Where do I even begin.
I apologize in advance, this is going to be one of those long-winded posts, however, I wanted to give my first travelversary the time it deserves, so here it goes.
It’s funny, Australia was never at the top of my list of destinations I wanted to visit pronto. To be completely honest, it was always a place I wanted to see someday, but there was never anything that stuck out to me about the land down under.
That all changed when I traveled through Europe. In addition to just starting to get a taste for my endless wanderlust, I met countless Aussies through backpacking all over the continent. I was intrigued by the Aussie mindset of travel as such a big part of one’s life, of gap years, and the normality of traveling the world at any age.
It was a stark difference from the mindset I was inundated with growing up in the States.
This cultural difference and appreciation of the more worldly things in life convinced me that I needed to visit Australia soon.
Although inspired after my initial European adventures, once I arrived home, I soon fell back into the swing of things. Immersing myself even more in my sorority, getting excited about my new classes, rekindling a relationship I put on hold when I left the country. The passion I felt initially for Australia slowly began to fade away and it became less urgent, it became a trip to take someday when it was more convenient.
I became closest with two women in particular in my European travels, an English and an Aussie girl. We remained in contact even when we all made it back to our individual home countries, and that’s when my inspiration was sparked once again. My English friend casually mentioned that she would be backpacking through Southeast Asia in a year and a half after spending some time in Australia.
I immediately asked if she would be keen for a travel buddy and volunteered myself to be that companion to see Southeast Asia with her. She gladly accepted, and we started planning every now and then about what our trip would consist of. I realized during this planning that what I really wanted was something more than just a two month trip in Asia, I was after a bigger challenge.
When I did more research and found out how easy it is to get a working holiday visa in Australia, I knew now was the time to make a huge leap and do something I always said I would do in my life, move abroad for a solid amount of time.
I initially planned to move to Australia for just 5 months, and then backpack through Southeast Asia and head home in the Fall. Well, I still haven’t come home, and by the time I do, it will have been almost two years since I left.
It was a hard thing to accept, that this was really what I wanted to do with my life. I had a wonderful life built up in San Diego: I had just graduated from a top-notch university, I had a supportive and close-knit group of friends, and a boyfriend I loved very much. But in between the lines, there were flaws in that perfect picture, and I knew if I didn’t leave, at least for a little while, I would find myself unhappy in due time.
So, I booked a one-way ticket, watched my relationship disintegrate as the pressure of the departure date crept closer, and found comfort in my undoubtedly supportive friends and family, who encouraged me to do what I wanted, even if they maybe didn’t understand it themselves.
San Diego, with all of its memories and baggage attached, was a very hard place to leave.
And when I finally arrived and started traveling around the unique and hauntingly beautiful landscape of Australia, I realized I never should have underestimated it.
I made a video of my year abroad when I first left Australia, as I couldn’t put into words at the time what that year meant to me. I think I’m finally ready to try and put into words the highest highlights and some very disappointing lows, the many ways I fell in love, grew as a human being, and finally realized what it means to be completely free.
Here’s a recap of my first year abroad, a year I cherish and hold dear for how much it opened up my perspective and confidence in the world.
Bleary eyed and tired from the long haul flight from Los Angeles, I stumbled off the plane, quickly made it through customs, and hopped in a Taxi to find my new place for the next couple of months.
I lucked out in finding a sublet through a friend of a friend of a friend before I left. This 3rd degree friend was traveling to the States for a couple of months just when I was landing in Australia, and she was looking for someone to rent out her room in Port Melbourne. The timing worked out perfectly.
I lived with two Aussie dudes who were into music, house parties, and watching The Voice Australia almost every night. They were good blokes and we got along well. It was a great set-up for what I needed right when I arrived.
I met up with the Aussie girl I knew from my European travels, and who was based in Melbourne, for coffee or drinks at least once a week. And, I had the luck of having a pseudo big brother of sorts. My actual big brother back home had a good friend permanently living in Melbourne with his Kiwi partner. They ended up being my family away from home, inviting me to dinner parties and introducing me to their groups of friends.
My pseudo big brother, Eric, made my transition abroad so much easier. I am so grateful that I had him there my first week to show me the ins and outs of the tram system, how to open an Aussie bank account, the best places to find cheap and delicious food, and to answer any of my other million and one questions about the differences in culture.
After my two months was up, I still had another two months in Melbourne before Asia, so I found another sublet on the other side of town in Carlton North. I fell in love, not only with the coffee shop vibe and tree-lined neighborhood of Carlton, but with my new little apartment that had the best sunrise view in town, and found myself grateful for how well I got along with my housemate.
This is when I really started feeling like a local. I had my daily coffee shop, my neighborhood for local gigs, my weekly habits. I knew where to find the best street art around Melbourne, where to go on a rainy day, and how to get anywhere in the city via tram.
- The people – The amount of open-minded people I met my first few months in Australia, they really helped make the transition abroad seamless.
- The culture – Immersing myself in the ridiculous amount of culture to be found in Melbourne, and realizing how many free museums there are around the city. Score.
- Walking around the city any day – And realizing my love of street art.
- Dating – Finding the fun in dating again. After a two year relationship, I wasn’t planning on dating anytime soon when I got to Australia, but somehow in the short span of four or so months, I ended up going on a multitude of dates with all different types of nationalities. It was a great way to see the touristy attractions around Melbourne, and enjoy good company at the same time.
- The coffee – I didn’t really know what a good latte was until l I arrived in Melbourne.
- Footy – Going to my first footy game with a local, and getting into footy mania while I was living there. I even bought my own pair of Carlton Blues socks. Yes, I’m that cool.
- Being surrounded by creativity – Melbourne is one of the most art forward and creative cities I’ve ever been to. There’s live music to be seen any night of the week, street artists can be found in any odd spot painting a new mural, and there’s an overall appreciation of the arts.
- A visit from a best friend – Having my best friend from back home visit me my last couple weeks in Melbourne, and showing her the life I had created for myself abroad. This was the only person to visit me from home during my whole time abroad. Major props.
- Finding my job at Deja Vu Bar – It was my saving grace in the casual job market that can be hell in Australia. It didn’t take long for my coworkers to become some of my best friends in Melbourne.
- Craft beer – Learning about Australian beer for the first time, and immersing myself in the craft beer culture down under.
- Rooftop bars – Melbourne is hip like that.
- Trying meat pies for the first time – I know I’ll miss these HEAPS when I go home.
- Casual employment
Casual employment in hospitality (bars/cafes/restaurants) can be a complete horror in Australia. With the exception of Deja Vu Bar, I had never been treated worse by employers than I was when I was working in Melbourne. Not only is it hard to find full-time work, but if you’re a “casual” worker you can be dropped by your employer with no forewarning or reason.
I never realized how good I had it working at the jobs I did back home. People may give Americans a hard time about their health care system, but when it comes to the work force, the States is better at protecting an employee from unfair treatment by an employer, no matter if they’re part-time, full-time, or a casual worker. This was something I constantly struggled with, the cold side of casual employment.
I was screwed over twice by two separate employers that both put me into a dire financial situation, it was to the point of feeling like they didn’t actually see me as a human being, and it was a major negative I took away from my time in Australia.
- My computer
The logic board on my MacBook Pro failed when I was half way through my time in Melbourne. As a travel blogger, you can imagine this created a bit of a freak out at the time. I had nowhere near the money I thought I would have saved for Asia at this point, and now I had the additional expense of buying a new computer on top of it.
I remember calling my mom, on the verge of tears, asking her if there was anyway I could borrow some money or else I would need to buy an emergency plane ticket home. She graciously gave me what I needed, and I was still able to go travel Asia, but it was never something I wanted to have to do, asking my parents to bail me out of a hard financial situation.
- Being constantly worried about money
Due to the above two disappointments I was almost always worried about money and my lack of savings. Australia is an expensive place, and I was exhausted working two jobs and trying to still have a social life with new friends.
I also had two months of unemployment backpacking through Asia to think about, and I knew towards the end of my time in Melbourne that I would want to come back to Australia instead of going home. Clearly, it all worked out in the end, but at the time I had no idea how things were going to turn out.
- The pretentiousness of the city
The one disappointing aspect I found about Melbourne was the “hipster” attitude I found around the city. Although I loved the art and creativity to be found, it also came with a pretentious side that made outsiders feel unwelcome at times.
- The 18-year-old drinking age
Not to be ageist, but there’s a 21-and-over drinking age for a reason back home, and I quite like it. I don’t think 18-year-olds in bars is something I’ll ever get used to. I can’t tell you how many times I came across drunk-off-their-face young-uns puking in public, yelling at each other from across the road, breaking glass, running out into the street in front of moving traffic, and hitting taxis with their fists or purses in a drunken stupor as to why they didn’t get picked up.
I’m not saying the 18-year-olds around America don’t partake in that kind of behavior as well, but it’s not quite as noticed to the public eye, because most underage drinking happens at house parties or at home. Australia also has a very different drinking culture than the States though, so that is something to keep in mind.
My savings were’t too good during this time. Despite working more than one job, moving abroad is always going to be more expensive than you first think, and I don’t think I quite realized just how much more expensive Australia is compared to the States.
My computer failing was a big chunk of my savings out the window, but thanks to my mom, I got it up to just enough again before I left for Asia. Even still, Asia was much more of a tight budget than I originally imagined it would be, and I had to adjust to my lack of funds as best I could.
I didn’t travel the amount I wanted to with my lack of funds and working two jobs, but I managed to take a few day trips away when I could, these were my favorite trips and the travel posts to go with them.
- Ferntree Gully
- Brighton Beach
- The Great Ocean Road
- Wine Tasting in the Yarra Valley
- A week spent in Sydney with my friend from home before heading to Asia
My happy places in Melbourne
- The Queen Vic Market
- Eating pork dumplings in hot chili sauce at Dumplings Plus on Swanson Street – Where my love affair with dumplings started.
- The Carlton Gardens
- The Royal Botanic Gardens
- The waterfront at night – Melbourne is a very pretty city lit up at night. Don’t miss out on having a drink on the waterfront under the reflections of the big city lights, or above them at one of the many rooftop bars.
Southeast Asia was whirlwind two months. It was the first time I started traveling with another person again after being a solo traveler for awhile, and it was also the first time I traveled to multiple developing countries since my backpacking trip in 2008 to Costa Rica.
Although traveling with one of my closest friends from Europe, we both realized how hard it is to travel in a pair after getting used to solo travel, and therefore had a few struggles along the way.
I became used to long bus rides where I had no comfort, definitely no leg room, and usually no room to breathe. I became used to sweltering humidity and the stark differences between countries even when just a few feet over the next border.
I also became used to the kindness and cheekiness of smiling locals, especially in the faces of the Khmer people in Cambodia. I became used to US$0.75 beer in Thailand, and a meal of the most delicious bowl of steaming Phở in Vietnam for the equivalent for US$1.
I loved Asia. With its vibrancy, colorfulness, and unique cultures. It was so much different than the States or Australia, and I only wish I had more time to explore each individual country. I’m already convinced that I’ll be back soon, both to revisit some of the countries I loved, and to take on some new cultures as well. China, Japan, and the Philippines are high on my list of what to see next.
- Getting my scuba certification on a deserted island off the coast of Cambodia
- Experiencing the Full Moon Party in Koh Phangan, Thailand
- Indulging in some of the best fruit smoothies I’ve had in my life.
- Taking a traditional cooking class in Chiang Mai, Thailand
- Seeing Angkor Wat at sunrise
- Spending 18 hours in Singapore – seriously such a cool place. Going to Gardens by the Bay was like being in my own personal Avatar world, mind blown.
- Ubud, Bali – yoga mecca and healthy food cafes everywhere you look, with the occasional escaped monkey roaming the streets from the Monkey Forest.
- Seeing the ancient Batu Caves in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia and being blessed by a monk.
- Sailing the beautiful Halong Bay in Vietnam
- The dark side of Bali tourism
It was my own fault for traveling to some of the most touristy spots in Bali, but I was less than impressed by the lascivious taxi drivers and hawkers, and the complete lack of respect found along the popular beaches and unknowing tourist traps I walked into.
- Getting groped in Kuala Lumpur
It was my first time traveling to a Muslim country, so I made sure to dress accordingly in more conservative wear. Unfortunately, I still managed to get groped by a passing motorcyclist in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. It was not fun, not fun at all.
- The uncomfortable bus rides
I don’t know if I’d classify this as a disappointment as I knew pretty much what to expect with Asian cross-country bus rides, but still, they were the bane of my long-legged existence. Every bus we traveled on was different, and you never knew what to expect until you stepped on.
The worst one by far was a 10-hour bus in Cambodia, where we didn’t have seats, just a tiny compartment to lay down and share with another person. I had to curl up into a ball to be able to fit inside the compartment with my travel partner, and it was one of the only times I’ve felt extremely claustrophobic in my life.
- Having my money stolen on a bus to the Thai islands
On my way to the southern Thai islands for the Full Moon Party I had money stolen from my wallet on an overnight bus. We were warned ahead of time about the notorious bus thieves that are found on the overnight buses in Thailand, so I knew to watch my stuff.
I don’t sleep on buses, so I didn’t think it would be that hard to prevent a thief from stealing from me. However, we made the mistake of putting our bags on the floor at our feet, thinking they were safe because they were covered by our blankets. Even though I was wide awake, a thief was able to take my wallet out and steal almost all of my cash.
On the next overnight bus I was on, I actually caught a thief in action stealing from my neighbor and woke him up to tell him to check his wallet as the thief ran into the darkness at the back of the bus.
If there’s any advice I can give, it’s to watch your belongings on buses in Thailand, thieving is a huge problem and plight of many tourists, especially those traveling to and from the islands for the Full Moon Party.
Not working obviously meant no income during this period, but I was still astounded with how affordable it is to travel Asia. Especially compared to Australian prices, traveling two months in Asia was the equivalent of a few weeks up the East Coast of Australia.
I still had to be careful with how I spent my money with the financial troubles I had in Melbourne before I left. I hardly went out drinking most nights, I chose to save my money for big ticket items instead, like the Full Moon Party and getting my PADI certification. I saved on the hangovers so I could still partake in early tours and walks around the city I happened to be in that day.
I realized during my time in Asia that I had changed my travel style a lot from my 21 year-old party days in Florence, Italy, where I would go out every single night to a new discoteca and sleep until noon the next day. That kind of travel, or lack thereof, didn’t appeal to me as much anymore.
Buying visas in each individual country, apart from a couple countries that didn’t require one, was probably one of the more expensive spends.
We hit 6 countries in total: Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Thailand. I wanted to see as much as possible in Asia during this trip to get an overview of where I’d want to go back to, but I think I finally came to the conclusion once and for all how partial I am to slow travel and taking my time in places.
All my preconceptions were challenged once I started traveling Asia. The countries I thought would be my favorites, Indonesia and Thailand, ended up only making me weary and disillusioned (note: I believe this is due to the areas we visited in these two countries, and when I go back I’d want to do it differently).
Instead, Cambodia and Vietnam moved in to take my favorite spots in Southeast Asia.
I wasn’t expecting to like Sydney. It’s probably due to the bias I heard time and time again against Sydney from Melbournites, and although I wanted to see the Opera House, I too thought it would just be a vapid city with looks, but no culture.
I wasn’t expecting to like Sydney, but I fell in love with Sydney. It is one of the prettiest cities I’ve been to and it’s a city that has the added benefit of being surrounded by beautiful beaches. I didn’t realized how much I missed a big city beach culture (à la San Diego), until I started living in Sydney again and started smelling the salty sea air.
In terms of vapidness, there were a high number of bleach blonde, plastic surgery types compared to Melbourne, but probably the same amount you’d find around Los Angeles. I even saw a woman carrying her lap dog in a doggy backpack once, because she didn’t want his feet to get dirty. Um, what?
But there was still a vividness and culture beneath the beauty that was seen in the many festivals I went to or heard about throughout the summer. There’s always something going on in Sydney, and it’s really hard to find yourself bored, in fact, you’d have to try pretty hard.
Sydney, dare I say, was probably my favorite 5 months out of my year abroad.
- Being in Sydney for the summer
After shivering through a cold Melbourne winter and sweating through two months of humidity in Asia, Sydney was a perfect place to settle down for the summer.
Most days were absolutely perfect in terms of weather, and there was always a festival or event going on every weekend in different parts of the city. I spent so many of my days off hiking or going to the beach because the weather was just too damn good. A Sydney summer was just what I needed to end my time in Australia.
- My job at the Local Taphouse and Cookie Cafe
I lucked out in finding a job at the Local Taphouse my first full day in Sydney. Between the staff, the type of bar it was and the clientele, and my job as a bartender, it became one of my favorite places to work of all time, It was also a great place to learn even more about Aussie craft beer – it was even voted the number one craft beer bar in all of Australia at one point.
I also had a job at an adorable cookie cafe in the artsy neighborhood of Newtown. It’s where I spent every Saturday morning and where I devoured some of the best cookies of my life. And I’ve tried a lot of cookies, believe me.
- Volunteering at multiple music festivals
I’ve thought on and off about going into music event planning for festivals, and last summer I was actually able to see a start to that dream come true. I went to three separate festivals, which all had very different vibes and experiences. It made my summer in Sydney that much better, and all the friends and memories I met from those musical days I’m not soon to forget.
- New Year’s Eve
Mainly because I went with my best friend in Sydney, camped in beautiful Byron Bay for a week, and saw some amazing live music at the Falls Fest. It was by far my favorite New Year’s Eve to date, and there are so many good memories I brought back from it.
- Seeing a show at the Opera House
On one of my last days in Sydney, after feeling a bit melancholy one day, I decided to finally treat myself to a show at the famous Opera House in Sydney. It did not disappoint. I saw the band, Yo La Tengo, and had a wonderful and classy evening on my own listening to beautiful music. It was my way of saying goodbye to a place I had started to call home for the last few months.
- The cockroaches
I don’t think I had ever seen a live cockroach before I left California, actually, before I arrived in Sydney. Cockroaches are EVERYWHERE. You have been warned!
Besides being a lovely seaside city, Sydney has a major cockroach problem. I stayed in all different types of houses (when I was couchsurfing), and all different neighborhoods, and it didn’t matter. There were cockroaches, no matter if you lived in a nice house or a dump.
I mean, there were cockroaches that would scurry across the street on any given Saturday night while I was walking home. Seriously, there’s no hiding from them.
It was definitely something to get used to, but after finding 3 or 4 cockroaches in my room during the first month I moved in, I got pretty used to them as well, and disposed of them as best I could.
- My living situation
As opposed to the awesome living situations I had in Melbourne, the one I had in Sydney was less than stellar. It was in a really good location (Double Bay) and cheap for Sydney. I was even able to afford having my own room, which I wasn’t expecting for pricey Sydney.
However, the building itself was so old, one of my Aussie friends commented on the fact that he wouldn’t be surprised if convicts still lived in the top floors. From the outside, hands down, it looked like a haunted house out of a horror movie.
Inside was only slightly better, but every night I would come home finding the kitchen counter littered with at least a few cockroaches. See, my house was even worse than the rest of Sydney with having a cockroach problem.
My housemates were nice enough, but mostly kept to themselves and didn’t come out of their rooms, the only exception being my one housemate, Ashleigh, who was actually incredibly friendly. It all went down hill when Ashleigh moved out and one of the guys in the house had one of his friends move in.
I’m fairly certain this new housemate would go into my room at night while I was at work and do god knows what, because I came home a few times with my door wide open and my light on. And I was almost certain he was a psychopath at one point, but it thankfully all turned out okay. Needless to say, I wasn’t sad to say goodbye to that place and move on to a better living situation.
- The romantic side
Now, don’t get me wrong, I have plenty of Aussie guy friends who I get along with famously, and I don’t want to say I’d never date an Aussie guy again…but really, I don’t think I’d date an Aussie guy again.
Sydney was the first time I actually started dating Aussie blokes, and I don’t know what it is exactly, but me and Aussies, we don’t mix romantically. Maybe it’s a cultural thing, or simply my own personality, but let’s just say by the time I left Australia, I was very content to be doing my own thing.
I was paid so much better in Sydney than in Melbourne, and watched gleefully as my savings slowly started to build up again. Sydney is slightly more expensive than Melbourne, but honestly not by much.
Sydney was great for pay. If you worked past 11pm, you made extra. (Um, a bartenders dream). If you worked weekends, you made extra. If you worked Sundays, you’d make even more than you did on Saturday. If you worked public holidays, you basically just paid off a flight to Fiji.
The only reason I didn’t save more was because of the festivals I volunteered at throughout the summer. Not only did I lose money on those weekends I could’ve been working at the bar, but the cost of getting to the festivals which were quite far away, took a big chunk of my savings. They were definitely still worth it, and I was still able to travel up the East Coast for 3 weeks, and have a bit of a buffer saved up when I moved to New Zealand.
I don’t know if it was due to the good weather or the increase in wages, but I spent almost every day off to its fullest while I was in Sydney. I’d take day trips of all sorts, go hiking to a new lookout, or go on another one of the many coastal walks to be found around the city.
I was bummed I didn’t get to see more of Australia, it’s so big! But I know I’ll be back again someday to see all that I missed. Here are a few of my favorite travels from my time in Sydney and the blog posts to go with them:
- Cockatoo Island
- Manly Scenic Walk
- Newcastle & Terrigal
- The Blue Mountains
- Ku-Ring-Gai Chase National Park
- The Royal National Park
- Backpacking up the East Coast of Australia for 3 weeks at the end of my visa
My happy places in Sydney
- The Bondi to Coogee walk – I seriously don’t know how a place can be so breathtakingly beautiful
- Circular Quay – no matter how touristy it may be, it still takes my breath away when I’m standing in front of the Opera House and looking out at the Sydney Harbour Bridge.
- Newtown – the artsy, kind of hipster suburb of Sydney. They had the coolest cafes, op-shops, and street art.
There were a lot of ups and downs to my first year abroad as was to be expected. The year turned out better than I could’ve imagined, and made me believe even more whole heartedly in the philosophy that everything happens for a reason. There were so many times throughout the year where one thing different could’ve meant me coming home earlier than expected, but I’m so happy I was able to continue out my year and do it the way I wanted, for the most part.
My year abroad also opened up a lot of thought patterns on what I really want out of my life and how free I feel while I’m on the road. It made me seriously think about music event planning, but also about taking this blog to a new level and new perspectives.
Instead of satisfying my wanderlust, I’m afraid to say, it has only made me realize how easy it is to keep on traveling if I want to. And that’s a very dangerous realization.
Did I ever tell you how when I was 12, I once spent a good couple of hours writing down every single country in the world, and what order I would want to visit them in? I have a feeling my journey is just beginning.
I’ve been living in Wellington, New Zealand for the last 5 months or so, and I can’t help but be surprised at how very different my life is here from the life I led in Australia.
I finally bought a plane ticket home this week. I’ll be flying to Hawaii for a week at the end of March, and heading into San Diego, California after my tropical getaway. From San Diego, I’ll be attending my favorite Coachella music festival, and taking an epic road trip up the coast of California, and all the way through to Portland, Oregon.
From there, I’ll just have to see what happens, but there are a lot of travel plans on the horizon, which I look forward to sharing with all you lovely readers as soon as they become more concrete.
And of course, there will be plenty more travels around New Zealand before I leave.
As always, thank you from the bottom of my atlas heart for taking the time to read my blog. It means the world to me, literally.
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