There was a moment, about two years ago, as I walked down the soggy, dimly-lit sidewalks of Brussels with my suitcase and handwritten directions to the hostel for which I’d spent the last forty minutes unsuccessfully hunting, that I realized: this is actual danger. A car glided slowly, behind me, its occupants saying something to me—in French? an invitation—and laughing to one another. An about-face, and two sudden right turns gave them the slip, but shop doors were closed, the last train back to the airport long-gone, and I was very alone.
Indiana roads should be no problem after this.
Last year in January it was a similar story at the Chiang Mai bus station. The past two years have afforded plenty such scary moments. There have been times I busted through three contingency plans before the grace of God carried the day and I ended up somewhere I never could have expected, safe and sound. Each time: the adrenaline rush, the frantic prayers, the deep breaths, and the wide-eyed surety that this, surely this, is the scariest moment of my life.
I now have a new scariest. But first, another flashback.
When I was in high school, my family visited Austria and took a day-long Sound of Music tour. For music dorks who occasionally bill themselves as the Von Schnabel Quartet, it was a bundle of fun. Beautiful sights, familiar buildings from the movie, and—near the end—a self-steer metal luge ride down the side of the mountain. Perhaps my dad said it first, but I remember thinking—as I sat down in this tiny little contraption that was about to whisk me a million miles an hour to my very probably death—that I really shouldn’t be allowed to do this without some kind of training. A safety course, a guide, an instructional video like on the airplane, or at least a helmet and knee pads.
The same feeling prevailed three days ago when my Brazilian friends showed up at the Warkworth Lodge and said,
“You can drive manual, right?”
I can: on very flat surfaces—like my elementary school parking lot—with no other cars near me, in the right lane rather than the left, and with Coach Mom in the passenger seat (on my right with the rest of the car).
I can drive manual, just like I could steer the luge down the mountain, but I should not be allowed to do so.
|The easy part of the drive|
New Zealand, unfortunately, provides none of the things on my safety list. Instead, it’s uphill! downhill! twist left! curve right! drive on the left! signal with the right! lots of honking, some people drinking, and a light mist as dusk settles into darkness. “Where are the headlights on this thing?” “I can’t find the defrost button!” “Turn here?” “No, there! Next to the sign with the yellow things and the—oh, you passed it…”
When a truck caused a backup, I stalled in the middle of a steep ascent. I stalled twice more when incorrect directions took us to the wrong motel—also located midway up a mountain. I swerved off the road once—forgetting how much of the car was on my left—hit a couple curbs. I swore a little and prayed a lot.
|The speed limit is about 100 km/hr, but you can't go consistently much|
above 65 because of constant curves.
My knees were actually weak when I unfurled them to get out of the driver’s seat in Bay of Islands in the Northlands. I clutched the driver’s side door for support, and took deep breaths—remembering Brussels, remembering Chiang Mai, buses in Cambodia, luge rides in Austria, and all those moments that I had thought were dangerous before.
They were. And so was this. Also, stupid and reckless and exhilarating. Maybe in a few years I’ll forget exactly how it feels to know that this is how “Dead Twenty-Somethings Found on the Side of New Zealand Mountain” headlines are made. In the meantime, I’m going to sit back and be grateful for my bones still being underneath my skin and breath pumping in and out of my lungs. I’m grateful for the insurance we bought—which will cover the hubcap I lost at some point around Cape Reinga, or maybe nearer to Kawakawa (a one-road town with 108-roads with of personality)—and I’m grateful for my new-found driving abilities.
|Met this little cutie at Cooper Bay. Like a cross between a rabbit and a puppy.|
|With friends like these, who needs anemones?|
|Geoff and Liz, Jorgia and Sonnie from the Warkworth Lodge!|
|Me and Sabine, who taught me how to say "Halt deinen Schnabel!"|
|Going for a morning run at Bay of Islands. Is it too early in this relationship to say "I love you," Aesics? Because it's true.|
|Sand and rainy sun at Cooper Bay|
|At the End of the World|