Wheeling up to the US border at Tecate was more of a ‘Triple Whopper with fries but better make that a diet coke’ drive-thru experience than the usual cacophony of queues—left, right and centre—about the Latin American customs and immigration offices. The familiarity of my old, comforting Latin American life was about to leave me for a strange and first world new one. A civilised US border official greeted us formally at the barrier. Plenty of pleases and thank yous but no warm pleasantries to which I’d become deeply accustomed.
Upon enquiring where we might find the inconspicuous Mexican aduana to relinquish our bike permits, the uniformed officer looked at me square on astride my motorcycle and in a reassuring tone remarked, “Don’t worry madam, you’re safe now.” It sounded confident for being sandwiched between the states whose educational institutions had just suffered gun killings within just over a week of each other.
Post the lunar eclipse in Mexico, the stars and planets continued to stay aligned and saw us meet up with fellow moto-travellers Michnus and Elsebie (Piki-Piki). Two mad-as-a-box-of-frogs South Africans who’ve made their mark on two wheels, in the soft luggage trade and the long distance overlanding business. Michnus occasionally pauses on his motorcycling odyssey and rather than come up for air, prefers to talk the hind leg off a donkey, for which I adored him all the more! I remained in awe of Elsebie’s luggage configuration too, salivating over her system of heightened organisation with a little ‘lightweight baggage’ envy to boot.
When you meet folks that are instantaneously happy to share their motel room, myriad tricks of the two-wheel trade and local knowledge from whence they came, you can’t help but wonder if you were somebody far more worthy in a former life. A joy even if it was a transient 24-hour one. We were no longer virtual acquaintances thanks to the power of social media, we’d become fast friends for life.
Reaching out on the Horizons Unlimited communities, a dear chap who goes by the name of Dan but whom better suited ‘Dan the Man’ invited us into his home, north of San Diego. Hosting us for a week in their spacious RV, we were warmly welcomed as the Californian family reintroduced us to first world living. But old habits die hard and I still forget that I can flush my toilet roll down the loo. Post a hefty stint of Mexican cuisine, stunning for the most part, our palettes were invited to a world of western flavours. Certainly in Costco—an institution in itself—the size of a small town and where countless samples are available on every corner.
One of the quips about the States is that there’s more choice down the aisles of supermarkets for a single item than you’ve had hot dinners. I took full advantage and loaded my basket with houmous, sour dough baguettes, bunches of seedless grapes, a fistful of kale and potatoes the size of my little toe. “Lisa, would you like to try some of this?” Dan’s daughter Giana asked, pointing to a cup of organic, no added sugar, gluten-free, non-GMO, 9.5 alkaline, dairy-free, non-irradiated, no growth hormones, high fructose corn syrup free, no trans fat, possible traces of nut, something or other. So basically, it’s just a slice of apple?
Made me wonder about food that wouldn’t have been labelled with unpronounceable ingredients or plastic-wrapped twice over fifty years ago, rather remained ‘just as is’. Natural and wholesome. I only remember the sample server singing, “Just heeat and eeeat! Thank you for shah-ping at Cost-co today.” “Sure,” I say. It’s my new credo: Say yes to everything. The taste of nutty salads with a squiggle of balsamic, the texture of Pad Thai, the soybean-infused spaghetti, not to mention the limitless variations of milk, were all like our host family: filled with spice and spirit.
Over the week, we lunched with an adorable couple from the Philippines, now retired in San Diego and through running our errands ‘two-up’ on Jason’s bike, skimmed the surface of white middle class suburbia. I’d forgotten what life was like for a busy family whose lives were filled back to back with Unitarian church related events and extra-curricular activities. Latin American time is different from time in the United States; it’s much more relaxed. En punto, on the dot, never is. Not there. Keeping punctual to appointments here is paramount.
Foremost it was our first immersion into American culture on a local level, a portion of intimate time in the liberal company of Dan’s family and interaction with an eclectic mix of fabulous folk. People from licensed medicinal marijuana dealers to a former Olympic Gold medalist windsurfer (Andrea Livingston-Barbarato) and a retired world traveller from France. And glimpsing the world of ‘Soul collage’—a creative and cathartic process of self-discovery through the design of life-affirming cards. It exploded the ordinary order of things and showed me the endless possibilities from people that had been there all along, hidden among the patterns in the wallpaper and pictures in the magazines.
We are efficient communicators usually, above average conversationalists even on foreign ground. However in the States, attempting to unravel what I realised was fast becoming my repertoire of obscure British, spiralled cross my mind like a tornado through a prairie. “Excuse me, are you queuing?” I directed to a young woman in what looked like the post office queue. I got a blank, deadpan expression. Oh no, is she deaf? I didn’t think so, so I ventured with, “Sorry, are you in the queue?” Still too vague, Lisa and go figure, still no hint of understanding.
Okay let’s try some plain English, “Are you waiting to be served?” I rephrased without totally hiding my amusement of the British English to American English language barrier. “OOOH, you mean, am I in the liiiine?” the young woman finally fathomed having made the leap of thought. Eyes lit up, it seemed our small exchange had left us both enlightened, “Oh WOW, I love that! ‘Are you queuing?’ I’m gonna start saying that—it’s so sophisticated compared to what we say!” she mused. Always a silver lining.
Oh boy, I loved the USA already; it was comedy gold. But only because we Brits must be full of local colloquialisms, English idioms and other Briticisms; as our week with Dan and his family proved perfectly after having written a glossary of terms for them. That, and being told constantly my accent is “adorable,” “darling” or “too cute.” I couldn’t help but wonder in utter bewilderment as to how the Londoners with their Cockney rhyming slang would fare on US pastures. Convinced—I bet they have the most fun.
We got more than we bargained for during our initial encounter of the United States. And touched the magic of otherness. Including the day when a pastor approached us to say hello and admitted that he used to be partial to magic mushrooms, outside a gas station. One that was full of snacks such as Crick-ettes in sour cream flavour—a handful of crickets in a cigarette-sized carton and Scorpion Suckers—actual scorpions suspended in a rainbow of crazy coloured candy on lollipop sticks.
Having been asked twice in twenty minutes what part of New Zealand I was from added to the amusement, which preceded a serene night of solitary camping. Plopping ourselves in the desert, not far from Gold Nugget Road just outside of Quartzsite, Arizona: a Mecca for rock hounds every winter where it stays warm and the RV boondocking capital of the world: an American term that means pulling off the highway to stay at free rural spots, also known as ‘dry camping’. What we’d call sleeping under the stars.
Long distance motorcycling has made my former life of the ‘Live, work and play’ cycle turn grey. Weekends away off grid, rustic dining and outdoor festivals had their merits but have fast become empty substitutes for discovery, for learning, for penetrating the unknown. I am no longer an employee, a graduate with a first class degree, a homeowner, an aunty and sister. I am of course still most of those things but whose identity used to be buried in those roles. Away from those roles and adventuring on a journey, I am someone I’m still getting to know. Working on uncovering the person inside my skin is empowering as it is redefining.
Since riding onto US soil, people have asked why are we doing this. Our motivation behind it all. “Is it because you didn’t like your jobs back home?” Life can deliver people to a life of mortgage payments and household repairs; to unglamorous 9-5 jobs that expect a wild weekly input of over 60 hours and the fluorescent aisles of a supermarket at seven in the evening.
We simply wanted a life of a different kind, a life that knew and forgave our human weaknesses but didn’t miniaturise our grander ideas of exploration. It sounded possible. If we didn’t rush or grab, if we didn’t panic, a life both challenging and nurturing might appear. If the life was imaginable, then the life could exist. I guess that was our premise—more or less from the start of our relationship fifteen years ago.
I wonder how often people question their habits, the normalcy of life they cling onto because that’s all they’ve ever known and experienced in life. Why not live out of two panniers and a roll bag? Who’s to say there’s a right and wrong definition of success? There’s not. It’s dependent on you. And only you. Personally, I prefer the word happiness over “making it” or success, which have connotations of western accomplishments. It’s too exhausting to keep conforming and caring if society frowns upon living outside of the conventional norm. Heck, routine is lethal at times.
When people ask me if I’ll ever return to the ‘real world’, you know—get it out of my system—I smile and tell them I am in the real world. It’s just not their world. They do not understand that the more I live this lifestyle, the more I want it. All of it binding me to the boundless joy and warmth in this life.