June 22-28, 2017
Before my exchange semester, I had grown weary from consecutive semesters of schooling and desired a change to my routine. I wanted to be different and for my life to be different. My wish was later granted but in an unexpected way.
Students who went on exchange may tell you about the exciting, Instagram-worthy life they lived and as true as that may be, there are also others who struggled with belonging among strangers in a foreign land. That was me. During my first few weeks in Australia, being alone and feeling loneliness were synonymous to me. It was evident that other exchange students craved belonging too, but since I neither lived on campus residence nor was I interested in parties, I worried that there were less opportunities for me to make friends. My worries slowly faded as I developed newfound friendships and integrated into my new home, but a question continued to linger in my mind: what does it mean to be alone but not lonely? People often associate being “alone” with negative connotations, but does being alone always have to equate to loneliness? I found the answer to my question when I spontaneously went on a solo trip to Byron Bay and Sydney after my semester at Monash University finished (all too quickly). The experiences during the trip impelled me to face parts of myself which I had tried to avoid or did not yet discover, and from that, I grew to know myself.
I had spent three days in Gold Coast with a friend prior to my solo trips. When my friend had to leave on the fourth morning, I had the decision of either returning to Melbourne with her or to continue traveling on my own. The idea of solo traveling has always been daunting to me, but because I was keen to explore more of the tropical areas of Australia I had fallen in love with, I stayed behind. I booked for a spot on the express shuttle bus to Byron Bay and took a one-way trip there, planning to hop on the Greyhound that evening to get to Sydney by morning.
When I arrived in Byron Bay, I was blown away by its beauty! The beach seemed to be an endless stretch of sand caressed by the ocean waves over and over again.
There was a small island for people to climb to the top of and overlook the waters. I breathed in the magic.
Numerous surfers dotted the vast ocean, eagerly waiting for the next best wave.
I hiked along the Cape Byron Walking Track, a gorgeous coastline with spectacular views every step of the way: the Julian Rocks, Wategos Beach, and the most easterly point of the Australia mainland with an incredible lookout point across an infinite of sparkling blue.
Looking beyond the horizon, it felt as if I had reached the ends of the earth.
Up on the hill stood the Cape Byron Lighthouse, a historical site with a maritime museum overlooking the Pacific Ocean on one side and the landscape of Byron Bay on the other.
I paused to soak in the scenery around me. Throughout the day, I had been alone, but instead of feeling lonely, I had felt free – free to be conscious of my senses, the thoughts inside my head, and my emotions. There was no standard or expectation from someone else inhibiting me to be who I was.
Hiking back down, my heart was brimming with joy as I skipped across the beach, captivated by the hues of gold and orange that streaked the early evening sky. I was in paradise.
The night bus to Sydney was full of young backpackers and travelers. The ride was thirteen hours long and arrived at the silent hour of five in the morning. As I crossed the intersection to get to my hostel, the flaming orange and pink sky gradually dissolved to be replaced by lighter blues. The city was waking up from its quiet slumber and transforming into a bustling hub.
That afternoon, I visited Darling Harbour, the Harbour Bridge, and Sydney Opera House. My heart was fluttering in anticipation as photographs from travel brochures became a present reality in front of my eyes. I later bumped into two classmates and we became friends through dinner at Chat Thai.
The next morning, I took a two-hour train ride to Blue Mountains National Park in Katoomba. Looking out from Echo Point Lookout to the grand view of the Three Sisters, the depth of the mountains intimidated me, yet I kept gravitating towards them in awe and daring myself to look over the edge.
Hiking alone in the hushed woods of the Federal Pass via the Giant Stairway was both magical and terrifying. On the one hand, it was magical listening to the sweet calls of the Lyrebird accompany the rhythm of my breathing; on the other hand, I feared the silence but learned to trust my heightened senses because of it.
I was lucky to be in Katoomba that day, for it was their Winter Magic Festival. Numerous street stalls selling food, trinkets, and other possessions crowded the roads. Fireworks illuminated the night sky, and as I stood in the middle of a vacant road eating a Souvlaki wrap while watching the explosions, I suddenly felt a wave of contentment even amid the emptiness. The streets were loud but my heart was quiet with peace.
On the third day, I walked the stunning Bondi to Coogee Beach Coastal Walk. For tourists and locals alike, the path is popular for its dramatic scenery, water activities, and eateries along the way. Being on my own, I was able to admire the views with wonder and capture snapshots of them around every corner at my own pace.
I had sushi doughnuts fresh from the Sydney Fish Market the next day with a girl also visiting from Melbourne I had come to befriend at my hostel. We later trekked the lengthy but worthwhile Spit Bridge to Manly Beach trail, a hidden gem among the locals with harbourside and Sydney skyline views. As we walked through beautiful bushland, we bonded through good conversation and laughter. We were no longer strangers by the end of the hike.
I took the ferry back to Circular Quay after dinner and while gazing at the Sydney Opera House for the last time by the waters, I still could not believe that I was where I was in that moment. I was so fortunate to be living my dream.
On the last day, I explored The Rocks, a neighbourhood of cafes in laneways, and signed up for a surf lesson with a group of strangers at Bondi Beach.
Surfing was exciting. I quickly learned the amount of strength it takes to surf and its demand for courage and determination became a lesson in itself.
As I boarded the plane back to Melbourne that night, I whispered goodbye to Sydney as the plane took off. I knew I had experienced Sydney to my fullest potential then because I had embraced it all – the highs and lows of my circumstances and moods – without fear or time restraint. The orbs of street lights grew smaller and smaller until they became glistening specks.
My solo trips to Byron Bay and Sydney will always be precious memories to me. Traveling alone offered experiences that traveling with others may not have. In exchange for stepping out of my comfort zone, I gained friendships with strangers, a renewed appreciation for the little things, a better understanding of who I am, and fresh perspectives on life and living. I allowed my curiosity to guide me in my adventures and in my discoveries of how the world is designed. Most of all, I learned what it means to be alone but not lonely – to be comfortable in my own skin and with my own thoughts. It was inspiring and liberating. (I think sometimes we are scared to be alone because we do not want to be stuck feeling emotions and thinking thoughts we attempt to suppress, but it is exactly these that we need to conquer or accept). In a country of strangers, no one could define me before I defined myself. I also became more conscious in how I was experiencing God. For the times when I craved company, panicked to beat the clock, or was frightened of danger, God was my most loyal companion, and in times of silence, He spoke to me.
So, to the ones traveling alone, preparing to travel alone, or scared to be alone, you are not lonely. There is a God up there who is always with You, and there is someone else faithfully waiting for you to love and understand them too – yourself.