Man who ditched old life to travel the world now stuck in a van in Brazil

An American man who sold all of his worldly possessions to live in a VW campervan is currently stuck in Brazil with his dog due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Neill Drake, who is originally from Long Island, New York, was headed towards Bolivia and Peru but he decided to stay put in Brazil when news of the pandemic spread as that’s where he purchased his vehicle from in 2016 for $2,800 (£2,246).

The 35-year-old says he now has nowhere to go, with all of the campsites closed, and he has been parking at gas stations and doing a bit of wild camping instead.

Over the past four years, he has driven around 18,000 miles, from Brazil to various spots in South America. His ultimate goal is to reach to Alaska.

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With some borders in South America closed and non-essential travel banned, Neill has had to postpone his epic road trip for the meantime.

Luckily meat is cheap in Brazil, so he only spends around $30 (£24) a week on food and he has been able to do some community work during the lockdown.

Neill tells ‘I have volunteered at the main hospital to build a COVID wing, I’ve been baking a lot of bread and cooking for homeless people in the city.

‘One of my friends here have also started an empanada delivery service so I used my photography to help them with their menu.’

In-between his four-wheel adventures, Neill usually works as an expedition photography guide in Antarctica to earn cash as his savings ran dry.

This involves him being at sea for four to eight weeks and he leaves his van and dog with willing friends back on the mainland.

For Neill, the best thing about living in a van is the sense of community, although the freedom was something that originally appealed to him after years of doing military service with the US Coast Guard.

He explains: ‘I soon discovered after hitting the road that the sense of community is especially unique for me because I have an old vintage VW camper and there’s a huge appreciation for them down here in South America.

‘The vehicles were manufactured in Brazil until 2012.

‘They used them to shuttle people to school, church and even as beer delivery vans. They’re everywhere, which is why they are so cheap. 

‘I’ve had people come knocking on my window when I was staying in a gas station and I’m always open to having people stay with me and my dog Hurley.

‘Some backpackers stick around for a week, some longer. It all depends on the chemistry.

‘The most I had was seven at one time. It was tight, but we made it work! This lockdown has certainly impacted finding travel partners but I also don’t mind travelling alone with my pup.’  

Despite his world shrinking during the coronavirus pandemic and having to distance himself from the van community, Neill says he is in favour of the global travel hiatus.

He says: ‘It’s really tough but I actually like seeing the world, especially nature, have a bit of a breather.

‘Travel has blown up over the last five to ten years and the planet is feeling the brunt of it.

‘Social media has destroyed a lot of hidden gems because of influencers posting photos of these spots online and everyone wants to get that same photo.

‘For instance, the poppy fields in California, Base Camp at Everest, the lavender fields in Provence, France, are getting trashed by “wannabe influencers” and travellers who are more interested in ticking boxes and getting “the shot” then they are about the impact they’re leaving on the planet.

‘In that regard, I’m actually “team coronavirus” for the sake of the planet.’

Neill adds that while he’s happy for the planet to have a break he is ‘very concerned’ for his friends in the tourism industry. He is unsure if he will be able to go back to Antarctica as a photography guide this year as many expedition cruises have been cancelled or postponed.

Along with working as a photography guide, Neill makes an income selling expedition cruise packages and acting as a middleman between cruise companies and travel agents – but that work has also dried up.

For now, he tells his 39,000 followers on Instagram that he is ‘healthy, safe and making the most of the situation’.

He has had contact with his family, but they are used to his wild adventures and find it tricky to keep track.

The avid traveller says he has been spending time working on his van as there are ‘always parts to fix’ and he has been dreaming of future van life adventures with his pooch.

He adds: ‘One day I would love to explore New Zealand.

‘I met a smart guy on my first trip to Antarctica named Marcus who worked at Google.

‘He told me, “When you work at Google, you spend 90 per cent of your time doing Google work and 10 per cent of your time you’re encouraged to work on your own personal projects and be as creative as possible. When God created Earth, New Zealand was the 10 per cent.” Ever since then, I’ve dreamed of road tripping there.

‘But for this year, my one goal is to see the Solar Eclipse in Patagonia on December 14. Fingers crossed.’

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