Vagabond CEO

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Dirk Schraven’s epic 2016 roadtrip from the Netherlands across Asia proved not just the once-in-a-lifetime journey most of us only dream about, but created profound and lasting changes in his family’s relationships


When Dirk Schraven and his wife told their nine-year-old daughter and son, 6, about their plans for the holiday of a lifetime, they didn’t get the reaction they’d been hoping for.

“We said, ‘Look, we’re going on a trip,’ and then we showed them the map. And my girl goes:

‘This is not exactly a summer holiday is it?’ No, it will possibly be the best part of a year, and she burst out crying.”

For Schraven, then 45, and his wife, this was it. Their chance to scratch the Big Itch. “Time’s flying by, kids are growing older, we’re often away. It becomes a bit transactional at home – when do you go to bed; when do you do sports; have you done your homework – rather than any meaningful, significant block of time which can meander in different directions,” he says. “We’ve always had this idea that at some point we’d take the plunge.”

The Plunge

Buy a second-hand Mercedes Sprinter 4x4 – sourced from Austria. Kit it out with bunkbeds. Hightail it out of Amsterdam and through Europe (this wasn’t that kind of Grand Tour). From Istanbul, head east. Avoiding the badlands of southern Turkey. Georgia. Armenia. Iran. Turkmenistan. Uzbekistan. Tajikistan. Kyrgyzstan. China – taking in Xinjiang and the Tibetan plateau. Laos. Cambodia. Thailand. Malaysia. Singapore.

About those tears?

“Their teachers were really supportive. My girl’s teacher said, ‘This is fantastic. You need to go and do this, you’ll never get this chance again,” he says. “When a teacher says this to a kid, it has an impact.”

They had sought the school’s views on whether it was feasible to take the two youngsters away for such a long trip and – most importantly – whether they could rejoin the school without having to repeat a year. Time spent on the road would also include home-schooling but this was ok – there wasn’t really a fixed schedule. Having the van meant there was also space to bring toys and other comforts from home.

True enough, the children soon came around to the idea.

The Payback

“A major point of the trip was to see the world, but the other big part of the whole thing was to spend decent time as a family. And that turned out to be much more impactful than I had imagined.

“I honestly feel I have a different relationship with my kids after the trip than before because I spent so much time with them during that period and we discussed basically everything that’s on their minds. And because you have so much time together, everything comes up and you don’t need to cut them short and, as a result of that, they become much more relaxed.

“When you spend nine months on the road, and you don’t even have a program, it’s not that your parents are home. It’s that there are four of you in a car and the car’s quite small. And you sleep in the car half the time.

“So many discussions about them, and about us. Feedback about what they like, what they don’t like: ‘I find relative to before the trip, you’ve changed here, here and here, and we like that.’”

What didn’t they like about you?

“Often not there, not always available to go to sports…

“Mood swings…

“A bit too critical without haven’t listened to their full story.”

[Schraven’s honesty here is a little discomforting: I can imagine the ghosts of my own children’s pasts reeling off the laundry list of my shortcomings. Can you?]

Iran

They drove into Iran during Ramadan. The first people they meet were an Iranian family on pilgrimage who were curious to know how the Schravens had arrived in their Mercedes van. “We should have lunch,” the Iranian father had suggested. Fasting doesn’t apply to travelers – whether from Amsterdam or closer to home – so the pilgrims and tourists were equally exempt.

“Iranians are far more liberal and far more relaxed than the public perception of them,” Schraven says. “Iran is extremely safe and the people are fantastic, super hospitable, super warm. The first thing they tell you is ‘don’t believe everything you read in the papers.’”

Back in the news today for all the wrong reasons, Schraven says his experience of Iran was eye-opening.

“Their civilization is extremely rich. I knew that from reading, but to experience it was absolutely fantastic.”

A broken axle on the Sprinter highlighted the effects from years of economic isolation: Without the supply chain for parts, they had to source a replacement from Dubai. Fortunately, Schraven says a friend there who travels frequently to Tehran was able to bring them the part in his hand luggage.

Thank gosh for Osh

The things you learn at 3,000 meters: It turns out that the emissions filter in a diesel van won’t operate properly above those levels. In Tajikistan, the Sprinter’s electronic engine-management system began to protest. At first it shifted to “limp home mode,” Schraven says. Then it shut down altogether.

“We got towed behind a huge truck into Kyrgyzstan, then we basically slid down the mountain into Osh.”

By bizarre coincidence, they found the Tajik city overrun with Mercedes Sprinters. “Every other car in Osh is a Mercedes Sprinter,” he says. “Literally, they’re all over the place. They know these cars inside out.”

Into China

China isn’t known as the friendliest of destinations for the free-roving traveler. To get permission to cross its territory the Schravens had to provide a full itinerary – the one they gave being so extensive that it allowed them pretty much to roam freely, he says.

You also have to pay for the privilege of taking an official guide with you, which turned out to be one of the trip’s biggest expenses. People typically get around this by travelling in convoys with one guide between them and by minimizing the time spent in China. The Schravens didn’t want to do this and so the hapless guide sat in the Sprinter while they meandered their way from the Kyrgyzstan border through Xinjiang and taking in the Tibetan plateau in Sichuan and Yunnan before crossing into Laos.

“We had him with us for at least six weeks. He even brought his own tent,” Schraven says. “The first time he put his tent up my son had to help him because he’d never slept in a tent before.”

What about health?

Being in the healthcare sector, Schraven jokes that he had worked out where all the best hospitals were along the route, and had detailed escalation and evacuation plans in place. They also had full insurance cover, which didn’t end up costing a lot – it was more a question about there to find the right policy. And, of course, they had an enormous first-aid and medical box.

“Not even a day of illness,” he says. “That was out biggest piece of luck.”

And the trusty Sprinter?

The family’s home for nine months? At the end of a multi-country road trip, you must ship the vehicle back to the country of origin – and pay a big deposit to the licensing authorities to ensure you don’t just abandon it when you’re done. But even with that cost, Schraven says they didn’t lose much from the 20,000 euros spent on the van. In fact, they sold it to a surgeon in his old hospital, who did basically the same trip together with his brothers and a sister.

The Aftermath

Before setting out, Schraven and his wife had agreed they wouldn’t even think about their next career moves while on the road. About three-quarters of the way in, Dirk received an email from his old boss at Gleneagles group in Singapore saying they had some opportunities coming up in the region, so he told him he wouldn’t be able to talk about that until the end of the trip.

Which, happily enough, was in Singapore. The rest, as they say, is history: Schraven’s old boss is now his new boss after winning the role as CEO of Gleneagles Hong Kong Hospital. With both husband and wife taking up new and challenging careers in Hong Kong, you might assume that their lives are pretty much back where they began.

While returning to the world of work inevitably means restoring some of the old restrictions and limitations on family relationships there have been lingering benefits, Schraven says.

 “It’s very easy to go with the flow. It’s very easy to slip back into that mode,” he says.

“We make a deliberate effort to set aside time for quality engagement as a family. We try to recreate the feeling of the trip.

“It’s easier abroad than at home, because at home you’re stretched in 25 directions. When you’re abroad there’s basically an empty agenda. You have much more time at weekends or on holidays, and there are far fewer obligations.”

Wow, if only I could…

“We’ve had many people say ‘Well, that’s really great that you did it, but I wouldn’t be able to afford it.

“That is, if I may say so, nonsense,” he says. “The biggest issue is the opportunity cost of the salary

On the other side, your costs go down substantially.”

Daily spending in Central Asia was minimal, with the family sleeping in the van about half of the time and eating street food. When they did spend time in cities, Schraven says they stayed in cheap, basic hotels, in part to keep the kids grounded and show them life was not all about luxury.

Everyone’s circumstances are different, he concedes. (They were fortunate in being able to let their home in Amsterdam.) But the upfront costs are not as great as people imagine.

“You have to make some concessions. You just have to find a mode where you can make it work. With a bit of savings, a bit of planning and a bit of luck, you can do it.”

But most of all, he says, you have to want it.