While my semester abroad has impacted me tremendously, it is more difficult to tell if I have left any memory in Sydney. At Cornell, I know I have some sort of impact–in my research lab, or through writing articles in the Daily Sun, or at Boynton Middle School where I help students with their homework. I feel like Sydney has given me the greatest four months of my life and I need to give something back. And two nights ago, we did just that.
This past week has been full of final Australian experiences: doing a coastal walk from Coogee to Bondi, going to Luna Park, shopping in the city and sitting on the beach. But it has also been about spending time with friends who we may never see again and trying to get the most out of our final moments together. At around 4 AM the other night, we heard our friends outside our apartment door and decided to go hang out with them. This seemed like a good idea at the time:
Problem #1: We are leaving all of our friends that we have grown so close to in the past four months.
Solution #1: Hang out with them for as long as possible.
Problem #2: Our door was locked when we left the apartment and none of us brought keys.
Solution #2: Climb through our neighbors’ window onto our balcony.
Problem #3: Our balcony door was not open.
Solution #3: None.
Problem #4: We were in the middle of cooking pasta and the stove was on.
Solution #4: Have the fire department climb through our balcony window to unlock our apartment door.
Luckily, all that happened was that the pasta was a little burnt (and, according to my roomate who was still hungry after the traumatic incident, burnt pasta isn’t so terrible). But I think it is safe to say we have made our mark in Sydney. Or at least left the Coogee Fire Department with a funny story.
And with that, the semester is over. As I sit here before I go out on my last night in Sydney, I cannot help but think of all the reasons why this semester was so unbelievable. I learned to surf on a deserted beach that I think may have been the closest place to Heaven on Earth. I watched the penguin parade and saw a natural world wonder in Melbourne. I went to one of the biggest Mardi Gras festivals in the world in downtown Sydney. I went to the top of three sky towers in Sydney, Melbourne, and New Zealand. I also jumped off one of those sky towers. I ventured to the weird hippy town of Nimbin (which, trust me, is an adventure in itself). I saw Buddhist temples in Bankgok, rode an overnight train, stayed in floating bungalows and bathed in a freshwater lake in Khao Sok National Park, went to a Half Moon party, and rode an elephant in Koh Phangan, Thailand. I saw another world wonder, the Three Sisters, at the Blue Mountains in Sydney. I toured the Sydney Opera House and virtually splatter painted a building at the Vivid Light Show. I jetboated in Queenstown, New Zealand. I climbed the Sydney Harbour Bridge. I fed multiple kangaroos and pet a few different koalas. I swam in a mud pool and sand boarded in Fiji. I snorkeled below the water and jumped out of a plane above it in the Great Barrier Reef. I went zorbing in Brisbane.
Summary: I had the most incredible experiences that the world has to offer. So now, I need to thank all of the people who made it possible.
Mom and Dad: Thank you for (mostly financially, but also emotionally) supporting me throughout the past four months. Do you remember last year, when I called you from the library and told you I couldn’t possibly leave Cornell? Thank you for telling me that was ridiculous. Thank you for pushing me to go to Australia over Europe so that you could come visit. Thank you for actually coming to visit me and giving me two of the best weeks of the entire semester.
Dad, do you remember the night before I left, when I was about to cry at the dinner table because Mom kept asking me if I was sad to leave? Thank you for telling her to stop asking me. Thank you for taking the long plane ride over here, even though you kind of have ADHD and can’t sit still for more than an hour. Thank you for waking up at 5:30 AM everyday so that I have someone to talk to when no one else is awake. Mom, thank you for letting me call you on my half hour long walk to class, even though the phone bill was probably hundreds of dollars. Even though it’s really embarrassing that Dad read my blog to 15 people at the Passover seder and that Mom cried almost everytime she spoke to me, you are seriously the coolest and most amazing parents a daughter could ask for. I am so grateful that you allowed me to do everything I have done the past four months, and that you trusted me to figure everything out for myself. Thank you for allowing me to grow, and always being there to tell a story to.
Now to my roommates–I would say that you are the sisters I never had, but since I already have a sister, you guys will just have to be okay with the fact that you are the second and third sisters I never had.
Julz–To put it simply, I could not have come here without you. Seriously, if it wasn’t for your talk the night before we left Cornell, I may have never driven away from Ithaca. Thank you for being my technology guru, my navigation aid, and my best friend all in one. The fact that we have been pretty much inseparable for the past two and a half years and still want to spend time together says a lot. Seriously, my dad thinks we are starting to look alike.
Sam–Thank you for letting me print out your abroad papers and tell you when to fill them out so that you could come here with me. Sharing a room with you has been quite the adventure. Thank you for going along with some of my crazier ideas, like having our own Half Moon party at 6 PM while jumping on our beds or jumping out of a plane at 14,000 feet. Thank you for never once telling me I needed to clean up my stuff even though I told you all the time and I was just as messy as you were. I am so proud of you for being so adventurous and stepping out of your comfort zone. Thank you for realizing how scared I was to do everything we did even though I pretended not to be and for being proud of me, too.
To my readers (AKA Mom, Dad and Steph): Thank you for following me for the past four months. It has been the journey of a lifetime.
St. Augustine said, “The world is a book, and those who do not travel only read one page.” I think I’ve added a few pages to my life story these past four months.
Ever since I can remember, I have been a huge fan of Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen. I have followed them as their careers expanded from the early days on “Full House” to their own series of videos, two TV shows, one big movie, and various clothing and makeup lines. When I was in elementary school, my best friend, Lindsey, and I pretended we had our own “Olsen and Olsen Mystery Agency” and went about solving crimes on the playground during recess. I became a member of their fan club and was sent autographed photos that were hung on my bedroom door. When I was ten, my sister and I went bowling and out to dinner with them in Los Angeles (true story). And now, I support them by following both of them on Twitter and by buying clothes from their fashion line (thanks Dad!).
As the Olsen twins became teenagers, their movies evolved from being about sleepover parties and solving mysteries to being about traveling all over the world. So when I decided to come to Australia for the semester, I immediately watched their Australian movie, titled “Our Lips are Sealed”, and decided I wanted to do exactly what they did in the movie. I mean, who doesn’t want to be like the Olsen twins: they travel to amazing places around the world, wear trendy clothes, and always manage to find two cute boys by the end of the movie.
Although I was not banished to Sydney by the Witness Protection Program because of my involvement in a jewel theft like they were, I have tried to channel my inner Olsen during my time here:
1) The Sydney Harbour Bridge Climb: As I mentioned about a month ago, we did the Sydney Bridge Climb at twilight. And while the bridge was not closed down for us to be the only climbers like it was for the Olsens and their two new Australian boyfriends, it was incredible to watch the sun set over the Sydney Opera House from the top of a bridge.
2) Surfing: Mary Kate Olsen was a last minute replacement in a surfing competition and magically happened to excel at the sport. There is simply no way this is possible. As I learned a few months ago at surf camp, surfing is MUCH harder then professionals make it look.
3) Throwing a boomerang: Mary Kate is also able to throw a boomerang ridiculously far and have it return to her. When I bought a boomerang the other day and attempted to learn how to use it for about an hour, it proved to be impossible. Here are the instructions printed on the back of the Australian frisbee:
“Hold the Boomerang flat side of palm with the end about the middle of the palm. Face directly into the wind. Turn 45 degrees to the right of the wind. Raise Boomerang above shoulder and tilt 20 degrees vertically. Throw Boomerang at angle of 30 degrees above the horizon. Release with a spinning motion as the Boomerang leaves the hand.”
Basically, it would take a mathematician or Einstein to figure out how to use one correctly.
4) Spend a day at Luna Park: Luna Park is a famous amusement park similar to Coney Island and accessible by ferry in Sydney. Although I didn’t randomly meet the owner of the park’s son and have the whole park to myself a la Mary Kate and Ashley, it was still fun to ride all of the rides and see the breathtaking view of the Opera House and harbour from the top of the ferris wheel.
5) Using the lingo: I am not keen on Vegemite, but I reckon that I had to taste it. No worries.
(Above is an example of how Australians talk. Seriously. It’s not just in the movies).
All in all, while I do admire the Olsen twins, I like to think my experience was even better then theirs seemed to be in “Our Lips Are Sealed”. Although I still want to figure out this whole boomerang thing…
In my last class of the semester, we talked about identity. As American students studying in Australia, do we view ourselves as foreigners? Are we Americans? Do we see ourselves as Australian? Here in Australia, I have been referred to as one of the “Cornell girls” by many of the Study Abroad students. This comes with its own identity: one of my friends was told to show x-rays of her lungs to the Cornell girls to see if we could diagnose her. Right–a psychology major, a communications major, and an economics major can really tell you what we see in your x-ray.
For the first time on our Fiji trip, we were the only Americans on the tour. Therefore, we were referred to as “Team America” or “the American girls” by all of the Europeans and our Fijian tour guide. While I’m not exactly sure if “American” or “Cornell” describes my identity, I have compiled a list of reasons why “Fijian” DEFINITELY does not describe my identity:
1) Fijians are invincible.
No harm can be done to Fijians. They are so tan that they do not get sunburnt. While we were walking around the town of Nadi, a man on the street told us that we needed to be less “vanilla” in color and more “chocolate” like him. The most color I ever get is more of a strawberry color (red) from the sun. No wonder everyone stared at me a little strangely. Fijians also don’t find it necessary to wear shoes, even when trekking through the muddy rainforest for four hours. I guess this makes sense considering my favorite sneakers have now been donated to a Fijian village, but I’m pretty sure my feet would fall off if I tried to make it barefoot. Fijians also seem to be unaffected by bugs. Yes, this includes mosquitoes AND bed bugs. It feels like I have an adult case of the chicken pox.
2) Fijians live on the edge.
In the past week, I’d say I’ve faced some near-death experiences: living in a hostel with a possibly schizophrenic woman, jumping out of a plane and rolling down a hill in a giant plastic ball. However, these are all things that are open to the public and have been proven time and again to be safe (well, minus the hostel experience). On the other hand, sandboarding, in which you sled down a giant sand hill on a boogie board; trekking through the rainforest and scaling a waterfall via slippery rocks; and floating on bamboo rafts that are referred to as the Titanic because of their tendency to sink have not been proven to be so safe. But don’t worry, I survived!
3) Fijians like to get dirty.
Obviously going along with the not-wearing-shoes thing, Fijians don’t mind some dirt and mud. I had a permanent layer of dirt covering my body until I got back to Sydney. Trekking through the muddy rainforest while it was raining and falling in the mud was one quick way to get dirty. Also, going to a natural mud pool and hot spring does not help you clean yourself. Climbing up and down a mud hill without shoes to get on bamboo rafts is also a great way to stay dirty.
4) Fijians drink kava.
Kava is a root that is ground into a powder form and mixed with water to become a drink. Many Fijians drink kava everyday, and it is considered a sign of respect and welcoming if you are offered a cup. We were offered kava in a traditional Fijian ceremony at the village we visited. Kava tastes exactly like what I presume muddy water would taste like. I could barely choke down one cup, needless to say four cups.
5) Fijians love to dance.
Although I enjoy dancing, my friends often make fun of my dance moves (possibly because I have no hand-eye coordination or rhythm and usually make a fool of myself, but that’s just a guess). At the local village elementary school, the Fijian children performed choreographed dances for us. The children were very focused and eager to show us their dances: so eager, in fact, that one of the girls lost her sarong mid-dance (but kept on dancing!). One of the girls pulled me up and tried to teach me her dance moves, which didn’t quite go so well. When we arrived back at the village, we were taught the traditional native dance, which ended up in a congo line—my kind of dancing.
6) Fijians are traditional.
When we went to the villages, both men and women had to wear sulus (sarongs) to cover our knees. We had to drink kava in a specific way: clap once, say “bula” (hello), drink the kava out of a coconut shell, and clap three times. When we walked into the village, we were given a flower to put behind one ear. If the flower is behind the left ear, it means you are single. If the flower is put behind the right ear, it means you are in a relationship, engaged, or married. My flower kept falling out from behind my left ear, meaning that I am not meant to be single. So, Prince Charming, where are you? Our Fijian tour guide, Dave, told me he wanted to set me up with a Fijian so that I would stop asking him so many questions. So maybe I’ll find a Fijian husband and move to a village there—how would you like that, Mom and Dad?
7) Fijians feel like they have it all.
Traveling this semester has made me want to see the entire world. I no longer feel like I can stay in one place forever. I want to see all that the world has to offer. However, when we asked our tour guide if he ever wanted to travel, he replied that he didn’t need to go anywhere else because in Fiji, he has everything he needs. Being in Fiji, it was easy to see why he felt this way: the beautiful beaches, amazing weather, and unreal scenery may have something to do with it. Also, living in a traditional village gives a sense or order, community, and family. When I asked if his whole family lived in his village, Dave told me that all Fijians are related, so the entire village was his family. You can tell that they are happy with what they have because everyone smiles, waves, and says “bula”. When we got a flat tire, almost every car pulled over to see if they could help us.
Although I am most certainly in no way a Fijian, Dave told me that I acted like one because I was always smiling, which is the Fijian way. Unfortunately I could not say in Fiji forever, but I will keep the Fijian way of life in mind for the last days in Sydney. Goodbye Fiji, and bula (again) Sydney!
Throughout the semester, I have been writing my blog entries as small stories that end in one large life lesson. I can definitely say I learned about and lived through many interesting experiences in the four days we were in Cairns and Brisbane, but I do not think I can only tell one part of the story. So, here it goes: the full Cairns experience.
Like I’ve said before, there are plenty of attractions that one MUST go see when one is abroad in Europe. However, in Australia, there is really only one “you have to go or you are an idiot” place: the Great Barrier Reef. So, obviously, Cairns was thought to be a necessary destination. Upon arriving, we checked into our hostel, where we learned that there had been a mistake with our reservation. For that night, we were put in a four-person room for three of us, and told that most likely no one else would be put in the room, which was perfect for us. Satisfied, we went to walk around and see what the town of Cairns had to offer.
When we arrived back to the hostel, we rode the elevator up with an interesting woman–she was around forty years old and seemed to be carrying every single one of her possessions, including a large stuffed animal. When we all got off on the same floor, I whispered to my roommates, “I guarantee she’s coming to our room.” When we stopped outside the door of our room to get a key, she popped up and used her own key to open it for us. Great.
Lizzie, as we took to calling her, seemed to be a homeless woman with a possible anxiety disorder. As I was a little frightened to be sleeping next to this woman, we did everything we could to avoid staying in the room: walked around Cairns for a while (and straight through a Harlem-esque brawl on the sidewalk), watched an entire documentary about sex in indie films throughout the years–you know, what one usually does on any given night. When we finally got back to the room and Lizzie began to change next to where my pillow was, I just took off my glasses and closed my eyes.
One of my friends, Samantha Padilla, told me that when I was disgusted by a hostel, I should close my eyes and pretend like I am at the Ritz Carlton. That would have worked, except that I guarantee the Ritz does not play music that makes your bunk bed vibrate until 5 AM, especially when you are waking up at 6:30. Needless to say, we quickly made a reservation at another hostel for the next two nights.
Thankfully, a day on the Great Barrier Reef made up for the previous horrible night. To put it simply, the reef was one of the most beautiful scenes I have ever seen. From above water, it looks like a bunch of rocks and blobs. But underneath, there are beautiful coral formations, humongous clams, and hundreds of species of amazingly-colored fish. Snorkeling there was truly the experience of a lifetime.
When we arrived back on land, we went to the next hostel, where the receptionist, Buddha, greeted us. We told Buddha that we wanted to go skydiving the next day from 11,000 feet, which is the middle height available (the lowest is 9,000 feet and the highest is 14,000 feet). He asked us if we were too scared to go up to 14,000 feet or if it was because of the cost. We told him it was because of the cost because we didn’t want to appear afraid, but obviously it was because I think 11,000 feet is high enough. However, when he tried to work out a deal on the cost for us, we quickly told him that 11,000 feet was more than enough—thank you very much, Buddha.
The next morning, we arrived at the skydive office. In what seemed like thirty seconds, we filled out the paperwork, were harnessed in, and were on our way up in the plane. At 9,000 feet, when three people jumped out, the instructor I was strapped to decided to inform me that they didn’t feel like stopping at 11,000 feet and were going to give us a bonus and take us up to 14,000 feet. Oh. Lovely.
All of a sudden, my feet were dangling over the edge of a plane. And then I was free falling over the Great Barrier Reef. It was that simple. And within ten minutes, it was completely over. Looking down over Cairns while attached to a parachute was a completely different way of seeing things, especially considering I sailed right over houses–imagine looking out your window and seeing some people on parachutes floating by?!
The next morning, we flew to Brisbane, where we could get a flight to Fiji that night. Deciding to fulfill another extreme sport goal of ours, we went zorbing. Zorbing is defined by Wikipedia as “the recreation of rolling downhill in an orb, generally made of transparent plastic”. Basically, it is the opportunity to see what a hamster would feel like if you put its plastic ball on top of a hill and pushed it down. Two people are harnessed in at once and rolled down a hill, bumping into metal poles along the way. Talk about my idea of fun!
And that’s the full story of Cairns and Brisbane. The perfect ending to our travels throughout Australia, and the perfect prelude to our trip to Fiji.
With so many of the people I have come to know and love over the past three years graduating from Cornell this weekend, meaning that my own graduation is only one year away, it is hard not to feel a little nostalgic and scared.
Endings are always bittersweet. At Cornell, the end of the year is marked by Slope Day, which is of course always one of the best days of the year. But while I eagerly anticipate Slope Day, I also have the feeling of anxiety as I think about the daunting task of spending twelve hour days studying in Mann for the two weeks following. By the time finals are over, I can’t wait to leave, just to get out of the confines of the library. By the time I pack up and leave, however, I am reduced to tears as I realize yet another semester has ended. With only one month left in Australia, I know this feeling of sadness will inevitably arise (especially because I won’t be spending so much time in the library…).
I cannot believe that all this time has passed. While only a few months ago Sydney seemed like a foreign land, it has now become my home. I cannot believe that at one time, I was scared to come here–scared to step into the unknown and scared to leave the comfort and familiarity of Ithaca.
This fear of the unknown and sadness of leaving the familiar has been a theme throughout my life. During the two weeks before I left for college freshman year, I cried every single day. If someone even mentioned the word “college”, I would break down into tears. During my freshman year, I cried every time I had to say goodbye to my parents, even though I had never been homesick in all my years of sleepaway camp and summer programs. But by the time I finished freshman year, I couldn’t stop crying for the better part of the four hour drive home because I was so sad to leave Ithaca, the place I had now begun to think of as my home.
Going abroad has never been a question for me. I have always wanted to go to Australia, but did not want to travel all the way around the world by myself. I persuaded two of my best friends that it was a good idea for all of us to go, simply because I would not have been able to say goodbye to them for an entire semester. I believe that if you are given the opportunity to have a semester to travel to wherever you want, there is no reason not to take it. But when the time came to fill out the paperwork to apply to UNSW in Sydney, I panicked. As the three of us sat on the floor of my room and signed the necessary dotted lines, I reassured myself that this meant nothing–just because I handed in these papers did not mean I had to go.
Since the semesters in Australia are on a slightly different schedule than those in the states, I had time to go up to Cornell for two weeks in January. The night before I left to go back home, I (embarrassingly) could not stop crying. How could I leave the place I had come to know and love to go to some city all the way around the world, where I knew no one and nothing? How could I travel so far away from my friends and family, knowing that we would only be able to talk for limited amounts of time due to the time difference and expensive phone bills?
Now that I’ve been here for four months, I cannot believe I actually thought any of these things. The “unknown” of Australia turned out to be one of the best places I’ve ever been, as did the “unknown” of Thailand, the “unknown” of New Zealand, and as I’m sure the upcoming “unknown” of Fiji will be next week.
So what do you do when you only have one month left in a place that you never before imagined you would be, and a place that you cannot actually imagine leaving? Everything you can. Australia is different in that there is not much you HAVE to see. In Europe, you are really an idiot if you do not see the Eiffel Tower and other incredible museums, buildings, and monument. Here in Australia it is more about what YOU want to see: art, animals, or nature, to name a few major attractions. What do I want to see? All of it.
Last week, we did the Sydney Harbour Bridge Climb. I’m not sure why someone decided that thousands of people would want to climb a bridge in the middle of Sydney, but it was a great idea. As long as you are sober (yes, you are breathalized before you go), anyone can go up. This has included the blind, the deaf, a 100 year-old woman and a 10 year-old boy.
Being on top of the city with the sun setting behind us epitomized my semester abroad: the true beauty of the “unknown”.
Many bloggers start their entries with quotations by some of literature’s most important contributors. I am going to start mine off today with a quote from one of the most beloved (in my humble opinion) Nickelodeon characters:
“Hi. I’m Eliza Thornberry, part of your average family. I’ve got a dad, a mom, and a sister. That’s Donnie-we found him. And Darwin? He found us. About our house: it moves. Because we travel all over the world. See, my dad hosts this nature show, and my mom shoots it. Okay, so we’re not that average. But between you and me, something amazing happened. And now I can talk to animals! It’s really cool, but totally secret. And you know what? Life will never be the same.”
For those who lived under a hole during Nickelodeon’s prime 1990s cartoon era, Eliza Thornberry traveled around the world with her family to exotic natural locations, where she communicated with all of the wildlife. Besides the fact that I dressed up as Eliza for Halloween this past year and that we have an uncanny resemblance (see pictures below), I have never actually had anything in common with her. After a traumatic experience with a St. Bernard in high school, I have not been too fond of animals and nature. Until the past two weeks, that is, when I have traveled and seen enough animals to last a lifetime.
The first stop was in Queenstown, New Zealand. For New Zealand’s approximately 4.2 million people, there are 30 million sheep. As one of my friends noted, “people must sleep well there because there are so many sheep to count!”. No wonder Australia and New Zealand are the Ugg (sheepskin boot) capitals of the world.
On our walk through the rainforest, we encountered tiny birds that flitted around us as we walked. They picked up on our human presence and followed us everywhere we went, making little chirping noises as they flew. The next animal we saw on our walk was a species of ducks. Usually, there is nothing so special about ducks. However, this type that we saw is one of the only species of animals that mates for life. In fact, when one member of the couple dies, the other living one simply stops eating until it dies of starvation, so that it can be reunited with its lover duck in the afterlife. Talk about true love: I cannot think of one human being that would forgo food for his or her significant other.
The next stop was Auckland, which is the complete opposite of Queenstown. Whereas Queenstown is a cute little town with an abundance of mountains, lakes, animals, plants, and beauty, Auckland is a major city more similar to Sydney, with a large university and many commercial buildings. The closest thing to an animal in Auckland was me, when I flew off of the Auckland tower, or my sister and I, when we were propelled into the air by a giant bungee swing in the middle of the street.
Back in Sydney because I had to go to class (yes, even Eliza had to do her math homework during her travels), we went to a wildlife park where we saw even more native Australian animals before heading off to the Blue Mountains. Aside from having a blue tint, the real attraction of the Blue Mountains is the Three Sisters, one of the most beautiful rock formations in all of Australia.
The next stop was Kangaroo Island, a little almost uninhabited place that is a twenty minute flight from the bustling city of Adelaide. Our tourguide, Terry, could easily have been Eliza’s father: he truly sensed where the koalas, sea lions and kangaroos would be and brought us to walk right alongside them. The sea lions have a unique system of finding their young: when a mother swims to shore, she calls out a unique sound to her child. Her child will then respond with the same sound, and they will continue making the noises until the find each other. It is a language that only a mother and her child can understand.
Lastly, back in Sydney, we went to the Taronga Zoo, which has 52 acres with over 2,600 animals. We watched giraffes and zebras graze, gorillas wrestle with each other, seals dive in and out of the water, lions cuddle with one another, and a tiger pace back and forth, looking for an escape.
Since I’ve been in Australia, I have seen plenty of different animals: dugongs and various types of fish at the aquarium as well as kangaroos and koalas at the attached wildlife center in Sydney. I have fed kangaroos, wallabies and koalas in Sydney and Melbourne. I watched the penguins march away from the shore to avoid predators in Melbourne. I have seen koalas and kangaroos in their natural habitats in Kangaroo Island. I have rode elephants in Thailand and seen monkeys interacting in both Thailand and in Sydney. I swam among fish off the coast of an island in Thailand, and will do so again in a week and a half, when we travel to the Great Barrier Reef. Suffice to say, I am animaled out.
While I have never been a big fan of wildlife, I have found a new interest and familiarity with wildlife and nature throughout my time here. I now believe Eliza and I have more in common than ever before, and I have my travels throughout Australia, New Zealand, and Thailand to thank for that.
This is not really my third predeparture date, but can actually be considered my sixth. As somewhat of a nomad for the semester, I have been to Sydney, “Location X” for surf camp, Melbourne, Byron Bay, and Thailand. And now, finally, I am on my way to New Zealand, where I will meet my family.
First stop is Queenstown-the adventure capital of the world. When people think of my family, “adventure” is most likely not the first word that comes to mind. When we went for a hike in the Grand Canyon one summer, it began hailing and we had to stay under a cave until the size of the hail reduced from golf balls to a more manageable type of precipitation. When we rode horses down to the bottom of Zion Canyon, mine sat down and wouldn’t get up for a while. When we went white water rafting in Alaska, we were all miserable because it was so cold and wet (as opposed to a dry white water rafting trip?).
This is really going to end well.
We’re not really the adventuresome types when it comes to vacations. Although we have traveled across the US and have seen the most random places in the most bizarre states, the most exotic trips we have taken have been planned out, but never implemented. There was always the idea of going on a safari in South Africa. Then there was the plan that my sister and I would go to Israel and then meet up with my parents for a trip around Greece. One time, we even had an itinerary set for a trip to Cuba, which I don’t think is exactly legal. Safe to say, none of these trips ever happened.
So when I read the itinerary for this trip, I called my father and asked him if he actually knew what he was getting himself into. His response: “This is what you do when you go to New Zealand”.
On our second day in Queenstown, we are going on a Dart River Safari for six hours. This includes an hour-and-a-half jet boating ride. Let’s compare this with my last jet boating experience that occured about a month ago in Sydney Harbour: for a half hour, I thought I was going to die. Literally, my knuckles turned white and I was screaming so loud that my friends didn’t realize it was me, and thought it was the five year old boy sitting behind us. Although I had a lot of fun, I thought a half hour was roughly twenty minutes too long for this seemingly near-death experience. So I can only imagine how we’re all going to feel after ninety minutes.
Our next step will be Auckland, where I will go skydiving. That’s right: jumping out of a plane attached to one other person and a parachute. While I like to believe I am the type that can do this without a second thought, it isn’t exactly true. This stems back to when I was five years old and would walk out to the edge of a diving board, jump on it, and then walk off. At camp, I would always put a harness on for show, and then never actually climb the rock wall. It took me seven summers to finally do the zip line one time. I went gorge jumping freshman year (sorry, Cornell, I know it’s prohibited) after much deliberation. I ended up with no bathing suit top and pain so severe that I couldn’t sit down for three days. This past summer, I went to trapeze school for a day, and was so bad at it that I ended up just swinging up there for a while. In Thailand, when we jumped out of the boat to swim in a freshwater lake and jump off a cliff into the water, I attempted to climb the rocks but ended up falling off and scraping my hand. Needless to say, adventure doesn’t come so easy to me.
But once you’re up in the plane, the only way out is to jump. This is how I’ll approach the entire trip: jump right in and see where the wind takes me.
The street markets in Thailand sold many different t-shirts and tank tops with various graphics and slogans displayed across the front. At 100 baht per shirt (about $3.20 American dollars), who could resist buying one (or more)? One of the shirts that almost every vendor sold said “Same Same” on the front and “But Different” on the back. As there were much more interesting shirts with slogans that actually made sense, I refrained from buying one of these. But now, I realize I could apply this slogan to my semester abroad: Same time, Same place, but Different perspective.
This saying applies to anywhere unfamiliar that one explores. Take Cornell as an example. When a friend of mine came to visit last year, I took her on a tour of campus to show off the beauty of Ithaca. When we got to the clocktower, she pointed it out and asked me what it was for. Um, hello? It’s a clocktower: a tower with a clock on it. Obviously its purpose is to tell time. Like, duh.
Although we were looking at the same monument, it took on a different meaning for both of us. I may have been in awe when I first saw the clocktower during my first visit to Cornell, but listening to the chimes everyday for the past four and a half semesters must have made me accustomed to its beauty. Another example of this “same but different” mentality at Cornell is the deal I made with my father when he visited me for the first time freshman year. He said that I was not allowed to graduate until I had stepped foot in every single building on campus. Although I saw no point in this, I now realize that he saw Cornell for its true beauty and for the vast opportunities it holds for its students in each and every one of its buildings. Even though we were looking at the same architecture, I saw each building as the place I had just had a prelim, or the place I had that seemingly never-ending psych lecture twice a week, or the place I once tripped and fell down the stairs. Embarrassingly enough, I now have a map of all the buildings on campus, and I check off each building as the list of the ones I have entered into continues to grow.
My family has told me numerous times how excited they are to see kangaroos and koalas when they come to visit next week. In fact, we have a whole weekend devoted to traveling around Kangaroo Island (can you guess what we’ll see there?). While baby joeys are not hopping next to me as I walk to class everyday, the idea of seeing a kangaroo has become more and more normal throughout my time here. I have seen kangaroos and wallabies hopping across the road. I have seen koalas at wildlife preserves and in natural habitats. Although we will all be in the same place at the same time, these experiences will be completely new for them, but rather familiar for me.
In Sydney, the Opera House is like Cornell’s clocktower on a slightly larger scale; instead of being the most famous building on a college campus, it is one of the most famous buildings in the world. In fact, the Sydney Opera House is one of the most recognized buildings on Earth, especially with its inclusion on the UNESCO (United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization) World Heritage List a few years ago. For those who lived through its eight years of construction, it may seem like just an overpriced tourist attraction. But every time I have seen it, whether day or night, I have been blown away by its structure, its uniqueness, and its beauty.
I can’t imagine that everyone does not have the same reaction as me, but it’s true: same place, same time, but completely different perspectives on one of the most incredible places in the world.
Going abroad certainly has advantages over taking an ordinary, week-long trip: the opportunity to form a homebase in a foreign country, the time to sit and people-watch, and the chance to make new friends, are prime examples of this theory. However, going abroad also presents a student with the chance to take once in a lifetime trips that he or she would not necessarily take otherwise. This reasoning is exactly how I ended up in Thailand for eight days over Spring Break.
I could have probably written an extremely long blog post detailing every minute of each day that I was there, considering each moment was unique and unlike anything else I have ever experienced. However, as I had no access to any technology whatsoever, I am going to have to settle with one blog post, written in hindsight, describing the most valuable lessons I learned about Thailand (and, indirectly, about myself) while I traveled from Bangkok to Khao Sok, from Khao Sok to Koh Phangan, and from Koh Phangan back to Bangkok.
Lesson #1: You do not need a cell phone to survive.
Please, do not commit me to an insane asylum for making this bold statement. This actually happened on accident. My phone is my connection to my family and friends at home, my mobile source of e-mail and Facebook, and my entertainment when I am bored (I know everyone knows what I’m talking about when I mention beating my high score in Brickbreaker). As soon as I arrived in Thailand, I attempted to buy a plan that would allow my BlackBerry to function, at least minimally, for the week. However, even though I paid for a plan, my phone ended up sending and receiving messages for a total of 20 minutes during the entire eight days. Do you know how it felt to be cut off from everyone else for that long? Amazing. No one was sitting at dinner texting, no one was anxious to see if they had a missed call, no one missed seeing something unexpected occur because they were too busy walking and BBMing. While it is not at all feasible to not have a cell phone or e-mail during my time abroad, I have to admit it felt liberating.
Evidently, this freedom from technology is not for everyone. When visiting the Grand Palace, an estate where King Rama I lived when he was in power in the late 1700s, we went into the Royal Monastery of the Emerald Buddha, which is one of the most sacred Buddha worship sites in Bangkok, if not in all of Thailand. While we sat and stared in awe at the beautiful shrine, there were a handful of monks participating in their daily prayers. As I watched the beautiful ritual, I heard a song, which I soon realized was actually a ringtone. One of the monks took out his cell phone and answered, as if he were walking on the street and it was completely natural to take his incoming call. Obviously, my notion of monks is a little outdated. Instead of being rooted in the past of ancient notions and religious rituals, that monk was more technologically advanced than me this past week!
Lesson #2: Preconceived notions rarely prove to be true.
In light of my discovery of modern monks, I have to say that my preconceived notions of Thailand as a whole proved to be untrue as well. I thought of Thailand as unsafe, chaotic, dirty and hot. The only part of this that shined through was the 90 degree weather. Never once did I feel unsafe or scared amongst the Thai people, no matter which city or village I was in. Although many people did not understand what I was saying when I spoke in English, I could tell they genuinely tried to listen and decipher what I was attempting to ask them. That effort to understand is far more than many New Yorkers who do speak my language give to me when I ask a question.
Lesson #3: Not being able to speak English does not mean someone is deaf.
Just because someone does not speak English does not mean that they are hard of hearing. While many Thai people do speak English (or at least the necessary phrases, including “how many baht?”, “how much?”, and “toilet?”), there are still many who stared like I had five heads when I spoke. However, yelling an English sentence will not help them more clearly understand the language. Neither will sounding out the words, or repeating oneself seven times, or having one’s friend say the same sentence. Instead, it is best to accept the fact that YOU are now the foreigner, and try to learn how to communicate by appealing to the person you are speaking to. If it is truly impossible to communicate, simply say “kap koon kah” (thank you) for trying, and find the next person who may be able to understand the obscure language that we know as English.
Lesson #4: Anything that moves will be used as transportation.
This includes but is certainly not limited to, the following: planes, overnight trains (complete with bunk beds), ferries, long-tailed boats, high-speed catamarans, pick-up trucks, kayaks, jeeps, taxis, tuk-tuks (motorized rickshaws), motor bikes, and elephants.
Lesson #5: Toilets and showers are a luxury.
First of all, there are many different types of toilets in Thailand. No matter what, you cannot throw your toilet paper in the toilet but must instead place it in the garbage bin provided. That is only if you are lucky enough to find a bathroom with toilet paper. Then there are toilets that are about one centimeter off of the ground. When these are the only available toilets on a 13-hour train ride (remember, trains are in constant motion), you can imagine the difficulty associated with going to the bathroom. There are also toilets that do not have flushers, but instead are next to buckets of water that you pour into the bowl in lieu of flushing.
The entire bathroom comprised of the toilet and the sink (and sometimes this bucket-of-water-flusher, depending what kind of situation you have gotten yourself into), also serves as the shower. Basically, the bathroom becomes the Titanic while you use the entire room as your shower an inevitably flood the floor. If you don’t want to use the shower and happen to be staying in a bungalow that is literally floating on a freshwater lake, feel free to jump in and use your shampoo and conditioner there. You will be just as clean as you would be if you had used the shower, and you will save yourself the seven minute walk to the bathroom. If you do decide to trek to the bathroom and it is after 11 PM, and the lights turn out, and you realize that you have a good chance of falling into the water on your pitch-black walk back (this is a completely hypothetical situation, of course), hopefully a nice little Thai man will pop out of nowhere with a flashlight and guide your way back.
Lesson #6: The monkey will always win.
Hard to believe that monkeys could be the enemy, considering they are known to be the most similar species to humans. However, monkeys are very protective over their belongings. Whether this is their offspring or an adopted pet kitten, they will be vicious to ensure that you do not harm their loved ones or steal their belongings. In fact, they may turn on you and steal YOUR belongings. For example, if you leave your bathing suit out to dry while you go elephant trekking through the jungle, they may take it and rip it to shreds before you know it. If you point and scream to whoever is around that you need your bathing suit back (please refer back to lesson #3: yelling in English will not make a Thai person understand what you are saying), the monkey may become annoyed and grab your towel. This may ensue in a tug-of-war between you and the monkey. Hopefully, you will come out on top. Unfortunately, this will not piece your bathing suit back together. The final score will be-monkeys: 1, humans: 0.
What I learned in Thailand cannot be compared to what I have learned so far in Australia; not because it is superior, but because it is such a unique place with a fascinating culture and history that I was so lucky to be able to take part in. And with my next adventure being a trip to New Zealand in less than two weeks, I cannot wait to learn even more valuable lessons that will contribute to my understanding of the world outside of my New York (and now Sydney) bubble.
Yes, I know: this is not actually a predeparture blog, as I am already halfway through the semester. I can remember when I was sitting in my room in New York literally counting down the seconds until the middle of February, a month after everyone else had left for abroad or begun classes in Ithaca. And now, with everyone gearing up for Slope Day and finals, I am finally going on mid-semester break (also known as Spring Break, except that the seasons are reversed).
Just when I have started thinking of Sydney as my home, it’s time to leave again. So far, my study abroad experience has been a balance between exploring Sydney and traveling to other places. With the past few weeks being all about travel, it was nice to be home this weekend. There are still plenty of things I need to see and do in Sydney before I leave. This past weekend, we went jet boating around Sydney Harbour. Basically, you sit in a huge raft that speeds through the Harbour and gets you soaking wet as a way to “see the sights”. I’m not sure in what world this is a good way to see the Opera House and the Sydney Bridge as my knuckles turned white from gripping onto the railing of the boat for dear life and I did not once lift my head for fear of falling into the water. But at least I can say I did something new and different!
Being in Sydney is like being in a familiar, comfortable spot. When I go to get coffee in the morning, the barista knows what I am going to order (Long Black with a dash of milk and two Equal) and charges me $1.50 less than he is supposed to when his boss turns the other way. The woman I see running everyday on the same path waves to me as she tugs her dog away. The bus driver who remembers the time I ended up in the wrong place makes sure I know where I’m getting off this time around. The waitress at the Palace, a restaurant right down the road from our apartment, knows what we will order every Monday night and rings us up before we say a word. The woman at the gym knows that after two months, I am still debating purchasing a membership. The guy and girl at the travel agency know exactly what kind of trips to book us on (the cheapest and most entertaining ones around). Simply put, the little town of Coogee Beach in Sydney has become my home.
In two days, I will be off to Thailand, which will probably be more unfamiliar than anywhere else in the world. ThaiIntro, the company that specializes in tours around Thailand during Spring Break, has provided us with some tips for packing and travel within Thailand before we take off:
1. Pack an eye patch and a small sword: Is this a joke or serious? I can’t tell, and I almost don’t want to know.
2. Do not drink water from the tap: Okay, but what if I get really, really thirsty? How come everyone there can drink it but I can’t? Does that mean when Thai people come to America or Australia, they can’t drink the tap water?
3. Wear sunscreen: As we have been buying sunscreen almost weekly since we’ve been here (happy, Mom?), this shouldn’t be a problem. Especially because the low temperature of everyday is forecast to be 80 degrees.
4. Never argue with Thai people. Thai people hate to ‘lose face’ in public: Is this why I need the sword?
5. Never point your feet at a Thai person or at a statue of Buddha: Okay, so when talking to a Thai person, I need to stand sideways? What if I am talking to someone but to the side is a statue of Buddha? Which way is better to point my feet?
6. When visiting temples make sure you dress appropriately and cover your shoulders and knees: Considering cut-out shoulders and short shorts are the biggest trends, this should severely limit the amount of clothing I pack. That means more room in my suitcase to buy Thai items! (Just kidding Dad, don’t worry).
7. Always remove your shoes when entering a shop or a person’s house: Does this mean they have foot showers outside of every shop? What happens if someone steals your shoes when you’re inside? Is it okay to walk barefoot on the streets if that happens? I don’t want to lose my shoes!
8. Never touch a Thai person on the head: What??? Who does that??? Why would you touch someone on the head that you just met?! Why would you ever touch someone on the head in general?!
So, as everyone can see, I am clearly prepared for this journey to Thailand where I will visit temples, sleep on an overnight train, stay in floating bungalows, and ride an elephant through the jungle, among other activities.
Goodbye Sydney, and sawadee kah Thailand (hello, Thailand)!