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

MEMORABLE PLACES AND MEMORABLE PEOPLE

Our road trip is well underway and we’ve passed through a total of five states now. Safe to say Abel has seen more of the USA then some Americans. The ambulance is forever a conversation starter and we’ve met all kinds of people. Some sweet, heart-warming souls that really love and appreciate what we’re doing, and then there are the few odd balls. They keep it interesting though and are, unfortunately, the people we’ll remember the most.

 

Here’s a bit about some of the hot-stops so far and some of the individuals we’ve encountered:

Ocala National Forest, Florida

This was actually our first stop and a very memorable one. We spent two nights at a campground alongside Lake Dorr (not for swimming unfortunately– discovered this after a long, sweaty car trip). That first night we learnt the hard way: the sun went down quickly, just as we had finished cooking and the heat meant that a flock of mosquitos (hundreds, if not thousands) swarmed us and the inside of our ambo. The humidity is absolutely unbearable in that thing and normally, we would open the doors wide, hang up our mossy nets and sleep with a breeze… but, there’s actually bears in Florida. That was a real shock to us. Upon our arrival, the camp host greeted us with an information sheet about how to keep the bears away. Bear proof bins and food containers were provided on site, but since we had an enclosed vehicle that was fine– we just had to put up with a hot box and hope no bears would crawl into our area to give our van a little rumble.

 

The following day we journeyed further into the national park to Alexander Springs. This was a major highlight, we were ready to dip into some refreshing water. First walking down towards the spring, just to the side of the boat ramp was an “alligator” warning sign. We had been curious about this, but since no one mentioned a thing we figured there would be no large lizards. Immediately, we questioned whether we could swim and our hearts began to sink a little– after that sticky night’s sleep, we needed a dip. Over to the right of the sign and past a little grass patch, we could see some people swimming. Snorkelling, in fact. Just beyond the alligator warning sign, out along the surface of the spring, lay a long rope/net contraption. We assumed this was to keep the alligators away, but how effective and reliable it was, we weren’t too sure. I’d read online that this area was designated for swimming and snorkelling , so with other people frolicking on the netted side, we took the risk.

The phrase “crystal clear” has never really meant anything until now. If an alligator was near or at a distance, you would certainly see it coming. This water was like glass, recently sprayed with windex and wiped away with a clean cloth. Up the back to the far right of the spring, was a large turquoise-coloured area. It stood out like a diamond in the rough. Except the “rough” wasn’t really rough at all. More like, a really large, more-sparkly diamond, among other diamonds. We waded towards it and the temperature and floor dropped simultaneously. A subtle current flowed from the north and flushed throughout the area, a 3-metre crater sprawling below us. It didn’t look that deep, until Abel swam down beneath me and his figure continued to shrink as he kicked further and further.

 

Kayaks were available for hire and we had a few hours to kill after taking a walk through the woods. To be honest, we reached a landing and saw a few kayakers paddling past. When I asked the woman if they’d seen any alligators she said, “Oh not me, but my husband did. I saw lots of turtles and an otter though.” An otter!!!!! Sold.

We took the double kayak into the “alligator” warning section of the spring (the only section you were allowed to kayak in) and made the paddle up towards the bridge. It was definitely freaky knowing the alligators were somewhere in that water, but our minds were fairly at ease. Abel had asked one of the park rangers and he said they weren’t very big. Plus, if they were a real risk to the people (the sign actually said alligators are scared of “man”) they wouldn’t promote kayaking in those sections of the spring. The lady told us to avoid the reeds, that’s mainly where they hang out. It took a little while and a keen eye, but we eventually saw one, and then another, and a few more after that. I couldn’t help but continue to call them “crocs” and that just makes them sound way more frightening. For the most part, they hung low by the reeds, and you saw their heads and backs protruding through the water’s surface. Once we saw one crossing the spring, a good 10-metres in front of us. Lots of turtles, lots of fish, and even a bear! A baby black bear climbed a tree to our left and we gasped/squealed multiple times in half a minute. It was fleeting though, so no photos captured of that. And no otters. That would’ve made my day.

 

(look close to see gator)

(look close again– gator on log)

 

That night back at the campground we met Rich. An older man, I believe in his 70s, who came over to, of course, talk to us about our ambulance. He was staying at the campsite across from his and was visiting his mate in the one adjacent. He kept saying “good for you guys, good for you guys” as his hands patted down the top of his jaundice-grey ponytail. Rich used to work for a big corporate company but made the quit about 30 years ago. His boss offered him a promotion and he told him to go stick it up his ass. You wouldn’t think your boss would be very impressed with that kind of attitude, but they had drinks later that night and his boss told him how envious he was that Rich had the guts to do something like that. Now Rich works as an “art dealer”, per say. He “caught the wanderlust” and moves around the country in his trailer RV, buying cheap antique art from flea markets and re-selling it at flea markets around the country. To be honest, it sounds like he makes a butt-load of money. Turns out most of the people at the campground all knew each other, all here for the local antique fair. Good on ’em.

 

Pit-stop before our next few destinations was… Disney World, Orlando.

We kind of tossed up going for a little while. Mainly because Abel wasn’t the slightest bit interested, but it has been my dream to go since I was a little girl. I’m a massive Disney fan and I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to fulfil my five-year old dreams (let’s be honest, it was still my dream) of meeting Ariel and Minnie Mouse. They were honestly my heroes. I have my baby Minnie Mouse who’s been everywhere with me, to hell and back. She’s had a tough ride; losing a tale, and her hat (Mum sewed that back on, on more than one occasion), and her nose is discoloured, but she’s still a little cutie to me. I dressed up as Minnie on my 4th? birthday, and had a Minnie Mouse cake. I had Minnie Mouse towel. The Little Mermaid… I couldn’t tell you how many times I’ve watched that movie. Not only as a little girl, but a lot in my teen years. If I was sad, The Little Mermaid, if I was hungover, The Little Mermaid, if I had my period, The Little Mermaid. And also when I was happy and just felt like it, too. I used to have a Little Mermaid toilet seat, suit case, sleeping bag, and heaps of other stuff. You get the picture.

Abel pretty much knew that, even though I said we didn’t have to go because tickets were $122 each (!!!!) plus we’d spend a lot more, he couldn’t take this away from me. So off we went, we spent the big bucks on tickets, parking, food was actually pretty cheap, and we didn’t buy a lot at the gift shop (The Little Mermaid journal for me, plus we were in need of a new keychain, a simple ‘A’ that has Minnie, Mickey and Goofy on it).

 

I want to say it was worth it, but… there were things that let me down. Things I probably knew were going to happen, but I’d pushed them to the back of my mind. For one, the lines. Every single ride or attraction had the wait time posted out the front, some saying “90 minutes”. Granted, this wasn’t always the case. Abel agreed to stand in line for me to meet Ariel when the wait time said “55 Minutes”. We waited maybe 20, so not terrible. I giggled like a nervous little girl when I sat next to her. She asked what my sunglasses were because, “we don’t have these under the sea”. Oh, Ariel, you’re hilarious.

The rides were all fairly tame– not that Abel or I can handle intense rides, but I would have tried some riskier ones. I kind of forgot that the entire park is uh, really aimed at little kids.

But the one thing that really disappointed me was the lack of characters roaming the park. I was always under the impression that different characters from all the movies would be wandering around in costume and in character, ready for a chat and photo at a minutes notice. This was not the case. All the major characters had their own attractions that you had to line up in to get your picture taken. Maybe this is only the case at Disney Land in California? Or perhaps the characters were getting swarmed and attacked by small children, I don’t know. But it wasn’t what I was expecting.

 

We stopped for single nights at a couple places on the way to my Nan’s house in South Carolina. New Smryna Beach, FL (apparently major shark territory, we learned this after the fact that we went swimming at dusk post-Disney World. Woops), St. Augustine, FL, Brunswick, GA.

The only exciting thing to report from this section of the journey, was our encounter with Grizzly in St. Augustine. This place was pretty, on the water, but it was grey and cool when we were there. So, not a lot to do. We decided to spend the night at beach carpark, which is often the safest and easiest option. We had tried to get a site at the state park right near by, but we just missed out. After cooking dinner and doing the washing, the sun had just settled in for the night, so we were getting ready to do the same. A big truck pulls in, with a row of yellow lights on the top. At first, we think this is a cop or a ranger, but it’s not. Just a big man, with a big white beard and a camo bandana tied around his head. He sits in his car for a while, and I’m very aware of his presence. Then he goes for a wander on the beach. On his way back towards his truck, I see him watching us pack our things away. He slowly walks over and starts making conversation, once again, about the ambulance. I start to calm down and think, he looks scary, but I’m sure he’s fine. I’m sitting in the side of the ambulance, blocking the entrance with my legs, as I put the dishes away. Abel stands beside him in the doorframe as he chats with us. The conversation moves from our travels to his former job as tour bus driver. Apparently he toured with Metallica, Pearl Jam, The Rolling Stones and heaps of other well-known bands. So that’s pretty cool. I notice he’s whacking a long black thing into his right palm. I’m thinking, Fuck, is that a baton? This dude is huge and weird. Abel and I are trying to close the chat and get him away from our van. I only notice that it’s a torch (flashlight), when a helicopter flies over head with a spotlight on the beach, and Grizzly begins yelling at it, flashing his torch in it’s direction. Then he asks us if we’re planning to spend the night here, Abel and I kind of glance at each other, hesitate and say, “Yeeeeeeah, we think so…”

He says, “Ah I don’t know if I would. There’s a lot of weirdos around here. A lot of weird shit happens in this area at night time, like lots of weird shit. Just because it borders on the state park, ya know? I’m a bit of a safety guy. If I was you, I’d head down near the plaza on the main strip and just park near the bank. You shouldn’t have any trouble there.”

This is coming from the guy who just made several racist comments and told us we need to get a gun. I’m thinking the spotlight was searching for him. So, of course we decided not to stay there. But we also didn’t want to go and stay exactly where he told us to. Unfortunately, our ambulance is very recognisable. You can see her from hundreds of yards away. We ended up parking in a public lot on the main street where there were lots of witnesses around. I felt safer. I’m sure Grizzly was harmless, but when he shook our hands and said his name as he departed, I wasn’t so convinced.

 

Since then, we did a day trip to Savannah, GA on the way to my Nan’s house in Bluffton, SC where we stayed for a few nights. Then we made our way to visit Kelsey in Wilmington, NC with a pit-stop in Charleston, SC.

Savannah is such a beautiful little city. Quaint, old, and jam packed with lots of character. Cobblestone streets and building lining the waterfront. Funky art galleries and the most impressive antique bookshop I’ve ever been to, Books on Bay. This woman’s collection was out of this world. Hundreds of Nancy Drew’s (I couldn’t help myself, I bought some very old, limited-edition “twin” sets, the first four stories in two books). But she had collections worth hundreds of dollars in this store, some thousands. Shakespeare’s dating back to the 1800’s.

 

It was so lovely to see my Nan after five years, even though so much time passes between our visits, she’s still the same and I’ll forever feel extremely comfortable in her presence. In the earlier years of my life, her and my Grandad lived directly across the road from us. I spent countless hours at their house. Being in her house, that I’ve never been to be for, felt totally familiar– she still has lots of the same furniture and decorations. Even the same dining room chairs.

Nan took us into Beaufort, SC for the day and it was stunning. Right on the water, with huge southern styled houses all around. I forgot how enormous the houses can be here. They’re antiques and have so much character to them.

 

 

Our weekend with Kelsey was so special. For Abel especially, I am sure. We’ve spent the past two months hopping around the country and visiting my family, I know he would’ve been missing his own. It was also just comforting to be around an Australian. Although I’m both, I’ve done so much of my developing and growing back in Aus, so that’s what I identify with the most. We had a good laugh talking about things Aussies say vs. the yankee lingo.

(Wilmington has the most incredible sunsets)

Our first night we got unexpectedly drunk. We started the evening with a few wines and nibbles on the beach. We were supposed to mosey into town to get some dinner and drinks, but the first bar we went into had double vodka red-bulls for $10. Say no more. Free buffalo wings with every round too, so we got some food in our bellies. Abel, the man constantly buying rounds (even when no one has finished their previous drink) is the one to blame here, I think. We were pretty dusty the next day, but we had a good explore of Wilmington and their annual Riverfest was on which made the town really light up.

Abel and I headed a bit further north after that to Beaufort, NC where we spent two nights and did a whole lot of nothing. The town was beautiful, quiet, right on the water with lots of boats. All the parking along the main strip at the water front was free and with no “no overnight parking” signs. We felt safe to set up here. I almost didn’t want to leave.

 

 

The Outer Banks is made up of a couple of long, thing islands that run parallel with the North Carolina coastline. Scattered with weatherboard houses, towering up to four storeys high. It’s home to the tallest lighthouse in America, at Cape Hatteras, and “arguably the most recognisable”. I’ve been there a couple of times with my family, but not since I was really little. My dad had suggested we go here after Wilmington and it worked out really well. I was pretty unsure of what we were going to do for Thanksgiving or where we were going to be. I was convinced we’d be eating out for the feast, at Denny’s or something. My Nan had told me her brother Bobby, his wife Rosemary, their kids Michele and Nick (my Dad’s cousins), their partners and children all hire a house out every year at the Outer Banks for Thanksgiving. She made a few calls and organised for us to join them so we wouldn’t spend it alone. I’m really so thankful she did, because I haven’t seen this part of my family since I was maybe, nine years old, at my great-grandmother’s 90th birthday (Mimi’s still kicking by the way, 105! Can you believe it?), and that was probably one of the only times I’d ever met them.

They welcomed us into their home with open arms, made us feel so comfortable, allowing us to spend a night inside, use their showers and do some laundry. Plus they put on a damn good feast. We couldn’t have been more grateful for their hospitality, they’re such a lovely bunch of people.

 

Now we’re spending our second night in Virginia at campground in the First Landing State Park. We washed dishes in a basin with hot water for this first time and cooked our meal over an open fire last night. Great luxuries for us.

 

I’ll be back to talk more about how we’re travelling van-life wise.

Until then,

Like. Comment. Share with your friends.

 

A

HOW WE CAME TO BUY AN AMBULANCE, THAT WE’RE GONNA LIVE IN

That’s right, we bought an ambulance.

It’s not a fully functioning one, as many have questioned, but the lights and sirens do in fact work. Although, we have yet to try them out, apparently they’re rather loud– and illegal. The inside has been gutted and set up as a camper. Before I tell you all about our funky new vehicle, I’ll back-track a little to our entire car-hunt in general.

Abel and I had been browsing online, craigslist mainly, for used campervans, RVs, conversion vans etc. In the weeks leading up to our departure it seemed like we were constantly coming across good finds. Low prices, low miles, lots of potential. A whole variety of things would pop up and we’d think, that could be the one. Then of course, as is often the case, many hiccups and mishaps stopped these “good finds” from becoming “good buys”.

About a week before we left, I emailed a woman about a campervan she was selling. It seemed perfect: not too big, completely fitted out and self-contained, only $7k. Her reply said something like this:

Hey Annika, the van is still available. I am selling because my husband passed away recently and I don’t use it much anymore. I am actually away at the moment, and the van is located in Indiana. I would like to do the sale through ebay because they are more reliable and have never let me down. The process is quite simple. You just need to make a down payment of $2000 and I will have the van sent by courier to where you are (it will take 5 days-a week). You have 5 days to inspect the van and make sure you’re happy with it. If not, you may send it back and I will refund your deposit. If all looks good with you, you can complete your payment and the courier service will provide you with the title transfer details. Let me know if this interests you and I will create a private ebay link to send to you.

How good does that sound, right? I summoned Abel over, summarised the email and he said, yep, let’s do it. I definitely wanted some more details before providing this lady with a deposit, so I asked for the VIN and a bit more information on how the van itself runs. Other than that, we thought it was pretty much sorted. I showed lots of people photos and had my fingers crossed it would all work out. Guess crossing your fingers does fuck all, because this was nothing but a heavy-weighted scam. I can thank my mum and her friend Denise for making me think carefully before signing a deal with devil. Mum sent me a link to some articles about campervan scams on the internet. Apparently there’s a HUGE market for it. If it wasn’t such an awful thing to do to someone, it would almost be a really great way to make some quick cash… almost. The article listed some pretty basic warning signs:

  • The sale is usually linked to some kind of tragedy (this lady’s “dead” husband)
  • They often say they are out of town
  • They will provide a courier service
  • They would like a down payment
  • They would like to do the sale through ebay

This lady pretty much ticked every box with gusto. I was hoping she would prove me wrong, and after asking for the VIN (for the 4th or 5th time) and a phone number I could contact her on, she told me she had done everything I had asked for and she felt as if I was wasting her time. In actual fact, she was wasting her own by not answering my god-damned questions. I told her as much, that I knew she was a scammer, and where she could stick it.

Safe to say this got my hopes down a little. It helps that Abel is generally an optimist, “we’ll find something”.

About two days before we left, my friend Kate sent me a link to a post on Instagram. An Australian girl who had just travelled across the US with her boyfriend in a converted ambulance was now selling as their trip came to a close. Immediately after seeing the photos, I frantically waved my hands, said “oh my god”a handful of times, and asked my friend Elle if I could borrow her phone as mine was dead. I messaged Alissa (previous ambo owner) and told her I was extremely interested and would love to hear more.

The ambulance was up for sell with all the necessary gear included: Tables, gas cooker, loads of kitchen supplies, mozzie nets, yoga mats, fishing rod and tackle. So much good stuff. Alissa and I messaged over the course of the next week, talking part about the ambulance but also about their entire trip in general. It was so lovely being able to ask someone for advice on so many of my central concerns; talking with her really put my mind at ease about a lot of things. For example: how did they go travelling without a shower/how did they access one? She told something I would have never thought to do. They joined Planet Fitness, a gym franchise that has 1,500 locations across the USA. The full membership, with all the bells and whistles, is only $21.95 a month and lets you bring a guest for free every single time. That way, she told me, they were able to shower and stay fit while on the road. Goodness knows we’re gonna need to stay fit, we both like the bad foods.

I asked question after question and Alissa totally indulged me, she loved talking about this stuff, and wished she’d been able to ask someone these things when they first started off.

There was only a few things turning us off the ambulance in the beginning: 1. Alissa warned me it was most definitely not insulated. They had done a few stints in cold weather and made do with thermal blankets and a campfire before bed. At this point, our travel-route was going to endure some cold weather, so this was a little concerning for me. And 2. The van was located in Florida. Lucky for me, my parents live there, but then the question was, how do we get this van up to the North-East? So we kind of pushed the ambulance to the back burner. It was awesome, but not completely feasible.

We had a bite whilst in Hawaii, but the seller was a tad odd. I spoke with him on the phone and he didn’t give me a whole lot. Tons of short, closed off answers that made me question whether he really wanted to sell the thing. I told him my aunt would be more than happy to come look, since we wouldn’t be on the east coast for another week or two. He said I could give her his number but he finished off the call with, “Yeah ok, well we’ll see when you’re out here and if the van is still available”. Uhh, ok. Denise called the following day and he told her it sold that morning. I was soo grateful that he gave us the opportunity to check it out.

It wan’t until the end of our NYC trip, as we headed out to CT, that we seriously began looking at more vans and trying to contact people. To be honest, most people gave vague responses, if any at all. Anyone who sounded eager to make a deal, was usually another scammer. I was feeling frustrated and unsure how we were going to move forward with this. Why did people continue to list their van or campers and then made no effort to try and sell them? Most options were oversized too; I could never seem to find the basic high-top camper you might see cruising along the coasts in Australia, parked at a beach carpark for a night or two before moving on to the next.

Denise didn’t have a lot of work on while we were visiting Fairfield and she graciously offered to take us to check out any vans that interested us. People were always telling us to head south to Florida and buy there. It’s warmer and swarming with oldies, so more vans would be floating around. During our first dinner at my Aunt and Uncle’s place, they shed some light on things I’d actively avoided thinking about. Gross administrative things like registration and insurance. Registering your car with your state of residency isn’t an enormous issue, but I’m not really a resident, so I’d have to use my parent’s Floridian address in order to do this. The lingering question was then, how would I get the plates in order to move the vehicle from A to B? We decided going to Florida was our best, and probably last, option. Dad would be able to help us sort out the details and we could take our time with it.

Once this decision was seriously in the works, Abel asked me if the ambulance was still available. Two weeks had nearly passed since my last contact with Alissa and I thought the odds were pretty slim. “Just check”. I couldn’t believe our luck when she replied to my message saying, “Actually, it is”.

Alissa and Lachie had been super busy whilst in West Palm Beach and didn’t have much time for any viewings with other potential buyers. I told her we would be flying down in the next week and if it was still available, we’d love to come and check it out. She pretty much pushed all her other appointments until after we had booked in to see the ambulance that coming Monday. When we’d been messaging previously, Alissa had told me we were at the top of their list. I think they liked knowing it would be going to a good home, to another Aussie couple doing the same thing. Rather than a 40-year-old man who only planned to use it to tailgate football games.

We did the three-hour drive to West Palm Beach and shortly after seeing the van, we were certain we wanted it. We made an offer, paid a deposit and picked it up the following day. Dad used some points he had to put us up at the Hilton Hotel that first night (score), and during check-in the concierge upgraded us to a suite (double score). The next day was leisurely, we laid at the beach for hours (the bonus of heading to Florida and altering our travel-route, more summer weather!) and went to an Aussie/Irish bar in town where we drank $3 margaritas and ate $2 tacos (pretty decent considering this place was anything but Mexican). The waitress told the owner Rod that we were Aussies and he wandered over, plonked himself down with his large, filled wine glass and chatted to us for a good half hour.

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We spent our first night in the van (and only, so far) that evening. She was a hot one, so now we’re kind of looking forward to some cooler evenings. While cooking breakfast that next morning in a beach carpark, we made a heap of older dude friends. They were all going for a morning surf and in awe of our ambulance. “Nice rig you got there,” this one guy said as he walked towards us, leaning his head for a peak inside. They wanted to talk vans and then even better, they wanted to talk Australia. Trust me, I told them, you’ll be getting better waves than this down under. Safe to say she’s gonna be a great spark for conversation, our ambulance.

Once we were back in Tampa at Dad’s place, we did a large Walmart haul to get any of the necessary gear they didn’t already give us. Not that we had to get much. We still spent a lot, but we saved a shit load too.

The ambulance also has three spare batteries that aren’t in use, but they’re practically brand new. We’ve bought an inverter so we can utilise them (we’ve been collecting all the parts over the past few days and Abel will be setting it up soon). We bought a mini-fridge for the front cab area, which will hook up to the spare batteries, and when the time comes, we’ll be able to buy and use a cheap electrical heater to fight off the frosty winter evenings.

It’s been so nice making the ambulance into a home. We’ve slowly been moving our things in, organising the cupboards and getting it all set-up and ready for the road. Our journey has been off to a slow start due to an issue with our “arriving” inverter from Amazon. It says it was delivered on Saturday, but it most certainly was not. Not the best of luck in that department, but I can’t be too ungrateful… because we bought a fricken ambulance! I don’t really know my opinions about the operation of the universe, they’re still forming and shaping, but I guess when Alissa said the ambulance was still available, I took that as a sign– it was meant for us. In some cosmic sort of way. I guess.

So here she is, meet our ride:

 

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(If anyone can think of a good name for her, please let me know. The previous owners named her Bambi, but I think we should shake things up little)

I’ll be back soon to talk about our first part of the road trip and van life.

A