For Memorial Day weekend, we went on a road trip to New South Wales’ Hunter Valley wine region. I planned it a few months ago; although I last went in 2005, my husband had never been, and I thought it would be a nice getaway for us after a stressful few weeks at the embassy between official visits, long hours, and feeling bummed after the departure from post of two close friends. Throughout May and June (late autumn and early winter), the Hunter celebrates its annual Wine and Food Festival. But with 150 wineries, restaurants, and cellar doors to choose from year-round, it’s always a wine and food festival there!
Before I moved to Australia in July 2017 to start my second diplomatic tour, I was pretty nervous about driving on the left side of the road. I’d done it before: a friend and I had spent a week in 2005 driving a little rental car around the island state of Tasmania. And I’d been a passive observer in 2005 and 2006 while studying at an Australian uni and riding the bus. But actually buying my own car with the steering wheel on the “passenger side?” And driving it around every day? A different story altogether. Colleagues here told me I would get used to it after a few months, and believe it or not, that ended up being true. And the thing that had worried me the most – staying left – was not even the hardest part. After several months, I have finally managed to collect some observations, lessons learned, and tips about driving down under, including what happened the first time I drove my Australian car. Buckle up!
Australians take a four day weekend for the Easter holiday, which I didn’t pay much attention to until it was nearly upon us. But a chance to go out of town for more than one night was too good to pass up, so I searched for romantic getaway places on AirBnB. I found and booked an inexpensive but nice-looking one with excellent reviews on the Sapphire Coast of New South Wales, a couple hours south of Canberra where we hadn’t yet been. After a day or so, I realized the reason that property had still been open when everything else – as is so typical during school holidays – was already booked solid: our AirBnB was in the coastal town of Tathra, which had headlined national news a couple weeks earlier while being ravaged by bushfires.
Earlier this month, my husband and I took a weekend trip to Sydney that I’d planned last October. The impetus for the trip was to see my favorite band, Incubus, play at Sydney’s Hordern Pavilion. The guys hail from southern California, but tour worldwide a fair bit. Their Australia/New Zealand tour announcement had absolutely lit my inbox on fire; although I haven’t been to a concert for years, I bought my tickets online literally two minutes after sales opened. To make things even better, the show fell nicely on a three day weekend for Canberra. Although my husband had made a quick work-related trip alone to Sydney already, I hadn’t been back since I finished postgraduate school there in 2006 and flew home to California via a Balkans vacation. I made a list of things to do on our first trip together: Royal Botanical Garden, Taronga Zoo, Sydney Opera House, visiting my old apartment, and road tripping instead of flying or taking the train. I’m happy to say that we did all that, and more.
Towards the end of February, we celebrated my husband’s birthday and his new embassy job with a weekend escape to Katoomba in New South Wales’ Blue Mountains. We also visited Featherdale Wildlife Park, located about an hour from Katoomba in the equally charmingly-named town of Doonside. On balance, even with weather extremes and about nine hours in the car over two days while only a month out from my back surgery, it was still very well worth the trip.
Since our first month in Canberra, our Australian car has been a money pit and an ongoing source of dread. I’ve procrastinated writing a post about the situation for months because it had no clear resolution, and every time I thought about it, I felt too angry and frustrated. Truthfully, I’ve also had many other things to whinge about and I didn’t want to write one more bad-news entry! But I’ve come to the realization that this story could be of help (or at least entertainment) to someone else, and venting might actually make me feel better too. Let me preface my tale of woe by saying that Foreign Service Officers (FSOs) switch overseas assignments every few years, and procuring and shipping cars can involve a significant amount of planning and expense. I’ve heard horror stories of fellow officers’ cars smashed in transit, sunk to the bottom of the sea in a shipping container, and emerged from years of government storage full of mold or insects. This isn’t going to be that kind of story. But it is a lessons-learned story about buying a lemon of a used car and our journey to discovering it. And buckle up: it’s a long and painful one. Although it’s common in the Foreign Service to buy cars from colleagues sight unseen, anyone along the continuum from unlucky to outright burned will tell you: buyer beware.
While most people we know are experiencing winter, summer is going strong here in the southern hemisphere. As I watch snowfall on my friends’ social media posts, Australians are looking to beat record heat, and with about 15,000 miles of coastline and a population of less than 25 million, Australians are spoilt for choice when it comes to beaches. And although Canberra is inland, as opposed to Australia’s other major cities found on the coast, it’s only a 2-3 hour drive from Canberra to most beaches of Australia’s famed south coast. Before Christmas, I started exploring south coast trips once I realized that beautiful beaches and inexpensive AirBnB options abound.
It took us about eight weeks from the time we arrived in Canberra to really get out on the weekends and start to explore the city. Sure, we’d spent precious weekend hours running what few errands one can during non-business hours here: Setting up banking, assessing the offerings of Australian Costco, and even having blood drawn. Lots of things are slowing our jump from survival mode to enjoyment mode. My husband looking for work. Car trouble, repeatedly. And of course there was my six week hospitalization, my full-time job, and having everything we own on a cargo ship somewhere. At a certain point, we decided not to let anything stop us from having some fun – not the freezing cold weather, not the 24 inch chest catheter tube coming out of my upper arm, and not the fact that our lives are in boxes and we don’t know where our socks or cheese grater are. In October, as spring began to warm the Southern Hemisphere, we’ve been out and about in Canberra.
I strolled slowly downhill through the gravel and broken pavement towards the Aral Sea as raindrops began to fall. The Land Cruiser rolled up slowly on my right, and M called out through the open window, “Hey lady, want a ride?” Looking skeptically over my shoulder, I replied, “I don’t usually take rides from strangers. But you guys look all right.” I laughed at myself as I clumsily climbed in and we rolled the remaining few hundred yards down to the seaport.
[This is a companion piece to my prior post about traveling to the Aral Sea earlier this month. If you missed the first post, you can find it here.]
The Aral Sea is located in the autonomous republic of Karakalpakstan, in the far northwestern part of Uzbekistan. While once the fourth largest lake in the world, over the last several decades it has lost 90 percent of its water, mostly due to irresponsible Soviet agricultural practices. Scientists have long considered the Aral Sea to be one of the greatest environmental disasters in human history. I saw a National Geographic article featuring the impending destruction of the sea around twenty years ago, and a small seed of fascination was planted. It has been without a doubt my biggest bucket list item during my tour in Uzbekistan. We were fortunate to finally make our visit happen two weeks ago – one of the most sad and contemplative, yet amazing and mysterious trips I’ve ever taken.
Last spring, I took a road trip through the Fergana Valley with some of my embassy colleagues and friends. Unfortunately, it happened during a time when my husband was in London and couldn’t attend. So this year when the trip was announced again, we signed up, and a couple of our friends said they’d roll with us, too. More than a dozen diplomatic-plated vehicles caravaning through the valley drew a lot of amazed stares and sometimes even a wave. Two days and in excess of a dozen hours in the car led us to beautiful Uzbek silk, hand-painted ceramic pottery, and the palace of the former khan. How could we say no to our second-to-last Uzbek road trip?
The weekend before last, my husband and I made our fifth and final trip to Kazakhstan. It seemed only fitting that we should bid farewell to Shymkent now that spring has bloomed, and we have less than six weeks remaining here.
You know that PCS (Permanent Change of Station) season is right around the corner when everyone is crossing those last regional destinations off their bucket lists. Or at the very least, indulging in a road trip to enjoy time with departing friends! The packing and organizing will get done one way or another.
The baggage carousel jerked to life, and the second bag that trundled up the belt was mine. “Right out of the gate, that never happens!” I exclaimed to the man next to me. “Well, all right,” he responded with a smile. I had landed in San Francisco on a Saturday mid-morning after a fairly comfortable 11.5 hour flight from Seoul. However, I hadn’t slept for two nights in a row, and I still had a three hour drive ahead of me.
Several weeks ago, the land crossing at the border between Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan opened to vehicular traffic for the first time since I’ve been here. It takes about fifteen minutes from our house in Tashkent to drive past the ring road and up the M-39 to the crossing itself. After going through immigration and customs on both the Uzbek and Kazakh sides, it’s about another 90 minutes (depending on weather and road conditions) to the Kazakh city of Shymkent (Шымкент). Oh Shymkent – where have you been all my Tashkent tour?