The vacation saga continues after a riveting final winter camp class. Riveting here can be synonymous with haphazardly planned or freeform. As I briefly alluded to, my camp theme was music; I mean how much more general could I get? But the small class size and tolerance of my soon-to-be-3rd-year students allowed me to explore more thought-provoking subjects and activities. My eleven participants (two boys, eight girls, and one enthusiastic teacher) was subjected to my last-minute planning, which somehow always works out at least in some way. I discussed controversial topics as portrayed in music videos (like suicide prevention and bullying – “1-800-273-8255” by Logic, Alessia Cara), music genres in the U.S., and how personality is linked to music.
I hesitate to reveal this next part because it makes me sound like an irresponsible teacher, but in actuality, there’s nothing bad about the situation. During this final class, I hoped to give my students lots of speaking practice, organically and unforced. I made homemade food and decided to try a game idea I found on the internet. Most of you will be familiar with “circle of death”, “king’s cup”, or “ring of fire”. It’s a common drinking game in the U.S. and NO, I did not drink with my students or promote their drinking habits. While searching online forums, I discovered how someone converted this normally alcohol-fueled party game into a foreign language conversation game. In this version, as each person draws a card and completes the designated task, they had to form a sentence in English using predetermined words instead of taking a drink. In fact, my students didn’t know that it normally involves alcohol, but still loved the rules for each card and also the strange sentences formed by the silly words I had chosen.
**Stream of conscious side note: As I’m writing this post, I’m having the strangest of realizations. My host-dog runs around on the hard vinyl floors of this house like a spider, his legs awkwardly kicking out as he scurries quickly away. It’s actually quite disturbing, the way he glides toward things barking like a madman… I envision his prey paralyzed by fear at his insect-like legs and beady eyes….
Anyway, back to the story at hand. With my last winter session in the history books, I was ready to embark upon my second and final international vacation of the break. Just as I had traveled to Taiwan with Sarah, I planned a trip to Australia with my friend Isabel, also living in Cheongju this year. Whereas going to Taiwan dually served the purpose of meeting two friends living there, this Australia trip was purely for the weather, the beaches, the sun, and to escape the doldrums of Korea frigidity. And to fulfill one of my lifelong dreams and bucket list items.
Sometimes when I’m writing these posts I think about who might actually be reading them. I have friends and family in scattered locations and because I normally only post on one social media platform, I’m sure the reach isn’t as widespread as it could be. Nevertheless, I hope that most of my readers know me on a personal level and feel the sincerity with which I write these vignettes. Travel is a microcosm of life, so naturally there are experiences that are fantastic and others that you’d rather forget or wish had never happened. I’m not an emotional guy when compared to a lot of other people, but I want to share my experiences through the lens of how I felt at the time and now looking back on them.
I was pumped beyond measure to visit Australia given the current persistent chill in my bones. Realizing that there’s no time like the present, I jumped at the chance to also actualize one of my life goals, to attend the Australian Open. The only thing stopping me on this occasion was the most heinous of travel blips. When Isabel and I arrived at the airport, the airline wouldn’t let us board our flight. Apparently, our layover city of Shenzhen (in China) is the only city that prohibits even short stopovers without a travel visa. The strange part is that Isabel and I had both considered the strict China visa regulations, but somehow this detail slipped through the cracks. We had to call the airlines and purchase new tickets with different layover cities. Incurring ridiculous costs and forced to fly out at different times, we were able to keep a level head and not overreact to our misfortune. And when we arrived in Melbourne to glorious sunlight and overjoyed at the fact that we weren’t detained in China, that little blip became an amorphous distant thought fizzling out in the depths of our memories.
Months ago, Australia was not even on my radar. Flying there can be fairly pricy but it is much more reasonable from Korea than say, Chicago or somewhere else in the U.S. In order to save money, Isabel and I also decided to try Couchsurfing the entire 9 nights, where you stay with local hosts for free and exchange experiences like cooking or conversation. I was responsible for the Melbourne leg of our journey and Isabel was able to cover the last three nights in Sydney. Our first host was a young man fresh off his college days who wants to meet world travelers and liven up his apartment. James lives with his girlfriend in the Melbourne suburbs, a similar commute to mine from Western Springs to Chicago. While we stayed with him he was also hosting a girl from Finland, two girls from China, and a guy from Peru. We taught each other how to make local dishes and had some interesting conversations with maybe 6 or 7 languages shared among the large group.
Although I’m an avid tennis fan and can name almost every player in the top 100, my friend Isabel isn’t quite on that level. I bought a three-day Australian Open ground pass which gave me access to all the outer courts and Hisense Arena and then a Thursday night session ticket for me and Isabel to enjoy the Margaret Court night matches. Our Melbourne stay thus mostly consisted of tennis and the beach. I ended up going to Melbourne park on Monday, Thursday, and Friday for the tennis and filled the other days lounging near the ocean with Isabel and meeting locals in different neighborhoods of the city.
My tennis days were somewhat of a magical escape from daily life. Before tackling the taxing responsibility of selecting my matches to watch for the day, I would hit up the Subway on Flinders Street. Like any sporting event, the food inside the tennis complex was grotesquely over-priced ($10AUD for an ice cream cup?!). The foolproof strategy was to purchase two foot-long subs that would tide me over for lunch and dinner, keeping away the hanger (hungry anger) and preventing heavy hits to my vacation budget. Once inside, I would shimmy over to the first match, staying until its completion or until my Tennis Temple app showed me a match that showed more promise. Many of the courts were unprotected from the brutal sun and I was stocked with water and sunblock. The heat was unbelievable at times, so I would take a break from the tennis and take a quick nap on the grassy hill between Show Court 2 and court 7. This was actually heaven in the form of a vacation.
On days when I wasn’t stalking my favorite tennis players (Del Potro, Shapovalov, Safarova, Radwanska, etc.), Isabel and I went to the nearby Brighton Beach for our first Australian summer indulgence. We splashed around in the water and ordered parking lot ice cream truck gelato. We burned our feet on the baking concrete. We fended off the beach seagulls from our packed sandwiches. We also met a Korean guy, Rafael, who has lived in Australia since his high school days. Throughout the week, we had many adventures with him as he gave us his local tour of certain neighborhoods (park walks, restaurant exploration, etc.). Rafael became our closest Melbourne friend.
Our second three nights in Melbourne were spent in the lovely abode of Brad and Rachel. They live in a gorgeous apartment building in St. Kilda, a famous area of the city for its beaches, restaurants, and Luna Park. They had actually relocated from Chicago and we bonded over memories of the windy city and the sheltered suburbs where we both grew up. Brad recommended to us to wake up early (around 4:30a.m.) to explore the St. Kilda breakwater and see the local colony of penguins situated there. People normally crowd the area at night, so the early morning provides a more intimate setting. We did indeed rise at that hour to wearily trudge down to the water and despite not seeing many penguins then, the modest beauty of early morning by the ocean and the quiet before the city wakes up was serene beyond belief. Before heading to the airport for our Sydney leg of the trip, Isabel and I enjoyed riverside beers, the royal botanic gardens, and Saturday brunch with Brad and Rachel.
And just like that, the Melbourne magic was closing its chapter. Sydney was a whole different animal; whereas Melbourne is a culturally aware outdoorsy type, Sydney is like the debonair socialite who spends an extra twenty minutes in the bathroom to get ready and is willing to dish out a little more money to look the part. Isabel and I had originally intended to spend the whole trip in Melbourne, but realized making a short detour to Sydney would be well worth it. Australia is much too big to cover in 10 days (especially without a car), so we did the best we could. We both vowed to not leave the country until we saw the kangaroos and koalas and some of the other native critters. About an hour outside Sydney, the Featherdale Wildlife Park is an animal sanctuary that houses all the animals we wanted to see. I was especially keen on the dingo, reminding me of Griffin in its face and mannerisms.
Despite not knowing anyone in Melbourne before the trip, I did have one connection in Sydney. Back when I lived in a homestay in Denmark, there was a man named Gary who was living in that house. Originally from Sydney, he is now back there until life leads him to his next location. Isabel and I met Gary one evening for dinner at a donation-based vegan restaurant and then stumbled upon a really cool mini-golf themed bar. Each floor of the bar had its own creative 9-hole course and despite my prime skills, I lost out to Isabel on the last hole.
The rest of our Sydney trip was very much along the same lines of Melbourne, fantastic beach outings, enjoying food that is hard to come by In Korea, and spending quality time with our newest Couchsurfing host, Michael. We completed the Bondi to Coogee coastal walk and reveled in the scenic views, undeterred by the strange path detour through a cemetery. I was also able to play tennis for the first time in months, surprised to learn that most courts in Sydney are carpet courts (kind of like turf over sand). On carpet you are able to slide like a clay court, but the bounce is still pretty different. All in all, Australia was just another adventure on the growing list, my fifth continent visited, an escape from the routine of Korea, which is basically already an escape from Illinois. This kind of endless adventuring narrative soldiers on and I take twists and turns but know that one day the journey will end in a place that makes sense. 12 months ago, Korea did not make sense. 4 months ago, Australia did not make sense. 3 days ago, writing this blog post didn’t make sense. But somehow, all of this happened and continues to happen and will happen down the road.