“Life is funny isn’t it? Just when you think you’ve got it all figured out,
just when you finally begin to plan something, get excited about something,
and feel like you know what direction you’re heading in, the paths change,
the signs change, the wind blows the other way, north is suddenly south, and
east is west, and you’re lost. It is so easy to lose your way, to lose direction.
And that’s with following all the signposts.”-Cecilia Ahern
Public transportation sucks in the United States. In the two-week span that I’ve been back, I’ve made it from Oakland to San Francisco to Palm Springs using a combination of taxis, ubers, greyhound buses, hotel shuttles and the BART system (Bay Area Rapid Transit). Sure, it’s easy enough to get from big city to big city via bus in the United States, and its also easy enough to get around the inner workings of most major cities using just public transit, but anything outside of that is just an absolute mess.
The hotels I’ve been working with across California are nowhere close to where the major or local bus lines happen to run.
Basically, the United States is just far too spread out for me, which makes going anywhere a huge headache and major drain on my wallet. I’ve had to pay a small fortune for a taxi anytime I need to go get some food or want to go anywhere that’s beyond the bubble of walking distance. If this were Asia or Africa I could easily hop in a tuk-tuk or on the back of a dirt bike for about two bucks and have the driver take me as far as I needed to go.
But since there are no tuk-tuk drivers or street legal dirt bikes congregated in the parking lot of the hotels I’ve been working with, I’ve decided to make a bold decision.
I’m going to buy a car.
Now I know this isn’t exactly earth shattering news, but it is to me. I hadn’t ever planned on getting a car and I certainly don’t have any extra money set aside for something like this. I’m only planning on being in the United States for about six months or so before I head to South America, but my thinking is that I’ll buy a really cheap clunker and drive it from California to Florida. Then I’ll sell it once I get to Florida. Who knows! I’m slightly optimistic that maybe I’ll even end up making a profit from the whole thing.
I took the SunLine bus to the bank yesterday and pulled out $2,000 of my savings, which was incredibly painful, but a necessary evil. Between the lofty price of the cargo ship that shipped me to Oakland and potentially purchasing a car this week, it will mean that I’ve spent more in the past six weeks than I normally do in about six months.
I capped my car budget at $2,000 for two reasons. First of all, that’s all I can afford, but it’s also somewhat close to what I’d spend on all the bus fairs, taxis and uber fees to get across the country without one.
I test-drove a very pedophiliac looking white 1997 Astro minivan yesterday at an auto body repair shop. It was a rundown place on the southeast side of Palm Desert that had listed a few repossessed cars for sale on Craigslist. I took two slow and plodding SunLine buses across the city that was smothered in 114-degree heat. When I arrived, a sweaty barrel of a man stepped out of a tow truck and insisted that, “she runs good.”
He then confirmed with no hesitation that I’d be able to make it across the country with her even though the windows, air conditioning and radio didn’t work.
It was absolutely filthy inside, like a family of five had been living it, but he promised to vacuum it out and squeegee the windows if I agreed to buy it. As sad as it sounds I actually thought long and hard about it before turning it down. Partly because I just didn’t want to spend two grueling hours traipsing back across town on the baking bus, but also because it was well within my price range. It actually seemed to run pretty well (at least from what I could tell), but it’s ungodly hot in Palm Springs and there’s been heat advisories all week. Having the windows sealed shut and no air conditioning in July was the straw that eventually broke this camel’s back.
So I sadly put my tail between my legs and walked back to the bus stop where I waited twenty minutes and then took not just one, but two of the SunLine buses I’d been hoping to avoid all the way back across town. Then I walked the last mile to my room in The Monkey Tree Hotel as the sun went down. It was an all-day affair to get there and back just for a ten-minute test drive that didn’t bear the fruit of a vehicle in my possession at the end of it. As I went to bed that night I decided that I was going to buy a car tomorrow no matter what it took.
I was right back on the same two depressingly lethargic SunLine buses early the next morning. There’s just something so soul-sucking about taking public transportation in my home country that isn’t there when I’m traveling abroad. I guess outside the United States I have an excuse and its kind of a cool way to get around and mingle with the locals, but the narrative’s changed here. More than half the passengers this morning are homeless drug addicts and they’re using the buses half-working air conditioning to beat the city’s extreme heat. Now I’m not knocking them for that, because that’s exactly what I’d be doing too if I was in their position. But they’re all coming down from their highs and tweaking uncontrollably. Between constantly jumping from seat to seat, yelping out strange sounds, and scratching open sores on their bodies, it’s hard to watch.
As I watch them move anxiously about, I can’t help but feel bad for them and the addictions they’re fighting, but at the same time I hate that this is how I have to get around now.
I’m following an ad I saw in the newspaper to a used car dealership in the same part of Palm Desert that I’d been in yesterday. There’s a 1995 Hyundai station wagon that’s piqued my interest, but when I get there Idan talks me into a 2000 Mazda Millenia. He says, “for only two hundred more dollars you can get this baby, she has half the miles of the wagon and she’s much sleeker.”
He was right, she was sleeker. The cream white paint job and gold trim along its underbelly almost made the Japanese sedan’s frame look sports car-ish, but I’m quick to tell Idan that I’m more worried about getting to Florida than the way the car looks.
And then, just like the sweaty repo man the day before, Idan doesn’t hesitate for a millisecond as he says, “You’ll have no problem getting across the country with her.”
Idan looks like a used car salesman. He’s wearing dark slacks and even a few sprouts of his chest hair are popping out of his half buttoned shirt. He looks like he’s ready for a few drinks at a nightclub and poised to hustle me out of my money, but I’m quick to find out that’s not the kind of guy he really is. We bond immediately during the test drive when he tells me that he was born and raised in Haifa, Israel.
“What are the odds of that?” I say.
Not only did I stop there for two weeks about a year ago, but I also gave a little presentation at a local community center there. “Haifa holds a special place in my heart”, I tell him.
The hotel I bartered a room with when I was there organized for me to give a lecture about how I had just crossed Africa by bus. I showed a few of the travel films I’d made, discussed some of my favorite photos and talked about the steps I’d gone through to find and follow my dream up until that point. The night ended with a rousing ovation from the crowd that I’ll never forget, and I always laugh when I think about it because I wasn’t expecting it. This being my first ever lecture like this I didn’t know exactly what to do while the audience clapped. I wasn’t sure whether I should bow, smile, wave, blow a kiss or walk off stage, so I awkwardly tried to do all five things at once, which left me looking like Frankenstein.
Idan laughs with me as I tell him the story and I immediately feel like I can trust him, which is odd because I can’t think of a job title that’s slimier than Palm Desert used car salesman. But Idan seems different and like he’s genuinely interested in helping me get across the country.
As soon as we get back to the dealership Idan draws up the paperwork for my big purchase and as he’s doing so I show him my website. He’s impressed with my travels and calls over his girlfriend, who is also his receptionist, as we watch the episode I made that includes a couple short clips of Haifa. After it’s over we reminisce about just how good the falafel is there.
Before I sign the paperwork, Idan tells me that he’s going to install a car stereo for me at no extra charge and we laugh together after I jokingly say, “Thank you! Who says all used car salesman are scumbags?”
Within fifteen minutes the stereo’s installed and I empty out all the cash that I’d stuffed in my wallet. Idan passes over the keys and I roll down windows and wave to him and his girlfriend as I drive off the lot like I’m leaving the nest for the first time.
As I cruise across town, I pass SunLine bus 111, which is the one I’d be taking if I hadn’t bought the car. It feels so nice to just put my blinker on and fly past it as it pulls over for one of its billion stops. I’ve felt pretty free traveling the world these past two years. I’ve been able to go almost anywhere in the world that I’ve wanted, but even then there have been limits. I’ve had to adhere to the bus, boat or train schedules and the strict routes they allowed me to travel.
Being behind the wheel of my new car is a newfound freedom that I haven’t experienced before.
It’s like the last little thing that’s been tying me down has been removed and I can truly go anywhere I want to now.
I must admit though it does feel kind of surreal to be driving. I haven’t owned a car in over two years or even driven one since I left Miami. Each time I come up to a stoplight I’m way too heavy on the break pedal and I jerk the car into my parking space at my hotel like a kid with a learner’s permit.
The next morning the sky is clear and bright blue. The sun shimmers as it rises above the little San Bernardino Mountains to the east. I’ve woken up extra early today because I’m so excited to just simply have a car and the ability to go anywhere I want without having to schlep my things onto a beaten down bus for once that I decide I’ll take my new car out for a joy ride.
So after breakfast I walk out to the parking lot and admire how my car’s seventeen-year-old paint job has held up. Before I start her up I just sit inside it and enjoy it. I close my eyes and think of all the places we’ll go. I run my hands along the dashboard as I promise her, “we’re gonna see the country together.”
Then, I slide open the sunroof and let some light in. Her leather seats are worn to the bone, but I’m still proud of her nonetheless. It’s funny how much I’ve changed.
A few years ago back in my old corporate life in Miami I wouldn’t have been caught dead in a car like this, but now it’s my everything.
I stick the key in the ignition and get ready to rev the engine and show my beautiful baby off to the fine people of Palm Springs, but as I turn the key I get nothing.
I take the key out and then insert it again and try a second time.
Not even a faint sound, the car is completely dead.