Uluru, Kata Tjuta, King’s Canyon

I’ve never been one for guided tours; I always felt like they were too touristy. You couldn’t do your own thing and really see what you want to see, and on top of it all you’re missing the local parts, the stuff you only find if you get lost in the area or wander a bit off the main path. But, I was going to Uluru alone, and I didn’t want to rent a car or wander the desert alone, so I bit the bullet and signed up for a three day camping tour of the area. Best call I could have made. The tour was amazing, the guide was super laid back, but really knowledgable about everything he showed us, including cultural, historical, and even geological and ecological aspects of the areas we visited.

On the first day we walked halfway around Uluru. Sounds kind of lame: we didn’t finish? But it was nearly 90 degrees fahrenheit with almost no shade and no breeze, just the brutal Australian sun and mosquitos. And Uluru is bigger than it seems. It took us around two hours just to hike halfway around, and by then everyone was ready for some cold water (ours was all warm by then) and shade. It was really incredible though, our guide pointed us through the cultural center first, which was set up by the Aboriginal people who traditionally lived in the area. It described a sort of children’s version of some of their creation stories, and it was only a children’s version, our guide explained, because to them more knowledge must be earned. They shared only the “first level” with everyone who visits the site in hopes of spreading some understanding and respect for Uluru and the country around it. Our guide gave us a little more context for the information in the cultural center. He also showed us spots around Uluru that would have had no meaning without his explanation. A rock worn smooth on one side where generations of Aboriginal women had ground paints on its surface, a pool shaded by Uluru that was a near permanent source of water, and an overhang with paintings in it that would have meant nothing to me,

but our guide explained they told the stories of Uluru, and such information as where to find water nearby. Having the guide around provided context for everything I got to see that day, it really made the experience far more significant than if I’d just gone on my own and strolled around waiting for the famous Uluru sunset.

That night was interesting too, we slept out under the stars in swags, which, I learned, are these canvas sacks that zip open wide enough to fit a camp mattress and a sleeping bag inside. They were surprisingly comfortable for just being a thin mattress and canvas on hard packed sand. We only slept a few hours a night anyway, we had to wake up around 4 each morning to pack up camp and get to our hike before the heat of the day.

On the second day we went to Kata Tjuta, which our guide translated as “many heads,” what the Aboriginal people of the area thought the large collection of massive stone domes looked like from a distance.

This was a very sacred site to the indigenous people of the area, so the hiking trails there were more strictly enforced to keep visitors from disturbing important cultural areas among the domes. We started our hike at about 6 am, and I was sweating ten minutes in. I can’t imagine trying to do hike any later in the day, or in the summer. It’s just too hot. I drank nearly a gallon of water each day, and still was mildly dehydrated by the end of the three days.

The hike was worth it though, we got some incredible views across the central Australian landscape for our troubles, and we finished the day with some Australian barbeque and a swim in the campsite pool.

The third day we went to King’s Canyon for our hardest hike yet. The trail started with a steep climb known as “Heart Attack Hill,” which we broke into three segments to avoid actually giving anyone a heart attack. Then the climb was relatively easy, tracing around the rim of the canyon and offering awesome views of the surprisingly varied landscape. We crossed stretches of barren red dirt and rock, only to round a corner into a (comparatively) lush area of bush grasses and small trees.

Halfway around we descended into the canyon to see the Garden of Eden, an area in the canyon with a permanent watering hole surrounded by tropical plants and large trees. It was a startling change from the desert above, and a welcome break from the blistering sun.

The hike back up was not as welcome, but the best view yet was at the top of the other side, where we had a clear view across the canyon, over the low mounds of earth on the other side, and out across the desert beyond.

It was an exhausting three days, and by the time we got back into Alice Springs that night I was ready for a shower and a nap. However, the tour group was full of really great people, so we all went out to a local restaurant together for one last hurrah before we scattered across the country. Our guide even made an appearance late in the night, just long enough to add everyone on Facebook and disappear again.

Going into it I was really nervous. This was my first solo travel without a support system waiting like I had arriving at Monash, and even though it was with a tour group, I had no idea what to expect. It was a really great experience though, and I think it gave me a needed confidence boost before I took off on my longer three week trip down the east coast of Australia.

Tasmania Part II

Finally got around to this, okay. So on day 5 we drove a lot.

We started the day at MONA, the Museum of Old and New Art in Hobart. As someone who really struggles to appreciate art, I have to say this was probably the most interesting art museum I’ve ever visited. It had tons of, well, new art. One piece was a kind of waterfall, but it released water so that the drops formed words that were frequently searched online.

Another room was full of massive paper airplanes an even flying cities made of paper. It was by far the least stuffy art museum I’ve ever been to, I really enjoyed walking around. Especially four hours after we left when we were still in the car driving through winding semi-mountainous roads. Sadly, not much happened that day after we left MONA.

Day six, however, was pretty cool. We started the day with a hike looking for platypuses (apparently it’s not platypi?) and while we didn’t see any, we did make it up to a really nice waterfall for some cool pictures.

 

Then we drove on to Cradle Mountain, our last stop before returning to Launceston for our flight home. Cradle Mountain was probably my favorite stop on the trip after Nature World. We checked in, then went to find some short hikes to take, and on our way to the trails we passed half a dozen wallabies and wombats just chilling and eating grass on the side of the road in broad daylight. It was awesome. I’d seen my fill of wallabies by that point to be honest, but wild wombats were new to me, and there were so many! One moseyed across the road in front of us when we stopped at a stop sign. It was honestly kind of surreal. And when we actually went on our hike, it started off winding through a field right next to three wombats. I took way too many pictures, I could honestly make a short flip book of one just eating grass.

After that there were no wombats on our hike, but it was really pretty. It was insane how suddenly the landscape could change, one minute we were in a scrub brush field, the next we were in a mossy forest next to a river. And we found more waterfalls! So of course more touristy pictures were taken.

That night we meant to go out to see if we could spot a wild Tasmanian devil – we were told they looked for scraps along the edge of the camp site – but we got caught up talking to some other uni students we met in the hostel kitchen. Two girls were there on rotation from a veterinary school in Sydney, one was from Canada originally, and the other was from California. Apparently, a lot of their classmates were from the US… So I could go to vet school in Australia… That nugget of information was saved for later. But they were in Tasmania for a few weeks working at a Tasmanian Devil sanctuary, where they met a uni student from France who was also hanging out with us. He was interning at the sanctuary, and I was starting to wonder why on earth I was wasting so much time on a boring chemistry degree in the middle of Oklahoma. Anyway, I got some food for thought from them about international internships and vet schools.

Day seven was kind of sad. Most of us were ready to quit traveling at that point – sharing a car with six people for a week gets old, even when everyone gets along fairly well – but none of us was ready to leave Tasmania. So, we took one last hike around a lake at the foot of Cradle Mountain. I took way too many pictures there again, but it was so picturesque it was hard to stop. There was snow on the peaks, and low clouds and fog occasionally obscured the very tops of the mountains. The water was relatively calm, and there were just so many great views over the lake along the trail. It really was a great way to end the trip.

When we finally drove back into Launceston, we made one last stop at our first accommodation to pick up… my darn wallet. And I had the honor of paying for the last tank of gas to sort of make up for mooching off of everyone else all week. In all, it was an awesome trip and a really great experience.

Tasmania – Part 1

Okay, this may have to turn into two posts, because a week’s worth of travel just doesn’t fit well into only a few hundred words.

 

Our plan consisted of flying into the major airport in Tasmania, renting a car, and driving a loop around the middle of the island, skimming along the eastern and southern coasts as we went and passing through both major cities. My trip started a few hours after everyone else’s. I traveled with the same group I went on the Great Ocean Road with, plus one other guy from our apartment complex. I had a lab that day, so I had to catch an evening flight and meet up with the group at our accommodation… where I somehow managed to leave my wallet the next morning. Huge mistake. But there were a few lucky things about that: it was in the only city we’d be returning to, so getting it wouldn’t be too much of a problem, and I was with amazing people who didn’t mind lending me money (especially since I’d prepaid for most of our accommodations, so they kind of owed me anyway). So travel hack no 1 here: always make sure you have your wallet. Just always. Any time you think about it. Or move. Or breathe.

Anyway, the rest of the trip was awesome when I wasn’t begging Jeanine for cash. My first full day in Tassie started at a wildlife sanctuary, my third one since arriving in Australia and by far my favorite entirely because of the keeper we met there. We timed our arrival to coincide with a scheduled Tasmanian Devil feeding, and we thought that was all we would get. But the keeper who took us around the sanctuary showed off several Tasmanian devils, as well as sugar gliders, ringtailed possums, bilbies, black swans, wedge tailed eagles, a juvenile wombat, spotted and eastern quolls, and I don’t even remember what else. He talked about the relative endangerment status of every animal, how it behaves in the wild and in captivity, personal experiences with them (including some awesome stories about nursing orphaned babies) and just did an incredible job of informing us about the animals in his care. I’ve wanted to be a vet for a long time, and a zoo/wildlife vet for a slightly shorter period, and he honestly reminded me why. He was so passionate about every animal he showed us, but he had a huge amount of respect for them too. I honestly feel terrible that I don’t remember his name, but that keeper is absolutely amazing.

Keeper-man feeding a Tasmanian Devil and telling us about how it can bite through bone… and can’t distinguish his fingers from the piece of meat.

We also went on a hike to a lookout over Wineglass Bay and got an amazing view – after we spent an appropriate amount of time watching a wild mamma wallaby sniff around the lookout. We actually saw her joey peek out of the pouch for a while, it was freakin’ adorable.

Mamma and Joey

The Lookout (we peeled our eyes away from the wallaby eventually)

After that we headed back to our AirBnB until just after sunset, when we drove to the beach to see the fairy penguins come ashore for the night! I don’t have pictures of this because a) it was dark and b) penguins don’t like flash. (It can actually kill them in a roundabout way). We almost stepped on about a dozen of the little guys because it was so dark we could only see the white on their chests, and then just barely. That was the second time I’d seen fairy penguins come in from the ocean, but it was honestly cooler to me, because I wasn’t at a tourist hub watching, I was just by a random beach near a town. I guess it felt more genuine, although the penguins were no more or less real than the last ones I saw.

The next morning we got up insanely early to catch the sunrise over the blowhole, an opening in the rocks along the beach where the waves can rush into a crevice, only to be forced upward and out the hole. I took sooo many pictures there, it really was incredibly beautiful. We just spent an hour quietly watching the sun rise over the ocean, not talking, just taking pictures and enjoying the sight.

The colors almost rivaled sunsets in western Oklahoma. Almost.

We followed that with a hike up to a lookout right next to our AirBnB. The lookout was disappointing though, so we found our own… on top of a massive boulder at the top of the hill the lookout was supposed to be on. Climbing up (and down) from there was probably the sketchiest thing I did in Tasmania, but man the photos were worth it ten times over.

Awesome view. Bad upload.

Then we headed on further south and west. We stopped briefly at a vineyard to sample some wine. I flashed back hard to Italy, and I realized that my taste for wine has not grown at all since that summer. It was still fun though, and interesting to try Australia made wine. The tasting was free too, which was even better.

From there we went on to Port Arthur, the former prison island, now historic site. We took a guided day tour, but honestly, I felt like I got as much history from the ghost tour we took that night as I did from the short day walk everyone took. My favorite part was probably the harbor cruise though. When we first arrived we just managed to catch the last boat that took us on a lap around the shores of the prison area – they had two separate prisons: an adult prison that took up the main area of one shore, and a boy’s prison that was far less successful on the other side of the harbor. In the middle was a small island they used as their cemetery. The whole thing was a bit eerie, especially the Island of the Dead, as they called the cemetery. It was an oddly beautiful place though, for one that housed so many horrors. The place was a last chance prison, for horrible criminals, repeat offenders, and escape artists. It was the place they used as a threat at other prisons, where lashes were given as frequent punishments, and they even had a “Separate Prison” for the worst criminals, where no speech was allowed by anyone, and inmates were left in endless mute silence with no real human interaction for years. Shortly after it was established, they had to annex an insane asylum, as it was called at the time. Apparently it was common for inmates to get transferred from the first to the second.

Island of the Dead

Adult Prison area

I’ll end this one here since it’s long and description-heavy, but I’ll continue the Tasmania trip in my next post.

The Great Ocean Road

I finally got the chance to travel outside of the Melbourne area this month! It was honestly becoming really frustrating before we left. I got to see so many cool things before the semester started (see koala selfies and the like), but as soon as school began I just felt trapped. Everyone – including me – was too busy getting things under control to leave on any kind of real trip. But occasionally I still saw other exchange students making it out to other cities and areas, Sydney, Brisbane, and even as far north as Townsville and the Great Barrier Reef. I really felt like I was doing the exchange student thing wrong, just staying in the area around my exchange university all the time. But early in September I finally got the chance to get away from Monash and road trip the Great Ocean Road, one of the most visited tourist routes in Australia. Honestly it was really touristy, but so beautiful. We drove along the coast for two full days, stopping at lookouts and beaches along the way.

Bells Beach

We also got to see some awesome wildlife on the way, although sadly some critters weren’t interested in posing for any pictures.

Portuguese Man O’ War Jellyfish, these things were all over some of the beaches near the Apostles.

Our Koala buddy, not giving a hoot.

It was pretty cold and windy on our trip, and we even got rained on a few times, but we still got to see some really amazing sights, including a rainforest-like climate in the middle of the temperate southern hills, and just some really incredible lookouts.

Surreal tropical forest on the cold, rainy southern coast.

Teddy’s Lookout

The most well-known place we stopped at was the Twelve Apostles, a series of pillar-like land forms that stand out in the ocean a few hundred meters off shore. They each stand about as high as the cliffs that back the beaches, but they’re slightly misnamed now. When colonial settlers came across them there were still twelve, but over the last couple hundred years several have fallen, leaving only eight after the most recent collapse in 2005.

Just some of the Apostles. They’re scattered over several miles along the southern shore, so we had to drive to see each cluster of them.

We also took a break on the beach by our first Apostles stop to get some crazy group photos.

The most cliché photo I’d ever taken up to that point.

No, I don’t want to admit how many times we attempted this.

My favorite stop along the way was probably Thunder Cave, although the cave itself wasn’t my favorite. It is a cave worn into a gorge that creates a booming noise as the water comes surging through the gorge and crashes into the cave. It made for an impressive display of nature, but I think the looking down the gorge itself out into the open sea was my favorite view on the trip.

Thunder Cave

The view beyond (sadly, photo does not do it justice)

It was an awesome experience traveling with people I’ve met since I got here, and the short three day trip was a great warm up into longer trips further into Australia. I can’t wait to for my next journey.

 

 

Our very mature driver and copilot at our first meal break.

Side note: I was reminded on this trip of how much freedom is given by having a car. We could hardly bear to part with the tiny compact sedan that had us crammed hip to hip for hours each day.

Quite literally hugging the car behind. I dare say a few tears may have fallen shortly after this photo was taken.

Australia Post 4

I’m sure this sounds totally stereotypical and cliché, but I can’t believe how long I’ve been here already. It’s been a while since I’ve had time to write, but I realized when August hit that I’d already been here a month (that second rent bill was a pretty firm reminder). Now the two months mark is just a couple days away.

 

I’m not just marveling at “time flying” or anything like that, I’m startled because this feels so different than my last trip abroad. Last summer I spent only 5 weeks abroad in Italy, and as much as I loved my experience there, by the time a month had passed I was very ready to go home. I knew I would miss the beautiful ancient city centers and Tuscan landscape (I started missing the crepes and gelato before I even got on the plane to leave), but I was tired of living abroad the way I was in Italy. I was sharing a room in a bed and breakfast with two other girls most of the time I was there, and when I was traveling I was stuck hauling everything I’d brought with me – which was far too much. As the month wore on, all the little things started to get to me, the heat and humidity and lack of air conditioning in my accommodation (and in most buildings), the half mile hike to the nearest place I could do laundry, and just the general stress that I associated with living in extremely temporary circumstances – for example, we had almost no storage furniture, so we were all living out of our suitcases and one small wardrobe.

 

Now, I’m complaining a lot about Italy, but I want to point out that everything there was intended only for a month, and it served me fine for that long. And there were a lot of nice things that I’m skipping over because they’re not part of the point I’m trying to make here. Going back to Australia, I was surprised when I realized I’d hit the one month mark because I didn’t feel remotely like I had after spending a month in Italy. Where Italy left me stressed and travel weary after a month, here in Australia I actually feel at home, and I think it has everything to do with the differences in how I’m living here and for how long. My accommodation is much more comfortable here. I have my own room in an apartment, my clothes are all stored in a closet, and the laundry is just downstairs. I have space in my room to make it my own, and I did so with a few small purchases from Ikea. There is a sense of permanence to what I’ve created in my room, even though I’ll only be here for one semester, and also because I’ll be here for an entire semester. And on top of that, I’ve built relationships here, and a routine that works for me. I’ve learned the public transit system and become familiar with the main city as well as the suburbs I live in and go to school in. I’m anchored in Australia by the people I’ve met here and the places I’ve become familiar with. In Italy, I never really got out of the OU bubble. It’s just too hard to escape it in Arezzo. The people I became close to were all returning to OU as well, so the only attachment I felt to Italy because of them was the memories we’d made. So, while I loved going there, I was never really more anchored than a tourist, and it’s hard to enjoy living as a tourist forever – at least, it is when you make the mistakes I did (see previous posts on overpacking and such).

 

I guess what I’m discovering is that living in a place like you’ll be there for a month is an entirely different and to me, less fun experience than living in a place like you’ll be there for a semester. A semester is long enough to justify building some roots and getting a few comforting touches for yourself, and it’s long enough to really begin to feel invested in where you are. I’m a lot more attached to my place in Australia now than I ever was to Italy, and it’s largely because I came here with the attitude that I would be here for a good long while, and because there was no OU bubble to hide in. I guess my take away here is that my mentality and the arrangements I make for myself have a big impact on how I feel as time goes on while I travel, and I’ll need to remember that the next time I decide to go abroad.

Aussie Food Review

So since food is like 80% of what I think about anyway, I figured I’d try writing a post on food here in Australia, so here goes.

Random Australian Food Item No. 1: Vegemite
There’s a very interesting obsession with vegemite here that I would liken to an American southerner’s obsession with calf fries: whether you’ve actually had them or not, you know exactly how weird they are, but you feel a strange connection to them anyway, maybe because of a shared regional origin or something. Australian attitudes toward vegemite are similar. So first off, what is the stuff? Vegemite. Sounds like it’s made of vegetables, and maybe mites. Or maybe it’s what Popeye the Sailor would eat, mighty vegetables? Spinach? Nope. It’s yeast. And frankly, it’s plain weird. Even Australians will tell you to use extreme caution when eating this stuff, and I mean every single one of the dozen or so Aussies who has asked me if I’ve tried vegemite has said this. It’s made to be eaten as a spread on a piece of bread or toast, but no one ever does it right the first time. They pile it on like peanut butter and Nutella, and then they throw up. You’re supposed to put the thinnest layer you possibly can on a piece of bread, then scrape half of that off. And that still might be too much. And to help hide even more of the salty, meaty, beer-like taste (it is made of yeast after all) you’re supposed to put a thick layer of butter on that bread first (this also makes it easier to remove more vegemite when you inevitably use too much). Honestly, as little as you’re supposed to use at a time I don’t understand how people actually go through an entire jar in a lifetime. But it’s supposed to be a big source of vitamins, all the jars say “vitamin B” on the front, so I can see the interest in training little kids to like it.
     Rating: Try it once, because it’s so very Australian you really can’t say you came and didn’t try it. But if you care at all about your taste buds definitely use caution.

 

(pic stolen from the internet)

 

Random Australian Food Item No. 2: Tim Tams
I always heard about Tim Tams on the internet and never understood why some people were so obsessed with them – the attitude here is similar to that directed at Twinkies in the US. Now I’m starting to. They’re literally everywhere, in all kinds of flavors. I think I can sort of compare them to Oreos, in the variety of flavors that exist and in the fact that they’re both made of chocolate cookie-cracker-things with some kind of creamy, sugary filling. In the case of TimTams, they’re both filled with and dipped in (usually) chocolate. And they’re amazing. They’re at every social event that has snacks, and they’re always the first thing to go. Also like Oreos, the packages never have enough of them. Ever. The residence hall I’m in often supplies a single package of them at social events, and while we have a pretty small hall and an even smaller turnout at social events, those Tim Tams never make it around the room a second time. If you don’t get one on the first pass they’re gone.
     Rating: Yes. Try them. Love them. Don’t keep them in the house if you don’t plan to eat an entire package in two days or less. (so yeah, Australian Oreos)

The deliciousness captured
Typical store display, they’ll dedicate half an aisle to these things

Random Australian Food Item No. 3: Kangaroo Meat
You had to know that one was coming. Not reviewing kangaroo meat would be like going to Oklahoma and never having beef. I tried kangaroo meat at a food truck in the Queen Victoria Night Market in Melbourne. The truck offered crocodile burgers on squid ink buns, emu sausages with grilled veg on top, and kangaroo burgers on beet root buns. Upon questioning the saleswoman, I learned that yes, it was real squid ink, and no, it added no flavor to the bun, it just dyed it black and made it look both cool and slightly disturbing (ever looked at an ink-black burger bun? It’s unsettling). It was the same for the beet root, so I ordered my kangaroo burger, figuring I’d come back to try the croc and squid another time (hopefully next week). The ‘Roo meat, as the cook called it, was similar to beef in texture, although I imagine most ground red meat is similar in texture. The flavor was nothing particularly strange either, it just tasted like meat, maybe similar to beef, but again that could have had to do with it being ground. However, it was very well cooked. That burger was downright delicious, and unlike most well cooked beef, it really wanted to crumble apart in chunks. I was warned not to try to cook it myself first or I would never want to try it again, and I can see why now. The ‘Roo patty I tried was amazing, better than most beef burgers I’ve had, but I could tell by the texture that it would be easy to mess up if you didn’t know what you were doing. The way it crumbled, it was almost verging on gritty, and I suspect a poor or even mediocre kangaroo patty would be pretty dry and gristly. Luckily, I got a really, really well cooked burger, so hopefully my luck holds for future kangaroo meat trials.
Rating: Definitely try it, but be smart about where you go. Queen Vic Night Market seems to be a good place.

‘Roo Burger and Emu Sausage in all their delicious glory

Bonus Australian Food Item: Emu Sausage
Bonus because I didn’t really eat the whole thing. My friend ordered it at the same place I got my ‘roo burger, so I only had a bite and don’t feel justified in giving a full review. My one bite tasted pretty typical of sausage to me, I honestly couldn’t tell much of a difference, except that the skin they used to hold the sausage together was so thin and so similar in texture to the meat of the sausage that I almost couldn’t tell it was there. But again, superbly cooked sausage. Maybe I’m just reviewing this food truck more than I am the kinds of meat, but so be it.
     Emu Sausage Rating: Worth trying, I would buy myself one to get a proper try, given another chance.
     Queen Vic Market Strange Meats Food Truck Rating: A+, definitely go there for all your weird meat cravings.

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.

Getting Ready for Australia

As I prepare to go abroad in July, I continue to be surprised by how much I have to do, how hard it actually is to go abroad, how fast my departure date is approaching… going abroad is just one huge exciting mess. And a ton of (usually really minor) stuff always goes wrong.

How much I have to do:

Course equation requests. Language placement tests. Choose Australian insurance. Order a Visa. Order plug adapters. Buy a plane ticket. Sort out housing in Monash. The list goes on and on (and on and on…). I’m surprised people ever actually make it abroad, I keep getting hung up on this eternally long “to do” list (and I actually really like “to do” lists). It feels like I will spend the next year trying to check all of these boxes just so I can go abroad, and this is just what is required of me by OU and Monash. It doesn’t even include all the things I have to purchase/do to function in Australia once I get there (see: plug adaptors, unlocking bank card/credit card for international use, figuring out cell phone service…). But I’ve done this before (with slightly less red tape thanks to it being an OU program) and I made it then, and other people have made it abroad before. I know it all gets sorted out and eventually I get on the plane and arrive, and that’s what it’s all about. I just hope I don’t lose my head before then!

Things that go wrong:

For example: last time I went abroad I way overpacked with all the wrong clothes. And I had more information about where I was going than I do this time. I also had various little issues with hotels and taxis and communication… the list always goes on and on.

I’m trying to minimize the number of those mistakes for this trip, but I’m realizing (thankfully before I leave this time) that stuff is just going to happen. Maybe this time I won’t haul 30 lbs of clothes I won’t wear across an ocean, but something else will go wrong. Maybe I won’t have warm enough stuff for cold nights, or dry enough clothes for the rainy season. Maybe my taxi ride from the airport to my hotel won’t cost 90 euros this time, but it’ll take me hours to find it. Or it will take me to the wrong place first.

I’m not trying to be pessimistic or predict everything that will go wrong, my point is just that things are always going to happen. No one can prepare for every contingency, but, at least for “Type A” people like me, it’s really hard not to try. And that was how I wound up hauling 30 unnecessary lbs of unbearably hot dress clothes and uncomfortable shoes around the Italian train system for a week of my last study abroad (in addition to the other 30 lbs of junk with varying degrees of usefulness in my suitcase). I swore not to do that again, but because I’m a faithful believer in Murphy’s Law, I know I’ll just make another mistake instead. And that’s fine. If I can lug a 60 lb suitcase up and down multiple flights of stairs and down cobblestone streets and still have a good time in Italy, then I can handle whatever goes wrong with Australia and still have a good time. Big perk I’m seeing to semester long study abroad: guaranteed “home base” to store most stuff at so I can take light bags on weekend trips (see: no more hauling 60 lb suitcase).

How fast my departure date is approaching:

Too fast. Not fast enough. It seems forever away, then I turn around and it’s May, and I leave two months from Saturday when I swear it was four months away a minute ago. It seems forever away through a mound of paperwork and purchases and phone calls to make, but then I clear another hurdle and it looks a lot closer. It’s one crazy psychological roller coaster that’s going to come to a screeching halt when my plane finally touches down in Melbourne. Then a whole new roller coaster starts.

OU Cousins Thoughts

My OU Cousin this semester is Patricia, a freshman international student from Kenya. When we met for lunch back in February, President Trump’s first travel ban had just been put into place – and quickly put on hold. So, as most conversations back in February went, we tried to talk about other things, but eventually the topic got around to politics and to Trump’s latest executive order. Patricia told me about her friends on the international floor in Adams who were concerned about trying to go home over the summer. That part of the story I’d heard before, people afraid to go home to see their families because they might be banned from returning to school. As if going to college out of your home country isn’t scary enough, now these students were faced with the possibility of having to choose between seeing their families and wasting thousands of dollars on starting an education that would likely have to be completed elsewhere, with the risk of losing any credit they had completed. But Patricia also said that many of those students understood where the ban came from, even if they didn’t agree with it. Those countries listed on the ban are home to groups that openly and actively try to cause harm to the US and its citizens. It makes perfect sense to try to keep those groups out of our borders, but we need to consider how we do that. Blocking everyone from those countries from entering the US might reduce the risk of terror attacks in our borders – if we assume that no one already in our borders is planning an attack – but it won’t solve the root problems. It won’t address the fear and hatred that come from a lack of understanding of each other. It only encourages them. It makes the US look even more opposed to anyone from those nations, and it prevents the interactions that would promote understanding and empathy between our nations. I’m all for preventing terrorism, but I don’t think cutting off all travel between our countries is the solution. I think we need to look for a more long term solution, one focused on promoting understanding and comradery between our nations instead of encouraging the fear and hatred that these terror groups feed on.