Conscious traveling, a quest to surf the entire west coast of all the Americas, a van, and a dog: Jade Heilmann’s experiences on the road were too good not to share.
I’m Jade. Together with my better half (aka Gabriel), our Westfalia (aka BigBlu), and our pup (aka Phi), we make up the We Travel and Blog team. Currently, we’re on a mission to surf the whole west coast of the Americas, from Tofino to Tierra de Fuego.
As an added challenge, we’ve pledged to make it to creating zero waste by the time we reach the tip of Chile. Gabriel and I see all water as holy; surf is our baptism. That’s where the zero waste pledge comes in. We’re tired of seeing trash rolling in the waves with us.
What inspired you to travel?
Travel is my resting state.
My parents were nomads, so I spent my childhood moving. I had planned a RTW trip after high school, but life got in the way. I put my travel plans on hold in Montreal while I got a degree, a guy, a job, a cat, a house, and everything else I had somehow convinced myself was a priority.
When I had everything but the kids and was still enormously unhappy, I realized I was living a life that wasn’t mine. I took a leap of faith, sold everything, left everything, and went to find my rightful path. I did it out of desperation and was very afraid.
My emotions were out of control, I burned a lot of bridges and made a fool of myself. But the dust did finally settle and things started to fall into place in a positive way.
Not long after leaving Montreal, I found Gabriel. We spent three amazing weeks together but I wasn’t about to start a new relationship and abandon my travel goals again. So I left him to continue a solo trip through Central America.
There was nothing I could do to get him off my mind. He ruined my grand travel plans and I ended up back in the Dominican Republic, where I remained until we decided it was time for the both of us to roam this world together.
Why did you two choose surfing?
Gabriel and I met on the beach in Cabarete, where he gave me my first surf lesson. I fell in love with him and the surf simultaneously. I kept up surfing while I traveled alone for three more months in Central America, spending six hours a day in the water. I was hooked. The sport was demanding, and the ocean cleaned my soul.
Surfing is different than other sports. It’s not about outdoing all the competition. For me, it’s about striving to do your own best and reach your own limits every day. Slowly, very slowly, over time, you start getting better. Surfing isn’t a fling, it’s a life-long commitment; you could even say it’s a marriage.
Explain what the ocean does for your mind.
Surfing takes place not on a court, an arena, a track or a dojo. It is out there, in the limitless ocean. Out there I’m communing with nature, trying to read the rhythms of the water. That’s a superpower as far as I’m concerned, and surf makes me feel like a superhero.
I can understand the world around me at an intuitive level I was blind to before. Of course, the ocean has a mind of its own and some days you’re just going to get your @$$ whooped, that’s all part of the lesson in conquering your own emotions instead of some sort of external adversary.
Tell us a story from your coastal surfing trip.
The desert is a magical place, but it speaks in time, which is a hard language to learn.
We spent two months in Baja. After 60 days it’s hard to remember what life was like in the rhythm of the rest of the world. The desert has its own rhythm and timescale. Gabriel and I felt like we had traveled right off Earth to another planet. We had ample idle time while waiting for the right tide in the middle of nowhere. Individually, and as a couple, we found that our world explorations warped and turned inward.
We scarcely met anyone else in Baja, and that solitude was very important to us at that stage in our trip. Our mission, and by association, the blog, gained a lot of focus during those two months. We started questioning absolutely everything. Our internal worlds were wiped clean, almost like the desert itself, and we had a unique opportunity to rewrite into it whatever we held most dear.
How do you pay for your travels?
Traveling in a van means gas is our biggest expense. We adhere to a budget of $1,000 a month for the both of us, and that has to stretch a long way. Everything from gas to visas to toilet paper to vet and mechanic bills comes from that budget.
We used to afford traveling through savings, but our growing blog and photography sales are starting to make a difference.
Finally, we trade and barter as much as possible along the way and do other little things to save cash, like share the cost of gas with travelers we pick up that need a ride or a place to sleep.
Tell us another story.
Before we left the Dominican Republic, we went paragliding. Our guide, Tony, put us in the back of his pickup truck after we’d spent the night camping in Rancho Ruisenor.
However, the weather was unpredictable. Rain and wind chased us from Constanza to Bonao to Jaraboca. Even though we weren’t able to take off we still got a gorgeous look at the land itself from a great vantage point.
The next day, Tony picked us up again and we found sublime conditions. There was no better way to say goodbye to a place we loved than flying over the majestic landscapes.
Seriously. Use your talents and skills for something in return, like food and accommodations.
Use Duolingo to learn local languages.
No matter how difficult, speaking the common language in another country is worthwhile. We love Duolingo, and it’s free.
Always make sure you leave the ATM with your bank card.
I’m currently on hold with my bank trying to get a new one sent to me in Mexico. Whoops.
Bonus VanLife tip:
In the US, the more cul-de-sacs on Google maps, the better the neighborhood for stealth camping.
Tell us about an encounter fresh in your mind.
As a newlywed couple, we had a rough start in the Pacific Northwest. We were accustomed to the freedoms of living in the Dominican Republic and found ourselves in reverse culture shock upon returning to the States. Driving rules and street crossing culture were different, media consumption was everywhere (even at the gas pump!). It was off-putting.
One November evening, unbeknownst to us, was Thanksgiving in Astoria, Oregon. We accidentally walked into a community dinner offering free meals to the homeless, thinking it was a restaurant open to the public, and we were welcomed with open arms.
Gabriel and I spent the whole night chatting it up with locals, some with homes and some without, many fellow surfers, all with great stories.
The great debate: aisle or window?
The emergency exit row, any seat.
Has anything surprised you while traveling?
Even though I’d dreamed of backpacking alone in Central America, I was really disappointed by the reality of the trip. It wasn’t the location, but instead my fellow travelers who caused this.
I was embarrassed by the behavior of too many of my peers, insensitive to the local culture and out to find a Beverly Hills party on a trailer park budget. I found us to be negatively affecting the heart and soul of the cultures and environments we visited. I actually quit traveling for awhile because of it.
Finally I came to terms with the fact that balance is better than bias, and it was better to be a conscious traveler than not travel at all. When Gabriel and I set off on our journey, this became the cornerstone of our travel blog, and the whole reason we write about our adventures: to inspire readers to travel for real, soul-expanding experiences.
I am writing this from the gorgeous sunlit dining room of the Holy Molé BnB in Erongarícuaro, Mexico. After almost 6 months on the coast and in the water, we decided it was time to get grounded, so we came to this farm to get our hands dirty, and we’ve been happily planting seeds for the past week.
From here, we’ll eventually end up in Ushuaia, but we keep getting sidetracked along the way. Every turn BigBlu makes draws out a new destiny for who we’ll have become when we finally get down to the tip of the Americas, and we’re blessed to have the privilege to follow our hearts and the path that is rightfully ours.