I don’t know what my second brother was thinking when he decided that it would be a good idea to put mum, dad, and the both of us in a confined space together for six days.
“Let’s go on a camper van trip to North Island!” WS said.
“Are you serious?” I thought.
Here in New Zealand, my family and I are on a very rare family trip. Don’t get me wrong, we are a very close to each other, but we are no Ned Flanders. We fight, we clench our teeth, we tell ourselves to take deep breaths… in other words we’re perfectly normal. Being together for 24/7 in a small motorhome with no rooms nor privacy for six full days? Someone’s gonna get hurt real bad.
The stress started even before we step foot into the camper van. Packing, coordinating the camper van pick up, and planning meals were already messy enough to raise our blood pressure.
“Are you guys ready? Let’s go we’re late!!!”
“It’s just six days, we don’t need 12 rolls of toilet paper!”
“Come on! We need to go NOW.”
At this rate, someone IS gonna get hurt real bad. “Good thing big brother and sister-in-law couldn’t join us,” I said to myself.
My jaw dropped when I first saw the camper van. “Holy shit this is huge!”
It measured 3.03m x 6.9m x 2.25m (height x length x width). There was a full kitchen equipped with a microwave, fridge, stove, and even wine glasses. There was a bathroom, comfy beds, a dining table, and too many cabinets. Coming from the land of Perodua Kancil, I was in awe at its size and furnishing.
However, I would quickly learn that the house on wheels is not so big after all. I never thought the words “Don’t stand in the kitchen, I’m getting out of the toilet!” would become part of my vocabulary.
The initial stress of getting us on the road quickly dissipated when we got on the Twin Coast Discovery Highway. We were too enamoured by the breathtaking beauty of North Island to remember anything else.
My childhood imagination of Western life birthed from an unhealthy dose of cartoons and story books came to life, only a thousand times more vivid and beautiful. There were grassy rolling hills dotted with whites that I later realise were sheep; rainbows connecting the curve of two mountains; ducks flying in V formation; isolated farmhouses with tractors, haystack, and pointy wooden fences; cows resting under a lone tree; peaceful suburban towns from the set of Desperate Housewives. The view outside the window looked eerily similar to my primary school drawings of the happy house with tree-less hills, rainbow, sun, and birds in the background. For a moment I thought I was in an Enid Blyton or Peter and Jane book.
We arrived at Kai Iwi Lakes and parked our home at the Department of Conservation’s campsite. Each parking lot had a power point and water faucet to supply us with electricity and water. There were other camper vans already settled in, some with satellite TV, others more modest than ours. It felt as if we were in one of those American trailer parks, but with more class and less trashiness.
Mom and the chef brother went straight to work, preparing a beautiful roast chicken spaghetti dinner to fill our rumbling stomachs. With little room in the car, dad and I stayed out of the way. We sat outside in our fleeced jackets, watching the stars. It was so dark we could almost see the milky way. The winter air was fresh and crisp. A big, white half-moon proudly declared its presence. Dad went into scout mode and started decoding the constellations. In the peacefulness, I caught a whiff of sautéed mushrooms and heard the two cooks laughing.
They say you only know the true personality of someone after you have travelled with them. There is so much truth in that, especially on something as intimate as a camper van trip.
With my brothers living overseas, me spending too much time at work, and my parents busy with their social lives, we have forgotten how much each other’s quirks and habits could get to us.
Dad’s constant dad jokes about me being the youngest became less funny with each punchline told. Mom’s messiness heightened when she travels, with her stuff laying everywhere in the van. WS became a stickler for neatness. I was a klutz as always and tried to stay out of everyone’s way.
That first night was a little clumsy as we familiarised ourselves with our new home. We converted the car from driving to dining mode; I set up the beds; the men filled up the water tank; mom washed the dishes. We took quick showers, careful not to let the water run to conserve what we had in the 100 litre fresh water tank. The waste water tank quickly filled up and we had to re-park the car for the waste water hose to reach the drain. It was all a team effort.
The next morning, we woke up to mom overfilling the toilet bowl with water. Blue chemical liquid from septic tank was spilling out of the toilet. Still groggy from sleep, the men grumpily emptied the septic tank at eight in the morning. It was a good thing no one had christened the toilet with their “dump” yet. Having been away for years, WS who had become unfamiliar with our ditziness mustered all the patience under his breath. I took note to save my poop for public toilets.
Though I had lived with my dear parents for the past 25 years of my existence, over the next few days of breakfast, lunch, dinner, cooking, sightseeing, and shopping together, I would see parts of them that I had never noticed.
For the first time ever, it hit me that my old man is actually 60 years old. I’ve always seen him as Super Dad as he always did all the heavy lifting at home. But seeing him pant as we climbed the Te Paki sand dunes and catching his subtle moments of absent-mindedness, I realise that age has crept up on him.
Mom, on the other hand, was obsessed with taking photos. She took photos of every meal and every brick in the wall. At first I thought it was just to collect memories, then I realise she is as hooked on her smartphone as a 14-year-old girl. The first thing mom asked when we arrived at the Ahipara Holiday Park was “What’s the wi-fi password?”
To my surprise, dad who usually hate taking photos, turned into the world’s most patient husband, snapping every pose mom had for the camera. Suddenly, the grumpy old man had a big grin on his face and was asking to be in front of the camera. In fact, both WS and I were busy making funny poses for each other. You know those Asian families where everyone is clicking the camera instead of listening to the tour guide? Yep, we’re one of those.
It was absolutely thrilling to be driving to a new location full of discovery every day. Yet despite that and the lack of privacy, I looked forward to spending time in the camper van the most. Every evening, WS would make something simple yet special for dinner. Sometimes I’d join him for a quick lesson, sometimes mom volunteered to be his assistant. She relished in the fact that her son is now cooking for her instead.
On out last night in the van, we had a simple meal of Korean instant noodles. Dad’s face grew redder, sweatier, and hotter with every slurp, confirming once and for all that he has zero tolerance for spicy food. We made fun of dad as he cooled down with ice-cream, beer, and wine. Mom loved the sweet wine so much she had seconds. With Micheal Bublé playing in the background, we spent the evening talking about things we’ve never discussed before, like the kind of music we like.
This is not something we do often, in fact, not at all. In the city preoccupied with TV, internet, and friends, it is so easy to avoid spending time together. Stripped from all that distraction, we were left with only peaceful silence and each other’s company. That was when magical quality time happened. Unwinding together, going through the day’s events, reminiscing our childhood, learning new things about each other.
A song from Dad’s younger days popped up and he started to sing along. He took a tissue and blew his nose. “Your dad has had too much to drink,” mom said. “You know he’s drunk when his nose gets all stuffy. No more for you, more for me.” Mom teased with a smile as he rubbed his nose.
I didn’t know it was possible, but dad’s red face flushed a deeper shade of crimson.
That little tender moment between them made me smile. This trip had been filled with it.
In that six days, we became kinder to each other, nicer with our words, more sensitive to each other needs, and more loving in our actions. Perhaps it was something in New Zealand’s drinkable tap water, or perhaps we were reminded of the little things that make us appreciate the best and worst of our family.
This is why it is important to go on family vacations even when the children are all grown up. This bonding is the essence of a family trip, even if it’s one that’s as intense as being stuck in a van together for six days.
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