I love a sunburnt country,
A land of sweeping plains,
Of ragged mountain ranges,
Of droughts and flooding rains.
~ Dorothea Mackellar
This poem, written as an ode to a deep love for Australia, is enough to stir any adventurer’s soul. Mine is a lineage of adventurers. When I read this poem, I think of my grandma, a true-blue adventurer if there ever was one. Raised in Australia, her love for the Land Downunder burns as fiercely as the blazing sun in the Aussie Outback. Though she has lived in Canada for many years now, it is her love of Australia and the stories of her distant heart home that sparked my curiosity for this country.
A couple of years ago, I made the decision to pursue my dream and go to study abroad in Australia for a semester. I am visually impaired, and some were dubious about this idea. “How will you travel alone?” “Who will go with you to help you?” “I don’t know about this…”
Well, if you know me well enough, you know that I’m about as stubborn as an ox, and when I feel that people doubt me, I push even harder to prove them wrong.
The answers were that it would take a lot of work to problem-solve my way through this, and in a lot of ways, I would be blazing a new trail, but sight or no sight I would embark on this adventure, and I would do it independently.
The preparations were plentiful since, on top of the standard things that all students must do when going on exchange, I also had the added tasks of arranging an Orientation and Mobility specialist who could orient me to my vast, country campus, ensuring my school’s Disability Office could assist me with making sure my class materials were accessible, and booking assistance through such intimidation as the infamous LAX Airport, to name a few things. Though I worked hard and did much of this myself, I have so much gratitude for my loved ones who did assist me to reach this dream.
Finally, the day came that marked the beginning of my Aussie adventure. After a difficult good-bye with my family at the gate, I was off, zipping across the world, from a land embraced by winter, to one bathed in summer. I felt electrified with excitement and nervousness, because this was really happening.
Australia is a beautiful place which captivates people with her breathtaking beaches, fluorescent fauna, and scintilating cities. After letting myself grow accustomed to the heat, it was the bird noises that I noticed first. My grandma, and other family members who had visited Australia had told me about the magnificent and rather noisy flocks of cockatoos who frequented the skies. During those first weeks, it really caught my attention.
My first week in Australia was a blur of wonder and jet lag. I landed in Melbourne and spent time with some of my relatives that live there. They kindly showed me some of the sights. We spent a day at a beach, where I meandered the soft, sandy shore, listening to the powerfully tumultuous tide. We explored Melbourne with her trams, grafitti-covered laneways, and foodie culture. They even took me to a wildlife sanctuary, where I got to pet a Koala, (not safe in the wild), hold a Carpet Python (even less safe in the wild), and feed kangaroos out of hand (they’re cute but don’t forget about those back feet mate!).
Finally, it was time for me to head to Wagga Wagga, the country town where I would be attending school at Charles Sturt University. Wagga is five hours from Melbourne, completely land-locked, and very country. I was immediately overwhelmed. The campus was sprawling, I didn’t know where to start, and I didn’t know anyone. And it was about then that it hit me about exactly how big of a thing this was. My comfort zone, my support network, they were 13,000 km away, and here I was, not even sure where to find the dining hall and my one steady comfort: food. It’s pretty humbling, that feeling of being one person in a massive world. I was so homesick, and so anxious. Would I learn my way around? Would my classes be ok? Would I make friends? And the idea of all the people I would need to educate about blindness: it was daunting.
The barriers come into our lives in many forms, don’t they? I have a special pair of metaphorical barrier-stomping boots, sandals in Australia, and here was the time to put them on and venture forth, because as the saying goes, anything worth doing, isn’t easy. If I wanted people to see beyond the cane to the person I truly am, it would begin like this.
As those initial days passed, I became familiar with the campus, learning that canes are excellent at scaring away deadly snakes and sketchy spiders alike, with the vibrations. My classes were interesting and the self-advocacy for accessibility had paid off. I began to make friends: with other exchange students, and with some truly ‘fairdinkum’ Aussies. Though the challenges were frequent, and the homesickness came in waves, I found ways to deal with them. And all the while I fell madly in love with Australia. On some weekends I went hiking with friends, or to some fantastic Aussie theatre. I tried surfing, and found a renewed respect for the ocean, who some Aussies would describe as wild and woolly. Though much of this I did with friends I made or my relatives in Melbourne, there were many things I did on my own too, like the time I journeyed into the centre of Sydney by myself, got lost, and found my way back to where I was staying. Good times.
My trip to Australia helped me to grow in so many ways. You don’t always know that you’ve changed in the moment, until you go back home and realize that some things that used to scare you or intimidate you, no longer do. When you start to realize that people’s opinions and judgements about you don’t matter so much. When you realize that there’s so much more to the world than you could even fathom. I am grateful for my time abroad and the things it taught me.
During the middle of my time abroad, I had a two week school break. Another bonus about uni in Australia. My grandmother and a friend of ours made the harrowing flight across the world: a trip that my grandma wasn’t sure she would ever make again. During that trip, we traveled together to the Red Center of Australia, to the majestic, red rock known as Uluru, and thought by many Australians as the very heart of their country. It felt fitting to be visiting the heart of this land, with the woman whose love for Australia had helped me to find one of my own.
From Keisha’s ‘Study Abroad’ blog.
In the video below, Keisha talks about what she appreciates about summer camp.