University of Iowa Writing Certificate

My Escape Down Under

A Series of Non-Fiction, Descriptive Essays

By Rhiana Chickering

 

Prologue

I take a bus to Circular Quay, and I maneuver my way through the crowds surrounding Sydney Harbour. A few weeks prior, I had just landed in Sydney, Australia for an internship program. On that June morning, Sydney was slightly foggy due to the marine layer, but it was still beautiful, and it would define what began as a new life away from my fears and scars.

I order a caramel latte from the Opera House Café, and I find a seat across from the Sydney Harbour Bridge. Looking out onto the harbor, the cool winter breeze rushes through the knitted holes in my sweater. It is winter in Australia, but it feels more like Iowa’s early Autumn. The grass and the leaves on the trees are still vividly green, and the sun provides relieving moments of warmth as I sit in the chilly breeze, admiring Sydney, Australia.

While I admire the harbour and the surrounding skyscrapers, a tall, athletic looking man passes by, triggering all memories I had of one man in particular.

— — —

Before we dated, he spoke of me with admiration. Once we dated, however, his words changed. I hated when he spoke to certain friends of his about me — as if he was trying to impress him with what was thought to be “manly.” His words and my reaction to them are still carved in my mind.

During my freshman year of college, my face was partially covered in acne, which was at the center of all my insecurities. When I heard him tell his friends, “Rhiana looks like shit without makeup on,” he confirmed one of my largest insecurities. The comment may have been trivial but hearing it from the man who I thought would look past my insecurities and just see me made it worse. I stared in the mirror wondering why I wasn’t good enough for him.

Soon after that, I would not answer my door to him if I did not have make-up on. One night, this elicited a response that sent chills down my spine. “Oh well; she probably won’t put out anyway,” he said.

Evidently, not everyone heard his negative and insulting comments. Another girl on my dorm floor had a crush on him for a long time before that, telling people that I stole him from her. Knowing well that I didn’t, she decided to spread more lies about me.

Eventually, these lies led to verbal harassment in my residence hall, my classes, and on the sidewalks at the university I used to attend. After one day, I was terrified to leave my dorm room, instead I cried because I didn’t know what to do. I had spoken to my resident assistant, who arranged for me to confront the person who spread the lies. Not ironically, she lied to my resident assistant to prevent herself from getting into trouble, and the resident assistant believed her. I felt entirely alone.

The man I once believed liked me regardless of what I looked like without make-up on or whether I was the kind of girl who partakes in one-night stands, began avoiding me because in his words, he “didn’t know what to say.”

At the end of that January — exactly one week after I checked out a book from the library for a research paper that was not due until April — I resigned from the university to transfer to The University of Iowa. By that time, I lost ten pounds without trying because I was too depressed to eat. As I carried boxes and dragged my lofted bed down the hall when I moved out, all of the cowards who deviously spread the lies hid behind closed dorm doors.

I looked out the window one last time, watching the snow gently fall to the ground. On any other day, this scene would have been beautiful and relaxing. On this day, however, it was heartbreaking.  Standing alone in my empty dorm room before leaving a life I once loved — a life where the man I was with looked at me in admiration and every other girl wanted to be me — was painful.

Suddenly, though, as I turned around, his roommate stood in the hallway with a solemn smile on his face as though he wanted to offer support but truly didn’t know what to say. Neither of us knew what to say. I looked toward his room, then back at the roommate, as if to ask if the man I was falling in love with was going to speak to me before I left. His roommate woefully shrugged. We both looked down, and when I felt that I was going to cry, I slowly turned around and walked away for the final time down that hallway. Things would have been different had he been a better man.

I never knew how delicate the mind was until this traumatic moment when everything you thought you were striving for is suddenly taken away by a childish scheme, but I deserved better — a better boyfriend, a better education, and better acquaintances. Instead of succumbing to their abuse, I did the bravest thing I have done. I ran to start a new life somewhere else with a lack of trust and diminished confidence.

— — —

The waiter brings me my caramel latte, bringing me out of my flashback. He is tall and has an adorable Australian accent, ocean-blue eyes, and dark hair that lays perfectly above his eyes. Just like the city, he is flawless.

I sip my latte as the breeze mists water from the harbor onto my face. Taking a break from my 50 hours per week internship. Leaning my head back to better feel the breeze in my hair. This is where the scars I once thought were permanent began to heal.

 

A New Life

Eight other roommates and I live in a small house-styled apartment in a neighborhood about a 30-minute bus ride from Circular Quay — the center of the city.

That afternoon, we decide to join another group of our peers in the program for a night out in Sydney.

We arrive in the Rocks, a neighborhood of Circular Quay, where businesses thrive, and tourists and residents discover Sydney’s sacred spots. In the darkness, we walked with tranquility in our steps. We have nothing to worry about. It is a Saturday night, and we have no internship to worry about the next day. Thirteen of us stroll into The Fortune War, one of Sydney’s oldest restaurants.

As soon as we walk up the stairs into an elegant, wooded bar area the waitresses look at us with slight surprise. Through the corridors is a smaller gathering area with tables meant for two to four people. We have thirteen people, but to the waitresses and the owner that didn’t matter. They eagerly push tables together to accommodate us.

Classical piano music sounds from the stereos, while we order our drinks. Even with my shy disposition, I have never felt so at ease. We all chat and immediately create a group chat on our phones, so we will be able to gather for more sporadic outings.

The waitresses bring us our drinks on two round trays, eliciting curiosity amongst the other guests toward our large group. My Champaign sits on a thin coaster made out of thick cardstock with The Fortune Bar’s logo on top. It is the first time I have ever drank an alcoholic beverage and sitting abroad with a crowd of people in a lovely restaurant seems enchanting.

As someone who didn’t partake in underage drinking, I used to feel alone. I could be in the most crowded room but feel entirely alone as I babysat my peers under the influence. At 20 years old, actual legal drinking age in Australia, I already feel like I am living someone else’s life.

When the time came to order our food some of us begin to embrace the new culture and order kangaroo or crocodile pizza. However, having just spent time with wallabies and kangaroos at the Sydney’s Featherdale Wildlife Park the day prior, I could not bear the thought of eating an animal I just fed an ice cream cone to. Rather, I choose the house salad topped with vinaigrette dressing, dried cranberries, and parmesan cheese.

After eating, we leave The Fortune Bar, and make our way over to the Sydney Opera House for an impromptu photo shoot on the steps leading up to the architectural masterpiece. People around us curiously observe the thirteen college students with no apprehensions.

 

The Sydney Harbour Bridge Climb

The pylons are large pillars providing further stability to the bridge and making the bridge look royal and prevailing. Across from the bridge is the Sydney Opera House in all its architectural brilliance inside and outside.

Skyscrapers tower above the city, making the world seem larger. Just standing in the midst of immense skyscrapers makes me feel as though I have every opportunity in the world I could possibly imagine. I look out towards the horizon and spot the seemingly endless lights of the city. It makes me feel small, but in a good way. I feel unstoppable.

Even though the Sydney Harbour Bridge is not the longest bridge, it is the largest and widest steel arch bridge in the world. The traffic below us moves fast and creates a constant “whooshing” sound, as the smell of salt water fills the air. I prop myself onto the stone ledges made for sitting to get a better view of Sydney. From the ledge, I can see several bays and the Pacific Ocean filled with sailboats. Palm trees surround all areas, and upper-class housing looks out onto the Pacific Ocean. In the distance, I can see more elevated areas like mountains and cliffs that provide an adventurous mystique.

The sun reflects onto the crystal-blue water of the harbor, providing a vastly different view from the one behind me — a more relaxed and meditative view that calms me down and allows me time to think for once. The traffic is louder on the other side of the pylon where the arch of the bridge is closest. With the more muffled sound of traffic, I can hear the wind and the waves of the ocean entering the harbor more clearly.

Right now, I am in disbelief that I am in Australia. A year ago, I was overwhelmed with insecurities and fear of not being “good enough” or “able enough” for anyone, or for an internship position in such a prominent city for that matter. An ex-boyfriend left me scarred, but he is far away, and that bridge has since broken. I stand with my hair blowing behind my face in the wind and my hands clenching the ledge, so I don’t fall. I close my eyes and just live in the moment — no worrying, no stress, and no sadness. All I feel right now is clarity. I finally found serenity, healthy relationships, and a clear career path that I enjoy. I take one last deep breath as I open my eyes and take in the scenery. As the sun begins to set, the view of cliffs, water, and sailboats are layered with a hazy, orange hue.

I make my way to the other side of the pylon where I can see the city with its crowds, lit-up skyscrapers, taxis, high-end restaurants, and vitality. This is what empowers me to keep going and to see what else is out there in this world. The sky is becoming darker, and goosebumps begin to rise on my skin underneath my knitted sweater, so we make our way down the stairs of the pylon back to the world outside and underneath of the bridge.

 

Hang Loose at Bondi Beach

I never thought one day, I would be spending the morning practicing yoga at “bodymindlife,” one of Sydney’s best yoga and Pilates studios, then going for a surf break afterwards. Even though I took two buses to travel to Bondi Beach, the long bus rides were worth it.

With wooden floors and white, wooden walls, the bodymindlife’s entrance is as serene as you would expect a yoga studio near a beach to be. Even better, when I enter the actual yoga studio, it is completely surrounded by glass windows, and the second level is raised high enough to view a peek of the ocean. Eagerly, I set up a yoga mat and practice some warm-up stretches before the course begins.

Suddenly, the door opens, and a smiling instructor walks in with her yoga mat and water bottle. She introduces herself to the class and reminds new faces in the audience to practice modified stretches if needed to avoid any injuries but assures us that she will be coming around to help us to ensure we are completing the workout correctly.

Once we begin, I am grateful that I signed up for the beginner’s course rather than the intermediate course I was about to enroll in. Poses, such as downward dog and asana, were simple, but other poses required remarkable flexibility. Feeling my muscles stretch and my left foot begin to cramp, I often had to revert to modified positions. But, still, for most poses I ended up surprising myself.

As I practice the yoga along with other yogis in the room, who inhale and exhale heavily along with every pose, I have never felt more tranquil. Our instructor opens one of the windows, sending the sounds of ocean waves and the feeling ocean breezes through the studio as we focus on the present and let our worries subside.

Unfortunately, though, yoga classes come to an end, and we are faced with the world outside of the yoga studio. Fortunately, however, my third and final surf lesson with Let’s Go Surfing, which provides the best surf lessons in Sydney, is locked into my schedule next. To catch my surf lesson on time, I run to Let’s Go Surfing fairly quickly due to my loosened muscles as a result of morning yoga.

Once I arrive, I am immediately greeted by smiling faces whom already remembered my name after seeing me for the third time — another reason I adore Australia and Let’s Go Surfing, specifically. Anxious to catch some waves, I slither into my wet suit, and I wait for the other beginner surfers to do the same.

With sand already on our feet from the floors of the business, we set out to grab our surfboards and begin our surf break. Our instructor gives first-timers some instructions about how to paddle then rise up on the surfboard to successfully catch a wave. We also stretch as a warm-up, so our muscles are prepared to surf and swim. While the first-timers are still on the shore learning more techniques, I paddle out into the sea and wait for a good wave.

Soon, a ripple in the ocean appears behind me, so I begin paddling rapidly. Once I feel the wave with my feet, I push myself up and stand on the surfboard. For the first time since I began surfing, I just caught a wave on my first attempt of the day. When I catch a wave and ride it to shore, it feels as the world slows down, and I am more aware of what I am feeling than ever. As the surfboard carries me to shore, the vibrant feeling of butterflies fluttering in my stomach makes me feel exhilarated. I fall back-first into the ocean once the wave comes to an end, and I look over toward shore where my instructor is giving me the “shaka sign,” a hand-symbol notorious in surf cultures, which means “hang loose.” In other words, she is saying “Relax,” which also translates to “Good job!”

I continue this trend for the remainder of the lesson, wishing I had more opportunities to surf while in Australia. But, for now, I enjoy this moment, and I surf until my muscles are so tired I cannot push myself to a standing position on the surfboard.

 

The Tides are High at Manly Beach

At 7 o’clock in the morning, Circular Quay is crowded with travelers waiting in line for the next ferry to Manly Beach. Unlike my roommates who are sitting on the sidewalk sluggishly sipping their coffee right now, I am energized by this 7 a.m. crowd, and I sip my coffee with anticipation even though we are near the end of the line.

The sky is still dark, and the air is misty from the harbour and the coastal fog, making my naturally curly hair spiral in different directions. As we wait, the area surrounding the Sydney Opera House is nearly vacant and the Sydney Harbour Bridge illuminates the city along with the gleaming skyscrapers.

Once we begin boarding the ferry, the sun begins to rise in the distance, creating a more extravagant ferry ride to Manly Beach. While the ferry sets sail to our destination, we gravitate towards mountains and an orange-yellow sky, which reflects beautifully on the harbour.  I sit on one of the benches outside on the ferry, gazing ahead and letting the moist breeze waft my bangs off to the side. In the distance, amidst the mountains and million-dollar houses, I spot a ferry landing with a mob of people, similar to the crowd we witnessed at the Sydney ferry landing.

After departing the ferry, we walk along the brick sidewalks lined with small shops complete with clothing, jewelry, ice cream, delectable chocolates, and, of course, souvenirs. Even though some palm trees surround the area, the beach is mostly lined with the types of trees normally seen in a forest. Instead of turning towards the beach and the surfers, we took a turn towards a walking path near an immense cliff where we climbed over the rocks below to find our way to the other side of the cliff. Understandably, the guys had to lift us by our hands, so we could climb on top of the larger rocks until we finally reached a spot offering an immaculate view of the Pacific Ocean with sailboats and more mountains in the distance. Of course, as millennials, we took a selfie that mimicked the Laguna Beach television series’ most identifiable photo where Lauren Conrad and her cast mates sit on the rocks of Laguna Beach.

We sit and talk for a few hours, letting the gentle breeze and summer-like error envelope us in calmness. As the water levels rise, I suggest we head back to the beach before we are trapped on this side of the cliff isolated from the crowds of people. Of course, as the fifth wheel, the two couples I was with ignored my suggestion. Thankfully, though, five minutes later, one of the boys agreed that we should climb our way back to the beach where the tide cannot trap us.

As we climb back to shore, some of the rocks we stepped on before are now buried underneath the ocean water with waves crashing over them. Too dangerous to step on those rocks, we help each other step onto more enormous rocks above the water to avoid getting swept away into the obscurity of the seemingly bottomless areas of the ocean.

In the nick of time, we make it back to the walkway where we begin our secluded journey. I look back, and I notice that our former pathway is now covered in salt water. As I ensure all five of us were standing on the walkway and not in the ocean, chills form down my spine. I think how close we were to having to swim our way back to shore in the now-agitated ocean with its rough waves crashing against the cliff.

Non-ironically, we decide to end our day at a tropical-inspired restaurant that rests directly in front of the ocean with only a few palm trees in its way of an ocean view. I order a Piña Colada for the first time in my life. Relieved that we made it back to shore in time, we sip our drinks at a wooden breakfast bar facing the ocean as a familiar breeze hovers over us.

 

Terror at Shark Beach

When traveling, many people constantly research maps, locations, and attractions. They prepare as much as you possibly can. If you are me at this moment, you do not expect your phone battery to die, nor the portable charger, both of which you made sure were fully charged that morning. Today, I stand at a bus stop near a secluded beach in Sydney, Australia in mid-evening, and I stand there for 30 minutes wondering where the bus is located. Because my phone died, I do not have access to the phone application that informs you exactly where the bus is located. The bus schedule reads that the bus should have arrived 20 minutes ago, and the coffeehouse that is the only public space within walking distance does not have a phone. I begin to wonder if I ever should have traveled to such a remote location alone in a foreign country. I should have known better. The sun begins to set, and all I can think about is the bus that has not arrived and whether it seems like a safe area to be waiting alone at a bus stop.

Trees in the wooded area behind me rustle in the wind, and I hear the waves of the beach rush to shore. On any other day I would find this atmosphere relaxing, but not today. The fear is so strong that it almost brings me to tears, but I keep telling myself that everything will be okay because the bus must arrive eventually. The sky turns to dusk, and I know in a few moments, my surroundings may become pitch black. During this long wait, I think too much, as I wonder who or what is in the woods behind me. I begin to wonder what may happen to me if the bus does not arrive before dark.

I stand there wanting the bus to arrive, so I can move on with my life, and the fear will wash over me. Your roommates are probably at the apartment now, and I wonder whether they remember which beach I told them I was traveling to that afternoon. I wonder if they will even notice I did not return to the apartment as early as I typically return.

It has now been one hour. As I stand their shaking in the chilly evening breeze, I see the bus approaching. All of a sudden, your fears begin to gradually disappear, and a feeling of relief brushes over me. The bus takes me to my next bus stop, and I spot the next bus I need to catch, so I rush to that bus because I know it is making its final rounds of the night.

My entire evening has been centered around catching buses and arriving places in the nick of time. I never act this way, and I hope to never again feel the fears you felt that night. A year from now, I will have had so much experience, and I will look back on this situation and realize how much I have learned and grown throughout that trip. But right now, I sit and relax on the bus that heads to my final destination near your apartment. I take a deep breath, and I think to myself, in all honesty this time, “Everything will be okay.”

 

Provoking Rage (Unintentionally) in Melbourne

While in Sydney, I really felt that it was important to tour other areas of Australia as well, so a week prior to our trip to the Great Barrier Reef, I invited my roommates to come to Melbourne join me. During that week, however, there was also another group trip to Stevens Port, an area with more sand dunes and camping. As a result, only one of my roommates was able to come. Unfortunately, it was the short-circuited roommate, but I really wanted to go to Melbourne, and it didn’t seem safe enough to visit a foreign city alone, especially after the incident at Shark Beach.

As soon as we both got off work at our internships on the Friday, we grab our carry-ons and took an Uber to Sydney International Airport.

Immediately after our Uber stopped, we rush out to catch our flight. Of course, during the security check, I get stopped for a random search as always. For some reason, I always make eye contact with the person standing at the end of the security checks with a portable metal detector, and they choose to stop me — a rather innocent looking girl — for a random check. I decide that I should stop making eye contact with people, so I may catch flights more efficiently.

Twenty minutes before take-off, we finally make it to our seats. Once the lights dimmed and the purple neon lights lit up depicting Richard Branson’s signature Virgin Airlines brand, I know it is time to take flight to Melbourne.

The plane ride to Melbourne is peaceful considering I just ended my 50-hour work week. Finally, I have time to write about my experiences thus far. The lights below illuminate South Eastern Australia, making its coastal line discernable with the black ocean east of it.

Within two hours, we land in Melbourne. When we step off the plane, the waiting areas and businesses are vacant. As a result, we set out to purchase reloadable public transport passes outside of the airport.

I splurge and load 20 Australian dollars to my public transport pass. I know it was far too much, but for some reason, I feel it is necessary in case I need to escape somewhere. At this time, I am not sure why I feel that way, but assuming it is just my quiet, cautious disposition, I let it go.

Considering that it would take us over two hours to get back to our hotel using one tram and a bus, we decide to split the fare for a taxi. We are both starving and exhausted.

Melbourne is absolutely stunning at night. It doesn’t have an exquisitely designed opera house or harbour, but, even still, the city lights and its signature landmarks are miraculous. We can see the tall, thin light fixture atop of Melbourne’s Art Centre and Melbourne’s immense ferris wheel. Already, the city reminds me of Europe as I have seen in photos.

When we arrive at our hotel room, the view outside of the room is a beautiful view of Melbourne with the lit-up steeple of the arts centre peeking out from the rest of the city.

Aside from Melbourne’s charm, I am, starving, and apparently so is my roommate. She begins throwing her phone at the wall in the hotel room cussing under her breath because the battery died when she was trying to find a place that delivered food this late at night. During this time, I stand quietly in the corner to avoid being in the path between me and the wall.

When everything settles down, I use my phone to dial the closest pizza place, secretly hoping the delivery will arrive soon before I escape out the window.

— — —

The next day, we take a tram down to Flinders Street Station where the Melbourne’s primary business district is. From shops to restaurants, Flinders Street has a spot for every niche market.

The Royal Arcade closest the Flinders Street Station, so we walk down Flinders Street, and take a left on Elizabeth Street until we approach a European style building that resembles a combination of an old English hotel and a shopping center. Inside, the building is even more grand. With a long corridor, the arcade includes several stores enclosed by glass windows and doors. Against the off-white paint of the entire building, the glass makes it look even more elegant. Sky lights on the high ceilings add more brightness to the light provided by sconces along the corridors. At the end of the corridor, a clock with roman numerals hangs within a nook shaped like a dome of a capitol building.

Elegant dessert cafés primarily line the corridors, make the European-style shopping center nothing like Sydney’s Queen Victoria Building. With four levels included in the high-ceilinged, stone building, the Queen Victoria Building offers anything from high fashion shops, such as Burberry and Calvin Klein, to more affordable options, such as H&M or Victoria’s Secret. The Queen Victoria Building had everything — even Mecca Maxima, which is similar to the United States’ Sephora.

We then take a bus from Royal Arcade to do some shopping at Chadstone, Melbourne’s largest shopping center. Inside, the building is not European as we expected. Rather, it is the most modern building we have ever seen in Australia. The entire ceiling is covered in glass, exposing clouds and blue skies from outside to be seen on both levels of the building. Much to our dismay, the shopping center includes primarily high fashion shops, such as Louis Vuitton, Gucci, Saint Laurent, Tiffany & Co., and Dior. However, we discover more affordable options, such as Lululemon, Bloch, and Cotton on Body, which are similar to a Victoria’s Secret of high quality. Surprisingly, after much searching, I end up finding a lovely black dress on sale at Calvin Klein.

As it is a Saturday, Chadstone is immensely crowded, so we settle to eat lunch at a small restaurant in the middle of the second level of the Chadstone, which is not the most relaxing, but their strawberry salad is amazing. However, we begin to grow tired of eating in the middle of a shopping area with crowds bustling past us as we eat, so we leave and head for our next adventure.

One hour after finishing lunch, we are still sitting at a bus stop waiting for the bus to Brighton Beach, one of Melbourne’s most popular beaches. Two buses heading toward St. Kilda Beach, where we want to go the next day, had already passed the bus stop.

Finally, after another 30 minutes, we decide that whichever bus came next, St. Kilda or Brighton Beach, that is where we will go. Five minutes later, to our relief, the bus to Brighton Beach arrives.

— — —

After arriving to the bus stop near Brighton Beach, we begin walking to the actual beach. My roommate did not like walking, so as she cusses under her breath, as I walk at least ten feet ahead of her.

As I move closer to Brighton Beach, the wind picks up, signaling that I am almost there. Houses seemingly made entirely of glass line the streets, but if I lived across from the ocean, or in this case, Port Phillip Bay, I would want a glass house as well. This way I could look out into the water and the horizon all day.

When we finally get to the beach, the weather is freezing cold due to the strong winds. My boss warned me that it would be much colder than Sydney, but I foolishly did not believe her. Appropriately, wind surfers are catching waves as boats sail in the distance.

On the other side of the beach, bathing boxes painted in different designs line the shore. In response to these creatively painted beach huts, we decide to have an impromptu photo shoot, posing by every bathing box that had a design we like.

Suddenly, the tide rose, almost up to the bathing boxes, so we decide to cut our trip short and finally take a tram to the live band performance at The Grace Darling Hotel.

Unfortunately, the trip to the music venue did not go very smoothly. My roommate is tired, and her phone battery died. As we wait for the next tram to take us to Collingwood, another neighborhood in Melbourne, she starts cussing and complaining that her phone is dead and that I have a portable charger that I am not offering to her to borrow.

I know it seems rude that I am not letting her use my phone charger when her phone is low on battery to begin with, but I think it is best for my safety in case my phone dies when I am stuck in a foreign country with a savage person.

Her eyes begin to bulge and her face turns red. She looks like she is about to yell and cuss even more, so, similar to trading a pack of cigarettes in jail for safety, I toss my portable charger her way. Of course, she thinks I was throwing the charger at her, so she immediately runs after me down the tram tracks. She leans forward while she runs, and she tries to reach for my ankles, so she can pull me down. I don’t even want to think about what would happen if she did pull me onto the ground by my ankle.

Fortunately, though, I am much faster than her. I run across the vacant tram station, which is more terrifying now, and I turn around and tell her she is a psychopath and tell her to calm down. I tell her to take a few deep breaths, and to my surprise, she listens.

As it turns out, her entire family has anger management issues. Had I known, I may have been more cautious of which roommate I went to Melbourne with.

I try to take my mind off the situation that had just happened, and I scan my surroundings. The arts precinct lights up the other side of the street, and the tall spire on top of the building is a brilliant shade of purple.

 

Melbourne’s Music Scene

Through the damp streets of Collingwood, crowds cluster around the tram stations and bus stops. It had just rained the day prior, and although central Melbourne’s environment had dried, Collingwood’s sidewalks and air are misty and damp. In my red MAC Cosmetic’s lip stick, “Ruby Roo,” and my white blouse with thin, navy stripes and elegant gold, metal buttons, I feel just as glamorous as the American-girl-styled models for Tommy Hilfiger.

We approach a vintage hotel with a small bar and rickety stairs that lead up to the music venue. Initially, this place seems mysterious — almost sketchy — until we walk through the doors of the music venue. A wooded bar area welcomes guests with a plethora of beverage options along with plenty of seating. Round tables with two chairs per table surround the area through one of the corridors, as an area complete with a velvet couch and two matching chairs sit across from the bar.

The first band, Civique, steps onto the stage and begins playing music that combines electronic dance music with live piano and drums. Impressively, he is the only member of the band. Using a loop pedal to replay instrumental pieces he initially plays live, so he may switch to a new instrument. The music a DJ’s turntable style of electronic music, especially when he scratches the record to make different sounds. But, fortunately, to aid in the variation of the music, electronic, high-pitched piano keys sneak their way into the music.

During Civique’s set, some people clapped, and others winced as if they heard a car screeching to a stop instead of the electronic dance appeal he was attempting to cultivate as he scratched the record on the turntable. To the audience’s delight, a keyboard began a new song with an electronic, but scratch-less, sound that incorporated a strong beat. As a result, the crowd began its ritual of head nodding and jumping to every beat.

When Civique’s set ended, I began hoping that a band with vocals and less electronic-inspired music was set to perform next. Unfortunately, this is not the case.

Parks Department, which introduced themselves as Jordi and Mitch from Deer Park, Australia entered the venue as digital designs shine on the two-member band, blending them into the background. Quickly, Jordi, the band member with long hair resembling hair styles from the 90’s grunge days, such as Kurt Cobain’s hair, but less blonde, informs the audience that the first song is titled, “Losing Hair in Other People’s Beds.” No joke — this is the name of the song. Regardless of the odd name, Parks Department’s trippy music transports the audience to a different world as the digital backdrop changes from different patterns to different colors.

Shortly after the song ends, Mitch begins to play eerie keyboard music just before Jordi informs us, “This one’s called ‘Landlord’s gone missing.’ ” “Sounds about right,” I whisper to my roommate.

This music and these song titles cannot get any stranger; right? Wrong. As the music altered from birds chirping for a few seconds to a pleasant, electronic bliss, the digital backdrop suddenly featured, a horse’s head looking down, but facing the audience. Jordi explains that the song is entitled “Fell in Love with a Horse.” Seriously?!? My roommate and I exchanged glances, which assured me that I had heard them correctly.

Some of Parks Department’s songs are eerie, but other songs conveyed more upbeat and exciting music. One person even slithered across the floor like a snake letting the music flow through its body, as others nodded with the beats and swayed with the rhythm.

The opening bands were talented but listening to an electronic-dance music concert for about an hour without vocals agitated me. As someone who adores music and literature, particularly those she can relate with, I find words exceptionally impactful.

Finally, familiar faces that would occasionally scope out the scene and the opening bands before heading backstage, step onto the stage this time.  Right away, The Hiding began playing its most recent single, “Karma My Life.” Anthony Salce, the lead singer, dances with the audiences while singing flawlessly with the music, as he alters his pitch in between choruses.  The Hiding’s alternative, indie-pop music features drums, a keyboard, a bass guitar, and an electric guitar, already making this music more authentic feeling than the opening bands.

In a more slower melody, “Dream Catcher’s Life,” Salce encourages his girl to chase her dreams and risk it all for him to live a “dream catcher’s life.”

Giving Salce a short break, Stuart Winchester, a back-up singer who was also a contestant on The Voice in Australia,  came to the front of the stage to perform a cover of One Republic’s “Apologize.” Winchester sounded remarkably like Ryan Tedder with a hint of an Australian accent due to his range of pitch and strong voice.

Salce returned to stage, beginning again with a song more dramatic than his previous songs — a song entitled “Hopeless Hearts.” Throughout the song, Salce sings along with music similar to alternative music from the early 2000’s. Once Salce begins singing the chorus, an acoustic guitar and bass drum in addition to Salce’s strong voice adds more emotion to the chorus that refers to scars and moving on, wondering what life would be like if metaphorical doors would not close.

Once The Hiding began performing “Smile at Me,” women in their late 20’s who have obviously had way too much to drink danced provocatively and started flirting with the band by whistling and shouting loudly. Me and one of the band member’s girlfriend in the audience exchanged glances and rolled our eyes to communicate the same annoyance.

During “Smile at Me,” Salce’s voice resembles that of Adam Levine’s from Maroon Five. The song featured retro styled electronic music with live guitar and drums to complete The Hiding’s indie-pop sound.

As a perfect ending to its set, The Hiding, introduces a new single, “Lost Kids Balloon.” Salce explains that the song is dedicated the girl who was rolling her eyes along with me in the audience in response to the other girls flirting their way on to the stage. I am relieved that it is dedicated to someone who was actually genuine rather than the women in their late 20’s hitting on the band while they performed on stage. During “Lost Kids Balloon,” the band began finger-picking acoustic and electric guitars, strumming them during the chorus.

With its strong beat, pleasant electronic beat that did not overpower the meaningful, vulnerable lyrics, “Lost Kids Balloon” became my favorite song of the night. Obviously, the crowd agrees, as they smile and jump blissfully to every beat. The hiding wonderfully chose to end its set with a more intimate and emotional song about a girl whom a man is afraid of losing.

After its set, every band and band member joined the audience off the stage for more personable interactions between them and the fans. As a result, I took photos with The Hiding prior to entering back excitement of Melbourne’s city life outside of the music venue.

 

Wind-Swept in St. Kilda

On our last day in Melbourne, we travel to St. Kilda Beach prior to having an Uber driver pick us up at the rainforest-like Botanical Gardens.

The ocean is a perfect aqua blue, and the sky is cloudless as the sun glistens and reflects on the water. This scene is quite misleading considering the wintry temperature and breeze.

After arriving to St. Kilda Beach, I decide to walk along the pier to see penguins that are known for lying on the rocks at the end of the pier that seemingly stretch out into the middle of the ocean. As I wander further down the pier closer to the ocean, I squint my eyes to compensate for the wind that grows stronger along the way down the pier.

Walking along the beach, I wrap myself in my ivory, knitted sweater, and spread out my towel on the fine sand across from the Pacific Ocean. Sea shells surround me, and a red sand crab makes its way toward a rock, which is thankfully in the opposite direction of me.

The numerous places I explore during my three-day trip in Melbourne will have me exhausted. Peacefully, I lie down and closed my eyes.

 

Letting Go and the Achieving Unimaginable in Cairns

(The Great Barrier Reef, Milla Milla Falls, Josephine Falls, & Lake Eacham)

As we fly to Cairns from a layover in Brisbane on a small plane, cityscapes turn into rivers, and eventually, we begin our decent in an area resembling a rain forest. From the moment we climbed down the steps of the plane and arrived at our hostel is fuzzy because we were all exhausted. However, the hostel with its wild young adults in their 20’s, revived our energy levels. Even though the entertainment area was complete with a waterfall, pool, and live music stage, the residents of the hostel were typical Spring Breakers. Disliking the wild college scene and weary of the boys giving me glances that could only mean one thing, I make a note to never stay in a hostel again if I did not have to.

— — —

The next day, we hop on a large van to tour some of Cairns’ most amazing sites with Barefoot Tours, the best tour guide in Cairns. Our instructor immediately introduces himself as Roh, explaining, “It’s ‘Roh,’ like ‘Row a boat,’ notRon,” obviously slightly irritated from previous times he has been referred to as “Ron.”

While we are on our way toward Josephine Falls, our first destination, we pass a van of a different tour agency in Cairns. Roh new the other tour guide well, and he jokingly gives the tour guide the middle finger as we passed by.

After Roh’s crazy, first impression, we arrive at Josephine Falls, which looks like a river within a rainforest. Hesitantly, I jumped into the freezing water and began swimming in the water to warm up my body. Roh leads us to a large rock on the other side of the river, informing us casually that it is the best rock in Josephine Falls to jump off into the water. As someone who is terrified of jumping off objects at a height greater than five feet, I threw away all my fears, and I climbed up the rock. Courageously, I closed my eyes and jumped as far as I could to avoid the smaller rock in front of the rock I was jumping off, and I felt the water clean away all my previous anxieties and fears.

Unexpectedly, Roh leads us to another area of Josephine Falls. Walking through the rainforest with drops of rain falling off the trees from the night before, we hike to a pond in which was surrounded by several water falls: one large waterfall on the furthest side of the pond, two more waterfalls formed by rocks that formed breaks in the river, and two more waterfalls, which the water glided down prior to pouring into the pond. We did the same. After jumping into the pond, we crawl up one of the rocks, and slide down the other as if it is a water slide. So far, this has been the most fun I have had in a long time.

— — —

Besides, The Great Barrier Reef, Milla Milla Falls is the most beautiful places I visited while in Cairns. It is a small pond, with a tall, enchanting waterfall and palm trees and rocks enclosing the area and making it more secluded. During our time at Milla Milla Falls, Roh taught us how to conduct ‘hair flips’ accurately to create a rainbow shape with the water as we flip our hair. With one, quick but determined hair flip, my hair forms its own waterfall with the actual waterfall in the background, as Roh takes a picture.

After our impromptu photoshoots, all of us climb the rocks behind the waterfall to explore, and watch the water fall into the pond.

— — —

I never thought I would be swimming in a crater of a volcano, but at Lake Eacham, this is exactly what I do. However, I am terrified of lakes, especially swimming in lakes, because waves are going to help bring me back to shore before swimming too far out where the waters become more dangerous. Rather, swimming in lakes makes me feel as though I am swimming in a pool that’s current will carry me into the bottomless center. Roh also informed us of small lake-based crocodiles living in the lake, but he also assured us they were the tame crocodiles, and he would never let us swim anywhere that was not safe. Luckily for me, though, Roh brought swimming noodles to help us float above the water.

After several of the other travelers jumped and dived into the lake, Roh persuades me to jump by telling by pointing out that I swam in every other destination, and it would be a shame to miss a chance to swim in the crater of a volcano. Succumbing to his persuasion, I take a deep breath and jump into the lake with a noodle. I wade the lake for a moment, as the rainforest behind us rustle underneath the sun and amongst the gust of the wind.

— — —

Finally, the day arrived when we would travel to our main destination in Cairns: The Great Barrier Reef. I could not sleep the night prior because I was too eager to see one of the seven wonders of the world. As soon as our alarm clocks rang, we were ready and out the door faster than ever.

After boarding the cruise ship, a man named Elvis entertains everyone by telling us about the experiences people have had while swimming in the reef. He informs us about the sharks and other types of fish to increase our excitement, as if that was possible. Even more surprising, Elvis sang. He does not sing Elvis Presley songs, nor does he resemble Elvis Presley in the slightest way, but he sings more tropical-based songs that included bongos, a guitar, and sometimes a ukulele. Because he treats everyone in such a personable manner, I determine Elvis is one of the best hosts I have met. He goes around asking each group of people what their names are, where they are from, and their reasoning for visiting prior to expressing his gratitude for joining the “Down Under” cruise ship.

When the cruise ship comes to a stop, everyone rushes over to grab snorkeling gear to begin their journey. Still slightly scared of the sharks Elvis mentioned, I grab a life jacket along with my snorkeling goggles and flippers. One of the cruise ship’s other employees, Anthony, is also giving mini-tours of the reef for those who are not used to snorkeling. Therefore, I take him up on his offer. As I am placing my flippers on my feet, the woman next to me jokingly whispers, “You are so lucky! Anthony is hot!” I laugh because, quite honestly, I am thinking the same thing.

I hold on to the life-saver ring and look underneath the water as Anthony slowly pulls me around the reef, gesturing to different plants and organisms along the way. Vibrant purple and blue-colored coral reefs cover the land beneath the water, as brightly colored fish swim through the reefs. Having seen Finding Nemo and Finding Dori, I immediately pick out their look-alikes.

When the tour ends, I continue exploring on my own. Viewing the Great Barrier Reef up close is mesmerizing and extraordinary with its miles of colorful reef and variety of fish. However, some reefs are white, making this journey one of the most eye-opening experiences. Due to climate change, coral bleaching causes reefs to turn a white color, and seeing the result in real life is saddening and fear evoking.

I spot a shark out of the corner of my eye as I swim above coral. The sight of the creature drags me out of my deep thoughts about climate change. My heart beats fast, but I try to calm down because I know, based on a conversation I had with a tour guide, sharks are attracted to fast heartbeats in that they typically eat old, sick fish. If a shark notices a slow or fast heartbreak, it thinks the fish is sick, so it eats the fish. It also likes the oily blood of the fish. This is why a shark does not typically eat a person whole — it realizes it doesn’t like the human’s blood after taking a bite, so it moves on to its next victim.

“Breath in, breath out,” I tell myself.

The shark is grey and as long as I am tall, but instead of swimming towards me, it scurries away in the opposite direction. My skin becomes cold and goose bumps rise on my arms. Now, I can finally feel my heartbeat subsiding.

I continue discovering more reefs and navigating my way through different passages through the Great Barrier Reef. Now, though, I see a white shark. This shark is still as long as I am tall, but this time, I see the pupils of its eyes look right at me as it makes circles around a rock underneath the water. Once it looks away from me, I relax.

Throughout the rest of the trip, the cruise ship takes us to different areas of the reef, all with similar experiences, but different layouts of the reefs. On our way back to Cairns, we sip wine outside on the cruise ship, admiring the Great Barrier Reef for as long as we can before it slips out of view.

My trip to Cairns and the Great Barrier Reef is when I truly let go of all my apprehensions. I went swimming in the crater of a volcano, the Great Barrier Reef with sharks, and, more pleasantly sounding, down and underneath waterfalls.

 

Epilogue

After the internship program’s farewell dinner at a fancy restaurant along the harbour, I decide to stop at the Opera Bar one final time before my departure to order a caramel latte. I take a seat on the side of a table that allows for a spectacular view of the harbor, and the Sydney Opera House, which is now decorated by a digital design of Australia’s 2016 Summer Olympics logo. I admire the Sydney Harbour Bridge in its faultlessness and strength surrounded by skyscrapers that seem intimidating to some people, but not to me. I remain in this moment for a while because I never want to forget it. I want it wedged in my mind forever. This is the moment when I feel that I am finally clean of my insecurities and my ghosts — the moment the scars on my back finally disappeared, and I am free to move on.

 

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