Would it be worth the ten dollar hours spent scraping gum off the burning sun-baked Californian pavement? A wiped out bank account was evidence enough for the sorry tale, the result of a spontaneous decision to fly to a foreign land. Speeding in a plane above dark waters, these doubts wove their way through my nervous thoughts, giving the excitement of venturing into the unknown a sharp edge. Land of koalas, kangaroos and the Kuranda Rainforest- I was going to Australia.
When I first learned of my church’s planned trip to Sydney to partake in the events of World Youth Day, a festival held by the global catholic community once every four years, I was admittedly skeptical. Spending 3 weeks surrounded by some of the world’s most devout catholic teenagers was an intimidating concept, especially for a modern, Californian high schooler like me. Regardless, Australia took my fantasies, crumbled them into tiny pieces, and gave me back a bigger, beautiful reality.
Along with several host families and hostels, my group ended up spending a night in the Sydney Olympic Dome, a massive structure built to host the Olympics in 2000. As I found myself brushing my teeth next to people from at least twelve different countries, and setting up my sleeping bag between a group from France and one from South Korea, I couldn’t help but grin at how much the entire arrangement struck me as possibly “The World’s Biggest Sleepover”. Flags from many, many countries poked out through the sea of sleeping bags, and our own American flag stood proudly over us, rippling slightly in the gentle drafts of the stadium’s large floor vents. Despite being surrounded by hundreds of strangers from countries I had never even heard of, I slept well that night, and couldn’t help but marvel at the enormous trust we had in each other. Though differences were noticeable – our expensive REI sleeping bags and jackets contrasted painfully with the mere tee-shirts and shorts of groups from poorer nations, we were all there to learn and experience the differences and similarities. When we woke up the next morning and were shepherded to our next destination, I felt like I had my healthy share of “worldly cultural experience”. In my amazement, I didn’t realize that this was just the start.
Sydney is a remarkably friendly city, and though I try to be optimistic of cross-cultural interaction, my previous experiences in France left me cautious of others’ preconceived opinions of Americans. However despite a much envied accent and a surprising dislike for peanut butter, the locals I met were as likeable as an affable next door neighbor, easy to talk to and willing to engage in conversation. My fascination of the Australian marsupial population was equally matched by a lady from Brisbane’s enthrallment with squirrels. I found myself discussing everything from world politics to school-systems with complete strangers, people from places as varying as Melbourne to Manila. I distinctly remember starting an impromptu Frisbee game with a man from Sydney, and several others of varying countries while waiting for the pope to arrive at the WYD festivities. We had fun, and though of varying skill (I made for a very poor representative of California) it seemed to embody that community spirit which I found perpetuated throughout the entire trip.
Memories are hard to hold onto, and lessons even harder. Even the most powerful of experiences can slowly fade away if not periodically appreciated. Yet I cling to this one lesson, of how only through experiencing a crash course of cultural differences I came to realize the similarities.
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