Friday, December 20, 2013

2013's Lessons, Triumphs, and Regrets

DISCLAIMER: This post contains personal details about my life, romantic and otherwise. It is for the most part not a travel post, so if you are looking for ideas on where to go and what to do abroad, you should look elsewhere. It is also really long so continue reading at your own discretion, and feel free to skip sections that may not appeal to you. This is best read if you are extremely bored.

Alice in Wonderland themed party at the beginning of the year
(My roommates: Manisha, Heloise, me, Fay)
I vividly remember the morning of January 1st, 2013, it was cold, I was slightly hungover, and I was equally terrified and excited about the future. I arrived at the Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport with several oversized suitcases containing some of my most prized possessions and a feeling in my gut that I should run away. I was with my mom and boyfriend of that time, and when the lady behind the counter told me there was an issue with my visa, I felt relieved at the prospect that I might have to stay. Staying in a familiar place, with familiar people, seemed comfortable and safe and I almost gave in. Then a minute later, the problem was resolved, and I was back on my way to Sydney. I'd been to Sydney twice before and loved the city and everything I thought I knew about it. However after living here for a year, I've learned one really important lesson: visiting a place, and living there are two very different experiences. 

Living in Australia, is a lot like living in America, except when it isn't. First and foremost, Aussies are laid back, which is a very foreign concept growing up in a country where everyone always appears to be in a rush to get somewhere and the majority of the population is chasing "the American Dream." The cultural differences play themselves out in many different ways: for instance shops close earlier in Sydney, people get more vacation time, when you see a bug or reptile there is a real fear that it is deadly, the grading scale doesn't make much sense, public healthcare and gun control are successful and largely undisputed concepts, words are shortened (e.g. "Australia" becomes "straya," "I went to the hospital" becomes "I went hospital," and some Aussie slang just comes straight out of left field, "dear"= "expensive"), and a lot of people just don't wear shoes.  One of the more important things I learned living abroad though, is how much I love America. There truly is no place like home.

On a more personal note, 2013 was the best year of my life! I've learned a lot about myself, met some amazing people and made some life long friends, I've traveled to places I never thought I would and places I've always wanted to. I've checked two things off my bucket list (walking through the colosseum and bathing in the natural hot springs in New Zealand), and I got a Masters degree while doing all of that. I've also made some mistakes, and I got out of a year long relationship with someone who changed my life. So here are my big takeaways from the last year, and as a hopeless romantic of course I am going to start with love...

One of the people who has made the biggest impact on my year, if not my life, is Jed. When I met Jed almost two and a half years ago while I was studying abroad in Australia for the summer, I had no idea that we would end up dating and I would wind up living in Sydney. Even though things didn't work out with us, our relationship taught me a lot. I learned that it can be fun and exciting to take a leap of faith for love, and even if it turns out to be harder then you expected, not all is lost and your time was not necessarily wasted. In fact, I feel like moving to Sydney for a guy was one of the best decisions I've ever made. However, I think the key lesson is that if you do move across the world for love, you should be a hundred percent sure that it is not JUST for love, and that you are also doing it for you. I learned once again that you can have your future planned out with someone, but that life has its own plan, so there's no use getting to attached to daydreams of what 5 years down the road will look like with someone at your side. I learned that once the excitement of dating someone from another country with a cool accent wears off, the fact that you have a foreign boyfriend becomes increasingly difficult and puts a lot of pressure on the relationship. It makes you ask yourself and your partner hard questions about your ability to commit, it requires compromise, and most importantly that compromise almost inevitably comes with resentment. At the end of the day, what I had with Jed was real, it was powerful, exciting, fun, it had its ups and downs, it pushed me to be better, stronger, braver, and true to myself. Most importantly, I am so grateful for the fact that even though I lost a boyfriend I still have a great friend. 

Then there was school, or as the Aussies call it "uni." Getting a Masters degree abroad was risky to say the least, and I do feel in many ways that International Development was not the right choice for me. It's not that I am not interested in development studies, but much like my undergraduate studies in Sustainability, it has left me feeling directionless in such a broad field. Looking back getting my degree in Public Health like I originally planned would have been much more useful and I think it would have given me the direction I need going forward in my career. Unfortunately, what's done is done, but I am determined to make the best out of all my choices. I'm also making it my number one new years resolution to not say no to things that scare me. With that all being said, moving to Sydney gave me the opportunity to make friends who brought out sides of me I didn't even know I had, they believed in me when I doubted myself, and most importantly we had so many good times together that I will never forget! (There are shout outs to each of them individually at the end of this post).

Of the opportunities I've had this year, volunteering in Uganda was by far the most life changing experience. It has been my dream since I was 14 to go to Uganda, and I finally made it there in June to volunteer with a local NGO called Arise and Shine for one month in Bandali Village. The months leading up to the trip I was nervous, excited, happy, terrified, and I started thinking a lot about death and what my life would mean if I died. On the plane there I mentally prepared myself for the worst, I cried, and by the time I looked out the window when we were landing I was overwhelmed with Joy at the prospect that I made it to Africa! I went there unsure of what my role would actually be and thinking I was going to be an assistant English teacher to primary school kids. When I arrived I realized there was little to no guidance and that I could basically work on any project I wanted. I ended up teaching an English class to the women in the village and helping some other volunteers teach an HIV and family planning class. The women in the village really left an impression on me, I can still feel their strength and courage when I feel like I don't have any. I can still see the zest for life on their faces and I am inspired by their ability to persevere despite their oppression and lack of possessions, and it constantly reminds me how lucky I am. It also reminds me that a simple life is a better life. It reminds me why I'm choosing to have a life where I'll never be rich, it reminds me that I have rights and choices as a women, and that I have a duty to take advantage of the freedoms and rights I have, because so many women are not as lucky. Then there were the children at the babies home. I spent my last week taking care of the disabled children, who either don't have families or their families didn't want them because they didn't understand their disabilities or they were scared of them. Those children reminded me that life is not fair. They reminded me that even though I don't have the answers to why the world is the way it is, or where we all came from, or who is controlling it all, I still have to keep trying to do my best to make the world a better place (even if that means I only make a positive difference in one person's life). Somewhere in between sleeping under mosquito nets in a mud hut in Bandali village, being squished into "matatus" (taxi vans) without seat belts on bumpy dirt roads, riding on "bodas"(motorcycle taxis) without a helmet and squished between three people, learning how to cut the most delicious pineapples, and paying to go to the bathroom in a hole in the ground, I fell in love. Uganda is an amazing place with amazing scenery, and even more amazing people. My time there tested me and showed me my limits, and exactly what I can endure. Besides a few scary moments like when I landed in Johannesburg and almost got robbed and , and when I landed in Entebbe in the middle of the night and my ride wasn't there, and when I got a bacterial infection and couldn't keep any food or liquids down for days, I learned that Uganda was nothing to be scared of. At least not in the way I anticipated, and I felt silly for how much time I had spent stressing over nothing.

Then there was my internship with Save the Children. When I first took the unpaid internship with the job title "Project Support Officer," I had no idea what to expect. In the end I realized that title mostly meant I was in charge of doing everyones bitch work in the office (for lack of a better way to put it). However despite a lot of boring and tedious tasks I was given one large project to work on that is worth mentioning. I was asked to monitor and evaluate a youth engagement program that was at Cobham Juvenile Remand Center. To be able to more accurately write a report on the program, I decided to volunteer as a mentor there. This basically consisted of one on one support with boys aged 12-19 that needed help with school assignments or just general guidance. I also helped teach a cooking class (even though I cannot cook), and helped run a creative expressions workshop (even though I am not creative). All in all my time spent "in juvi" was a real learning experience. I learned to see at-risk youth differently, and in many cases that meant seeing the potential in a troubled kid who had made some mistakes. However I also realized that there is a part of me that cannot abstain from judging, and consequently cannot forgive certain crimes. As much as I tried to be objective and look past certain young peoples history, I could not. I don't know if that's right or wrong, but it is something I learned about myself and my limits. 

I was so lucky to be able to travel so much this year and I want to take a moment to recap and appreciate each adventure. All my trips were amazing and I enjoyed each of them in a different way and for different reasons! Tasmania was gorgeous, the hikes were epic, the views were stunning, and I encountered a plethora of unique wildlife: a wombat family, a kangaroo, wallabies, and a pademelon. My road trip to Canberra with Megan and Kyle was so much fun and educational (ironically the historical monuments had nothing to do with it). Cairns and the great barrier reef with my mom was incredible! Getting a birds eye view of the reef, scuba diving for the first time, seeing two sharks, and finally getting to hold a koala, definitely topped my first trip there! Meeting up with my family in Italy and Ireland was epic, all though I have to admit Venice was the ultimate highlight. Nothing can quite compare to a city that floats, thats so rich in history from such a fascinating time, and seriously no cars anywhere (I didn't even know that was something I wanted in a city until I experienced it in Venice)! Furthermore, nothing makes your small amount of time on earth feel quite as insignificant as standing on ancient ground covered in ruins of ancient civilizations such as at Pompeii, Paestum and in Rome. Ireland was so refreshing with green you can see for miles, abandoned castles on every corner, and some of the most friendly people you'll ever meet. Then there was Darwin and the Northern Territory, which can be summed up in two words: waterfalls and crocodiles! There was also Melbourne and the Great Ocean Road, which was an extremely pleasant surprise with the highlight being a wild koala spotting! There was also Port Stephens which was sad and great! Sad because I tragically lost my iPhone in the ocean but great because it happened while I was boomneting with dolphins by my side. Also sad because it was the end of an era, and one of the last times Manisha, Minja, Megan and I were all together. Oh and we also kayaked with dolphins which was pretty amazing! Then the most epic trip of them all (other then Uganda obviously) was New Zealand with Manisha and Amanda! Who knew 8 days and 8 nights could be so eventful, fun, crazy, adventurous, and life changing? I absolutely adored New Zealand and all the people I met there! Every town was different and charming in its own way, and the locals and backpackers I met all reminded me why I love traveling and backpacking for that matter! In conclusion, I never want to stop traveling! I want to stay humble and never forget how much every place has to offer, because to quote Michael Franti "the more I see, the less I know."

Despite any regrets or mistakes that inevitably exist to balance out our greatest moments and accomplishments, 2013 was indeed the best year of my life for so many reasons beyond what I managed to fit in this extremely long post. It has left me feeling alive, happy, stronger, smarter, more mature, and most importantly hopeful about the future. My only hope for 2014 is that it will live up to 2013. I hope I don't forget the most important lessons I've learned: follow my heart, be a good friend and appreciate your good friends, things will work themselves out, everything happens for a reason, always look forward, and don't stop believing!

This section is simply shout outs to my roommates and best friends:
Royal National Park

Beyond life lessons from love, I am so grateful for my roommates Minja, Manisha, Heloise, Fay, Kelsey, Claire, Brenda, and Megan, whom all changed my life and taught me so much! 

Minja taught me that true love is a thing and that chasing your dreams and goals on a different continent isn't enough to break it. Her strength and determination to finish dental school, while maintaining a healthy long-distance relationship, and still managing to have time for her friends has shown me that anything is possible and women really are better multi-taskers then men. She also reminded me how to be goofy and to stay true to myself, and more importantly she was always there for me when I needed advice, a hug, a good night out, or even just to talk. 

Manisha taught me that first impressions aren't always correct, and that it is so important to get to know someone before you judge them. I am so glad that I took the time to know her one on one, and I am so thankful for all of our long late night talks about everything and nothing. She challenged me mentally, made me question things, but most importantly she opened my mind a little bit more, so I  thank her for that. I am also so grateful for how our friendship evolved, and how now we can have mature arguments and still be cool at the end of it. 

Heloise taught me how to be strong, and how to bake a gluten free quiche. I admired her strength and her ability to pick up English so fast, even though she was embarrassed by it at times, she was a real rockstar. I miss her bluntness and her lovely French accent. 

Fay taught me that I can be good friends with someone with very different religious beliefs then me. She showed me how refreshing it can be to meet someone who actually lives by their Christian values. She taught me not to take life to seriously and she always went above and beyond to cheer me up when I was down. 

Kelsey taught me that I can let someone else plan a trip every once in a while and that it can still be just as much fun (e.g. Melbourne). Also thank goodness for her willingness to be my rock climbing buddy after Fay moved out, and it was so great getting to see her improvement and love for the sport grow over the months. 

Claire taught me that everyone has their own stuff going on, even the most optimistic of people, but also showed me that you can still be optimistic despite it all. I really miss her accents, and zest for life and passion for ultimate frisbee. She also taught me that hanging out with someone a few years younger can be fun if they're cool, and it doesn't necessarily make me feel old!

I haven't gotten to know Brenda as well as I would like, but the encounters I have had with her have all been pleasant. I've seen her grow in this year and break out of her shyness, and I admire her courage in moving so far from home, a place that was all she ever knew.

Megan (practically a roommate) is always someone that I can relate to when discussing topics such as "how lost we are," "how will we ever get jobs", "how can we become dual citizens of Australia and America" etc. She has also been a friend, a travel buddy, and a partner when it comes to chasing waterfalls, like that time we endeavored to hike all day to the one in Royal National Park, and then the 5 we flew all the way to the Northern Territory to see. 

There have also been several other people that have made a difference in my year including people from my Development Studies program (Kyle, Josh, Becky), people from the rock climbing club, friends I made through Jed, people I met at my internship at Save the Children, and friends I made volunteering in Uganda. I appreciate all of you and I hope we stay in touch!

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