Vanlife does not collide well with dressing to the nines, and it doesn’t have to. There is simplicity in forgetting to brush your hair in the morning or cooking something cheap. An exploration of adaptation to road life through food and fashion.

I look into the mirror. I am wearing a beautiful dress and I’ve done up my hair. It has ribbons in it, colorful ones, and pins to hold it all in place. It isn’t fancy – it took me all of 10 minutes to get ready. But it is beautiful. I turn back and forth in front of the mirror, make sure everything is in place. Do my earrings match? Or should I trade them out for red ones? Oh, and that strand of escaping hair should definitely go back where it belongs. Everything is perfect, all the pieces fit together in a graceful kind of symmetry.
I stop and catch my eyes in the reflection of the mirror and realize: I haven’t done this for a year. Vans don’t usually come with large mirrors, or a lot of space to enjoy getting ready in, or much motivation to care what my hair looks like. Where did this feeling go? Has vanlife changed me that much?

We rented an apartment for the entirety of July 2017 in Puerto Escondido, Mexico. I had access to a mirror, a bathroom, and a full-size kitchen. I also got a visit from my mother, who likes to take me shopping.

Vanlife goes well with simplicity

Before vanlife, I had never thought that fashion was a luxury. It has changed my perception of style, as well as food. Luxuries are things that cost you in two major ways: money and time. Although I had never seen it like this before, this realization gave food and fashion a new commonality. They were two areas of life where simplicity was key.
I would, these days, often stare at my plate of spaghetti after it was put in front of me. Tomato sauce. Onions. Garlic. Zucchini. Tomato sauce. Don’t get me wrong – pasta is my favorite food, and I like tomato sauce all right. But is the fourth time we’ve eaten tomato sauce this week.

As an example of pre-vanlife fashion funness, I was gifted a photo shoot for my 21st birthday back in 2010.

Well, then make something else! You mentally reprimand me for complaining. There are plenty of people in vans whose Instagram feeds are full of organic foods, local treasures, and beautifully-crafted plates. It is possible to eat interesting food while living in a van. Balanced, healthy, local – everything you expect an Instagram-worthy food picture to be. I could be like that.

But I’m not. As the months pass, I strive less and less towards complicated and expensive food like that. It’s not that I want to post pictures of my meals (that’s the kind of content I tend to swipe by immediately – what do I care what you’re eating in your van?). It’s that I used to have a passion for eating that seems to have now hit an all-time low. In high school, my best friend would complain that he spent most of his time watching me eat. If we want snacks, Sven will always go for a plain bag of tortilla chips (without salsa. Salsa is “too complicated”). I would make popcorn, or cut fruit slices, or even heat up some of yesterday’s dinner. He believes I’ll go to great lengths for what I want to eat. He’s right, I will.

Or at least, I would. Now, spaghetti and tomato sauce is enough to pacify me. It’s fine.

Sweatpants are often a way to go while living in the Bus – laying under your car to figure out what is wrong does not go well with a nice outfit. (Dalton Highway, Alaska – August 2016). Photo by Klim Bulygin: vodpop.ru/en

One of the hardest parts about vanlife was the food

I spent many painful hours in the United States and Canada at grocery stores. They were my dreamland, full of things I would wish for while tightening my purse strings on my newly acquired vanlife budget (which was as close to zero as we could get it). I got good at picking the coffee and the cereal with the lowest prices and ignoring the berry shelf. I put up my invisible blinders against the wine and cheese sections. Instead, I got what was on our shopping list. I bought only what we needed, not what I wanted. If I bought what I wanted to buy, I would have probably ended up buying the whole store more than once.
This challenge was one of the most difficult for me while transitioning to vanlife. I suddenly had a lot less money and I never realized that so much of my money before vanlife went towards luxury food items. I don’t mean expensive stuff. What I mean was more basic. I never went for a €10 bottle of wine; a €3 bottle would have been perfect. Now, wine was never something we needed, and it was never on the shopping list. Wine had become a luxury item. My cravings for food I couldn’t afford would get worse and worse. I would even want things I wouldn’t have bought if I was back to my old budget. But they looked even more enticing because they were forbidden.

With time comes adaptation

Our apartment in Puerto Escondido, Mexico.

As the trip wore on, this began to change. I got very good at just going for the items on my shopping list. It became normal. And this strategy worked. Tomato sauce was okay, oranges were fine instead of kiwis. My passion for food was fading and had been replaced by a certain dullness. An unenthusiasm. I began not to care as much about what was on my plate, it was okay if I couldn’t get the things I wanted at the grocery store; I didn’t want them that much anymore.

My passion for fashion was very much like my passion for food. Despite years of caring what I looked like in the mirror before I left the house to begin my day, now it was just too much effort to care. Vanlife is dirty, and sweaty – something that does not go well with a well-thought out outfit. Now, I used my skirt to wipe my hands because it was the fastest cloth around. Although I brought a small box of jewelry with me, I have left it untouched for months at a time. The rest of the world would be lucky if I remember to brush my hair in the morning. Vanlife is not a motivation for dressing well. Instead, it motivates you to dress in whatever is currently practical.

Least dirty is the default

I turned off a desire to shop. I liked shopping, before vanlife. I liked having new clothes, adding to the colors that would contribute to the visual spectrum of my personality. I liked finding some new item that matched other ones in meticulously crafted ways. But again, I found that shopping was never a necessity in the Bus, so I never ever participated in it. If I found myself buying a piece of clothing while I was on the road, it was because the old one had worn out and needed to be replaced, or the weather had changed. Eventually, like food, clothing stopped being on my radar, because the answer was always you can’t afford this. Even if my budget would allow me the luxury to shop, I didn’t have space to put my new clothes when I brought them home. I could only afford to put new clothes into my mini-wardrobe as long as I took others out.
Whichever piece of clothing was the closest or least dirty became the default, especially until we reached warmer weather in southern California. I didn’t want to take the time in the morning to brush my hair or put on earrings because my mind was already busy with other things and I was going to be wearing my winter hat anyways. The fun, precise coordination of colors and designs had been removed from how I thought about my clothes, so what was the point? Something to wear at all was good enough.

Big Emma doesn’t like changing up her outfit these days very much either. Puerto Escondido, Mexico.

Is it vanlife? Or is it me?

What does this process show me? Have I changed? Was vanlife enough to hammer out of me vanities that I never even knew I had? Maybe it made me a better person to simply care less about what I would eat or wear today.
In many ways, including these ones, I have changed. Occasionally, when I find myself standing in front of a rare mirror or having access to a full kitchen, I can reawaken these old passions. But I have grown to not need them, not even really miss them. Our limited budget has gradually let me see how unnecessary these things were. They are things I like, but not things I should expect. I am not dependent on good food or nice clothing. I didn’t think I was before vanlife though either. But now, things that I used to consider simple luxuries are not that simple anymore, and I have come to see how much money plays a roll in things I once took for granted.
Change is good, as is adaptation, and it is an essential component to living in an international world. And in a van, too.
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About Author

RegularEmma
Emma is a writer, traveler, and teacher. She co-runs this blog and is currently traveling in her VW Bus "Big Emma" from Alaska to Argentina. She loves everything colorful and occasionally licks a rock. She doesn't believe in mustard.

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