2 S'porean aunties tell us how they've continued to travel around Europe despite Covid-19

Stories of Us: From being locked down in Morocco to waking up at the beautiful Cliffs of Moher.

Andrew Koay | September 09, 2020, 05:29 PM

In March earlier this year, Noor Soeb and Susie Chua were at a crossroads.

The pair were six months into a grand tour — travelling by car across Europe and Northern Africa — when news of an impending lockdown curtailed their plans to leave Morocco for Spain via ferry from the port city of Tangier.

“We had to decide whether we want to go straight to the port and risk getting stuck there, or turn back and travel 1,000km back down south to a campsite and be stuck in Morocco indefinitely,” said 51-year-old Noor, or Norah as she likes to be called.

The worsening Covid-19 situation in Europe eventually sealed the deal for the two, and they turned their motorhome around and headed for a campsite nearby the Moroccan city of Agadir.

There, on March 20, Norah and Chua would be confined to the boundaries of the campsite for the next three months as Morocco followed the rest of the world into lockdown.

Of course, there was one other option available to them — abandon their adventures and return to Singapore.

“Our families were pretty much begging for us to go home,” said Norah.

“In Singapore, the infection rate was quite high back then compared to Morocco, which was less,” said Chua, 57.

“So we feel it is safer for us to stay Morocco, in a town far south by the coast, in a tiny little village where there are very few inhabitants.”

In any case, the pair had well and truly been bitten by the travel bug; the prospect of going back to Singapore and sitting inside an apartment in isolation did not appeal to either of them.

After all, Norah and Chua were fulfilling their dreams on the trip of a lifetime — one they had planned would go for much longer than the six months Covid-19 had threatened to end it at.

"There's a whole wide world out there"

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The time has come to go take ✈. Bon voyage. See you soon Amsterdam! #2travellingaunties

A post shared by Norah & Susie🇸🇬🇸🇬🇸🇬 (@2travellingaunties) on

Today (Sep. 9) marks the one year anniversary of the couple’s trip; 366 days since they first left Singapore for Amsterdam.

Norah, who worked as a private hire driver, had developed an interest in motorhome travel after seeing “a monster of a truck” while holidaying in Yogyakarta in November 2018.

That vehicle it turned out, was a Mercedes-Benz Unimog truck that had been converted into a camper van.

“I started to get obsessed with the vehicle and then I started to research on what (it actually means to travel in one).”

It turned out there was a whole community of people living and travelling in such vehicles. Some were working out of them, others were simply retirees enjoying their golden years and seeing the world.

Avid holidayers, the idea intrigued both Norah and Chua; they quickly started drawing up plans to spend one year on the road in Europe.

“I was ready to go anytime,” said Norah, who described herself as a free spirit.

“But the one with commitments was Susie.”

In contrast to Norah, Chua worked in the corporate sector, a job that didn’t quite have the flexibility afforded to private hire drivers, to say the least.

Furthermore, there were other things holding Chua back — the prospect of a bonus in December for instance. Perhaps, the trip could wait till the end of 2019.

Yet, some changes at her company coupled with a good dose of wanderlust eventually had the 57-year-old rethinking her plans.

“I just every day got to work and I sit behind a computer,” said Chua, recalling the mundanities of her life back then.

“I thought, am I going to spend the next 20 years of my life sitting behind this computer in a small cubicle? There’s a whole wide world out there.

The moment I decided (to quit) I felt really excited.”

Chua left her job in July 2019. The pair then trialled motorhome living for a week in Perth. The experience convinced them that they should go ahead with their grand plan to travel around Europe.

On Sep. 9, 2019, they left Singapore.

Meet VanGar

Since then Norah and Chua have driven across Europe, visiting countries such as Belgium, France, England, Scotland, Ireland, Wales, Spain, Portugal, and Germany.

So far, they’ve largely kept to the S$50,000 budget they’d set aside for one year of travelling.

The day we chatted over Zoom, Norah and Chua were in Trogir, a town in Croatia, well into the second leg of their trip — touring Eastern Europe.

A normal day for the couple usually involves exploring the surrounding area and or a nearby town, before making plans for where they’ll go next. If an area is particularly interesting they might stay for a day or two, otherwise, it's off to the next destination in VanGar — their 23-year-old Ford Transit motorhome which Norah told Mothership finds inspiration for its name in the Malay word Garang.

Driving such a big vehicle on foreign roads took some getting used to, but Norah — who does most of the driving — told me that navigating traffic in Europe was nothing compared to Asia.

“Nothing can beat Asia,” she said laughing.

“A lot of the roads if there are potholes I’ll be like ‘Oh this is like Malaysia! Oh this is like Thailand!’”

Image from 2travellingaunties Instagram

Camping on cliffs, cycling in the desert

Travel is typically planned from campsite to campsite, aided by the mobile phone application Park4night which shows travellers locations where they can park their campervans or motorhomes overnight and has reviews for campsites.

Norah and Susie will then drive to a prospective campsite, make sure that it’s safe, before walking around the new town to familiarise themselves and get their bearings.

Home for the pair is six metres long, 2.2 metres wide, and 3.2 metres high. Vangar is warmly decorated with rugs and colourful shawls that act like curtains. It is outfitted with a small bathroom, a fridge — “empty,” chuckles Norah — and a rather cramped looking table and chair booth set up.

But never mind the interiors, it’s their telling of the ever-changing sceneries and new locations that really bring a sparkle to both their eyes.

One particular moment they both point to as a highlight involved camping at the Cliffs of Moher in Ireland.

Image by Vincent Guth via Unsplash

“You wake up in the morning, and you see the sunrise and there’s no one around you except the cliffs and the car,” said Chua.

“That was fantastic.”

“The other memorable one was when we went to the Sahara Desert in Morocco,” continued Norah. She had only ever read about the desert in geography books, so to be now cycling around its great expanse was surreal.

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Day 154. Cycling in the #desert and learning to cook #tajine

A post shared by Norah & Susie🇸🇬🇸🇬🇸🇬 (@2travellingaunties) on

“And then a sandstorm came in,” said Chua.

“We had to hide next to a tree until the sandstorm died down and we quickly cycled back to our car.”

Travelling during a pandemic

Understandably, travel these days isn’t as carefree for the couple as it once was.

Getting out of Morocco itself proved quite a task as travel between Europe and the North African nation had ceased.

The pair had been bunking down for about seven months when an opportunity to return to Europe finally presented themselves through some German friends — Wolfgang and Francoise — they’d met at the campsite.

The German embassy had organised for a ferry transport citizens stuck in Morocco back to the European continent. Wolfgang and Francoise — who were planning to take the ferry — had successfully petitioned their embassy to allow the Singaporeans to join them.

On Jul. 3, VanGar drove into the port of Tanger Med, sights firmly set on Europe.

“The Moroccan port official wouldn’t let us in,” said Chua.

Somehow their names and car registration number hadn’t made the list for the specially organised ferry.

Getting desperate, Chua called the Singapore consulate who in turn spoke to their German counterparts and the local police. They were eventually allowed to board.

“That was really quite scary, exciting, frustrating, whatever you want to call it,” said Norah.

Since arriving back in Europe, Norah and Chua have taken extra precautions; they skip crowded areas, mostly explore sparsely populated locations, and wear masks when there are other people around.

Before heading for a new country, they’ll conduct meticulous research and reach out to other travellers who’ve recently crossed those borders to find out what the Covid-19 situation is like, what kind of restrictions are in place, and if they will be allowed to enter in the first place.

“Basically we have to create new habits when we travel,” explained Norah.

"Seeing how far we can go"

Now at the one year mark, Norah and Chua were originally planning on ending the trip and heading back to Singapore. However, having fallen in love with what they call the “van life”.

Their new plans will see them make their way into Turkey but crossing the Middle East into Asia. If all goes well, they will drive VanGar all the way to Malaysia before the pair return to Singapore.

"That is the grand, grand plan," said Norah, perhaps catching the look of amazement on my face.

"But for now only one step at the time," added Chua.

"The plan always changes.

We achieved our dreams and the plan for the year. Now it's just about expanding it a bit and seeing how far we can go."

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Stories of Us is a series about ordinary people in Singapore and the unique ways they’re living their lives. Be it breaking away from conventions, pursuing an atypical passion, or the struggles they are facing, these stories remind us both of our individual uniqueness and our collective humanity.

Top image from 2travellingaunties Instagram