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.

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