I’m excited to go home and once again be surrounded by familiarity. I’m excited because once I land in New York it means I’m that much closer to my next adventure in Senegal. I’m excited because I will be reunited with my cats, my boyfriend, and my well-stocked kitchen. The first thing I want to do is make a pie from scratch to satisfy four-month old cravings. I’m excited to sit on my back porch and watch sunsets over the Long Island Sound, and I’m excited to sleep in a king-sized bed again.
But I will miss Australia. I’ll miss riding ferries for hours on Sundays, hopping onto whichever one is boarding to see where it takes me. I’ll miss how pretty the water is—even if I’m reluctant to go in it. I’ll miss how beautiful Sydney is from the air. When flying into the airport the views of the beaches, the Opera House & bridge, and the skyline are jaw dropping. Possibly better than the views flying into JFK (sorry!). But most of all I’ll miss eating blood orange gelato and people watching at Circular Quay.
The most rewarding part of my time in Australia has been, just like in Ghana, boosting my self-esteem with the realization that I can take care of myself wherever I go. I can make doctor’s appointments and navigate confusing new healthcare systems. I can feed myself properly without constantly relying on takeout or eating out. (Side note: most people may think I missed out on all the amazing restaurants Sydney has to offer but I wasn’t impressed by the few that I’ve been to and I love love love to cook). I can plan out my assignments so I write a few pages of a 12-page paper a day instead of writing it all the night before it’s due. I’m pretty proud of myself for creating healthy, productive routines here and sticking to them, all while exploring new parts of the country nearly every weekend.
But I’ve had some problems. I’m not completely happy with NYU Sydney; as I said in my last post, most of my classes are disappointing. They aren’t challenging and my professors are not engaging, which makes me dread going to lectures because I get so bored. The small program size is also frustrating. There are too many students to get to know them all but too few to prevent me from seeing the same people over and over again. I think I actually prefer the insanely small size of Ghana (12 people) because at least when I saw the same people over and over again I knew who they were and didn’t feel weird making conversation. My last big complaint is that we are required to live in dorms in Chinatown, a 30-40 minute walk from classes. Yes the location is “convenient” but I feel that living in Chinatown has partly isolated me from a real Australian experience. If I go to a café downstairs the patrons are mostly foreigners, the restaurants are Asian-influenced, and walking down the street I hear different languages instead of Australian accents. Living in Chinatown does have perks (Paddy’s market, distance to Central Station, etc.), but I think if I could go home at night to a typical Australian suburb my experience would have been very different.
Despite my complaints, my time in Sydney has been a useful learning experience. I have become more grateful for the people in my life. I am able to take a step back from my Americanness and look at political, social, and environmental issues back home in a new light. I’m eager to explore where I live in New York because living somewhere else has taught me that amazing experiences are always right around the corner, you just have to look for them. I have until May 20th to keep exploring Sydney, but that end date doesn’t mean my Australian experience will abruptly end—I have at least another twenty hours on a plane before I transition back to being a New Yorker.
I was nervous to embark on my second semester abroad: I knew how hard it would be to be away from my normal life for four months, I had no idea what to expect in Sydney, and it was so unbelievably far away from home. I’m glad I came though, and I would definitely recommend the experience to other students. It’s a unique opportunity and gives both you and your family an excuse to explore Down Under, so don’t let the long flight deter you! Honestly your mind and body become numb to it after like the eighth hour anyways.
The NYU Sydney staff is super friendly and helpful, and they plan tons of free events—food included—that showed me parts of the city I wouldn’t have found on my own. So sign up for them all! While the dorms aren’t the best, having your own bedroom and bathroom makes it easier to deal with the far walk from campus. Plus I heard a rumor there will be a shuttle bus next semester…
Academic-wise I was disappointed with the majority of my classes here. I’m not as challenged as I am in New York, but I have a similar workload. Some of the classes are so easy that I feel like I’m wasting both my time and my money; homework assignments and presentations feel like busywork we did in high school. Often the material we are tested on is so vague and generalized that it’s impossible to prepare for and do well on tests. I know some people love their classes, so maybe I’m just unlucky.
I haven’t met many Australians, but that doesn’t bother me because I didn’t come here planning to do that. If you really want to meet locals though I recommend getting a job at a café or something—Marcus can help. Lots of girls also found Tinder to be a good way to meet local guys, although I heard the courting styles of Australian men aren’t up to New York standards.
One of my biggest regrets is strictly boxing in my time here. I chose not to fly in early because I didn’t want to be away from my boyfriend for any longer than I had to. But as I heard other students talking about time they spent in places like Singapore and New Zealand before coming to Sydney I couldn’t help but get a little jealous. I also can’t stay after classes end: I fly back to New York for four days and then head off to Senegal for a Gallatin travel course, provided the insane jetlag doesn’t kill me. While I’m excited to go back to West Africa (I miss it much more than I thought I would), it would be nice to leisurely make my way home, stopping in Cairns or seeing more of Asia. Bottom line: make flexible travel plans for the beginning and end of the semester.
And here are some miscellaneous tips:
- Use public transit on Sundays because it’s capped at $2.50 all day, no matter how often or how long you use it
- Travel within Australia! It’s easy to get wrapped up in Thailand, Bali, and New Zealand, but if you plan in advance you can get cheap flights all over Australia. Western Australia and Uluru are really cool
- Don’t use ePassport lines at the airport if you want passport stamps. You might already know this but I had never seen them before and learned this the hard way when I didn’t get a New Zealand stamp–Oh well, guess I have an excuse to go back
- Plan your grocery shopping to take advantage of Paddy’s and Aldi, and prevent last-minute runs to the more expensive Woolie’s
And finally…my biggest piece of advice to future study abroad students is to accept the idea that it’s okay to not totally love your time abroad. I learned this in Ghana but re-learned it in Sydney because I still find myself struggling with being away from home for so long. I’ve realized that’s just who I am—I appreciate new places and cultures but my personal enjoyment limit is around 3-4 weeks. After that I get antsy and frustrated, and just need a change in scenery or some time to recharge my batteries. Most people absolutely love their time abroad so this probably won’t apply to 95% of people who read this post, but if you’re in that 5% know that nothing is wrong with you and it doesn’t mean you’re wasting the opportunity!
My favorite part about being abroad is that there are so many interesting things happening at home right now, and I love the perspective that Australian news/pop culture takes on these events. It’s fun to play pretend and observe my home culture from afar; it forces me to reevaluate how I define my American-ness.
Every time Australians hear my accent, without fail, they ask about Donald Trump. First it starts out as a joke where they imply I would like him to be president. To which I reply with a grimace and a snort because I have absolutely no idea what to say. You’d think that after all the practice I would have a witty retort, but it’s hard to think of a witty retort to such a sad/strange situation. Once the joke is made it is followed by either a serious question as to how he’s gotten so far, or a question about when we’re finally going to pick nominees. I love how confused people look when I start to explain the complicated series of events that leads up to a presidential election. It’s ironic because the Australian political system is completely bonkers: people are fined if they do not vote, there is some system in which votes given to losing candidates are pooled and given to winning candidates, and I don’t really understand when elections are held because there are no set dates or limits placed on terms.
Sometimes the conversations end after Trump, but usually they move on to another aspect of American culture that Australians find funny. Once I went on a day tour in Perth, and after I told the guide that I was from New York he proceeded to call me “Miss America” for the rest of the day and quizzed me about popular music from the 60s and 70s—to the point where he hijacked the car’s stereo system and played thirty second snippets of songs to see how many song titles and artists I could correctly guess. I’m not sure why this facet of American pop culture appealed to him, but he got a kick out of every wrong answer I gave (there were a lot). Most of them were strange songs that were barely popular in the US. It’s interesting to see what crosses the Pacific and what doesn’t, and how the image of American culture is distorted in the process.
Another time, I went to a vintage clothing store looking for a Harley Davidson t-shirt for my dad. He’s a big fan of graphic t-shirts, so I try to pick one up everywhere I go: so far his collection has pieces from South Africa, Ghana, Thailand, Mexico, a majority of the Caribbean, various states including Hawaii, and many more. Well in this store I found an AMAZING Harley shirt with two kangaroos and a boomerang on it—quintessentially Australian. While I was looking for it I chatted with the shop owners, two guys maybe a few years older than me. I explained to them why I wanted the shirt and they burst out laughing. One exclaimed, “That is the most American thing ever!” They explained that they always thought of Americans as old white men who wear khaki shorts and floral or other obnoxious printed shirts. Funnily enough, they got the shirt in a shipment from overstocked vintage stores in LA.
While living in Sydney, I’ve found it increasingly interesting to look at the world from an Australian perspective. It’s often more comical, and the country’s distance and isolation allows you to appreciate the absurdity of what goes on both outside of and within its borders. Like I’ve said in previous posts, I haven’t felt culture shock here—and I still don’t. There is a different mindset, but it’s easy to switch over because when you’re Australian you get to say what everyone else is thinking, but afraid to say out loud. I like this attitude, and hope I can bring a piece of it back with me to New York.
When you’re halfway across the world from family and friends it can be hard to remember that life goes on without you at home. On Friday morning I got a text from my mom that jarringly brought me back to reality.
“Moose died. Dad found him on the side of the road. Thinks he had a heard attack.”
It happened. My dog died. While I was thousands of miles away. When I first read her text I thought my mom had mixed up our two dogs: Moose is only 6, while Bosco is 13. We’ve started to talk about what will happen when Bosco dies—after all he is finding it increasingly painful to move around is getting up there in age. But Moose? He was so young and energetic. Although my dad found him on the side of the road in front of our house, there were no signs of trauma. It seems his heart just gave out.
How do I mourn a loss from which I feel so disconnected? My mom took in Moose and Bosco in the fall of 2013 from our old neighbors after they moved to an apartment complex that didn’t allow pets. The dogs had to stay together and it was inevitable that if they went to a shelter they would be split up—who has room for two 100-pound dogs? We do, apparently, because my mom offered to keep the boys together while still letting their original owners visit whenever possible.
The timing of this matched up perfectly with me leaving for NYU. I liked to joke that my mom coped with empty nest syndrome by getting dogs that literally take up as much space as I do, if not more. Since I was rarely in the house I never fully bonded with the dogs. I’ve had cats my entire life, and I tend to favor their more relaxed, calmly loving attitude. Dogs, let alone two huge ones, were a complete shock to my system. I didn’t know how to act around them, how to take care of them, or even how to express affection. Sometimes I resented their presence because on the rare occasion that I did visit my parents, I felt my mom paid more attention to the dogs than she did me.
But when I got that text on Friday, I couldn’t help but cry. I cried for hours. I cried because Moose was gone, but I also cried because his passing meant that I could never return to the same “home” that I left back in January. I will go home in mid-June and there will a huge hole in my life in the form of a 100-pound dog—possibly even two. Moose was Bosco’s best friend—what will happen to Bosco now that he doesn’t have another, younger dog to keep him company?
I never said goodbye to Moose because I didn’t think anything would happen to him while I was away. I won’t have closure until I go home in mid-June: I didn’t see his body, I didn’t attend his burial, and I can’t see his grave. I cried on Friday but when I woke up on Saturday it was like a dream because I am so far removed from it all. Writing this post now it all feels like a sick joke. But I know when I go home I will restart the grieving process. Everything will be different. And that’s the price you have to pay when you leave.
I haven’t had anything seriously disastrous happen so far, which is good for me but bad for this post. I guess that’s what happens when you study abroad in a country similar to the United States and don’t really go out past 10PM. So I apologize to everyone else who has a truly terrible story for this post because my story is really more annoying than anything else.
It was Easter weekend so we had Monday off, and I figured the long weekend would be the perfect time to see Western Australia. I wanted to see the Indian Ocean, and to see how the western coast of the country compares to the eastern coast. Flight options were limited but I settled on a Thursday night flight at 7:30PM and a return flight Monday morning at 1:00AM. Wrong decision! I should have forced myself to pay $50 extra for the Monday afternoon flight but no I wanted to avoid the cost of a hotel for that night and the $50 on the flight. Silly me.
I woke up on Sunday excited for the first part of the day but dreading the second half. I had a list of places to go and things to see, but knew that list would only take me so far. Hotel checkout was at 10AM; I dilly-dallied until 10:30AM when housekeeping came knocking, and then started my day. First up were three museums: the Western Australian Museum, the Art Gallery of Western Australia, and the Perth Institute of Contemporary Art. By noon I was tired of museums and made my way to the waterfront, where I checked out the Bell Tower and the city skyline. It was impressive, but my rumbling stomach soon distracted me.
Since it was Easter Sunday and almost everything in Australia shuts down for most, if not all, of this holiday weekend, I was hard pressed to find something both cheap and good. I settled for a mini food festival put on by some yacht club, where I ate a vegetable burrito the size of a newborn baby. Needless to say this did not energize me for the rest of the afternoon; instead it nearly put me to sleep.
After I finished my burrito I hiked up to Kings Park & Botanical Gardens, where almost every family within a 20-mile radius was having some sort of reunion picnic. So now in addition to being tired and annoyed that it was only 2:30PM, I was also homesick. It was around this time that I started a running countdown text anyone who would listen to me: only 10 more hours until my flight!!! After wandering around for a while on the trails, I ended up taking a nap in the shade.
Then it was 4PM. I had crossed off everything on my Perth to-do list. I overheard someone talking about the Freemantle Markets, and a quick Google told me they were open until 6PM. This became my next destination. After a 30-minute uber ride and an interesting conversation with the driver—interestingly enough, he thought Perth was a very boring city—I was in Freemantle. I found the markets and proceeded to entertain myself for a half hour. Then I bought ice cream, which entertained me for another ten minutes.
At this point I gave up. I was so tired, so homesick, and so done with Perth, that I took another Uber back to the hotel, where I sat in the lobby and abused Wi-Fi privileges until 10PM, when I could finally go to the airport. I got to the airport early but I didn’t care because at least it was a change in scenery. Interesting side note: if you fly domestic in Australia and check in at a kiosk, no one looks at your ID ever! Not even security. And you don’t need a boarding pass to get through security. Anyways, at 1AM I was FINALLY in the air. While this clearly isn’t the worst situation I could have found myself in, it’s been the worst so far. I feel kind of guilty using such a blah “mishap” but I really can’t think of anything else. Australia is treating me much better than Ghana did, and I have far less to complain about—knock on wood.
My second book, Strange Country: Travels in a Very Different Australia by Mark Dapin, is similar to the first book I read in that it is a comical compilation of the author’s experiences in Australia. Dapin was born in England but moved to Sydney in 1989, so he has an interesting combination of both an outsider and an insider’s perspective of the country. I thought Bill Bryson was funny, but Dapin takes comedy to the next level: I actually spit out my wine (don’t worry I’m 21!) in the middle of a crowded bar because I laughed so hard at one of his witty retorts. While this book is predominantly hilarious, it also comments on a few important aspects of life in Australia: mateship, the impact of “the bush,” and relations between Aboriginals and white Australians.
“Australia is a place where everyone—even Elvis impersonators—is looking for somewhere to be together” (iBooks 593). The concept of a mate is much deeper than a clichéd greeting. From Toadbusters who seek to squash the growing cane toad population to the Cave Clan, a group of people obsessed with infiltrating the dark recesses of Sydney, there seems to always be someone who has shares your interests. There are also many celebrations and get-togethers celebrating the weirdest things. While this could be said of many large cities—especially New York—Dapin’s view on this phenomenon is different because he emphasizes how wonderfully bizarre and diverse interests can be on such a large and relatively empty continent. Australians have taken little chunks of interest from around the world and effectively made them Australian: camel racing, dreams of Jewish settlements focused on a return to the land, and the “bogan” lifestyle, which I believe is similar to our concept of “White Trash.”
Australia is the epitome of Baz Luhrmann’s “Something for Everybody.” And everyone strangely gets along. Take for example the time when the Fourth Reich Motorcycle Club, complete with swastikas sewn on their jackets, unknowingly crashed an Elvis Festival and no unpleasant words were exchanged (549). Or the fact that the warring leaders of two micronations that had seceded from Australia once considered settling a dispute over a Ping-Pong game (42-43).
Many of these interest groups share the desire to reunite with the unique Australian bush by hunting for something (not always animals), which “suggests a raving among gentle people to wear a uniform and fight a war, in these days when the only respectable warrior is an eco-warrior” (242). Or, “others are just looking for a new start, the way I was, when I came here in 1989” (593). Just like the United States has the American Dream of moving up a rung on the socio-economic ladder, Australia has the lure of a place that can still be explored, allowing people to see in it what they are searching for most—be it a yowie (Aussie bigfoot), crocodile, toad, or a Big Thing sculpture.
Oddly enough, however, most people fail to see those who have been in Australia all along: Aboriginals. Even though Dapin’s commentary is comedic, a few statements made by both himself and people he spoke with reflect on the way Aboriginals are regarded by mainstream Aussie culture. One guide made numerous derogatory remarks about the failure to build a dam on the Katherine River: “the Indigenous brothers, they don’t want that, so we persist with our water problems” (273). Despite the cruel treatment Aboriginals faced when Europeans arrived in Australia, they are still seen as an inconvenience to the majority of the population. And even Dapin makes some insensitive jokes: when he can’t set up his tent, he “did what generations of European adventurers had done before” and “waited around for the Aboriginals” to save him (224). I felt this mocked the skill set of Aboriginal people, demoting them from skilled workers to pseudo-servants who are supposed to help white people whenever they need it—although I knew he was trying to make fun of white people.
Despite this minor setback, I enjoyed Dapin’s book and felt it accurately portrayed the bizarre yet normal vibe that Australia gives off. I chose to read another compilation of funny memoirs because I get enough serious history in class; these types of books display a different side of Australia that makes the country and its people easy to appreciate and fun to get to know.
I thought I would use this post as a halfway point to reflect on my time in Sydney so far, while also comparing my feelings now to how I felt during my semester abroad in Ghana. I recently landed back in Sydney after spending a week in Thailand, and I feel much more at ease now than I felt when I landed back in Ghana after spending spring break in South Africa. It’s unexpected, but welcome because it forces me to think hard about why traveling can be both freeing and restrictive at the same time.
When I was in Ghana time dragged along at a snail’s pace; it was like I spent eight months abroad instead of four. So when I boarded the plane to South Africa I was excited because I finally had a frame of reference for how much longer I’d be away from home. I was halfway done. I felt like I could do it, I could easily get through the last two months while learning to appreciate the experiences that were coming my way.
I expected to be much happier returning to Ghana than when I left, but I wasn’t. When I got into bed that first night back I was hit with an overwhelming sense of dread because I realized how much I had enjoyed my quick getaway and how unprepared I was to fly back to Ghana instead of New York. I felt sad and defeated, and the next two months were incredibly difficult for me. Now flash forward to one week ago, when my friend and I were boarding our flight to Thailand; she couldn’t stop talking about how excited she was, but I couldn’t help but feel this little nag in the back of my mind. I wasn’t excited to leave because I knew how hard it would be to land back in Sydney instead of New York, despite how much easier it has been to adjust to life in Australia compared to life in Ghana.
Much to my surprise, when I was in Thailand (more specifically when I was in Phuket), I couldn’t wait to come back to Sydney. I craved my routine and the alone time I regularly carved out for myself. Phuket was too touristy but at the same time not tourist-friendly, and I had a hard time enjoying the island. When we moved to Bangkok a few days later I was much happier and “home” did not cross my mind as often. We easily mastered public transport, had our first experiences with local culture, and walked A LOT—three things we couldn’t do in Phuket. I loved everything about Bangkok, from the food to the vibes of the different neighborhoods we explored.
Now that I’m back in Sydney I do miss Bangkok, but more importantly I don’t miss New York as much as I thought I would. I keep expecting the feeling of dread that I felt in Ghana but it hasn’t hit me (yet). Maybe it’s because I know I will be crazy busy these next two months, or maybe it’s because there is much more to do in Sydney than in Ghana. Or maybe it’s because I fit in here—that’s something I really struggled with in Ghana, to the point where I didn’t want to leave the house because every time I did I attracted unwanted attention.
People say hindsight is 20/20, and it really is true when it comes to travel. Whenever I travel it’s like I’m in a fog where I can see what’s happening right now but I miss out on the big picture—how I’m changing as a person, the overall sense of a foreign culture, or even why a place is important. That’s why I like this quote so much. It emphasizes that travel doesn’t abruptly end when you get back home, but begins again because it’s easier to digest all that you’ve done once back in familiar surroundings.
I. THE USUAL
I went to Commonwealth Bank the other day to drop off a copy of my NYU Certificate of Enrollment so they would waive my monthly account fees. It was quite a process seeing as I went to the branch in Chinatown and the representative I spoke with did not understand my English very well, and I had a hard time understanding hers given the combination of Chinese and Australian accents. We struggled through the conversation but eventually I proved that I am in fact a student at an Australian institution despite that institution being called New York University.
Today I checked my transactions and saw I was charged a monthly account fee—that’s odd. I called the number on the back of my card and spoke to an overly friendly Aussie woman. Instead of putting me on hold while she solved the problem, we had a normal yet strange conversation, given this was a customer service call:
Her, very chipper: “So what did you do today?”
Me, very confused: “Well I just got out of class.”
Her, increasingly friendly: “Do you have any fun plans for the weekend?”
Me, starting to become annoyed: “Yes I’m going to Thailand. Do you know if I will be reimbursed for the fee you charged?”
And so on. She apologized to me multiple times for the inconvenience—something Chase has never done. And she gave me a refund immediately—again, something Chase has never done. I could really get used to the Australian banking thing.
I like Australian banking—employees are apologetic and act on their word without tying your money up for four to seven business days. She was so enthusiastic and I was not ready for it. I stuttered when responding because the customer service representative was bright and cheery.
I’ve been on hold for a long time; thankfully inter-Australia calls are free on my phone plan. Phone numbers here are strange because digits go four-three-three instead of three-three-four.
Why am I still being charged a $4AUD monthly account fee? Shouldn’t it have been waived? I like this CommBank mobile app because it keeps me on top of things.
That representative had a combination of Australian and Chinese accents and she couldn’t understand my American accent—I thought taking care of official business in person was supposed to be easier than doing so over the phone. At least she made time to look at my student ID and waive my account fees.
III. SURPRISES (the most fun to write)
I had to go to the bank the other day! NYU sent my Certificate of Enrollment so now I won’t be charged monthly account fees! Wow this is difficult! The representative has a strange accent that sounds both Australian and Chinese! I can’t really understand her! And I don’t think she can understand my American accent very well!
She finally knows what I want to do! She’s looking at my Certificate of Enrollment and my student ID! She doesn’t understand that New York University is in Sydney and not New York! I have had to explain this to so many people!
I downloaded the CommBank mobile app yesterday! I checked my account today and they’re charging me a monthly account fee! I’m going to call them! I’ve been on hold for such a long time! Yes it’s finally ringing! This lady is super friendly! She wants to know about my day! I had class! She wants to know what I’m doing this weekend! She should already know because she can see that I bought a flight to Thailand! I just want to be reimbursed for the fee!
She keeps saying sorry! I don’t know what to say back! She is so nice! Chase is never this helpful! Wow she already gave me a refund! I like this!
This past weekend NYU Sydney took us to Featherdale Wildlife Park, sort of like an Australian petting zoo (with actual goats and ducks thrown in for the true petting zoo experience), and while there I had an uncomfortable brush with “Travel 2.0.” Featherdale is set up like a typical zoo, with cages and enclosures for various animals, but it is unusual in that in certain sections visitors are allowed to roam freely with kangaroos and wallabies, and have the option to stand in line for a picture with a koala.
When we were set free from our short lesson to explore, I initially followed my friends to stand in line for a picture with a koala. We only had an hour to explore the park, and I can safely say most students opted to wait for a koala selfie or feed kangaroos in the hopes of getting a new Facebook profile picture. But as I stood and watched those ahead of me pose around a sleeping koala, I couldn’t help but feel sad: for the koala, for the situation, and for our obsession with social media that made this all possible. Needless to say I quickly left and instead spent my hour wandering through the park. But it seemed around every corner I found more tourists crowding around kangaroos with go-pros, reminding me again and again of what social media has done to travel.
Take for example, the Figure Eight Pools and Wedding Cake Rock at Royal National Park in Sydney: recently many tourists were injured by a semi-rogue wave while trying to take the perfect Instagram picture of naturally formed rock pools shaped like figure-eights. And Wedding Cake Rock became a social media sensation virtually overnight, sending so many tourists there that the rock shelf became unstable and is now fenced off.
Over the years, the main purpose of travel has evolved from experiencing new cultures to obtaining bragging rights. I’m guilty of this, and so are many people on my social media news feeds. Dropping location pins in increasingly remote and beautiful places brings strange feelings of satisfaction. Being able to say I’ve lived in Africa makes me inherently more interesting and worldly (or so I like to think). My friends go on Euro-trips or Asia-trips and cram as many countries as possible into three weeks. Our generation is obsessed with quantity instead of quality.
But Travel 2.0 hasn’t been all bad. While speeding through destinations, travelers still gain a sense of place that allows them to compare and contrast with other places they’ve visited. And I love Trip Advisor; it’s a one-stop shop for planning the perfect vacations on a budget. You don’t have to worry about what the hotel will actually look like, or if a place is difficult to get to. Someone has been there before you and will tell you all there is to know, and then some. I’m going to Thailand for spring break next week and without sites like Trip Advisor I would be completely at a loss for what to do. In a sense, 2.0 websites have forced the tourism industry to be held accountable for its actions. People want to visit stores that emphasize fair-trade, and wildlife sanctuaries that hold the well being of animals above profits. I think right now we’re in a strange limbo between outing irresponsible tourism and supporting more socially, environmentally, and economically responsible endeavors.
So while I shake my head at fellow students posing with a confused koala, I must remind myself that this is the future. As our park guide pointed out, the existence of these opportunities ensures these animals will survive due to increasingly public knowledge of their threatened status and heightened tourism demands that these photos will create. While the latter may not be the best reason to preserve and protect vulnerable species, hey—at least it’s something.
Bill Bryson’s In a Sunburned Country is a laugh-out-loud compilation of his various trips to and across Australia mixed with relevant history lessons and eerie stories of what can go wrong when visiting the land Down Under. Even if you have never been here and never plan to visit, this book is a worthwhile read because it perfectly showcases the oddities that make up the Australian experience, and how the rest of the world essentially ignores this fascinating place. There are so many quotable lines throughout the book, but I’ve picked out some of my favorites that explain what life here is like and how its impossible not to wonder how this country has made it to where it is now.
“One of the effects of paying so little attention to Australia is that it is always such a pleasant surprise to find it there. Every cultural instinct and previous experience tells you that when you travel this far…there should be unrecognizable lettering on the signs, and swarthy men on robes drinking coffee from thimble-sized cups and puffing on hookahs…” (10). This line perfectly encapsulates my difficultly in fully understanding that I am halfway across the world. When we travel to experience the exotic, how can we reconcile that somewhere thousands of miles from home can be so similar to it? Part of the appeal in studying Australian culture is trying to figure out how a country surrounded by only Asian countries has managed to stay predominantly European in influence. Bryson consistently returns to this paradoxical similarity; one of my favorite examples is when he goes into a crowded bar in the outback and his travel companion remarks that it looks like a ZZ Top convention. Despite the time travel it requires to get here, it feels like you’ve barely gone one hundred miles from New York.
Referring to the dangerous wildlife: “[Australians] spend half of any conversation insisting that the country’s dangers are vastly overrated…and the other half telling you how six months ago their Uncle Bob was driving to Mudgee when a tiger snake slid out from under the dashboard and bit him on the groin, but that it’s okay now because he’s off the life support machine and they’ve discovered he can communicate with eye blinks” (151-152). This is important to mention because the biggest concern of travelers here is that everything will try to kill them. From saltwater crocodiles jumping out of the water to snag unsuspecting passersby, to spiders and snakes that can kill a man instantaneously, scary creatures are everywhere. Yet despite the fear they invoke, they have come to serve as a tourist attraction. Australians are on one hand nonchalant yet on the other have developed a strange sense of pride in surviving in such an evolutionary unique continent; they have unbelievable bragging rights and so do tourists who make it out unharmed.
This leads me to another interesting Bryson snippet from his trip to the famous red rock: “It’s not that Uluru is bigger than you had supposed or more perfectly formed or in any way different from the impression you had created in your mind, but the very opposite. It is exactly what you expected it to be. You know this rock” (255). Visiting Australia is the final item on a traveler’s bucket list and once he crosses it off he can feel truly accomplished. Everyone has images of Australia: kangaroos, koalas, barbecues, and “G’day Mate” that make us feel inherently fond of this place. Yet hardly anyone can name a single Prime Minister or even point out on a map where big cities are located—I know I couldn’t before I came here. How is it that we feel so connected to a country we essentially forget about? On a side note, I’m heading to Uluru in May and I’m incredibly excited to see if I too feel like I know this rock.
Bryson also touches on issues such as the disgusting lack of Aboriginal recognition both in Australia and around the world, how some rural communities in the Northern Territory (which isn’t even officially part of Australia!) feel straight out of the 1950s, and how Queensland really is full of mad, backwards people who causally ride by on bicycles announcing the arrival of a tornado. All of these topics come together to paint a picture of Australia that makes you scratch your head and wonder why the rest of the world hardly pays attention to this strange place.