‘Which way are you going?’ was a question many had asked us. The question seemed simple enough, but we did not have the answer. From Châtel, where our prized vehicle had unintentionally spent the winter, we could go uphill and cross the pass that marks the Swiss border; most likely we would then soon find ourselves in Italy. Or we could descend towards Thonon on Lake Geneva, turn left and head south towards the Iberian peninsula. We ruled out other options such as heading north for now. It was the second half of March, but with minus ten in Châtel night after night, winter was far from over. So… what was it going to be? Italy? Spain, Portugal?

Ski area near Châtel in March. Photo: Charlotte.

There had been a few last things left to do between getting the car registered and actually driving off with it for what could well turn out to be many years. We flew to the Netherlands to spend some time with Charlotte’s mother and apply for new passports. After that, we flew to South East Asia for a month in order to cancel our long-term visas in Malaysia, get permission to withdraw the fixed deposit I had paid ten years ago, close our bank accounts and for Charlotte to see the surgeon who had operated on her knee in a procedure that is still exclusively performed in his clinic in Kuala Lumpur.

We found Malaysia unchanged since we had last been there a year earlier.

Pedestrian crossings, relatively new additions to the streetscape of Penang, are still dangerous places to be because while most motorists respect the traffic lights and thus allow people to cross, some ignore red lights, drive through the unsuspecting pedestrians at high speeds and end up killing those who had thought it was safe to cross the road.

In another example of recent developments that have not been fully integrated, an Uber driver who took me back to Kuala Lumpur from Putrajaya blindly followed the instructions Google Maps was giving him on his phone, driving through parking lots, winding through narrow streets, occasionally even turning around and going the opposite way, while ignoring the signs that said ‘Kuala Lumpur’, the signs that would have taken us directly to the freeway. This was a man with zero situational awareness and ironically, the navigation software that was supposed to help him find his way was taking him for a ride… When it was time to pay he apologised and smiled so disarmingly that I agreed to pay for the extra distance we had covered. Never mind.

Another one? The goverment agency that was supposed to sign off on the termination of our participation in the visa programme could not do so because the letter template that they needed existed on one computer only, and that one computer had been taken to the repair shop.

But the food… ahh, the food…. In Kuala Lumpur’s Bukit Bintang area we ignored the tourist trap of Jalan Alor and instead frequented a number of tried and trusted spots nearby which offered cuisines like Thai, Vietnamese, Malaccan Nyonya or Padang (western Sumatran), mostly unassuming places where miracles were performed on a daily basis.

Nasi Lemak, a breakfast favourite on the streets of Kuala Lumpur.

Now, many restaurants in the Malaysian capital still have a main entrance that is used by patrons and a back door that opens to an alley where waste is dumped in containers that are often emptied but never cleaned, where an indescribable stench fills the air and gangs of rats eye passers-by with a fearless kind of curiosity. Is this an unavoidable side effect of the combination of food and tropcal heat, an inevitable price to pay for some of the world’s most addictive cuisines?

No, it’s not. With a week to spare before we would fly back to Europe, we decided to spend that in Singapore. We had been there many times before, but never long enough to do any serious exploring. We stayed in Geylang, the closest Singapore has to a red-light district. What strikes me whenever I am in Geylang is: it doesn’t look like much of anything. There are neither high-rise buildings nor profusely restored and commercialised ‘heritage’ projects. Shophouses, yes, much like the ones we know from Malaysia. Coffee houses where mostly older Chinese men sip the many non-alcoholic drinks or, more often, drink beer, chat, have a bite to eat. There are very few people like us, western tourists. The type of foreigner that is known as farang in Thailand and guiri in Spain.

Stalls on footpaths sell all kinds of aphrodisiacs and penis enlargement methods, but otherwise, everything is low-key. There are massage parlours where a variety of desires can be fulfilled, but they are not marked as such. There is an adult shop with the evocative, though hardly titillating name ‘Romance in the city’.

This area is devoid of everything that Singapore would like to show its visitors. It is also one of the city-state’s most human, humble, unpretentious, genuine neighbourhoods.

But this was going to be about food, wasn’t it? Oh, it was a pleasure. With food courts in malls as well as residential areas, ranging from good to absolutely mind-blowing and from predominantly Chinese to predominantly Indian to an impressive mix of international cuisines, with restaurants offering more variety than anyone could imagine, and without the back-alley stench… and adding to that the safe pedestrian facilities, disciplined drivers and no motorcycles, this had to be heaven. I started to muse about spending months in Singapore and enrolling in a Chinese-language programme, or…

Wait. We had plans involving a car and (initially) Europe and a lot of travelling. Of course! Life is too short, temptation is everywhere.

One more thing about Singapore. Bear with me: after this, we are going to to get on our way.

The Gateway, Singapore

During one of our long walks through the city, we found ourselves looking up in awe at what seemed to be a two-dimensional building. I’m not sure you can imagine the shock, the wonder that grabs you when you are suddenly, unexpectedly faced with a missing dimension. What we saw was, in fact, one of the two trapezoids that constitute an office building development called The Gateway. With its construction completed in 1990, it took a long time for anyone to take up the challenge of building anything to its north-west, because the sharp edges of the Gateway represented tremendously bad qi according to feng shui principles.

A Taiwanese businessman by the name of C. S. Huang finally built Parkview Square, which was designed in a spectacular art deco style with rounded shapes and earthy tones to ‘absorb’ all the metal-edged badness emanating from nearby Gateway. To us, what was most impressive was, in fact, the café/bar on the ground floor of Parkview Square, which is open to all:

The café/bar in Parkview Square, Singapore.

Parkview Square was completed in 2002. And in the end, the ‘undeveloped’ space (developer’s euphemism) that remained between the two projects was filled by a residential development that was designed to channel the qi flow between Gateway and Parkview Square, and which, I believe, is now completed:

Duo Residence channeling qi flows between The Gateway (bottom) and Parkview Square (top). Image from fengshuibeginner.com

Fascinating stuff, this.

We descended towards Thonon, turned left and headed south. Before we set off, Charlotte had gone to see Stephan Eicher perform in the afternoon on a plateau between the slopes of Plaine Dranse (that had long been the plan), so on our first day we did not drive a long time. We spent the night in a gîte and carried on, the following day, still heading south.

Buoyed by the appearance of mediterranean trees like maritime pine and cypress and by warmer temperatures and blue skies, we turned inland after Montpellier, thinking we would head for Basque country, Galicia, Portugal. We realised our mistake when, before Toulouse, clouds gathered and a massive storm broke with heavy rain and wet snow. The weather forecast ahead indicated no improvement anywhere.

After a night at a homestay, we turned left again, this time towards Andorra and Spain’s east coast.

Climbing towards Andorra, we tried to assess the situation. While it had rained heavily where we had spent the night, snow had fallen higher up in the Pyrenees, passes were closed, and since we had originally wanted to leave in October, we had chains but no winter tyres.

It turned out all right. Although others were using chains, we managed to reach Andorra without them, in four wheel drive. We filled both our diesel tanks with tax-free diesel and bought some tax-free booze, but saw no reason to spend more time in what appeared to be no more than a one-valley country with ugly buildings. We did not find a restaurant to have lunch at, so we continued into Spain.

We began to sleep in the car. We spent two nights at a campsite in an area that is famous for its rock climbing. With our Webasto heating not working, Charlotte borrowed a blanket to put over her sleeping bag and bought a hot water bottle. I pretended not to be cold.

We passed a cherry orchard where the irrigation system had been on overnight.

And this was the result.

Previously, when we had cycled into Spain, we had ended up spending the coldest months in a rented apartment in Valencia, had witnessed New Year’s Eve in a public square and the fallas in March and had loved the city. So it was going to be Valencia again.

Not quite so good this time. We stayed south of the city in an industrial-size ‘resort-style’ campsite near an elusive nature reserve. We walked to a beach which we reached by crossing a golf course where people were teeing off and whatever else people do on golf courses. The area was still unseasonably cold. And to top that, the world half marathon championships which were held in Valencia paralysed the public transport that we depended on to get into and out of the city.

Still deserted beach near Valencia.

Good thing, though: we had lunch on Saturday afternoon in what had been our favourite (Italian) restaurant previously: the Lambrusquería. House menu this time: dried sausage, followed by apple and truffle in puff pastry, carpaccio, spinach salad, pasta with mushrooms, tiramisù. Simple, honest, excellent food. Wine, cheap and good. Coffee that the Spanish and the Italians hold their respective keys to. All in all: to die for.

A bit futher south, and more inland, we found a spot at a campsite from where we could go on hikes. After a few stormy days the weather finally improved to where we felt we could slow down.

Hiking near Campell.

Charlotte in Campell.

Because going slowly, that’s what it was all about, wasn’t it? And besides, we need to get used to the car and get everything working. The heater that is not working was a problem as long as the nights were cold. Getting it repaired is less of a priority now. The water tank that must have frozen and cracked during winter: don’t really need that now, although that too will have to be repaired. The gas stove that stopped burning as soon as the knob was released is working most of the time now. And previous owners have made a lot of changes that have not always worked out well. Particularly in electrical systems, it is difficult if not impossible to find out what is powering what and why it’s not working.

We have been on our way for two weeks now. No wild camping yet, we are doing this slowly, step by step. Getting our bearings, getting to know our equipment, and above all, enjoying everything around us: the now warmer days and nights, the changing landscape, the travelling. And reminiscing with a friend whom I shared a house with for three months in Japan, ten years ago, and who lives in Elche, not far from Alicante. The last time we had seen him was when he came to stay with us during the fallas in Valencia, eight years ago.

Plans? Not really. A few ideas, yes. We will likely be staying in Europe for a while, years perhaps, and then move on into Asia. When that will be is anybody’s guess, but never mind: we are right where we want to be.