Sylvain’s profound desire to travel the world was nothing short of an epiphany when he was just a child.
Born in Africa, he spent eighteen years of his life there before his family moved to Brussels in Belgium. His initial notions of what really constitutes a home, started forming in the early years of his “nomadic life”, he recalled with a chuckle. Sylvain Tihon, now popularly knows as the “tuktuk guy”, went to Thailand on one of his travels where he designed a tuktuk. That tuktuk would be his makeshift home for the next few years.
Being a student of architecture, he saw his journey from an architectural point of view when he first started out and needless to say, his mother was worried sick. But why tuktuk?
With the aplomb of a twenty-five year old, seasoned after a year of being asked the same question, explained, “I just wanted to be out in the world, meeting others not from within the snobbish metal exterior of a car but in person. I wanted to take on as many strangers as I could and interact with them as I went on my explorations, for which bicycles and motorbikes were inconvenient. Hence, the tuktuk.”
The vehicle has seen some good and hard times, owing to Sylvain’s plan of touring through Thailand, Cambodia, Myanmar, Malaysia, India and Bangladesh, where the nascent stages of his home project saw the light of fruition. From propagating the need for adolescent clubs, child support centres and child-friendly safe spaces to the necessary provisions sheets and recreational kits, Sylvain’s constant travel companion took him where he needed to go.
For those, who are reminded of Christopher McCandless from Into the Wild immediately, Sylvain triggers that memory to a great extent for his sparkling eyes reveling at possibilities in the vastness that is Asia, is reminiscent of Chris’ decision to give up his posh existence and leave home with nothing but .22 calibre rifle, books and a diary to record his adventures. Except, this is 2019 and Sylvain resorts to Instagram for his documentation and a few supplies like first aid, some rope, a wrench and some tools to rescue his 900kg tuktuk from the clutches of adversity. He chooses not to embody the rifle-carrying, cynical young man but wants to help children who are devoid of a place they can call home.
“I live on the tuktuk like anyone would, on a caravan but I avoid driving at night and places which give me negative vibes. My vehicle is my living room, kitchen and bed, the same things I would love to provide for a child in need,” he said.
Sylvain started out his journey alone, in what can be called a response to his instincts and now, he receives assistance from UNICEF which helps him organize workshops on the idea of home for children across the world, with the aim of raising 1 euro every km that he travels. “I feel responsible for our future and the way children live in different impoverished parts of the world breaks my heart. I want to work for refugee children, those who have not only lost their homes due to civil wars and political instability but also all sense of identity,” he said. He also interacts with other architects to create models of sustainable modes of a dwelling using local materials, thereby supporting the local economy as well. Recently, his collaboration with the Rotary Club in the various cities that he visits helped him with his presentations and expanding the purview of his project in terms of funding.
A native French speaker, with a heavily accented expertise in English, Spanish and Kinyarwanda, a dialect of the Rwanda-Rundi language, one might wonder how he interacts with the children from regions where these languages are not spoken at all. The answer partly lies within Google Translate and mostly within art. As part of a symbolic manifesto of his endeavor, he carries with him pieces of parchment which he distributes among children and asks them to illustrate their own, unique idea of what home means to them.
“At these times, no verbal communication is required for I connect with them through their drawings,” Sylvain says.
Language barriers do not stop him from interacting with those around him, though. He recalls an incident in Kolkata when his tuktuk broke down in the middle of the busy seven-point crossing in Park Circus and a man appeared out of nowhere and helped him push his vehicle to the garage for almost two hours. Sylvain acknowledges that it is not possible or necessary for everyone to speak English but as long as “they speak in kindness” his “faith in humanity would never diminish”.
His visit to Bangladesh last month was part of his aim to work with Rohingya refugee children but as luck would have it, he was denied access to the camps but he promises that it was not even close to his last attempt at trying to penetrate these areas and help those children. “Refugee children face the worst brunt of any crisis, be it that of a civil war or an environment-driven situation and as far as I can promise, I will try to do my best to spread awareness about them,” Sylvain remarked.
As one might guess, his journey does not begin in Asia and end in Europe. He aims to visit a lot more countries after his short break to attend his brother’s wedding back in Belgium. On his way back, he will cross Nepal, China, Kyrgystan, Tajikistan and Kazakhstan, before he reaches the Caspian Sea and ships his tuktuk off to Azerbaijan. From there, he will enter the European continent and make his way through Georgia, Turkey, and a bunch of other countries while trying to reach Belgium.
He promises, “This is not the end. I want to do more towards the cause than I did in this one year.”
It is only natural for us to feel curious about which place among the many that he visited, that he found the most vibrant. His answer locates it within India itself, none other than Dominique Lapierre’s “city of joy”, Calcutta. The city grows on those who walk upon its streets, with towering nostalgia surrounding and it was no different for Sylvain either. When he first reached the Kolkata port, he felt enveloped in a sea of noises, people and traffic which he describes as a “wave of overwhelming craziness”. Needless to say, the minute he received homely treatment from almost anyone he met and the smell of rolls and biryani assaulted his senses, he started falling in love with the city.
“Never have I ever been to a place that has been able to grip my interest with its blend of colonial remnants within the nooks and crannies of old North Calcutta homes, Bengali culinary richness and the educational depth of its people. The city grew on me like a glove and I cannot wait to come back!” he reminisced fondly.
He insists that his project is nowhere close to nearing its end and currently embodies the hashtag #tuktukguythailandtobelgium that he wishes would catch on in the places where he has lived, albeit temporarily. His story suggests how millennials are utilizing the internet and crowdfunding resources to break the “laziness” stereotype attributed to an entire generation and taking it upon themselves to bring positive change in the world in whatever way they can.