Packing their entire home into a vintage van, Sim, Kartik and their dog Everest from Toronto, have spent the last 16 months living on the road.
It was a dream that Smriti Bhadoria, who goes by ‘Sim’, had harboured for years — a “maybe one-day” dream, to pack her home and life into one vehicle and head on out where adventure awaits, to explore what the world had to offer on her terms.
When she met Kartik Vasan a few years ago, he decided to make this their dream.
Mesmerised by Mohan’s (played by Shah Rukh Khan) RV in Swades (2004), or the story of Gunther Holtorf and Christine, who traversed six continents in their G-Wagen, the Toronto-based couple have made a 45-year-old campervan their home. Their partner in crime is Everest, a Border Collie-Labrador, with whom they have spent 16 months covering seven countries across over 27,000 km. The adventurous trio is on their way to enter their third continent soon.
“Getting to finally live the dream was the result of many small steps we took over the last five years,” Sim tells The Better India. “We knew very well that the western concept of ‘we left the 9 to 5 to live our dream’ would never work for us. As Indian kids, our careers came with a set of responsibilities, so we decided to take a more secure path, which would help us sell this ‘van life’ idea to our parents.”
“We switched our career away from management roles to more technical ones. From 2018 onwards, we were both working full-time remote jobs in our respective fields,” says Kartik, who is an IT consultant. Sim, meanwhile, works in digital marketing.
It was the same year that the couple found their new home lying in a field — a 1977 Dodge Van, which they have since dubbed the ‘Brown Van’. It had no breaks or a working engine, and they spent the next two years fixing the mechanics. “Our goal was to hit the road for our next big adventure in 2020,” Kartik says.
He adds, “Our parents took some time to come around. For them, living in anything but home was a bizarre concept. Living in a van gives them an illusion of us being homeless or not accomplished. So we had to educate them a lot on how many couples are out there, living a full-filling life by exploring the world, and assuring them that all their concerns like jobs and security were taken care of.”
Their parents also suggested that the duo tie the knot before they embark upon this journey.
And so, in February 2020, Sim and Kartik had their “big fat Indian wedding”, just before the COVID-19 pandemic struck. “Just then, COVID hit and all our dreams came crashing down. We decided not to get scared by this changing world and just focused on finishing the interiors of the van,” says Kartik.
In mid-2020, they sent in their 30-day notice to their landlord. From here began a month-long journey of leaving behind life as they knew it.
First, they downsized, throwing out clothes and other things they wouldn’t need. Then they moved on to the bigger things, calling in their friends to see what furniture, artwork, and plants they could give away. Whatever was left was sold off online. They then packed their clothes, kitchen items, and other essentials for the road.
On 15 August 2020, Sim and Kartik had moved into their home on wheels. And off they went.
‘Our spin on a laid-out plan’
The Brown Van, firstly, is a typical South Asian home — you leave your shoes outside on the doormat before entering.
Inside, there is a seating area that alternates as a bed to sleep on as well as a couch to work on. There’s a kitchen with a big sink and many hidden spaces for storage of spices, utensils, and the like. There’s also a toilet for emergency use, a small fridge, temperature control, an electrical system, and an extra fan that Everest can use to cool down. Sim, who loves cooking outdoors, uses a portable stove to cook up delicious meals using a wide array of Indian spices she keeps in her repository.
The front cab of the van has been rebuilt from scratch, keeping the 70s vintage interiors in place. Kartik and Sim make sure they carry extra tyres and Max Tracks wherever they go.
The couple wraps up work by the afternoon and spends the rest of their day outdoors — watching beautiful sunsets, splashing around in sparkling clear waters, finding company in the new faces they see, hiking or just lazing around with Everest.
And what have been their best moments on the journey so far?
“Every time a stranger opened up their hearts and homes for us, it became the highlight of that country,” Sim says. “People have so many fears about travelling to countries like Mexico and Central America, but we were shown so much kindness by locals.”
In Baja, Mexico, they met a grandpa who invited them into their home for dinner and offered them the amenities in his house, as well as a place to park. They also met Paloma, a stranger who was thrilled that the Indian couple was exploring her country.
“Her family adopted us as their own,” Sim recalls. “We went on family cottage trips, celebrated Mexican Independence Day with their extended family. When Kartik got COVID, the family was there for us, arranging a family doctor, making sure we have all the supplies to isolate and recover. Saying goodbye to them was so painful, we all hugged and cried.”
“It’s the beauty of the van life,” she adds. “You make very strong connections very fast, and then you have to say goodbye to them. It’s always the kindness of strangers that’s been the most memorable.”
“Not to mention, Sim makes it a point to cook Indian food for everyone she meets,” Kartik notes. “So far, we must have fed Indian food to around 50 plus travellers we met on this journey. It brings her so much joy to introduce people to our flavours and cuisine. This year for Diwali, we did a proper puja, decorated our home on wheels with flowers, and wore traditional clothes. Sim spent the entire day cooking a feast and invited the entire campground, with over 20 people, for Diwali dinner. That night was so special to us, to see these travellers embrace our culture and share our festive joy with them.”
Sim says, “When we started, we had no reference point of a desi person doing this full-time. We realised very early how lonely a lack of representation can make you feel, so we made sure we could create a reference point for anyone who looks like us. When they start, they can find that representation in our journey.”
“At the end of the day, we all are good humans, with the same desires to celebrate our victories, persevere through hard times, and be kind to strangers,” she adds.
As for Sim and Kartik’s parents, Kartik says they eventually came around. “We started video calling them every day during our van building process. We showed them things, like how we built a new bed frame to set up a new solar system. They were equally excited for our progress and eventually came on board. Now we video call and show them all the amazing people we meet and the places we go to. They are very happy for us.”
Looking at the road ahead, Kartik and Sim are now planning to cover the PanAmerican highway and make it to Patagonia. “But our big dream is to bring our van home to India,” Sim says. “We want to maybe take a break for a few months and build another campervan, which is stronger because our vintage one might not last a world tour. We also want to build a campervan for parents, and take them all around India.”
The duo says that for Indian kids, plans are almost always laid out beforehand — study, find a job, get married, build a home and have children. “We did everything more or less in the same order, but put our spin on it,” Sim explained in a vlog.
“We have a child — Everest,” Kartik laughs. “He’s just a little furry, and has four legs.”
You can visit Sim, Kartik and Everest’s YouTube channel and Instagram to find out more about their life on the road.
Edited by Yoshita Rao