“Now boarding economy section. Rows A through G.” That was my cue. A long line of fellow travelers gathered in front of the ticket stand. I took my spot at the end, observing the people in front of me. Little kids ran around the waiting area, some laughing and others crying as their parents yelled at them in a frenzy. Middle aged couples held hands while calmly chatting about their adventure home or abroad, ignoring the kids. And then there I stood, a young college student holding only a passport and a pillow. I clashed against the norm of the crowd. When the other passengers asked about where I was headed, they all reacted with a similar response: a mixture of envy and nostalgia. They all knew I was in for an exciting adventure.
The line shortened and I approached the ticket stand, where a lady in blue uniform checked my passport and boarding pass. I clutched my returned items as I walked on to the plane.
Proceeding down the aisle, I looked at my assigned seating. Oh yes, the middle seat that I so adore. Better yet, I did not know who I would be sandwiched in between until my arrival in Sydney. That’s when it dawned on me — I did not know who I was going to sit next to because I had never traveled on my own before; I mean truly on my own.
For the first time I was going to experience life on my own, taking a quarter abroad in Australia, far away from my family and friends.
At this point in my life, I was in desperate need of independence. For a couple years I had felt smothered by my family, ready to break free. My parents had recently gone through a divorce, leaving my father and younger sisters desperate for my attention and guidance. At first, I embraced the role of the caretaker until the stress and sadness overwhelmed me. As time went on, the more my family needed me, the more I wanted to avoid responsibility, get away and be carefree.
Since I was seven years old, I developed this strange association between independence and Australia. At that time, my favorite movie was “Our Lips are Sealed,” a classic Mary-Kate and Ashley adventure film that came out in 2000. Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen were twin pre-teens who entered into the witness protection program after accidentally interfering with a museum robbery. The girls were instructed to leave the U.S. and attend the rest of high school in Sydney. During their time there, the twins thrived, mastering the stereotypical Australian lifestyle. They rode around the harbor in a yacht, lived with a pet kangaroo, met cute Australian boys, learned the funny Aussie lingo and even won a surf competition.
When I was seven I dreamed about moving to Australia, simultaneously living in the vast Outback and attending school in the city of Sydney. Like Mary-Kate and Ashley, I wanted a romantic Australian life where leaving home meant that all these amazing experiences would follow. Their movie catered to every kid’s naive perception of an ideal future, where any fantasy could become reality. By the end of the movie, my seven-year-old self connected to their story and experience, seeing it as my own. It was much like watching a Disney princess movie and suddenly believing that you, too, could become a mermaid or rule a fake kingdom as a legitimate profession.
Fourteen years later and I remained attached to a place I knew nothing about other than what the Olsen twins had told me. All I knew was I was supposed to go there, away from the confines of home and ready for an exciting new experience. Finally, the time had come.
Sometime after taking my seat, the seat belt sign flashed bright orange. As the flight attendants performed their safety procedures, the walls of the plane seemed to narrow in on me. The plane began pulling away and lifting into the air. I saw San Francisco’s buildings and roads get smaller and smaller below me until all I could see were clouds and sky. Looking over at the passenger next to me, out of the small, oval window, I realized there was no turning back. I distracted myself with the newest Hobbit movie I never had the chance to see in theaters. Watching the little hobbits and dwarves made my nervousness temporarily subside and I drifted to sleep.
“Please close your tray tables and return your chair to its upright position.”
My eyes opened and came into focus as flight attendants walked through the aisles collecting garbage and repeating that same memorized phrase to each row. The pilot announced over the intercom that we had 20 minutes until descent. My long hair was frizzy and knotted, my brown eyes drooped and my back hurt from the uncomfortable economy seat I had spent too much time in. Had I slept at all? I faintly remember waking up every 20 minutes out of discomfort and then falling back asleep. I was as ready as I was going to be for my arrival.
I exited the plane, gathered my luggage and approached the rotating airport door. It was time to finally step outside and see Australia for the first time. All these expectations buzzed around in my head: What would I see next?
A train, a bus, another train and then a busy city. My surroundings mimicked San Francisco, which was 30 minutes from where I live in California. A bit anti-climactic, I would say. I did not recognize anything surprisingly new or unfamiliar.
Signs led me to my instructed train heading towards Central Station. There were several empty seats to choose from so I spread out, making myself so comfortable that my eyes again glazed over and I drifted off. After some time, the train suddenly jerked. I zoned back in right as I was riding over the Harbor Bridge. Oh my god! I’m on the bridge! Hey, there’s the Opera Ho…Oh wait, it’s gone.
Yes, there it was; the icon of Sydney…and I had basically missed it. My tiredness quickly transformed into disappointment.
Already my actual experience in Australia had turned out to be quite different than I imagined. When I looked around, I did not see kangaroos casually hopping around. The days I went exploring, I did not immediately befriend native Australians. The first beach I went to, no one was surfing. Why didn’t I feel more like Mary-Kate and Ashley?
I slowly began to realize that unlike Mary-Kate and Ashley, I was all grown up and living in reality. My first two weeks were spent battling the hardships of transportation, coping with the unexpected pain of being away from my family and friends, balancing school and an internship, and questioning how independent I really wanted to be. In the movie, the Olsen twins’ biggest challenge was winning over the queen-bee by eating vegemite and smashing soda cans on their heads. Weren’t things supposed to be easier? Why was life here already so challenging?
Despite my complaints and disappointments, I knew I’d find that love for Australia I had but could not yet quite pin-point. I just did not realize how long it would take. As my program went on, I quickly forgot about the hollywood life of Mary-Kate and Ashley. I was starting my life here independent of theirs, experiencing my own adventures and excursions.
My favorite excursion happened to be the most physically exhausting. Our group went on a kayaking trip at Bundeena Beach, a small paradise about two hours of outside of Sydney. After a train ride to the city of Cronulla, we transferred to a green, old fashioned-looking ferry boat. We sat on wooden benches with many open windows that surrounded us, allowing the ocean breeze to rush in. Riding along the shore, I looked out and saw roughness of the bright blue water against the soft, beige sand.
Once we docked our group ran down to the beach, eager to begin our kayaking adventure. I had never kayaked before so I was not prepared for the physical endurance it required, especially in the rough ocean water. Before I realized this, it was time to pick partners.
I paired myself with my close friend, Ayesha, who, like myself, is quite lanky. I figured her sassiness would keep me entertained and her relaxed personality would make us a perfect match. Plus, we both shared the love of old 90s TV shows so we could keep a consistent banter full of endless quotes and references.
As we chatted and laughed, we did not take the directions of the instructor too seriously. We decided to relax behind the main group, lying in our kayak in the middle of the water. The sun beat down on us as our kayak swayed to the rhythm of the waves. Ayesha’s wavy black hair and natural tan contrasted my dirty blond hair and paleness as we basked in the heat. After a long discussion of the Lizzie McGuire Movie, we realized that the group had gone far ahead, around the beach peninsula to the other side of the ocean.
We came up with the brilliant idea of walking our kayak across the beach as a shortcut instead of trying catch up to them. This way we could intercept the group as they come back around the other side of the peninsula. We dragged the heavy yellow kayak across the sand. At the other side of the shore, the waves were very intense and the current pushed towards us. Preparing to jump back into the kayak, a big wave crashed into us and we capsized. Saltwater burned our eyes and sand filled our swim suits.
We pushed the kayak out towards the monstrous waves again, only to be thrown around a few more times. We managed to laugh through the pain of being hit by consistent, strong bodies of saltwater and a heavy kayak. As we shoved along, we eventually got the kayak out into the water face up and jumped in. At this point we were exhausted from the battle against the water but had a long way to go. To keep motivated we sang silly songs and talked about our favorite movies when we were young, including Mary Kate and Ashley’s “Our Lips are Sealed.”
“Life here isn’t anything like theirs were in the movie,” I said. “They made it seem so easy, like all these amazing experiences would just happen to us.”
“Yeah, but it’s just a silly pre-teen girl movie. What we are doing here is real and it’s exciting. It’s definitely not perfect but I’d say this reality is pretty epic,” Ayesha responded.
And she was right. Here, we are still subjected to reality. I had imagined Australia to be a magical escape, where life would be easy and carefree. However, I had not found that at all. I battled many hardships during my time here; I just did not realize I had been battling with myself. In the lead up to and in the beginning of my trip, I had tried to find an escape that did not exist.
I realized the purpose of traveling was not to escape or avoid pain, but to embrace independence. All of my problems at home will still be there whether or not I return. Traveling away will not make life any easier or better, but it will help you find yourself. I had, in a way, accomplished just that. At home, I limited myself based on what others wanted from me, rarely thinking about what I wanted for myself. My experience in Australia made me realize that when I go home, I should not try to avoid my problems or my family but instead learn to balance the person I need to be with the person I want to be.
My Australian trip had been nothing like the expectations and dreams I had 15 years ago. However, reflecting back on my seven-year-old self, I found that this trip has been much better than I imagined. I had not found a pet kangaroo, ridden on a yacht across the harbor or fallen in love with an Australian surfer. However, I had mastered the city lifestyle, battled the ocean on a kayak and traveled across the world and back on my own.
Photographs courtesy of Samantha Spargo.
Melissa Gaherty is a staff writer for The Centennial Magazine. She is passionate about traveling,studying political equality and meeting Harry Styles. On any given day find her “studying” at Peet’s Coffee with friends, and swinging in a hammock on the Quad. You can reach her at email@example.com.