Studying abroad in Australia had always been a dream of mine since I graduated high school, so when I got accepted into Monash University in Melbourne for the Spring semester of 2017, it was an absolute dream-come-true. I had grown weary from consecutive semesters of schooling and desired a change in my routine. Looking back, my exchange experience has not only altered my lifestyle, but it has also affected who I am.
Students who went on exchange may tell you about the exciting, Instagram-worthy life they lived and as true as that may be, there are also others who struggled with belonging among strangers in a foreign land. That was me. During my first few weeks in Australia, being alone and lonely were words that were synonymous to me. Since I did not live in the on-campus residence or was interested in parties, I often worried about making friends. However, my worries slowly faded as I developed newfound friendships and integrated into my new home, but a question continued to linger in my mind: what does it mean to be alone but not lonely? People often associate being “alone” with negative connotations, but does being alone always have to equate to loneliness? I found the answer to my question when I spontaneously went on a solo trip to Byron Bay and Sydney after my semester at Monash University finished (all too quickly).
I had spent three days in the Gold Coast with a friend prior to my solo trips. When my friend had to leave on the fourth morning, I had the decision of either returning to Melbourne with her or to continue traveling on my own. The idea of solo traveling has always intimidated me, but because I was keen to explore more of the Queensland I had fallen in love with, I stayed behind. I booked a spot on the express shuttle bus to Byron Bay and took a one-way trip there, planning to hop on the Greyhound that evening to get to Sydney by morning.
When I arrived in Byron Bay, I was blown away by its beauty! The beach seemed to be an endless stretch of sand caressed by the ocean waves over and over again. Numerous surfers dotted the vast ocean, eagerly waiting for the next best wave. I hiked along the Cape Byron Walking Track, a gorgeous coastline with spectacular views every step of the way: the Julian Rocks, Wategos Beach, and the most easterly point of the Australian mainland with an incredible lookout point across an infinite of sparkling blue. Looking beyond the horizon, it felt as if I had reached the ends of the earth. Up on the hill stood the Cape Byron Lighthouse, a historical site with a maritime museum overlooking the Pacific Ocean on one side and the landscape of Byron Bay on the other. I paused to soak in the scenery around me. Throughout the whole day, I had been alone, but not for a moment had I felt lonely; instead, I had felt free – free to be conscious of my senses, the thoughts inside my head, and my emotions. Hiking back down, my heart was brimming with joy as I skipped across the beach, captivated by the hues of gold and orange that streaked the early evening sky. I was in paradise!
The night bus to Sydney was full of young backpackers and travelers. The ride was thirteen hours long and ended at the silent hour of five in the morning. As I crossed the intersection to get to my hostel, the flaming orange and pink sky gradually dissolved and lighter blues replaced it. The city was waking up from its quiet slumber and transforming into a bustling hub. That afternoon, I visited Darling Harbour, the Harbour Bridge, and the Sydney Opera House. My heart was fluttering in anticipation as photographs from travel brochures became a reality in front of my eyes. I bumped into two classmates I had befriended that day and we connected through dinner at Chat Thai.
The next morning, I took a two-hour train ride to Blue Mountains National Park in Katoomba, where I looked out from Echo Point Lookout to the grand view of the Three Sisters and hiked the Federal Pass via the Giant Stairway. Hiking alone in the hushed woods was a little terrifying; my senses were heightened due to the silence and I learned to trust them. I was lucky to be in Katoomba that day, for it was home to their Winter Magic Festival. Numerous street stalls selling food, trinkets, and other possessions crowded the roads. I stood in the middle of a vacant road eating a Souvlaki wrap, and as I watched fireworks illuminate the night sky, I suddenly felt a wave of contentment amid the emptiness.
On the third day, I walked the stunning Bondi to Coogee Beach Coastal Walk. For tourists and locals alike, the path is popular for its dramatic scenery, water activities, and eateries along the way. Being on my own, I could admire the views with awe at my own pace. I had sushi doughnuts fresh from the Sydney Fish Market the next day with a girl also visiting from Melbourne I had come to befriend at my hostel. We later trekked the lengthy but worthwhile Spit Bridge to Manly Beach walk of harbourside and Sydney skyline views, a hidden gem among the locals, and bonded through good conversation and laughter. By the end of the hike, we were no longer strangers.
On the last day, I explored The Rocks, a neighborhood of cafes in laneways, and signed up for a surf lesson with a group at Bondi Beach. Learning how to surf was exciting. I quickly learned the amount of strength it takes to surf and its demand for courage and confidence became a lesson in itself. In a whirl, it was time to board the plane back to Melbourne. I whispered goodbye to Sydney as the plane took off. The orbs of street lights grew smaller and smaller until they became glistening specks.
My solo trips to Byron Bay and Sydney will always be a valuable memory. Traveling alone offered me experiences that traveling with others may not have. In exchange for stepping outside of my comfort zone, I gained friendships with strangers, a renewed appreciation for the little things in life, a better understanding of who I am, and a fresh perspective on life and living. Most of all, I learned to be comfortable in my own skin and with my own thoughts. So, to the ones traveling alone, preparing to travel alone, or scared to be alone, you are not lonely! You have someone waiting for you to love and understand them – yourself.
Take the time during your university years to find yourself. As cliché as it sounds, it really is about the journey more than it is about the destination. Don’t focus all your energy on just attaining a degree or compare yourself to those who finish their academic career in the “standard” four years; take the time to know your strengths and weaknesses, your abilities and passions. Perhaps a means to do so could be applying for exchange in a country of strangers who cannot define you before you define yourself.
Beyond the Blog
For more information on opportunities like Grace's, check out the International Co-op Page.