Meghan Oram spent fall 2016 studying in Australia. When she returned, she joined the spring 2017 Intercultural Living/Learning community and took ENGLISH 3023 with Dr. Natalia Singer. Meghan produced this travel essay based on her off-campus study experience.
Gone But Not For Good
How was I supposed to answer the question “How was Australia?” when I returned home? There is no complete answer that would or will ever be good enough to summarize the experience and display how my journey really was. How could I possibly include each and every little detail of the experience in just a quick answer? I couldn’t.
Leaving Australia was the hardest thing I had ever faced. My family knew this and had done their best efforts to avoid asking all of the questions when I first returned home. My stepmother was especially kind to me in the first week, letting me acclimate by leaving to-do lists on sticky notes around the house reading, “1. Sleep in. 2. Have a yummy breakfast with a steaming cup of coffee (your favorite creamer is in the fridge!) and 3. Spoil the puppies.”
Eventually my parents couldn’t hold back any longer; a week had passed and they wanted to know the answers to the loaded questions that filled their minds so we took a walk around small town Sackets Harbor, New York, just my dad, my stepmother, and me.
As we started down the road hundreds of thoughts and memories filled my mind, but my mouth was dry and the words were hard to speak. They were patient, as they could tell my heart was aching. They knew I would give anything to go back. My experience had given me a great group of friends, a foreign boy, the grades, and a social life. Not to mention the luxury of three extra months of summer, the Great Barrier Reef in my backyard, a new and improved set of taste buds, and a nice dark tan. My family liked to tease me by saying that I wasn’t going to school, but that instead I was headed for a five-month vacation. Once I returned and the days began to pass they knew the experience was much more than a quick trip around the world.
Making progress down the road I was unsure where to begin with my story, but as we passed by the tall worn down brick apartment buildings that lined the road, I started to think of University Hall and the day I first arrived. My thoughts carried me back in time and into the front seat of the crystal clean white Prius, leaving the airport in Townsville and pulling onto James Cook University campus. Roundabout after roundabout, we had passed the Townsville Hospital and a cluster of gray and blue buildings, clearly belonging to the medical students with big bold letters plastered on the building “Anatomy and Physiology Labs Building, Clinical Practice Building, and Pharmacy and Medical Research Building.” Peeking out the window and through a fence of palm trees, I could see the JCU Gym, with its building name plastered in bright yellow writing above a wall made entirely windows. In the distance I looked up to see, the big red brick building with balconies stemming out from the building and a shattered sign out front reading University Hall.
I began to tell my parents how during the first week I arrived I feared that I would wake up in the middle of the night covered in each and every one of Australia’s most dangerous animals. The thought of softball sized black spiders, the slimy snakes, and the cockroaches, scurried into my mind with the uncertainties leading me to lose sleep at night. I explained how my thoughts were mostly irrational, as my encounters with the creepy crawlers of the outback were minimal. Except for the instance in the dining hall where a cockroach had crawled up my leg at breakfast. As I started to tell them, I could almost feel the terrifying sensation of the cockroaches’ legs tickling the top of my foot.
They were eager to hear about the infamous Australian critters so I continued to explain that most of the time, it was the kangaroos and the bush turkeys that dispersed around campus, with road signs warning common kangaroo crossing sites. Occasionally you could the bush turkeys strutting their stuff along the paved campus pathways as if they had been built for them and the kangaroos sunbathing outside our dining hall. My personal favorite outdoor friends were the birds. Their vibrant feathers contrasted distinctly with the grassy green fields and the dirty mountainous background of Townsville. Once I was home everything seemed quiet without them. I found myself missing them and the sounds they screeched out, disrupting my sleep and acting as my alarm clock promptly at six o'clock each morning.
Our walk brought us down along the edge of Mill Creek where the creek meets Lake Ontario. It was an unusually warm breezy day in November for Northern New York, and the water still looked beautiful. I walked along the cement wall that encased the edge of the creek, thinking how much it resembled the Ross River on Campus in Townsville, the one that I used to walk to nearly every afternoon, except colder, darker, and less likely to contain crocodiles. I pictured Tjana skipping down the sloped sidewalk in her favorite dress wearing the black Birkenstock sandals she always misplaced. I could see the multi-colored dress, covered in patches with two pockets on the sides, blowing in the wind as she carried the gallon container of sunscreen down to the floating pontoon. I smiled and lifted my nose high into the sky to smell the sunscreen memory that filled the air thinking of how to best explain to my parents that I enjoyed my last day in Australia, floating down the crocodile infested river, in a bright pink inner tube with a six-pack of Coronas. I decided I would keep that one for later.
As we continued along the lake the sun began to set on the horizon. I used to think that Sackets Harbor, New York was home to the best sunset in the world, but after seeing one on Pelorus Island, I knew that none would ever compare. I began to reminisce on the weekend I spent on the glimmering ocean that hid the reef. Thinking of the fish I swam with, the stars I slept under, and the Australian Mountain goats I had fed my leftover breakfast sausages to, I burst out with laughter as I remembered waking up in the pitch black of night to use the outhouse and causing a fellow diver to erupt into a blood-curdling scream. She thought I was an alligator crawling out from the depths of the sea.
Speaking of camping, my first hostel experience jumped from my memories, and I found myself explaining how I had walked in after a Sunday night dinner to find our fourth roommate, a Norwegian man, under the covers with a woman. Not once, but twice.
Luckily, he failed to taint the image of two Norwegians I had met three weeks prior when visiting a St. Lawrence student, Sam. Sam’s two roommates were Norwegian, and the trio they comprised made me feel at home. Remodeling their living room to create a couch bed, spoiling me with breakfast in bed, and letting me catch the first shower each morning, their efforts were admirable. My parents were puzzled, as they never heard about this boy before, but I had told them I wanted to visit Cairns, so I made it happen, “He goes to St. Lawrence, how bad could he be?” They were delighted to hear about my bold move, and I continued to tell them how I met eight of my best friends by speaking to a stranger in the midst of brushing my teeth.
I explained how I had mistaken a Miami University student for an Australian native, but it turned out to be the best mix-up I had ever made. After chatting with her, Wellesley, for more than a few moments, the Australian accent I thought I once heard echo from her mouth turned out to be a mere figment of my imagination. She too was an American who had chosen to extend her semester abroad into a yearlong experience, even though her catchy Australian phrases and noticeable tan seemed authentic enough to fool me. She introduced me to some real Australian natives and just a week later the eight of us were taking the world by storm. We raided one another’s others closets, danced barefoot on the tabletops of the Cactus Saloon to our favorite Dixie Chicks song requests, took one too many tequila shots, and wound up outside the meat pie house at 3 A.M. on Wednesday mornings more times that we would prefer to admit.
In such a short amount of time, these strangers welcomed me, cheered for me, and grew to be my best friends. They saw me at my lows as I battled against technology and struggled failing computers, and cheered for me at my highs as I stood at the penalty line, crushing a shot right over the goal post. They cornered me into meeting a boy in a bar that was “really into me,” and so I succumbed to their peer pressures. I made it a point to thank them for playing cupid as they hugged me with my eyes full tears, as I watched the very same boy drive away at the end of the semester.
Our walk had circled us around the village and to the school I attended growing up. As we passed the soccer fields I could see the nets that hung from the goal posts. I flashed back to the late night soccer practices I had just a few weeks prior, dodging from the magpies that aggressively flocked (more like attacked) us when a ball didn’t quite make it into the net, and what it was like to be a part of a team again.
I tried to articulate how rowdy the Uni Hall fans could get at the sporting events, attempting to capture the image of the metal cage fence that surrounded the sand volleyball courts. I pictured Amalie, standing in the center of the court, the number seven painted in white on the back of her jersey, her blonde French braids, and pale skin causing her to stick out on the court full of dark hair girls with ponytails that drop down to the middle of their back. Struggling to recall the exact words for the infamous college chants, the roar of the spectators rang in my ears and I could see them decked in green and yellow apparel from head to toe.
As we made the final trek home and the conversation began to wane, my stepmother finally broke out and asked about the “foreign boy.” I had kept him, Sam (yes a another one), out of most of the conversations we had while I was abroad. She and my dad both told me far too many times before leaving “Don’t you dare meet a boy, fall in love, and never return home to us.” One of my stepmother’s friends from work had a son that studied for a semester in Melbourne, fell in love and just recently returned to Australia, so they wanted to ensure that didn’t happen to me... oops.
Just the mere sound of Sam’s name painted a grin across my face. He hopelessly mesmerized me with his thick Australian accent and the dark wavy hair that harmonized with his deep brown eyes. I could picture him smiling, and the crow’s feet smile lines that stemmed from his eyes.
“You’d love him. He’s a second year medical student, tall, dark, and… nice.”
They snickered, but a million memories rushed in my mind.
Suddenly it was the middle of October and I was roaming the dimly lit side streets of Townsville City. Leaning on his arm to help keep the pressure off of the heels that dug into my feet, beauty is pain I kept repeating, as I continued to drudge forward. Talking and laughing with him, I saw myself skipping ahead of him as I yelled back to him to hurry up so that we could get to Cactus Saloon, University Hall’s stomping ground of a bar. “Come on! Hurry Up! Can’t you see how fast I’m moving in these heels? Let’s go tiny calves. It’s the ‘biggest night of the year’.” He finally started to catch up as he caught my slam on the classic Australian phrase, “it’s the biggest night of the year.” In Australia everything was the biggest night of the year. He moved quickly towards me and we had finally made it to the corner on Flinders Street.
My family and I had just turned past my elementary teacher’s house and onto the last long stretch of our walk home before another snapshot flashed in my mind. This time we were back on campus getting kicked out of the gym at closing time. He picked me up and threw me over his shoulder and I started to kick and shriek as I slid down his sweat soaked arm. He hoisted me back up to tell me, “Sorry honey, you’re not going anywhere.” My heart skipped a beat, thank god.
I could’ve spent hours daydreaming about my real life McDreamy if I had it my way, but we were nearly home and I had the rest of my family geared up for the true Australian Tim Tam Slam experience upon our return. Soon they would be dipping their Tim Tams in a vat of warm milk and indulging in the delightful construction of a chocolate biscuit sandwich filled with a rich cream center encased in a chocolate fudge layer. The thought made my stomach growl.
As we sat around filling our stomachs to maximum capacity with the delicious treats, my siblings harassed me, questioning, “How will you ever survive without Australia?” I won’t.
I was the happiest I had ever been, and I wasn’t going to stop chasing that feeling. I never thought I would be the child that would want to relocate across the globe, and the thought of telling my parents scared me. I feared my ambitions would leave them feeling abandoned and hurt, but deep down inside I knew I couldn’t mask my thoughts for long. While still in Australia I often found myself looking into the process of transferring to JCU with Sam encouraging me daily, “ Just fill out the application, deal with the aftermath later. Your parents aren’t going to disown you for chasing your dreams of medicine.” Although I never filled out the application, with the deadline already passing, I found myself constantly thinking how I could make it happen. He was right; they couldn’t be that disappointed, could they?
It was roughly a week after our walk, heading into the third week of me being home, that the discussion about returning St. Lawrence in January arose. Immediately tears fell from my eyes. My parents were completely caught off guard, but it was time. They would be proud, understanding, and supportive, I hoped. It turned out they were all of that and more.
Gratitude filled my heart as I shared the new exciting news with family and friends. Returning to St. Lawrence University in January, I would find myself beginning my first semester as senior in college, rejuvenated, thrilled, and driven to finish my undergraduate degree a semester early and begin the process of returning for graduate school.
Australia here I come.