Riga and the Resilient Nature of Living in a VW Van

Photo by John Rathwell, Searching for Sero

“On the road, things can sometimes change. No, actually — they can always change.” –WDN post, July 2013, Riga

We’ve been living full-time in our VW T4, named Mork, since 2012. Almost 7 years now. We’ve had unbelievable adventures in Europe and nearby countries. We stayed with a circus in Italy; we milked cows in rural Romania; and we were adopted by a dog in Morocco, to name a few.

Those unforgettable moments would be nothing, however, without the struggles of living in a van as a couple and facing adversity together. Van living isn’t just about Instagram moments; it’s about adapting. Problem-solving on the spot. Digging deep to find the good in bad situations.

And most of all (for us), maintaining the love and affection that’s integral, especially during superbly stressful times.

Riga was one of the most memorable traveling trials we’ve had. It reminded us of our resiliency, strengths and adaptability. It also reminded us why were there, together, in the first place.

When You Plan on a Short Stay

Photo by Westfalia Digital Nomads

W e initially went to Riga to do a small seminar on working online and traveling. We’d planned on spending the following weeks relaxing on the Baltic Sea. There’s an unwritten rule with van living that’s more extreme than static living: you can make plans and then life will laugh at them.

One of the attendees suggested staying on the TV Tower island for camping overnight, which was just across the river from Riga. It was perfect. The island had the usual debris you’d expect: bottles, plastic, condoms and strangely, shoes. It was surprisingly abandoned, though, and had loads of free parking with a great view of the city.

We found a spot close to the river with plenty of space, a small fire pit and spent a rather unremarkable evening enjoying the view and relaxing.

When Work Goes South

Photo by Westfalia Digital Nomads

The first problem cropped up the next morning. A very large project we’d been working on for a few weeks fell through. We’d been working with a Swiss client who wanted 5 video adverts for his translation agency.

He wanted funny videos that would use the same characters for all 5, like a continuing saga. I’d spent 2 weeks on the scripts for 2–3 minute spots and the client loved them. It was soon to be Armando’s turn, since he was in charge of production and filming. He’d already contacted a local agency in Riga and we were ready.

The pre-production was prepared; the shooting and post-production would take roughly 2 weeks; and the money was really, really good. It was an exciting project for us.

Correction: the money would have been good. The client had written us that he’d decided on ‘maybe one video, just to start.’ In other words, he asked the impossible. If we went ahead with one video, hiring all the actors and such in Riga, we couldn’t possibly do the continuity that the entire concept required.

It was crushing.

We had 5 useless scripts and we were both out of work, unexpectedly and simultaneously. The scramble to find new jobs began that day. The timing for new work couldn’t have been worse — we’d turned down a plethora of jobs to focus on this project and the marketplace was now a ghost town.

W e were going to run out of money; there was no way we could afford going to the seaside; and finding new work was a no-go. I started writing one-off articles for old sites that didn’t pay well, just to start getting paid. We’re talking the kind of articles you’re on your knees and praising the skies there’s no byline attached, for the shame.

Armando took to the streets with his chalk, doing his street art. He’s a fine arts graduate and he can create masterful renditions of Picasso and Van Gogh, just in chalk. It’s a form of ‘artistic busking,’ I suppose, and he’d go to ‘work’ in the mornings, coming back in the evenings with cups full of coins. Fresh cash.

While he was at his ‘office’ in the city, I spent my time broiling in the van ghostwriting. It was, of course, an unseasonably hot summer in Riga that year. I’d take breaks and dip in the river. My hair would dry almost the instant I stepped out.

When Technology Lets You Down

Photo by Westfalia Digital Nomads

Around that time, the second mini-disaster struck: our solar panel inverter/converter had a blowout. Without it, my Mac couldn’t charge, meaning I couldn’t work. It also meant losing contact with the outside world, one of our sanity cornerstones.

We asked one of the seminar attendees for help, and he found a service in the city. Our idea was to simply get an estimate to decide if we wanted to spend the last of our savings on a repair. We didn’t have much, but we’d sacrifice it if we had to.

Armando took the machines to the shop, and they promised they’d call us with an estimate. But instead, they ‘forgot’ to call us with the amount and repaired it. Then they wanted to charge us over 100 Euros, and told us if we refused, they’d keep our machines until we did.

We were both upset. What those fellows didn’t know, that I knew from experience, is that you never, ever try to cheat a Sicilian. Ever. Armando went back.

He sat in the shop, refusing to leave until they gave him the inverter/converter. They threatened calling the police; he said go ahead. The police arrived. Armando explained what had happened-and shockingly, the police sided with him. We got our gear back and didn’t have to pay for it, because they’d been so underhanded.

We were back in the chaff-churning business in no time. And we had our virtual support system of friends and family returned to us, which was vital.

When You Run Out of Gas, Literally

Photo by Westfalia Digital Nomads

I t was definitely tempting fate, but after the converter debacle, we made poor jokes about how things couldn’t possibly get worse. Then our cooking gas ran out.

There we were, on an island across from the city of Riga, stranded like Crusoe, and without gas for the stove. Neither of us function remotely without our morning coffee. This was almost the straw to break us, and though it might seem minor from the outside, it was one of those miserable moments where you try not to cry.

Luckily, there was plenty of wood on our little island. We added two new routines to our dailies: gathering wood for morning coffee and cooking, and shopping for simple meals that either didn’t require cooking, or could be grilled.

You don’t realize how dependent you are on such a simple convenience of having a stove until it’s gone. We had to get extremely creative. We cooked small soup packets in our teensy coffee pot.

We grilled anything grill-able we could, and some that we probably shouldn’t have tried, like pizza.

We ate a lot of sausage in Riga. A lot.

But we made it work, all of it. Not just because we had to, but because we refused to let circumstances win.

When You Fall in Love Again

Photo by Westfalia Digital Nomads

Throughout all of those moments, the upsets and setbacks, we somehow managed not to get completely disheartened. Beyond the stress, we also had boredom to contend with.

The frustration and the unrelenting heat merely amplified the usual sniping, bitching and getting on each other’s nerves.

I took walks and picked up the island trash, for fun. Armando was more creative. We kept seeing this guy give people ultra-light plane rides over the river and the city. One early evening, Armando decided to approach him and they struck a deal.

He’d get a free ride and in trade would shoot a video. It’s one of the funniest memories I have, since I doubt I’ve ever seen him so frightened witless. It’s quite a sight, a swarthy Italian gone white.

Another sweltering afternoon, Armando dug himself a mini-pool with a tarp covering it and added river water. He had a blast.

W e laughed more that summer than we had in ages. We remembered each other and the why of our thing.

Finally, after several weeks, we were able to take up our journey again. Riga, however, will always hold a very special place in our hearts.

The summer we spent on the island represents the resiliency that living in a VW van requires. It reminded us to look for solutions, rather than wallow in problems.

And most importantly, Riga gave us the time to rediscover those little joys and quirks we first fell in love with, on a deeper and more meaningful level.

It was a valuable lesson we’ve carried in our travels.

It’s seen us through many deeper lifely hiccups we’ve come across since then, and it continues to solidify our life together in a little van called Mork.

Photo by Westfalia Digital Nomads




I’m a writer from Montana who journeys with my husband (a filmmaker) in our van. We work online as we slow travel through Europe, and have done for 7 years.

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Mel Candea

Mel Candea

I’m a writer from Montana who journeys with my husband (a filmmaker) in our van. We work online as we slow travel through Europe, and have done for 7 years.

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