GABRIELLE MILLER – STUDYING IN LISMORE, AUSTRALIA

It’s official, the post-study abroad depression has set in. They warned me it would happen, that I would experience reverse culture-shock. I didn’t even know what that meant! Now I understand…

It’s been a week and a half since I returned home. The final weeks abroad led me on the wildest emotional roller coaster I’ve experienced. I packed up my belongings at Southern Cross Uni, which I’ll admit was the hardest moment of it all, leading to my biggest breakdown.

In between tears, I said my goodbyes to the wonderful friends I made in the last four months and reminisced over the crazy memories we shared. I quickly introduced them to some of America’s greatest junk food brought over by my family (more on their arrival later), such as s’more supplies (I know, they’ve never had s’mores?! Crazy.), and Twizzlers. How they live without those things, I’ll never quite be sure.

I danced in the living room with my girlfriends to Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance with Somebody” (a favorite of mine) one final night, and hugged each individual, thanking them for being the beautiful people they are and providing me with the happiest four months I’ve lived. I left with a “no worries, we’ll see each other once again”, and finally made my way out of Orion College unit 13A for the last time….until I realized I forgot my phone and had to come back.

 

These people I have come to know showed me what it means to love life, love others, love myself, and be confident in it all. I learned from them the importance of living in the moment rather than focusing so much on the future, and becoming my own individual, growing at my own rate, rather than the rate society wants me to grow. Here, I discovered that there is so much to learn and discover in this great big world of ours that can never be found in a classroom, or an office, or within the four walls of the life I was “comfortable” with. I never knew what I was missing until I pushed my limits and opened my eyes to more.

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I am excited now, to share the “new me”, or rather, the more confident, decisive, loving version I’ve somehow developed into with the ones I love from back home. This leads me to the arrival of my family. A few hours before I left SCU, I waited eagerly to see my cousin, grandma, and mother, whom I hadn’t seen in four months or more. I was excited to show them my Lismore and Byron Bay home, and to introduce them to the friends who influenced me over my time abroad.
After what seemed like eternity, they finally showed up and I enveloped them in long, overdue hugs. I showed them around Lismore and the SCU campus before bringing them to Byron Bay, a choice local beach town of mine. We spent the night in Byron and indulged in some of my favorite food and activities the following day. After trying to teach my cousin to surf (the waves weren’t all that great), and treating ourselves to a mouthwatering dish of gelato, we made our way north to Brisbane.

Our few hours spent in Brisbane also included delectable food and a lovely walk to explore the city at sunset. Unfortunately though, we could not stay long and we went to bed early in order to rise for our sunrise flight the next morning.

Flight 1 of 6 over the course of the next week and half brought us to Cairns, Australia. A northern town on the shore of the Great Barrier Reef. This was a new place for not only my family, but also to me, and we excitedly ventured out along the boardwalk to see all that there is to see. While it wasn’t much, as it is a smaller town, we experienced wonderful weather, perused gift shops, and tasted the ever-popular kebabs during our first day.

The following morning, we headed to the Reef Fleet (the boating port), and got picked up by our Down Under reef cruise ship to take us out to the GBR for some snorkeling. Having never snorkeled before, the first few minutes in the water were quite a struggle. I was being thrown around by choppy waters, trying to figure out how to breathe through the tube, and attempting to swim about 70 feet out from the boat so I could actually see the reef up close. It was a lot tougher than it looked.

Thankfully, after some practice, I got the hang of it and spent the next couple of hours in the water exploring what this reef has become. Sadly, over time, the Great Barrier Reef has become faded, making it hard to find the brightly colored coral we know from photos. Sure, there were some bright pieces, but they were far and few between. I will admit, however, that it was still one of the most amazing things I’ve ever experienced.
While the coral may not have been as vibrant as I had hoped, the fish were. And even more than I imagined. The bright blues, purples, oranges, and rainbows of fish nearly made up for the dying reef they swam in. As if they were pretty used to us, the majority let us swim right up close to capture pictures.

 

We moved on to a second reef location, this one a bit more calm and vibrant than the first, and again explored the beautiful life underwater. I was with my cousin at this moment, attempting to capture the best photos possible and search out new sea life. I swam away in attempt to look elsewhere, not noticing the animal that lurked within meters of me. A shark.

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Now, if you knew me really well, you might know that I have been deathly afraid of sharks for most of my life. I hated swimming in the ocean until recent years out of the fear that I would be dragged out to sea by one of these creatures. Clearly, I watch too many movies.

On this trip, I’ve forced myself to face my fears, and part of that was the goal to swim with sharks. While I didn’t exactly do any cage diving, or even see this shark that was now in the GBR in close proximity, when my cousin told me about it and showed me the photos she took, I was utterly calm about it. I was actually excited in a way, that this fear of sharks of mine was maybe not as severe as it once was. I think I can say my goal is complete, although cage diving could turn into my next adventure 😉.

My cousin returned to the boat out of exhaustion (I’m telling you, snorkeling for 4 hours can be very tiring), and I stayed in the reef to do some last-minute exploring. Fast forward some time later and over lunch, I was eating my very first prawn. No, it is not “shrimp on the barbie”, but prawn.

Our reef trip ended as we cruised back to land, listening to the on-board entertainer, and we completed our night with another sunset walk down the esplanade.

After another leisurely day walking around the city of Cairns, we boarded an early flight, now on 2 of 6, and made our way back to Brisbane. A short layover later and we hopped on 3 of 6 to Christchurch, NZ. Talk about polar opposite weather! Leaving the 90-degree heat and entering the 45-degree frigid air was quite alarming, but thanks to advice from friends, I was prepared with my gloves, light jacket, and beanie to keep me plenty warm for New Zealand winter.

From the moment we drove out of the airport parking lot in our rental car, I was in awe. New Zealand is absolutely breathtaking. The mountains, the sunsets, the atmosphere, everthing, absolutely spectacular.  To be honest, I think I found the next place I want to explore for an extended period of time.

While our trip in New Zealand was very short and involved lots of time spent in the car driving from Christchurch to Queenstown then back again, the views made up for every leg-cramping moment. In between hundreds of sheep-filled farms, mountains peaked into the background and we eventually made our way to the well-known Mt. Cook and gasped at the beauty of Tasman Glacier Lake that lays at the bottom of the mount.

Our nights consisted of tasting New Zealand wine and scrumptious food and desserts as we attempted to keep warm as each degree dropped. In our remaining days, my mom let me have a hand at driving (mainly because it stressed her out to do it all herself), and I’d like to say I did a pretty decent job for driving on the other side of the road for the first time. It felt natural, even!

We visited Queenstown and explored the cute and cozy streets, pausing for a moment to look up at the magnificent peaks that surrounded us. Other than that, we explored other small towns, taking advantage of any minute we could hop out of the car and stretch our legs.

In one town, without a tourist in site other than ourselves, we came upon hundreds of penguins, resting on the end of a dock, a pretty amazing sight if I do say so myself! Here, we also explored the old historic English downtown and stocked up on New Zealand honey, a prized possession of theirs (or so I hear).

This basically sums up our time in New Zealand and we made another early morning for the airport to board 4 of 6, back to Sydney, Australia. Another quick layover later and the dreaded 13-hour flight was finally here. 5 of 6.

In this instant, the realization that I was actually returning to the States hit me again. I cried. In an attempt to stay discreet as my family and other passangers sat close by, I put in my headphones, closed my eyes and tried to focus on sleep rather than what was really happening.

Unluckily for me, my body thought it was daytime, and I couldn’t sleep any more than an hour, if even that. It was the longest flight of my life! Much more dreadful than the one TO Australia, although it was the same distance.

I made it though, somehow, and again became excited as I entered the Los Angeles airport and was greeted by a large American flag and the words “Welcome to the United States”. Here, I remembered the family and friends I had missed so much while away. The ones I couldn’t wait to race home to and tell them about my outstanding experience. I became happy once again thinking of the things I had learned and the person I have become, the person I wanted to share with those I love.

I flew through customs and jumped on my last flight, 6 of 6, to Minneapolis, MN!! Thankfully, I caught a couple of hours of rest on this final flight to keep me going for the remainder of the day, as I had now experienced June 13th two times already, once around the world, and now again in America, landing at 2:30pm.

Upon de-boarding, I retrieved my car, and….went nowhere. I couldn’t remember how to drive! I’ve been waiting 4 months for this moment to finally have freedom to go where I want at any moment I want and I can’t remember two essential things. 1) What side of the steering wheel my blinker is on, and 2) WHAT SIDE OF THE ROAD DO I DRIVE ON? This is no joke; my brain was confused. Although I felt pretty silly at this point, I made an inference based on the parking lot I was in and the road signs surrounding me.

It felt weird. I’d spent the last semester sitting in this seat as a passenger and now it was all of a sudden the driver’s seat. For the next 2 or 3 days, I still felt a bit odd and was uncomfortable turning into lanes when other cars weren’t around to guide me. It was like I was a 15-year-old once again, learning to drive for the first time. This was the first culture shock.

The second came moments later when I turned on the radio and heard country music. While I had a couple of friends who would listen to it in Australia, it was a rare sound. This was a good thing to hear again.

Little moments over the course of the following week led to tears of happiness and sadness, as well reminders of where I was. Even now, two weeks later, I still find myself coming across things I forgot I missed or things I just forgot were a part of the American culture in general. At first, I kept getting excited over hearing American English, thinking “hey, those people are Americans!” before realizing that, duh, I’m in America now, not Australia.

Other things, however, remind me that a little part of Australia will always remain with me. The other day, at my new internship in Colorado, I came across magpies, a common bird that would wake me up in the morning in Australia. I also discovered I live near a town named Fraser, also the name of my favorite Australian island. This same day, I overheard an Australian talking to her kids using the language and phrases I’ve come to know so well. Even more coincidentally, again, that same afternoon, I found a shirt that said “Sydney, Australia” on it. And while these things may seem pretty insignificant, to me, I found comfort knowing I can still remember and enjoy the things I did across the world, right here in my home country.

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Sure, I may tear up on occasion, thinking I’m thousands of miles away from the friends I’ve made, but we’ve started a traveling journal, to share new memories and experiences for years to come. The Tim Tams I brought home as a treat for myself have also helped ease the pain 😉. I know that although this journey has ended, another one has begun, and many more will continue to follow.

Someday I will return to Australia and be reunited with the people that impacted my life in such a positive way. I will forever carry the memories I made and the strengths I have accumulated within myself. I will go forward more confident as I continue to finish school and one day travel the world.

This experience has shaped me into my best self and for that, I will always be thankful. I will never regret my decision to study abroad as it has become the most eye-opening, magnificent experience of my life. I reckon this is just the beginning of my adventurous, culture-filled life ahead.

 

 

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