World Adapter: Meet The Dutchman Travelling The Globe In An Electric Car

Wiebe Wakker of the Plug Me In project.Wiebe Wakker doesn’t know where his next meal is coming from. The Dutchman, who is currently in Mumbai, is travelling the world and he’s doing it rather audaciously. He’s not carrying any money. Wakker, 30, has been on the road since March 2016, the month he embarked on the Plug Me In project, an epic journey from the Netherlands to Australia, spanning three continents and thousands of kilometers. His mode of transportation: a Volkswagen Golf electric car.

“I want to show the capability of electric cars,” said Wakker, when we met him at Fort co-working space Ministry of New. He relies on the kindness of strangers to ‘plug him in’ or offer him ‘energy’ along his journey in three ways, by providing him with food, a bed to sleep in or electricity for his car. To do this, they need to select what they’re willing to offer and add their location to the map on his website that shows the places he plans to visit. Apart from ‘pluggers’, Wakker has a few corporate sponsors such as Dutch washing machine brand Bundles, which bankrolled his car. The idea, said the event management graduate, was partially inspired by his countryman Ramon Stoppelenburg’s project Let Me Stay For A Day.

Over the past 13 months, he’s covered almost the half the distance by travelling through two dozen countries. The first five months included his home country of Holland, Belgium, Germany, Switzerland, Italy, Austria, Germany, Denmark, Sweden, Norway and Finland or what he calls, in one on the several videos on his site, the “comfort zone”, “where the difference in culture is not big (and almost) everybody speaks English”. Next up were Russia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Ukraine, Moldova, Romania, Bulgaria and Turkey. So far in Asia, he’s visited Iran, the UAE and Oman before arriving in India from where he plans to pass through Bangladesh, Burma, Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore en route to Australia, a leg he estimates will take another five to six months. He chose Australia as a final destination because it’s literally “the other side of the world”.

His route is sometimes circuitous, determined by where he can find somebody to host him. In Europe, for instance, he bunked with a number of friends he met in Australia where he had spent a year working and travelling in 2009. He also reaches out to hotels by emailing them a request for a room in exchange for a mention on his website or social media pages. Though he frequently he finds himself in a city or town without any idea of where he can stay the night. He lucked out in Mumbai as a former colleague of his from Dubai said he could stay in her Andheri East flat while she’s in London.

For his meals, if he doesn’t meet somebody offering to treat him at a restaurant, he gets by with the instant noodles (which he makes on a portable stove), energy bars or vitamin pills that he carries with him. The easiest part, he said, is finding a spot to charge the car. “Electricity is everywhere,” said Wakker, who carries long extension cables for when he has to run a cable from his vehicle to a host’s apartment. He was contacted by Ministry of New’s Marlies Bloemendaal, who is also from the Netherlands, after she saw a Facebook post about his visit by the Dutch Consulate in Mumbai and offered him a desk at the co-working space. Here, he has met a few Dutch expats who’ve taken him out for meals and invited him over for parties.

India has been proved an anomaly though as he’s spent most of his time without his car, which he had to ship from Dubai before flying here a fortnight ago. He had initially wanted to drive from Iran to Pakistan, but had to change track when he found out that he could only apply for a Pakistani visa from his home country. It took him almost a week to get the vehicle out of customs. The extra time has given Wakker, who hopes to set out from Mumbai this weekend, a chance to go sightseeing. During his first week here, he visited the Gateway of India and walked around Colaba and Fort where he checked out the Taj Mahal hotel and the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus.

But Plug Me In is not so much a holiday as it is a project and while he’s been awed by the landscape in Switzerland and impressed by the Soviet-era monuments in Russia, and got to go on a helicopter ride in Norway and see the view from the top of the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, Wakker said he especially enjoys walking on the streets and getting to know a city through its people rather than its places. “What’s special about this trip is the people you meet who share their stories with you,” he said. Iran, which some folks warned him against visiting, “was a big highlight” because “the people were so kind and generous”.

The UAE, where his three-month stretch was the longest he’s spent in any place, proved to be particularly lucky for him. He got a job in Dubai because he had to earn some money to fund his stay and ended up speaking at a conference about sustainability and being befriended by a sheikh who housed him a five-star hotel and treated him to a luxurious weekend. At the end of his trip, he even received $300 as “pocket money” by somebody who just liked what he was doing, money he’s been using to buy food and train tickets in Mumbai. His former employers in Dubai, the organisers of the Emirates Electric Vehicle Road Trip, liked him so much that he’s got a standing job offer.

Expectedly, the journey has not been without its hardships. He’s had to sleep in homes with cats, which he’s allergic to; battled bouts of fever in Russia and Bulgaria; driven through a snowstorm in Turkey and struggled to organise a visa to Iran after being misinformed that he could get it on arrival. Driving an electric car entails a unique set of complications such as explaining to border officials why he’s carrying various wires and charging cables and having to put “not applicable” on a car insurance form that asks applicants to specify the engine size. During the snowstorm “I had to keep driving (even) at night,” said Wakker. “I had very old tyres, couldn’t see anything (and) couldn’t turn on the heater because it takes a lot of energy. When it gets cold, the car doesn’t charge anymore and it drops in range quickly.”

He can only drive 200kms on a full charge, which means he’s forced to stop every few hours. And if he’s by himself, he has to wait another few hours for the car to charge, during which time he writes blog posts, makes videos and edits photos for his site and updates his social media pages. Aside from documenting his own journey, Wakker profiles individuals, organisations and companies working on ecologically-sustainable projects, such as a store in Munich that sells only plastic-free products and the recycling units in Dharavi.

As many of the people who offer to ‘plug him in’ tend to be those who own electric cars or are involved in eco-friendly initiatives, they along with the Dutch embassy in the city he’s visiting, put him in touch with people to interview. Wakker’s list of essentials, he said, includes not food or money but his “smartphone, laptop and camera”. Despite the challenges, Wakker believes electric cars “are the future”. He said, “With this project I want to bring about more awareness of electric vehicles, especially in countries where they’re not so common. New generation cars can already drive 500kms and need a once-a-month charge. They’re pricey but because the cost of ownage is low, you earn (your money) back.”

HOW HE DOES IT
There are of course points during his journey when Wakker finds himself without anybody to plug him in. We’ve already mentioned how he sorts out his food, but here’s how he manages to take care of other necessities on his unpredictable and occasionally frustrating but undoubtedly incredible adventure.

When there’s no accommodation
As a last resort, Wakker spends the night in his car. He’s had some help along the way. For instance, his mother flew to Istanbul and Hamburg where they travelled together and she paid for hotels and also left him a bit of money. There are times when he couchsurfs and when there’s a hotel or motel around, he simply goes in, tells them about his project and asks if they will allow him to stay.

When there’s nobody to provide electricity
He’s had, on occasion, to charge the car illegally by plugging it into a socket outside a shop that has shut for the night. “Normally, behind a supermarket there’s always a plug,” said Wakker. While he has rarely run out of charge for his car, there was a time “when a guy towed me to a charging station”, he said.

When there’s no wi-fi
Being online is crucial for Wakker who needs the net to check his website for ‘pluggers’, and to update his blog and social media. He also needs it to use mobile apps like Chargemap and Plugsurfing to help him to find charging stations. It’s harder to get a SIM card in Europe, he said, as opposed to say Russia where you can buy it at a gas station. Whenever and wherever possible, he makes use of free wi-fi. “I spent a lot of time outside McDonald’s (outlets)” he said. To charge his mobile phone, he uses a solar-powered battery pack.

When there’s no choice but to pay for something
Plugmeproject.com has a ‘Donate’ page through which people can contribute funds he needs for specific things such as visa fees and car insurance premiums. But he can only use the contributions for those purposes. If all else fails, he uses a credit card, like in Moscow where he had no choice but to check into a hotel for a night, and as a result, was ‘in debt’ to himself. Another option is to simply find a job, which is what he did in Dubai. 

HELP HIM TO MAKE IT TO BANGLADESH
“India will be hardest part, because I need to go to Bangladesh from here, which is about 2,000kms away and so far I have nobody on the route,” said Wakker. “I will also travel through some poor parts. I don’t feel comfortable to ask people for food there.” If you can offer or organise a place for Wakker to stay at, eat a meal or charge his car between Mumbai and Bangladesh, visit Plugmeinproject.com and add a location pin to his route map.

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