By Leslie Cunningham
“It’s a great little car. There’s just this one minor thing you have to do. Make sure you keep the radiator filled with water whenever you go up a hill — otherwise it will overheat,” the redheaded Aussie woman told us in a matter-of-fact tone.
“Oh, that doesn’t sound like a big deal,” my husband said as he cast a sideways glance toward me as if encouraging my agreement. Sure, it’s not a big deal if you’re driving in Kansas, I thought, but this is New Zealand — land of endless, infinite rolling hills and mountain passes. My mind immediately went to work calculating just how many “hills” we might ascend during our two-month stay.
Our intentions had been to get around New Zealand via the bus system. However, during our second week on the South Island, we went on an 11-mile trek that traversed wildly fluctuating slopes, passes and rocky outcroppings that had left my knees, as they say in New Zealand, “flat out.”
After the trek, I wasn’t able to walk without excruciating pain in both knees. They would heal, but it would take a month or two. Seeing as we only had two months on this trip, we were forced to consider other transportation options — like buying a car — for our remaining stay there (which seemed like a ludicrous idea at the time).
Rousing myself from my mental gymnastics, I realized my husband was waiting for my response. His eyes beamed with eagerness and anticipation. How could I possibly disappoint him? And the price was just right — $280. What a bargain.
All for just a couple of hundred U.S. greenbacks
In New Zealand, travelers buy “backpacker cars,” clunkers that have been recycled and driven around the island umpteen times. A shoestring budget tourist buys a backpacker car gambling that it will not only get him safely around the island, but that it will also be in good enough shape to sell to the next unsuspecting tourist.
So for a couple of hundred dollars we purchased our dream car, a 1990 Honda Civic, and in doing so entered the unfettered freedom of life on the open road.
It was about as good as it gets, driving our backpacker car with the sun shining on our faces, while green pastures and white grazing sheep zipped past us. Unfortunately, euphoria lasted for just a few hours until we encountered the first of many mishaps.
We were getting back into the car after a short rest stop. My husband inserted the key in the lock, and after a few seconds I heard his “uh-oh” (and a few other words). The key broke off in the lock. We made a few phone calls at a nearby store and waited hours for a locksmith to arrive. I remember turning toward my darling husband and saying, “Isn’t this great? This is where the real adventure begins — when nothing goes according to plan!”
The plot thickens
The locksmith made a new key, and we were on the road. We were chatting excitedly. Life was good again. We pulled into a picnic area for lunch, then hopped in the car to resume our adventures. As we put the car in reverse, it made an awful, grating sound. And to make matters worse, we were unable to remove the key from the ignition.
The only way to stop the awful sound was to keep the car in drive, so we drove to our next destination. Meanwhile, we brainstormed. Driving until we ran out of gas didn’t seem wise, so we agreed to stop in a town that looked like it might have a mechanic’s shop — but the shop was closed.
We drove to the next town, and immediately pulled into the first gas station we could find. Meanwhile, we discovered that if you wedged the gearshift somewhere between park and drive, the sound would stop. There was just one small problem: You couldn’t take your hand off the gearshift, and you still couldn’t pull out the key or turn off the engine.
While my husband explained our situation to the gas station attendant, we watched the engine temperature needle rapidly progress dangerously toward hot.
The attendant wasn’t a mechanic and, like us, didn’t have a clue what to do. My husband desperately tried to pull the key out while manipulating the gearshift. No luck. I placed a pillow between my husband and the dashboard in case the radiator exploded.
By sheer force and pure willpower
Our situation would have been comical at the time if it weren’t so downright frightening. This is ridiculous, I thought. Something has got to change.
In a last dramatic attempt, I declared to myself and the universe that the key HAS to come out! So I leaned over and pulled on the key as hard as I could.
I don’t know if it was my conviction, inspiration, sheer stubbornness or the skies of heaven bursting open and a lightning bolt crashing through, but the heavenly sound of silence greeted our ears. I looked at my husband as a bead of sweat dripped from his face. We were saved! I didn’t have to watch my newly married husband go up in flames!
Because of our adventures and mishaps, we encountered countless “angels” on the road, most notably the mechanic who replaced the radiator at cost and the locksmith who opened his shop for us after hours and made us a correct key, refusing to take money for his services.
Creating a worthwhile journey
Our adventures forced us to get to know people at a very basic level. Our mishaps opened us to our own resourcefulness and joy in working together while traveling in a foreign country.
In retrospect, my husband and I began to live more fully when nothing was going according to plan. I wonder why our real lives should be any different? And why is it then that I often demand instant results that unfold perfectly when I set a goal? It’s human nature to want to avoid trials, struggles and challenges. But we can also enjoy the zany journey.
Maybe if I choose to see my personal and business life as an exciting adventure, I can sit back and receive the beauty and the blessings amongst the imperfections, and experience my true humanness — not only with myself, but also with those who surround me on my journey.
The same goes for running a hot tub business. Things won’t always unfold according to plan. There will be upset customers in spite of your best efforts; challenging employees; conflicts between service and retail; and struggles with sales goals. But that doesn’t mean you should feel discouraged or give up. I have worked with businesses and owners who have radically increased sales and brought a team together after years of low to no growth and a work culture of distrust.
I’m reminded of the words of Wilfred Thesiger: “No, it is not the goal but the way there that matters, and the harder the way the more worthwhile the journey.”