Alone in Australia

When I graduated college I didn’t have a clue what I was going to do. I had faint dreams of moving to New York City and becoming an editor but when it came down to it, my internship at a children’s publishing house hadn’t gone all that well. It had been pretty boring and although I couldn’t have articulated it at the time, I needed more human interaction than reading a slush pile offered. Since this was my only idea for the future, it didn’t bode well.

I lined up a summer camp position so that I was at least employed leaving college, if only for three months. I spent every day of those three months of the verge of panic with no sense of what I wanted from my life. After the summer I moved back home with a barely formed plan to save money and travel. After considerable research and six months of waitressing I made my way to Australia.

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My first day in Melbourne, Australia.

It was the first or second year the 12 month working holiday visa was available for Americans. For a small fee (it’s much more expensive now) I could go to Australia and work for any employer for up to six months and stay in the country for twelve consecutive months. I was twenty-two when I left the US alone and I knew only three people in my destination: two people in Melbourne and one in Perth.

Today is Australia Day. I left for Australia almost exactly seven years ago. I arrived in the midst of a heatwave that was so powerful it damaged the new Melbourne Star Observation Wheel (it’s like the London Eye) and led to the devastating bush fires known as Black Saturday that killed 173 people. I woke up every day before 6 am and went to bed shortly after the sun. It took a couple weeks before I could stay up late enough for beers.

My trip feels so far away now. It was an incredible journey full of discovery where I would spend long afternoons walking alone, observing each new place. I was free. There’s no other way to put it. For most of my year of backpacking I traveled the coastline working in Melbourne, Western Australia and Cairns. I took tours, traveled with friends, worked in pubs and restaurants, swam with sea turtles, watched emus and kangaroos walk down the street, and even stood up once while surfing. Every day was new. Every place a discovery. Every experience an adventure.

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There’s two things I took from my experience (okay, I took a lot more than that but I’m trying to condense it).

  1. Backpacking alone is incredibly freeing but it is not all sunshine and beaches. In fact, it can be pretty lonely. When moving around regularly, you are constantly trying to make new friends. You end up with many friends, none of whom you know very well. Many of whom are moving around too, leaving before or after you, going in the same or opposite direction. Some you stay in touch with. Others you never hear from again. This happens regardless of how fun your time together was. The other negative of backpacking is the money. Backpackers are poor. It can’t be helped. While I had always been careful and strategic with money I had never had to count my dollars and cents quite so carefully. In my notebook that I carried everywhere, I wrote down every purchase over $.50. I spent much of my time figuring out where I would find work next and how much I needed to save before I could leave again. With hindsight I could have made better choices and stressed less but at twenty-two what are you going to do?
  2. The other thing you should know is when that if you’re going to Australia, you really need to go to Western Australia. It’s entirely worth the journey. It was in WA that I drank the best wine, laid on the best beaches, saw the most interesting terrain and truly learned about Australian culture. The Great Barrier Reef was beautiful but it was the Ningaloo Reef that took my breath away. It was in Exmouth that I walked through a park only to pass an emu and later kangaroos. Most importantly, it was in Perth that I drank the best beer. Priorities, you know? Backpackers and tourists alike often skip Western Australia as it is too far away, too expensive to get to. You could spend a year in WA alone. There’s more to see than you will ever have time for.
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One of the magnificent views along the Great Ocean Road

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An evening view of Perth

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This the appropriate express to have when feeding a dolphin.

I’ve written about Australia Day before when I still missed being in the country almost every day. Now it’s only a few things I really want to experience again: a meat pie, a Little Creatures beer, a swim over the Ningaloo, and a drive along the Great Ocean Road trying to peer into the trees to spot a koala beer. Happy Australia Day everyone! Cheers to adventures and the great unknown!

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21 Hours in Washington, D.C.

Twenty-one hours in D.C. is a mistake. It is a decision you will regret even if you have no money to afford a hotel in D.C. That’s what credit cards are for. The chance to go to there does not happen often and there is so much to see.

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In the short hours that I was there I did not wander far. My hotel in Chinatown put me in walking distance of so many beautiful things. I had a short window of time when I arrived to find something for lunch. I needed to eat fast and be ready to walk with my boss to a meeting. A block from my hotel on the corner of H and 6th I came across Beef and Bread. With my first bite I declared it to be the best sandwich I’ve ever had.  Upon reflection, that seemed hasty but I cannot remember ever eating a sandwich more delicious. Life changing. It is called Chinatown. The roast beef was tender and piled high. The jalapeno sauce was flavorful but not overwhelming. The cilantro, sprouts, tomato and lettuce were fresh and delicious. The bun, soft and fresh.

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I wish that I could have gone to the Spy Museum, the National Museum of Women in the Arts (that’s a thing!), the National Portrait Gallery, all of which were in walking distance from Chinatown. I took a thirty minute walk to stretch my legs between meetings. I had my headphones in providing an upbeat soundtrack to the warm, autumn day on the bustling streets. I saw all sorts of people. School groups, obvious tourists, business people, uniformed men and women, people of all ages and colors. A true city, a true melting pot, America. I was about to turn around when I saw a sign indicating the White House was ahead. Of course, I had to continue. So strange to be so close to the White House, barred by tall fences, a central figure in our nation’s history. And I was surrounded by fifty high schoolers taking selfies. I’m not sure what that indicates.

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That evening we went to Masa 14 for dinner on a recommendation from my boss’s sister. It sounded interesting, described as Latin Asian fusion. That probably should have been an indicator. While we did not order cocktails (apparently we should have), we went with the server’s recommendations for the small plates to share: kimchi brussel sprouts, pork belly steamed buns, rainbow roll, a shrimp tempura roll, and seared diver scallops. While the scallops were tasty and tender, nothing else is worth mentioning. It is safe to describe all as okay, a bit bland, not bad. It felt like a giant waste to be in such a mecca of food and have chosen poorly.

There were museums to see, people I would have liked to connect with, culture to experience and food to eat that I missed by coming home. Next time, I’ll figure it out. D.C., I’m going to come back to you!

Studying Abroad Changed My Life (Which Makes Me Just like Everyone Else)

For many people studying abroad is a formative experience, but for me it changed everything. It altered the way I looked at travel, my place in the world and my ability to express myself. It also introduced me to some of my favorite people.

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Some of my favorite people from my time in Scotland.

Before I spent the semester in Scotland during my junior year of college I knew that I wanted to travel and see the world but in a very hypothetical way. I didn’t know what it meant or how to do it. Visiting a country where you didn’t speak the language seemed ridiculous. Going somewhere by myself was out of the question. Now there are very few places I wouldn’t consider going. Most of those places are countries in civil war. I have confidence in my ability to navigate a train system (except in Berlin, that place is so confusing) or mime what I need at a store.

Studying abroad taught me to be an American. When I was in Scotland, Bush was in office and everyone felt entitled to tell me what they thought of America and our President. I had to learn to have pride in my country as well as humility. No pretending to be Canadian. My country has its embarrassments and its triumphs. Doesn’t yours? I mean, Hello British Empire! Just saying…

A picture from our first reunion in South Carolina, a year after study abroad.

A picture from our first reunion in South Carolina, a year after study abroad.

Growing up my family had spent a lot of time discussing where our ancestors had come from and we described ourselves as English, Scottish and Irish. We listened to Celtic music and I loved watching Irish dance. But being in all of those countries taught me that I am only an American. That is the culture that shaped me. I can be interested in my lineage and learn about the history of my ancestors but me? Little ol’ me? I’m an American mutt like so many others. I could no longer try to claim the cultures of others.

Studying abroad in college was the first time I didn’t know a soul. No one else from my home college went with me. I didn’t know anyone. Typically a shy person I was determined not to waste this time. I introduced myself. I made friends. I spoke up in class. I said what I thought. It was new to me and yet it came easily. When I went back home to Asheville, my new roommates called me “no nonsense”. The way I interacted with my friends had been forever altered. It was difficult, in some ways, to maintain friendships with people I knew from before. I gravitated towards people who had also spent semesters away from Asheville or towards people who didn’t know me before. New people didn’t have expectations. I could present my new self without confusion or questions.

A partial reunion in Australia in 2010.

A partial reunion in Australia in 2010.

The friendships I made in Scotland are still some of the most important ones to me. Thank goodness for Skype and Facebook. I do not get to speak with them as often I would like but I think of them often. This year I’ve been lucky to have two of them visit me in Wilmington- not an easy place to get to for a Canadian and an Australian.

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Many times I meet people who have changed their lives or career paths because of their study abroad experience. I met one just this week. I can honestly say, I completely understand.

Seeking Misadventure: 48 Hours in Charleston

Some trips require a lot of planning. You create a specific itinerary where you wake up at 6 am promptly each day and end the day with blisters and tears. Some trips you just throw a bag in the car (forgetting your swim suit) and hope for the best. This was definitely the latter.

Tyler and I rarely have days off together, so when he announced he had the WHOLE weekend off earlier this month we jumped at the opportunity to go somewhere together. I had been to Charleston before but each trip was brief and it had been a long time. When I was twelve or so I drove down with my dad in his car with a broken radio and a broken air conditioner. That’s genuinely all I remember of that trip. Another time I brought my study abroad friends from Australia and Canada to Charleston to visit another friend. That trip is a little clearer in my mind and yet I was shocked walking around downtown.

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Why does everything look like a movie set?!  Charleston is a remarkably beautiful city. Every building, every home is incredible. I can’t imagine what it must take to maintain one of those idyllic homes (I believe the answer is money).

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Normally I resist spending any time in the hotel, visiting restaurants in touristy areas, etc but it really wasn’t that kind of trip. We got in pretty late on Friday night and after walking around lost for a while we split some bar apps at TBonz. It’s a chain, but it’s local and their draft selection was fantastic. I drank a Coast HopArt which is delicious and dangerous (two beers might have been a mistake). Luckily we retired to the hotel immediately afterward.

A friend had gotten us an affordable rate at the Belmond Charleston Place which couldn’t be more perfectly located. The proximity to the open air markets, King St and the battery was ideal. We definitely felt like we were living a life of luxury (a king bed and cable does that for us pretty easily) and spent a good bit of time hiding from the gloomy weather on Saturday watching cooking shows and Law & Order: SVU.

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Despite that we also did a lot of walking around and getting lost in the little alleyways and eating some amazing sandwiches. I somehow stumbled across Brown Dog Deli on Yelp and insisted this was the place to go. Its restaurant was bustling when we arrived with the sort of quaint and quirky décor you’d expect to see in Asheville. We sat in the small patio garden and treated ourselves to a South Carolina brew, Westbrook IPA (yum!) and insanely delicious sandwiches. I had a pulled pork sandwich with cheddar, fig jam and apples. Tyler had a sort of French dip with cheese on orange rosemary bread. The smell of the bread alone had me drooling.

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It was a great way to spend the day before having dinner with some of Tyler’s friends from Virginia. I wish I had gotten some photos of them but we were too busy goofing off.

Sunday I had arranged for Tyler to play golf with his friends from VA who lives outside of Charleston while I got a massage. We stopped at kitchen 208 beforehand for a quick brunch. Tasty! My breakfast sandwich had candied bacon. Need I say more?

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While golf was being played I was relaxing in the hotel spa pretending I’m made of money. If you know me, you know I’m insanely cheap but sometimes…I get pretty indulgent. Totally worth it. Afterwards I wandered up and down King Street. Much of King Street is shut down to vehicles on Sunday to make way for pop-up restaurants and musicians. On my short walk I saw some amazing break dancers, listened to a woman with an incredible voice play banjo, ate “salted peanut butter ice cream with chocolate flecks” (re: indulgent), and visited the most wonderful book shop.

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The ice cream was truly delicious but at $5 for a small scoop (it’s more than enough) it’s definitely a treat and not a place to visit regularly.

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I visited Blue Bicycle Books at a dear friend’s recommendation and was very impressed. While not a particularly large shop, it had an excellent selection of fiction and non-fiction. When sections are labeled things like “Books on Books” they make it easy to find what you’re looking for. While I was browsing the store clerk was being visited by a group of her friends, all probably seniors in high school. They were loud and energetically talking about books they loved and art they’ve seen. It wasn’t really an ideal level of noise for a book store but it also made me pretty happy to see.

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Our trip wasn’t nearly long enough to do all I would have liked, but with Charleston only being about a three hour drive I hope to go again soon!

Inspiration Needed?

Need to feel excited about your life? About the world? Need to energize your sense of adventure? There’s that sense that anything is possible, like today is the start of everything and you can take the world by storm. Do you know it? Most of the time it alludes us, but for me the best way to experience it is to travel somewhere new. To get lost in a crowd of a park square or forget the time looking at an old cathedral. To climb a new mountain or see a new coastline. Leave the every day, the routine, the rut behind.

But how often do we really get to do all these things?! In the meantime, I turn towards my favorite movies and books. I haven’t brainstormed enough of the books yet, so today I’ll just share with you the movies that make me want to seek out the unknown. It might be the panoramic landscape shots, the tastes of a new culture or just the theme of being a stranger in a strange land that makes these films top on my list. Let me know what you think! What are your favorites?

 

Don’t you want to see the world now?