A world citizen may provide value to society by using knowledge acquired across cultural contexts.
Written 15 November
I’ve sat down opposite someone in a suit at a desk and tried to convince them that I am the ideal candidate for what they’re offering. I’ve done it more than I want to, almost always wearing a suit myself. But I’ve never been the one in the position of power with the right of refusal that other people should be trying to impress. That is until I had a car and wanted to drive it around Australia.
There are two types of backpackers in Oz. Those who have transport and those looking for it. The ratio works out such that generally there are about two people without a ride for every person with one. There are, of course, a number of variables that dictate the size of the applicant pool. Starting city, ending city, time of year, and desire to get off the beaten tourist track are all relevant. But assuming that any of the factors are working in your favor, when you put up an ad on Gumtree (Australia’s version of Craigslist) that doesn’t make you sound like a sociopath or a total prick, you will get some replies.
Before you begin to address the replies you must figure out a couple things.
First, the bare bones of your trip: Where are you planning to go and on what timeline? Are you in Sydney and trying to get to Melbourne? Do you need to arrive by a certain date? Do you need to get out of town immediately?
Second, how desperate are you to have people to share the ride with? If you are very desperate and only one person replies, you’ve just relinquished control of your trip to their desires. Coincidentally your interests line up with theirs every time. You are now a chauffeur.
If you are less desperate to share the ride, it is still your trip. Maybe it becomes “our trip” with the addition of other voices. If you’re lucky, and occasionally I was, you’ll have more people who want to join the car than you have spots to take. Then the interviewing truly begins.
How does one interview potential car-mates for long distance travel? I suppose you could pull out a clipboard and start going through ticking boxes. I generally aimed to be a bit more human about it and have a conversation.
1 – Where are you going? My car is starting in Sydney and I’m driving to Cairns. That is 26 hours of driving excitement. If you want to go to Brisbane, that’s on the way. Good start. But if there are other people who want to go all the way to Cairns, they’ll have the edge.
2 – What is your timeline? I’m planning on taking a couple weeks to get there. Are you on a timeline? Do you need to be there by a certain date? Be honest with yourself. If you aren’t there in a week, are you going to flip out, jump ship, and get on the first bus up?*
3 – What is your budget? Some people prefer to be comfortable. They stay in hostels. They stop at roadside diners and restaurants for their meals. That is a totally legitimate way to travel and experience a country and a culture. However, I’m unemployed and hoping to keep it that way as long as possible. That means the car is going to be parking at rest stops and caravan parks to camp as much as possible. And it means that I’ll be eating PB+J sandwiches**or pasta. If you want to stop in restaurants, that is fine. We can stop there for you. Just let me know.
4 – You realize that sharing a spot in the car means sharing the costs of petrol and camping? Yeah, I know it seems like something I shouldn’t have to say, and you would really think this was an obvious one. But think of this as the warning sign not to use a hair dryer in the bathtub. It is only being put out there because someone demonstrated that this needs to be explicitly stated.***
5 – What is your comfort with the English language? I’m not asking about your proficiency with the English language. You can butcher it terribly so long as you’re comfortable with trying to speak it. I’m quite happy to talk to you so long as you’re trying to talk with me. Again, I wouldn’t think I would have to say this, but speaking in a language that other people in the car explicitly do not understand is rude. This is a joint trip; I am not just your driver.****
There are plenty more questions. There is a ton of relevant information that all goes into whether or not the trip is amazing, doable, tolerable, or miserable. But the five previous ones were the only ones that really mattered for me letting someone in the car. The first four were explicitly asked. The fifth was one I sussed out from the conversation about the first four. My answers may seem direct, and they are a bit abbreviated and short here. But knowing what I’m doing and how I want to do it, and being open and direct with that, is important to ensure that no one feels tricked or stuck.
Beyond the five questions, everything just came out in conversation. I would try to call or meet up with each person for at least twenty minutes before making the decision. And the conversation would flow naturally as I determined the answers to the following:
6 – How laid back are you regarding change? This trip doesn’t really have an itinerary. It has a start date (approximate) and an end date (even more approximate). There is a path, but that path may be amended as we pass awesome things, as we get burned out and need a rest, or just for the hell of it. I’m trying to give you as much accuracy as I can up front, but this isn’t a legally binding plan. Anyone can end it at any point (within reason). If we part ways, it will be in a place with public transit options.
7 – How laid back are you regarding conversation? Australia is not a PC country. People will make fun of others and stereotype. It is generally done in a lighthearted manner. I’m not saying you need to be on board for racism, but you need to be able to laugh at yourself and laugh at others. If we disagree on a point, don’t take it personally. My dislike of one style of music does not mean that we can’t get along. Similarly, you poking fun at my personality quirks is something I can accept.
8 – Can you drive manual? The car is not going to drive itself. If I had no passengers I would have to do all the driving myself. I’m no worse off if you can’t. But it is a bonus if you can.
9 – Are you a dick? Honestly. Some of my closest friends are dicks. But they are intelligent and witty about it. Preferably you would be nice and/or smart. If you are stupid and mean-spirited, I don’t think this is going to go particularly well.
10 – Are you crazy? Honestly. I’m trying to get a read on this one thanks to the hairdryer / bathtub principle. The details aren’t overly relevant, but suffice to say there was a girl, she was nuts, and things got pretty intense for a bit.
11 – Can you engage in conversation? It doesn’t have to be about life-shattering topics. It doesn’t have to be deep. It also doesn’t have to be shallow. This is a large country. These distances are huge. If we can’t communicate, we are going to have a lot of time to listen to music.
All of those things figured out, and a conversation down, I could make a call. I wasn’t always right. I actually don’t think I got any better at it despite the number of times I went through it. Some people in the car worked out brilliantly. Some, not so much. Oddly enough, the way I would rank my excitedness to have each person join and how well they worked out have absolutely no correlation, either positive or negative. Each one was a learning experience in the fact that despite all the questions and screening processes you put up, how well you are going to survive together when you inhabit a cramped space for days on end isn’t something I’ve learned how to screen for. Maybe you can’t screen for it. But as long as everyone feels comfortable to voice their opinions you can at least hope that it won’t get too ugly.
* I had someone jump ship after about 2 days because she didn’t have a job or much money. Fair points, except that she had quit a job to join in the first place.
** Yes, seriously. Yes, Americans really do eat peanut butter and jam sandwiches. You should try it. No, really. Yeah, I’ve had peanut butter and honey. It’s fine, but PB+J is where it’s at.
*** This person was an alcoholic Welshman who always had money to buy booze and drugs but didn’t seem to ever have any money when we needed to refuel.
**** Two German girls I drove around would only speak to each other, in German, unless directly answering a question I’d asked. They were remarkably good at English but would not engage in it unless forced. They dropped out after two days to take a ride from someone else. I did absolutely nothing to deter them from this plan.