On living in public parks and on other people’s property, a retrospective after a month of van life

van life pichilemu chile
When I tell Chileans that I live in my van, they usually want to know where I park it. Sometimes, I tell them the truth. I live in my van in the Chilean equivalent of Central Park in New York. I want to explain how I found this place, and why it’s so special to me. And to do that, I have to start from the beginning—my first week in my newly purchased home.


I spent the first week living in my van in the mountains outside of Santiago. I used Workaway, a website that connects travelers with local hosts, to find someone to house me. I sent a few messages, seeing if I could help hosts with their websites, in exchange for a place to park my van. A Chilean out in Cajon del Maipo, messaged me back, saying he’d be happy to have me.


When I arrived on a Friday night, he was surprised to see a girl step out of the car. He, like many other Latinos, thought that my name was Jaime. Jaime is typically a man’s name, and usually an older man. He had assumed I was a guy.


He was super friendly and immediately “got” my lifestyle, the van, the whole enchilada. I’ve met my fair share of people who don’t get it. When I mention I’m living in my van, they say things like: “But you don’t need to do that—you can stay here.” I’ve chosen to live in my van for a reason. I like it. So it was cool that this guy got that. We got along well.

We spent the rest of the weekend test driving my new home/car. I hadn’t drove stick shift in years, so we spent two afternoons practicing my hill starts. We took the van up to a reservoir, and up the windy road that leads to the local ski resort.


I work in Santiago, but I loved living outside the city. I had quickly realized that the city isn’t conducive to living in your van. I felt lucky I had found a place where I could enjoy the best part about van dwelling—being close to the outdoors. His property was incredible. He had a pool, plus two puppies that didn’t even have names yet.  Sometimes, his horse would poke its head in my van. I didn’t even mind the two-hour commute. I started to find my early morning drives cathartic. I was working my way through a backlog of podcasts. I was pretty sold.


But halfway through my first week, I started to get the feeling my new home wasn’t going to be a permanent solution. On the first Thursday I spent out there, my suspicions were confirmed. He sent me this. Note the time at which they were sent.

The next morning, I confronted him. He was having a corporate event at the hacienda. A bunch of employees were coming for rafting during the day, and a “rave” in the forest at night. I asked him about the texts.


He pretended to be shocked. “Jaime, no!” (He still calls me Jaime—it was our running joke.)


He went on and on about how the ‘dream’ he referred to was one in which we co-created a school at the hacienda. I am conducting research involving high school students, so this was probably his way of making those texts seem reasonable within the context of things we’d talked about.


I was fine with him denying everything, making me seem like I was the crazy one. At least we were both on the same page. I could forgive a drunken mistake. I went into Santiago for classes and got back to the ranch late at night.


When I got back, he was hammered. Big wine stain on the shirt. I went to my van to distance myself.


He came outside, whining my name. He was teasing me – asking me what I was doing. I was putting away my laundry, and he was asking if he could watch. Things had gone too far. No, you can’t watch me put away my clothes.


I told him I needed alone time. He wouldn’t leave me alone.


I grabbed some running clothes, and ran into the house to change. He would find someone else to bother.


When I got outside again, he was still bumbling around near the van. I started running towards the trail that goes up into the mountains. He started running after me.


I yelled back, “stop!” I had completely forgotten to speak Spanish. And I didn’t correct myself, I just kept yelling back at him in English. “STOP! STOP!


I started to run again, feeling like I had been pretty crystal clear. I heard his footsteps behind me. I turned around again, and yelled, “Stop! You’re scaring me!”


He was standing in the middle of the trail, swaying back and forth, with a dazed look in his eyes.


This happened once more. I would start and he would follow again. I realized I wasn’t getting anywhere. He was just going to keep chasing me along the trail. I changed directions and ran toward the road. This time he didn’t chase after me.


I’ve told this story to a bunch of people. Yes, it was creepy. But the hardest part wasn’t being chased through the woods. He was pathetic. He couldn’t stand up straight. The hardest part was the next day.


I spent all of Saturday rolling and smoking unfiltered cigarettes, trying to decide what to do. I had convinced myself Santiago wasn’t a good place to live in a van. I didn’t feel comfortable driving it in a city three-quarters the size of New York. Traffic was hectic. And the van is pretty massive. The first night after I bought it, I side swiped a driveway wall while pulling into the hostel.

My Google translate history :/

The in-between times are the hardest part. The not knowing. And I think this is kind of the point. The best part is that you can park it anywhere. But that’s also the crux of the problem—figuring out where you feel comfortable. You start to develop a weird breed of scrappy-street-savviness. You find yourself in a seemingly bad place, but that stress serves as the impetus to find a new, possibly better place.


Eventually, I was driving around Santiago, scouting for streets to spend the night. I wanted one that would be quiet at night, but not so nice that the homeowners would get fidgety about the mysterious new van on their street. And I remembered a friend had suggested a park that sounded promising. I decided to try it. But I was skeptical. I am going to live in a park?


Yep, I do live in a park.


When I first pulled in, I almost thought the parking lot attendant was telling me to turn around. But she was just waving me in. I drove to the end of the dirt lot. And what do we have here. Surprise, surprise Germans in a tricked out overlanding vehicle. It was the most excited I have ever been to see Germans in a van.


They told me they’d been there for a week. There were bathrooms on the other end of the lot. A security guard during the day. And the dilapidated trailer on the other side of the dirt lot? That guy has been living here in his trailer for 12 years. The neighborhood has come to like that he lives here. He keeps an eye on things.


A lot of people don’t believe me when I tell them, but I love this place. New overlanders roll in everyday. I enjoy coming back and seeing who’s pulled in. It’s pretty quiet at night.

I love living inside a park. I’ve been trying to run again. I also like walking up the hill to the botanical garden to meditate or read. I even stumbled upon a Sunday meditation ceremony in the quarry. Almost every person had a steaming goblet filled with smoldering Palo Santo.


My house is my teacher.  It teaches me how to be conscious. Reading has replaced scrolling. But I’ve learned the most from those in-between-times. They seem to a be a given with this kind of lifestyle. When things get tough, when I was being chased through the woods, my house has taught me not to worry. There are other places. I will find them. They will be better.

Oh, and there were some good times too.


1 comment

  1. nina and papa says:

    Hi Jaime, We are still trying to follow you. I love your van. Jack and I had a VW 1976 camper van and we loved it. Love, Nina and Papa

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