Monday, September 12, 2011

Day One, San Francisco.

It's 9:30pm and I'm exhausted... the kind of exhausted that comes from carrying desks and dressers up three flights of winding stairs. From tracking down the impound lot at 10pm to find my towed car with a $90 + $390 ticket slapped on the windshield. From driving and navigating through vertical city streets trying to chase down furniture from Craigslist to fill my empty room. From trying to wrap my brain around all this; that I have signed a lease, and now live on Shotwell Street in San Francisco.

Admittedly, it's a big change. My seasons this year have been all messed up (Jan-Feb = winter, Feb-May = late summer to fall, June-August = Summer) and I never even experienced springtime, but somehow that kind of change is easier. The changing of seasons, airport terminals, in and out of clothes that live in a suitcase - those kinds of changes I can process. Having a "real job", an address, a boyfriend on a tourist visa and a dwindling bank account... those are the pieces of "real life" that I'm having to come to terms with. 

And that being said, the beautiful thing about life is that it's complex. There's a learning curve in this city, and in this mid-20s life phase. You have to hit certain walls before you can skillfully climb over them... and even being exhausted, I'm smiling. I'm smiling because I realize where I am: my office right now is an empty bookshelf in the nearly empty living room of a sunny Victorian house that is my house. The fresh food in the refrigerator is from across the street, and I don't have to wait in line for it, or eat it out of a plastic container. My neighborhood reminds me of back in Salamanca; finding running paths through the city, using another language in daily conversation, seeing mural art and grafitti, smelling fresh bread, fish, and fruit. 

This new phase is an adventure; and overwhelming as it begins, it's a challenge that's welcome - and needed. Sometimes change means throwing your stability out the window and buying a cross-continental plane ticket. But for me, it's the opposite - change is finding stability in a time when everything is uncertain. It's making roots, even just little ones, that will ground me enough to move forward. No promises that I will stop browsing skyscanner for plane tickets ;) but for now, this is exactly where I want to be. 

Monday, April 11, 2011

Wake Up Sydney, Three Years Later

Almost three years ago I was sitting on this same couch at 1am, watching my friends construct a furniture/foosball table fort around a barefoot drunk stranger who had passed out in the middle of the lounge room. It was my first time in a hostel, and I remember checking into the six story building with a bar in the basement, receiving a key for an 8-bed dorm room, and reading the slogan “Wake Up Sydney: Wake Up Next to Someone New!” thinking “oh. My. God. What have I gotten myself into.”

I had no idea at the time, what this place would be the beginning of: an incredible adventure tour across Australia, the beginning of a relationship, a handful of long-term friendships; the future crossroads of both my college memories from the past, and my present career path which has brought me all of the same elements in a completely different context of life. 

Walking back down the hallway to the bright yellow door of my dorm room, I can’t help but see flashbacks of Maddy and John leaning against the wall laughing hysterically, quoting Anchorman and yelling for us to come see the pictures they took on their cameras. A few doors down, I remember Annie with the beautiful flowers her now-husband sent from overseas, all the girls in the room oogling them and chatting over curling irons and piles of makeup, getting ready for a night out. I’m laughing to myself in this quiet hallway, remembering the boys singing “whiiichhh wayyy shall we gooooo” from the common room, imitating a group of Irish guys they heard coin the phrase. It doesn’t seem like that long ago, but standing here, I realize that I haven’t talked to many of the people in my memories since then. Our lives moved on from there, back to our respective real worlds. That crazy month together is all we really had, but if we ran into each other now we’d still at least have that in common. 

Returning to the room now, the crossover really begins – I open the door to what three years ago was my “fam”: a group of good friends sharing my age, stage of life, endless inside jokes and an excitement for the shared experience of travel and exploring a new country together. Friends whose lives I still think and hear about every so-often from facebook, whose connection I still relish in, the few times life lends us to catch up. But now, the room is filled with a new “fam” – a group of fellow recruiters whose lives are as crazy and unpredictable as mine. Two partners who I’ve spent months sharing meals, rental cars and hotel rooms with, a group of people who can recite verbatim the same lines from our meeting script, can understand the exhausting effort of classroom announcements, and in some unexplainable way share the same brand of crazy that brought us all to this point in our lives together. All, in past and present, people I would never have met if weren’t for that life-changing summer that started this whole adventure. 

So when I say my “ISV family” now, it means a lot to me – more than I ever thought it would. It means my memories from that summer – the people I still keep in touch with, who’ve shown me Southern hospitality, shared my first love, counseled me through difficult and uncertain times, and still remain some of the closest or most pivotal people my life. And it also means the family I’ve grown within the organization – my fellow recruiters from all over the globe who make me laugh until it hurts, who inspire me to keep traveling and be out of the box, and who understand and relate to me at a level beyond explanation. 

So I think at the end of the day what I really want to say, is that I’m thankful. Even beyond thankful, for life and its amazing opportunities that have brought me back here in different shoes. I am thankful for the people who have colored my world and fostered my optimism that lives in the memories of this place – in the fact that I’m even back here in Sydney, writing this right now. Three years ago I naively signed up for a summer volunteer program that I found on google, and dragged my best guy friend to go along with me. Now, this program and organization is my life – my job, the places I travel to, my closest friendships, and even my boyfriend have all grown from that one decision. So I am thankful for my unpredictable life and the beautiful people in it, and for making that choice that landed me here in the first place, waking up in Sydney once again.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Excerpts from My Paper Journal: Finding My Voice & Aboriginal Loneliness

Finding My Voice

Augh. What is wrong with me? Here I am in this beautiful place, in Australia, working a job for a cause I love, and yet somehow I feel unsettled.

...Well, maybe because unsettled is the very nature of where I life I am right now.

I want to write. I know that there's this huge piece of my voice that has passions and insights to share... but it pains me that I've only been able to share a little piece.

So why is that? What is really going on with my life right now? Well, I'm staying in an old-fashioned bungalow in a town full of people I don't relate to. Young moms, toothless old women, aboriginal people dressed in Jack Daniels t-shirts and walking the street barefoot and homeless. I'm alone, and I like to convince myself that it's okay, but sometimes it's difficult. Sometimes especially when I say goodnight to Shaun and can can only give him a virtual *hug* through a computer screen. Times when it's pouring rain outside, and I don't want to move from my comfy haven of food, suitcase and laptop to catch the 45 minute bus ride into campus.

Here I am, traveling, on the other side of the world, and all I really want is connection - with my family, my boyfriend, my close friends back home whose lives I only get bits and pieces of from facebook messages and brief Skype chats.

And that's the problem, I think, is that I'm in another transitioning time. I've decided to take the scenic route, and very often, it's breathtaking. Times I like to write about: the things I've seen and the people I've talked to; those little pictures of my experience I want to share. But then other times, it's a trek. A rough, uncharted road that I'm walking with the moral support of friends and family behind me - but at the end of the day, it's just me charting the course,alone. And that's really daunting sometimes. Times when I realize that the blogs I share are only the pretty viewpoints along the path, with only a small trace of the mud on my shoes.

Somehow, I don't know how to share the rougher parts. Or maybe I just haven't wanted to. The uneasy moments when I know that I'm trekking toward a fulfilling destination, but I have no idea if my coordinates are even on track. And admitting that is what I've been lacking: that I too am human, and oftentimes I'm not even sure where the hell I am myself.

But in the struggle lies the meaning, and the true beauty that is so much more than just facebook pictures or bits of dialogues from people I run into. And I know that, which is why I want to find my voice - here, somewhere within my descriptive narratives. Between the "here's where I am and what I'm observing."

So bare with me as I figure myself out. As I change and grow in my writing style, and learn how to share and reveal those piece of the world that aren't status-update worthy... but are pivotal markers on the progress of my path.

Aboriginal Lonlieness

Oh, Townsville. I have a strange relationship with you.

On one hand, I love your colors, your warm ocean, the exotic flowers, trees, all the lush green landscape and luminous creatures that fly above and crawl along the surface of your cityscape. But on the other hand, I'm oppressed by your gloomyness; the traces of devastation from the cyclone, the barefoot people that limp across the street at night, the dark clouds that threaten to burst at any moment.

Every time I look for the good and the beauty in this place, I'm overwhelmed by it. Smiling cashiers at Office Works who give me half off my purchase (since it's for a good cause), the radiant anthropology professor who invited me to speak in her class and encouraged her students to sign up for the program. The breathtaking view from the top of Castle Hill of a turquoise ocean and glowing sunset. Even just the reddish-orange Gecko who smiles at me when I turn on my light, and creeps into my room when no one else is there.
But then, there are the strange things that haunt me. Loneliness being the primary. Working at a campus without a partner, 12,000 students and I don't recognize one face. Performing an announcement in front of a room full of peers, and getting a wild applause... then leaving out into an empty hallway. Walking down the street  to the store at night, alone - knowing that it wasn't the best idea, but doing it anyway. Passing by an a skinny aboriginal woman who held out her hand to reach for me. "See ya lata love" she said, with the strong Queenslander accent that still sounds strange to my foreign ear.

"The original Australians; they're still with us. They are among us, as our classmates, our friends"
 the Anthropology professor said as she ended her lecture last night. Her words have been haunting me, and sitting in my mind in a strange, uncomfortable way. Every time I find myself noticing a person with those distinct features, I feel self-conscious -  like I shouldn't be looking. I shouldn't be analyzing the context of seeing old men and women in the streets, on buses; young adults my age, sitting in lectures with friends, while at the same time their pictures are displayed on posters holding diggery doos and wearing traditional clothing. Their artwork and traditions are sitting there, both on the shelves of museums and in the windows of kitchy tourist shops.

"It's not like they're going to go back into the Outback and hunt Kangaroo with a Boomerang." said Tristian, my newfound Australian friend in a long discussion we had about the state of the aboriginal people in today's world. "The government gives them plenty of resources, and they're still drunk and on the street. So at this point, what more can we do?"

It's strange. And tragic, because I see both the love and the pain of loneliness in their eyes as we catch each others' glances in the street. They're not asking me for money... just trying to connect with me. But I don't know how - or even if it's safe for me to. ...And I may be solo this week, but I'm not alone. This is how differ. If only I could even begin to understand their world.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

First Impressions of Townsville

The Coral Bay Lodge at 22 Mead Street, Townsville - Great. My GPS only speaks German, and the rental car is yelling at my “passenger” to put on its seatbelt. Too bad it can’t see that my “passenger” is a 40lb suitcase.
GPS set to English [American]: check. Suitcase relocated to the trunk: check. Driving on the left side of the road: check. And it’s not nearly as hard as I expected – left-hand turn lanes, off-ramps on the other side. Traffic circles which aren’t that far off from bike circles in Davis… (I never went the right way on them anyway) but parallel parking BACKWARDS on the other side of the street? Yeah, this is going to be a problem.
By the grace of God and GPS, I arrived safely to my hotel in what the map says is the middle of the city: a crooked street enveloped in palm trees and ferns, sitting at the bottom of a giant red monolith. Hmm. A 3-legged cat hobbled up to welcome me as I walked in, along with a very friendly and welcoming man who remembered my name from when I called in and asked for a room last night.
“Ay, G’day, yew must be Michelle!”

he said, shaking my hand. His accent was the strongest I’ve heard so far, and he was wearing hiking boots, short cargo shorts and a button-up flannel shirt with a flat straw sunhat. Australian stereotype: confirmed.

He showed me down the wood steps and around to the lower level of the house and to the guest rooms – mine is #5, and is everything basic that I need: a king bed with pastel sheets, a mini-fridge with cold water, a desk with pleather chairs, and a nice view of the palm garden out my window. The “Barbie” and a clothes line are both out back and accessible for me to use. I asked him if I needed a rental car this week, and he scoffed at me.

“Nah, jus’ about everything’s walkin’ distance from here, an the Uni’s just a bus ride away.”  
For some reason, I'm skeptical about that.
The air conditioning in my room is heaven – at 32C degrees outside (about 83F) and 85% humidity, I can feel the sweat begin to develop on the palms of my hands and bottom of my feet as soon as I walk outside. I want so badly to explore this cute little city… but it’s soooo niccceee in here.
Okay, time to suck it up and go back outside.
Tropical Queensland: Butterflies, Palm Trees and Thunderclouds
To my surprise, I actually am right in the middle of the city – I walked a few blocks down the hill, and hit Flanders Street, the main shopping area with dozens of little restaurants, pubs, and pokie booths. (Pokies = slot machines.) People watching, I noticed a man with a metal studded bracelet  pushing a stroller with two kids. His shirt said “I am brilliant and have good ideas, I just don’t give a shit.” I chuckled.  A couple minutes later, I saw a similar woman (also with two kids) wearing a shirt that said “if you don’t like me, then piss off.” I wonder if that’s a common theme around here?

 About ½ mile later, I found the harbor, followed by the Northern Queensland Museum, the Aboriginal Culture Center, the Reef Aquarium and The Strand – a long path along the beach with all the nice restaurants and hotels.
As I turned the corner from the harbor, I was shocked – 5 minutes before,  it felt like I was in a jungle – now, here is the perfect postcard picture of a red sandy tropical beach framed in palm trees, with a dark silhouette of Magnetic Island off in the distance.
I grabbed a Chai Tea frappe, and noticed a gathering of butterflies – bright blue and yellow – fluttering down towards the beach. I follow suit - dropped my stuff, and dove in to the netted (jellyfish-proofed) area. I couldn’t believe it… the water was 30 degrees (so in the 80s F) and felt like bath water. Colorful parrots in the trees, bright colored flowers and palm trees all along the beach, and a dramatic sunset obscured by thunderclouds. Townsville, I’m beginning to think that I seriously underestimated you.

Brisbane: The City

Theoretically, we’ve been in the Brisbane area for about four weeks now, but this week is our first real introduction to “Brizvegas” – the art, food, music and eclectic corporate culture that lives in the downtown area of the city.

We’re recruiting at QUT, what Jake and I have decided is the “NYU” of Brissy, buzzing with ambitious engineers and commerce students who commute in from the city. The campus, and our lifestyle this week is a stark contrast to how spoiled we’ve been the last few weeks – instead of sunshine it’s been pouring rain, and Jake and I are part of the rat race of business suits every morning as we make our way into town. Shorts, umbrella and backpack full of flyers, we trek from our hotel in the outskirts of the city to the Central Train Station, then follow the crowd down through endless malls and shopping districts into the Botanical Gardens which marks the edge of campus. As predicted, our accommodation this week is back to budget – we’re staying at “The Snooze Inn: A Boutique Budget Accommodation” as the sign says in bright purple letters. It’s in a slightly seedy part of town – there are some night clubs, “peep show parlors” and a Chinatown down the road, but so nothing immediately unsafe or threatening. Our room is small and basic with a window out to an alleyway, two beds, a 6x6 foot bathroom and a mini-fridge, but it’s clean and has internet and air conditioning! So meets all of our basic needs. 
On a more exciting note, the weekend was a lot a fun – Friday night we met up with Liezl (friend,  former ISV recruiter), Lacey (her roommate) and a group of assorted friends for Korean BBQ. This was my first experience of the kind, and it was absolutely overwhelming. If you’ve never had Korean BBQ before then first: go out and try it. Second: make sure you bring someone who knows what they’re doing, or you could end up seriously burnt or with food poisoning. Lucky for me, half the table were Korean BBQ regulars, so our coal grill-embedded tables were pre-ordered and covered in plates of raw fish, seaweed, meat of indistinguishable kinds, piles of noodles, rice and a jelly-like substances that I assumed was made of seaweed.

Guy on left: Yea right mate, you wish

Getting a “doggy bag” at a nice restaurant is pretty taboo here in Australia, so we ate everything we could, but there was SO much food that even the twelve of us couldn’t finish it all! So after rolling ourselves out of the restaurant, we headed out to the town, and I finally discovered why Brisbane has the nickname of “Brizvegas.” We hopped between several places – one full of 18 year olds and ladies on a “hens night” (bachelorette party – here they dress up in crazy costumes and do a big scavenger hunt out on the town) and the second, a great venue with a live band outside, and a colorful mix of people. Most notably, we had a couple middle-aged men that were best described by our Australian friends as “bogans.” (Bogan = redneck.) As you can see, their haircuts were something of a Rastafarian mullet and reverse buzz cut, and they drunkenly took turns serenading us to the tune of “Living in the Land Down Under.” Also had a few interesting cat-call attempts – one guy grabbed the waist of my dress as I walked by, looked me in the eyes, and drunkenly slurred “I miss you.” (I ran.) Another did the classic “have you met my friend Joe?” *insert Joe sporting a rattail and sports jersey + popped collar.* Yiiiikes.
The night’s events carried into the early morning, and as a result, Jake and I decided that Sunday would be dedicated to sleeping in and visiting museums. Good choice.
Brisbane’s museums are well-known throughout Queensland, and for good reason – they were free on Sunday, and packed with cool things to check out. Below are a few pictures of my favorite exhibits, and some pieces that stuck with me. 

In this exhibit, you write your wish on a piece of paper, then take
a wish bracelet out of the hole and exchange it with the paper.
Some of the wishes were really cute: "I want a baby brother or sister"
"I wish I lived in Australia" and some were really sad, like
"I wish my dad would call more often" :(

A few examples of modern art...

SO much fun - as you walk in the museum, they have a slide from the 3rd to the 1st level!

Monday, March 21, 2011

The Path of Twenty Two

I graduated college nine months ago and resolved that I would not move back in with my parents and would not begin work in an entry-level office job. While interviewing Eric Weiner, author of “The Geography of Bliss” for my campus newspaper, I told him these life resolutions, and the advice he gave has stuck with me ever since.

“You can only be young and stupid once, Michelle” he said. “So write. Travel. This is the time in your life to f*ck up.”
And so I did. I took the travel-based recruiting job with ISV and said no to salaried jobs with Target, Liberty Mutual, and Aerotek. I bought a plane ticket to Kiev, Ukraine, with a return ticket out of Amsterdam. I spent the summer couch surfing across Europe, learning bits and pieces of languages I couldn’t speak, catching up with good friends, and scribbling notes into my dotted notebook that disappeared from my plane seat on the way home.
And then the job began – the fantastically complex recruiting world of ISV; a subculture full of perpetual novelty with peaking highs and lows, constant uncertainty spiked with adrenaline rushes, solid relationships formed through shared experience, and seeing the world while living out of a beat-up fuchsia suitcase.  
In the last year, I’ve slept more places than I can even keep track of – beautiful resorts overlooking beaches and mountains, crappy Travelodges with questionable plumbing and a bathroom that smelled like old pizza. Hostels with 11 other people I’ve never met; couches, pullout beds and air mattresses at friends’ houses in seven different countries.  I’ve hiked up mountains, jumped off cliffs and out of a plane. I’ve gone diving under the ocean, floated along rivers, and over big swells on my surfboard.

This, and much more, has been my 22nd year of life.
But the season is ending. Only a few more weeks left in the recruiting year, and I have big choices to make. Is it time to settle down? Do I miss having more than Skype and a suitcase as certainty in my life? Where do I go from here, when presented with two very different paths – one that is more certain, secure, predictable.  And another that is completely unknown; pursuing love, travel, adventure and all those other frivolous things that don’t pay bills or show up in bold on a resume.
But wait - I’m only 22. I keep telling myself this, because it’s become my mantra. The best form of justification I have.
Most of my fellow coworkers are in their mid to late 20s, and smile when they realize that I’m “only 22 years old.”

 “Aww you’re just a baby” Meetal used to say jokingly to me. “You have so much time to figure things out” others would add in.
But now, taking a step back, I’ve come to realize – what’s the big rush? Who says that your freshmen year of life, you need to have everything figured out? What a blessing it is to be young, and optimistic. To have freedom from mortgages, children, the pure necessity of stability. There’s nothing fake about this alternative path to the real world. If anything, it has more fulfilling challenges and better scenery, in exchange for never quite knowing where it’s going to lead next.  (Which, who are we kidding, you never really know in life anyway.)
So I think that Eric and my older coworkers are right. This is the time in my life to f*ck up - to follow my heart, and take the path less traveled. To hit walls so I know how to climb over them. To write. To make optimistic plans that may or may not pan out, but to believe that they will.
And that is the blessing of being 22: knowing that I have both time and stupidity on my side, and as long as I keep moving forward, I’ll find my way - no matter which path I choose.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Byron Bay, Gold Coast & Coolangatta

The Great Outdoors

For as much as I love talking about adventure travel, the best times are when the ISV meeting script starts to parallel my real life. "Guys, you will be staying in a range of places - from bunk houses to four star resorts, homestays to even camping under the stars. You can go cave exploring, visit dense jungles, white sandy beaches, and go surfing in beautiful turquoise water."

Jake and I woke up Saturday morning, and decided it would be that weekend. With no plan beyond breakfast and coffee, we checked out of the hostel and threw our backpacks into the mess that is our car. (We've been living out of it for a month now, so you can imagine what it looks like with all of our luggage + old today flyers + sign up sheets + water bottles + remnants of various lunches and dinners on the road. Even with weekly cleanings, the poor thing has suffered some serious abuse.)

So with everything packed up, our chef friend suggested that we check out the tea tree lake across the street, which we didn't even notice on our way in because of all the campers and tents surrounding it. Wandering only a few hundred feet from our hostel, we were shocked to find a gorgeous tree-enveloped lake, hidden between campsites and practically sitting at the sand line of the beach! But even stranger than the placement of the lake was the water: reddish-brown, the color of Coca Cola, and it felt like olive oil when we jumped in and let it soak into our skin.

We went for a long swim, enjoying the spa-esque experience of being in a Tea Tree lake, and eventually concluded that we would continue our day by driving back up to Byron Bay.

Notorious for being a beachy backpacker hippy town, I remembered Byron Bay as my favorite spot on the entire ISV adventure tour. We showed up there after a short drive, and before we even got into the city I remember why I loved this place so much - the lighthouse up on the hill, perfect white beaches with sand that squeaks when you walk on it, women in flowy dresses hosting Saturday morning Yard Sales, endless handmade jewlery shops, juice bars, and healthy cafes with fresh baked muffins and sweets. Yep, it was everything I remembered and better, after spending a day at the beach and hiking to see the eastern most point of Australia and the Byron Bay Lighthouse right around sunset.

I told Liezl we were going down toward Byron for the weekend and her response was something along the lines of: "lucky you guys - that's about as close as you get to heaven." With the picture below, I don't know how anyone could disagree. Often pictures can't even capture but a sliver of the real beauty, but the panorama feature on my camera does a great job of trying it's best.

After hiking, swimming, surfing, going on a beach run and having a night out at Cheeky Monkeys, (infamous backpacker bar where table dancing is encouraged) we were exhausted and ready to head back up to paradise #2: our beachside resort on the border of Tweed Heads and Coolangatta.

Coolangatta/Tweed Heads Resort: COOLest Accomodation Ever

Okay, so it wasn't exactly in budget - but we couldn't resist. Jake and I found an amazing deal on the Tweed Head Outrigger Resort, with a full buffet breakfast included. Every day that we woke up and looked out our 13th story window at the beach or returned to the lap pool and steam room after a long day of work, Jake and I felt like royalty. For this reason, I began writing down all the reasons I love this place so that next week when we're inevitably back to budget accomodations, we can look back and remember how awesome this week really was.

1) The sun rises at 5:30am over the ocean, right outside our window, so I don't even need to use an alarm.
2) Our room has an instant hot water boiler and they give us a fresh milk carton daily to use for our tea.
3) Down the stairs and a few hundred feet away is one of the best surfing beaches in the world, and the water is currently 73 degrees.
4) No need for air conditioning, because we can sleep with the sliding glass door open out to the balcony.
5) Lap pool, steam room, BBQ, free internet cafe.
6) Breakfast buffet with museli, yogurt, pancakes, baked beans, stewed tomatoes, and bananna bread. Enough said.