By Madelyn Bernard, Guest Columnist
When I first set out on my month-long Australian journey with 13 other Pacific Lutheran University students, I did not know what to expect. In retrospect, it was a bad idea to blindly travel without doing any research.
Most people do not know that Australia is the same size as the continental United States but only has the population of Washington and Oregon. They also find it surprising that the Sydney Opera House is as far from the Great Barrier Reef as Texas is from Massachusetts.
I sure didn’t know these things before I ventured into the Land Down Under, but I wish I had.
Before the trip, all I really knew about Australia was that they have kangaroos, koalas, the Great Barrier Reef, beautiful beaches, P. Sherman 42 Wallaby Way and the Sydney Opera House.
So many Americans, myself included, assumed that Australia would be a tropical version of the United States and that most things would be the same.
However, my travels in Melbourne, Canberra — Australia’s capital — and Sydney proved my initial thoughts wrong, and I was pleasantly surprised by Australia.
The focus of our class was to study the media industry in Australia. We met with news anchors, radio hosts, producers and journalists who willingly welcomed us into their workplaces. I could not believe the hospitality we received and how these very highly esteemed people told us all their secrets.
We would never be allowed access to these places in the United States, and it was mind blowing that these people took the time out of their busy day to meet with us.
We always received a warm Australian welcome at each place we traveled. Locals would approach us when we were lost to give us directions, and then would spend 10 minutes telling us their favorite sites and restaurants we should visit.
Oftentimes, people would hear our strong American accents and strike up a conversation because they wanted to know about our journey so far.
One particular instance occurred when we were on a bus to Canberra. It was toward the end of our 12-hour travel day, and we were all starving. A few students and I began to talk about our favorite types of food when a local man turned around in his seat and chimed in.
We talked for a while, and when he heard we were studying media, he instantly perked up and said he worked for Parliament as the media liasison for the prime minister and could give us a behind the scenes tour of Parliament.
He not only kept his promise and gave us a specialized tour, but also sat down with us for coffee and answered all of our questions about how to begin a career in media.
This man is one of the most powerful media specialists in Australia, and we met him on the bus. His hospitality was incredible, and I believe he truly encompassed the Australian spirit. His acts of kindness made a lasting impression on me I know I will not forget.
These acts of kindness caught me off guard, because strangers are not so friendly to tourists in America. Australian friendliness truly was a breath of fresh air and was something I did not expect to encounter on my journey.
Another huge surprise occurred at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra. I was shocked to learn that Australia has supported and fought with the Americans in every war.
I had no idea the Australian military helped our country so much in war and was slightly disturbed that I had never learned this fact in school. On the other hand, Australian children know all about how they had helped the U.S. in battle and hold great pride in their history.
At the memorial, I had a huge realization — Americans don’t know much about Australia.
As I reflected upon my journey so far, all the ignorant questions I had asked came flooding back to me: How do you play cricket? What is Vegemite? Who is the prime minister? How did people come to inhabit Australia?
In that moment I felt so naive. The Australians knew so much about my way of life, and I knew so little about theirs.
We as Americans need to learn more about Australia and the foreign countries we travel to. We should not be naive when we travel, and we should do our research before we depart. There are wonderful countries out there, full of kindhearted people who certainly know a lot about us.
I believe it is our duty to become more informed about other cultures, because we share so much common history.
Americans should take on the Australian spirit in particular and treat strangers with more hospitality. Strike up a conversation on the bus with someone — you never know who you may meet.
The Land Down Under made a lasting impression on me and is definitely some place I desire to return to in my lifetime. So get informed and travel the world, because there are beautiful places out there that just might surprise you.