Vanlife: Sydney to Melbourne here we are

Rough, intense, fun. A road trip from Sydney to Melbourne, a relocating campervan and two travelers. It’s vanlife.

We had this idea as a joke, and before we could even realize it we were already on the go. What are a thousand kilometers? Hours of left-hand driving across two states, words, music and silence, wind and sun on the chicks, smell of eucalyptus, changing light, clouds that fill the sky of dreams. The landscape runs fast behind the side window with carpets of confused trees, walls of orange rocks, empty towns, prefab cottages with front-yard. It’s Australia, mate.

On paper it would be just over nine hours on the Grand Pacific Drive, close to the ocean. Every year millions of australians ride it, be it for work, for an easy holiday, to join family members and enjoy the warm weather at Christmas. The way from Sydney to Melbourne is the ideal trip to taste the nomad lifestyle of Down Under. Not only it’s the way that links the two major cities of the continent, but it allows to cross an exciting variety of natural parks, rainforests and wild coastline in true aussie style.

A reportage of this trip will soon be published on the Italian travel magazine Latitudeslife. Have a look at the video that my mate Jan H. Stoerkel made real.



Community superheroes

Doing for good is something that I’ve always appreciated, but I didn’t realize it until I started volunteering. You have to start somewhere, and I did in Australia, nearly one month after I landed on this country. It was a nice way to meet new people and support a cause and add an experience to my journey Down Under. But shortly it became more. Right after the first day as a volunteer waitress at Lentil as Anything, I felt happy, I came home overwhelmed by enthusiasm and positive energy, I was friendlier than usual, explosive, lighter, and I had a big lovely smile printed on my face. In one word, I was fulfilled.

Not only me. You see businessmen cleaning dishes and filling water bottles with a happy and relaxed face after a long busy day at work. Old people and teenagers from different countries chopping vegetables while laughing and dancing together. And students serving at tables and practicing their social skills while talking with customers. And not only at Lentils. Food Not Bombs cooks food and distributes it for free to people in need. Oz Harvest collects vegetables, bread and other leftovers from shops, markets and restaurants to fight food waste and prepare free meals for homeless people. At Vinnies, volunteers recycled clothes, book, furnitures and other things and sell them in not-for-profit vintage shops. In almost any field you find interesting opportunities. Sport events, concerts, festivals, hospitals, schools, markets, protests. It’s community, babe. When you remove the weight of money reward to any activity, you are free. Free to enjoy your time, make new friends, do your best just for the sake of doing it.

Take fundraising, for example. I’ve worked in this field for over six months (this subject needs a proper post) and what I noticed is that people look at you differently if you are paid. It’s just as simple as that. When a financial reward is involved we become suspicious, we don’t trust anymore, we turn on our consumer defenses to protect us from everyday marketing bombs. I’ve seen a lot of men and women changing their attitude completely when I told them that I chose fundraising as my job. But how can you rely on volunteers for something as important as this? It can work for small local charities and for single events, not for big international charities with a huge structure covering multiple projects.

A team of forward-thinkers in Melbourne tried to make volunteers management easier and more reliable with the project called Be Collective. As they describe it on their website, it is a “social infrastructure designed to eliminate duplication, misdirection and waste of effort, promoting a culture of kindness, recognition and support”. A web platform that would make the management process smooth and reliable, free to use. The idea is to build a community of charity lovers that can find volunteering opportunities based on their interests and location, give support and keep track of the social impact of their work.

In fact, through tis system both volunteers and charities can visualize and print the record of their work. I’d love to show it to mum and dad, add it to my cv. But also, it’s a good idea to value the time spent for community work, celebrate the effort, make analysis and decisions based on productivity… Imagine if every teenager could use his time to make a difference and have it recognized on his resume. And if every corporate worker could use one day a month and donate his effort for a cause he believes in, with the support of his boss. The project was launched early this year and hopefully will soon express its full potential. New Zealand’s government and other NGOs are already using it. Even the All Blacks are managing their charity events through this platform.

Out there, it’s easy to find a lot of different platforms, websites, blogs, Facebook groups and small organizations that try to gather volunteering efforts and promote community work. With the right tools and the right mindset, we can change the world.

Visuals as Anything

It started for fun in front of a curry plate, a white page, a few creative minds chatting and the ultimate goal to help the community out. A couple of months and some curries later, we can finally see the results hanging on the walls of Lentil as Anything restaurants: 16 colorful posters featuring happy faces and powerful messages that will make you laugh.

Jan H. Stoerkel arrived in Australia nearly a year ago in search of a meaningful change in his life. To his corporate regular job in Berlin he preferred an exciting adventure and decided to leave for the unknown, working as a freelance while exploring this big wild country. He opened a blog named Visual Walkabout where he could keep track of his life journey, packed his equipment and he was ready to travel Down Under.

The idea of Essentials of Lentils was born in Sydney, where he fell in love with Lentil as Anything Newtown. Attracted by the delicious vegan food, the good vibes and the feeling of inclusion that he immediately had as he stepped in, he became an habitual customer. He enjoyed the time there, made good friends and eventually started to participate as waiting staff. And it’s when he met Nicole Khoury, Volunteer & Community Coordinator in Sydney, that the magic happened. Inspired by her words, his creative mind started to think about a different way of helping.

“I noticed that people do not always know everything that goes on in the community space”, says Nicole. “For many months I had this idea floating in my mind to visually communicate the core components of Lentils”. Then she met Jan and they started brainstorming. Why don’t we play with photos and texts to show that every single volunteer is a hero? How can we communicate the complexity of Lentils’ world? How to share our values, be appealing and encourage everyone to join? How can we improve our image?

As we know, keeping alive a sharing community is not easy. Someone may think that not having a price on the menu means you can eat for free. Others might not understand why food is vegetarian, tables are full of smiling strangers with different background and social status. They may underestimate the value of this not-for-profit that proudly stands on a strong network of volunteers and kind donations of time or money. Or, not knowing that for many of our volunteers it also represents a stepping stone into the workforce and a tool for community development, some people could even complain because of the relaxed atmosphere. Talking to customers, friends and other staff members, Jan and Nicole thought that maybe this can be fixed with more – and different – information.

“Even if you know Lentils already, you may miss something”, says Jan with passion, “with these visuals I wanted to show all the facets of this beautiful community: the quality and presentation of the food, the interesting workshops, the effort that every superhero here is giving any single day need a professional look that will meet a higher standard and will give a boost to Lentils’ image”. And he did. Seven days of photo shooting in the workshop space, over 1300 shots, 53 volunteers involved, more than 20 meals involved, countless hours of post production, lots of chai, lots of love.

Not only. As a thank you gift from Jan and special souvenir, all the models and helpers that participated had the opportunity to get some portrait photos. The make up artists were enthusiast students thrilled by the chance to get some experience. Some of the photo equipment was bought from the recycling shop Reverse Garbage and are now part of the tools available in the workshop space in Lentils Newtown. Even part of the clothes used for a shoot were gently offered by the Red Cross shop down the corner. When you put together people with a positive can do attitude, synergies happen. Like with Adam, a talented autistic guy that happened to be around at the right time and unexpectedly got a photoshoot for his t-shirt e-commerce Adam’s Apples. While most of the models were selected to show the diversity of the community, many of them just popped in and joined the shooting for fun.

“I liked that the project was a collective effort”, Nicole comments. “Volunteers were involved in the pre-production planning as well as production itself. All the volunteers were cast over a week each attended a day of shooting without knowing much about the project. This made it a lovely surprise and created a great energy.” And when they saw the finished result, they were elated and grateful, although a bit embarrassed to see their face on such a high-end presentation.

As Ken Baird, Operations and Communications Manager of Lentil as Anything Thornbury says, he and his team were delighted when Jan reached out to show them Essentials of Lentils. “The time, energy, commitment and love put in to the project is commendable and sums up the Lentil experience today. Full of insights into volunteering, food, environment and community, its’ a must see for those wanting to understand more about Lentil as Anything. We are thrilled to showcase it at our Birthday Party on Oct 14th.”

In fact, the posters will be exposed in Melbourne Thornbury during the second birthday party next Saturday Oct 14th and in Sydney Newtown after its renovation this month. Maybe someone will help finance a broader distribution of posters and postcards, maybe we will be able to see the visuals arounds our cities and collect postcards from bars and shops. Everything is possible, stay tuned.

Article published on Lentils as Anything website

The social challenge

“You need to try this place”, said my hippie friend Sam, “it’s a vegan restaurant, it’s socially responsible and there are no prices on the menu!”. How is it possible? The staff is composed by volunteers, the food is partly donated, everybody is welcome to sit at the table and customers pay by donation according to how they feel and how much they can afford. Easy.

This is how I came across the wonderful world of Lentil as Anything, a big family that I’m happy to be part of.

Founded in 2000 by Shanaka Fernando, Lentil as Anything is a social experiment based on the idea that everyone deserves a place at the table. A pure principle of inclusion, meaning that you can enter the restaurant, sit close to anybody and feel welcome. No matter your social status, your background or your economic situation. No matter if you are broken, nerd, gay, fat, fit, vegan, breatharian, gluten intolerant, gluten addict, disable, anarchist, hippie, vip, homeless, crazy. Whatever, there’s a place for you.

In every tradition, eating represents a shared moment, when you sit with your peers, friends or family, spend time together, cook together, have a chat, relax, sometimes even argue. But our city lifestyle makes us far away and alone. You don’t usually sit at the same table with strangers, or talk to people from another table. But if you stop a second and think about it, it’s sad.

Coming from Sri Lanka and having travelled extensively in third world countries, Shanaka wanted everybody to be able to share a meal, stories, skills. Social justice, open mind, meaningful change. In 2000 he opened the first tiny cute restaurant in Melbourne St Kilda, and from there it’s history. Now there are three restaurants in Melbourne, one in Sydney and there are rumors of future openings around the world.

And it’s not only about food. It’s also community space, restaurant, cafe, workshop area, brainstorming studio, talent playground, personality development gym, network field, meeting place. You can find awesome vegan food with always different delicious recipes and high quality presentation, served by smiling volunteers in a friendly creative environment. You can read the weekly calendar or just pop into the workshop space and join an acro yoga class, learn how to do crochet, play with pencils and paint, listen to live music and much more. All run by volunteers, all paid by donation, all for fun.

It’s a place where you feel welcome, accepted for what you are, challenged to improve your skills, free to do let your personality flow. A place where you will meet amazing people, listen to stories that you couldn’t imagine, found synergies that you didn’t expect, maybe even change your life.

And it’s not-for-profit.