plan from Croatia does not work, so in addition to insurance, we have to also buy a local SIM card. It’s a little more of a hassle but always worth it to explore new countries.
“Do you have a toilet in the van?” and “I’ve always wondered if the toilet smells.”
Yes, we do have a toilet in our van. Actually we have two. Lol. We kept our cat Yoda’s litter box next to our toilet which sits in a cabinet under our fridge. After she passed away in 2018, we had an empty spot so we filled it with a second toilet which now allows us to wild camp/boondock longer. The type we have is a Dometic 301097606 Portable Toilet. Each toilet holds 5 gallons of black water. The top part is a combined flush-water tank and toilet bowl with a detachable seat and cover. The bottom part is the waste holding (black) tank. The top and bottom parts of the the toilet detach which allows you to carry the bottom part via the handle and empty it at a proper discharge location, like at a campground waste station. Since we do international travel, waste stations are sometimes difficult to come by so in those situations having a portable toilet is super handy because it allows for us to empty it down a normal toilet or into stand alone porta-potty if we don’t have campground options. AND that is an option for us because we DO NOT add any chemicals to our toilet.
So does it smell? If the toilet is newish, no it doesn’t smell. After some months of use, the toilet does start to smell for us but it is our fault. You see, we do it on purpose. WHAT?!? Our top priority for our toilet (besides the obvious reason) is get as much use out of it time wise as possible. In order to keep you toilet smelling fresh, you need to add chemicals to it. Chemicals require water in the waste tank for it to work properly and if we add water to an empty tank for the chemicals, it makes our toilet last us less time. So when the toilet lid is closed, it does not smell at all. It only smells when the lid is open. To minimize the smell when the lid is open, we clean the bowl regularly and use a spray bottle with vinegar. Also, we don’t utilize the fresh water flush in order to save space in the black tank as well. This toilet talk is getting a little longer than expected. I will work on a more detailed post on the toilet over on our Freely Roaming project soon.
“As the kids get older will they need more privacy? Teen concerns with hormones, etc.”
So far so good. Our oldest kid is 14 and if she needs extra privacy to use the toilet in the van, she asks for it. We then exit the van and give her the space she requests. Not a big deal. But if it’s impossible to go outside for whatever reason, we make sure we are either in bed or have our backs to her. At the moment, no one is asking for their own bed, they all prefer to sleep together on the top bunk.
“What do you do when you need space or alone time?”
The thing we really like about the van that we haven’t had before is an accessible cab area. This allows us to spread out easily. Some of us hang out on the beds, some of us in the cab area and someone can be in the space in between. Ideally, we are camped somewhere that allows us to go outside. Yes we have a small home but we also have a huge ever changing backyard. The only time we have issues with space and alone time is in bad weather when going outside is not an option. Otherwise, it’s fine for us. We feel like we have plenty of room to spread out inside and outside.
“You have an American made van, right? How hard is it to find compatible parts in Europe?”
Our Sprinter van is German made but assembled in the US. It’s one of the reasons we switched from our Ford F250 with a FWC on the back to our current van. You can read about the other reasons for the vehicle switch in this video.
“What is your favorite space-saving hack in the van?”
This one is a little hard to answer for some reason. I think because we built out the van ourselves with all of our stuff in mind, I don’t consider anything a real hack. I do like all of clothes organized in packing cubes. And all of our coats stuffed in a body-sized pillow we sewed from an old blanket we bought in Mexico. Dan really likes that he made a space on our overhead cabinet to attach his cameras so they are safely out of the way and can be charged easily. You can see it our van tour video here.
“Would love to hear about remote school on the road during a pandemic.”
Roadschool during the pandemic is different for sure. We are not traveling and exploring with education in mind at the moment. I wrote all about what books, apps and websites we are using as curriculum during the 2020-2021 school year here.
“Do you think you’ll ever settle in a spot (on purpose, not because of Covid :).)”
I kinda wrote about this in our last newsletter. I don’t see us settling down really… especially since we are stuck in a house right now. I do see us maybe buying some land to do some projects on but that would be only for short periods of time during our travels. I really like the feeling of being on the move and so does everyone else in the family. It’s fun for us to see new places and faces. I just watched a popular video where someone talked about vanlife and interviewed others on the topic as well. They talked about how it was not a sustainable lifestyle for more than a few years, how he missed seeing familiar faces in his local grocery stores and I just can’t relate to that. It is possible to make it sustainable. We are proof of that. But I do agree that we are in a small percentage of travelers and vanlifers that have made it work for us.
“Is the van the best camper you have owned?”
I was surprised how much I loved the van right away. I don’t think it’s the most aesthetically pleasing (that would be reserved for our Airstream) or the most unique (that would go to the FWC) but this one is the easiest. After years of living on the road, we built out a vehicle that needs minimal set-up with no towing and that really works for us. Do I regret not choosing the van right away back in 2008 when we started? No, I think the natural progression from the Airstream to the Four Wheel Camper to the Sprinter has allowed us to figure out how to make this life sustainable for our family. I don’t think we would have chose this life if it wasn’t for the Airstream. The Airstream gave us extra comfort when the kids were newborns that we needed. Not many people were sharing this lifestyle when we started because social media wasn’t a thing yet. The Airstream also gave us a sense of community that really surprised us because it was not something we weren’t expecting or even thought we needed. Community is super important. If you don’t find that, life on the road will become lonely and therefore not sustainable for many travelers.
“Is it noisy with everyone in the van at night?”
If the kids are playing a video game together, it can get a noisy but they quiet down pretty quickly when asked. Most of the time. Ha. When living in any camper, we are always aware that anyone outside can hear us or even see us so we are conscious of it.
“What would you keep or what would you change about your van build?”
Time and cost was a determining factor for our van build. One of the changes we already made to the van was to remove our propane catalytic heater and install a diesel heater. We got a great deal on one in Romania so we were glad we waited until we got to Europe for that change. It used too much propane which is more of a pain to refill abroad and didn’t have a thermostat. One of the changes I want to do in the future is to replace the headliner. Keeping the original headliner in the van saved us a lot of time and money but it’s a bit of a pain to keep clean and takes away from usable space where we could hang more things for either decor or storage.
“Do you have a portable shower?”
Yes, we do have a portable shower. One of the several ways we shower on the road is with our Roadshower. It’s an awesome option to hose off sandy feet or to take a full shower… if the conditions are just right. It uses the power of the sun to warm up the black metal or PVC tubing instead of wasting onboard propane for warm water as a built-in might use. Not ideal in cold weather or cloudy days or if we parked in a public space but it also acts as storage for extra potable water which could come in handy in an emergency or prolonging your boondocking stay. We describe all the other ways we shower on the road in this blog post.
“How easy is it for an expat to live abroad for extended periods?”
I guess it depends on where you want to go. There are expat communities all around the world. It’s a little easier for us to stay long term in the EU because of my Croatian dual citizenship but it is also doable as a non-citizen. We put some thoughts together on that very topic here.
“Any plans for the kids to learn Croatian?”
The kids know a few words here and there but we haven’t taught them proper Croatian or Mandarin. It’s tough for us to teach them our first languages when only one parent speaks the language. They have used a few apps to learn some Croatian but the courses aren’t aimed at children so they don’t stay engaged. When they were younger, we focused on learning Spanish while we were exploring Mexico and got to use it a bit. Even though we have been in Croatia for a good chunk of time, they don’t interact with other kids or people due to the pandemic.
“How do you make a living/support yourself on the road”
How we make a living on the road has changed over the years. Most of our income over the years has come from Dan working for himself or as full-time remote employee over the years as a web developer. Early in our travels, I also did some remote work while the kids were young and not roadschooling yet. Dan talks about working on the road and how we switched from him working 40 hours a week to us creating more passive income streams (like vacation rentals) in this video here.
“Any places you recommend in Baja?”
We love Baja. A lot. So many recommendations based on what you are looking for. We unfortunately didn’t document all of our Baja adventures but we do have some blogs here and videos here and here. Off the top of my head, we really found the hot springs in Puertecitos magical. It might have been because it was one of first stops of our adventure south but hot springs mixing with ocean water when the tide is right is awesome. For surfing and hippy gringo vibes, Todos Santos is great. All the beaches of Baja de Conception are awesome. Oh and seeing mama gray whales and babies swim up to your boat and allowing you to touch them is life changing in Guerrero Negro. Oh and swimming with whale sharks in La Paz. And all the places in between. 🙂
“Curious how your Croatian parents feel about your lifestyle?”
I think they were super surprised by our lifestyle choice but over the years have seen how happy it makes us and especially how well adjusted the kids are. Sure, I think they rather have us in the same town and have the ability to stop by for a visit but they also get a different kind of relationship with their grandchildren. They get to spend large chunks of time with them and grow their relationship with them in the every day stuff, not just for holidays or family dinners or swim lessons.
“Do you feel Croatia would be accepting of a USA person of color traveling there?”
As a mixed race family, we haven’t had any issues here in Croatia. The country’s main stream of income is tourism so they see a lot of visitors from around the world. I think as a vacationer, visiting foreign countries with tourism isn’t usually an issue. I think you notice more issues once you settle in a place for longer periods and read/hear about local issues. That goes for here and our home country.
“More Rio background, please!”
We love Rio and so many of do too. I don’t think it’s my place to share too much personal detail of his family. But he is owned by a sweet little old lady in the village. His extended family also comes to visit a lot and he really loves it when they do. Whenever he doesn’t come to visit, we know they are around. Oh and I didn’t ask but I think he is a peagle, part Pekingese and part beagle.
“Will you keep Twin and Toby?”
That is a question we are still trying to figure out. So here are the possible choices. 1) The first choice is to let them back into the village to survive here on their own with their mama cat and others now that they are vaccinated and sterilized. We would ask one of the full-time neighbors to feed them with food we would buy. We really thought Toby would revert into a more feral cat once we started to let them back outside but he somehow turned into snuggle bug. 2) The second choice is adopt them out. I posted in one expat group with no leads. Someone commented that it’s going to be real hard to do here in Croatia especially since I want to keep them together since they are so bonded. There are lots of Croatians that love cats but the cat culture isn’t nearly the same here as it is in the states. 3) The last choice is to adopt them and take them on the road. Yes we’ve had a cat with us for 10 years of our travels but these are two young outdoor cats. They are super active and need some much more exercise than our old indoor cat needed. My concern is how do I provide them with enough outdoor time and do it safely. I could harness train them but watching them wrestle and jump around makes me leery of this because of getting snagged on branches. And what if I let them play and they don’t return when they are suppose to return?
My current thinking now is that we might be in Croatia longer than I initially thought. New vaccinations have stopped due to supply and the government thinks it’s going to take longer than previously thought. Maybe this will buy us time with the cats and have them mature more and thus act less kitten-like which would make adoption and vanlife easier. I know I saved their lives. They wouldn’t be alive without my intervention but I also feel guilty on some days. Should I trying to adopt them out harder? Should I be ignoring them more so they revert? Should I make Toby uncomfortable and leash train him? Should I have just left nature to nature like so many other people do here? I’m very conflicted by the situation. And this doesn’t even take in account the allergies and discomfort that the cats give to one family member. Extra medication is working now but is medication for next 10 plus years a good idea? How’s that for an answer. It’s basically no answer. Only time will tell.
Thanks again for reading and following along on our adventures over the years. And a special shout out to our Patreon members. We appreciate your extra support.
Talk to you all next month,