Sunday, 10 October 2010

Perth, Australia: Driving on the left while sitting on the right

It sounds a little lame to say this, but I think perhaps the defining activity of my trip to Australia was successfully driving on the left-hand side of the road, while sitting in the right-hand side of the car, without anyone else in the car with me. Because my husband's car and I don't get along very well, I avoid driving in the UK as much as is humanly possible, and so most of my experience with the left-hand side of the road is as a passenger. That means that, while it now seems natural to be on the "wrong" side of the road, I haven't yet had the opportunity to get comfortable with the different spatial arrangement, or with orienting myself from a novel position in the vehicle/road. Thus, from the moment I began organizing the trip to Australia, the thing I most worried about was having to pick up our rental car and use it to get to and from my hotel all by myself for a day and a half before my husband arrived in the country.

To make things easier on myself, I reserved an automatic rather than a manual, just to make things easier on myself; it's not that I don't drive stick, it's just that I don't normally do the shifting with my left hand. I also rented a GPS unit so that I could have a nice, calm voice telling me when/where to turn, rather than trying to shuffle through maps in the midst of driving. When I arrived at the rental desk in the airport, I was told that not only would we be getting an upgrade on our rental, from a small mid-size to a medium mid-size ("mid-mid-size"?), but also that it was a brand-new vehicle with only 7 km on the odometer (but it wouldn't remain in the single digits, or even the double- or triple-digits, for long!). It was a nice little car, from the same manufacturer (Hyundai) as both my mother's and my cars, so I felt pretty comfy in the driver's seat:

(Our little Hyundai.)

All the same, I sat in the parking lot for a good 5-10 minutes, trying to feel normal over there in the right side of the car, and also trying to look over all the controls and figure out where stuff was (I wish I'd spent a few more minutes on the latter task--I kept putting on the windshield wipers the first dozen times or so that I went to signal for a turn).

Much to my surprise, it turns out that the driving wasn't awkward at all. I guess I've spent enough time in the UK that my US instincts are starting to fade, and I never had the impulse to turn down the wrong side of the road or to panic when I approached a roundabout. The major problem was the fact that the GPS unit and I did not agree about what constituted a road versus a driveway versus an exit off roundabouts, and also about how to count the exits; during my journey down the driveway to the airport, I had to circle two roundabouts multiple times because the map and the voice on the sat-nav didn't quite match up. So much for having technology make things easier! Beyond that (and the blinker/windshield wiper problem), there weren't any incidents in getting to my hotel. It was surprisingly easy, and after a while it was even kind of fun. I was on an adventure in a brand-new car in a city I'd never been to on a continent I'd never visited. I even relaxed enough to turn on the radio and jam out a bit.

Because I'd been worried about driving very far on my own, I'd booked the closest hotel I could find from the airport. It was a motor lodge on a rather busy highway that led straight into the downtown area. I was worried that it might be loud, but my/our room faced away from the traffic and overlooked a little courtyard full of tall palm trees and quietly cooing turtle-doves. During the check-in process, I discovered what appears to be a fundamental truth about Australians, or at least about Western Australians: they are incredibly friendly and helpful. I have never been anywhere where people were so naturally pleasant and considerate. Also, I have never checked into a hotel where I was given a small carton of milk along with my receipt (it was for the complimentary tea in my room).

The room was a bit spartan, but otherwise very comfortable. It included a little kitchenette area, which I quickly stocked with food from the deli around the corner. After all that time eating airplane food, the fridge/toaster/microwave were a godsend.

(The room may not have been too fancy, but at least there were wine glasses!)

(The strange window that opened from my kitchen counter out to the hallway. Why?)

The TV didn't have much to offer--none of the TVs we encountered in WA ever did--but I was able to find some news and catch up with current events. I also had free wireless access, which, along with a bed, is really all I need in a hotel. The most exciting event of the evening was looking through the bird book that I'd purchased in the airport. I had forgotten to buy one in the UK before leaving (how?!), but was pleased to find exactly the volume I wanted in the book store at the Perth airport. It was quite expensive ($48 Australian), but I figured that, with the exchange rate, that was a pretty fair price. Then I got home and discovered that the exchange rate had become much less favorable for Americans than when I'd last looked; in fact, for the duration of our trip the Australian dollar was at, or near, an all-time high against the US dollar, meaning that I was paying outrageous amounts of money for pretty much everything (with the exception of, oddly enough, gasoline). In any case, if there is one thing that is worth a little money, it is Australian birds, and I spent my first evening in Perth stoking myself up about all the cool species I would see during my trip.

I was not scheduled to pick my husband up from the airport until midnight on the following day, so I decided to amuse myself by locating a mall with a movie theater. I planned to stock up on all the food/toiletries we'd need for our massive drive the next day, perhaps pick up a couple of souvenirs for family and friends, and then watch a film. Luckily, the nearest mall was less than a ten-minute drive away, and the GPS unit found me a shortcut for getting there. First, though, I spent a good 30-45 minutes just driving up and down the road outside my motel, getting comfortable with the car and driving in a foreign country. When at last I did get to the mall, I became further acquainted with the dismal exchange rate--I managed to spend about $70 on nothing but breakfast and snacks (in other words, a shopping trip that should have cost about half as much as it did). However, I did stumble across a Christmas present and a couple of stocking stuffers, which was pretty handy. I then went over to the movie theater and watched Despicable Me in 3D (ticket + bottle of water = $20 Australian; ouch). While I was in the restroom after the movie, Men at Work's "Land Down Under" started playing on the radio.

After a few more agonizing hours of waiting, it was finally time to go to the airport to pick up my husband. Before I went, I had a nice, refreshing shower. I only mention this because, as I was soon to discover, showers would be a recurring theme during our trip. I am not sure if Australians just don't like baths, or if the aridity of the country has inspired its citizens to try to preserve water when they clean themselves, but either way, it was a bit of a bummer to have to spend three weeks shaving my legs while standing up. In any case, when I got to the airport, I discovered that my husband's flight was a bit delayed, so I paced around for a good hour or so until he arrived. In the process, I discovered some additional evidence that Australia (or Western Australia or Perth, whichever) is awesome: a little kiosk, of which there were several in the airport, where three computers were set up to offer free internet (there are few things in the world that make me as happy as free internet).

Luckily for my husband, his trip through customs and immigration was more rapid than mine, and we were soon back out in the surprisingly chilly and even more surprisingly gusty Perth night, making our way back to the motor lodge. We needed a good night's rest because, the next morning, we planned to embark on an 11-hour trip up the coast to our first stop: Shark Bay. The honeymoon had begun!

Stay tuned for the next installment, in which we see our first road train, stop at our first roadhouse, see our first kangaroo(s), and hear the waves of the Indian Ocean just outside our condo.


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