The terror of driving on the left

  I thought we’d never arrive

I feared we’d never survive   

    I am not yet deft,

    When it comes to the left

The side on which Kiwis drive.

Synopsis:  I’m a family practitioner from Sioux City, Iowa.  On sabbatical to avoid burnout, while my non-compete clause ticks away I’m having adventures, visiting family and friends, and working in out-of-the-way places.  Just back from a six-week assignment in Barrow, Alaska, the northernmost point in the United States, today I left Wellington, New Zealand in preparation for a job in Wellsford, in the north part of the North Island

Arriving from Wellington at the car rental in Auckland just as rush hour traffic started to abate, we picked up a Toyota Corolla.

I like Toyota products; I just don’t like them with right hand drive.  I don’t particularly like driving, though I’ve done a ton of it in the last year, and I really don’t like driving on the left. 

My first clue that perhaps I’d gnawed off more than I could swallow came when I started to enter the vehicle from what would be the driver’s side in the US.  Bethany had her hand on the other side door latch.  When I pointed out our error we laughed because we had no other response.

For the last ten days I’ve been imagining driving on the left.  To get myself to sleep I reversed the chirality (handedness) of my old commute. 

Bethany recalled her three-month bicycle tour of England, Wales, and Ireland.  She remembered how every day she’d start going the wrong way until her companions reminded her. 

Our two-day stay in the Bahamas sprang to mind; while a pedestrian there I consistently looked the wrong way when trying to cross streets.

Back when we still did martial arts, one of the forms ran in a palindrome, with the first half a mirror image of the second half, and though the moves themselves were simple, mastery came harder than any for any other form.

The fact that I talked to others who have mastered the task of driving on the left gave me a misplaced confidence.

Backing out of the parking stall showed me that, when driving from the right, I had no sense of where the left side of the car was. 

Driving in traffic, which I had practiced mentally, terrified me more because every time I tried to signal a turn I turned on the windshield wipers.

As the sun went down and the twilight deepened we made our way north in a light drizzle, through spectacular country, as green as if no other color existed.  My fear behind the wheel detracted from my appreciation of the scenery.  Bethany kept her hands firmly clasped in front of her mouth so she wouldn’t scream.

Driving on the left for the first time brought a dizziness, but not in the physical sense.  More like the brain squirm the first time I went underwater and inhaled through scuba gear.  Without the blind confidence characteristic of testosterone poisoning, I gripped the wheel like a fourteen-year old with a learner’s permit, and, just like when I was learning to drive, I tended to drift towards the side of the lane I couldn’t see well.

The divided highway turned into a two-lane road, and we followed our GPS unit’s instructions towards Wellsford.  We arrived at dark and got fish-and-chips at a Chinese restaurant.  It had been frightening, I thought, but it could have been worse.

Things indeed got worse from Wellsford to Leigh (pronounced Lee), the last forty-five minutes of our prolonged learning experience.  The light drizzle turned to heavy rain, the road turned rough and noisy, darkness closed in, and the caution signs looked like Lyme disease germs.

We arrived in a downpour, sheets of rain testing our personal commitment to withstand erosion.  I carried our luggage up with the aid of a cap-mounted flashlight I’d bought in Barrow, Alaska, less than a month ago, on a day when the high missed the freezing point by fifty degrees Fahrenheit (twenty-seven degrees Celsius).


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