My daily Instagram piece turned into a lengthy one, so I thought I’d post it here instead. In the wake of yesterday’s horrific shooting in Oregon, I felt obliged to...
THE BEGINNINGS OF A LIFE DOWN UNDER | AUSTRALIA SERIES
If you’re brave enough to say goodbye, life will reward you with a new hello. – Paulo Coelho
It had been five months since I’d received the e-mail from Australia’s Department of Immigration, notifying me that I’d been granted a one-year working holiday visa. I remember the feeling I got when I logged into G-Mail on that steamy June day in South Florida. Oh my God, I’m going to live in Australia for a year! To boot, since I’d applied with my British Passport, I was also granted the opportunity to extend it a second year if I completed three months of farm work during my first year. [More on that later.] Here I was in the first week of November, at perhaps the busiest gate in all of LAX, hoping like hell my name was next to be cleared from the standby list. I had only just returned to the U.S. one month ago from a three month stint in South America, but I had never been so anxious to get on an international flight in my life. It wasn’t just that I was “going to Australia.” It was so much more than that. I was going to create a home, a life abroad. It’s something I’d dreamed of for ages, and given that I’ve struggled to identify what “home” is to me after two and a half years of travel, I was feeling overwhelmed with excitement for the unknown. My last few weeks in the states were spent visiting family and friends, which made for the most perfect “au revoir.” I got to spend such quality time with my favourite people in Atlanta, my lovely parents & dog in Florida, and of course, my little sister in New Orleans (for a massive music fest, at that!). I felt really good about parting ways with that home for a while. I felt like life was pulling me to Australia, as if the stars were finally aligning. As I watched the seemingly endless standby list on the bright blue and green screen at the LAX departure date, I became doubtful. The flight was oversold by roughly 7 seats, and I was number 18 to be cleared. In standby speak, we call this a “not a &$%^*#$ chance” situation. I’m not sure what happened to that standby list on this particular night, but just as I had almost given up and booked a nearby hotel online, I saw a change in the numbers. I quickly did the math in my head and realized that if I was in fact correct, I was going to make it on the flight. I’ll be damned if I didn’t hear my name called about 30 seconds later. I don’t think those Delta Airlines gate agents have ever seen a more excited non-revenue passenger in their working lives. I was practically skipping onto that damn Beoing 777. With one heavy carry-on , two 20-kilo bags checked and my Australian work visa in-hand, I was Sydney-bound!
This is what your life looks like before you squeeze it into two bags for a year. And this is the good version.
My sister (far left), her friends and I, enjoying a little pre-game before heading to Voodoo Music Fest. Um…we bought one day tickets just to see The Arctic Monkeys. And it was better than awesome.
Mom, apparently, likes to slip cards into my purse before I leave for a year. This makes one cry when they find it a day later on an airplane ride, surrounded by people. Wouldn’t have it any other way though.
Nearly fourteen, rather painless hours later, I’d arrived to the other side of the world. It was Friday, November 7th, and thanks to crossing the International Date Line, November 6th, 2014 never existed for me. I reached over the young, sleeping German guy next to me to lift the window shade and was blinded by the sun reflecting off the Pacific Ocean. We were approaching the Sydney airport and everything was glistening and vibrant. It was all so picturesque. Thanks to the over-the-counter sleeping tablets I’d purchased back in L.A., I slept like a baby and was feeling oddly energetic. Judging by my quick look-around after landing, I can’t say the same for everyone else on that flight. Perhaps I should have shared my sleeping pills? I breezed straight through customs and immigration, but not before picking up a couple bottles of booze from duty free. Yeah, it was 9 A.M. So what? Everything’s expensive in Australia, and booze is no exception (so I had been warned). Captain Morgan, Absolute and I happily walked out of the shop and into the customs line. It seemed long and dreadful at first, but as it turns out, efficiency is one of Australia’s many strong suits. Before I knew it, I was filtered into a [much shorter] line for people with chips in their passports. That’s most of us these days, in case you’re wondering. I scanned my passport, smiled for the mandatory selfie and headed straight for baggage claim to pick up my ridiculous and embarrassing amount of luggage. Yes, I even had (cough-cough, still have) a bag with wheels. It’s true. I’ve broken my own rule, guys. While I, of course, still have my backpack(s), there’s been an addition — and I don’t love it. When you’re moving 10,000 miles away though, what do you do? Suggestions welcome.
I cleared customs in less than 20 minutes and never even spoke to a single human official. Everything was computerized, even on a work visa. I kept thinking I’d breached somewhere along the way, but no. When I inquired about it, people would just say, “Nah, this is Australia.” I already loved it. I headed straight for a coffee, something I’d long looked forward to enjoying in Oz. It was love at first sip. I immediately understood the obsession and pretentiousness the Aussies tend to exude towards their favorite warm beverage. After a delicious caffeinated pick-me-up, I sorted out transport. I was set to meet Shira in northern Sydney, and after deciding to forego the public transport option (due to my luggage situation), I grabbed a taxi. It was at this point that I experienced my first, “Holy shit, this IS the most expensive city ever” moment. Cost for a twenty-minute cab ride from the airport in Sydney? Oh, just a measly $80. Eighty. Dollars. And yes, at this time, the Australian Dollar was almost $.90 to the U.S. Dollar. Guess I really would be living up to that working bit of my visa, wouldn’t I?
When I arrived at my final destination, Shira came out to meet me and we hugged and laughed like giddy school girls. She was staying with a couple of friends and was kind enough to let me crash for the day until my buddy, Dave, was off work. We had a lovely catch up and lunch, while exchanging thoughts on jet lag and overall excitement about all things Down Under. We’d last seen each other in Atlanta, where we parted by saying, “See ya in Australia.” Here we were together, four months later, in one of the world’s most famous cities. It was all so surreal. Shira came to Dave’s with me, as he wanted to take us out that night in his hip & happening neighborhood of Surry Hills. I hadn’t seen Dave since my summer in Utila in 2012. He was an Instructor at our dive shop and we’d kept in touch via occasional Facebook messages since then. He’s a wonderful guy and was happy to have me stay for the weekend. I don’t think I could have had a better “Welcome to Australia,” to be honest. Dave was a legendary host and we had such a blast reminiscing about our Utila days, while creating new memories in his hometown of Sydney. We went out to numerous bars in Surry Hills, had a nostalgic snorkel session in Gordon’s Bay and even had a beautiful Sunday barbie (cookout) with friends & family at his parent’s place. I also got to catch up with another couple of friends from Utila, (Tara, Lenny and their newest edition, Indigo) who offered to properly show Shira and I around the one and only Bondi Beach. We really nailed our timing, as Sculpture by the Sea was on that particular weekend, making the scenery and people-watching stand out just a little more. The perfect weather certainly didn’t hurt my first impression of Sydney either. What doesn’t this place have, I thought. Once again, I was absolutely swooning.
The one and only Bondi Beach!
The Bondi Baths, which are just the best idea ever. Especially given the amount of beach closings due to shark sightings. You don’t think I’m kidding, do you?
Sculpture by the Sea rocked. I felt a little bit of Atlanta in it. But the scenery was slightly nicer.
Tamarama Beach, just a short walk from Bondi. Yes, this is a beach…in a massive city. This was the day I started to get the whole fascination with Sydney.
Shira, myself and Tara in a giant frying pan. Because, why not?
Reunion time! Meet Dave, one of the loveliest buddies, hosts and dive instructors gettin’ around.
Gordon’s Bay. Not too shabby for your first Australian snorkel spot, hey?
A little Underwater Vision reminiscing here. Despite the freezing water temperatures, which Dave kept referring to as “Crisp,” we had a near-perfect day in the water.
Apparently, we’ve lost our underwater picture-taking abilities. We’ll work on that.
Following this baby shark sighting, the conversation went like this:
Dave: Oooh if the baby sharks are nearby, then the Mama sharks are somewhere around here!
Me: (Silence. I was too busy tuning out the Jaws theme music, plotting out how I was going to kill Dave once we made it out of the water.)
This is what I like to call a, “I just played in the salt water for the first time in Australia and I’m really freaking happy about it,” smile.
Family photo at a Sunday barbie! A bit of an awkward shot of me, but you get the point.
A few Spring days in Sydney made for a stellar welcome, but I’d still not reached my final destination of Newcastle. Choppy, who you may remember from The Philippines as “the girl who broke her leg,” came to pick me up from Sydney and take me to Newcastle. What a treat that was. She, too, is one of my best buds from Utila, which is becoming theme here, (in case you haven’t picked up on that yet). If you’ve read any of my previous posts, you know what a leading role that summer played in my life. Two years later, on the other side of the globe, we’re all still this weird, scattered, beautiful little family. The reason I had decided on making Newcastle my first home in Australia was because so many of my friends lived there. I’d made arrangements with my favourite Australian couple, Billy and Allira, to stay at their place until I got on my feet financially. As you may have heard, the land down under ain’t exactly the cheapest place to live. While the U.S. dollar isn’t the worst currency to bring with you, Australian wages certainly trump those of America. This explains why the average lunch will put you back roughly $18, or why a “cheap” bottle of shampoo can easily cost $10. I can’t tell you how many times I said “Holy crap! This is literally double the cost of home!” during my first week in Australia. I knew I had to get used to it quickly, and one surefire way to do that was to get a job earning Australian hospitality wages. After all, I’d come here on working visa, hadn’t I?
That Choppy can make a spread! I’d have to say this is one of my favourite things about Australia. They love a good spread and you’d be hard pressed to go to anyone’s house for drinks and not find one. I’m bringing this tradition to the states, guys. Move over pretzels & cheese dip. We gotta make room for avo, olives, pesto anything, fresh bread, Halloumi and so much more!
This is a shot of Newy from Choppy’s place. Gorgeous view, I know. It overlooks the harbour, which stays quite busy as Newcastle is one of the world’s busiest coal ports.
You can sit on the harbour and watch the most massive cargo ships come in and out all day. I definitely did this a time or two.
I quickly got settled into Billy and Allira’s lovely little cottage home in Cooks Hill, one of Newcastle’s cozy little suburbs (think: neighborhood). My room came complete with a surfboard, comfy bed and even a bike out the back. As if that wasn’t welcoming enough, Choppy was quick to offer to help me around town during my first week. She’d pick me up and take me to the stores that were tougher to get to by foot or bike, then showed me around various parts of Newcastle as well. How lucky was I? Within a few days, I’d unpacked my giant, overstuffed pieces of luggage and figured out my way around the neighborhood. The weather was cooler than I’d expected, as November is still spring in Australia. I was given plenty of warning on what summer would feel like, and was told to just enjoy the cool while it lasted. So I did exactly that. Naturally, I wasted no time finding the several beaches that lined Newcastle (which, like every other 2+ syllable word in Australia is shortened to just “Newy”). Bar Beach was the closest to Billy and Allira’s house, so that quickly became my happy place. Morning runs and walks, afternoon strolls, bike rides, coffee — they all lead me here. I’d certainly found my little slice of an “Australian Summer” without a problem.
Bar Beach. You can see why it was so easy to fall for.
Billy, myself and Allira! To be fair, we’d all had a few by the time this one was taken, so no judgments.
While I believe there’s no such thing as too much beach-time, my bank account thinks differently. I love a few lazy days in the sun, salt and sand, but to be honest, I was quite keen to work at this point. It had been since before South America that I’d properly been employed, so I was itching for a little mental stimulation and perhaps even some routine. Strange, I know. So I got straight to it. Within a week I had updated & printed my resume, opened an Australian bank account, applied for and received a tax file number and, most notably, obtained health insurance. Yes, within a week of living in Australia on a working holiday visa with my second passport, I had health insurance. It took all of 20 minutes at the Medicare office, and off I was, no longer worrying about what the hell would happen to financially “if something went wrong.” You know, like myself and millions of other Americans have been doing for years now. I couldn’t believe it. I can now (even as I write this post) see a Doctor of any sort for just a small co-pay. No monthly payments, no absurd deductibles to reach first — just straight up humane healthcare. That’s hard for an American like me to wrap their head around, but it is the case here. Say what you will about government being too involved in healthcare (I’m looking at you, conservatives), but what you’ll realize if you keep up with this Australian journey of mine is that they’re doing something right. And I’m not just talking about healthcare. University costs, working wages, retirement & savings accounts — these guys are onto something. I’ll touch on all these over the course of my stay here, but for now, let’s get back to life in Newy.
Excited about my newly acquired healthcare and freshly-opened bank account, I set off to find a job next. I knew that in order to work in hospitality I had to obtain my Responsible Service of Alcohol certificate (referred to as just RSA). In short, it’s a few hour course that must be successfully completed if one wishes to be involved with the sale of alcohol. This meant me. I signed up for the first course available, eager to knock it out straight away. The sooner I could put that on my resume, the more hirable I would become. I paid my $160 AUD (ouch) and listened attentively as the teachers told us the rules and regulations for serving alcohol in New South Wales (the state I lived in). I have to be honest here, guys. I love Australians. I really do. But my God, this course would make any American’s head spin. I laughed out loud more than once, and I wasn’t alone. From what constitutes a “standard” drink, to the amount of bar fights that happen nightly (Newcastle, once a leader in said fights), to the fact that stolen garden gnomes are a legit problem in Australia (because of drunk people, obviously)— I couldn’t contain myself. I’ve always found Australians to be some of the best (read: wildest, but not problematic) partiers gettin’ around, so I was baffled by so much of the information I was receiving. After completing the mandatory course, I couldn’t help but notice the overwhelming presence of RSA Marshals every time I went out at night in Newcastle. They were everywhere and they were so serious. I’m saving my breakdown of these guys for an upcoming, special post. You know how I need to keep you wanting more!
Within a few days of obtaining my RSA certificate, I had also scored a job at the first place I applied! Okay, maybe that wasn’t all my doing. My Dutch friend, Maartje, had worked at The Wharf the year before and put in a good word for me. Choppy did the same, as she knew a few people working there as well. Our combined efforts landed me the job quite quickly and I was setup for a trial within the next few days. It’s common in Australia to do what’s called a “trial shift,” where the restaurant sees how you perform and if you’re a good fit. It’s such a better way of interviewing and honestly, I have no idea why we don’t do this back home. Naturally (kidding – more like thankfully), I nailed the trial shift and was suddenly a working American girl in Newcastle, Australia! I quickly made a few friends there and worked as much as the schedule would allow. I was really starting to settle into my new life on the other side of the world. I had a job, shared a lovely home with old friends and was even starting to really know my way around Newy. I was finally living my dream of an Australian summer.
Shira came to visit me during my first few weeks in Newy, to boot!
And this is the point where I start losing track of reunions. This is Dane, who oddly enough, I met while traveling through Peru just a few months prior. The world is so small, I swear.
While we did have a few rainy weeks in Newy, we didn’t let it spoil the fun. I saw some of the most incredible summer storms roll in over the harbour. This was taken from The Wharf’s patio, aka, my work.
Tug boats and massive ships, all day long. I felt like a 5 year old boy sometimes, but I just found it all so fascinating!
So, as I publish this post now, half way into January, I write from my cozy, rented room in Byron Bay, New South Wales. It’s about an 8 hour drive north of Newcastle and it’s absolute paradise. I highly suggest you take a gander on Google. Google Image, specifically. I know what you’re thinking. Surprise! Emily didn’t stay put. Again. And to that, I say: fair enough. A lot happened during my short time in Newcastle and sometimes you just feel pulled to other places. I’ll get into more on that very soon. For now, just know that I’m still in the midst of a beautiful Australian summer, I have a nice little tan and I’m [still] always chewing on what’s next. In other words, once again, I’ve no idea where I’ll be by the next post, but I can promise you it won’t come without a good story! Oh c’mon. You know you wouldn’t have me any other way.
Talk soon from……..