Australia – Thoughts on Travel

Well, I’ve been here for three weeks minus a few hours. I’ve probably done as more traveling in that time than I’ll get to for another month now that classes have started. Monash University has an amazing exchange/international student support team, and they set up some awesome trips for us. I’ve been into Melbourne’s city center several times now, and I’ve ridden an elevator to the 88th floor of the tallest building there and taken pictures of the city at night. It was more like flying low in an airplane than sitting in a building.

I’ve visited the largest shopping mall in Australia (just a 20 minute bus ride from my apartment on campus). I’ve fed kangaroos, wallabies, emus, cassowaries, and even geese and some kind of pheasant-esque bird by hand. I’ve watched penguins come out of the ocean to nest for the night and I’ve taken selfies with a koala.

I’ve also been chewed out by a customs officer, gotten thoroughly lost navigating the bus system at least three different times (twice in the first week), and lost my keys and wallet at least a dozen times each in the first few days of jetlag-induced haze (luckily always in my bag or my room). I’ve hiked through mildly sketchy neighborhoods alone trying to find the post office, and I’ve found myself carrying heavy grocery bags back to my apartment on foot after getting off the last bus at the wrong stop (just in case it sounded like I was having too much fun petting marsupials).

I’ve had some wild experiences here (in many senses of the word) in just the first few weeks, but I’m afraid things are going to slow down now that classes have started. The fantastic orientation trips to sanctuaries and penguin islands are over, and school work is starting to pile up. I started off my semester by reading about half of what was assigned because I wasn’t ready to quit going out with friends and watching movies late into the night. I’m honestly a bit anxious about whether I’ll be able to make myself do school work when there are so many awesome opportunities to go do other things coming up all the time. So far, I’ve been doing the bare minimum in my classes so I can keep doing other “Australia” things, as I keep calling them. There is so much I want to see, it’s really difficult to keep in mind that schoolwork is something I’m required to do in order to stay here…

When I’m not wrestling with unwanted homework, I’m finding that traveling in Australia is like traveling in the US in some ways that are unfortunate for the American student abroad. Mainly in that there is minimal public transport between major cities, and getting around the country as a whole is a massive pain without a car (especially since Australia is about as big as the US mainland). I’m discovering that I can take (fairly expensive) bus tours around Victoria (the state/territory I’m in), but if I want to go anywhere else I basically have to fly there and then either use public transit or pay for more bus tours. I suppose my hopes for easy transportation across the country were just set a bit too high after visiting Italy and its fantastic train system. I think I made another miscalculation in how much time I left for myself to travel after term. In Italy, I was disappointed that I didn’t give myself a few more days to see a few more cities, so I planned my Australia trip to leave a couple extra weeks after the term ends to travel. I should have left an extra month or two. There is just too much to see. The Gold Coast alone can take a month if you really want to enjoy the experience, and I hoped to spend some time in Tasmania and New Zealand too, not to mention the smaller trips around Victoria that I hoped to make. I’m beginning to realize that there will never be enough time to see everything in any country I visit – heck, I live in the US, and I’ve seen almost none of the major landmarks there. But that doesn’t stop me from wanting to try. At this point I think I’ll be dragging my suitcases into the airport to go home with my nose stuck in a travel guide for some part of Australia I didn’t get around to visiting in time. But still, we’ll see what I get around to, and worst case scenario I’ll just have to find a way to come back here. It’s only halfway around the world, right?

Australia – First Thoughts

I’ve been “down under” for just over three days now, and I’ve spent what seems like every minute of that time racing from one thing to the next – shopping, orientation, campus resident events, trips with other exchange students – the list goes on. But what keeps striking me on my second journey abroad is the same thing that bothered me during my previous foreign venture: the very idea of being abroad, in another country, on another continent, in entirely new territory, seems completely surreal.
In Italy we stayed in ancient city centers, where the buildings were often more than ten times older than America, and yet the idea that I’d flown over a thousand miles across an ocean and landed in a foreign land seemed far too huge a concept to really process. I find myself facing the same thoughts here. I’m not just on a new continent, I’m on the complete opposite side of the world, in the southern and eastern hemispheres, where everything from the land and waters to the stars is entirely new to me. It’s not like you fly slowly in from the outer atmosphere so that you can see yourself slowly approaching the “Australia shape” you see on Google maps, zooming in slowly until you can see the dot that will be your new home city, and then further in to see your campus and apartment. Instead, you fly in the dark over the ocean for hours and hours, until you finally pass out from exhaustion. And when you wake up, maybe you’re still over water, but more than likely you’re over land. Then, you continue over landscape you can’t quite see in the dark until the plane lands. You eventually walk out of the airport into this new land, but the differences are relatively subtle.
The gas stations are different, but not too different. Odd companies like United and Woolworths appear, but so do BPs, so you could just be in another part of the United States. An increased concentration of Asian restaurants and shops can also be accounted for by assuming a densely populated coastal area of the US. The cars drive on the left side of the road here, and to compensate for this the driver’s side of the car is on the right, but unless you’re paying attention it’s easy to overlook this difference. Buildings are a bit different too. It takes a bit longer to figure out the difference, but advertising is apparently done differently in Australia. External walls often sport more ads, web addresses, sale posters, and other additions than they do on average in the US, but again not so much that it couldn’t just be an unfamiliar American city.
To me, more than the things I’ve listed so far, the flora and fauna remind me that I’m not in the US. The birds here are much larger on average, and more boldly colored. Lorikeets, which I’ve only ever seen in the big netted enclosure at the OKC zoo, fly around campus freely. Big, round, black birds with long, skinny necks pick through the grass on the commons. Massive ravens caw loudly from the trees along the sidewalks. And a variety of birds – magpies, water birds that look like thin, long necked ducks, and others – have bold, black and white coloring that stands out strongly to me compared to the browns of most US birds. And the plants and trees, while more subtle, still indicate that things are not what I grew up with.
Deeper exploration of the area shows a few more differences – odd brands in stores, and staples of American cuisine, such as “normal” bacon and Kraft Mac n Cheese are nowhere to be found, and in their place are things like Tim Tams and Vegemite. But still, it’s hard for processed beer leftovers to really translate the magnitude of my presence in this place. It’s slowly beginning to make sense to me, as I make trips into Melbourne, interact with locals, and talk to the friends I’ve made here in the last few days. The more differences I find, the harder it is for my brain to try to brush them off as minor differences. My time in Italy was enough to accept where I was, but not enough to really appreciate it. Hopefully my semester here will be enough to fully realize exactly where I am, and how far I’ve come. But if nothing else, my few travels abroad have highlighted to me just how huge and diverse the US is, that I can travel thousands of miles to foreign lands and still find ways to half think I’m still in the US.