Sunday, July 31, 2005

Arriving in USA: Cultural and language challenges

Photo: The Land Rovers are
released from their sea
container in Seattle, USA.
Eventful Woman (in red jacket) keeps a watchful eye on the proceedings.

The cultural differences between New Zealand and USA are huge.

No matter how carefully you plan for things, you can’t anticipate it all. It’s often the little, unexpected things that mark the difference between countries, as much as wider issues. In this case, it was all about a petrol can. You know, those simple little 5 litre (1.5 US gallon) containers (either metal or polypropylene plastic) that can be purchased in any New Zealand petrol station.

New Zealanders tend to be a do-it-yourself nation of people. Nearly everyone buys a petrol container at some point – to top up the lawn mower, or some other do-it-yourself power implement (like a chain saw or leaf blower). Then, there’s petrol required for the boat, the jet ski, the 4-wheel-drive, the generator – all of which require a handy container for top ups and emergencies. These cans are sold at petrol stations, which makes a lot of sense to us. They’re also really handy for anyone who runs out of petrol and who has to walk to the nearest fuel stop, buy a container, and trudge back to their car with it. Naturally we thought it would be the same in USA. Not so.

To ship the Land Rovers from New Zealand we had to drain out all petrol. On arrival, we would need to purchase a small amount of petrol (in a can) to get the vehicle going and into the nearest "gas" station. It never occurred to us that this would cause any difficulties.

While we were doing battle with US Customs (refer blog entry Wednesday 13 July) we asked our Shipping Agent, Linda J, if she could acquire a petrol can. She had no idea what we meant. We described what it was, including that it could be plastic or metal. She looked quite bemused asking, "Why would people have one of those?" We explained about the lawn mower, etc etc. She lived in an apartment, as did most of her friends, and mowing the lawn was not something she did.

"What about when you run out of petrol?’ I asked

"Americans don’t do that!"

It was my turn to be puzzled. People have run out of petrol as long as there have been motorised vehicles. I thought that maybe I had stumbled over a hidden secret about American car manufacturing. Maybe they made such "gas guzzlers" because they never ran out of petrol? I began to think that we should be touring the world in a Jeep.

However, Linda was a very resourceful woman. She telephoned a number of petrol stations. At each negative reply she asked each for ideas on where to purchase such a thing. Finally, one suggested she try a hardware store. She took TH with her so he could identify the object and show her how it was filled with petrol. They returned with triumphant grins and a full can of petrol.

Finally we were reunited with the Land Rovers in the shipping warehouse. Our possessions were neatly stacked around in boxes. Linda had spent a few cold hours in the warehouse checking off our inventory, so that US Customs could pick over every item.

We had stored spare half-shafts (axles) in a handy, long space inside the linked-up front seats. Linda had told us that, as the Customs Officer had reached inside the gap, his hand had touched the long, metallic bar of the axle. He had called out, "Say, I think they’ve got a gun in here" and had enthusiastically dragged it out. He was so disappointed that it wasn’t a gun, that he spent the next 15 minutes trying to work out what sort of weapon it could be converted into.

Linda kept pointing to the words half-shafts on our list. If we had only written the American words "axle shafts" things may have progressed much faster. The Officer only relented, when there were no other items to tick off on our inventory and therefore the half-shafts had to be the axle-shafts.

The Land Rover engines were cold and damp to our touch. I remembered the hot humid day we had loaded the sea container in Auckland and guessed that the air must have cooled dramatically on the journey to early spring weather in Seattle (March). The cold engines grunted and wheezed as they strained to pull the petrol all the way through the fuel lines to the carburettor. At last, they coughed into life.

We re-stowed our possessions, posed for Linda’s camera, and finally set off into the warm spring sunshine. I was clutching a map that Linda had drawn to show the way to a nearby petrol station and then to the freeway north out of Seattle. Linda had been a tremendous help and she became the first of many, many people whose kindness and goodwill eased our journey around the world.

At the petrol (gas) station an old, wizened fuel pump attendant filled our petrol tank. As he hunched over the nozzle, he peered suspiciously at the Land Rover. "Funny looking jeep", he muttered, fixing his beady eyes on TH, who was sitting in the driving seat. It was then that the attendant noticed our right hand drive steering wheel. His eyes nearly boggled out of his head. I suppose that he’d never travelled out of left-hand drive America.

"What’s the steering wheel doing there?"

"That’s where we have it in New Zealand."

"Doesn’t it make it hard to see, when you overtake."

"No, we drive on the other side over there."


We laughed about this as we found our way to the freeway. I said to TH, "Well, have we started yet?"

We had discussed what would be the real beginning of our adventure several times since leaving New Zealand and TH’s reply had always been, "Not until we’re driving the Land Rover on foreign soil."

His answer now was, "Well, its not soil, but it is foreign."

"It’s us that are foreign, now", I said.

© Eventful Woman, 2005

For more posts by Eventful Woman (prior to 31 July) please click on the "July 2005" archive button (back up near the top of the page)

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