Adventure is anything that takes you out of your comfort zone and demands more than you are used to giving or expecting of yourself. While Larry has been learning the challenges of flying a self-built ultralight around Australia, I have been taking on the challenge of learning how to drive a 5 speed manual transmission Mazda truck with 22 feet trailing behind. I am a dancer. So I'm used to doing things with the right side of my body and then doing them with the left side. So I thought that learning how to shift with my left hand and how to drive on the left hand side of the road would be a fairly reasonable task for me to take on. Well, I've received several comments via email from friends wondering why I haven't written anything, and so I thought I'd better go public. (By the way, I do Larry's editing, so you have been hearing from me via details and grammatical corrections in Larry's writing. He edits my writing as well.) Anyway I can testify that our travels on the ground have been equally adventurous for us as Larry's flying has been for him! First of all you have to realize that I started driving at 18. My 1st time behind the wheel I drove a car through a one-way tunnel very slowly. I was one of those drivers who got nervous about the road ending around the bend or over the hill. After all, I couldn't see it, so maybe it didn't exist. So here I am in Australia driving 100? Whatever the number means, it is still just too big, too fast, to comprehend. The truck barely even goes that fast anyway. So I've got these trucks barreling down the road on the right side of me with my brain saying, NO THEY CAN'T BE PASSING ME ON THAT SIDE. IT'S JUST NOT RIGHT! And Sungie, my map reader is telling me, "Mom, you're drifting to the left!" And Aren, my Global Positioning System expert and sign reader is saying, "Mom, it's just like kindergarten. Line up, keep your hands and feet to yourself, stay on your side and follow the guy in front of you. We all did it and you can too."
We have many rituals that we perform after we watch Larry take off down the runway and before the key goes into the ignition switch. First we have something cold to drink or slurp. Then we pray for guidance and safety. Tim checks the refrigerator door bolt (if you don't bolt the door you find most of your refrigerator contents on the floor after a turn) switches it's power source from gas to 12 volts, and closes all the vents in the motor home. Sungie gathers the maps we'll need and directs me out of town. Occasionally Sungie has also been known to help down shift when I'm going around one of those bloody roundabouts. In my opinion, the only thing they are good for is when you make a mistake, you just keep going around until you can get off at the right street, but by then you are so dizzy, it doesn't matter what street you get off at.
The best part for me by far is being together, as a family. Each option and decision is talked about and dealt with immediately…not like at home, where all kinds of distractions muddle up everyone's thinking and communication. This is real family time. We're living in a small space together. We are all traveling together in the same direction, not like at home where we're all doing our own thing. We have two focused parents to deal with issues as they arise, as we are separate only during traveling time, which has been ranging from 3 to 5 hours every other day or so. As a family, we have our moments of frustration and anger but we are having more moments of joking, laughter and playfulness. I know I am really appreciating the boys. When we traveled when they were younger, I did the care taking and Larry did all the driving. But now they have skills, talents, and jobs that I rely upon. And when they goof, like taking me West instead of East to get out of town, or taking me down a 29.4 kilometer dirt road because the road was shorter on the map than the main road (who cares if it took 3 times as long?), or forgetting to lock the refrigerator after putting away groceries and going around a curve and having a dozen eggs come flying out of the refrigerator and splattering everywhere, I live with it and laugh, at some point. I have compartmentalized my own tasks so that I can manage them and I expect others to follow through with their tasks. I consciously chose not to help build the ultralight because I wanted the male folk to bond and the boys to take full responsibility for their part in the building adventure. I am careful not to criticize the boys for making mistakes and I try to model learning from my own mistakes. This way the adventure is real for all of us as we each stretch out of our old comfort zones and try to do new things.
The first week or two here, I spent time trying to familiarize myself with the motor home and to organize it. This task is a bit like playing Concentration and 52 Pickup. Everyone is always asking me where stuff is and when I go to look for it, it has moved. Either someone else has come along and decided upon another "more suitable" place for something or as we go merrily rolling down the road, stuff jumps around and falls over on the shelves and inevitably into your arms when you unlatch a door. This organizational task is confounded by frequent stops to grocery shop.
Shopping initially was very exciting for me. I was intrigued by new products I'd never seen before, by organizational strategies used by managers, and by cheap prices, which allowed me to buy foods to just try out on the family. Shopping now tends to be exhausting because stores are huge and usually packed with people and trolleys (shopping carts.) We tend to go to Woolworth's Grocery Store chain because we are familiar with their products and layout. Usually we fill 2 shopping carts; I take a cart and the male folk take a cart. They get snack foods, individualized favorite foods, a few basics like bread and milk, and desserts. I fill my cart with fruits, vegetables and meats. So by the time we get done shopping, we're in a hurry to get on with other chores, and stuff gets haphazardly put away. Oh well! Despite the confusion and frequent cleaning up of food spills, we've been eating well. I am pleased with the performance of the oven, stove and refrigerator. Our first test of the oven was to bake Sungie's birthday cake. It was a success. But we did have difficulty baking chicken legs, as they didn't cook evenly. Next time I'll have to rotate them more.
We eat a meal out every other day or so, when we're tired or in a rush. I am amazed that so many American fast food chains are here, like Pizza Hut, Dominoes Pizza, Sizzler, Subway, McDonald's, Kentucky Fried Chicken, etc. (Also K Mart, Target and Wal-Mart, which is actually called Big W) It seems Australians have followed our lead and become accustomed to mall shopping, which makes me feel sad because the uniqueness of an area is lost when these large corporations move in.
I am also learning all the new technological gadgets and gizmos that we purchased for this trip. We have a laptop computer and digital camera so we can update the web page and transmit photos as well. And then we have 2 talkabouts given to us as Larry's retirement gift from his Coast Guard office. These walkie-talkies allow us to go off in different directions when we're in a shopping mall or when we go into a new town. Using these is fun, keeps us from getting lost, gives us a sense of autonomy as we feel safe and helps us save time in getting back together in a timely manner. (It also curbs shopping sprees.) We do get some funny stares from people passing by when a voice booms out loud and no one is standing there talking. Tim particularly enjoys talking from a distance and then sneaking up behind you. We also have 2 global positioning systems (GPS), one for the ultralight and one for the motor home, so that we always know where we are in relationship to our projected daily travel plan. Larry assures me that the GPS is necessary equipment in the ultralight and in the motor home it guides us, vaguely - as there are no streets detailed into the GPS, to remote airstrips. We also have a VHF radio so we can talk to Larry in emergency situations when he's flying. And recently we purchased a cellular phone that is supposed to work throughout Australia (our phone number is 0409007431 if anyone would like to call us). While I have tended to view technology as frivolous, I have learned over the years that when you are attempting to do difficult things, communication devices make all the difference in the world in terms of how you feel about what you are doing because you have immediate access to help. Your confidence level goes way up, from "I can't do this" to "I can try". Technology equipment also gives the boys a chance to do something while we travel and allows them to develop and improve their communication skills and become experts in handling the equipment. Thank you, Larry, for your insight into the significance of this equipment.
HIGHLIGHTS TO DATE: On the 27th of July Larry and I did an early morning run up a winding road to the lighthouse in Byron Bay to watch the sun rise. Once on the lighthouse grounds, atop a steep mountainside, I saw a herd of goats resting on the hillside. As I approached, the male lead goat butted the females to get them up, off the ground and moving with the herd (a familiar parallel in my own life). Meanwhile the baby goats playfully rambled, jumping, darting and wandering off on their own. A long spiraling stone stairway wound its way down the other side of the lighthouse to a lookout point and continued down to the white sandy beach below. I began the long descent, enjoying the warm wind pushing me up against the steep hillside as I glided playfully, with each leaping bound, downward. Being pushed backward by the wind, while moving forward, being lifted up or suspended by the wind, while leaping downward, traveling down a spiraling stone staircase and carving a spiraling path through space with my own body, was a totally exhilarating experience as I was vividly witnessing the physical forces of nature first hand. The music of the chattering birds greeted the day as well as the sounds of the whirling and swirling grasses and tree branches and leaves. The brilliant sun began warming the land and sea. Standing on Australia's most eastern look out point all by myself, I felt so totally present, and so thankful to be here, experiencing this beautiful country and this beautiful day.
August 11th we spent the night in Hedlow at a peaceful airstrip on a cattle ranch. I've always wanted to live on a farm or ranch, even though I know nothing about the work or life style except the stories my mother and grandmother like to tell. Anyway, I did the laundry late in the evening as the dark starry night greeted the rising of a full moon. Judging that the warm air temperature could dry the laundry by morning, I joyously hung up the clothes on a big, square, revolving clothesline to test my notion. You have to understand that I LOVE hanging clothes on the line to dry outside. I really appreciate the sun and wind for the work they accomplish in drying clothes. I appreciate the fresh smell of sun-dried clothes and I appreciate the energy and money saved from not using clothes dryers. (Once we spent over $20 in Australia to do 3 loads of laundry.) In Alaska we don't have regular opportunities to dry clothes outside in the daytime let alone at night. If you try it, chances are that the laundry will be wetter when you take it down than when you hung it up. (i.e. it rains a lot in Juneau) I know there is someone out there who can relate to my ecstasy over this experience of hanging up the laundry beneath the light of a full moon and having faith that it will dry by morning!
The 3 days aboard the dive and snorkel charter were absolutely wonderful. It was particularly fun to watch the boys interact with the passengers who were from around the world. Sungie got a lot of attention and respect for his intelligence, sportsmanship and endurance in completing the dive course. One night he taught the class members how to play the card game, Spoons. It was a riot to watch. Tim loved the opportunities to snorkel. His level of comfort in the water reminded me of a sea otter frolicking in the waves. In addition to his special snorkeling buddy, Nick, a father from Holland, Jakob Keijl, took a liking to him and gave him extra hugs. Jakob extended an invitation to all the boys to visit Holland. Tim and Sungie also had the opportunity to learn from all the instruction that was going on around us, ranging from diving skills, water rescue techniques, first aide, compass navigation, and marine plant and animal identification. Aren had a wonderful time diving. He just couldn't get over the fact that the visibility was so good and that there was so much to see. He is becoming quite the expert with the digital camera on land and in the water not to mention his humorous writing.
Bathroom Encounters: One morning I headed for the park bathroom for a shower. The gardener rushed in to unlock the door for me. I walked in looking all around to survey the building. There was a small wading pool in the front of the building, and an open courtyard inside the women's bathroom, shower and a toilet area. I noticed animal droppings on the floors and wondered what kind of critter had left them, suspecting a mouse or rat. I went into the shower area, took a shower and as I was drying off, I noticed the blurry outline, of a rather large animal, sitting above the doorway which I had to exit through. My heart started pounding at that moment as I realized how vulnerable I was. I tried to quiet my imagination as I calmly told myself that the outline looked like a common kitty cat. So thinking that a contented pussycat was sitting up there in the rafters, I slowly reached for my glasses and put them on. It was not a contented pussy's face that I looked into, but the very annoyed face of a wild animal. Dressing in a flash, I raced out of the room and asked Sungie, who was standing around, to check out this animal and tell me what it was. He laughed at me for not knowing it was a possum. The gardener then chimed in with a smile, "Oh, that is the resident possum who lives in the tree but goes inside the building to get out of the rain." This was my first encounter with animals living in bathrooms, but not my last. Other bathroom animals to date have included finding green frogs hiding-out under the seats and in the tanks of toilets, miscellaneous spiders, and wasps (1 ½" long) nesting on the back of a bathroom stall door.
The Zen of Driving a Motor Home: Now that I have come to have some level of comfort while driving the motor home, I can talk about it, finally. I removed the "DRIIVER IN TRAINING" sign taped to the back window about two weeks ago. The males in my family all thought I was nuts to put it up, but I wanted to let Aussies know I was inexperienced. I was hoping they would be more understanding of my long hesitations before entering the roundabouts, as I rested from down shifting, and my slow acceleration intervals, as I struggled to find the right gear. I did notice they passed me rather quickly.
Motor Home Mother Roo came to me as a title for my site because I feel like a mother roo. Every day I gather up the children in my pouch and hop along until we get to the next airstrip where we stop, eat, refuel and hop along down the road to the next designated air strip. I finally figured out, after having tried my narrow, demure, sitting posture and getting backaches from trying to sit upright, that I had to change my attitude and spread out while driving. The driver's seat, the most comfortable seat in the motor home, is designed for a man. So I had to pretend to be one. So the first thing you do after opening the door, is to grab the hand rail with your right hand as you place your right foot on the gutter, and swing into the seat, almost like mounting a horse. Then instead of steering with your hands placed on top of the wheel, you hold the sides of the wheel so you steer with your shoulders and back. One awkward part of driving from a female perspective, is keeping your legs spread apart. With this in mind, I finally became brave enough to use the left metal footrest. While it took some time to remember that it was just a footrest and not the clutch, I have found that this footrest is essential as now I can press both feet to the floor when accelerating and push my back against the seat and maintain relaxed and balanced symmetry.
My biggest culture shock has not been the people, customs, language, or food. My biggest shock has been getting used to the roads. I didn't realize how spoiled Americans were, when it comes to roads, until I drove in Queensland. A freeway in the states goes and goes and goes and usually, at least, connects two towns. Queensland road conditions change a lot! And in the beginning I was exasperated with all of the adjustments that I was expected to make; narrow lanes, no shoulders, one paved lane for two way traffic, excellent roads all of a sudden deteriorating to dirt. A few of those early days, I finished up the day of driving with a few angry words and a few tears of exhaustion. At the time, I felt betrayed by the state for the haphazard road conditions. After having lived through the experience, I have much more patience, understanding and respect for what is really going on within the state. Flooding occurs routinely, creating constant road problems. Roads are constructed with rough surfaces to improve traction during the wet season. The really bad sections are marked with signs. In the end I could tell that sections of roads were continually prioritized as to which area is at most risk to drivers and that was where road work was being done. Sealed roads change frequently in their composition and hence the color of roads ranges from white, to red, to black, or to gray. Not all roads have lines on them but the lines are always white, which produced some eyestrain for me as the contrast wasn't always good. With time, I actually learned to enjoy the roads, wondering what challenges lay ahead and realizing that whatever it was, it wasn't going to last long. And when the good sections of road appeared, I relaxed somewhat and even felt a little bored. But I also learned to really appreciate good roads and the skill and vigilance that is required in driving on unfamiliar and unpredictable ones!
Traffic reduced significantly once we headed west. I had been warned about the road trains which extended up to 50 meters long. A road train is one truck pulling 3 or 4 truck beds. I had been warned to get out of their way and let them pass, as they weren't going to make room for me and that that, was just part of the culture! This warning had me envisioning mad drivers, driving like a bat out of hell. So initially I was scanning the horizon for oncoming objects and watching hillcrests, like a deer checking out the meadow for its predators. What I have found is that road trains are driven by careful, well-trained drivers who are appreciative when you pull over and stop on the shoulder to let them pass and maintain their speed. People are waiting. The goods must be delivered!