What it means to travel, for Angelique Van Leeuwen

By Lobsang Wangyal

MCLEOD GANJ, India, 9 July 2013

In her quest to see and experience the world, Angelique Van Leeuwen started an overland journey from Amsterdam to Asia in 2009. She and her friend arrived in India after travelling for three months through 15 countries. She has been living in India and Nepal since then. She arrived here in McLeod Ganj on the eve of the Dalai Lama’s 78th birthday. Travelling is about expecting the unexpected and about enriching oneself — here is what Angelique Van Leeuwen has to say about her journey.

Can you first tell us a little bit about yourself — where you are from, your upbringing, family, etc.

Ok. My name is Angelique van Leeuwen, age 39, born and raised in the Netherlands, in a very Dutch standard upbringing, which means father working, mother at home taking care of the kids. My parents are still happily married, they have been together all the time. I did high school, marketing and economics studies, and a Master’s degree in tourism management in England, and then I started working.

My upbringing has been: you live to work, practical thinking, not sharing emotions or feelings, kind of focused on the daily life, what is happening, what you have to do tomorrow. Close family, supportive family! But not sharing intimate feelings or thoughts. That would be my basic background.

So when did you start to feel that you should do something different? Because now you are travelling around the world, with a camper. What clicked that made you travel?

I think the first thing that I noticed was, I made an around-the world travel when I was 25. Travelled about a year; 14 months — and I was unhappy to go back to the Netherlands. I was travelling with my former partner, and he was ready to go back. We would live together when we came back, start to work, he wanted to make a career — and I was in tears. At the time I did not understand why. There’s nothing wrong with my country, I love to see my family again, so why I was so upset?

So after one year travelling I returned to the Netherlands when I was 25, and we lived together. I worked as a marketing manager for five years, living the very standard western life of full-time working, one day a week some sports, on the weekend you go out with friends, very regular.

And then after five years — when I was 30, maybe the age for people to ask the question: Is this all in life? So I asked myself as well. And then I knew, it’s not bad, but it’s also not something I share with a passion, I talk with a passion about the work that I’m doing, overly thrilled with the life that I’m living — so there must be something else.

So that was the moment when I decided to break the relationship, stop the work, sell the house, and I thought ok I will travel again; just backpack for half a year like I had done five years before, because I was missing the travelling.

So this was the only decision I took back then, only to start travelling again for half a year. Plan some budget, took the Lonely Planet, and started to travel in Asia. I started in Russia, Mongolia, and then other countries in Asia. And in that half a year, I knew that it was not about seeing the “top ten sights in the world”, it was not about travelling for travelling — it became a personal journey, to learn more about myself, about what I want, what I don’t want. So this came after, it was not a fixed decision.

So now, you have this camper which is your house on wheels. What make is it? How long have you been married to this camper?

LDV from England, it’s a UK brand, Leyland DAF Vans. Some kind of company combination. With a Ford engine.

The camper and me have been together for five years now. Five years ago I bought it when I was staying in Spain, from a UK couple. For a couple of months I stayed in Spain, and I brought it to the Netherlands, it took me about four months to change it into a camper van, and in August 2009 I started to travel overland — no boat, no ship — overland to India.

Why did it take you so long to come here?

No, it didn’t take long at all, I’ve been most of the time in this country.

Oh you’ve been living in this country, in India, Nepal, like that.

Yes, we actually had to drive a little bit quick because of the high passes, which you cannot cross in the wintertime. So we took the longer road around. If overlanders come to India, they choose to come through Turkey, Iran, Pakistan, India — it’s cheaper and quicker. We chose to do Ukraine, Russia, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrghistan, East Turkistan (China), Pakistan, India, and Nepal. So it took us three months until Bagah (India/Pakistan border). Since then I’ve been travelling in India and Nepal.

You say “we”, who is the other person?

The other person is my friend Mira Panis. It was she who originally came with the idea. A year before we started, she came with the information that she wanted to do an overland travel to Beijing. Because she had wanted to follow the old Silk Route, with her former partner, but that never happened. So she said, I would still like to do this. And I said I have nothing planned in my life, why don’t we start to do this overland trip in the next year or so. But then from a personal interest point of view, we didn’t go to Beijing, but we went to India, because I’d rather travel myself alone in India, than in China. So that’s why the route changed. We travelled together half a year, and then she went back.

So, you have come through central Asia. What is it like, the feeling? It might be very different from Europe in many ways.

For sure. It’s more easy and more quick, to travel by plane, because in 15 hours you’re on the other side of the world, and you’re in a completely different environment. But the beautiful thing about overland travel, is you are literally slowly moving from what you are known to: your culture, your type of food, the money that you are using, the cultural behaviour, everything changes slowly overland. You’re moving completely to the other side of the world.

So it’s not just that you hop into the airplane, and it brings you to the other side: You experience everything in between. So it’s a gradual transition. Because first you go from the very western countries, like Holland, Germany, Czech republic. Then you come into Eastern Europe, which already has a different kind of culture, it’s Europe, but it’s a different part of Europe, there are different rules, different behaviour of people, and the hospitality. Then you come into Ukraine and Russia, which has a mentality of its own, the “stan” countries, former Russian republics, of course they have their own identity, so you meet these as well, and then you come even further east, and then it comes into Pakistan, India, Nepal, which is very different again.

The Asian countries are very different from the Europeans.

Yes, you cannot compare it.

Any major difficulties, for example, crossing through these, like for example, we call it East Turkistan, China calls it Xinjiang, so this part is normally difficult, a restricted area.

It is very restricted. China is, for an overland traveller with a motorized vehicle, China is extremely difficult. And extremely expensive, compared to any other country where I’ve been driving with the van. You cannot drive alone, you need a guide, you need a temporary driver’s license, special paperworks, they check the car for hygiene at the border, they make you take an injection — not a vaccination, but like, to see if you have like a temperature or something. Or at least it was four years ago, maybe it had to do with the bird flu, SARS.

But you cannot drive freely in China; they keep it restricted. Because they wish to know exactly where you are, which part of China.

So I’ve been in Kashgar which is an amazing city, with the Uyghur population. It’s one of the most amazing cities I’ve visited. It’s just very beautiful — how the people still do the traditional handicrafts. And seeing how they maintain their culture despite the fact that they are being suppressed by the Chinese government. It’s really still, an amazing city.

This is a major operation, particularly by a woman. I’m not saying a woman cannot do, but in many parts of Asia … it could be a problem. And even just for like driving — here we call “on the wrong side of the road”! So these kind of experiences. So how did you prepare: mentally, emotionally, and financially?

Ok, first one was, mentally — I’m the type of person who does not do any mental preparation. In the way of a practical point of view, there are things to be arranged — visas for countries, in order to drive a car in foreign countries you need a special kind of pass, which acts as a passport for the car, yes, there are certain practical things to consider.

Emotionally you have to be aware that I decided to travel with a friend, which means that 24 x 7 you are in a car that is the size of twelve square metres, so this can be intense. It’s like you are married to this person for half a year, you do everything together all the time. Which gives beautiful moments, but there are tension moments as well. But even for this you cannot prepare, you can only choose to try to do it, or you don’t do it.

Financially of course there needs to be money, you cannot do it free. So I saved up, how much did I save up … five thousand … I had some left I think, let’s say I had about eight thousand euros.

Doing what for example?

My background is computer work, so I worked in an office. And at the same time, in Europe you have a bigger salary, but your expenses are bigger, so what you have to do, in order to save a lot, is work your ass off, and at the same time, try not to spend anything. So I lived either in a friend’s place, or very cheap, so I didn’t have a high rent per month. I didn’t go out, I didn’t buy new clothes, I didn’t do expensive social stuff. So this saves a lot of money. So then most of the money you can put in your bank account, which you have for the travel. You have to be able to live very basic, very simple, for some time.

So, although you are only in the third day in McLeod Ganj, and I don’t know if you have seen enough, or felt enough of this place — I’m saying this because there is so much to feel of this place. It’s not only there are Indians and Tibetans and Nepalis and foreign expats, there is spirituality as well. The Dalai Lama is here, he gives teachings often. Also the Central Tibetan Administration is here, leading a big movement. I don’t know how much you have seen, felt, heard, experienced, but still, within this short span of time, what’s the impression you have of McLeod Ganj?

Well, like you said, two days, it’s not long at all. It’s also been raining a lot! So I haven’t visited as much as I’ve wanted to. But of course, the first feeling that you get from a place: The feeling I get is, it’s a relaxed atmosphere. Most likely nature can give you a lot as well. But I don’t think, because of the timing of the seasons, I will be doing any hiking, things like that. I was aware even before I came that you can learn a lot of things, you can do courses, you can be part of teachings, and things like this. But I’m choosing not to spend time on this now, because I want to see Kashmir and Leh on my way. I’m not planning much in my life, but I do have a deadline to be in Leh, because my best friend is coming, so I can’t not go, I don’t want to not go.

I’ve been yesterday in the monastery, because you told me about the Dalai Lama’s birthday which I thought was very nice. What I liked, what I noticed, the first impression, was there were a lot of Tibetan people, and there were also foreigners, there were even stray dogs, and everybody was mixed in this temple, being part of this ceremony. And of course the cultural events and dances are nice for me to see, because I’ve not see them yet. So this was nice. But I know that there is much more to discover. I’m just not sure how I’ll be able to discover it all this time. I’ll come back.

Talking about discovering, how about things that you have discovered along the way in this long journey, about the world, about people, and about yourself.

This is something I cannot answer within five minutes, because there’s too many aspects, but for me, I think it’s the travelling. But I think maybe for other people it could also just be about stepping away from the things that you know, that are familiar to you, so maybe you don’t even need to travel. But for me, I choose to literally travel away from my family, from my social surroundings, the friends that I was hanging out with for the last 15 years, in order to learn more about myself, and to learn new things.

I think if your pattern is very regular, you don’t keep the option open to talk with a different person, or to learn a new skill, or things like this. So for me, I have chosen to travel unplanned most of the time for the past seven years, which is quite a long time.

But every single person that I met, every single thing that I learned about myself or about their culture, has come in a logical order. Like, the things that somebody told me seven years ago, or the things that I learned two years later, should not have come in a different order, because then I would not have understood them. So somehow I let the universe kind of guide me, and I very positively believe that you meet people for a reason, either that you teach them something, or they teach you something, or something else. So this has been a very interesting journey.

Now you are away from all your loved ones, your community. How do you keep them posted — do you use the Internet a lot?

I think because I’ve been away from the Netherlands for relatively long periods at a time, like one year, one and half years, sometimes I come back for a couple of months. I meet new friends along the travels. So the friends base is kind of changing. I believe that family you have for life. Friends, sometimes you have for life, and sometimes they are just sitting in your life for a certain amount of time, maybe for only one meeting, maybe for ten years, maybe for shorter.

So some people that I would call my friends back in the Netherlands before seven years ago, I’m not so much in contact with any more. Not because we had a fight, but because our lives have changed so much, we don’t have something in common any more to talk about, besides old memories. So with some people the connection just fades away. Facebook of course is a way to keep up, but that’s on shallow level. It keeps the connection going, and it’s an easy kind of media.

I have a website where I put blogs once a month, which even people unexpectedly still read it, and I would never expect them to follow me like this, like an auntie or an old friend of a friend type of thing, but that’s nice. And then of course there’s the people that I do want to stay in touch with on a more intimate level, which is my parents, and my brother, and my best friend. So Skype is perfect for this, because it’s cheap; video sometimes. It’s not as nice as sitting in the couch drinking a chai or a cup of tea or some wine. But it’s a good intermediate.

I miss them, I miss my parents, my brother has two kids, I’ve not seen them for two years. I miss my best friend — but for now not enough to say, ok I’m done travelling, and I go live back in the Netherlands again. The other things are more important to me.

Do you think you will keep travelling?

No! Yes! Yes and no! Let me explain.

No, in the way of, I will not become the 70-year-old hippie that lives in the van for the next 30 years.

Yes, I feel travelling enriches your life, in the way of, there are so many things to share, so many things you can teach other people and you can learn from other people in the world, that I wish to meet people around the world, and I wish to see beautiful things in the world.

So the travelling will be a part of my life until I die. But the type of travelling, like being on the move all the time, without a fixed base, without a fixed home somewhere on a piece of ground, no.

Do you feel this travelling has been very fulfilling, it has a purpose. Do you feel like that?

Yes, a personal purpose, maybe not a … I hope that, (I think also because some people have told me) I hope that during my discoveries, I also help people along the way, with the things that I’ve shared, or the example that I’ve been for some people. That has been my contribution, to the people in the places where I’ve been. But the purpose has been mostly a personal purpose: Knowing better who I am, what I like to do, what I do not wish to do any more. I literally have more knowledge of different things, which I am sure I would not have gotten, I would not have found it or heard about it, if I would have continued living my life, as I was living it seven years ago.

Thank you.

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