Top image: @yeadonyeadon, courtesy of 2 Travelling Aunties
The Singaporean ‘auntie’ holds a special place in our hearts. Often spotted in groups of three or more in the wild, these middle-aged women approaching their 50s have grown to be a national stereotype. Far from being derogatory, though. It’s an endearing term stemming from a filial respect for our female elders.
CNA has even gone as far as to claim that aunties are a national icon. And with Irene Ang’s famous portrayal of one (albeit of a different tai-tai class) in Phua Chu Kang, it’s hard to disagree.
Yet it’s challenging to imagine our beloved ‘aunties’ in an environment far removed from the homemakers we’ve come to know them as. Most of them would be content with living quiet lives into retirement.
But Norah Soeb, 54, and Susie Chua, 59, have made it their life’s goal to live their 50s and beyond out on the open road as 2 Travelling Aunties. They’re doing exactly what aunties aren’t “supposed to”.
Not Your Typical Aunties
I was half-expecting a meetup with the two at a Ya Kun or a Toastbox outlet. But I had to reexamine my bias when they requested Tiong Bahru Bakery.
Dressed in the comfiest fits–cosy shirts, lounge pants, and sandals–the pair looked like they came straight fresh off a road trip. Throw in the faintly dyed red hair, and you could sense the statement the pair were wearing on their sleeves.
Having recently completed a 460-day overland trip through the Americas on the Pan-American Highway on a S$47K campervan, changing the narrative is exactly what these two single Singaporean women in their 50s are doing.
Amidst the chatter of their very colourful travel stories, the two of them seem to know a lot about each other. You could feel the harmonious dynamic they share—as if two kindred spirits had found one another and are now enjoying the world together. Having recently watched Past Lives, it honestly felt as if I was witnessing a case of ‘inyeon’ IRL.
Before their paths crossed in 2016 at a networking event Norah organised for women in Singapore, she and Susie stood at a crossroads in their lives.
Norah, having worked in the media sector, believed her days of travel were behind her after backpacking solo across Europe a couple of times and having done a few road trips across America.
Susie, still immersed in the corporate sector, had been yearning for more adventurous travels. Her only sense of travel was the two-week vacation per year at most—a common practice among Singaporeans (banking up our annual leaves only to exhaust it all on a getaway).
Susie expressed her discontent at the time.
Their shared passion for travel and a desire to break free from their nine-to-five-day jobs sparked an instant connection. But given the nature of their newly formed friendship, things could have gone two ways: either a ‘when the trip makes it out of the group chat’ success story or a ‘don’t travel with your friends’ horror show.
Thankfully, the pair fell into the former category. “After our first few trips together—and luckily for us—we got along well, and I realised she’s a good travel buddy,” Susie ponders.
On one of those little trips to neighbouring countries, the pair discovered their love for Overlanding. It’s a mode of travel that traverses expansive distances for a dedicated period, most often on large campervan vehicles that serve as their mobile home on the road.
“We were at Yogyakarta, Indonesia, when we saw this big foreign truck with a box behind it like a house, and I got fascinated to know how this foreign car found itself in Indonesia of all places,” Norah recalls. Eventually, she dived deep into discovering more about the ‘van life’.
Since then, Susie admits that it didn’t take long for the pair to put two and two together: her lifelong desire for a long-haul road trip and Norah’s newfound love for life on the road.
No Baggage Left Behind
One would not think it conventional at that age for aunties to splurge on their little guilty pleasures in Singapore, whatever form it takes. Some pour even more into their retirement savings and plans or help their families find bigger, better homes.
This, in particular, struck a personal chord with Norah, who comes from a big traditional Malay and Muslim family. Apart from all the notions of being an ‘auntie’ in Singapore, she also faced the traditional expectations of looking after her parents as the only unmarried child among nine siblings. It spurred her to live her own life and not for others.
Her decision to travel widely didn’t land too kindly, with some of her friends and family questioning her choice.
“I remember them asking me, ‘Why are you always looking for an opportunity to run away from your responsibilities here?’ But I told them, I’m not running away; I’m running toward my new goal in life, my own adventure.”
Despite societal expectations placed on women their age, the pair embarked on an unconventional journey, setting aside S$50k and purchasing a 23-year-old Ford Elnagh motorhome for S$21k as they geared up for life on the road.
Preparations for their maiden overlanding trip through Europe in 2019 included sorting out banking issues and shopping for items they needed for the campervan that were difficult or impossible to get in Europe, such as spices, traditional medication and sarongs, to name a few.
With the pair both being single women who lived on their own, Susie moved her stuff to Norah’s apartment so she could rent her’s out. All these, apart from the intensive packing to be done, ensured they didn’t leave any important baggage, both literally and figuratively, behind.
It was an especially difficult decision for Susie, who at the time was torn between waiting to receive her year-end bonus or resigning earlier and setting their travel plans in motion. She eventually decided to throw in the towel, against her innate Singaporean upbringing and forgo the bonus salary. It was a decision she did not regret.
“The feeling I got when I handed in my resignation was so liberating. I was like, is this happening? Am I finally going to get to live my life and see the world?”
By September 2019, the pair had already made their way through Europe in their motorhome, having traversed through the Netherlands (where they bought the motorhome), France, Spain and Morocco. While it may sound like the world’s an oyster by not having a single, permanent destination, an equally important aspect of overlanding is the pitstops along the way.
In the campervan community, such campsites or campervan parks are where these travellers take a pause on their trip and explore their surrounding environment. It’s there that Norah enjoyed most of their time on the road.
“Once we park in a campsite, we’ll take some time to walk around neighbouring areas before heading back to the campervan for lunch.” After lunch, they would often walk or bike to local attractions before ending the day back at their campervan for the night’s rest.
Call it a blessing in disguise (or, as Norah calls it, “divine intervention”) because it wasn’t long before the looming clouds of the pandemic arrived in March 2020. The pair were grateful to have gotten through parts of their trip already before COVID hit. If anything, it just reaffirmed Susie’s decision to have left her job earlier.
“If I had waited for December to leave my job and get my bonus, we would only be able to start our trip to Europe in March 2020, and we all know what happened then. I would have just been stuck in Singapore as a typical auntie—and without a job at that, too.”
One Country At A Time
Things don’t always go to plan, especially while travelling. Norah shares that that fluid mentality of “the plan will change” guided them through unexpected twists, with the pandemic adding a layer of uncertainty.
Yet the pair found comfort in discovering the world, meeting fellow campers along the way and the beauty of nature at their doorstep. While they had an initial route in mind, the pandemic threw this out of the window, and they had to re-discover new roads one step at a time.
“We had to think on the fly. While we were generally safe and isolated from everyone in our campervan alone, we had to tangle with the rules and regulations of countries, and we had to re-adjust our route based on which countries were open,” Susie recalls.
They navigated through countries with varying rules and regulations, discovering unexpected stops like Morocco, Spain, Croatia, Montenegro, Albania, Greece and Turkey.
Norah added that much of this way of travelling stemmed from a friend’s advice: Don’t base your decisions on fear.
“I took that principle seriously because if we gave in to fear, we would have gone back to Singapore, and we didn’t want to cut our journey short.”
Despite facing a bit of harassment in Europe, the pair found solace in the beauty of nature and the freedom of the open road. “Living life on the open road opened my eyes to seeing that, yes, I was living in a much smaller box of a ‘home’, but a bigger world at my doorstep,” Susie reflects.
Norah couldn’t resist adding that the highlight of that particular trip was a moment on the Isle of Skye in Scotland. “It was such a lonely road, just an open road, no cars around us. There was the mountain and the valley, and I was driving. I was just shouting ‘Freedom!’”
The pair concluded their maiden overlanding trip through Europe in Greece. They bid farewell to their campervan (which they called ‘Van Garang’; ‘garang’ meaning ‘bold, daring and fearless’ in Malay) after selling it and returned home to Singapore.
Although Norah wanted to keep Van Garang, uncertainty about the 23-year-old campervan’s ability to withstand the demanding terrain and roads of Central America led to the sensible decision to sell it off.
This was, after all, a trial run trip together before embarking on the famed Pan American Highway across Central and North America—a journey they recently completed in November 2023.
On The Road Again
Meeting diverse people on the road opened Susie’s eyes to the realisation that compared to the enclosed environment in Singapore, the open road offered vast possibilities.
“In Spain, we met a lovely old German couple. They’ve been around the world in a truck for many years. I thought like this 80-year-old, he did it 20 years ago when he was in his 60s. And I get to discover that there are people like that out there who managed to do amazing things,” Susie says.
“To get to meet these people, to talk to them and learn from them, I would never meet such people in Singapore.”
Now back in Singapore, the pair intends their return to be a pause rather than a complete halt. Susie’s mother’s health complications prompted the return, especially for the Chinese New Year period this year.
Though having spent so much time on the road, the pair admits to feeling whiplash and culture shock being back home.
“I see a lot of people’s faces here are very stressed, and I can imagine I was one of those people once,” Susie remarks.
“Now, having experienced the freedom and the happiness and the nature and all the stuff in the world that’s so big, and not just in this tiny little island, I see the difference.”