Well, that was the second most terrifying thing I’ve done in Australia. For the first time in my life, I just drove on the left side of the road in a left-handed manual vehicle. My heart still pounds.
I have been house and dog sitting this weekend for the parents of my Tsunami friend Joel (also a member of the sailing party), in the hinterlands of the Gold Coast. I was hoping to explore, maybe head into the hills for some hiking, borrow their road or mountain bike, or hit the beach and rent a surfboard. The weather had other plans. Hooked on a particularly sticky research problem, I stayed in on Thursday, resisting the call of a sunny autumn day. I should have checked the forecast: rain, drizzling on and off for the next three days.
The weekend became a work retreat. Hour after hour slipped away to integrals, derivatives, and coding, my body slumped over the dining room table, my chin resting in cupped hand. Simulation run after simulation run returned guidance on ways not to solve the problem. By Sunday, I’d eaten most of the fresh groceries and pasta in the house. I could not, in good conscience, leave Joel’s parents an empty refrigerator on their return tomorrow.
As I put on my shoes, my heart pounds, adrenaline washing through my body. It’s like I’m crouching into the blocks at the start of a track race or waiting on the line before the first pull of an ultimate frisbee game. My anxiety grows with each step toward the car, as with each move climbing up a rock face, further from the ground, closer to imagined disaster. The magnitude of my agitation surprises me: I am a competent driver. Given my inspired vigilance, driving here is probably less dangerous than driving back home. This is the closest I’ve felt to being sixteen in a long time.
I unlock the car and open the passenger door. Sighing, I close the passenger door and walk around to the driver’s side, which rewards me with opportunity to sit in front of a steering wheel. Now, sort out all the differences. It’s a manual vehicle. Lucky for me, I know how to drive stick. Did I say lucky? If I didn’t know how, I could have just excused myself and gone back to reading in front of the wood stove. I look down at my feet. Good. The foot pedals are the same: left foot clutch, right foot gas and brake. The gear lever positions are identically oriented, though I’ll need to shift with my left hand rather than my right. Nothing I haven’t occasionally done before in my own car– for reasons I don’t care to enumerate. It’s a bit drizzly. What about windshield wipers? Shit. They’ve swapped them with the indicators. Weirdly, however, my hand automatically adjusts to proper indicator direction: clicking the lever clockwise– down here, up in the US, indicates a right hand turn. Anticlockwise, left. Apparently rotational translations are simple for my brain to process.
I reach my right hand across to my left shoulder, searching for the seat belt, and stare at the passenger seat. Chuckling, I rotate the other direction, grab the belt, and insert it into the buckle. Putting the key in ignition, I start the car, shift into first, release the emergency brake, ease off the clutch and on the gas. Away we go. I turn right from the parking spot down the driveway, and Holy shit, the left corner of the car is so far away from me! Sorry shrubs. And while my left side now seems like a swollen appendage, my right feels skinny, lithe, and agile. Never have I felt with such clarity how my mind embodies the vehicle’s space.
Reaching the end of the driveway, I realize have no idea where I’m going. I stop the car, shift into neutral, put on the emergency brake, and take out my phone. Siri is a welcome and necessary presence on this journey, leaving me to focus on NOT turning into oncoming traffic, shifting with my left hand, and interpreting road signs in kilometers per hour. Yes, the speedometer is in km/hr, too, but while I have an intuitive sense of what 30 mph feels like, 60 km/hr is vague. Turns out, it feels like 40 mph.
The tension starts to ease as I drive. The more successful turns I make, the calmer I feel. I bemusedly praise the Keep Left signs at traffic intersections. In the States, I would often mumble sarcastic comments about the frequency of Keep Right signs. The only confusing interaction with another driver occurs when I’m stopped in the center turning lane, signaling my right turn into the Woolworths parking lot. A driver approaches, preparing to turn left into the lot, but slows considerably, waving me on. Did I somehow bring Seattle’s passive drivers here with me? Or does Australia have weird rules of the road? Because that just seems backward.
Shifting is easy. Staying on the correct side of the road, easy. Not getting into an accident, easy. Turning on my indicator without changing the windshield wiper setting first. Fucking impossible. I’m reminded of a long, occasionally hilarious journey in a rental car with my father. We were traveling from St. Andrews, Scotland, where I had just finished spring semester studying abroad, to London for the summer. He seemed oddly tense at the beginning of the trip. I didn’t quite understand what the big deal was. My empathy now abounds. I’d argue he had it easier*: the car was automatic. Still, muscle memory is just as automatic and he was either quite enthusiastic about cleaning bugs off the windshield or frequently telling other drivers their glass was a bit dirty. By the third day, I believe the number of unwarranted wipings was reduced to three. I have no estimate of the first or second days, but a fair approximation could be made from the number of turns between destinations. In my short trip to the grocery, I fare no better. By journey’s end, I discover one benefit of the manual car: resting my left hand on the shifter reminds my right hand of its responsibilities.
So here I am, back in front of the wood stove, another major life event accomplished. Good to have that first time out of the way in preparation for when Dad comes to visit in the middle of June. I anticipate a few Scotland echoes in our near future and the laughs to join them.
*My father, while reading an earlier draft, responded: “AND he was mightily jet-lagged, having flown the red-eye into Heathrow, then hopped up to Edinburgh. AND without Siri (or any cell phone techno-help), given not-very-helpful directions to Just take the fourth bridge. (which was the bridge across the Firth of Forth.)”
End Note 1: When I first wrote about the event with the driver at the energy to Woolworths I wrote that I was turning left and he was turning right – because I swapped the ‘easy’ and ‘hard’ turns to the US orientation. The mind is an impressively lazy efficient beast!
End Note 2: For those desperately wondering what my most terrifying experience is, fret not. I’ll be posting that story next.
[Confession: this actually occurred three weeks ago. It took me a while to post.]
Header Image: Back in Brisbane, an anonymous driver heads up Laura St. This photo was taken a few days after my driving adventure.