There are so many ways you can learn about culture. You can read about it in a book, in a blog, or find it yourself speaking with someone different from you. The other way to do it is as simple as it can be scary: Go there! Think about another culture like a foreign language. Often times, someone studying a new language doesn’t feel comfortably fluent until they have been immersed in the language. How could a chapter read out of a world religion textbook compare to bowing your head in meditation beside monks of a Buddhist temple in Nepal? It’s those sights, smells and experiences that can’t be understood through text or TV. To travel is to change yourself, sometimes your entire life. I was lucky to have the opportunity to backpack through Australia and New Zealand.
Since coming home it’s been hard not to go off on long tangents telling friends and family about my amazing experiences abroad. Its been about four months since I’ve been back and I still miss it like the day I left. The academic half of “study abroad” took a backseat to traveling throughout those five months but I learned more about the world and myself over there than in all of my 21 years lived so far.
My family has been encouraging me to write some kind of conclusion to my study abroad experience since coming home. Procrastination is an understatement of how long I’ve put off writing anything of the kind. Its felt overwhelmingly difficult to try and sum up a semester of new experiences and the biggest adventure of my life. Here’s a little about my experience so that I can hopefully inspire your own.
When I landed in Melbourne, Australia I was stressed. The more than 24 hours of flights and layovers was exhausting, the time change disorienting. There were questions I wanted answers to. Phone? Bank? Toiletries? Where do I live and how do I get there?! That was February 13th and I landed with familiar friends.
When I landed in Auckland, New Zealand I was nervous. The four hour flight felt like nothing compared to a commute across the world. It was 2 a.m. I had the name of a bus shuttle and hostel. That was May 31st and I landed in the middle of the night on my own. No phone, no internet, and the best part- no worries.
The first people
After dropping my two enormous, barely-underweight luggage bags in the dorm room that would be mine as long as I was an exchange student at La Trobe University, I met Slips. Slips, an Australian boy and rep on my floor offered to take me and my Mizzou friend shopping for necessities. We tried to stay calm as we silently gripped the car seats in his four door with the steering wheel on ‘the wrong side’. It was hard to watch oncoming traffic without flinching when they all appeared to be driving ‘the wrong way’ down roads.
After something like our 100th question, Slips simply said, “It’s going to be ok. I’ve been trained on how to handle you.”
What! Why were our concerns so unreasonable?
After collecting my lightly packed but still enormous backpacker-style backpack that I borrowed from my Norwegian friend back at La Trobe, Linda, I walked through the Auckland, NZ airport and out the front doors. I found a sign with the shuttle’s name and schedule. I sat down on a bench with my bag and waited. A short while later a man walked up to the sign, looked at the schedule, then turned to me, “Any idea when this shuttle is supposed to get here?” I said no, but I assumed it wouldn’t be too long. His name was Trevor and had just moved from England to New Zealand for a new job. I feel terrible that I can’t remember his name but probably 10 minutes later the shuttle arrived and a friendly, older man opened the doors to us. He asked if we were together and when we corrected him, he jokingly closed the doors as if to leave Trevor behind.
Here I was, alone and in a new country I knew nothing about. It was closer to dawn than dusk and I rode around the city streets laughing and chatting with two complete strangers. The driver gave us a complimentary tour of the city before dropping us off on the doorsteps of our destinations.
This isn’t meant to be a comparison between Australia and New Zealand. My initial experiences stepping foot in each country were separated by months of adjusting to traveling. My point is this, we are all hugely a reflection of our own environments. If you are a student you go to class, spend time with friends, study, sleep, repeat. If you are a farmer you wake up early, take on the day’s load of work and chores, return home, sleep, repeat. When you are a traveler you wake up somewhere new, do something different, meet everyone for the first time, sleep, repeat.
Waking up in a hostel room with two other bunks holding four strange faces stopped being strange. It grew comfortable to not know where I was or what I would be doing each day. I loved every moment but in this comfort I took days for granted.
Think for a moment, What is your normal? I’d bet it’s different from that of an Australian Aboriginal. If not, I bet it’s still different from that of a supermodel, tribe member, politician…you see my point.
Here’s why I find JOURNALISM + TRAVEL to be the perfect cultural equation…
The Haka Tours group I came to know and love was made up of our Kiwi tour guide and backpackers from the UK, Germany, Ireland, and Canada. In addition there were the random, nonthreatening hitchhikers we’d pick up every once in a while. It didn’t take long for me to earn a teasing reputation from the group as the over-friendly American who would talk to anyone and everyone.
I’ve mentioned it in previous entries I wrote while studying abroad, but it was always the people I met along the way that made my experiences memorable. The views were always beautiful and sunsets… stunning. But I knew that without someone to share them with they wouldn’t mean as much.
Whether it was a lifelong friend I’ve met and stayed in touch with or someone I came to know for an afternoon, each and every one of them was uniquely different from anyone I’ve ever known before.
The 25 year old German girl who found out while backpacking through NZ that her Australian visa where she had been living and working had expired just as her boyfriend in the army was being reassigned somewhere in the Middle East. She met it all with a shrug and determined look in her eyes as she would say, “Everything happens for a reason. It always works itself out.”
The older man in Taupo, NZ staying in our hostel covered head to fingertips in tattoos he had all done himself. He hinted at a hard past saying, “I was the artist for myself and anybody else but it wasn’t much approved where I was staying.” He was a recovering alcoholic who spent his days drinking hot tea, watching films and carving beautifully intricate shapes out of wood and cow bones. He was especially proud of a delicate dolphin mother and her calf as well as a perfectly detailed skull no bigger than a pinky nail.
There was that one night in Port Douglas, Australia I stayed up until 5 a.m. sitting around a bench with about 10 other people all of different ages and nationalities. We talked and laughed well into the night like we had all known one another for weeks already.
It was at first a little strange to become used to this easy, open friendship that builds almost naturally amongst travelers. It didn’t take 5 months for me to realize that relatively everyone wants the same things: To have an adventure with genuine people and make lasting memories.
Different worlds, different histories
Two of the best experiences I had abroad was having the first hand experience among Australian Aboriginals in the Outback and a Maori Culture Night on the North Island of NZ.
In Australia, I was told by many of the people I met on college that Aboriginals are smelly, dangerous, alcoholic, government welfare leeches. A terrible description was sewn into my imagination to describe these people, the original inhabitants of the Australian continent. Then I went to Alice Springs and from there, hours into the desert away from civilization and into the Outback territory. There I met and spoke with Aboriginal elders and guides educated on their rich history and misunderstood stigmas. Ignorance is a powerful tool to manipulate, especially amongst young people. It was sad to learn of their attempted extinction by British settlers. All it took was two days spent immersed in the Aboriginal culture and history for my entire understanding of this population of people to completely flip from my naivete.
When I started to hear and learn about the Maori, the indigenous people of New Zealand, I assumed that they would be in a similarly racist position in society like the Aboriginals. Until a few days into my stay in NZ, I overheard a man say to another, “No offense, man. I just mean you don’t look Maori.”
That was all I caught and was immediately confused. So, the man would be proud to “look Maori”? Many New Zealanders use Maori language on a daily basis. “Kia ora” meaning hello, welcome. “Aotearoa” has been known otherwise as ‘God Defend New Zealand’. It is also the national anthem sung in both Maori and English before All Black sporting events. It was the Maori original name for the country of New Zealand.
Me experience better understanding the two different indigenous cultures were neither one better than the other. They were both unique and as spiritually enlightening as they were knowledgable. I believe that there is no way to fully comprehend the similarities, differences and wide misunderstandings between people until you get up and go there. It’s intimidating to leave the comfortable bubble that is your life and everything familiar to you to step into a world of complete unknowns. But the unavoidable changes and growth that such a situation forces you to embrace is incomparable to anything else.
There are a lot of things I’m not good at. I think that’s why the world is so wonderful because there is a place for just about everyone to find their fit.
Something that I’m very proud of is also something within us all. I’ve skydived, cliff jumped, swam in deep ocean with wild dolphins, bungee jumped, canyon swinged, white water rafted, black water rafted, surfed, fallen in love, and more.
I’m proud that (within reason) I am always ready and waiting for the next challenge. I’m not invincible and I realize that. I cried when I snorkeled up on a barracuda and I couldn’t look down at my feet as my toes peeked out over the canyon before I jumped and free fell 143 meters.
- Kaikoura, NZ sunset
It’s terrifying! But if you can just summon those 10 seconds of courage you can find that electrifying release of everything you trust. If it’s jumping out of a plane, trying something new, or flying somewhere for the first time… try it. In it you embrace a moment of pure adrenaline that expands every limit you know, pushing you to a new level of self-confidence many will never allow themselves to find and feel.
“A journey of a thousand miles must begin with a single step.” -Lao Tzu
Nothing I can put in words will ever express my time spent traveling. I hope that if at any time in your life you are presented with the challenge to do something that scares you, you’ll realize that just as much as it is hard, it is possible, and you’ll grab on tight to courage for that infinitesimal moment and go for it. Chances are great you won’t regret it. But that’s what it is, a chance. Will you take yours?
Featured Writer: Chelsea Bond Stuart