PERTH, WESTERN AUSTRALIA

As I settle into my flat in Melbourne and reflect on the incredible past two weeks in Bali, Perth feels like a faded, distant memory. Despite my distorted perception of time, in reality my plane touched down on the sandy shore a little over three weeks ago.

My original plan for my study abroad experience was to take classes at Curtin University, a partner business school with Tulane University (my college in the United States). Curtin University is located about 30 minutes via public transport outside of Western Australia’s capital and biggest city, Perth. Perth is on the coast; right near heaps of beautiful beaches, shipping ports and vineyards. The city’s population has swelled in the past few years with the mining industry boom.

I moved in on July 23rd (after traveling for 20 hours) to Rotary International House. I shared a flat, kitchen and bathroom with eight other international students (six Chinese, one Pakistani and one American). I decorated my room a bit with some tea light lanterns I purchased on sale at a stationary store; my little corner room felt homey, despite being as far away from home as I can physically get. For classes, I was scheduled to take three business electives and one volunteer internship. The internship would have been designing a business plan for the Nyoongar Sports Association, an athletic facility for aboriginal Australians. Giving up this opportunity was one of the hardest parts of leaving Perth.

Curtin University has a stellar program in place for students studying abroad. The orientation days were structured with incredibly helpful guided tours, field trips to set-up bank accounts and international phones, and working out the details of volunteer internships in the community. But the staff went above and beyond as they planned excursions for the group to take together to explore Perth and its surrounding area.

The first field trip we took was to surf at Fremantle Surf Club, a twenty minute drive from campus.

Freemantle Beach

Fremantle Beach

It was a beautiful day to wetsuit-up and try my hand at surfing something besides the Internet. After my attempts resulted in several nose dives and jarring reminders of reoccurring nightmares I had as a child of drowning, I regrettably decided to trade the styrofoam for some goggles and bodysurf for a bit.

My camera was unfortunately taken while I surfing, so I wasn’t able to get any shots in the water, but here are a few I snapped in the last five minutes on the beach.

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After surfing we headed back to campus for an authentic Australian BBQ, complete with kangaroo hot dogs. Despite my weak stomach and vegetarian/vegan past, I made a deal with myself to try new foods abroad. So, I tried the kanga! It was one of the first meats I’ve ever eaten, so I don’t have much to compare it to, but it was better tasting than the salad alternative.

We then set off for Yanchep National Park to meet the meat from the animal I had just consumed. The park was centered around a stunning lake, which was beautiful at sunset.

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We walked around the park a bit and spotted a few roos in their natural habitat. They all congregated by the lake in courts at sunset.

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The Inn’s theme was “Christmas in July,” which kind of makes sense; July is the middle of winter in Australia

After the self-guided tour we settled in to Yanchup Inn for dinner and Australian trivia. We had some time to kill, so I spent an hour sharing a few drinks with an eccentric elderly man at the bar. (Can’t say this is the first time this has happened…) He emitted a delightful fragrance of stale beer and urine, but he had some useful advice for backpacking Southeast Asia, so I soldiered through the unsightly (unsmell-tly?) aroma. He told me that red kangaroos and emus are the unofficial animal emblems of Australia because they are the only two animals that choose not to walk backwards; i.e they can only move forward. The fun fact about the animal I had eaten and cooed over earlier in the day came in handy later in the evening during trivia.

There were twenty of us in the group of American exchange students. Of the twenty in this crew, I knew three Tulane kids before the trip; Maddie (Mads), Natalie (Nat) and Daniel. We stuck together through orientation, but during trivia we sat with Dan and Kelsey and shared a few laughs over some chicken parm and risotto. I’m thankful the dinner brought us together, as it prompted a wonderful friendship.

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The next day we had a lesson in Nygoonar aboriginal culture at the Wangi Mia (meeting place) of the park. Our charismatic Aboriginal guide gave us an inside look into the world’s oldest living culture.

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The dot painting above describes the spread of kaartdijn (knowledge) from the program. The white circle of dots in the middle represent the aboriginal tribe in the park. The multicolored rings inside it are the different gender and social strata within the community, and the outer yellow collection is the National Park itself. The thinner white streams of dots are visitors coming into the park and the thicker ones are the visitors leaving with more knowledge than they had before. Guests are then prompted to share the kaartdijn they have learned with everyone else, the red dots outside.

The first part of the Nygoonar ~experience was an info session in which we got to see and hold some woomera (shields that also doubled as baby slings), yongka (kangaroo) pelt man purses and an authentic didgeridoo performance.

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The “women’s place”

The Nygoonar tribe have very strict gender roles and rules. The yorga (women) take responsibility for taking care of the majority of the day-to-day activities. Through the harvesting of vegetables and roots, as well as hunting small animals, Noongar yorga contributed to the dietary variety of their families, thereby sustaining the overall health of the community. They built the family mia mia (shelter), made bookas (kangaroo skin cloaks) and spun fur and hair for rope used for a variety of purposes. They are also responsible for most of the care and kaartdijin of the koolangka (children). With this division of labor comes the division of land. On the camp there are specific areas in which the maam (men) may not enter.

The maam are responsible for hunting for dartj/daadja (meat). They use gidjee (spears) and kali (boomerangs) to hunt the large yongkas (kangaroos), weitjs (emus) and wild duck. We got a chance to practice throwing the gidjee and kali, which was just as hard as it looks.

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The doo

In addition to the separation of labor, gender roles are further defined in religious and spiritual activities. The didgeridoo is a long wind instrument made from hollowing out a termite infested eucalyptus tree trunk. It is used to accompany ceremonial singing and dancing, but it was also used for recreational use outside of these ceremonies. Our guide explained that only men are allowed to play the didgeridoo; women are prohibited from even touching one. After the session we had some free time to play around with all of the goodies. I took this time to try the didgeridoo, against my guide’s wishes. I was in the mindset of taking advantage of opportunities that come up and experiencing the culture I immerse myself in. How many times will I get a chance to try a didgeridoo again?

The guide saw me holding it and called me out. It was one of those things were everyone stops what they’re doing, turns around and watches the delinquent in the back get yelled at. I was a little pissed off and embarrassed for getting caught and put on the spot like that. I didn’t care for the cultural meaning behind it, I just wanted to see if I could blow the thing hard enough for it to make a cool sound.

When I was in Bali I met a traveller from Queensland, Australia. We spoke about her experience and efforts to integrate herself in an aboriginal tribe in Northern Australia. I mentioned that a female friend of mine had (didn’t want to say it was me, meep) had played the didgeridoo at the cultural center. She told me that even as a spirited feminist, she would never play a didgeridoo after an experience witnessing a traditional ceremony. She got the chance to hear the elder leader of the tribe play his didgeridoo for his tribe. The sound was so powerful, the ground shook from the authoritative vibrations. After this experience she understood and respected the instrument and the significance behind it. I felt pretty guilty for my cultural ignorance and sent out some apologetic vibes to Yanchep.

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Noongar spirituality lies in the belief of a cultural landscape and the connection between the human and spiritual realms. Everything in the vast outback landscape has meaning and purpose. Life is a web of inter-relationships where maam and yorga (men and women) and nature are partners, and where kura (the past) is always connected to yey (present). Through the paintings, music and kobori (dance) they pay respect to the ancestral creators, and at the same time, strengthen the belief system. Noongar connection with nature and boodja (country) signifies a close relationship with spiritual beings associated with the land. They express this through our caring for the boodja and observing Noongar lore through an oral tradition of story-telling and passing down kaartdijn.

Noongar communities have always taken care to assure the survival of animal and plant species. It is an important part of Noongar custom and lore to take only what you need from nature in order to maintain biodiversity. They leave some honey for the bees to build on, when the fish travel upstream to lay their eggs, they catch them on their way back down. By eating foods when they are abundant and in season, natural resources are not depleted and will still be available for the next year. As guardians of the boodja (country), they have achieved balance and adaptability through thousands of years of living in harmony with the bush.

Noongar spiritual obligations to the spirit ancestors are maintained according to the totems that live in the environment. Some examples of Noongar totems are jirda (birds), kwooyar (frogs), kooljark (swans), and karda (lizards). Every individual has a spirit totem or an animal that they have the responsibility for and must treat with respect.They do not eat the animal of the totem, as it is representative of the connection they have with all living things.

After the Nygoonar experience we saw some koalas and then packed up to head back to campus. On the way we stopped at Scarbourough Beach to soak up some sun and raw natural beauty.

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In addition to the school sponsored field trips, my friends and I did some weekend city exploration. The first adventure was to Stubiaco, a suburb in the city. Maddie and I stumbled into a skate park and watched some local kids for a bit. On the flight to Bali I showed some of the photos to my seatmate and he recognized some of the taglines at the park; he knew the the graffiti artist! Just another reminder of how everyone is interconnected on this tiny planet.

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We then headed off to do a mini pub crawl. We saw some cool street art on the way to some swanky bars where tried hot chili shots and enjoyed some fancy cocktails.

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After all of these excursions outside of the city, we got around to exploring Perth itself from a scavenger hunt and school sponsored bar crawl.

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The skyline as seen from Kings Park. A friend took me to see the view and city at night, the night before.

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IMG_1297On one of the last days we took a trip to Fremantle, a shipping port about 30 minutes from the city. I spent the day with Dan as we explored the markets, toured a model boat and got fish n chips on the wharf.

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My week in Perth was concluded with a beautiful farewell dinner with Daniel, Dan, Matt, Maddie, Nat and Kelsey. Nat and I hosted the occasion and cooked some beef and vegetarian tacos and veggie dishes from my leftover food. It was a great last night to spend with good friends.

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I made the decision to move to Melbourne because I felt like the bigger city would offer more opportunity and experiences than Perth could. Perth is a beautiful place, and I had a wonderful time there, but it is small, isolated, and lacks the strong culture that I am looking for in my experience abroad.

Leaving the city and program was a decision that I made quickly and confidently. I knew I would spend my time there longing to be somewhere else, so with the incredible support from my parents, program advisors, and friends I withdrew from Curtin and took a leave of absence from Tulane. I chose to move to Melbourne to live, work, and take some time to figure out who I am and what I want to do with my life. This gap year is an incredible opportunity to pursue my passions, interests and just live my life. I’m going to take advantage of every opportunity I can to experience everything I possibly can while I’m here. It’s something I wouldn’t be able to do without financial, emotional and general support from my family. I am so grateful I am fortunate enough to be granted this awesome opportunity. Thank you so much, Mom and Dad.

I am settling into Melbourne now, and I am so, so happy I made the decision to move here. Its an incredible place with so much to offer. But before I moved here I had to leave the country to change my student visa to a Work and Holiday visa. I bought the cheapest ticket to the closest country, Bali. It was a life changing experience that I will blog extensively about in the coming weeks. I am so happy and lucky to have so many experiences and opportunities to take advantage of.

If you’re interested in following my adventure, feel free to subscribe to get an email that notifies you when I write a new post. I will also be uploading photos to Facebook and link the blog there.

I’m hoping to use this space as a place to share my experiences and reflections with friends and family, as well as a platform to share some creative content. I really appreciate all of the support and kind words from everyone; I am so lucky to have such incredible friends. Thank you for reading all of this; enjoy your day, afternoon or night on this beautiful planet.

~pc n luv

Michaela

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