Life

Everything You Assumed About The Viral ‘Toilet-Scrubbing Travelers’ Story Is Wrong

 

You may have seen one of these headlines over the past month.

This Couple Quit Their Advertising Jobs to Travel the World — And Now They Scrub Toilets for Food

That Couple Who Quit Their Jobs to Travel the World Are Now Scrubbing Toilets

Nomadic Couple Who Quit High-Paying Advertising Jobs to Travel, Forced to Scrub Toilets to Survive

When I saw these headlines (or the dozens just like them), I felt like I already knew the story before I even read it: a couple of idiots (some species of trustafarian, as I imagined them) set out on an around-the-world vacation, but due to reasons of general idiocy and spending the entirety of their travel budget on Jell-O shots in Ibiza, they were forced to cleans toilets in hostels and gas stations to scrape together enough pity tips to buy passage on a cargo ship back home. I liked my version of the story so much that I clicked over to the next page without reading another word. Because I am a busy man, and I had several hours of house cat bloopers to watch on YouTube.

I didn’t need to read their story; I already knew everything about them from the headline.

But then, due to reasons involving artistic enrichment and not wanting to scrub toilets myself, I started writing for Uproxx Life. And, like most every other writer on the internet, my curiosity was piqued by the “toilet-scrubbing travelers.” But since I was already a couple weeks late to the story, I knew I would have to dig a little deeper to find my own unique angle of light snark and heavy condemnation for these free spirits with their big dreams and horrific financial planning skills. So I read all the articles I could find about the toilet-scrubbing travelers. And then I read the blog post on the couple’s travel website, How Far From Home, which started all the fuss.

At which point I realized that I had a problem.

My version of the story, the version of silly millennials receiving divine punishment for the hubris of trying to have an adventure while being silly millennials, the version I had constructed in my head from glancing at the headlines and had used as a “in case of (awkward silence) emergency, break glass” filler for weeks, was not entirely accurate. In fact…

Everything I thought I knew about the “toilet-scrubbing travelers” was entirely wrong.


As I learned, the “toilet-scrubbing travelers” are actually Chanel Cartell and Steve “Stevo” Dirnberger, a couple from South Africa. Chanel and Steve quit their jobs in advertising to take a carefully-planned, carefully-budgeted, and ballsy trip around the world. And while they have scrubbed some toilets on their journey, that was all part of the plan as well. Because Chanel and Steve planned their trip with Work Away — a service which allows travelers to receive food and lodging in exchange for volunteer work. Some of that volunteer work had been spent doing unpleasant manual labor (including the so often repeated “toilet-scrubbing” at a Swedish campground), but a significant portion of the time has been spent working with dogs and cooking and doing other genuinely rewarding and fun (if still difficult) work. Chanel and Steve didn’t scrub toilets because they were desperate for cash or foolish, they scrubbed toilets because it was an integral part of the greatest adventure of their lives.

The headlines were wrong. And I was wrong for believing them.

 

 

The more I read about Chanel and Steve, the more I felt a corresponding rise in both my admiration for them and my personal shame for making a snap judgment based entirely on a headline. I knew that I had to talk to them, not just to find out more about them and their travels, but to learn how it felt to have an almost, but not quite accurate, version of their story spread across the internet. And thankfully, Chanel and Steve agreed to an interview:

On why they left:

Steve: It all started, I’d say, in 2014 when we went to Design Indaba 2014, which is a conference in Cape Town, and we watched a guy by the name of Stefan Sagmeister talk about the power of time off. At that time, Chanel and myself were both very curious people, we loved to explore, and we wanted to see the world, but up until then it had always just been an idea…

Chanel: Something we’d do ‘some day’…

Steve: And Stefan was a catalyst, I think, in that [deciding to take the year-long trip]…But we still had to believe in it ourselves, that it was something we wanted to do. We started saving immediately, and then, a year later, we resigned, and we set off to Central Europe.

 

On their blog post that went viral:

Steve: When Chanel wrote that post, we had no idea it would have such an effect. And I think it also shows you be careful what you say. Even though everything was true and real, but…

Chanel: I worry that the last paragraph, which was the crux of the whole story, was overlooked. People are focusing on the fact that we scrubbed toilets versus the fact that what I was trying to get at [in the article]: it’s so rewarding, and it teaches you about humility, and we don’t mind sacrificing that little bit of time to do what we came to do.

Steve: And I think the theme of our journey in the beginning at least, was to get out of our comfort zone. And by doing those things, we obviously are, and we’re getting used to it. We’re learning new skills, and it’s just rewarding.

Chanel: And you’re adapting. It’s amazing how adaptable we are as humans, and how easily it is to just pick up and get on with it. It’s not something we ever would have done, it’s not something we studied for and built up our careers for, but it’s exposing us to different cultures and different lives, and that, in turn, is inspiring us, and that is what we wanted. So it’s fantastic.

The entirety of the blog post can (and should) be read here. But, in the hopes of ensuring the critical final paragraph of the post is not skipped again, I am posting it in its entirety:

But even though we probably have more greys than when we started, dirt under our nails despite long showers, and cheap snack food as a main form of nutrition, this crazy lifestyle allows us to enjoy the freedom of exploring rich Swedish forests, never-ending Nordic fjords, Italian cobbled alleyways, and cosmopolitan cities. We have time to brainstorm our own ideas, and push our own creative experiments. It’s like heaven for us. Sure, wood needs to be stacked, and garbage needs to be taken out (it’s our version of a shit sandwich, as Mark Manson put it, but once that’s done, we’re free to explore, wander and be one with our meandering thoughts. You work under your own schedule, using (a lot of) spare time to jog around mirrored lakes, craft inspired creations and breathe the Arctic air. There’s nothing quite like swopping million rand advertising budgets for toilet scrubbing to teach you about humility, life and the importance of living each day as if it were your last.

 

On the negative reactions to their blog post:

Chanel: What they don’t realize is that we planned all this, we knew what we signed up for.

Steve: We set out and we wanted to work as volunteers and we had a budget to work with and doing the volunteer work gave us a place to stay

Chanel: And gave us food.

Steve: This was all part of the plan. We didn’t obviously know what we were getting ourselves into. And I think that’s perfectly fine, because we wanted to take everyday as it comes.

On the positive reactions to their blog post:

Steve: It’s quite strange because we actually got a lot of support from people, and our community that is following us especially on Instagram and our blog, they’ve been so supportive, and we’ve had places offered to us, we can stay in so many places around the world, it’s just quite amazing…

Chanel: The power of the human spirit. It’s like they’re on our side now. They’re like, screw these guys with their bullshit headlines, if you guys need a place to stay come here.

Steve: We’ll help you out, we’ll buy you dinner, we’ll buy you a beer…

 

On their advice for traveling as a couple:

Steve: Pack lightly. Don’t plan too much. I think that when one person tries to plan, and you have an itinerary that’s too stringent, that’s when pressure comes in, and people start fighting, and if things don’t go the way they’ve been planned or scheduled, I think that’s when people would start to fight, so try to take it as much as it comes.

Chanel: And 99% of the time it won’t go how you planned. It never does. There’s always something. There’s always an extra fee or something pops up. And the best thing is to listen to your gut and don’t take things seriously, just enjoy the ride, and think of it as an adventure.

Steve: And remember this is the person you decided to go on this journey with, so if you’re not getting along, then why are you doing it?

I was struck by many things during my conversation with Chanel and Steve — their positivity, their infectious love of adventure, their overwhelmingly good nature — but more than anything, the interview left me feeling inspired to travel. Not just for the good parts of travel either: I wanted all the difficult, unpleasant, and occasionally disgusting aspects that (with the benefit of hindsight, air conditioning, and alcohol) always make me appreciate the “good” moments even more. I have spent the majority of my time traveling actively avoiding discomfort, but Chanel and Steve’s example shows that a little bit of the sour helps bring out the sweet. Or, in their words:

Chanel: It’s such a small price to pay for the reward of doing what we want. We say it’s one percent hard work for ninety nine percent dream fulfillment. Two or three hours a day doing grunt work, and then the rest of the time is our own schedule, and it’s exploring Nordic fjords, and mirrored lakes, and practicing yoga, and meditating, and brainstorming creative ideas which is the reason we left on this journey.

And besides meeting a couple of very nice and inspirational travelers, this experience has also shown me that I should spend a bit more time processing news stories rather than just quickly digesting the headline and belching out an opinion to my friends and family. And I fully intend to change my ways, that is, if I can fit in a few moments for investigation and reflection in my otherwise busy schedule of watching cat fail videos on YouTube.

 


If you want to know more about Chanel and Steve’s adventures, you can follow them on their website How Far From Home, Instagram, or Twitter.

×