Tuesday, January 24, 2017

A Beautiful World Away

Well, it took forever and a day to get here (literally, we lost the entire day of January 17th), but I'm finally settled in and free of jet lag. From stuffing my face full of amazing food and gelato to walking more than I ever have in my life, my first week in Sydney has been nothing short of astounding. 

We have been anticipating this trip for so long now and I still can’t grasp that we are actually here. Within just six days, I have learned more about Australia than I thought possible and continue to broaden my knowledge of this breathtaking place everyday with each new adventure. I also have gained thirteen new best friends who are growing into family.

One of the main observations I have made so far is how little Americans really know about Australians and vice versa.  Growing up in America, we never really learned much about this massive continent on the other side of the world except that it had millions of dangerous animals and insects crawling everywhere and The Crocodile Hunter. Regardless of how much Australians learn about America and American history in school, there is still SO much that they don't realize as well. Although we are a world away, I feel so connected to this place already and cannot wait for what's to come. 

Preparing to be Unprepared; An Overview of My First Week in Sydney

Sydney, Australia has been the one place on the globe I have wanted to travel to since I was a little girl. I’m not sure if it was just because Finding Nemo was my favorite movie growing up, or because of its natural beauty and wildlife; all I knew is that I would get there someday.

Until a couple weeks before I left, it never really occurred to me that I would be flying halfway across the world, living on a different continent for three months, taking classes and having an internship- all while being a sophomore in college. When my plane landed in Sydney early Wednesday morning, I felt every sort of emotion possible: anticipation, fear, relief, and even some homesickness. Even though I was feeling all of these emotions, I knew I had wanted an experience like this for my entire life and I knew that this would be good for me. I didn't know this experience was about to change the way I perceive the world forever in such a small amount of time.

It has only been a week since I first arrived in Australia, and it has only taken less than that for me to fall in love with this country. Sydney is nothing like I thought it would be, and I’m getting more accustomed to this city every day. I’m finding my way to restaurants and shops without a map, successfully navigating my way through the train station, and meeting new people who are completely different than me.

Even though there were things I had to quickly adjust to, everything about Australia I have dreamt about since I was young has become a reality (or will be in the near future). I've gotten to tour the Sydney Opera House, go to the Taronga Zoo, see the 2000 Olympic Park, and relax on some of the most well known beaches in the Pacific. In just a few weeks, it'll be time to head off to New Zealand, scuba dive in the Great Barrier Reef, and explore the island of Tasmania. We all have so many things planned in these few short months, but something is bound to not go according to plan. 

The truth is that you will never know what to expect when there is an opportunity as large as this in your life. Before coming to Australia, I had an entire idea of what I expected this trip to be like, and in only a few days that idea was already not going the way I planned it. Students who came to Sydney last year on this program tried to give us advice of what to do, what not to do, the good places to eat and which sites to see, but truthfully, you'll never know enough until you're living it for yourself. You can buy every travel book and write down every note on what those students from the past have said, but there will always be something that you won't be prepared for, and that is the biggest lesson I have had to learn in this short period of time.

Sustainability: The sweatiest culture shock

“So, is Sydney different than the United States?”

One week in, I’ve been asked this question more than a dozen times. My answer to each inquirer is an immediate “yes.” The harder, more complicated follow-up question I then have to answer is, “How is it different?”

Some of the distinctions are easy to identify right away. (They drive on the left side of the road!) Some are subtler. (The supermarket closes at 6? Weird.)

Before we left, our group was told that Sydney would be “greener” than the United States. Since I’ll be interning with an Australian non-profit that promotes solar power, this assertion piqued my interest. Even though I wasn’t entirely sure what kind of environmentally conscious differences Australia had in store, I was excited to find out.

I think the whole group would agree that it didn’t take us long to find out. In fact, it was probably a bigger—and sweatier—culture shock than any of us imagined.

So here’s my answer to just one facet of that tricky follow up: a quick list of the ways that Sydney, Australia has proven to be “greener” than Knoxville, Tennessee.

1)    Limited air conditioning

When we arrived at our Wattle Street Urbanest in 95°F (about 37C) heat and with the sun beating down on us through that infamous Australian hole in the ozone, we all expected the sweet, sweet relief of the AC systems we’re accustomed to in the US. We walked in the doors to find…

It was still approximately 95 degrees.

Air conditioning, when available in Australia, is used with conservation as a forethought. In our own apartments, that means it won’t run wastefully when we aren’t there (when our key cards aren’t in the door), and nor will the lights. When we are around, it runs only every other hour, except between the hours of 10 p.m. and 8 a.m., when they take pity on us and keep it constant.

2)    Funny looking outlets

Australian outlets are different than those in the United States. Not only do they feature angled prongs and higher voltage, they also operate using an on or off switch. To get the energy to flow, you must take the added step of flipping that switch after plugging in your appliance. According to various, questionable internet sources, these serve the dual function of adding a safety measure and a way to save electricity.

3)    Funny looking toilets

Perhaps my dad was the only one who jokingly told me to check if the toilet water spun backwards in Australia, but a quick google search found he wasn’t the only person with that question.
While I probably never would have noticed how the water spun, I couldn’t help but observe these strange flushing contraptions.

The buttons control how much water is used in each flush depending on how much is *ahem* needed.
The left uses more water, and the right uses left. These exist elsewhere, but seem to be universal in Sydney.

1)    Clean streets

If littering is looked down upon in the United States, it must be completely unacceptable here. I have never seen streets this clean in any other city in the world. It’s very clear that people are deliberate with the waste. There are a huge number of public trash cans and quite frequently, very full recycling containers that look like this:

4)    Public Transport

Thanks to an Opal card system that makes trains, buses and ferries widely accessible, public transportation is the norm here. Granted, this is true of many large cities worldwide, but for someone coming from a region that largely lacks good public transport, it’s definitely a culture shock.

These differences range in how much they jumped out in the cultural landscape. The air-conditioning was like the left-sided driving: the clean streets more closely mimicking the shorter business hours.  

I would argue that there is an underlying theme across all of them. That theme is a cultural awareness regarding the environment that Americans tend to lack, even if it's as simple as flipping an extra switch, or paying attention to which button you press on the toilet.

I fear prematurely attributing this awareness to one factor. There are many reasons, from the high cost of energy here, to a deep rooted-dedication to preserving resources that dates back to the traditional aboriginal owners of the land, to a highly active population who seems to enjoy the natural world, that might be used to say just why Australians are so willing to alter their behavior for the environment.

In the meantime, I'll try to figure out a comprehensive explanation, and I'll keep sweating.