These Minnesota college students get an A+ for adventure. Follow along as they explore the world while studying abroad.

Read about our contributors: Katelin Harned, Emily Atmore, Catherine Earley, Rachel Fohrman, Paul Lundberg, Andrew Morrison and Emily Walz.

Curiouser and Curiouser: Eating Produce in China

Posted by: Emily Walz under Travel Updated: February 2, 2014 - 10:53 PM

Unlike “banana,” “apple,” and the inexplicable “apple with a banana flavor” my first Chinese textbook insisted was real (as best as I can tell, it’s not), none of these fruits were a part of my beginning language classes. If I’d ever heard of them before, their names were nothing but bright abstractions conjuring islands, unfamiliar trees, hot suns. I learned to parrot the Chinese words for a series of fruits never real to me outside of Asia, in some cases later matching them with English names like “pommelo” or “red bayberry” or some other unfamiliar label (unrecognized by my version of Microsoft Word) that didn’t help explain to my father what it was I was waving in the corner of his computer screen.

These fruits are an interesting study of the connection between object and language. Often, the language in which something is first known becomes the default, as though that thing is more firmly entwined with its name in that language, that Chinese is its true name and English a paltry shadow, or English tied to its essence and Chinese a clumsy affixation. Sometimes it’s a matter of ease. Pommelo in Chinese has two syllables, 柚子youzi, and that becomes the name everyone around me calls it by, even in the midst of all-English conversations.

Having learned to categorize Clementines and Mandarins and Navels as “oranges” in the broad sense, I struggle in Chinese to make distinctions between fruits that all look like they belong to that family but are apparently strictly separated based on some invisible logic - small greenish globes with orange-like interiors; larger yellow-orange fruits also sectioned into slices sealed in semi-transparent white; palm-sized spheres slightly flat at the ends and easy to peel. They might be 橙子chengzi, 柑子 ganzi, 柑橘 ganju, or 橘子 juzi. No broader category of “orange” to sweep them all into. I’m still not wholly confident I have that one sorted out. Vendors are puzzled if I approach asking how much the chengzi cost while pointing at something that clearly belongs in the juzi category.

Names are the beginning. Learning to properly label a fruit is part one of the challenge that continues with finding out how to know when it is ripe and how to eat it, tasks that seem deceptively easy. It should be basic: peel, and eat, or don’t peel and just eat, but even choosing which of those two methods to follow can be a decision fraught with uncertainty.


Mangosteen  

With its fuchsia rind, this sweltering tropical fruit is the only one to ever rival my love for the wild raspberry.

Those tiny orbs were long banned from the U.S., and once imports began to trickle through in 2007, they would sell for fortunes a pound in upscale East Coast groceries.

The woman who would become one of the best friends China ever brought me introduced me to the mangosteen in the warmer months of 2012. Mountains of those dark magenta spheres were tumbling out the front of fruit stands lining the streets we walked toward our favorite coffee-shop haunts. She had spent part of her childhood in Sri Lanka and knew far more about how to choose and eat the fruits stacked in piles in Beijing’s bustling produce markets than I had learned growing up in Minnesota. It was summer in northern China. There were almost no blueberries, few strawberries, and not a raspberry for miles.

I wasn’t precisely sure what a mangosteen was, or how it differed from a mango. She taught me to choose the ones that give a little when pressed, that the hard ones are no good. She showed me how to dig my thumbnail into the rind, to crack open the woody red-purple shell, to peel it away in chunks and pull out the tender white heart, divvied into wedges like a Clementine, soft and sweet and drippy, melting into a single oblong brown seed. We bought bags of them. My fingernails gained a semi-permanent magenta cast, my palms became sticky.

This was the first summer I spent in Beijing.

For a long time, the U.S. banned import of a lot of Thai fruits, including the mangosteen (ostensibly to protect against the Asian fruit fly), and given the fruit’s fussy nature and short ripening window, few are imported from Asia even after irradiation has allowed for a reasonable level of security against invasive pests. A small number of persistent cultivators have started growing them in tropical Western hemisphere locales like Puerto Rico and Hawai’i. The New York Times reported $45-per-pound sales on 2007 Puerto Rican mangosteens in New York’s ritzy health food shops. In China they are an everyman fruit, where a handful of yuan will get you a bagful in the right season, instead of a $10-per-tiny-globe deal. Even with prices dropping some, the logistics seem to be against bringing the mangosteen into widespread popularity in North America.

The mystery fruit

I stumbled upon this fruit up in the mountains of 广西/Guangxi, one of China’s southern provinces. I have not seen it before or since. The sign read 猴头果 houtouguo. Google translate renders this as “hedgehog fruit.” It looked like a giant berry, its drupelets grown large and unyielding.

I asked the vendor how to eat it. She said “like a grape.”

When I was out of the mountains and back in Guilin, I showed the fruit to the woman working at my hostel and asked what it was. She told me she had no idea, and had never seen it before.

I carefully rinsed it and patted it dry, but as I plucked off sections and began to chew, (the outside fibrous and sort of mild ginger-fresh tasting), it occurred to me that “like a grape” might mean the way many Chinese people eat grapes, spitting out the skins, and not the way I was accustomed to eating grapes, skin and all.

At that point I decided to wait to make sure nothing bad was going to happen to me for swallowing sections whole before I continued my experimental fruit-eating.

Passionfruit  

The passionfruit with its firm-burst seeds was a fruit I’d seen only in beverages, most often chopped up into a beautiful mojito in one of Beijing’s back-alley artisan cocktail bars, and not something I’d encountered whole. I didn’t know it came in small bright-purple spheres, harder than a pear, smaller than an apple. Again, I had no idea how to eat it.

Visiting Guilin was the first time I saw people eating them as they walked, vendors sitting at the side of the road with buckets of them. Apparently one eats passionfruit with a spoon, cutting it open and scraping out the interior, butterscotch yellow tangles with black seeds to crunch through.

She sliced off the top and handed me a tiny plastic spoon. 1 yuan, 1 fruit.

The First Week

Posted by: Catherine Earley Updated: February 2, 2014 - 2:17 PM

My first week here in Florence has been one, long roller coaster ride of emotions and activities. It has been the most exciting and the most stressful week of my life. Mainly the stress is coming from the hundreds of tours, meetings, and first week adjustments. Of course, we are all experiencing a bit of culture shock, but so far it has all been for the better. Well, except for the showers. I do desperately miss my own shower.

Most people have been complaining about the weather, which consists of constant sprinkling rain and 50-60 degree days. However, compared to the icy, winter, snowstorms everyone is experiencing back in the Midwest, this feels like a tropical vacation to me. 

Other than the weather, we have also learned that Italians do not believe in street signs, stoplights, or the phrase, "Pedestrians have the right of way." We keep forgetting that the roads are ACTUAL roads that people drive on. Because they are so narrow with no lines or markers, it is easy to forget that the sidewalk is actually the thing that looks like a tiny curb on the side of the road. 

Also, we finally moved into our apartment! Apparently our building is a medieval palace that is mentioned in many history books. It a beautiful apartment, complete with two bedrooms, two bathrooms, and a gorgeous living room and kitchen. It came equipped with all the essentials (silverware, pots, pans, ect...) and is in the perfect location. We are only a block from the Ponte Vecchio, which is a famous bridge in Florence. If you have ever seen a picture of Florence, I am sure it included the Ponte Vecchio. My walk to school resides along the river, and we are far enough away from the tourist area to be mainly surrounded by locals. The best part about our apartment is that we are two blocks away from the best thing about Florence: The Secret Bakery.

Now, we do not know the actual name of the bakery, seeing as it is only open between the hours of 2 and 7 in the morning. But we were strolling the streets around 2am (still adjusting to the time difference), and we saw these people emerge from an ally with these delicious looking pastries. So we decided to head down the ally and see if we could find the source.

As soon as we hit the right street, a wonderful smell filled the air. We followed it and found a group of about 50 Italians waiting outside a glass door. Though you could not see through the door, so we were not entirely sure what everyone was waiting for. 

Eventually, we made our way up to the front and a tiny Italian man with a large white hat popped his head out of a tiny crack in the door. He stared at us and we had no idea what to say, so I shrugged my shoulders and mumbled, "Chocolate?" He nodded, closed the door and disappeared for about five minutes.

When he returned, he handed us each a bag in exchange for one Euro. We were then yelled at by hungry Italians to move out of the way, so we headed back to our apartment. We opened the bags and inside laid the most beautiful, scrumptious pastry I have ever devoured. My new plan is to open my own secret bakery back in the United States; I am positive it would be a huge hit.

School starts tomorrow and I think we are all more than ready to be on a regular schedule. My classes include: Art, Music and Film, Body Language and Communication Techniques, and Italian. I am looking forward to observing the Italian education style and really falling into step with the local students.

However, tonight we are returning to our United States roots and gathering around to watch the SuperBowl of course. Let's just hope Italians aren't as serious about American football as they are about their secret bakery.

Ciao Italia!

Posted by: Catherine Earley Updated: January 30, 2014 - 11:33 AM

Ten years ago, my oldest sister studied abroad in Galway, Ireland and my family decided to visit her. During our time there, though I was only eleven years old, I realized how much I wanted to have the exact same experience; and the countdown began in years. Eventually the countdown turned to months, months turned to weeks, weeks turned to days, and days finally turned to hours. As I finished packing (and by packing, I mean cramming as much stuff as possible into my overflowing suitcase), I realized that it was finally happening. I was actually going to live in a foreign country for four whole months. As this hit me, stories my sister had told me, advice I had recieved, and thoughts of gelato and spaghetti raced through my mind at full speed. On the way to the airport, I started to have the expected anxiety any study abroad student may have. I started worrying about my flight being on time, the things I had forgotten to pack, and not knowing how to scream, "help!" in Italian. Mostly, I worried about how much I was going to miss the two people sitting in the front sit arguing over the quickest way to get to the airport; my parents. They have been extremely supportive of this ever since I was an eleven year old belly up to the bar in Ireland. I couldn't even imagine doing this without them.

I am a junior at the University of Wisconsin - La Crosse, though I am originally from Fridley, Minnesota. Originally, my plan was to go to Ireland. But I realized that studying abroad is all about stepping away from your comfort zone and really putting yourself out there. So I decided to go to Italy last year, after reading about the culture, landmarks, and people. After deciding Rome was too dangerous, I settled on Florence and was very much supported. Florence also happened to have my program: Communication Studies (emphasis in Professional and Organizational Communication and a minor in Interpersonal Studies). I also knew that Italy's location made it much easier to travel around Europe, which I would really like to do a lot of.

I thought about last year, when I had made that decision as we pulled up to the airport. I couldn't believe that after all this time preparing and packing, the time had finally come.

As we prepared to say goodbye, my parents and I distracted ourselves with advice on pick pockets, gelato flavors, and the outrageous exchange rate. Eventually, it was time to part ways and I turned to hug my mother. 

"No crying," I warned her.

"I promise," she reassured me. Then she pulled me into a big hug, one of those hugs only moms know how to give, and told me how excited she was for me and that she was always only a phonecall away. I couldn't help it, though I am not usually an overly emotional person, tears slowly spilled down my cheeks and onto my mom's jacket. 

My dad then pulled me into a hug and told me how proud he was of me and that I had good instincts, so I should follow them. My father's words instilled enough courage in me to finally let go and wave goodbye as I headed through security. 

While putting my shoes on at the end of security, I turned one last time to see my parents. They waved and my father shot me a thumbs up. This was it. I was on my own.

Other than very long, boring layovers and bad airplane food, I managed to make it safely through my travels. I ended up meeting a ton of other students headed the same place as me. We all shared our excitement and anxiety and decided to stick together. And while I sat there on my last plane in Munich, Germany, listening to the flight attendent explain the emergency procedures for the third time, in the third language I had heard that day, I stared out the window, finally realizing that I was in Europe!

We arrived in Florence about 45 minutes later and gathered all of our luggage (shockingly, mine had made it through three transfers!). And by gathered our luggage, I mean we made my new friend, Jon, grab our overweight suitcases for us.

Our hotel was gorgeous, and right in the center of Florence, about a block away from the Duomo. After the most terrifying drive of my life (Italians are insane drivers), I attained my room key and headed upstairs. Just so any of you planning on traveling to Florence know, I think the doors here are literally designed to confuse Americans. I stood outside my room for a solid five minutes before my roommate must have heard my struggles and opened the door. It was a great ice breaker and we both laughed about how it took her forever to figure it out as well. She also explained how she had been sitting in the dark for about twenty minutes before she realized you have to keep the room key in a slot to keep the lights on. We sat around chatting, getting to know each other, but the jet lag eventually got the best of us and we took a quick nap. 

A knock on the door woke us up, and I answered it to find my new friend Jon asking if we wanted to have our first Italian coffee experience. So we headed across the street to a little coffee shop that looked inviting enough. I was surprised to find that the menu was actually in English! However, culture shock experience number one: Italians DO NOT wait in single file lines, especially when it comes to coffee. I think we were budged by an entire graduating class; it was every man for himself. Eventually, after about 20 minutes of standing there with our mouths hanging open, a nice, young girl grabbed my arm and got the burrista's attention. I mumbled my order and stumbled over my please and thank you's. Even though the burrista spoke perfect English, I was so intimidated speaking to her for some reason. I felt like everyone was watching me and judging me and all my English speaking American-ness. We paid for our coffee and all but ran out of there. 

We strolled down the street a bit, though it was freezing cold and raining. I was about to suggest heading back when out of no where, the most beautiful, wonderful, magestic thing I have ever seen appeared in front of us. The Duomo sat right in the middle of the square, surrounded by picture-taking tourists being unkowingly pick picketed by the nice men selling them flowers and umbrellas. It was so tall, and the details on it were so unique and stunning that it took the breath right out of all of us. We just stood there in awe, in the most beautiful city in the world, staring at this incredible landmark, and I just slowly said, "Oh my gosh; we're in Florence."

After a VERY long orientation that really only convinced all of us that we would be pick pocketed, raped, drugged, and robbed at some point in our travels, we were given a free dinner on the top floor of the hotel. Keep in mind, this was a five-star hotel we were staying at; the kind of place that looks like God, himself built it. So when we arrived on the top floor, we looked out the windows to see the entire city right before our eyes. Everything was lit up and glittering, and right there in the middle of it all, was the Duomo. 

Dinner was so fresh and delicious that it encouraged us to try every single thing they offered us. There were about ten plates dedicated solely to cheese and tomatoes, bread by the ton, and of course, pasta. It almost felt like someone wrote down every single stereotypical Italian cuisine and served it to us. The only thing missing was the wine. However, we had our own solution for that.

We decided that since it was the first night in our new town, we would go out exploring and maybe have our first legal drinks! We walked around for about an hour and a half, wandering down long, winding streets full of food, shops, and culture. Everything was so unbelievably beautiful; there were no words to describe it. Pictures didn't even come close to comparing what we were seeing with our own eyes. We were all immediately falling in love with the city.

Eventually we started wondering why we were having so much trouble finding somewhere to get a glass of wine in Italy, until we realized that Italians do not usally go out until around 12:30-1:00 because most pubs and clubs stay open until 5 or 6 in the morning. Despite this fact, we managed to discover a little pub called, "Joshua Tree Pub." Yeah, I'm not kidding; that's what it's called. Apart from the odd name, the pub turned out to be pretty interesting. They were playing 80's American rock songs, but the place looked like a mix between a Mexican restaurant and an Irish pub. We decided to give it a try seeing as everyone in there was so welcoming. We ordered a couple drinks and sat around getting to know each other. There was about seven of us; seven strangers from all over the United States sharing stories and showing pictures of family and friends. At one point, we realized how amazing this semester was going to be. Upon this realization, we held up our glasses and said, "salud!" 

Despite this wonderful time we were having, I do have one tip for you; there is a reason Italians do not drink their own beer.

End of one Chapter, Beginning of Another

Posted by: Paul Lundberg under People Updated: November 27, 2013 - 7:28 AM

I write this final post somberly knowing that my life abroad in the Emerald Isle is rapidly approaching its end.  My academic semester ends in the next few days.  I will be on a plane home December 12th after I do final travels with my family, which shall arrive shortly.  It feels appropriate to sum up what I have accomplished on this trip (Warning long list approaching!): I have hiked three mountains and reached the highest point in Ireland and hiked in the Alps, I have traveled to five different countries, learned 2000 years of Irish history, literature and theology, deep sea fished, recorded a music video with Irelands leading musicians, tracked down family heritage, experienced the hostel life, lived out of a backpack for ten days, met Evanna Lynch (Luna Lovegood), experienced several Irish pubs, traveled away from family for the first time, remained out of the States for over three months, gained new friends, had five different currencies in my wallet at one time, travelled via train, bus, plan, car, and foot in one day, ate a full Irish breakfast, learned how to cook without the microwave or frozen pizza, wrote this blog, tested myself on a ropes course, learned the words fortnight and penultimate, learned great card games, lessened dependence on electronics, wrote letters with a pen (mind blowing I know), mastered the Tube in London, became more sustainable, read several good books,went to nearly every corner of Ireland, tried several news foods, discussed the ramifications of a post-colonial society and neo colonialism, watched the sun set over Spiddal, and most of all I have had a most wonderful experience on this adventure in my life.

I look back on all that I have done and it is remarkable.  Three months ago I arrived on the island not knowing what to expect.   I had no idea what I was getting into, and I could not be happier about that.  Some advice to any who are thinking about studying abroad is, do it. It is an amazing experience and I know if I had not gone on this abroad experience I would be kicking myself.

 I have done things and changed in ways I may not fully understand.  What I do know is I have done many things over the past few months and I look forward to the future, and what can be accomplished with it.  While this chapter may soon be coming to a close, another is opening.  The question remains, where will it lead?  I am ready to find out.

Sunset in Spiddal

Sunset in Spiddal

All of the People

Posted by: Emily Atmore Updated: November 24, 2013 - 10:24 PM

            Having been in Australia for almost 5 months I have been fortunate enough to experience some amazing things, but maybe most memorable are the people who I have met along the way. I thought I would spend this post giving a brief glimpse into some of the people, Australian and otherwise, that I have had the pleasure of encountering.

            I would be unable to put into words, into pages even, what the friends I have made through my Study Abroad program mean to me. Every experience would be different if they were not by my side. I am so lucky to be returning home with a group of friends from all over the country. It’s safe to say we are already planning a reunion for a year from now. But without going on and on, I can reduce my appreciation to simply say that without a doubt they are what I will miss most about my study abroad experience in Australia.

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            On my first day of classes in Australia, thoroughly nervous and intimidated, I met Mick. He is an Australian journalism major from Brisbane. He introduced himself straight away at the beginning of class, and although our conversation wasn’t fluid because of my inability to comprehend his heavy accent and soft tone, it was nice to have made a friend so soon. I’ll admit, probably because he was my first Australian friend, I was a little curious where our friendship would go. This notion existed only about 3 minutes after class ended. Because as we were walking through campus he mentioned his “partner” which immediately I linked in my mind to a male partner. It was later that I discovered in Australia, they call spouses “partners”, so he was not gay, but he was indeed married. We remained platonic friends and it was wonderful to see a friendly face every Monday morning for the next 13 weeks.

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            While in Australia I met hoards of Norwegians and Swedes. My first encounter was with a Norwegian girl I met on a weekend trip to Byron Bay. As we were walking through town to a backpacker’s pub, we discussed my Norwegian heritage and she told me all about the culture. I told her that although I was largely Norwegian and Swedish, there were few practices of my heritage that I still performed. One practice however, and a big one in my family, is the making of lefse. Ever since I was 5 I have joined the women in my family for an annual “lefse weekend” where we make lefse among lots of shopping and gossiping.

            So it’s to be expected that I was utterly shocked when she had no idea what lefse was. I had been making this potato pancake, and preparing it with butter and sugar for years. I was told by my family all about how Swedes like sugar on their lefse, while Norwegians prefer just butter. I had pictured lefse to be sold regularly at grocery stores, I even did a “how-to” speech on making lefse in the sixth grade. Sure that my childhood could not have been a lie, I wrote this first shock off as inconsequential, she must just not have understand what I was saying. Or maybe she lived under a Norwegian rock.

            But, this was not the last time I was given that funny look as I was expressing my love for lefse to Scandinavians. In fact, three times I received that look; once from a group of Norwegians on my spring vacation, and once from Mena, a Swedish girl in my painting class. I protested longer with Mena, only to come to a somewhat satisfying conclusion that maybe lefse was called something else. Mena thought maybe I was talking about a Swedish pancake, yet she said she has never had it prepared with butter or sugar.  To date, I have no idea how there could be such disconnect. Google confirms that Lefse is a Norwegian dish, popular in Scandinavian countries. So why none of the handful of Scandinavians I met know what lefse is will continue to be a mystery.

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One of my many discoveries during my travels was that Australia may have a running chance as the home of the nicest people. As Minnesota-Nice exists, Australia-Nice definitely contends. These next few stories illustrate this.

Once after a long night, and in the middle of a long bus trip, I was feeling extremely nauseous. I get somewhat carsick at times, but having rarely ridden a bus, I was unaware of the kind of sick I could get. At the start of a 2 hour journey south, on a extremely hot and crowded city bus, I found myself pleading with my stomach and my head not to get sick on all of the people surrounding me. To everyone around me it was clear I was suffering, and one saint of a lady offered her sympathy. She gave me tons of motherly advice, offering me chewing gum to alleviate the nausea, and finding a place for me to sit down. She told me about pressure points I should learn in order to help with motion sickness, and suggested a ginger beer when I got off the bus. I can’t even explain how much I appreciated her help in what felt like my darkest hour. Sometimes you just need to be “mommy-ed” and since mine was on the other side of the world, it was nice having a substitute for the time being.

There was another wonderful lady. She worked on campus at the student office. I had found my way there after my Student ID had fallen out of my backpack. She was kind enough not to make me pay the hefty fee for the lost card. She told me with all the ridiculous fees they charge international students; there was no need to charge for a little piece of plastic. She said loud enough so her coworkers could hear, “That’s so awful that someone stole your wallet, with your credit cards, cash, and your student ID inside.” This was the only legitimate way for her to give me a free ID. She winked at me and sent me on my way. Just another wonderful example of “Aussie-nice”.

I met Australia-Nice once again on the plane to Melbourne. She was a girl named Kat, who sat in between my two friends. She was headed home to Melbourne after a weeklong work trip in the Gold Coast; she owned her own photography business at the age of 25. She told us all the great sights in Melbourne, which was supremely helpful because we were headed there with not a clue what to see or do. She even bought my friends drinks as I slept. They ended up talking the entire flight, and when we landed she waited with us to get our baggage and convinced her boyfriend to wait outside with the car in order to give us a ride into the city. Our bags ended up getting stuck and her boyfriend was ordered by airport security to move along, so she had to go without us. But her kindness was more than abnormally generous, and much appreciated. We even met her the next day near her office for a little of her recommended shopping.

During my stay in Australia I met tons of amazing people from all over the world. Many unmentioned here, but not forgotten in the least. I will take their stories, their kindness, as they will mine, and move forward knowing I am connected to the rest of the world through these exchanges. It’s both a peculiar and wonderful feeling.

The Journey Continues

A Fantastic Finale

Posted by: Emily Atmore Updated: November 11, 2013 - 1:53 AM

The past six weeks have been incredibly busy and doubly fantastic. I had fun, and sun, and exams.

I sailed the world famous Whitsunday Islands, lived on a private island for a week, snorkeled the Great Barrier Reef, visited Australia’s art capital, Melbourne, saw Beyoncé, my lifelong idol, in concert, and visited my favorite place in Australia, Byron Bay for the last time. Somewhere amidst these adventures I also wrote papers, prepared my final painting portfolio and completed exams.

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In late September I left on Spring Vacation for a 10-day, 90-person bus trip up the east coast of Australia. We first hit the Australia Zoo, Steve Irwin’s home and legacy. We stayed the night near Fraser Island, which is the world’s largest all sand Island. In the day we raced through the sand dunes on massive 4-wheels sand buggies, which delivered a wild ride.  We spent the afternoon at Lake Mackenzie, enjoying the pristine water. We discovered that Fraser Island is home to both Dingoes and Aborigines. We then spent an uncomfortable night on the bus. On one of our many pit stops I was fortunate enough to come across wild Kangaroos hopping about in a field.

The next day we boarded boats in Airlie Beach and headed to our private island resort- on South Molle (pronounced “mall”). We spent the day snorkeling the Whitsunday Islands and got to see Whitehaven Beach, home to the purest silica sand beach in the world. The high concentration of silica in the sand creates the brilliant white color, and also promises cool feet, as it does not retain heat like other less pure sands.

The next day we spent wandering South Molle. We started the day by feeding turtles and enormous fish. On a walk we came across an eerie abandoned bar with a disheveled 2 bedroom home attached. We had heard that the Island was hit with a terrible storm and had left it destroyed. This bar, in addition to abandoned shops and villas at the edge of the resort hinted at this as well. We ventured into the home in back and found a frightening scene. The place looked ransacked, bedding still on the beds, drawers pulled out in a hurry, a child’s stickers all over the walls. We were confused, but the paragraphs written all over the walls filled in some of the blanks. There had been a 3-person family living here, running the bar. They had spent 4 years working under miserable management and had nothing but horrible things to say about the resort owners and the island itself.  They had not been allowed to leave the tiny island for 4 years- overworked and under appreciated. It was clear, by what the writing contained and the fact that there was writing on the walls at all, that this family had gone mad. We took photos, I took a sticker off the wall and we quickly got out of there. Maybe stranger than that scene was the conversations we had later with the current workers, who had not in their months living on the island ever gone over to that edge of the resort nor had they any idea who the names were that were mentioned in the writing. Still unexplained, it all makes me feel a little uneasy. The island seemed so magical until we ventured away from the populated areas and saw all that it once was and learned the mystery it now holds.

We sailed around the Whitsundays the next day and then drove to our final destination in Cairns. Only stopping over to sleep and white water raft down the Tully River through the rainforest. It was an adrenaline filled day of rafting, with at least a million of the most torturous biting flies swarming us the entire time. At times I wasn’t sure what I was more worried about- falling out of the raft into a pile of rocks or getting eaten alive by flies.

On the final days of the tour we stayed in Cairns. Some sky dived and bungee jumped- but due to my recent discovery of my paralyzing fear of heights, I decided to be in charge of the camera on the ground. We also snorkeled and scuba dived the Great Barrier Reef, which was one of the most amazing sights of my entire life. And on our last day, we swam under a waterfall in the rainforest.

In addition to all the beauty and adventure, there was of course unmentioned nights of partying, but also bonding with some of my closest friends in Australia and the making of new friends from all over the world. All in all, 2 buses, 1000 miles, 90 people, 10 days, and 2 of the wildest tour guides I have ever met, amounted to one of the best weeks of my entire life.

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After returning home I slowly resurrected my life as a student. Exams were approaching. I spent weeks writing my final paper for my Islam course, on Women’s Rights in Islam. I worked diligently to catch up in my painting class- and prepared for our final portfolio review, which was treated like a gallery showing. And lastly, I crammed for my Marketing Final.

But after all of this I was able to freely celebrate my final weeks in Australia. I finally got to see Melbourne, a place I knew little about but had a strong yearning to see. It turned out to be reminiscent of an American city, with a diverse culture and cool whether. I was pleased that my subconscious compass led me here. Art plastered brick walls on every street, and sculptures were erected in every park. Thrift stores and cafes lined the eclectic neighborhoods. And near the shore, craft markets consumed the beach walks. Besides being an unending race to find the coolest art and shops, Melbourne was chilly at 70 degrees and reminded me that I am completely unprepared to return to an already snowy Minnesota.

I also was lucky enough to get to see Beyoncé in concert in Brisbane. When I had found out her tour arrived in Minneapolis just days after I left for Australia, I cried. I felt both horribly unlucky by the chances and utterly spoiled by the idea that I was complaining about being in Australia. So when I found out just a month later that her world tour led her to Brisbane, just an hour away, I cried again, but happy tears. My parents, knowing all too well my obsession with Beyoncé as an artist and a person, gave me two tickets to see her as a very early Christmas gift. When the night came, I cried even more. But these weren’t just tears of joy, but tears of true unrelenting joy. I could not believe someone I had essentially worshipped (I shutter at the notion, but it is probably an appropriate use of the word), was standing just feet in front of me looking as beautiful as she is and singing as talentedly as she can. It was another of the many beautiful sights I was lucky enough to see while here in Australia.

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Just today I returned home from my final adventure, to Byron Bay. It was my third time in this busy little hippie town. We got to do all of our favorites. We shopped, ate delicious Mexican food as Miss Margaritas, consumed lots of gelato, and the best burgers (“Heaven Burgers” as we call them) from Beleporto Burger Bar. We also frequented the beach, both day and night. During the day we found hoards of people tanning and surfing. At night, we found dancers and musicians. We even came across a soundless dance party. We found out that the idea is, headphones are given out to all who want to participate and a DJ streams music to each headset. The people are then able to dance together listening to the same music, but quietly, not disturbing the peace. Police officers as well as onlookers like us were pleasantly perplexed by the idea. The officers even joined in on the party at one point. Good old Byron Bay.

At one point, maybe the greatest moment of the weekend, we were mistaken for locals. To think, someone thought we fit in, for once we weren’t sore American thumbs standing out in a cool and collected crowed of Australians.

These days, I ever so rarely find the need to “Pull the American card” as we call it, using our foreign nationality as an excuse for our embarrassing behavior, or our unfortunate circumstances. I guess over the past few months I may have become apart of Australia just as much as Australia has become a part of me. With one week left, I plan to soak as much of Australia up as possible, hoping I can find a way to preserve the greatness that this experience has been.

The Journey Continues. 

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