Saturday, March 20, 2010

A Day in the Life

A day in the life ….

It’s impossible to sleep after sunrise, no matter how groggy you feel. Once the sun peeks over the horizon, its rays glare through your car window, beaming into your eyes. In a car, there are no curtains or blinds to grant you a reprieve. You squeeze your eyes shut and pull a sleeping bag over your head, but your car – made from a combination of steel and glass – becomes mercilessly hot.

Imagine the feeling of climbing into your car on a summer afternoon, beads of sweat forming on your thighs where they touch the seat. You turn the ignition just for the pleasure of basking in the air conditioned breeze, and you silently curse yourself for not parking in the shade.

Now, imagine living in that car night and day. Imagine snoozing through the frosty nights in a feather-filled sleeping bag, and waking to see your cold breath condensed in moist droplets on the windows. Imagine that in the pre-dawn light, your condensed breath is illuminated by a climbing sun rising over the great Australian desert, promising yet another scorching day. By 7 a.m., the sun has climbed another five inches on the horizon, and it is already hot enough to boil you out of your glass-and-steel home.

Being not-quite 5 feet 2 inches, I have an easier time climbing out of our wooden platform bed than Sara does. I flip onto my stomach, pull my knees into my chest, and crouch down into a fetal position, careful to keep my head low to avoid slamming it into the ceiling, an all-too-familiar feeling. From this position, I slowly shift my body weight backwards, towards my butt, while pulling my knees further forward until I’ve somersaulted onto my back, with my feet pointing towards the windshield. From this angle, I can slide forward into the front seat through the center console area. I land with a thud in the passenger seat, and then start groping around for a change of clothes and a toothbrush. I clean my teeth while sitting in the passenger’s seat, and spit toothpaste out from the window.

Usually we’re parked somewhere out in the desert, far from paved roads, cellular coverage, or electrical grids, which means I don’t need to worry about another car driving by while I’m changing from warm nighttime clothes into cool daytime garb. But we’ve driven through enough cities – and slept on the sides of enough downtown streets -- that I’ve become an expert at changing entire outfits from the comfort of the front seat within ten seconds flat, if the situation demands it.

Sara, being much taller, has to execute a far more difficult maneuver than I do. Too gangly, too long-limbed, to crawl through the center console area, Sara has to reach through the wooden planks of the bed-shelf, cramming her hand through the narrow gaps, and feel around for the door handle with the tips of her fingers. When she finds it, she gives it several tugs – without the benefit of using her wrist for leverage -- until one of these fingertip-tugs is strong enough to release the door. She scoots her torso sideways, bending at the waist while still lying down, until her head and shoulders poke out of the door. Then she reaches up, grabs the roof rack, and executes a pull-up, the kind that makes a high school gym teacher proud. Her full body weight hangs from the roof rack, supported only by her biceps and triceps, while she disgorges her legs from the platform bed and pulls her knees outside the door.

“It’s a great arm workout; my abs are getting tighter, too,” she says. “I’d just prefer I didn’t have to pump iron before I’ve had a chance to pee.”

Once we’ve executed the difficult climbing-out-of-bed manouvers, the next hurdle is breakfast. Before we can start this, we have to consider at least half a dozen factors, not least of which are location and weather. Are we in a city, parked in some residential neighborhood and trying to appear discreet? Are we in a national park, and – if so – are we allowed to be there, or do we need to flee before a ranger finds us? Or are we more than 50 kilometers away from the nearest sleepy hamlet of shacks, more than 200 kilometers from the nearest petrol station, in a remote zone where we won’t have to worry about seeing another human soul for at least several hours, if not days?

Equally as important is to consider how the weather conditions affect the chances of our breakfast becoming a failure or success. If it’s raining, then obviously, we have to go hungry. Fortunately it doesn’t rain much in the barren Australian desert, so long as you avoid the wet season in the north. Mostly, we’re thinking about sun and wind. If it’s too windy, then no matter how many wind barriers you build around your stove – and you can erect pot lids, pans, books, you can even throw yourself on top of the stove – nothing will prevent high winds from extinguishing your fire and leaving you with a pot of cold water that will never convert to tea.

Sun is less of a problem, at least for me, because my naturally brown skin resists burning, but poor pale Sara – whose ancestry is British and Irish – could easily turn beet-red and blister before the eggs are fried and the toast has been toasted. The Australian sun is unforgiving. The skin cancer rates in Australia are higher than anywhere – and I repeat, anywhere – in the world. The indigenous, the Aboriginals, have very dark skin, closely resembling the darkest-skinned sub-Saharan Africans.

Australia is not a land intended for the fair British complexion. And most people here have the luxury of cooking breakfast indoors, brushing their teeth indoors, reading books and sorting their photos and painting their toenails indoors. Not Sara and I. We are exposed to the sun at every waking moment of every day, and no matter how much we try to avoid it – driving around in search of shade, wearing wide-brimmed hats and long sleeves – the sun always wins.

We’ve thrown out conventional sunblock and replaced it with zinc oxide. We slather so much zinc that our faces are streaked with creamy white. Sand and dirt clings to its greasy surface. We have no sink to wash our faces. But in the middle of the day, the sun is so strong we have to re-apply zinc oxide again, making our bodies greasier, and attracting even more sand and dirt to cling to us. We fall asleep grubby, wake up, and repeat the process, smearing another layer of zinc over the previous day’s layers, ignoring the pimples that have popped up in protest.

But no matter. My face still browns, and Sara’s face still burns. It is the natural consequence when everything you do, from changing your socks to cleaning your contact lenses, happens under the full and angry sun.

After grabbing a pair of sunglasses – and there are always at least 4 or 5 sunglasses laying on the dashboard – Sara will climb partway up the car, unhook the straps around the tarpaulin, and fish the camping stove out from the roof rack. She’ll hand me the stove, followed by the bottle of liquid propane, and a chair with wooden armrests which we use as a countertop for the stove. She’ll dig the hose from the back of the car and connect the gas bottle to the stove, while I rummage through the cardboard boxes lining our bed for bread, eggs, tea and ginger, and pry a milk crate out from underneath our bed.

All our kitchen gear is stored in this milk crate – pots, pans, forks, spoons, spatula, a can opener, a cheese grater, a mesh filter, plates, bowls, metal cups, plastic cups, even a pair of tongs we never use because most of Australia has enacted strict fire bans. To make all this cookware fit into a single milk crate (we use a second milk crate for storing salts, sauces and spices), we have to stack them in a very specific, very precise manner. The Teflon pot goes in first, the stainless steel pot fits inside of that, and so on.

This precise stacking is easy when everything is clean, but dishwashing can only happen when we have access to running water. If we’re in the remote outback, we don’t want to use our precious drinking water for something as superfluous as washing. Not to sound melodramatic, but we may need that water for survival, particularly if anything happens to the car and we end up stuck, alone, in the middle of a barren desert, where whole days might pass by without another person driving along whom we can ask for help. We are often a 10-hour drive from the nearest mobile phone signal, a 2-hour drive from the nearest paved road, and light-years away from more drinking water.

And so we stack dirty dishes on top of other dirty dishes, until everything shares a similar level of grime, of tomato sauce and coffee grounds and shreds of carrot. Our morning tea is always served with a visible layer of canola oil, leftover in the pot from cooking dinner the night before.

If we’ve just been to a grocery store, we might have some perishables with us, special treats like yogurt or cheese or lettuce that we have to eat immediately before it goes bad. Many days, our eating decisions are governed not by what we desire, but by what is due to spoil next. Sara and I both specialize in different daily chores, and my business is to have an up-to-the-minute mental inventory of every food item in our car, and where it stands in the Spoilage Queue. “What’s for dinner tonight?,” Sara might ask, and I’ll think for a minute. “Mandatory cabbage, carrot and green bean; they’ll be rotten by tomorrow,” I’ll say. “We have enough rice to make that into a stir-fry, though we’re out of garlic and the ginger has gone bad. Or we could mix it into a pasta; we need to finish that open bottle of sauce before it goes off, too.”

Sara, meanwhile, is an expert at examining the bread for mold. We don’t mind a little mold. We tell ourselves it strengthens the immune system. But it’s her job to decide how much mold is too much, which she does through a carefully-crafted system of visual and olfactory examination. She’ll hold a piece of bread up to the light, squint, shake her head from side to side to look at it from different angles, and put each piece of bread through two separate smell tests: pre-toasting and post-toasting.

Sara is also in charge of risk mitigation. She noticed that the knife blades were poking out from the open sides of the milk crates, easily ready to stab us through the palm if we grabbed the milk crate without first studying it carefully. It was especially dangerous to grab the milk crate at night, when we cook dinner by the glow of a flashlight strapped to our foreheads.

She solved the problem with three tools: her pocket knife, cardboard from boxed wine, and electrical tape, which she combined to make a sheath that would cover the knife blade. Now all our kitchen knives have the same safety dressing as King Arthur’s sword or a Khukuri blade – ours is just made of cardboard.

The lack of available running water means that we also go for days – sometimes weeks – without a shower. In colder climates, like Tasmania, this isn’t a big deal. It is amazing how quickly 16 days without a shower begins to feel normal. But in hot zones, which is to say everywhere in Australia that isn’t Tasmania, the layers of dirt, grime and sweat accumulate much more quickly. After 3 or 4 days, we can smell ourselves.

After 7 or 8 days, we can’t. Our hair begins to itch, and then flake, and when we scratch it, we can see layers of dirt falling out. After 10 days, I sometimes wake up in the middle of the night with an itchy scalp, and lay in my sleeping bag for hours scratching.

It’s at this point that the need to cleanse overtakes any desire to do anything else. I demand that we drive 75 kilometers to the next dot on the map that’s “big” enough to merit a name, which usually turns out to be a collection of 12 dilapidated wooden shacks. There’s no bodega or food mart, no petrol station – that’s another 100 kilometers down the road –but it does, thank God, thank God, it does have a little water tap coming up from the ground, and when you turn the knob, transparent brown water, stinking of rust and sulfur, sprays out. It’s not safe to drink, but at least it will stop your scalp from itching.

Sometimes we hit the jackpot, and find a park with a public restroom. These always have handicapped stalls, in which we can lock the door and have total privacy. We can really bathe in the sinks of these handicapped stalls. This is where I scrub my feet – really SCRUB them in a way I’ve never scrubbed anything before. I scrub the skin around the heels, near my ankle bone, and watch dark brown flakes wash off it. I scrub in between my toes, and watch it change color. I scrub the balls of my feet, watching brown suds form. Then I rinse, and then repeat, but the suds are still brown. So I do it again, and during the third scrubbing session, the water washing off my feet is still brown.

In the beginning, this all felt like a great adventure, but after months and months of living like this, we began to feel grubby and homeless. It’s hard living, and it wears on you.

But then we went to Sydney, and stayed in the comfort of my sister’s house, where everyday we could make tea in a kettle behind walls which block out the sun, and every night we could flip a light switch before cooking dinner, and stand up straight while getting in and out of bed.

After a month or so of this, we became restless again. It was time to hit the road.

I should explain why exactly we live like this. What is so spectacular in remote, rugged 4-Wheel-Drive country that we spent thousands of dollars to fly to Australia and buy an off-road vehicle? Why do we spend thousands of hours living in cramped conditions, forming aches and pains and burns, and forgoing all creature comforts – forgoing even basic personal hygiene? What do we experience that is worth giving up pavement, electricity, phone service, fruit, dairy, vegetables, internet, and the youthful health of our skin?

To understand this, you must first understand that being away from paved roads and buildings, from the electrical grid and mobile coverage, is ITSELF part of the appeal.
Many people have asked me if I’m working during this trip. I reply that in order to work, I need regular internet and phone service. And throughout the majority of this trip – from the Sahara Desert to Burma – I have been in extremely remote locations.

Many people believe the whole world is wired, that we live in a globalized digital age that can connect people in all parts of the world. This is simply untrue. There are enormous swaths of earth – vast, vast tracts of land – that are off-grid and unplugged.

We lived, unplugged, in the lush hillsides of Laos, rich with waterfalls and rivers, with hammocks and chickens, but devoid of any nighttime light that isn’t candle-powered. We lived, unplugged, on Kanawa Island in Flores, where the only thing to eat is rice and fish, and the stars shine brightly in the absence of nighttime electricity or noisy generators.

And even in a rich developed nation like Australia, where a teenager punching a cash register at a petrol station in the Northern Territory earns a whopping $18 an hour, there are literally thousands of kilometers of vast, empty land where bizarre animals we’ve never heard of – the echidna, the wombat, the wallaby – freely roam the open wilderness, and the Milky Way arm of our galaxy shines brightly in a dark night sky.

This is why we are spending almost a year in the Outback. To truly live in the Outback takes time and patience. We drive across empty beaches. We drive over jagged rocks on steep hillsides. We drive across sand dunes that remind us of the empty Sahara. We cross deep rivers and pray we don’t flood the engine. We burst tires, and crack fuel lines. We brake for – and occasionally hit – wildlife we wouldn’t have recognized a year ago.

We abandon the car and walk, sometimes for days, carrying everything we need on our backs, drinking directly from clear streams, burying our poop into the dirt, crouching on logs to make our lunch. We’ve breathed the earth’s freshest air and drank the freshest water. We haven’t just seen wildlife in the wild – we’ve lived alongside it. And yes, experiencing the world in its purest form means that we have to sacrifice our high standards of nutrition, comfort, and cleanliness, which come hand-in-hand with the industrial and digital age.

The dawn light turns the car into an oven, and I pull my knees up to my chest, somersault onto my back, unfold my legs and scoot through the gap between the front seats, thudding atop a pile of clothes piled next to the steering wheel. But the view is truly spectacular.