To my big surprise, cultural shock never hit me when I moved to Australia. Back in 2013, at the age of 28 I had the opportunity to move temporarily from my home country, Guatemala, to the cosmopolitan city of Sydney to study a master’s degree for almost 2 years. Although I had traveled overseas by myself before, it was my first time actually living abroad. Despite that, the transition was smooth and once I had finished my studies I went back home. During the first few weeks after my return, my friends and family were all excited, and asked over and over again: What’s it like living in Australia? And what’s Sydney like? And when I tried to summarise my experiences, and drew the inevitable comparison to my own country (which I really tried to avoid), I could and can only think of one word: Freedom.
The freedom to be a woman (at least regarding your body)
I liked being able to walk next to a construction site and wearing any kind of clothing without being verbally harassed (I must admit it did happen, but only once). Topless sunbathing and even nudists are not only acceptable but legal in some beaches. I am also not ashamed to reveal that I came to discover there are many public toilets around the city, in parks and on beaches. However, the most amazing discovery I had was always finding toilet paper in all of them, no matter how remote. I think there are toilet paper fairies inhabiting the continent.
The freedom to be whoever you want to be (in most places)
In Newtown, one of the most bohemian, alternative, hipster and laid-back suburbs in Sydney, you could see goths, lesbians, punks, rockers, gays, hippies, hipsters and pin ups. You could find them walking down the street, buying vintage clothes or items, drinking at a bar, attending a music or comedy show or eating some kind of international or raw-vegan-gluten-free-organic-low-carb foods. Everybody was welcome, and everybody shared the neighbourhood.
The freedom to move around (to mostly everywhere)
People sometimes take for granted access to public transportation – regardless of how good… or bad it is. Buses, trains, cycle lanes and ferries, even after midnight, were more than I could ask for. I come from a place where driving a car is safer and more effective than using public transport, which in some places doesn’t even exist. I smile remembering when, during the first few days in Sydney I heard people complaining about how late the bus was or how inconvenient the train lines were. I thought: how ungrateful! I laugh remembering that after a few months, consumed by the student routine, I found myself complaining as well sometimes…
The freedom to enjoy things for free (or at least cheap)
There are so many free things to do in Sydney. There are art festivals, such as Sculpture by the Sea, music festivals and buskers, cultural and food festivals, for example my favourite, the Festival of Chocolate. There are many parks where you can have a picnic during spring, get a tan in summer, have a walk during fall and maybe avoid during the coldest days of winter. You can also exercise in the outdoor gyms located in some parks. I still can’t decide which park I like the most: Weekly Park because it was closer to home, Camperdown Memorial Rest Park because of the activities it hosted or the lawns of The University of Sydney because that is where I spent most of my days. Additionally, there are many beaches (37 in the Metropolitan Area alone!) and coastal walks. In Sydney, Coogee, Manly and Bondi are the most famous, but for the memories I feel nostalgic for Parsley Bay, Seven Shillings Beach, Balmoral Beach or Hermit Bay. If you are an outdoor enthusiast there are also many bushwalks, walks and hikes in the 49 National Parks (!) in the Sydney area with plenty of facilities. You can hike some sections of the the The Great North Walk or all of it – it only takes around 10 days.
Of course, my nationality and experiences from other Sydneysiders always remind me that if I had arrived in Australia under certain, fortunate circumstances; in another city or town, my experience of Australia might have been different. Although I never experienced racism, I am aware that Asians, Aborigines and Middle Easterners are more vulnerable to experience racism anywhere in Australia. Latin Americans though are in general welcomed with arms wide open.
As travelers we know we will always find the good, the bad and the ugly in every place we go. Sydney, like any cosmopolitan city, is in constant evolution, and many things have changed and are still changing since I left. Yet, most of the time I dream of the Sydney (and Australia) I enjoyed and loved. Most importantly, I now also try to discover those small and hidden liberties I enjoyed there, in my home country and in every other place I visit. Liberties that, as locals, sometimes we take for granted.
This is a guest post by María José.
María José is a Guatemalan nature lover who enjoys travelling, as well as all the perks that come with travelling on her own. Although she has always had the travel bug, it bit her hard after living in Australia while studying a graduate degree. Now, based back in her home country she travels to wherever, whenever and as often as she can.