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Travel Notes: Left-side Driving in Australia

I could feel my brain resisting the change, like stirring molasses with a big spoon my brain pushed against the reality that I was forcing it to accept.

I drove in Australia for the first time today, a short 15-minute ride to the supermarket. But those few minutes felt like hours. When I stopped and got out of the car, my brain physically hurt, as if my brain had just run a marathon. I could feel the new synapses forming in what seemed like previously dead areas of my gray matter, like someone waking up from a coma and needing to relearn things that felt both vaguely familiar and all so wrong at the same time.

Everything that had become second nature from more than 14 years of right-side driving in the United States suddenly felt all wrong. The rearview mirror was on the wrong side, the gear shifter, the turn signal, the steering wheel -- all of it felt backwards. But not the gas and brake pedals: they were the same as in the States. Everything in the car was mirrored except those. Confusing! But there it was, all of it in front of me, awaiting my acceptance, asking me to embrace it.

And then when I started driving I knew there were others depending on my brain accepting these changes. Stay on the left side of the road!

It was tough. Left turns were right turns. Merges onto the freeway were made from left to right. The fast lane was now on the left instead of the right. Exits were always on the left. Rotaries — or roundabouts as they're more often called here — were particularly challenging to get correct. Cars went clockwise around them instead of counter-clockwise.

Everything felt wrong! It was the same weird feeling a right-handed person would feel when throwing a ball with their left hand.

But I pushed through this. I knew this was why I traveled, to feel my brain returning to its pre-adult state, to re-plasticize the hardened gray matter.

Day after day, I drove a little more each day. After one week of driving with a navigator in the passengers seat, I've now graduated to driving alone by myself. And then one day something strange happened: everything began to feel normal. It started to make sense. Left-side driving started to feel normal. And that was an incredibly freeing experience, so suddenly become mobily ambidextrous.

To remember which turns are yield turns, I've come up with an easy way to remember: whatever side of the car I'm sitting on, that's the side that is a yield turn. If I'm driving on the right side of the car, then right turns are yield turns. If I'm sitting on the left, left turns are yield turns.

But still I find myself occasionally mixing it up. When I’m told we’ll be making a right turn ahead, my brain identifies right turns with non-yield turns, which in Australia is actually a left turn. So I’ll hear right, but feel left.

But again, this is why I travel. To grow. To experience something new and unfamiliar. To push myself outside of comfort zones and over the edge into the unknown.

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