From The Freedom Of Vanlife To A Pandemic Quarantine — And Back Again?

Foxy stuck at home during the lockdown
Foxy stuck at home during the lockdown
Anne Sophie Goninet

SAINT-BLIMONT — Two years ago, my partner and I set off across Europe in our campervan. We called it Foxy — and it was our home on wheels and ticket to freedom. In France, they still call it "la vanlife" — that ultimate mix of wanderlust and practicality that was popularized during the 1960s in the United States with the iconic Volkswagen Type 2/Combi, which has experienced an international revival over the past few years.

The two of us, both 28 at the time, needed a break from the daily routine of "métro-boulot-dodo," as we say in French, and quit everything to explore our spectacularly varied continent. Over the course of 14 months, we visited 27 countries and covered more than 58,000 kilometers. We discovered the Scottish highlands, hiked in the Italian Dolomites and the Romanian Carpathians, kayaked in the fjords of Norway, slept along the Adriatic in Croatia, drove on beaches in Ireland and Denmark, visited exactly 21 capital cities from Sarajevo to Warsaw to Lisbon, and so much more.

Foxy's 2018-2020 itinerary — Source: Foxy the van via Instagram

Our road trip came to an end in December 2019 when our money ran out, and we came back to France. We set up camp at my parents in Saint-Blimont, a small village in the northern Somme department, hoping to spend the winter there before finding new jobs and a house to embark on the next chapter of our lives. And then, coronavirus rolled into town.

With a strict lockdown implemented in France, in the span of less than three months, we'd gone from utter freedom and unlimited access to the outside world to complete self-isolation. We were still together in a small space, but this time the view from the window was always the same.

In the final weeks of our journey, we'd been preparing for the adjustment back home — but this version of home was about as far as we could imagine from Foxy. The essence of vanlife is change and choice: being able to decide where we wanted to go next as we were driving, switching plans at the last minute depending on our mood or the weather forecast. No need to book a room or a campsite, just find a quiet spot for the night in the wild.

Sleeping next to Bleik Beach, in Norway — Source: Foxy the van via Instagram

Everything we needed was with us in our van. It was not just our means of transport but also our bedroom, living room and kitchen, all in one tiny but functional space. Every morning we would wake up with a different view, over mountains, trees or the sea.

During what wound up being a 55-day quarantine in France, waking up every morning in the same place was of course different, and sometimes quite frustrating. We even missed the driving itself — taking winding narrow roads while admiring the landscapes, cruising along with hurried local drivers as music or a podcast played in the background.

In the Italian dolomites — Source: Foxy the van via Instagram

Still, in the face of the grave uncertainty of the pandemic, we also knew we were lucky to be in a safe and comfortable environment, and it felt good to be close to family. We also treasured time with our new dog Pixie, whom we'd adopted in Romania a month before returning from our journey.

Two weeks ago, as lockdown restrictions loosened, we reunited with fellow travelers we had met when in Finland. It was the first overnight with Foxy since coming back from our road trip almost six months ago. Even if we met our friends only 30 kilometers away in Roussent, it was a trip we won't soon forget. Getting in our van, getting on the road was enough to taste a whiff of that precious thing we call freedom.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!

In Argentina, A Visit To World's Highest Solar Energy Park

With loans and solar panels from China, the massive solar park has been opened a year and is already powering the surrounding areas. Now the Chinese supplier is pushing for an expansion.

960,000 solar panels have been installed at the Cauchari park

Silvia Naishtat

CAUCHARI — Driving across the border with Chile into the northwest Argentine department of Susques, you may spot what looks like a black mass in the distance. Arriving at a 4,000-meter altitude in the municipality of Cauchari, what comes into view instead is an assembly of 960,000 solar panels. It is the world's highest photovoltaic (PV) park, which is also the second biggest solar energy facility in Latin America, after Mexico's Aguascalientes plant.

Spread over 800 hectares in an arid landscape, the Cauchari park has been operating for a year, and has so far turned sunshine into 315 megawatts of electricity, enough to power the local provincial capital of Jujuy through the national grid.

It has also generated some $50 million for the province, which Governor Gerardo Morales has allocated to building 239 schools.

Abundant sunshine, low temperatures

The physicist Martín Albornoz says Cauchari, which means "link to the sun," is exposed to the best solar radiation anywhere. The area has 260 days of sunshine, with no smog and relatively low temperatures, which helps keep the panels in optimal conditions.

Its construction began with a loan of more than $331 million from China's Eximbank, which allowed the purchase of panels made in Shanghai. They arrived in Buenos Aires in 2,500 containers and were later trucked a considerable distance to the site in Cauchari . This was a titanic project that required 1,200 builders and 10-ton cranes, but will save some 780,000 tons of CO2 emissions a year.

It is now run by 60 technicians. Its panels, with a 25-year guarantee, follow the sun's path and are cleaned twice a year. The plant is expected to have a service life of 40 years. Its choice of location was based on power lines traced in the 1990s to export power to Chile, now fed by the park.

Chinese engineers working in an office at the Cauchari park


Chinese want to expand

The plant belongs to the public-sector firm Jemse (Jujuy Energía y Minería), created in 2011 by the province's then governor Eduardo Fellner. Jemse's president, Felipe Albornoz, says that once Chinese credits are repaid in 20 years, Cauchari will earn the province $600 million.

The Argentine Energy ministry must now decide on the park's proposed expansion. The Chinese would pay in $200 million, which will help install 400,000 additional panels and generate enough power for the entire province of Jujuy.

The park's CEO, Guillermo Hoerth, observes that state policies are key to turning Jujuy into a green province. "We must change the production model. The world is rapidly cutting fossil fuel emissions. This is a great opportunity," Hoerth says.

The province's energy chief, Mario Pizarro, says in turn that Susques and three other provincial districts are already self-sufficient with clean energy, and three other districts would soon follow.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!