THE PACIFIC NORTHWEST

My oh my, we have been immersed in some spectacular nature and scenery since my last report. After departing my aunt and uncle’s place, for the third time, we made our way north along the coast to a town called Mendocino— a place my aunt and uncle continued to suggest that we visit.

After driving over and through rolling wine country, we came to the shifting coastline that persisted to get more rugged by the mile. Mendocino, a small coastal town that reminded us of home. Soft, green hills meeting sheer cliffs that clash with the ever-changing ocean. After spending so much time in the southern part of California, I had grown accustomed to the architecture out west. Spanish and clay styled homes, a different beach vibe than that of the east coast. Yet as we came into Mendocino, the style shifted and reflected a style much like Cape Cod: weatherboard houses turned grey with thick layers of salt, window shutters, and screened porches. Nostalgia overwhelmed me, this town was a hybrid of Gerringong and Cape Cod. My two favourite coastal locations.

Not to mention the small-town feel. While you could tell this was a place that thrived in summer and from tourism, the locals were out and about, offering smiles and kind hellos. In our first 15 minute stroll, we received a handful of warm welcomes, more than we’ve experienced in our whole time in the states. Not that there aren’t friendly people here, there are just SO many people, the kind ones often get buried in the dense population.

 

All along the coastal cliffs, were little trails through the tall grass, pressed right to the edge. Car parks scattered alongside and we easily set up camp for a few nights by the sea, no issues at all.

Every turn in the coastline offered a different view of various lumped rocks scattered next to the shore. Seal mums and their pups swam through inlets, playing and diving through clusters of seaweed, gathering their evening meal. It was a sight I’ll hold close forever.

 

From Mendocino, we pushed north. We made a pit stop at a campground that was totally worth the $15. We slept surrounded by strong, tall redwoods. We drove  through the redwood forest and it’s a scene I’ll never forget: the ambulance weaving through giant tree trunks stretching to the sky.

Then we made it out of California. Now, Cali is probably one of our favourite states, thanks to the varied landscape, but we’d spent a long time there, some of it re-tracing our steps, so it was time to get onto the next and see something different.

Oregon. We explored both the coast and inland, making strategic zig-zags. First stop was Crater Lake, another destination suggested by my aunt, a natural phenomenon that leaves you feeling like a speck of dust. We drove into the national park, climbing towards the sun as piles of snow began to appear at the side of the road. Though it was warm, we stood in the winter scenery in t-shirts. The lake, as the name describes, is an enormous crater filled with water, staring back at you like a spotless mirror. The sun shone high in the sky, beating down on the bright white snow and reflective water, leaving us squinty.

 

Crater Lake was a pit stop on our way to the town of Bend, a funky country town growing in population (as we were told by a couple from Oregon whom we met in northern Cali). After wandering around and spending a night there, we cut back to the coast. I was shocked to find out that people don’t really swim at the beaches this far north, apart from a few brave souls and surfers. To me, living by the sea is being in the sea. I could not be so close to something so entrancing and not be tempted to dive in. Although, the sea up north does seem dark and moody, and supposedly cold, so I understand peoples’ hesitations.

We spent the night in a sleepy, coastal town called Yachats. Lots of funky little shops, beautiful houses overlooking the ocean, boats in the harbour. Then to a town called Newport, a big fishing port where we couldn’t help ourselves but dine out and indulge in some fresh fish. When it lingers in the salt air all around you, there’s no giving in. We had drinks at a bar overlooking the bay, where seals sunbathed on docks and barked for attention.

 

From the coast, we cut back inland and visited Salem, the state capital, and then on into Portland, somewhere we’d both been itching to visit. Cities can be tough in terms of parking, but we got lucky and stayed just outside the Arts district. Plenty of residential streets with lots of cars, we were protected and comfortable. Spring was in full swing, the air rich with pollen (I cannot believe Abel’s hay fever didn’t flare), the otherwise green backdrop splattered with rich pinks, purples and yellows. Everyone talks about noticing a change as you drive from one state to the next, particularly out west, and coming into Oregon that is what I noticed most: all the shades of green. Deep greens, pale greens, all blending together from the grass, to small bushes and taller trees. You become encapsulated in nature, regardless of being in a city. It also reminded me  of “home” (Connecticut), being around the same latitude, the climate was very similar, as were the style of houses— nostalgia smacked me in the face once again.

On our first night out having dinner and drinks, a guy nearby overheard our Aussie accents and told us there was a popular Australian cafe on the street we were on, called Proud Mary’s. We knew it must have decent coffee so we went the next morning for breakfast and this place was not only huge, but it was packed. Much like the popular cafes at home, they were efficient and organised. We of course had a good chat with one of the owners, as him and Abel both greeted each other with a, “Hey, mate”. The menu boasted smashed avo, pavlova, and meat pies. The coffee was exceptional. We felt very at home that morning.

We did spend one day in the actual centre of the city. There were two large markets right next to each other. One, for pet owners. Literally, hundreds of dogs— pure heaven. The other markets were your typical makers and food markets. After perusing the streets, we got lunch from a Lebanese food truck and sat in the park looking over the water.

 

 

Portland sits right next to the Washington border so it wasn’t long before we were in a new state. In terms of the shifting landscape, the surrounding shades of green just became deeper and more saturated. That first night we lucked out and found a campground closed for the season, fee wise, but otherwise open to use for free. Completely empty, a beautiful clearing in the forest,  a running stream nearby and a water pump— not for drinking, but perfect for dishes.

The evening was slightly dampened however, when we decided to venture out of the van and make some s’mores. Before that, we’d been inside, watching Mad Men, and although I’d left the two side doors ajar to permit some fresh air, I had locked up the rest of the van. We stepped outside, preparing our dessert, and I lightly closed the side doors— enough to lock them (dumb, dumb, dumb). There was no getting back in. Originally, we had three sets of car keys. We’d placed one of them loose in the outside tray that held the three spare batteries. It was nowhere to be found. Either misplaced when we got new batteries, or fallen along a highway somewhere. The other two keys were trapped inside, along with pretty much everything bar a few drying dishes.

The windows have screws on the corners, so we tried to take them off, but the seal held them on tight. Abel used a fork to try and shimmy underneath the seal and cut it, but then the window shattered. We got back inside, which was a great plus, but the next day we had to focus on finding somewhere that could replace the window. Definitely not what we needed budget wise, but now she’s brand-spanking with a fresh layer of tint. And I’m now extra cautious when it comes to closing the doors behind me. You lose but you learn.

 

 

On our way towards Seattle we stopped in to Olympia, just south, the state’s capital. When we thought of Washington, we pictured rich rainforest everywhere. Here we really felt satisfied. It was cloudy and misty, much like a giant greenhouse. We spent a few nights here and drove around, basically just oggling the houses and the lucky inhabitants who live in this lush, seaside area. Before leaving we did a 4-5km trail through a rainforest that sat alongside the coast. Every now and then we’d push through the dense greenery and came to an opening where the sea stretched out before you. It was like two different worlds colliding.

 

Then we went to Seattle. Somewhere I’ve wanted to visit for a very, very long time. Our first day in the city, Abel and I did the tourist thing and went up the iconic Space Needle. For some reason I get these weird moments of bravery and forget all about my crippling fear of heights and then we enter the elevator, with windows, and the sensation shoots up my legs and I remember. I did pretty well though. Even in the area with a glass floor that slowly rotates. I stood on it and tried not to look down. Since Abel’s birthday was approaching and we weren’t entirely sure if we would be anywhere special, we treated ourselves to lunch and a drink overlooking the streets of Seattle that led to the harbour.

 

It was also extra special because my long-time, dear friend, Hannah (who now lives in Alaska with her wife Nora) was in town, visiting with friends and going to see Camp Cope, an Aussie band. Hannah, Nora and their twin friends Noah and Eli were super hospitable. They let us park for the night in their apartment complex, let us use their bathroom and shower and otherwise chill with the group. It was so lovely to catch up, I think I’ve only seen Hannah once in the past 12+ months or so and I hadn’t met Nora yet, so it was really special to finally see how happy and loved up they are. We went along with them to Camp Cope, a band made up of three girls who are very political in their lyrics— perfect timing given the bullshit that is happening in Alabama, and other states, and all across the country and the rest of the world. I won’t rant about that now.

The next afternoon, after a slow morning, we were finally all fresh and ready to venture into the city and do some exploring. Abel and I were going to drive in so we could do a few things after, and the rest of the crowd was grabbing an Uber. As we watched their ride drive out of the complex, we tried to start the car to no avail. No noise but a sheer grind. We had a feeling it was the starter, so unfortunately we didn’t really get a chance to see much of Seattle. The ambulance was a little under the weather and needed a doctor. Not too much of an issue, a simple fix really and nothing to do with the engine, however this was not kind to our budget, once again. Dad came to the rescue, used his points to book us a room at the Hilton— the sheer bittersweetness of car issues. We treated ourselves to room service and had the best sleep we’ve had in a long time. Not that we don’t have good sleeps in the ambulance, but it’s nice to have a bit of space sometimes.

From this incident we knew we needed to push our journey along if we wanted to see everything on our list within the means of our budget. From Seattle we moved back East across the state.

Once again, I was in awe of the changing landscape. I’m sure you’re sick of hearing me go on about it, but Washington, like California, was all kinds of beautiful. The lush greenery of the north-western coast trickled out slowly and became big, brown desert. A change you can see, the way you can feel the shifting wind. The hills were green and consuming, then they were rough, coffee-coloured rock— sharp and sudden. The mountains were cliffs, steep and dark to look at. Then they were gone. And it was like we were driving through Texas once again.

We drove a few hours and came to a town called Leavenworth, with an old school Bavarian village. Literally, everything was in that ancient font— every single storefront, including McDonald’s and Starbucks. Not one place interrupted the theme. It felt like we were inside of a fairytale, or The Sound of Music, for the snowy mountains stood tall in the distance, swarms of green pines at their base. We spent a night here.

 

From there we continued East and once again came into a new state: Idaho. A place I’ve never had a desire to go, but I guess was kind of oblivious to it’s geographical location: right between Washington and Montana and Wyoming, all places I knew to be beautiful, so why not Idaho? We stayed in a tourist village, Coeur d’Alene, and it was lovely. A large, glass lake and lots of quirky shops and art galleries. It was Abel’s birthday while we were here, which made it even better because we allowed ourselves to eat and drink all day long, and basically just do whatever we wanted without the haunting thoughts of our bank balance.

That was all we did in Idaho, since we were located in the “pan handle” of the state. If you don’t know, Idaho has a skinny section up top and a wider area down below— the thinner area known as the pan handle. Then we came into Montana.

Montana I knew was going to be epic and enormous, and you could see it instantly. The hills and mountains began to swell, exploding in their mass. Tall and soft bristled— either with large quantities of trees, or velvety grass. Rivers and creeks everywhere. The view just didn’t stop. There was always a mountain or five, always a curved, rushing river wrapping around a log cabin. It was vast, stunning, and quiet. We camped our first night at a free campground right by a beautiful river, everywhere clad with signs stating we were in bear country. Grizzly country more specifically. After speaking with some of the neighbours who camped here often, they assured us it was very unheard of to see a bear in these parts— but it is Spring, and hibernation is over, so never say never.

 

We spent another two nights in Montana as we headed South towards Yellowstone National Park and Wyoming. A night at another free campground on the water. Then in a town called Missoula, where we restocked on our groceries. Then to Gardiner, a town that flanks the northwest entrance into Yellowstone. Lots of people around here, gearing to enter or just leaving the park. We spent a night here, parked at the Library near the local high school as large elk slept on the hockey field nearby.

All at the second free campground just north of Missoula, Montana

 

Yellowstone might just have taken the cake in terms of the most impressive and beautiful place on our whole trip. Maybe. But also most likely. We’ve never seen anything like it. I knew to expect animals and thermal pools, but I didn’t realise that Yellowstone is basically a giant thermal area, due to erupt as it hasn’t for many years. I’m not so good with geology type stuff so I won’t try and sound smart or educated in that area. We took two days to see it all, and we saw it all. Every thermal pool, a baby black bear, wolves, bison and more bison, goats, a few grizzlies. We spent the night in a campground located halfway around the loop, a nice way to break it up, and I was certain we would see a bear here. No such luck, and I suppose that’s a good thing considering there were so many campers in tents. No thank you.

 

From Yellowstone we continued south through Wyoming, stopping to gym/shower, sleep, refuel etc. But basically, we drove straight to Denver, where my cousin Elise lives. We only got to see each other briefly over Christmas, and it was pretty chaotic, so it’s been real nice to see her and not have to rush our visit. Her and her housemate/friend Paxton have welcomed us into their cute little apartment. They’ve taken us to some really good food places so far, with more to come, and we repay them by cooking dinner.

We’ll stay in Denver for a couple more weeks, then we’re planning on flying back to SF, our first continental US location, to visit with my mom and dad who will be housesitting for my aunt. From here, our journey will finish and we will make our way down under.

The ambulance has sold. I’ll talk about that on my next post when I get a bit emotional and talk more about the bittersweetness of a journey coming to a close.

Til next time.

A

THE BIG SOUTHWEST

We made it through the dirty South and out into the wild West, thinking we’d escaped Winter’s treacherous bite. Not quite.

Western Louisiana and into Texas were both pleasant, temperature wise. I wore a dress without a jacket to the Fleetwood Mac concert, for goodness sake. How naive we were.

First of all, Texas is huge and after Houston and Austin, there wasn’t much we cared to see. I was surprised at the landscape, though. I had envisioned wide, flat and brown. Not the occasional rolling hill, scattered deep-green shrubbery and thousands of wind turbines. A rather pretty, but lengthy to journey through and out of.

In Houston, we really just had dinner— tex mex with 6 or 7 cocktails—got serenaded by Stevie and Neil Fin, and left.

We would have stayed longer in Austin, but the sleeping options weren’t plentiful. We found a parking lot in the city park that others had checked-in at on our app. At around 9:30pm a security officer knocked on the door to let us know we had to kick it by 10pm. We headed back to the Planet Fitness we’d visited earlier and spent the night in the parking lot. As we were stirring the following morning, we got another knock on the door. The security woman said, “Sorry, I can’t have people sleeping here.” Like OK, but we sort of already have…

Austin was pretty and funky, as I’d come to expect from what so many people have told me in the past few years: “Austin is really cool”. Even though we just spent the day roaming before heading off. Lots of trendy bars and restaurants— it’s insane how many cities across this country are coming into their own (I mean, lots of them have been nice places for a while, but you can tell there’s plenty that are really on the brink of their stardom). Bustling with youngsters and new, thriving businesses that please the masses.

Our budget has gotten a little tighter over the past month or so and we’re trying our absolute best to be careful and only spend when necessary. Usually we do an enormous grocery haul so we can cook most meals. If we want to eat out, we must choose wisely.  So every time we’re in a quirky city, jam-packed with trendy bars that feature unique cocktails and tasty tapas plates, we’re tempted beyond belief. Unless there’s something specific and touristy to do in that city— entertainment wise, museums or walking trails— what else can you do but walk around and enjoy different beverages depending on the time?

First stop: large, double-shot oat milk latte and a large double-shot regular latte (not really that strong, Abel reckons his tasted like warm milk), at around 10:30am.

Next stop: Two schooners of cider. 12:00pm on the dot.

Lastly: Two burgers and fries. One a double with bacon, sweet potato fries. The other with hot peppers and regular fries. 1:00pm

From Austin we headed to a small, privately-owned campground. Basically an elder couple had an enormous property with a few ponds, sparkling and picturesque, and they sectioned off some campsites— electrical and water hook-ups for RVs on one side, primitive on the other. The bathhouse was a tin shed. The toilets and showers were separated with thin pieces of plywood, shower curtains for doors. On their front porch, hung a crooked sign: “GOD MADE. JESUS SAVED. TEXAS RAISED.” I couldn’t stop saying it the whole time, in my exceptional southern drawl.

Then we hustled out of Texas.

I can’t remember if we stopped anywhere before Santa Fe, New Mexico, but if we did, it mustn’t have been very memorable.

Arriving in Santa Fe was like leaving one country and entering another— I suppose with the size of Texas, it may as well have been. It was the architecture that struck me, sienna coloured Spanish-style clay homes, painted alongside the shifting landscape. All of a sudden, the desert we’d been weaving through in North-Western Texas gained a new richness— the sand turned to burnt cinnamon, the shrubbery grew a few inches and deepened its emerald hue, and icy mountains rose on the horizon. It was certainly colder while at the campground— scattered snow flurries—but we had climbed around 7,000 ft since then, so the temperature dropped significantly.

Santa Fe became our home for the next week, for a few various reasons.

1. We found ideal, free camping. Just twenty minutes outside the town, up in the hills, looking out at the mountains. Quiet as anything, with a fire ring and bathrooms.

2. There was a Planet Fitness in town.

3. It was unlike anywhere we’d been so far. I finally felt like I was out in the West, somewhere I’ve never properly seen or known, but always dreamed of. The buildings made this place too interesting to rush through– there was no shift in style. All clay, all beautiful.

 

On Valentine’s day we treated ourselves to a day out. We explored through downtown, window-shopped at the Native American art stores and sat at a rooftop brewery for a few hours. Here I had one of the best vegetarian pizzas ever, made on a blue corn base, loaded with roasted veggies and goats cheese. I have dreams about it.

That afternoon we went to an interactive art gallery called Meow Wolf that my cousin had told me about. This was an experience unlike any other. I don’t even know what I expected, but this exceeded any expectations. We were told at the ticket desk that we could touch any of the art, encouraged to, and there was no specific order you had to journey through. The only way to describe it is a bunch of different “worlds” all connected through doorways and crawl spaces. Some were basic– like the house. I crawled through a hole and came out of a fireplace into a living room. I exited this particular “world” via the refrigerator. Some worlds weren’t as simple– giant dinosaur skeletons that’s bones played sweet tunes when whacked with another bone. It was like a huge, acid-induced, adult playground.

 

From Santa Fe we headed across into Arizona, but things were looking grim and frigid. Nights with a temperature of -19 C. Having our short-lived experience with warmer weather, I had gone off the cold altogether and wanted nothing to do with it. Coming through, we decided we wouldn’t stay too long and would head further South-West instead, on into California.

Since there’s so much time to kill before Coachella at the end of April, we’re planning on doing a loop and hitting up the Grand Canyon properly when the snow melts a bit more. Let’s hope.

We still got smothered in a fat, white blanket. I can’t quite remember where this particular campground was, it could’ve been back in New Mexico, but I left the ambulance for the shower house and when I’d finished my cleaning and pampering, I walked outside to a transformed campground: red, rocky and dusty turned to thick, frosty, snow.

We drove down through Sedona. A steep, winding road between large, maroon rock-mountains, scattered naked pines and snow. Log cabins down on a river bed. More snow. One of the most beautiful scenes we have witnessed so far.

After spending two nights in a nearby town with a Planet Fitness (always a selling point) we continued West. We journeyed to Joshua Tree National Park via Lake Havasu, a stunning summer vacation spot, littered with other RVs.

On this little leg of travel, we happened to come across a town up in the mountains called Jerome. This was the sweetest, quirkiest little place and Abel and I both reckon we could live there. It felt like something out of The Grand Budapest Hotel, mainly because there was an abandoned-looking hotel sitting on the edge of a mountain, surrounded by cliff and snow. We stopped to take photos, grab a coffee for the road and a few slices of home-made fudge.

(All in Jerome)

(All on our drive through Joshua Tree National Park)

We don’t know how to take photos…

We stayed in LA for three our four nights, near Venice Beach and Santa Monica. We walked the beach and the pier, witnessed sights we’d seen in hundreds of films, and drove through Beverly Hills and Bel Air, gaping at the mansions. Being in Hollywood makes you think of everything that is Hollywood. We drive past Rodeo Drive and I couldn’t help but say “Rodeo Drive, baby” like Kit from Pretty Woman.

The only tourist type thing we did was the Runyon Canyon trail that looks over the whole city, the Hollywood sign watching you climb and sweat from far behind in the next cluster of hills. Since we’re going to be spending a bit of time roaming around California before our weekend at Coachella, we figured we’ll be back to see anything we missed.

We spent a night in Miami and then in Santa Barbara, somewhere I’ve always wanted to go. It reeked with the character I had always envisioned and here we allowed ourselves a cocktail and bites session. That’s the main thing that gets me when we’re saving money and somewhere oozing with local atmosphere. I just want a drink and a nibble. Happy hour is the key here, especially when it’s midweek. This allowed us several fancy drinks and tasty plates at a reasonable expense.

 

Since being on this side of the country, I am in constant awe of the changing, varied landscape. Desert, mountains, water— in all different forms. Rivers turn to lakes, snowy mountains shift to enormous hills that seem to be made up of thousands of little rocks. Cacti becomes striped eucalypts and we are hit with a sudden wave of longing for the Australian landscape.

Luckily we came across something similar to home after our stint camping on the outskirts of Joshua Tree.

Highway 1 goes up the California coastline, through Big Sur and into Monterey Bay— yes, the town from the Big Little Lies TV series. We witnessed the most wildlife on this stretch since our time in Florida.

When we woke up in Morrow, the first town we stopped in, we were parked right against the docks and could hear seals barking (do seals bark?) as we stretched in our beds, ready to begin the day. Although they were nowhere in sight, Abel pointed in the distance and we had our second otter sighting. This time, a sea otter. Fluffy as hell, floating calmly on his back up stream, waiting to be carried out for a fishy meal.

Along highway 1 we saw piles of elephant seals lounging on the sand, nudging each other in what seemed like affection. The males sat on the outskirts of groups of females, protecting them. One pretty much told another one to fuck off, and off he went, sucked under the next crashing wave.

Monterey Bay was a cool little harbour-side town, and here we saw maybe four to five more otters, floating 50 metres off the jetty, swirling around each other and holding hands, as otters often do. It was a sight to behold.

All along Highway 1 and through Big Sur. It was super foggy this whole drive.

 

Since then we headed up towards San Francisco, picked my mum up from the airport and have spent the past week with her, visiting at my aunt Lauren’s place. It’s funny coming back here, five months on from when we first arrived, with our ambulance and whole different understanding of our trip. As Abel said, “I was just a newbie last time we were here, I knew nothing about what the country was going to be like.” 21 states later, now he’s more seasoned in the landscape than most Americans.

Now, we are on vacation from vacation from our vacation. Being back at my aunt and uncle’s place felt like a little vacation from our otherwise large vacation. Since my mum has left, Abel and I have driven up to the Napa Valley for two nights before we had back to Lafayette where we’ll house/dog/cat sit for my aunt while her and the family go skiing in Lake Tahoe. So we’re on a triple-removed holiday from our main one, if you get me.

And it’s damn nice. Today we went one a long trail through the hills surrounding our campground and it honestly felt like we had stepped either back in time, or into The Hobbit. Winding trails through rolling green hills, splattered with redwoods, eagles, and creeks running this way and that.

And here’s the “glory hole” (actually called that) that Abel drove out of the way for on our way back– worth it. Although I was expecting a natural phenomenon, not a dam hahaha. You could honestly stare at it for hours.

 

This state really is spectacular and I’m itching to see more of it. Good thing we’ve got lots of time here. I think Coachella might creep up before we know it, though.

‘Til next time. As always.

 

A

THE BLESSED AMBULANCE & THE AUSSIE BENEFIT

We don’t blend in quite as well as I thought we might. Whether it’s because we’re Aussies or travelling around in an old ambulance, I don’t think I’ll ever know.

There’s times when no one bats an eye at the vehicle— perhaps they think it’s a functioning EMS. Driving through road works in NYC, a construction dude was holding his palm in the air, telling Abel to stay put. He did a little double-take and beckoned Abel to roll towards him, stuck  his head towards the driver’s open window, “An ambulance right?” Abel gave a slight nod, well it certainly looks that way, doesn’t it? “You can head on through,” he stepped aside to give way. Abel followed the rest of the traffic down the cone-edged road and we looked at each other wondering whether that man genuinely thought we could save anybody.

The thing with the ambulance is, you can spot her from a mile away. She’s tall, she’s got big, shiny lights, and red and white is one of those colour combinations that grabs your eye without hesitation. She just stands out. The previous owners definitely warned us that she would be a real conversation starter, and they tell no lies. Most of the time it’s when we’re parked somewhere surrounded by other road-travellers. They’re the type of people who are interested in this topic and take notice that it’s not just a random, old ambulance on the road, but a converted camper.

Aside from that, we pretty much assumed we’d gone unnoticed. For some time, parking on the side of streets caused no trouble. Often, we would google where the nice areas were in that town/city, and we’d park in quiet suburbia.

In Knoxville we had our first run in with the police. 6 pm, dinner had been consumed, pans had been cleaned. We were parked on a oneway street with  large houses planked alongside us— a university area. Most occupants were students.

A shining light came through the front dash, darted to the side windows, followed by a tap tap tap. “Police officer” didn’t register in my mind, more like “random weirdo”, so I paused. Tap tap tap. Pushing the door open, a police officer stood on the sidewalk and gave me a smile. Basically, he had a received a call about a “suspicious looking van”, and while he wasn’t too concerned, he was obligated to check it out. I explained we had been cooking dinner, which meant our door was cracked to avoid gassing ourselves and perhaps that explains why we appeared so suss. He said there was no problem with us parking here overnight, so long as we didn’t exceed the 24 hour limit. Being a oneway road, he suggested we move the car up a tad, to “tetris” with the other parked cars, in case a fire truck needed to pass through.

While it was a peaceful experience, I no longer felt comfortable parking on residential streets. Convinced we stood out and looked unholy.

Two cities over, we had our second police run-in. This time, it was the morning. We sipped on our coffee and discussed the day ahead. A maroon car slowed as it passed, turned around, pulled in behind us for all of 5 minutes before driving off. Abel was concerned, I thought it was strange but didn’t care too much. 15 minutes later, another car pulls in to park behind us. I glance in the side mirror and announce it’s a police car. “Really?” Abel asks me. Really, really. We watch as he exits his car, making his way towards the ambulance— in order to avoid a knock-knock situation, we hop on out, smile and say hello.

Again, “someone” (maroon car, for sure) had said there was a suspicious looking van with it’s door open. We gestured to the coffee and told him we’d be leaving soon. During our chat, another younger officer had walked over, made pleasantries and joined the conversation. After showing our driver’s licences, and having learned we were Aussies, this opened up a whole new window for chatter. Where exactly we were from, what we had been doing, our plans for travel and so on. I reckon we spoke to these dudes for about 20 minutes or so. He understood why we chose to park here— nice neighbourhood— but warned us to be careful on the rest of our travels, “Be safe. Look out for the people around you. Not every police officer is going to be as friendly.”

I’d told him I was a writer, blogging about our adventures, and a business owner. He bid us adieu, walked off and we began to pack things away. A moment later, he was at our door again, pen and paper in hand, “Say, what’s the name of your blog? I wanna check it out.” I wrote it down for him and we laughed as he left— did he really want to read our adventures or did he just want to double check our story? Officer Grigsby sat in his car for a little while behind us, having a peruse of my posts. Both officers asked if they would feature in the blog, and while this event took place a month or so back, I hope you’re reading this, Officer!

These few occasions make me question our luck. Perhaps all the officers and official people we have encountered are just pleasant, down-to-earth people. Or is it the ambulance that saves us? Perhaps our Aussie heritage? Because honestly, as soon as one is seen or the other is mentioned, all tension melts away.

After visiting Canada, and experiencing our rather strenuous entry, I was nervous to re-enter the US. I shouldn’t be, considering I’m a citizen and all, but I didn’t want Abel’s visa to be questioned the way it had been in Hawaii. For once,  Abel was calm as a cucumber and I fidgeted and tapped my fingers on the steering wheel (I mean, that is the norm for us, except for when going through border control— Abel usually takes on the nerves and I become super relaxed. What is there to be worried about?). As we approached the pull-up window, the security officer peered out, marvelling at the ambulance. He didn’t even ask us if we had any fruits or vegetables. We were loaded up with apples and bananas and all this man cared to ask about was the blessed ambulance.

I’d like to believe the ambulance stands out more than our Aussie-ness, but it doesn’t take long. Every time someone walks pasts and looks in our direction, Abel nods and says something like, “Hey, mate,” or “How ya garn?” and we just don’t stand a chance. Even worse when it’s combined, How ya garn, mate? He may as well scream it from the rooftops. But, it has given us more smiles and muted “hello”s than not. Maybe it’s because we’re from a small town so we’re used to it, but majority of people over here don’t smile at you, don’t say hello or even acknowledge you– I assume because of the population difference. Then they hear that accent, and they either laugh with or at you, but a smile is all the same none the less.

Back when we were in San Francisco, my uncle Kurt had said, “Whenever you’re in trouble, just lay the accent on thick.” He knew what he was talking about. Turns out, everyone is fascinated by Aussies and Australia but, “Oh, the flight is just too long!” Mate. It’s a day of travel and then you’re in the great down under, land of the desert, home to the world’s best beaches— worth it.

Apart from the one man we encountered who didn’t seem to know where or what Australia was. He pulled into the field we (and other travellers) were staying at, slowed in front of us and yelled out to Abel, “You guys from Canada?” “Nah mate,” Abel replied, “Straya”. This old fella stared at Abel and asked again if we were from Canada. I sat back and listened as he continued to assume we were from Canada, five or six more times, while Abel tried to say “Australia” a little more clearly, before shouting “WE’RE FROM DOWN UNDA!” The man stopped asking then, but I don’t believe he understood a thing.

If the Australian heritage ever seems to fail us in a situation, when people basically assume we know nothing about this country, I can fall back and choose to be American, “Well, I’m actually from Connecticut so…” We’ve got ourselves a win-win situation over here. I only mention that fact after having spoken with someone for a little while. People still ask me where I’m from based on the accent and I’ll always say Australia first.

Regardless of the predicament or situation, we can count on the blessed ambulance or the benefit of being an Aussie.

Clairvoyants in New Orleans & Pastel Cars in Cuba

Arriving in New Orleans was like driving into a bubble. That first night, we didn’t even go into the heart of the place, but we knew it was vastly different from anywhere we’d been and special beyond words. I suppose I can compare it in the way I did with New York City and Nashville— how neither of these places are alike in any way, except for their contagious, atomic energy.

As we often do, we began searching on the app iOverlander for free, overnight parking places in the city. This app usually helps us, but not every place has locations that previous travellers have “checked-in” on. New Orleans had quite a few, most of them situated in the City Park. I guess you could kind of liken it to Central Park based on its enormity and the array of things that sit within it: botanical gardens, a Storyland world, mini-golf courses, roadways, a Catholic Boys’ school, etc.

We set up camp in an open carpark, situated between grass fields, shaded with low-hanging branches. It was close to the edge of the park, surrounded by well-lit areas, yet managed to stay quiet throughout the evening— about a 10 minute drive from the heart of the city. Perfect and a tad nicer than being parked alongside the road.

That first evening we were pretty tickled with the botanical gardens being nearby so we made our way through them—lush and tranquil. Being submerged in that much flora just makes you want to take deep, yogic breaths. Oxygen rich and dense.

The gardens contained lots of artwork, mainly progressive sculptures of humans. My favourite was of a woman, standing straight and strong, looking into the distance, breast-feeding her baby under one arm. Powerful stuff.

The next day was our main exploring day. We ventured along St. Charles street, where the infamous Mardi Gras operates each year. This boulevard is littered with cafes and bars ordained with 24-hour signs. A party place for sure— not certain if there’s anywhere back in Aus that serves alcohol around the clock, but I know they’d make a killing.

It was convenient for us when the time hit midday and we indulged in a guilt-free cocktail: the New Orleans Hurricane. Two different types of rum, orange juice and grenadine. That one rocked me a little bit to be honest, so we walked a great deal and took in the grand southern houses. Tall, quirky, with chairs rocking on every front porch.

As always, parking is a nightmare in the more populated cities. The two hours was up and we wanted to make our way to where the action was: Bourbon Street.

I  didn’t know a lot about New Orleans but I had a lot of expectations. Music being played on the streets, strong southern accents ringing on every corner. Knowing where to find this was the issue, but luckily Abel knew where we needed to go. As we turned the corner, the live street music danced directly into the car and people swarmed around. For once, I felt like the ambulance fit right in. We did one of those slow drives down the street, both turning our heads, pointing our fingers at different shops, people, signs, everything. Nightmare parking again— $18 for 30 mins, 1 or 2 hours. We settled in for a few, there was lots to see.

There were heaps of daiquiri shops, with spinning mixtures of various flavours and everyone was drinking them out of enormous cups as they swayed in and out of bars. There were clubs functioning as if it was 2 am on a Sunday morning. The huge Saints game contributed to how busy it was that weekend, but we were told its not much different the rest of the time.

Slurping on our green apple daiquiris and taking in the scene, we came across an open courtyard with tourist market stalls and various tarot card readers, palm readers, psychics. This type of thing has always intrigued me and while I’ve wanted to have my future told, or something like that, many times, I’ve been scared of what they’ll tell me. I spoke to one woman wearing an emerald, fish net scarf tied around her hair, purple drapes and epic eyeliner— your typical Esmerelda. She was frank and honest with me, she told me that her skillset was very fine, purely based off the readings of the cards and how she learned to do that. All fortunes were “donation based”, yet they still manage to give you a ballpark range. She didn’t do a great job of selling herself to me, but let me know that each and every one of them working this spot had different skills and I was welcome to chat around to find my perfect match.

A few tables up was a set of sisters, beckoning us over. “I can see your interested darling, let me explain to you what I do.” Tarot cards, palm and crystal readings: one of the above or a combination. She knew I was nervous. “I think you would benefit best from a card reading,” she nodded at me. For the lot, it was an average of “$65”, I told her I’d give her $50. I got one sister and Abel had the other— his was supposed to be a palm reading, but halfway through she suggested the cards so his reading would have more accuracy (Scam, scam, scam. His was meant to be $35, but she finished and claimed it would be $65). We ended up paying $100 for the lot and left.

It wasn’t the best timing to spend such a hefty fee for a short, somewhat average, fortune telling. Abel was not impressed whatsoever with his reading— he said it was all basic and merely guessing. I felt a little different. Sure, there were moments where I kind of shrugged along with what she said and didn’t always agree, but for the most part, she said some very accurate things about me. I’m indecisive, drawn to water, I have a churning belly and get goosebumps often (apparently this is my paternal Grandfather who makes that happen— Thanks Grandad) among other stuff. I enjoyed it, mainly because it was something I always wanted to do, but otherwise, probably not worth the expensive donation.

We spent one more night in New Orleans and played mini-golf at the nearby course in the park. The following day was spent running errands, packing and organising for Cuba. Our flight left at 6 am on the Sunday morning so it meant an early night for us. There was a brief moment of terror when I finally decided I better check out the whole visa situation. Very silly and irresponsible of me to leave it to the last minute, and certainly on a weekend. Everywhere I googled, you applied online and it got sent to you in the mail… not an option for us. I had a panic/tantrum thing and thought, “Guess we ain’t going to Cuba!”, but after calling a woman who worked at a Cuban Travel Centre (about 5 minutes from where we were— convenient right?), she informed me that I could buy the visa at the airport prior to boarding the plane in Miami. I took a deep breath and hoped with all my might that she wasn’t fooling me.

The journey to Cuba was time-consuming and treacherous. Both flights were short and sweet— under two hours each. But, we had a 9 hour 50 minute layover in Miami. To be honest, it wasn’t all that bad, the day moved along fairly quick. I basically just read all day. The last two hours or so were the longest, as the plane continued to get delayed for 15 minutes about five or six times. Then we landed in Cuba, and had to wait a good half hour to park due to our delayed take off. We were exhausted and feeling pretty anxious that our taxi driver may have just up and left.

He gave a little laugh when he saw us— he’d been waiting a while.

We spent our first three nights in a hotel/apartment that I booked on airbnb in Old Havana. We had a private bed and bathroom and there was a little kitchen where they served a $5 per person breakfast each morning. The room was clean, but bare. It didn’t matter too much as we knew we’d be out exploring most of the time. We lucked out on the location of the place, only about a block back from The Capitol and right near plenty of restaurants and tourist strips with shops.

The first day we ventured out, around three or four different Cubans said hello to us, went out of their way to strike up a conversation. Asking where we were from, what our plans were, offering suggestions on things to do and places to eat. Everyone had told us that Cubans were friendly as anything and this certainly proved it. After that first day, however, I found most people stared and didn’t offer a warm smile. Western tourists are new to Cuba, so I suppose that’s fair enough.

We ate a restaurant recommended by our host, Los Nardos at least twice. The food was exceptional, enormous servings and plates cost about $5-$10 each. Apart from doing the Havana Bus tour to see all around the city, we basically roamed, frequented shops and filled time between meals and beverages— dining on jade-tiled patios, with overhanging grape vines and deep-bellied female Cuban singers.

I’ve never known a city to be so beautiful and dirty at once. Huge, amazing pieces of architecture (like The Capitol) flanked alongside crumbling buildings, apartments with bundles of laundry hanging from balconies; plastic bottles, bags and other rubbish crammed along every gutter of every street. Sidewalks with chunks of cement disheveled and protruding. Brightly coloured 60’s and 70’s-styled cars speeding around every corner, tall palms billowing in the city breeze. Beautiful. Dirty.

Horse and buggies are used for tourism AND practical use– it’s like being back in time.

After three nights in the city, we had the next six booked in a little old fishing town called, Cojimar, about 20 minutes outside of Havana  The place where Ernest Hemingway got most of his inspiration for The Old Man and the Sea— there’s a bust of him sitting tall and proud, overlooking the harbour.

Upon checkout in our Old Havana airbnb, I noticed something fairly disturbing. I had packed jewellery with me, most of in an old Mimco pouch apart from my 21st birthday necklace, which I had in a separate box— so it wouldn’t get tangled. Rummaging through my suitcase, trying to organise, I noticed this weird white, square-shaped thing. What the dickens is this? Then I noticed the necklace box—open, empty. The white square thing was the backing that belonged inside the box. My heart sank and my hands frantically pulled every item from my bag. The necklace was nowhere and more importantly, I hadn’t opened that box once since being here. It had sat on the bottom of my suitcase, untouched, at least, by me.

Of course, I freak out and cried and had no idea what to do. The host wasn’t at the apartment, only one of her workers who didn’t utter a word of english. She knew we were about to leave and could see I was distressed, she phoned the host and let me have a word with her.

I felt awful accusing her or anyone of something like this, but I had to mention it.

“No one has a key to that room except for you,” she reassured me.

“Yes,” I told her, “but someone must… because someone changed the roll of toilet paper.”

“That was me… but I changed the paper and went straight back out. I did not go up the stairs to your room.”

There was not a lot else I could say or do. Besides, Abel and I had started thinking about the night we packed our things. I held the box in my hand, unsure what to do with the necklace. I didn’t want to leave it in the car incase it was broken into, especially not in the box— it’s kind of asking for it, I now realise. Plus, I knew I’d want to wear it. During this time, I was going through other jewellery, moving some from one pouch to the next. Abel and I both agreed that perhaps I had removed the necklace from the box and put it in my other jewellery pouch that I’d left in the ambulance and, silly me who didn’t realise, packed the box anyway.

The lingering question though… who opened the box from my suitcase? The springs on it were too tight for it to have accidentally opened while sorting through my things.

I messaged my host just asking to let me know if it turned up. She replied saying they’d cleaned the room and found nothing,”I think you must have lost it on the street.” Well I didn’t, but whatever for now.

Our taxi over to Cojimar

The airbnb we stayed at in Cojimar was beautiful. A renovated garage into a perfect little apartment suite. It was clean, private and our hosts Rossana and Felipe were just the sweetest people I’ve ever met. They went above and beyond to make sure we were comfortable and felt at home.

Rossana greeted us with a big kiss and fresh cups of espresso. We sat on their patio, enjoying the sun, the mango tree rustling in the breeze, and having a conversation in broken English about life in Australia and Cuba. It wasn’t that broken though, Rossana and Felipe continued to apologise for their “terrible English”, to which Abel and I would shake our heads furiously, telling them how good their language skills were, to stop apologising, we could barely offer any Spanish, for God’s sake! I haven’t studied the language since 2011 and before that, not since 2006— all at a minor level too, so my skills were limited. After conversing with French guests at our other airbnb— mainly broken English and some French on my part— I kept confusing myself and often saying “excusez-moi” on the streets. Fool.

We’d decided we wanted to stay in Cojimar for a more quiet and relaxing experience. The location was ideal, it was close to the city and the beach, an easy bus ride either way. Rossana drew maps and assisted us with directions to get anywhere we wanted to go. The town was walking distance, right by the water. Rossana and Felipe gave us a 10% discount card for a really high-quality, reasonably priced restaurant just two blocks down from the apartment. We ate there many times, the house mojitos were the best I’d drank the whole time in Cuba.

They also provided the same $5 per person breakfast service: eggs, bread, ham, cheese, fresh fruit, juice and coffee. Waking up each morning and walking out to their polished-stone patio, with the table set waiting for us, hot fresh food and coffee, was everything we needed and more. While I’m a creature of habit and eat the same breakfast every morning, we may have tired of this one a little bit. The service and quality made it worthwhile however. Not having to prepare and do dishes was precisely the kind of break we were after.

 

On two different days we took the bus to the beach— the kind where you can rent lounge chairs, umbrellas and get drinks service. We did this the first time, had a few cocktails and enjoyed the luxury beach outing. Then we got the bill and saw how much they overcharged for the drinks and service. On our next visit, we packed water and primitively lay with our towels on the sand (even though that’s how us Aussies prefer it).

The water here was aqua and crystal clear— postcard-like. Abel and I laughed with each other about the people who obviously don’t frequent the beach. I saw at least four different girls, laying or kneeling near the edge of the sea, posing for a photo, as a wave clapped down and catapulted them a few feet in the air. It was hilarious. Many of them barely walked out into the water, they kept their sunglasses on and didn’t wet their heads. For someone who needs to be submerged in the ocean for long periods of time, this was difficult to watch.

There was a sandbank a little ways out on our second visit, and as Abel and I swam to it, standing up to catch waves, I saw people on the shoreline staring and pointing at us. Then two dudes swam out, “Wait, you can stand out here?” You sure can. People amaze me. But I guess I’ve been lucky enough to grow up alongside the sea and never know any different— being too far inland kind of freaks me out.

We spent one day back in Old Havana. Abel and I both had to connect to the wifi, even though being disconnected for a little while was nice and ensured that we had more conversation and reading time. The internet situation is old school— you have to lineup at certain technological shops, buy a wifi card for 1-5 hours and then you can only use it in specific parks that have a tower for that particular service.

We used this day to go see Hemingway’s mansion outside of the city. The visit was quick, as you pretty much just walk around the house and peer inside. It was stunning— vast and open, lots of natural light, hanging plants, half-filled bottles of booze, tons of books— a real writer’s haven.

 

The cigar factory was the next thing to tick off on the list this day, but unfortunately the tour service had been relocated from where we thought it was, plus they had finished for the day. We bought four different random cigars and made our way back to Cojimar. We haven’t smoked one yet and I don’t really have much interest to, but hey, when in Cuba.

The weather overall was really pleasant, there was only one cloudy day until our third last evening. A storm hit not long before we fell asleep and the power went out. Rossana came knocking our door about 10 minutes later with a battery-powered LED lamp, bless her. In the morning, she told us how a tornado had hit another town just outside Havana. Nowhere nearby had power. A bus had tipped on its side. 175 people were injured. 3 dead. It was horrific and she explained how this is not common for Cuba. Had we heard the winds in the night? No… but we’re from Gerringong, so we didn’t notice anything radically different.

The power was out until our departure. It didn’t affect us all that much, most of our things were charged and we could handle some darkness. Felipe and Rossana kept apologising for that too, like they had any control over the weather. The nicest people in the world, honestly.

I think if we’d booked a tour and travelled across the country more, we wouldn’t have felt as ready to be back “home” (ambulance). Not that we didn’t enjoy our time at all, we loved it and desperately needed the solace, but by the end, we couldn’t help but think about our cosy little bed back in our home-on-wheels, ready to hit the road again.

Since arriving back, we’ve been cooking non-stop. We indulged in meals out and endless cocktails while away, mainly because we had no other option and they were so cheap— but I really love to cook and missed it a lot. We spent the first few nights back in New Orleans, but felt we’d seen everything we needed to.

From there, we camped in an open field in the middle of farmland in southern Louisiana. Free, and there were other campers there too. Abel had a look on his Alltrails app to see if there were any nice walks/hikes nearby. He found one called “jungle gardens” on Avery Island, about 45 minutes from where we were— gators and plants. As we pulled in to buy our entry tickets, we discovered this island is actually where Tabasco sauce was founded, invented and the main factory still operates today. Avery Island is a salt dome and one of the few hilly areas in an otherwise flat Louisiana. We did a 4-5 kilometre walk around the gardens, no gators to be seen, then we did a tour of the Tabasco factory, complimentary with lots of tastings. Shipments from this small little part of America go out to 185 countries each day. Literally, most of the world (bar North Korea and a few African and Middle-Eastern countries) buys and consumes Tabasco sauce. And we just happened upon the factory by accident. Little did we know that every single bottle says “Avery Island, LA” on it, but still.

Now, we’re still in Louisiana, but very close to the Texas border. We drove a secluded highway that snaked in and around swamps/bayous, and we saw an otter in the wild (!!!!!!!!!!!!). The cutest little darling, lobbing over reeds and swimming in the dirty, shallow water. By dirty, I don’t just mean brown— loads of plastic. Disgraceful.

We’re parked on a beach (yep, actually on the sand) and relaxing before we head to Houston to see Fleetwood Mac on Tuesday. Excited is more than an understatement.

’Til next time.

A

PS. The necklace was not back in the ambulance. It was stolen, somehow. I’ve had a back and forth with the host and she is just as confused as I am— she’s confronted her staff more than once, and says she trusts them like family as they’ve been working together for three years. She also got a bit upset with me and said how Cubans might not have much, but they earn their living through hard work. I had to be clear with her, I am not blaming this on Cuban people… there are thieves all over the world. And clearly there was one there, guest or worker, I have no idea. But I’m pretty devastated about it.

CATCHING UP ON THE JOURNEY

I figured I should catch you guys up, so to speak, on the chronology of our trip. I’ll skip over what you know.

After Thanksgiving, we made our way up through North Carolina into Virginia, where we spent a few nights at a campground in a state park. That was a really nice few days– it felt like we had time to relax and not rush. There wasn’t anything particular we wanted to see in Virginia Beach and the weather was pretty crappy. I remember that night was probably the first really cold night we’d spent in the van. I reckon it got down to maybe 1 degree C (the coldest we’ve done was -8 C in Salem). We made a fire and sat pressed up against it, layered in our new hats, gloves and scarves. I wrote, drank tea, and we made our first dinner over an open fire (our new favourite thing to do). I ran (!!!!!) two days in a row (this is a seriously big deal for me– I have despised running for most of my life, and now, I almost kind of like it. Who am I?), but yeah, we pretty much chillaxed there, and that was great.

We drove over the Delmarva Peninsula to go through Maryland on our way to Washington DC. The bridges over here tend to be really big, very high and for people who know me well, heights are not my friend. For some funny reason, I always seem to be driving whenever we have to go over one of these monsters. I know, I know, they’re, for the most part, totally safe. But, I’d almost rather be a passenger while travelling across a huge bridge. I feel as though I’m too in control. Like, if I wasn’t paying attention, or being too careful, or something happened and my arms spasmed and went crazy and we just steered a little to the right, and then BOOM we’re flying off the bridge and into the water. I know that sounds a little paranoid and crazy, but my Aunt Melissa actually feels very similar about this– so I am definitely not alone.

On this leg of the journey we had to drive over the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel. It’s 23 miles long (37 km). There are two structures, one for each direction and they both have double lanes. There’s no shoulder though, hardly any space either side of the lanes between your moving vehicle and the tiny little fence. There were about 2x 1 mile long tunnels that broke up the journey. I was in a sweat most of the time.

We made it across in one piece and headed for Crisfield, MD… I don’t know how to describe it. I’ll just say, often when we have made the decision to drive a few hours in the direction we plan to head, it’s difficult deciding where we should go. There’s times where the destination is obvious, well-known cities or highly-populated areas. Other times, though, we just have to wing it and we tend to choose somewhere on the coast (if that’s an option based on our current location) and generally about 2-3 hours from where we currently are. Crisfield, MD. We drove secluded highways to get out to this town. Winding roads with beautiful, emerald yards planked along the sides. I expected something really stunning, and naturally, we got that. I mean to say, it was spectacular in its natural debut, but not much the township itself. We drove through the flat, desolate main street and, as we often do in the more interesting towns, Abel and I shared a glance that said it all. Crowned the “crab capital of the world”, Crisfield sat right on the edge of the water– flat, sprawling, endless, reflective, breath-taking.

But we struggled to find a place that we felt safe in. We drove around trying to find an area to park near the water, and after getting bogged and having to shove rocks on either side of the tires, we came to a small parking lot situated at a tiny little beach. There were toilets, a tap– neither in operation “CLOSED FOR THE WINTER”. A playground on the sand, picnic tables. Very nice. A few suss looking dudes drove down, sat in their running cars for 15 minutes, left… came back again half an hour later. Amongst other visitors. Abel was uneasy. Once it got well and truly dark, there were no more visitors. But you know how it is, once someone is nervous about something and you can feel it, then you start feeling it to. We made it through the night and woke up to one of our best views yet, and then we got the hell outta that place.

Washington DC was really great to go back to. I’ve only been once and was aged 8 or 9, so was keen to check out some of the museums with my newfound wisdom that comes from the gradual ageing process (just being older and appreciating things more). After taking some time to figure out the whole van-city situation, we ended up spending one night in a Lowe’s carpark and the next three at a campground just outside the city. It was getting rather cold when we were there so the wandering and exploring was kept to a minimum. We got to see and do what we wanted though. The National Museum of Natural History, The Holocaust Museum, we walked alongside the Washington Monument, Reflection Pool and The Lincoln Memorial. The basics. Christmas markets were also in full swing at this point (our real first taste of that) which was exciting, and we ate some really amazing Cuban food there.

 

Post-D.C. was really lovely, I made a call to my Mum’s good friend, and our long-time family friends, Val and Mike. They lived in Fairfield while I was growing up and my family spent a lot of time with them and their three boys. West Chester, Pennsylvania is where they live now and Abel and I were welcomed into their home for a night. We were totally spoilt, taken into town to watch the enormous, festive Christmas Parade and we ate dinner at a restaurant that overlooked all of the activity. The township was beautiful, lots of brick buildings dressed in white lights. It’s always nice when you end up in a sweet place, somewhere you probably never would’ve gone to had it not been for some friends.

From there we went to the Amish Market and Philadelphia, where the incident from my last post occurred. So I’ll move right along.

We stopped in briefly for two nights back in Fairfield at my aunt and uncle’s place. Always nice to feel “at home” and be able to relax. We’d left some suitcases there before heading to Florida, so we collected our things, cleaned out and reorganised the ambulance. My aunt and uncle have a beach house out at Cape Cod (we used to go out there twice every summer, my Nan and Grandad had a place there too) and were kind enough to let us stay there. We stopped in Newport, RI for a night to break up the drive and it was a really quaint, little, upmarket beach town– but in winter.

The beach house became our little refuge for the next five days. I don’t think I’ve ever played so many games, condensed into such a small period of time, in my whole life. Kirstie, you would’ve been proud. We tackled one of the puzzles, a decadent fish scene titled “the underwater mardi gras”. You know how when you’re doing a big jigsaw with lots of pieces and you can never seem to find the piece you’re looking for, so naturally you are convinced it’s been lost? I thought I was going crazy. Abel was losing his mind. For a few hours in the afternoon on our fourth day, we sat intent on finishing this damn puzzle. And we did. With 27 missing pieces. Our minds weren’t lost, just those fucking pieces.

It was kind of hilarious to see Cape Cod in the dead of winter. For those who don’t know, this place is a little arm off of Massachusetts– you have the bay side and the ocean side, not too far from each other. It’s a summer haven, where most North-easterners escape to during the humid, sticky months of June-August. Majority of the restaurants along the main road that connects all the little towns have been there since I was a small child. You pull in, see “The Lobster Shanty” with it’s row boat, buoys and nets on the roof and know that you’re kind of in a little time capsule, and you wouldn’t want it any other way. Unfortunately, much of the cape closes down for the winter season, each restaurant bearing signs “THANKS FOR ANOTHER GREAT SEASON! SEE YOU IN APRIL!”.

Apart from a Sunday trip out to Provincetown (the funkiest little place ever and again, very, very different in winter than summer) we pretty much reclused (yes, I just used recluse as a verb) indoors. Scrabble, Rummikub, and our new game Jaipur (we bought this in P-town from a game shop called “Puzzle Me This”, a store that’s been around nearly as long as I have) were being played on rotate.

Eventually we moved on. Boston next– we only stayed one night here. It was cold and parking wasn’t plentiful. We found an open lot with paid parking but for the one night and most of the next day, it was $60. We’d explored and seen what we wanted, so we made our way to Salem. Which you’ve already read lots about.

 

From Salem we went to Burlington, Vermont. My cousin Zach went to university here and we’d been told it was a very cute little town. We weren’t lied to, it was lively and filled with young students, and more Christmas lights.

Next stop: Montreal, Canada!!! My dear friend Sarah is living there with her boyfriend, Antoine and it’s just crazy how close it was to where we were, yet a totally different country. It seemed silly not to pay them a visit. Of course, we thought entry into Canada would be a piece of cake! Aren’t all Canadians soft and squishy and just always nice? Kind of forgot about the fact that Quebec is French-Canadian territory and uh, Frenchies can be funny about things. The officer at border security totally grilled us. From the minute we pulled up to his window, he was shaking his head at us and instantly frustrated with our presence. He asked question after question about things we were bringing in (normal, totally normal). He asked if we had any firewood, I glanced at Abel and he nodded, “Yeah, we have a few pieces”. The officer shook his head more. Sighed a couple of times, rubbed his beard and forehead all in one big movement.

“Why do you have firewood?” Why does anyone have firewood? Usually to burn. In a fire of some sort.

“How many pieces do you have?” I looked at Abel and he shrugged, “Ten?”

The head shaking continued, layered with beard-stroking, brow-furrowing and a couple more sighs for good measure.

“Now,” he began, “I could let you into the country with the firewood. And do you know what you’d have to do with it?” I stared. “You would need to dispose of the wood in a metal container.” Ok then.

“Can we burn it?” I asked. Sigh. Head-shake.

“You know what, no. No, I can’t do it. Ten pieces is just too much. How would I know that you would dispose of it properly? You’re gonna have to go back to US soil, do what you will with the wood and come back. I’ll give you a form to pick up around the corner and you’ll need to re-enter the United States.”

We did as we were told. Upon re-entry to the US, I of course had to explain what had just transpired.

“We’re just coming back because we were denied entry into Canada,” I told him. He looked us up and down, “Why were you denied entry?” I told him about the firewood, he asked us some more questions and we left. We headed for the woods, ditched the beautiful chopped wood my uncle had given us and headed back for Canada.

He asked us what we did with the wood and I told him. “So if I look back there, I won’t find so much as a twig?” Jesus Christ. “I hope not”, “Go on in then”.

Three nights were spent at Sarah and Antoine’s apartment in Montreal. I hadn’t seen Sarah since November of 2017, just before she embarked on her journey to live and work in Canada. Seeing her again was something I anticipated and yearned for– we text nearly every day. Meeting her boyfriend Antione for the first time was really lovely and I’ve never seen her so happy.

The temperature was low and there were scattered flurries passing through Montreal, so we pretty much stayed in doors, drank and ate lots and watched movies. We were more than happy to do this; it was nice to be in the company of others, in a cozy space. We did get out to Mont Royal, an incredible natural beauty in the middle of the city, overlooking it all. Being outside the US for a little stint was special too– different sites, different shops and a different language. A bit of a treat for us.

 

From there we pretty much hustled back to Fairfield, CT for Christmas, via New York, a quick sleep in Wilmington, Vermont and down on through Massachusetts.

The Christmas period was a bit of a whirlwind, as it is for everyone, each and every year, all around the world. I guess that’s why it’s so magical– lots of energy and Christmas spirit pulsating from every corner of the globe (or whatever holiday people are celebrating at that time to bring their families close). Getting back to the Finzi’s was exciting because I hadn’t seen my cousins Elise or Nathalie yet, nor had Abel met them. My Mum and Dad were also coming to town over the next few days and while I’d seen Dad a few months back, I hadn’t seen my Mum since April, along with my brother Marcus and his girlfriend Nicole, so the weekend was filled with all kinds of reunions.

Another important one being on the 23rd, Abel and I drove into the city to pick up his cousin Kelsey from the airport. She’d had a pretty hectic long flight, with three different legs on her journey, but we were all buzzed to be with each other, knowing we were going to be having a real winter Christmas in a few days time. We spent that day in the city, window shopping and braving the crowds to experience Rockefeller’s Christmas tree. My dear friend Tenaya was housesitting an apartment in Brooklyn, so we were able to park our car near her place for the day. We met back up with her later that evening for a drink in Times Square and hot meal at the markets in Union Square before heading back out to Connecticut.

 

The lead up to the big day consisted of shopping, visiting family and friends, drinking, cooking and eating– in no specific order.

 

Christmas came and went, same as it does every year. Kelsey’s flight left NYC on the 28th to take her home to Australia, so we had one last hurrah in the city before she departed. Tenaya let us bring our mattress from the van up to her apartment. We had a lovely evening out, drinking cocktails at a rooftop bar that overlooked all of Manhattan. If anyone read or heard about the electrical explosion that happened in Queens and made the sky turn blue… yep, we witnessed that from the rooftop bar. I mean it when I say the whole sky went bright blue, turned purple, grey, black, back to blue. Each wall of this bar was made of glass, it was quite the spectacle.

 

 

The next morning Tenaya took us to the best little coffee and breaky spot in Williamsburg, which we pretty much discovered to be an Aussie café. A jar of Vegemite was spotted on a shelf behind the coffee machine, the barista spoke with an Aussie accent and not to mention the coffee and smashed avo was well and truly, soaring above average.

A quick drop off for Kels at the airport, as Abel and I headed due South, into Asbury Park, NJ. Apparently where Bruce Springsteen got his big name, but apart from a meal out, we just spent the night and headed West.

Stopped in Lancaster, PA for an evening, then down into West Virginia where we spent the few days over the New Year at a campground. The actual site where we stayed was extremely primitive– only pit toilets, no showers, no running water. This was the longest we went without showering, I believe we made it five days strong. If a Planet Fitness had been close by, we would’ve made a journey out, but was a shower really worth a 1 hour 15 minute drive each way? We were fine.

This place was a whole lot of rocks, mountains and rivers– picturesque. Once again, Abel convinced me to step out of my comfort zone and climb up the side of an escarpment that yes, had somewhat of a trail, but a fairly steep and rocky one. There was certainly resistance from my end, but sure, I’m glad he persuaded me. The view always makes the height (somewhat) worthwhile.

 

 

While the site was on the low-equipped side, there was an office left open until late, with heat, bathrooms, running water, wi-fi and a smart TV. We were actually able to ring 2019 in a nice space, with some games, music, drinking and movies. Quiet, but a lot better than many other New Years I’ve had.

As we went to depart West Virginia, we started experiencing some car trouble– it wouldn’t start. There was no cellular service out there and although the office was officially closed for the 31st and 1st (yet left open for us) now that it was January 2nd, for some strange reason, everything was completely locked up. I couldn’t call AAA to have them come start our car. My poor mum, I gave her a call, said “Happy Birthday!” and then “Can you do me a favour?”. When the car had it’s batteries replaced while in Salem, the mechanic mentioned there was a missing tooth on the fly wheel that would need replacing sometime soon. We assumed that was the issue. After waiting in the cold for the mechanic to arrive, he came down to the site where the ambulance sat– terrified it was going to have to be towed up a wet, steep, narrow, gravel road.

He popped the hood, had a look, “turn the key,” he said, and on it went. An embarrassing relief to say the least.

Most mornings since then, we have struggled to start the car. Diesel tends to go sludgy in the cold, but we were still in the Northern half of the country and they use a special winter blend up there.

We stayed a night in Virginia and then headed to Knoxville, Tennessee where we spent a few more nights. I was pretty surprised at how cute Knoxville was, lots of variety in shops and food, the weather was warmer too so we could actually walk around and take in the feel of the city.

We made our way to Nashville via a pit stop at a campground for two nights. Nashville had an electric energy, that I can only describe kind of like New York City, except that it’s completely and utterly different. In no way is it similar– I just mean, in the way that a city’s ambiance can catch on so quickly.

This place was party central from the moment we arrived and it just didn’t stop. We parked over at the football stadium which is an easy walk across the foot bridge into down town. We ate and drank on a rooftop bar and on the streets below, open-roofed buses with drunk, screaming women trudged past, along with everyone on the streets, horse and buggy rides, bicycle pubs. Country music pouring out of every single doorway. Every shop on the main drag is either a bar with live music, or a boots shop. That’s about it. For two people who are certainly not country music fans, you cannot help but be when you’re in a place like Nashville.

 

On to Memphis. Where Abel made sure I played “Walking in Memphis” as we drove into the city. This place consisted of more car trouble– it was time to take it into a shop and get the flywheel fixed. We’d had enough of not being able to start her in the mornings. So we booked a room in a hotel near Elvis’ Graceland. Tacky as all hell, with three framed pictures of Elvis hanging above the bed (I mean, that’s absolutely fine with me, but still) and I kinda loved it. Until Abel and I convinced ourselves there were bug beds and we had to sleep in layers on top of the bed covers. We didn’t have any bites– most likely all in our heads.

 

Graceland was a dream. Elvis was such an influential figure, such a star, and his pad reflected what an icon he was. He put so much care into decorating and entertaining, everywhere you went, you felt his presence in there. Big deal for a big Elvis fan like me.

 

Since then we’ve been making our way to New Orleans and we just arrived… after another incident with the car. While the flywheel did need replacing, it wasn’t the source of the issue. The most recent mechanic wasn’t really to know, he didn’t specialise in diesel and we should’ve thought that one through. So she was in the shop the past two nights and we checked into another hotel, for two nights, in Jackson, Mississippi where there’s a whole lot of nothing. The glow plugs have been replaced and she’s running like a dream now.

Two days here in New Orleans and on Sunday we’re off to Cuba for nine whole days. Bring me that sunshine.

A.

PS. Here’s what our route looks like drawn out on the map

SOME THINGS (PLACES, MOMENTS ETC.) THAT I’VE LOVED SO FAR

I talked in my last post about how everything’s not always hunky dory, smooth sailing while on this kind of journey– and that’s ok. After having a chat with my dear friend Simone she made me realise something. I mentioned how cleaning the van is a constant activity. There’s not a lot of space to leave dirty clothes strewn about (ahem, Abel) and they pile up quick-fast. Plus, you’re constantly going from outside to inside your personal living quarters, so dirt is sure to be prevalent. Simone said, “It’s funny how even though you are living on the road and it’s a bit of a dream, the realities of normal life like cleaning and stuff never stop.” Absolutely correct, and in lots of ways, the cleaning is worse and more constant than if you were hanging about in your house. When you’re at home, there’s more space for things to be messy, so that kind of allows more time for you to put cleaning off. We don’t have that luxury. But then she said, “which in a way is good, because it keeps you grounded!” Right again, Simone. I hadn’t thought of it that way. We can’t always be caught up in how amazing our lives are right now, we need to have some reality thrown in to remind us that life is life, and there’s always gonna be some shit in the good.

That’s enough of that though. I want to touch on the things I’ve loved about this trip. A lot of that has to do with the places I’ve imagined visiting for most of my life, as well as the really simple moments.

The one constant thing that keeps me happy is waking up every single morning. Which is kind of hilarious for me to be saying, or even feeling, since I am NOT a morning person at all. Ask any of my close friends, getting me up before 7 or even 8 am is a slight mission. Not that we ever really wake up too early– it kind of just depends on where we are, what we’ve been doing. Sometimes you forget how exhausted driving and setting up makes you, and then you sleep for 10-12 hours and it’s a bit of a shock, like oh, I really needed that. But I can honestly say that I wake up each morning, in our tiny little bed, and look around the ambulance and I feel so damn happy to be there. It doesn’t even matter that we’re parked on the side of the road, we’re somewhere completely different and we can do anything we please. It’s even better when you wake up and it’s raining– like it was this morning. The pitter-patter makes crawling out of bed a little bit more difficult.

Making coffee and breakfast is the other simple treat that keeps me smiling. Even though it’s not always simple– we have to set up the gas stove, general prep isn’t easy and neither are the dishes– but I enjoy nothing more than cooking up our breaky this way, it’s just more satisfying somehow. Abel and I pretty much alternate each morning whose turn it is to brew the hot pot of jo. We’ve talked about how we really love either end of that– I love getting coffee made for me while I’m still snuggled in bed, but I also love making it for Abel and watching him enjoy the steamy cup whilst tucked in. The simple things.

 

As for places, we’ve been to quite a few in the past few months. Sometimes I feel like we’re speeding along and then I stop and look back over the course of the week and think shit, that felt like a fucking month ago… how did we even get to this point? Time operates differently on a road trip.

I want to talk about how much we loved Philadelphia, but it’s kind of hard to, based on the incident that occurred there. Abel and I were really keen to check this city out. My Nan and all of her family are from Philly, so I feel like that’s kind of where some of my roots are– my Dad was born there. Abel and I also love the show It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. For anyone who doesn’t know it, it’s basically just a group of fucking idiots doing stupid, dickhead stuff all the time. Very intelligent humour.

Anyway, this got us really pumped for Philly. We spent the first part of our day exploring around the city centre, there were beautiful Christmas markets sprawling the open complex areas and we felt that holiday cheer beginning to creep on us. Rain splattered down as we enjoyed a German beer at the market, so we made a plan to head back towards the Ambo and grab a bite and a drink. After having a couple drinks and playing some pool before our food came out, I was starting to feel a little queasy– not highly unusual for me, I have a weak belly. After dinner, I was ready to call it quits. But it was a Saturday night and Abel was fairly intent on drinking.

 

He begged and dragged me to a cider bar. Which was awesome, I usually find that cider isn’t as common over here and I love nothing more than knocking back a cold, dry apple cider. We had a couple drinks each and then we tried the flight of different ciders, than we had another to ourselves. I thought we’d go home after this bar, but Abel had a specific location in mind. Maps up on his phone, he zeroed in and took me on a little journey to a certain street he remembered seeing. Turning the corner onto this street, I recognised it immediately. “This is from the opening of It’s Always Sunny! Look at the lights!”

I must say, life was different as soon as you walked down this street– things were happening, people were about. On the surrounding roads, there was the occasional sweet restaurant or boutique bar, but the vibe was unlike this one. Colours shined bright, people poured out of shops and bars, they lingered on the streets dressed in incredible attire, homeless men sat humbly with their dogs. Abel and I shared a glance and a giggle and thought yep, this is where it’s happening. We made our way into a bar that was fairly busy and Abel was immediately content. “This is what I wanted– to be in a real Philly bar, just like It’s Always Sunny.” The top of the drink menu said: $5 MARGARITAS. ALL DAY, EVERY DAY. Sold. We had one, and then another, and then things went a little pear-shaped. I remember talking at length with a guy chowing down on a burger next to us. He told us about how liberal Philly is, how he spent his whole life here, how much he hated Trump etc. I remember making friends with a group of women in their 30s to my right. They laughed at how young I was, saying they had kids my age– but they shared their penis straws with me and stood up for me when the barmaid cut me off after I spilled my second margarita. Fair enough. Then she kicked me out and Abel proceeded to call her “Dee” (It’s Always Sunny character) and tell her to chill out– fairly certain she didn’t hear it or catch on. Things went hazy after that. I remember walking out of the bar and struggling to keep my eyes open.

Fast forwards a few hours and I woke up in the ambulance, fully dressed with a throbbing palm and lip. Abel stirred and said, “can you please grab me a pillow?” It appeared he hadn’t been using one.

“Sure. Where’s yours?” I responded.

“I threw up on it.” Oh. “When did you throw up?” I asked.

“Right after you did.” Well, that was news to me. I have no recollection of that happening. For a while I drifted in and out of sleep and I slowly became aware that the red stuff on my sheets wasn’t blood from my hand, but it was vomit. Great, I was laying in Abel’s vomit. Turns out I had it in my hair too. I arose not too long later and noticed that Abel’s shoes on the floor to my left were covered in vomit. It was definitely mine, and I don’t need to explain how I knew that.

“I am so confused about what happened. How did we get here and why is my hand cut open?”

Abel then told me about how I had tripped over a bike on our walk home. I have a vague memory of falling and biting my lip. Another memory attempted to form: a burning sensation rising in my throat. Trying to think about the night before made me want to be sick again.

That entire Sunday was spent cleaning vomit from the ambulance and sitting in a laundromat for three hours as we washed all our bedding, sheets and any vomit covered clothes.

We shouldn’t be allowed alcoholic beverages, and we’ve been mostly tame since that incident. There was no further sight seeing to be had in Philly. Instead, we dozed in our clean bed, parked on the side of a main road, as it continued to rain and be gloomy.

Despite the incident that caused a lot of pain– pain that continued in the coming weeks as I dealt with an infected and healing hand wound– Philly is one of my favourite places we’ve been.

We actually got to go to an Amish market on our way out there. This is something I’ve wanted to do for a really long time. It was not as I expected it to be. To be fair, it was probably better. But you know, I envisioned a barn with some tables of assorted goods and everything to be sold in cash. This Amish market was located in a shopping complex, like where you’d find a grocery store, a bank, a pet shop and a hairdressers. It was an enormous set out market with separate vendors; fruit & veg, a bakery, meat, cheese, health, lollies, etc. Everything was perfect. Picture perfect; the stuff you see in magazines and think nothing looks that good in real life. Here, it existed and it was real and every single thing we bought was mouth-watering.

I was perplexed by the Amish people though. We studied Amish communities during Society and Culture in year 11 and I expected them to be…more old-fashioned, I suppose. Some of them were wearing crocs. CROCS! They were using credit card machines, and when my card had a bit of an issue, the young Amish girl spoke to me like she was very in-tune with the modern technologies of payment. Sure, this would be learned from working in a place like this, but they just felt so close to modern technology that I was a little baffled about how “old-school” they actually are.

 

My next favourite place was Salem, Massachusetts. Which is funny because we had another incident there. I won’t flesh it out like I did with Philly– it’s not nearly as interesting. To put it briefly, we woke up there on our first morning with all four of our car batteries not just flat, but completely dead. It took us a while to realise that’s what was going on. The car had to be towed and spend the night in the shop. While this was not something our budget really had room for, it allowed us to spend a night at the Salem Inn and escape the negative temperatures.

Salem is known for the witch trials that happened there in the 1600s. I have been fascinated by witches since I was a little girl. I dressed up as one multiple times for Halloween (being an October baby, I always had Halloween birthday parties too). I loved the anime movie, Kiki’s Delivery Service. I thought there was one living in my closet for the better part of my childhood. Whenever I was being a little brat, my Mum used to call me “witchy poo”– I think she still wants to a lot of the time.

Regardless, I was intrigued by the historical events in Salem and was super keen to learn all about it. Our original plan had us visiting Salem in October, possibly over Halloween. We learned while we were there that October in Salem is complete mayhem– you can barely walk. It’s amazing, but crowded. In some ways, I was grateful we didn’t make it there until December.

We’d spent all day dealing with the car, but we made it to check-in at the Salem Inn just in time for our haunted and historical walking tour of the town. This went for just about two hours and was incredible. Our tour guide was especially spectacular; she told each and every story with such conviction, passion and expression– and there were only four of us! You couldn’t help but be glued to her face.

The funny thing is, the Salem witch trials only lasted for 1 year… back in the 1600s. One year in Salem’s history and this city is known as “the witch city”. Police cars have witches on them, lots of signs for different business have a witch or a cat or broomstick incorporated somehow. Modern day witchcraft shops litter the city. Modern day witchcraft is real and not evil and to be totally honest with you, I’m thinking of converting. Converting from the religion I do not have to join Wicca. Basically they believe in lots of natural stuff, things to do with the seasons and astrology and their “gods” are both male and female– neither gender dominates. It sounds pretty radical. I will continue to read up on it.

 

Salem has such an epic history aside from the witch trials. They were totally interesting and a really huge part of the city’s history– 20 something innocent people were killed and this has lead to a huge part of the city’s identity today. Not to mention, these people were not actually witches. If something was not explained by God, then it was the devil’s work and was witchcraft. If you were different, a social outcast or a spinster, you were a witch. Salem is 400 years old though, so a lot happened in this place apart from the trials. It was a wealthy area, a shipping port for 80 years prior to the trials. Many of the buildings built back then, still stand. A couple 100 years before Australia was “founded” aka invaded by white men. The old Town Hall and derby square consists of these original buildings. Our tour guide told us stories that happened in our exact standing location, 300-400 years earlier. Many buildings in Salem are haunted and while I’ve been skeptical at times, I am not completely opposed to ghost stories. I genuinely believed most of what she told us about recurring ghosts in certain town buildings. It just kind of makes sense to me.

Salem is stunning because of these ancient buildings and the rich history made it a really exciting place to explore.

This grand boulevard is Chestnut Street. The wealthiest street in Salem in the 1800s and still is today. People would to elegant parties here. Some of these mansions are selling for $700k. Below the average house price in Gerringong… crazy.

The original Town Hall. Scenes from Hocus Pocus were filmed on the top storey.

The Salem Inn, where we stayed. So beautiful and cosy, with a fireplace. Apparently a ghost cat lives here. Wished I’d seen it. 

 

There’s a little bit about our experience with some of the places and moments I’ve longed for. I’ve realised I’m not always going to be writing or story-telling consecutively. You’re gonna get little snippets here and there and some might have more to do with a theme. These are just some of the moments or times on our trip that have made me really happy. They’re some of the times that I already find myself looking back on often.

It’s funny though, because I really wanted to keep this post on a positive note, ya know. Really highlight some of the greater moments, the better places etc. (even though Philly and Salem are tainted with a bit of error, they’ve been two of my favourites) and since beginning to write it, we’ve had all these funny/weird/shitty things happen and that’s all that’s been playing on my mind. The irony, hey.

I’ll tell y’all about that in good time.

PS. I knew I picked up accents easily– mine has been a serious Aussie-US hybrid since our arrival– but now we’re in the dirty south and I sound like a full-blown southerner at times. Lawd, help me.

 

A.

THE THINGS I’VE LEARNT WHILE LIVING ON THE ROAD

Living life on the road teaches you so many different kinds of lessons. First off, I am just enormously grateful that I’ve allowed myself to have this opportunity (haha yeah, I am grateful for my own decisions I guess?). The daily pressures and what’s viewed as “acceptable” or “the norm” definitely differs from Australia to the USA. Back home in Aus, we are encouraged to get out and see the world and leave the adult stuff on the back burner for as long as possible. That’s not to say we’re not told we need to grow up, fend for ourselves and get a job– don’t get me wrong, those things are all voiced to us, we’re not merely encouraged to avoid adulthood responsibilities. But, we are told to experience things now, while we’re younger and have less of those adult “chores” looming above. It’s ok for us to take a year off from work, if we’ve saved hard and are pursuing something more enriching than sitting in a cubicle from 8-7, but only getting paid 9-5.

I’ve just noticed how many older people we meet who are blown away by what we’re doing, whereas I feel that back home, our type of trip is somewhat more common. People work, save, take time off and travel. Or they work and travel (I did/do both!). Because waking up somewhere different each day, experiencing new landscapes, new people, new food, it’s all just a bit more exciting than tying myself down right now. So instead of experiencing the pressure so many of my American friends felt as soon as they graduated from college, I felt reassured in my decision to take time off from life and live it in a different way for a little while. Yes, many people we meet are shocked, but they often seem jealous that either they didn’t do this or they didn’t allow their kids to, when really, it would have been the best option for so many people.

Aside from all that, there are more practical things I’ve learned from living out of van (or ambulance in our case)– the simple things you have to be prepared for.

  1. Running water is a serious necessity we take for granted every day. Second to just water. At the beginning of our journey, it wasn’t too much of a problem. We often parked at beach carparks that had showers and taps or at campgrounds. This made filling up our water bottles and washing our dishes rather easy. But then things got colder, many of these public showers and taps have been drained and switched off for the season– or they’re just not as accessible anymore.

Since we try to cook as much as possible to save money (generally breakfast and dinner and we’ll have an Arbonne protein shake for lunch which has been a HUGE money, time and health saver) this means dishes are often to follow. My advice is to try your best to find a running water source, it’s just easier and cleaner and more economical. In the negative temperatures (which we are most certainly in) it’s not always pleasant, because if running water is a simple luxury, you can bet your ass that hot running water is for the royals and elite.

So my hot tip if you don’t have access to running water and don’t want dirty dishes piling up in your limited space: paper towel and lysol wipes. Not entirely the best option for the environment, so limit this as much as you can. When you boil water for your hot morning beverage of choice (coffee, always coffee), boil some extra. Use this to give a simple, start clean to the more filthy pans ie. Abel’s bacon. Wipe over the rest of the pans/dishes with paper towel to be rid of gunk, lysol wipes come next to disinfect that shit, and then unfortunately you’ll have to use more paper towel to dry and remove any disinfectant. You can pretty much ensure that one piece will get all the drying done however. Like I said, not the most environmentally conscious way of doing things, but it will make your life a whole lot easier when running water is just not available to you.

In warmer temperatures we will be more likely to boil water and use a hot, soapy filled container to wash our dishes. Cause we’ll be more likely to get out the van then too.

2. You will not always be waking up to a beautiful sight. I mean, yes, we try our best to find free overnight parking, or just non-limited parking somewhere pretty. For us, this usually means in front of a body of water or a nice park/reserve. But often, in the nice, more populated towns, parking near the water is expensive, limited, or purely residential. In the city, you can’t be fussy with parking because it’s best to find something as close as possible to the main attractions that will let you stay all day long.

When we were in Washington DC parking was a serious struggle. On our first day, we parked the car at a metre with a two-hour limit, and began walking a decent trek to the National Museum of Natural History. This took close to 20 minutes, which didn’t bother us, but we realised how limited our time at the museum was gonna be and that just wasn’t an option. We ended up walking back, moved the car and came back into the city via uber so we wouldn’t be restricted. We stayed at a campground just out of the city and figured we’d get an uber in each day– but this was $20 each way and the uber wouldn’t even be able to get out to the campground– we were positioned up a long, winding road well into the State park. We had to drive to a McDonald’s nearby and then request an uber. Bit of an effort, you see.

After that whole situation, when we were in Philadelphia, we managed to find street parking that was free from 6pm-8am. Score. This means your sleeping on the side of the road, however. Not a big deal, but be prepared for noisy traffic most of the evening and early morning. We’re lucky with the ambulance– the windows are seriously tinted, we have lots of curtains/shields we put up, and not a single person is aware that anyone is in there, let alone two living out of it.

Sleeping on the side of the road does limit you in a few ways though. Not just the lack of running water situation that I mentioned earlier, but also…

3. Lack of public restrooms. Same deal with the public running water, not a huge issue in the beginning of our trip when we were in warmer, coastal areas and beach showers/toilets are always open. But as you travel up north or into more densely populated areas you will notice how these become less frequent. Most shops and restaurants have hand-written signs, plastered in their front windows, “NO PUBLIC RESTROOMS”. So you make note of the Starbucks, McDonald’s, Dunkin’ Donuts, and gas/petrol stations littered across the area. If possible, try and park near or at one so you have access to these somewhat clean bathrooms.

Aside from that, my advice to you: don’t be afraid to become one with nature. In more simple terms: don’t be afraid to pop a squat. Again, much easier in warmer weather, parked in secluded areas with natural scenery happening around you. It’s easy to squat in a hidden bush to do your business (I’m talking strictly number one’s here by the way. Kudos to anyone who is game enough to go beyond that, because I’m certainly not). But when the public restrooms and easy-squat locations aren’t at your disposal, here’s what I suggest (many of you will be opposed): pee. in. a. cup.

I can’t believe I’m writing so publicly about this and truly raving for it’s cause, but it’s the greatest thing I ever started doing. Again, not entirely environmentally economical as you have to use disposable cups. So the better option is to source some biodegradable ones, or better yet, invest in a she-wee. I’ve never even thought of that until now, but I’m seriously considering doing a little Amazon search. Why not? Life will be cleaner, easier, and you can bet your ass there are no secrets between Abel and I anymore. Oh well, we’ve been a pretty close couple from the get-go anyway.

4. You will not always be relaxing. I find myself searching for some R&R. I have not written or read nearly as many books as I would have liked so far on this journey. That’s ok, but you just have to be aware that it’s something you need to make time for. So often we are thinking about where we’ll be next, what our “plan of action” is for the day or the next few days. We’re waking up, trying to find a Planet Fitness to workout and shower at, and then we’re either driving or exploring. Daylight savings is well and truly over here, and honestly, the sky fades to purple around 4:30pm and creeps its way to complete darkness within the next half hour. Early dinners are usually part of our routine, but to be fair, we don’t really have much of a routine and I guess, that’s why we don’t always have lots of relaxing time. The times we have felt most relaxed is when we are spending a few nights at a campground. We can let our guard down there and time is our friend. When you’re sleeping in some of the not-so-beautiful places, ie. the side of the road or carpark, you kind of just want to get things done.

Although each day is ours and we are in control of how we choose to spend our time, I still feel like we run out of it often. But then there are the days that I read for hours on end– usually in a low key town, on a rainy or cloudy day.

I’m not saying I don’t love my life right now, I definitely do. I just want to emphasise that this kind of lifestyle can be tiring, taxing and you won’t always have the energy to do the things that relax you. It’s important that we set aside time for R&R, no matter what kind of life you’re leading at the time. Otherwise you’ll get frustrated, grumpy and end up snapping at your travel-buddy. It never feels good when you take your own shit out on someone else, so it’s imperative to know when that’s going to happen and to do something about it.

Like the other week when Abel had his life altering revelation, “I’ve realised I get really grumpy when I’m hungry.” I’m sorry, what? You only just realised this? I’ve known for the past 3.5 years.

It’s funny how we notice some things about ourselves and are oblivious to others.

 

Apart from all the amazing places we’ve been to, the exciting things we’ve done, the hiccups we’ve had, all in all, I have just learned so much in a really small period of time. Like, we’ve only been gone for 3 months. What am I going to learn in the next 8?! Bring it on.

 

I’ll be back sooner rather than later. I’d love to hear what YOU guys want to hear about.

A