My Day in Hue

First they offer me a ride on their motorbike. I politely decline, explaining that I’m just out for a walk. Then they hush their voice a little. “Or you can buy joint.” I then insist that I don’t want to buy marijuana in a country whose leading newspaper headline this morning was, “Peoples’ court upholds death sentence of defiant drug possessors…firing squad set for Friday.”

Then they move the illicit conversation further: “I give you my sister. She’s very nice girl.” At this point, I’ve decided the conversation has moved in a rather negative direction and stop responding, at least until the next person offers me a ride.

This seems to be a typical night out in Hue. Fun restaurants, interesting shops, and middle aged men offering me a young prostitute. As interesting as these encounters are, they point to a huge problem in Vietnam (and around the globe): extreme poverty. It’s clear to me that many of the people here in Hue, more so than the people in Hanoi, are very impoverished. A $2 tip guarantees a firm handshake and an ear to ear smile. I’ve found myself just giving $2 tips just to see some beautiful smiles. It’s totally worth it.

I’ve loved Hue. I feel as if my one and a half days in the City was enough time to only scratch the surface. It’s an immensely interesting place immersed in history, culture and legend. I spent most of my day riding around the old Imperial City with my cyclo driver who told me stories of Hue during the war. One story, about how he saw his father gunned down by an American soldier during the Tet offensive in 1968, was particularly hard to hear. I found myself at a loss for words.

Hue’s Imperial City is unlike anything I’ve seen before. It’s essentially a ruin of what was the imperial heart of Vietnam before it became French Indochina and the Socialist Republic. The City is build in an early 19th century Confucian style and feels as magnificent as the palaces of Europe.

With one exception: it’s ancient walls have 50 caliber machine guns holes. It’s clear the old city saw some serious battle. Some buildings that were destroyed 46 years ago sit now as just a pile of rubble. Slowly and surely, they’ve begun rebuilding the former capital to its glory.

Walking among the Imperial City in the blazing sun (I’m rather sunburned), I had a hard time imagining this place’s past. I couldn’t really imagine the emperor living there, as it’s still heavily damaged. Yet I also couldn’t imagine American soldiers blasting the wall with machine gun fire (Full Metal Jacket is set in Hue), for enough of the royal buildings and zen-like gardens have been restored to give the place a peaceful vibe. It was an thought provoking experience. I left the Imperial City disappointed that I don’t have another day or week or month to explore. I’ll have to come back.

On a personal comfort note, I’ve been eating a lot of Vietnamese street food. While it is all very delicious, I have to force myself to look away while they prepare it. Let’s just say they wouldn’t get an “A+” from the health department. But tonight I decided I needed to give my stomach a break, for I’m having trouble remembering the last meal I had that didn’t make me cry from being so spicy.

A quick Tripadvisor search told me that the top rated restaurant in Hue is actually French. Perfect, I thought, some Western food to calm my stomach. What I hadn’t realized however, was what an experience the restaurant would be. I was greeted by a team of people at the curb (I hadn’t made reservations) who escorted me into their French colonial administration building turned restaurant. The restaurant is sort of how I picture Rick’s Cafe from Casablanca. After I paid my 15 USD bill for a 6 course meal, the French owner came out (he speaks no English so the Vietnamese manager had to translate). “He wants to know how the food, the service and he time you have spent in Hue has been.”

“Très Bien,” I replied, “Très Bien!”

I’ll be sad to leave Hue in the morning. Next post from Saigon.

A New Friend on the River Perfume

PLEASE EXCUSE ANY ERRORS. THIS POST WAS TYPED ON A TINY LITTLE PHONE AS ALL OTHER ELECTRONIC DEVISES ARE DEAD (I need to find the right power converter).

I was standing on the bank of the River Perfume in Hue. It was dusk and my thought was, “Holy shit this is beautiful.” I thought about how this city served as the imperial capital of Vietnam for hundreds of years. I thought about how this city was the final battle for more than 15000 US troops during the war. And I thought about how hungry I was getting. Then Ly tapped me on the shoulder.

“You make me very happy!!” He exclaimed. Immediately my walls of defense shot up. Was he here to rob me? Was he one of the swindlers? Was he a taxi driver looking for a fare? “No,” he quickly explained to me, he is a retired school teacher from Saigon who is waiting for his daughter and husband in law to arrive from Saigon. Their flight is delayed and he invites me over for a beer. After a few probing question to make sure the man isn’t going to kidnap me, I agree to get on his motorbike and we are off.

We arrive at a riverside cafe and both crack open a cold one. I guard my drink carefully at first, weary of the fact that this man might drug my drink and steal my money. I still hadn’t let my guard down completely. As we began talking, he confessed to me that he had initially thought I was his brother in law, who is half American, half Vietnamese. He tells me about his family in America (including some in Washington).

He begins his life story, which intrigues me, as he describes family fleeing to America in the 1970s. I quickly become engaged and start to think this man might be genuine. Ly orders me 5 beers and we quickly become friends. He pays the bill saying “We’re family now!”

After confessing my desire to eat something, we motorbike over to a local stand that sells rice paper spring rolls. Although he orders in Vietnamese, the kitchen staff have difficulty understanding his thick Saigon accent. Eventually our food arrives and my taste buds are in heaven.

We begin talking more when Ly confesses that his retirement plans involve a move to America. San Francisco or New York, to be specific. He talks about how we may one day meet up in Washington. I give him my email as we finish our spring rolls. Ly gets up to pay the bill as I ponder the fact that just 15 miles from here is the former DMZ. The DMZ was the site of unimaginable massacres during the war. Most of it is still uninhabitable and hundreds of farmers still die every year from unexploded US bombs. My friend Ly would have been on a mission to kill this Lee. And here we are sitting at a cafe together.

The only tense moment in my dinner with Ly (which he paid for against my will), was when I tried to take a picture with him. He didn’t like that. “I’m a Buddhist!” He said frantically. “No picture please.” After dinner I bought Ly a nice bottle of wine as a token of appreciation for his kindness). He said he would take it to the temple to pray.

I hope to hear from Ly again. He is symbolic of how I feel about Vietnam: it is an incredible experience. While it is not the perfect place to live (I have trouble breathing the dirty air, accessing my NYT, and I saw a woman terribly injured from a motorbike accident on the side of the road with people standing around without any ambulance…long story not worth telling), it is an amazing place to see and experience. To be completely honest, I would rather spend 3 months in Vietnam than 3 weeks in Australia (though I would rather live in Australia.) I am hard pressed to think of a place on earth that I have been that is more interesting than Vietnam. I could just walk down the street and observe for days.

This morning, before I saw the horrific, unspeakable, most likely fatal bike accident, I traveled on Vietnam Airlines’ very luxurious business class (90 USD) from Hanoi to Hue. I was sad to leave Hanoi. I really loved it and could spend weeks there. There is so much to see. I’ve visited temples, government buildings. Air Force museums (complete with millions of bits and pieces of US planes), a park dedicated to Lenin, and navigated the domestic air system here.

Some general final observations from Hanoi:

1) Everyone is very fashionable and most are very beautiful. Vietnam has a very young population, so I feel right at home. It isn’t uncommon to see people riding around Hanoi on a motorbike in something someone could wear down a runway in Milan.

2) So many people in Hanoi were my age, married, and have kids or are pregnant. I’ve never seen so many pregnant women. I’ve lost track of the number of people who have asked me why I am not married at the age of 21.

3) Everyone keeps taking pictures with me, I’ve posed for photographs with at least 15 different people. I can’t tell why they’re taking pictures of me. Maybe because I’m the only white person they’ve seen at this temple? Or maybe they want to make fun of my horridly unfashionable clothing? Doesn’t matter, I find it to be very entertaining and perhaps even a little flattering.

4) Vietnamese food and hospitality beats the shit out of anything I experienced in Australia. They should train service industry Australians in Vietnam (I found Australian hotels to be absolutely shit for the money…every time I would ask for something, I felt like I had to apologize for the inconvenience of asking for something I paid for).

It’s experiences like what I’m having in Vietnam that truly inspire me. They’re very spontaneous, they’re interesting, they’re inexpensive, they’re laden with beautiful culture, they’re undoubtedly pretty risky, and, above all, they taste really good.

A Happy Hello from Hanoi

As I sit here in my Hanoi hotel room, it is hard for me to believe that just 48 hours ago I was sadly saying goodbye to my friends and life in Melbourne.  It was difficult saying goodbye to my friends and I was very sad to go.  But with the end of every adventure comes a new one.  And what an adventure I have begun.

Vietnam: Day One and Two

Just after lifting off from Melbourne for the last time on Malaysia Airlines, I knew I was beginning a new adventure when the flight attendant offered me, specifically ME, a prayer rug.  She informed me that my TV displayed the correct direction to Mecca.  Realizing that my beard and taste for Egyptian movies must have falsely hinted to the flight attendant that I was Muslim, I politely declined the sajjāda and wished her a happy Ramadan.  I would have to save my Ṣalātfor the huge prayer rooms at Kuala Lumpur airport.

My first Malaysian Airlines flight was normal.  We landed in Kuala Lumpur early and I had a relaxing nap in the comfortable airport seats.  The next flight, however, was mildly terrifying.  As we approached Hanoi, the ride became very choppy.  By very choppy, I mean extremely choppy.  So bad that I had my vomit bag out and ready.  I felt ill.  Just before landing, the pilot decided he had had enough.  We climbed back over the clouds and took a 45-minute flight out over the South China Sea.  I was thankful we were in a brand new 6-month old 737. 

What the pilot had forgotten to do, however, was tell us what exactly was going on.  Gradually passengers became frantic.  Was this another Malaysian flight gone rogue?  People starting hitting the flight attendant call button.  One Australian woman started crying.  The French man next to me started chugging his beer.  I started to sweat a little.  How could it be that we are just randomly flying out over the South China Sea for 45 minutes? 

Finally the pilot came on and informed us that we are being forced to divert to Da Nang, Vietnam for fuel.  After an hour-long fuel stop and discussion with Vietnamese weather authorities, we were on our way to a safe arrival into Hanoi airport. 

My first impression of Hanoi was its size.  It feels like a very large city, much larger and bustling than quiet, relaxing Melbourne.  My hotel sent me a private limo for the hour-long ride to the city (The trip cost me 18 USD). 

My hotel is a small Vietnamese owned boutique located in the old colonial section of Hanoi.  I would not be exaggerating in saying that this is one of the most luxurious hotels I’ve ever stayed in.  The best part (other than the 5-star service, the huge brand new room, and the top rated rooftop restaurant) is the price: 65 USD per night.  To put things into perspective, many budget hotels in Melbourne could easily cost 200 USD per night.  The youth hostel I stayed in in Perth cost 80 USD per night. 

Essentially, my hotel is unimaginable luxury for budget prices.  Arriving at this hotel was a great start to my Vietnam trip.  After my arrival, I had dinner at my hotel’s rooftop restaurant with 360-degree views of the city.  My hotel is one of the tallest in the city, so I could see for many miles.  This was also my first introduction to authentic Vietnamese food.  Restaurants deemed “Certified to Properly Prepare Vietnamese Cuisine” proudly display their certifications.  Needless to say, my hotel’s restaurant has one.

After dinner, I decided to take a walk around the city.  I had heard that there was a Saturday night street market.   Walked down the street and found the street market right next to what is locally called, “The John McCain Lake.”  John McCain might be the most famous American in Hanoi, though I have seen a few John Stewart posters.

At first nothing really caught my eye at the street market.  I hired a cyclo (you sit in a chair while someone pedals you around the city) so I could properly survey the area.  Suddenly, I saw something of great interest to me: Old propaganda posters.  I stopped at the shop and found a family of four running a shop filled with old posters created by the Communist government mostly during the American war.  Many of the posters featured the iconic B-52 bomber and Richard Nixon’s face.  I bought a few to bring home. 

Most of the posters, however, were unreserved tributes to Ho Chi Minh or Uncle Ho.  He is a universally loved Saint.  Everything is named after him.  Everyone I talk to praises him.  His legacy is reflected on daily. 

It is important to note, however, that Vietnam is the first country I’ve ever visited that his considered by Freedom House to be “Not Free.”  In other words, it’s highly repressive.  Dissent is swiftly and decisively crushed.  The NYT is often blocked (though social media is not blocked).  The media is heavily state-controlled.  And it’s hard to tell if Vietnamese people genuinely feel undying affection for Uncle Ho. 

By all observation, however, Vietnamese people do admire Uncle Ho.  After getting a great night of sleep, I started my second day in Vietnam by travelling to the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum.  This iconic building in the heart of the Hanoi government district holds the embalmed remains of one of the world’s most recognized political leaders.  I planned to go inside (you’re escorted by a military guard, photos are forbidden, your hands must remain out of your pocket, and conservative attire is required) but the line was 3 miles long.  Maybe another day. 

Before I discuss my next activity, I have to mention two interesting observations: There is relatively little English spoken here and the poor air quality is noticeable.  Without my great sense of direction (I rarely take a map anywhere and am still able to retrace my steps), I would always be hopelessly lost here.  Most taxi drivers don’t speak a word of English.  When I found one who spoke perfect English, I asked for his card so that I can call him again every time.  Also noticeable is the poor air quality.  Within a few hours of arriving in Hanoi, I was coughing.  Just as in China, economic development has come at a cost. 

As my Vietnamese adventure continued, I hired a guide to take me on a culinary tour.  I went on my tour with a Swiss-French gay couple and a hilarious Japanese woman; we all quickly became friends.  The guide started out with “I’m going to take you on a tour of Hanoi’s food.  Many Vietnamese people believe that we won the war because of the health and strength we get from food.  The American food was very bad.” 

We tried so many diverse foods and drink on our tour:

-       BBQ pork with extremely spicy fish sauce

-       Chicken salad with mixed vegetables (my favorite food)

-       Rice wine soaked for 3 years with the corpses of 5 different kinds of venomous snakes (interestingly tasty)

-       Apple sake

-       Hanoi beer

-       Whole BBQ duck (Least favorite)

-       The Colonial Baguette with Pâté, Butter, Cheese and Sausage (the Swiss men laughed when the Vietnamese guide talked about how truly Vietnamese this dish is).

-       Coffee with raw egg (extremely tasty)

-       All different kinds of tea

-       Different kinds of fried tofu, pork and rice noodles in a restaurant that was flooded after torrential rains.  We took our shoes off and waded through the water to get to the restaurant.

With each dish, I thought, “This is so delicious.  This is also going to make me violently ill.”  In the end, it was an amazing food tour.  I was pouring sweat from the humidity, crying from the spicy food, and undoubtedly slightly drunken by the snake sake (so was everyone else). 

I figured I had gathered the liquid courage to start a more somber leg of my Hanoi visit: the infamous Hanoi Hilton.  As I arrived, the first thing I noticed was how much it still feels like a prison.  There are still guards sitting around and the place still has a very eerie feeling.  It was, after all, only closed in 1994.  The entry fee, paid to one of the guards, was 20,000 Dong or just less than 1 USD.

The first half of the prison was dedicated to the “comrades” who had been imprisoned and killed by the French imperialists.  While there is a heavy dose of propaganda in the displays, one does feel disgusted that the French would ever create such a place.  Walking through the prison is similar to how I envision transatlantic slave travel: shackles, small spaces, rampant torture and death.  It was not a pleasant place. 

For every ounce of anti-French display at the prison, there was some anti-American display.  Most of the anti-American display, however, was focused on displaying how “blessed the Americans were to be in the Vietnamese custody” and how the prison was a place of rehabilitation and reconciliation after American war crimes. 

Speaking of American war crimes, I walked out of the prison and hailed a taxi.  This taxi driver, named Tàm, spoke perfect English.  He brought me to a neighborhood that was completely leveled by American bombs twice – in 1968 and 1973.  This same neighborhood also happens to be the final resting place of an American B-52 bomber.  The huge bomber now sits in a small lake about the size of a soccer field, its mangled wing still sitting as if it fell out of the sky yesterday.  “This neighborhood,” Tàm said, “No one survived.  It’s a similarity between our people, Lee.  We all died.”

As I headed back to my hotel for dinner, I talked to Tàm about how Vietnam and the USA are now relative friends, how there is little hate harbored between the Vietnamese people and the American people today.  For many Americans and most Vietnamese people (most of the population is under 30 in Vietnam), the war is ancient history. 

While American-Vietnamese relations may have improved, the same cannot be said about other relationships.  As I sat down for dinner, I noticed two other occupied tables.  One was an Australian woman from Hobart.  The other was a table of self-proclaimed “Malaysians.”

The Australian woman and the Malaysians had gotten along famously.  They had sat together, shared stories, exchanged names and really had an interesting conversation.  As the silent observer in this situation, I had noticed one thing: These “Malaysians” weren’t speaking Malay.  They were clearly speaking Manderin (How do I know? It’s the difference between French and Italian.  It’s easy to hear). 

As soon as the “Malaysian” group had left, the kitchen staff rushed out to share what had been my suspicion: they were Chinese in disguise.  The Australian woman was offended.  She felt deceived.  “How could they lie to me like that?  Why would they lie to me like that?,” She exclaimed. 

Clearly a little behind on her current events after a month in rural India, I explained to my new Tasmanian friend that Vietnam (and much of Asia) has been experiencing a wave of anti-Chinese sentiment.  China has staked territorial claims that have upset almost every other Asian nation. 

Recently, China moved an oilrig into the South China Sea off the coast of Vietnam.  Nationalist riots broke out across Vietnam. Chinese factories have been burned.  Vietnamese and Chinese nationals have died in the unrest.  The Chinese government sent in navy ships to evacuate citizens en masse.  While the Vietnamese government has now clamped down on the turmoil, uncertainty remains.  Thus, Chinese people hide their identity in Vietnam.  In Vietnam, they’re harmless Malaysians. 

My time in Vietnam, in its infancy, has been amazing.  I’ve already eaten so much diverse and delicious food, met so many interesting people, observed history first hand and observed a completely different culture.  And there is much more to come.  

On Coming to Australia and the Beautiful Land of the Cooked Puppies

Over the past five months, there have been times when I questioned my decision to come to Australia.  Last summer, I had a prolonged debate with myself as to where on Earth I should study abroad.  I debated heavily between Germany and Australia, as I love Germany and wanted to perfect my German. 

To state the obvious, I chose Australia.  I wanted to see a new part of the world, a part of the world less accessible to the United States than Europe (I’ve already been so many times).  I wanted to see an amazing country that I remembered so very fondly from my first visit in 2003 and possibly make connections with Australians that could last a lifetime.  And finally, perhaps most importantly, I wanted to experience the most dynamic region today: Asia. 

When I landed in Bali last week, all my doubts about choosing to come to Australia vanished: I had made the right decision to come to Australia.  Seeing Asia is something that I am so glad and excited to have the opportunity to do.  Bali was a fantastic way to start. 

When we landed (I was with my American friends Sarah and Rohan) in Bali, our first Balinese friend was waiting for us in the main terminal.  Wisma, a man we hired on the recommendation of an Australian friend of mine (thank you Jess!), made our trip so amazing.  He (and his brother, Gusti) drove us around throughout our 4 days in Bali and showed us some amazing sights.  They became more than just drivers to us: they became immediate friends.  The trip wouldn’t have been the same without them.  Here are some of the things we did, in semi-chronological order:

We checked into our hotel in Kuta, a touristy part of Bali that has a terrible reputation.  Our hotel was absolutely perfect.  Tucked 50m into a residential alleyway, Kuta EcoStay Hotel was expecting us when we arrived at around midnight.  We booked the family-run 20-room hotel’s only suite, which was huge and very cheap (20 AUD per person per night).  Talk about real luxury for low prices (two bedrooms, two full baths, two TV’s, a balcony overlooking a family temple, a full kitchen and 24 hour security assistance all for 25 USD per person per night)

Our first day in Kuta, we drove with Wisma’s brother Gusti to a Hindu temple, since we had landed on a Hindu holiday.  The temple was really amazing.  I turned to my friend Sarah and said, “There have to be 5000 people here and we are, without a doubt, the only white people” (my friend Rohan is an Indian-American).  It was such a beautiful experience.  Picture this: thousands of worshipers sitting at a temple overlooking the sea, waves crashing, incense burning, street food cooking.  It was absolutely unforgettable.

As we drove back to our hotel through Bali’s crazy busy, lawless roads we discussed what we would do that evening in Kuta.  We settled on having dinner at a large, fancy Australian hotel overlooking the sea.  I was hesitant, given that Bali has a reputation for violence against Australians.  Over the years, Bali locations have been frequented by al-Qaeda trained suicide bombers, killing scores of Australians.   When we arrived at the hotel later, we noticed the intense security.  Mirrors under the car, trunks checked, bags checked.  It was an uneasy, yet reassuring feeling being checked for bombs.  Despite all this, at no point did I feel unsafe in Bali…

Except for one time.  We were walking home from a restaurant/bar at around midnight when the police stopped us.  They had stopped the entire road and had sealed off an entire intersection.  It’s important to say that this intersection had a holy shrine in the middle of it.  It’s also important to say that this intersection is about 400m from where the 2002 bombings killed 200 people, mostly westerners.  Given that everyone was silent except for the Indonesian-speaking police officer, we became concerned.  Had a crime occurred?  Should we move away from the situation?  I had images of a standoff or dead body right around the corner. 

What came next was one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen.  A parade of mostly teenagers followed two men dressed in monster suits.  We had arrived on their holiday.  The two men dressed in monster suits danced around the holy shrine for about 5 minutes before the whole parade moved on to the next town.  It was a moving thing to see.  The whole village stopped for a ceremony at midnight.  And it scared the shit out of three Americans.

I was so moved by what I had seen the night before that when we went art shopping around Bali the next day, I purchased a painting of almost exactly what I had seen the night before.  I will be sure to put it in my room so I can always remember that sometimes situations aren’t as dire and dangerous as they first appear.

Driving around an area famous for woodcarving and painting, we saw a stand that sells barbecued puppies.  When asked if Balinese people often eat dogs, Wisma replied, “No, we only eat puppies! The meat is more tender!”  We were unable to stop at the puppy stand; maybe next time. 

The second half of our Bali trip was spent in the volcanic rice fields of Ubud.  Ubud is most certainly more beautiful than Kuta and infinitely more relaxing.  We stayed at the Bali Spirit Hotel, where we rented a large villa for 35 USD per night per person.  The Bali Sprit was a lesson in extremely cheap luxury.  Its restaurant’s main dishes averaged 4 USD in price and were of the highest quality.  A restaurateur in Melbourne or New York City would easily charge 20 or 25 USD for the same dishes and not blink.  We were living the life! 

But then came the inevitable question: At what cost to the Balinese?  The poverty in Bali is obvious.  The man at a coffee plantation we visited told us of how he tries to support his family with less than 2 USD per day in wages.  He told us of how he worked on a fishing boat since age 12 and had to quit after he saw his best friend killed on board.  Needless to say, we tipped him well.

Essentially, one must remember that Bali is part of Indonesia.  It isn’t “Australia’s playground.”  It’s an amazingly diverse, fascinating part of Indonesia, the fourth most populous nation and tenth largest economy on Earth.  The scenes might seem surreal, but the issues are very acute. 

Throughout my time in Bali, I tried to compensate everyone fairly.  If we’re paying someone 35 dollars an hour to mop the floor at the University of Melbourne, it seems rather unfair to me to pay someone 2 dollars a day to show me around their coffee plantation.  If they gave me a 2-hour Balinese body scrub (it was painful, yet therapeutic and very hard to describe…I lost several layers of skin) for 8 USD, I’m going to give them 15 USD, because it doesn’t seem fair to compensate someone at the rate of 4 USD per hour. 

We saw some incredible things.  We shopped, we ate, we swam, we walked, and most of all, we smelled.  The smell of Bali was something so unique, yet so hard to transport.  It was a mix of incense, of street food, of motorbike exhaust, of ocean breeze, of burning rice patty, of flowers and incredible youthful energy. 

As we were driving to the airport for our departure from Bali, I thought of everything we had seen in 4 days.  I thought of everything we had past just on our drive from the Bali Spirit Hotel to the airport: a large Hindu temple, a mosque making a beautiful call to prayer, endless rice fields and beautiful seashore.  And as we lifted off, once again in our brand new Jetstar 787, I thought, “I hope to see you soon Bali.”

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Into the Australian Sky

I’ve left Australia twice throughout my time abroad: Once to visit New Zealand with family and once for a holiday with two of my American friends at Melbourne Uni. I write this blog post on an aircraft tray table as I leave for the second time, en route to Bali, Indonesia on a brand new Jetstar Airlines 787. For anyone who doesn’t know me as well as others, I love planes, trains, and automobiles (and just about anything that is capable of transporting people).

In this context, it seems slightly saner when I say that every moment I spend on this plane is an exciting experience. It is an amazing feat of engineering and was an incredible way to leave my temporary homeland of Australia. I would even say that the trip to Bali was worth it just for the plane ride.

As the 787 quietly lifted off from Melbourne Airport, I couldn’t help but think that I was leaving home in a way. Sure I’ve only been in Australia for five months, but I think it’s fair to say that I feel connected to the place, like it will always have a special place in my thoughts and memories.

As I’ve alluded to previously in this blog, my time in Melbourne hasn’t been picture perfect. I’ve had to process news of senseless violence in my home neighborhood, some rather unfriendly locals, and a university that has failed to meet my expectations. In a strange way, however, such imperfections are what make a place feel more like home. I could write a novel of grievances about the United States and the city of Washington. Maybe even a series of novels. But I still love America and Washington. The same could be said about Melbourne and Australia (though to a lesser extent).

When I look beyond the negative encounters I’ve had abroad, I see an ocean of positive experiences I will never forget. In Australia, I’ve seen beautiful red country, swam in two oceans, experienced an open, free, and egalitarian society (debatably more so than the US) and travelled literally tens of thousands of miles. I’ve met so many interesting people, made a few friends and stood in awe of sights I will long dream of.

So as I lift off into the dark sky from Melbourne Tullamarine airport in an American-made airplane with Japanese wings and a Bangkok-based flight crew bound for an Indonesian island, I can’t help but think that I’m having a real education through almost surreal experiences.

Can’t Love Everything

Australia is an amazing country.  There is little ground to deny this claim.

That all being said, I have some ongoing frustrations I would like to vent in this blog post.  Please note that this list is very crude and might even sound negative.  This post, as with all prior posts, has been an excellent way for me to reflect my very honest thoughts and reflections.

Melbourne University

I think I’ve made this clear throughout my blog: I don’t feel like I’ve received an education while at Melbourne University.  It is not an exaggeration to say that I complete more academic study in a week at Haverford than I do at Melbourne University.  For someone who has always cared deeply about academic study and schooling, this has been a struggle.  How can this be called university?

Drinking Culture

It would NOT be an exaggeration to say that I’ve spent more time inside a pub than studying whilst in Melbourne (as have many others).  Drinking is pretty intense here and has certainly been a major adjustment.

To insert a blatantly disturbing story, University College (where I am living) held a ball function this past week.  As I was sitting at dinner, I failed to realize that wine and champagne had been constantly poured for me.  I also failed to realize that no water had been served.  I asked for a glass of champagne and received a whole bottle.  Long story short, I was violently ill before the night had ended.  Unsurprisingly, I was one of many at the function to meet the same doom.  I was, to say the least, ashamed of my extreme inebriation.

This was three days ago and I still don’t feel entirely well.  While I’ve “Done as the Romans do” with regards to the drinking thus far, I won’t be drinking in any quantity for a while.   I’m done with the Australian drinking experience.  In fact, just the scent of wine is repulsive to me at this point.

Also interesting to me was how alcohol safety was not a topic of discussion at the beginning of the school year.  University College should give some sort of informational presentation, given that most residents are newly 18 and alcohol is openly served at University events.  The same goes for sexual misconduct discussions.  When starting the school year here, there was no presentation or discussion of sexual misconduct, which was surprising and disappointing to me.  Such conversations are ever-present and extremely important to Haverford.

Ice in Drinks

This is a minor thing.  I really do miss having ice in my drinks.  Sometimes it’s the small things in life.

Searching for an Occupation

Drinking in excess and attending mediocre classes has left me feeling in intellectual idle.  I’ve travelled from one extreme to another.  At Haverford, I feel like I can never get a break.  Intense academic work is nearly constant throughout the semester.  Here is obviously the opposite.

I’ve started learning Spanish.  I’ve read numerous novels and memoirs.  I’m planning trips to museums and concerts.  I’ve gone on a movie-watching spree (Just saw The Grand Budapest Hotel, which was one of the best movies I’ve seen in a long time).  I’ve also planned a trip to Canberra and am continuing to work on my Vietnam trip.

Bottom line is this: Australia and Melbourne are amazing places.  But living in a foreign country is an adjustment.  I don’t love everything.  This blog has been an excellent way for me to work out my complicated feelings and record them for after I’ve returned home.

Next Post: Canberra and the End of Classes

The Long Silence Broken

IN THIS POST: A Kangaroo Narrowly Escapes with His Life, NZ Can’t Be Real, Tasmanian Digestion, Melbourne Observations, and a Grape Stomping Champion. 

I’ve done so much since my last blog post. I went to Tasmania, worked on planning a trip to Vietnam and Hong Kong, had a weeklong vacation in New Zealand, and spent a weekend in the Grampians. On top of all that, I have been attending University full time. I have experienced so much over the past month that understanding and thinking about the experiences has taken some time.

Each amazing experience individually could be considered one never to be forgotten; together it’s almost overwhelming to think about.

While I am now ready to write, please excuse my more simplistic and unedited prose. This post will be a way for me to work through the experiences in my head; I’m more than happy to bring you along!

Tasmania

I’ll start with my Tasmanian adventure. My first thought upon touching down in Hobart, Tasmania’s capital and largest city, was, “Where is the airport?” I had seen the runway, landing lights and perhaps even another plane. But where is the terminal, I thought? The endless universe of boarding gates and fast food? At that moment, I realized just how remote and unpopulated Tasmania is on the global scale. Hobart, Tasmania’s population hub, has just 200,000 people.

Upon leaving Hobart International Airport with a rented Kia minivan full of five American friends, (I was at the wheel, driving on the left!) Tasmania’s charm began to take hold. Hobart is definitely the most relaxed place in Australia I’ve experienced. Tasmania is, after all, an island. 

We woke up the next morning at a University College (UC) friend’s house just across the river from downtown Hobart. Exploring Hobart was an experience in natural beauty. In many ways, Hobart feels like a country town: decidedly urban, yet small in size. We did some shopping, took in Hobart’s picturesque charm and drove up the east coast of Tasmania to the iconic Wineglass Bay.

The best part of Tasmania for me was the Museum of Old and Modern Art (MOMA). After spending a day around Hobart, we decided to drive 15 minutes out of the city to visit Tasmania’s most famous interactive art museum. It was definitely unlike any other museum I have ever visited. From a display that very vividly and accurately recreates the human digestive system to priceless ancient Egyptian artwork, MOMA was worth a visit. If there is anything I would go back to Tasmania to see, it is MOMA.

After a wonderful weekend, us Americans flew back to Melbourne, thankful for the UC family’s warm hospitality and the amazing sites of wild Tasmania. 

Planning Vietnam and Hong Kong

While I have had some work at Melbourne Uni, it would be a bold lie to say that I have been academically engaged at the level I am at Haverford. This very different university life has provided me with valuable time to plan adventure not remotely possible from my life at Haverford. Thus, I have moved forward with a trip to Vietnam and Hong Kong. I could not be more excited.

My plans at this point are very fluid. I will be sure to update this blog once I have everything planned. All I know at this point is that I will be arriving back in the United States on July 10th, about a week after originally planned. In fact, I might even change the name of this blog to “Message from Ho Chi Minh City!”

New Zealand

Over the 10-day Easter break, I met my father Mark, cousin Matt, and Uncle Wally in New Zealand for a week of hiking (Mark and myself) and fishing (Matt and Wally) in the stunning wilderness of New Zealand’s South Island. After 4 days of our respective activities, we would all travel together to experience Maori culture and wine tasting on the North Island. We tasted wine, experienced traditional Maori culture like the Haka and luged down a bucolic mountain (this last one is hard to explain…Google “Rotorua Luge”). What more could one ask for?

My first and most lasting impression of New Zealand is that of incredible natural beauty. It really is unlike any other landscape I have ever seen. It’s a land so untouched by man, so naturally beautiful, so pure and relaxed, it does make you wonder if it’s real. This was especially how I felt on the South Island, where I was perfectly comfortable drinking water directly out of streams without any form of treatment.   The mountains and flora of the South Island were truly a spectacle. 

While it is hard to summarize a lengthy visit to a country in a short piece of writing, it is my feeling that I will remember my time New Zealand primarily for two things: Natural beauty and memorable moments with Mark, Matt, and Wally. I think we all had a fantastic time exploring the natural spectacles of the tiny island nation also known as Aotearoa. Sometimes one’s company on a trip matters more than the location.  

Trip to the Grampians

One of my favorite Australian experiences thus far was a weekend trip I took with a good Australian friend to the Grampians mountain range for a food and wine festival. This Australian friend of mine, Ally, is the daughter of vineyard owners. The food and wine festival, located about an hour from her family vineyard, took place in Halls Gap, Victoria. Ally’s family vineyard had hired a booth to market their product.

We left Melbourne on Friday night with Ally’s aunt and uncle, driving through western Victoria and Ballarat. During this trip, I had one of my most entertaining and memorable moments of my time in Australia. As we were driving along through the dark on a rural two-lane road, we suddenly see a kangaroo in the headlights (Ally and her aunt didn’t see it; Ally’s uncle and I definitely saw it).

It is not an exaggeration to say that we missed this giant kangaroo by mere inches. In fact, I braced for what I thought was an imminent impact. I will never forget seeing the reflection of its eyes as it stood at full attention on the side of the road. What a truly unique Australian experience.

My encounter with wildlife in the Grampians did not stop with this ‘Roo near miss. Throughout the entire weekend, we saw hundreds of kangaroos and emus. We even did a bit of off-roading, chasing Emus (who are extremely fast flightless birds).

After settling down in a cozy cabin, it was my pleasure to meet Ally’s family before heading off to the food and wine festival. The food and wine festival, which was just what the name suggests, was naturally great fun. I “had a go” at a grape stomping contest (Sharaz, in case you were wondering). As of last count, I was on the leader board for most amount of juice in two minutes.

My weekend in the Grampians was a wonderful way to experience Australian leisure and wine culture, whilst enjoying the extensive wildlife offerings.   I thanked Ally for inviting me as we made our way back to Melbourne on Sunday evening.

General Observations of Melbourne

As I progress into the fourth month of my Australian experience, I have more observations of my life as an American in Melbourne.

Observation number one: I don’t like the University of Melbourne. While it is a well-ranked university located in a beautiful city, I have not been terribly impressed with my student experience. This is what I have observed:

-       My lectures are uninspiring. The simple fact stands that I haven’t enjoyed the classes I picked this semester. “Australian Politics” has probably talked more about American politics than anything else (and not in a nuanced fashion either…There was a joke by the professor about killing the US President who lives at 1600 L’Enfant Avenue). A well-written New York Times article could probably replace my agriculture class. “Cinema Studies” and “German 5” are classes that I have found to be satisfactory, but certainly not great. My German tutorial, which is supposed to be in German, is mostly in English. Bottom line: There are lots of problems with my classes.

-       There is no sense of community at Melbourne Uni. It is, in every way, a majority commuter school. Most students live off campus or at home with their parents. There is a lot to be said about University being a transitional experience away from home and into a new life…

-       The campus lacks adequate study space. If I want to study on campus, my most attractive option is a café, which gets to be a very expensive study habit. There is no campus center worth of study, no area for quiet contemplation, no student lounge for academic discussion. What little study space they do have is usually crowded and loud.

-       My classes are not academically rigorous. My experience has largely been, “Read the PowerPoint and regurgitate that material onto the exam.” How does such an experience expect to yield independent and innovative minds?

Observation Number Two: It has been difficult making Australian friends (and some are downright unfriendly). This is a complicated issue I have been grappling with. While I did not have romantic visions of my status as an American being an automatic generator of friendship with Australians, I grossly underestimated how hard it would be to make good Australian friends.

While I do have some really great Australian friends (If you’re reading, you know who you are), I can definitively say that I would have felt very lonely if it were not for other Americans in Melbourne. From the Grimmers (my cousins) to the 4 other Americans living with me at University College, I have been very appreciative of the presence of Americans during my time in Australia.

There are some major questions here: Why have I experienced this difficulty? Why have I felt like such an outsider? Is it something I said? Something I did? The way I talk or look? From these questions, spawns a conclusion I’ve made: My experience here is a little taste of what it’s like to be an immigrant.

I’ve come to a country with a surprisingly large cultural gulf with my home country’s culture and found comfort in other people from home. Isn’t this the universal story of immigration? It is important to note that living in Australia has given me this perspective in relative comfort. While I do often feel like a genuine outsider in Australia, I can understand the language and share similar cultural beliefs (though I am not sure about this whole Vegemite thing). I also have a ticket home. My conclusion here is that immigrating to a country with a different language and radically different cultural beliefs is an incredibly brave thing to do. The world would be a better place if we all realized this and became more welcoming.

While I don’t mean to pass judgment or stereotype that “All Australians are unfriendly,” (obviously untrue) it is my feeling that this observation should be discussed in this blog. I would consider my struggle to connect with Australian people to be my biggest disappointment about Australia, for people are an integral part of what makes a land beautiful.

Lee Anderson's personal thoughts and observations from Australia and beyond

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