"Honey?" I ask timidly, "Are you on the wrong side of the road?" We both just got our licenses to drive on the island, we're in our new car driving as a family for the first time, and my husband is behind the wheel. He doesn't respond right away and I can tell he's considering.
"Yep!" He replies a few seconds later. He quickly corrects the car by moving onto the left side of the 2 lane road. I giggle nervously. Funny, sure. But thank goodness there wasn't a car coming from the other way. As we approach the stop sign, which by the way is a red upside down triangle here, he puts on the right turn signal. Only the turn signal doesn't go on. The windshield wipers do. The signal lever is on the right hand side of the wheel, not the left.
"Aw, crap." These are the only words running through my head. I haven't driven yet. I don't even have a car. But I will tomorrow, and I'm going to have to drive at some point.
Upon arrival on the island, the thing that freaked me out the most was driving on the left. The ride from Naha Airport to base was a harrowing journey for me. Every time we would make a turn, the U.S. driver in me wanted to shout, "WAIT! WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU DOING?" as we turned into the "wrong" lane of traffic. Our sponsor had picked us up and his driving was fine, but I couldn't silence that loud voice screaming in my head as we violated traffic laws as I knew them. Over here there's a whole new set of rules.
I won't get into the details of all the different signs and Japanese driving laws. Most of them are pretty self explanatory and come down to plain common sense, but there is the occasional bout of confusion such as the difference between "the blue arrow on the white background" vs. "the white arrow on the blue background". I still don't remember the difference without having to look it up. Or the fact that the center line isn't always yellow, though it can be a solid yellow, or a dashed yellow, but it can also be a solid white, or a dashed white.
And then there is the driver's test. When we arrived we received a booklet from my husband's command that was the Japanese driver's manual. We studied it and took our test the next day. That is, we took a written test. For experienced drivers over the age of 25 with a valid US license there is no driving portion of the test. If you answer 30 questions correctly and miss no more than 6, BOOM!! You can drive on Okinawa. A terrifying prospect during your first week here. Especially with the realization that there are others like you on the road. There is no practice. Just that manual, and your memory.
I was assured by my friends who have been on the island a while, that there would be incidents of turning into the wrong lane of traffic or trying to signal with my windshield wipers, an apparent right of passage for us island newbies. When your windshield wipers are going on a clear, dry day, you may as well just hang a sign on your car that says, "Hi! I'm new here!"
While I've only had one brief incident of turning into the wrong lane of traffic (unlike my husband who has had many), trying to signal with my windshield wipers is a frequent, nay, daily occurrence. However the adjustment period is brief and you figure it out. You go from nervous to pretty comfortable quite quickly, and now it almost seems wrong to drive on the right.
And the final challenge of driving around here. Pretty much everything is written in Japanese. Thats with the characters, not letters. There is the occasional english thrown in for main highways, but otherwise you'd better learn to navigate, give, and receive directions in landmarks. For example. Our favorite Soba restaurant is in Yomitan. Go over the red bridge, straight past the Starbucks, and its on that main road. Look for the place with the purple flags on your right. Yes, seriously. Those are the directions. And pretty much everyone here will know what, and where I'm talking about.
But I've got it now. I'm down to only one quick absent minded flick of the windshield wipers when I get flustered. And if I get lost because everything looks the same, and I can't read Japanese, I know that it's an island. Eventually I will find my way back!
September 22, 2011
How in the firey blazes of Hades are we going to carry all this stuff? We are somehow going to manage the transportation of two small children, two car seats, a stroller, four carry-ons, and five 70 lb. suitcases. How? I don’t know but we’ve got to do it through 4 airports with just my husband and me. But I take solace in the fact that we are not the first military family to undergo this feat, nor will we be the last. In the now immortal words of our Commander in Chief, “YES WE CAN!”.
So began our journey to Okinawa. We flew from my husband’s hometown in Iowa to Raleigh (with a layover) since the military wouldn’t fly us out of our leave location. From Raleigh we flew to Washington Dulles. For those of you not familiar with airport names, that’s Washington D.C. not Washington State. From Dulles we flew 14 hours to Tokyo, and from Tokyo to Okinawa.
6 coach class flights later, we arrived after dark in Naha Okinawa. But not without much adventure in between. Saying goodbye to our families was difficult but not as horrible as I anticipated. My mom and mother-in-law were a mess, but that’s to be expected as their children and grandchildren move to the other side of the planet.
As our wheels left the tarmac, lifting off for Tokyo, I had a small breakdown with the realization that this is going to be the last time I will be on American soil for a while. And let me tell you, that hit me like a ton of bricks. Tears fell for about 10 minutes until the gravity of my current situation hit me. We. Are. Stuck. On. A. 14. Hour. Flight. With 2 young kids.
All said and done our flight wasn’t bad. There were individual tv consoles in the backs of all the head rests. Our flight attendant has a daughter who is married to a military man and lives overseas, so he made it his personal mission to take good care of us for the entire flight, and boy did he. We got first class treatment. Free drinks, free tv and movies, and pretty much anything else we wanted. If for any reason he ever reads this, bless his soul. He is probably the reason we survived the trip a little less worse for the wear.
It was the end of the long flight that brought about the most drama. The baby and I drank some milk. We both got sick. She barfed twice about 30 minutes prior to landing, so she and her car seat smelled like puke. Then as we were in our final approach for landing, the waves of nausea were pouring over me. No sooner did we land than I was in the plane lavatory losing most of what was in my stomach.
I managed to get off the plane and to customs where I thought I was going to be sick on the floor, and the Tokyo airport does NOT use their air conditioner liberally. Not to mention that, but as you approach customs, there is an announcement that anyone with illness should report to the “health office” aka, where they quarantine your sick ass until they are certain you won’t infect the population of Japan with some terrible disease. The only thought running through my mind was “If they quarantine me we will miss our flight to Okinawa, and Andrew will be PISSED.”.
So there I am standing in front the of the customs agent, attempting with every last ounce of my strength to be normal while I am sweating through my clothes, trying like crazy not to blow chunks, all the while I’m holding the baby who smells like puke. How was I going to explain that my issue was not due to some infectious disease, but a mild case of food poisoning in addition to the fact that I’m having a panic attack due to the whole prospect of possibly being quarantined. And anyone who has ever had a panic attack knows that it does not make nausea any easier to bear. I’m pretty sure the Japanese would not be very understanding of a mother and a baby trying to enter the country whilst vomiting.
Finally we made it through customs and had to pick up our luggage from our international flight in order to report to the domestic flights counter to check our bags for our flight to Okinawa. My dear, dear, wonderful husband collected all of our stuff while I spent 20 more minutes in the airport restroom puking my guts out.
Eventually we made it to the terminal for our last flight where my amazing husband took care of the kids while I slept on the floor for an hour. Our last flight was short, and uneventful, and I was feeling slightly better because I had nothing in my stomach except a little bit of water and a sedative. We landed in the dark, and the last thing I remember was pouring myself into bed in our hotel room on base.
That was literally and figuratively the longest trip I’ve ever taken. The memory makes me shudder, and I thank God every day that it’s over. Thank goodness there were many better things to come!
Posted by Stephanie Monroe at 2:39 AM
September 1, 2011
Before that, I had snapped a picture of my son, wearing my husband's old kevlar helmet and rucksack, standing in front of our door waiting for his Daddy to return from a lengthy training period in the field. My father, upon seeing the photograph made a suggestion that I did not take seriously until a while later. He told me I should submit my photo. It was good. It is my father I would like to thank for kicking my butt into gear, and helping to inspire me with those simple few words.
After taking my daughter's birthday pictures, and several shots with my tiny point and shoot camera, I hounded my husband to help me purchase a quality camera. I didn't get a teaching job this year, and part time work is not enough to justify me putting my children in daycare, not to mention unaffordable.
So I realized that there is no better time to open my own business. The perfect storm, so to speak to allow me to follow one of my passions, and be true to myself. Instead of conforming to a way of being, a way of doing, and being chained to one place every day, I have given myself the chance to do what I love. I used to take pictures and be involved heavily in art, but as I got older, the stability and reliability of being able to make a living at it was not on my radar. I ignored what I really wanted and tried to achieve other things, chase other careers because they were more stable.
Maybe the fact that I did not get a job this year is a blessing in disguise. I have the chance to start a career that I can more easily pick up and take with me every few years as the Army deems necessary, and I don't have to give up much to do it. In fact the opportunity to move around so much and travel is an asset for my new career.
After having been informed that I will most likely be spending a lot of time on Okinawa with out my husband, I realized that I needed something for me. I'm a mother, I'm a wife, a daughter, a friend, and I am sure I will become more things as time marches on, but I could no longer ignore what's inside myself. I've discovered a way to meld my love of art, with a career. When I take pictures I feel myself shining through and glowing from the inside out. Perhaps my photography will be my life long career, perhaps it will be my saving grace.
Posted by Stephanie Monroe at 1:05 PM