Saturday, June 18, 2011

Australia (and the part I played in a stranger’s wedding)

After growing up in the cold winters that Michigan is well known for, it’s been a blessing to have the past 20 months in the tropical sunshine of Samoa! So who would have thought that I’d be leaving the tropics for a vacation elsewhere, when most people flock to such a destination for their reprieve? Yet, that’s exactly what I did a few weeks ago when I jetted off to lands further south, visiting Sydney, Australia!

Peace Corps volunteers are given a total of 48 vacation days for their 27 months of service. Even after visiting in Michigan this past Christmas, I still had days to spare, and who wants to let vacation days go to waste? Several Peace Corps volunteers planned trips during the same time as me, since we were on a three week break from school. Many volunteers decided to kick back and enjoy some more sun in Fiji. I, however, was looking to get away from the equator and get some cooler weather, which I’ve seen very little of the past two years!

I learned that there is a very specific weight loss program that is sure to work every time! Join the Peace Corps, plan one of your vacations to a country where the cost of living is high, then save for that trip with a Peace Corps living allowance for the three months leading up to your departure! Since I had bought my ticket back in February, that’s when I started saving. Before I left for Australia, I was down to 175 lbs.

Arriving in Sydney on May 22, I planned to take things easy and enjoy some of the modern amenities the city had to offer. However, my comforts were somewhat limited for the first 24 hours, since the airline had lost my bags. I spent that first day getting familiar with the layout of the streets and the cooler temperatures. When I left Michigan for the Peace Corps I packed one pair of jeans and one long sleeved shirt. I’ve never worn the jeans in Samoa (except to the airport on my departure), and the long sleeved shirt I’ve only worn about a half dozen times on cool nights when it dips below 80 degrees. I also had one light wind breaker, which proved to be a lifesaver for my time in Australia.

If I chose to summarize my two weeks in Sydney with one word, it would be, FOOD! Since I live on a rather bland diet in Samoa, it was nice to take advantage of grocery stores packed with every imaginable food a person would ever want. My first trip to the grocery store I was almost run over by people, as I walked around in a daze with a smile on my face. The amount of selections caused me to walk each aisle glancing at every label. I didn’t even want to buy most of it, but it was just fun looking. On the second trip back I was able to gather the courage to grab a shopping basket and delve in. My purchases included a dozen extra large eggs (Samoa has medium size), a gallon of orange juice (it costs 3 US Dollars for 1 liter in Samoa—thus I never buy it), blueberry yogurt, Red Delicious apples, a gallon of milk (they don’t sell anything larger than a liter in Samoa, and if they did sell it by the gallon, it wouldn’t fit in my fridge), some cereal, pasta and basil pesto!

Since I was staying at a hostel, I had the use of a kitchen which was convenient. I enjoyed making big breakfast omelets with toast and jam! Just to have toast was a treat! If I was near the hostel during dinner time, I’d fix up a big pasta dish with bread and garlic olive oil.

And when I wasn’t fixing my own food, I was eating at Hungry Jack’s! Hungry Jack’s is the same as Burger King, but only different in its name. I enjoyed my favorite chicken sandwich there, along with the fries. Although ice cream is readily available in the capital of Samoa, having ice cream in Australia made it taste better, and the varieties of flavors were much greater. I even found a Ben & Jerry’s!

There were of course a number of sightseeing activities I wanted to accomplish while in Sydney. I attended a concert at the Sydney Opera House where I heard the Sydney Symphony perform. Someone asked me what I thought of the Opera House, and I said that they could have been playing Mary Had a Little Lamb in the wrong key and it still would have felt special, just because of it being the Sydney Opera House! By coincidence, the annual lightshow was going on in Sydney during my two weeks there and there were a number of unique lighting features throughout the area near the Opera House, one of them actually being projected on the sails of that historic building.

When I visited New York City for the first time and didn’t complete a walk across the Brooklyn Bridge, I heard about it from my uncle, who is a big fan of history. So to keep our relationship on good ground, I journeyed out to the Sydney Harbor Bridge one of my last nights in the city. I scheduled the trip to coincide with sunset, thus giving me two views of the bridge and the city in the background. I guess it’s one of those places I’ll look at in the future and be able to say I was there. There is something about walking over a bridge that humbles a person, thinking about the manual labor that was put into building it, not to mention the engineering feats that proceeded it. I’m happy I made the journey.

Since I’ve been a train fan from the age of three, being in Samoa where trains don’t exist has been a bit of an adjustment. While in Australia, I decided to take advantage of that mode of transportation. Although my budget forced me to stay in Sydney for the duration of my vacation, I was able to take the train two hours north of the city for an overnight stay in the Blue Mountains! This turned out to be a very relaxing and smart getaway from the busy streets of Sydney. The train was very clean, smooth, and affordable. It dropped me just across the street from the hostel I had booked for the one night I would be visiting that area.

Upon my arrival there, I was left freezing! Although Sydney was cool in the 60s, the temperatures near the Blue Mountains were in the 40’s, due to the elevation. People were walking down the main street sidewalks wearing winter stocking caps, gloves and scarves. There I was with my light wind breaker, just having come from Samoa a few days before! All the stores had their heaters on, so I spent part of my time venturing into stores just to warm up. It felt like late November in Michigan.

That afternoon I took in some of the sights in the area and then came back to town for some dinner. I found a great café that had live music. I sat in there for a couple hours eating, reading an Economist (dated that month), and enjoying the music. I found the people in that area to be very welcoming and friendly, a bit more so than the down to business, fast paced ways of the city.

I was also very fortunate to have some great company from Tiffany, a Peace Corps friend of mine from Samoa, who coincidently was in Australia to take an exam during our school break. We spent a few days exploring the city together and doing some of the museums and aquariums. We made a few stops at Starbucks, enjoyed pizza one night, and went to the Sky Tower to take the city lights in from above.

The two weeks seemed to go by at a good pace—not too fast, but not too slow. When my departure date came around, I was ready to head back to the warmer climate of Samoa. Sydney served as a good refueling station on this Peace Corps journey. It’s not that I needed to get away from any troubles in Samoa, because I love this place and my time here. But it was more about taking advantage of my proximity to Australia, realizing it might be harder to make it there in the future, from the States.

When I boarded the plane in Sydney I had a unique encounter. As I took my seat, the lady ahead of me turned around and asked if I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Samoa. I said yes and she said that she had recognized me from reading my blog, and thought I looked familiar. She and her fiancé were heading to Samoa for their wedding and she said that she had been reading my blog in an effort to learn more about the Samoan culture before their getting married. I never had imagined that this unassuming blog would be a part of someone’s international wedding preparations!

The three of us spent some time visiting on the plane, exchanging contact information, and then I invited them to come out and visit my house, if they had time before their wedding day. The next day I saw them pull up in their rental car and we ended up having a great visit. I was so happy they decided to take time out of their schedule to come out and visit someone they had just met the day before on an airplane. Here are congratulations to my new friends on their marriage, just this past weekend!

And so I landed in Samoa for the third time in my life as I returned on June 3. I love coming back to this country and being able to step off the plane and know I have a house waiting for me, with friends who I’ve missed, and who have missed me. It’s also reassuring to be able to step away from the language for two weeks, yet return to it without any trouble. It’s also comforting to leave and come back, and have this place feel like home.

Stock holders in the franchise chain of Burger King (aka: Hungry Jack's) can thank me for lifting the stock value from May 22- June 3!

Just before the concert at the Sydney Opera House

The Sydney Harbor Bridge at sunset.

In the Blue Mountains, north of Sydney.

Enjoying a walk near the Sydney Opera House.

The sails of the Sydney Opera House lit up for the light show!

Beautiful Sydney as seen from the Harbor Bridge

St. Mary's Cathedral

My new friends I met on the plane, who had been reading my blog before their wedding in Samoa! Here we are during their visit to my house.

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