My First Exchange Experience in Sunshine Coast, Australia

“All glory comes from daring to begin.”

The first time I traveled by myself, I went 14,359 km away from home. I spent a semester as an exchange student in Sunshine Coast, Australia and I chose this country because I thought I’d never travel so far any other way. I was also very drawn to the whole relaxed surfing, first world-high quality of life vibe that this country was known for.

I was seventeen years old and decided to join the exchange program my high school, back in Mexico, offered me. I traveled with a group of 13 Mexicans whom I’d actually never met before (we were all from different states) and one teacher who was in charge of us during the whole trip. Our school arranged for all of us to arrive with local host families, and I was lucky enough to live in one of the nicest and better located homes. Besides my host parents, who were originally from New Zealand, I got to live with another exchange student, a 15-year old German girl who was also doing a six-month program, and who turned out to be one of the sweetest and nicest girls. She and I had a lot in common and we actually became really close friends. We still keep in touch even to this day.

This first traveling experience was definitely hard and challenging at first. I was so nervous about leaving my whole life behind, it seemed to me like the biggest deal. I was going to be missing so many family events, friend’s birthdays and important dates; trading it all for the complete unknown. I actually cried at the airport when I said goodbye to my parents and felt extremely nervous during the whole four-hour flight to Los Angeles, the 16-hour flight to Brisbane and the 45-minute drive to Sunshine Coast, where my new Australian home was. I didn’t know what would be expected of me, how I was going to get by, if I was going to get along with these new bunch of people I’d just met, it was all really overwhelming.

The first few weeks were definitely the toughest. Getting used to a whole new life can definitely be overwhelming. Also, I’ve always been kind of a shy, quiet person, so it represented a huge challenge for me to actually try and force myself to make new friends.  I had to convince myself a lot of times that it was all going to be fine, even if six months seemed like a lifetime, and even if I felt completely alone and lost at first. Fortunately, I eluded that dreaded homesick feeling most of the other foreign exchange students got in the first few days.

It would take ages for me to write everything I experienced, so here are some of the basics and highlights:

  • I attended the 12th grade in Mountain Creek State High School.
  • I rode a bike everyday (as best as I could, falling down only twice) from my home to my school and lived at walking distance to the beach.
  • I only took ONE surfing lesson in my whole exchange.
  • I gained approximately 5kg (11 pounds) in my six month stay. This seemed like the end of the world then but I consider myself lucky now that I deliberate on just how many Tim Tams, arroz con leche, cookies, muffins, nutella, brigadeiro and crazy amount of delicious cereal and muesli I ate. Also, most of my other exchange girl friends gained around twice as much as I did; turns out this is a very common inconvenience of going abroad.
  • I became a sweet chilli addict.
  • I tried vegemite and didn’t like it.
  • I learned to take off my shoes when I went into my house, and that it is strangely, country-wide permitted in Australia to be barefoot anytime, and anywhere you want. I thought this was really, really cool.
  • I got to see my favorite musician of all time, John Mayer, live for the first time, with 4th row tickets in his Brisbane gig of the Battle Studies tour. This almost brought me to tears and complete shock and disbelief and I still get excited just remembering it. Dream come true, bucket list item, best day of my life.
  • I got to travel to Fiji with some of my Mexican friends in a really peculiar, last minute unplanned trip. The type of trip where you just go to a travel agency and ask for the cheapest plane tickets/vacation deal you can get, and buy it right there and then. Even quirkier when we got to Fiji penniless because of all the money we had already spent on the plane and accommodations so we ended up eating noodle soup every day for dinner, in some totally luxurious hotel.
  • I realized how little you can do in Australia as a minor (under 17) and after celebrating my 18th birthday there, realized that being legal is not that much fun either if all of your friends are still minors.
  • Saw one too many bags of Goon and still managed to stay sober during my whole stay.
  • Realized that Latino people, we have so much in common and do have the party within us.
  • Within Australia, I got to visit the Great Barrier Reef (beyond beautiful), Sydney, Brisbane and Surfers Paradise.

Funnily enough, after living for a while in Australia I realized that the relaxed vibe I was searching so much for wasn’t exactly what I wanted out of my life. At least not at that time. People in Australia, at least in Sunshine Coast, are really and truly calm and chill people. Surf is what’s going on in most of those places and its so nice to see that everyone has a peaceful life. Still, I decided that I missed the hectic, crazy pace of my country.

By the last few months of my exchange I was already so happy there. I had everything I needed: best friends, a sister, a boyfriend, a family, a routine, a beautiful home by the beach. I had this whole new life, and I’d already grown so accustomed to it. Consequently, when it was time to leave I went crashing down. Unfortunately for me I was the one who got to say goodbye to every last one of the exchange students. My flight was one of the last ones to leave so I cried as hard as I hadn’t cried before in a very long time. I said goodbye to my best friend, to my sister, to my Mexican new family, to my boyfriend and to my host parents, not knowing if I was ever going to see them again. To this day, this is still one of the strangest and saddest feelings I’ve ever experienced. People you love still existing, but so far away from you that they stop seeming real. It’s really surreal and tragic.

I think I was lucky enough to stay behind in Australia long enough to realize that what had made my stay there wasn’t really the country, or the city itself, it was the people I had met. As I went around Sunshine Coast in my last few days, when I was already alone, I felt so ready to leave. Not one of the places I visited meant anything to me if I didn’t have my friends to share them with. The Australia I had so close to my heart was restricted to a time frame, and a people-frame. I was ready to go back home.

My exchange to Sunshine Coast definitely turned out to be one of the most wonderful experiences. It went far and beyond everything I had hoped for. While I was still living there, I actually thought that it was all too good to be true, that I didn’t deserve so much; looking back at it I kind of still do.

This first long trip of mine taught me so many things. It taught me to conquer my fears, to try my best to settle into a completely foreign space. To be open to meeting so many new and different types of people. To respect and love other countries and nationalities. It showed me my personality and gave me a whole new sense of nationalism. It gave me character and a new sense of independence. It brought me friends and people I love that, even though at the time we said goodbye it seemed like I’d never see again, I have actually met several times after, and its like we never were apart.

Coming back to Mexico after my exchange was also kind of disorienting and unreal. When I left I had the idea that so many things were going to change while I wasn’t home, and it actually turned out that everything stayed the same. It was as if I’d never left. This was both good and bad because it wasn’t hard for me to go back to my routine. I still had high school to attend to, I hung out with my same best friends and our friendship was still as great as before I left. Still, this all still felt kind of wrong. I was beginning to forget my life back in Australia and I hated that. I still tried to keep in touch with all of my friends but we were all back to our homes in every corner of Mexico, of the planet.

Little by little I just had to accept the fact that it was all over, that whenever I saw my friends from Sunshine Coast we’d all reminisce the time we spent there, but that our lives were now different. It all sounds so tragic and dramatic but for me it really was, still is. Now that I’m older I’ve learned to grow accustomed and accept this type of feelings, but at that time if was definitely very weird and hurtful to me. Still, it was because of this experience that I decided that I wanted to keep experiencing new places and meeting new people.

My exchanged in Australia definitely marked my life because after it, I fell in love with this new way of travel. In staying a longer period of time in a different place, in challenging yourself and discovering new cultures. Into getting closer with new cities and people, even if this meant that you’d miss it all deeply afterwards. This trip changed me because, even if after I’d gotten back home it all seemed like a dream, it definitely was the best one I had ever had.

 

 

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