Postcards from Abroad: Perth, Australia

Melissa Gitari is spending the third year of her English Language and Literature degree at The University of Western Australia, Perth. She enjoys writing, cheese-based foods and the musical stylings of Beyoncé Knowles-Carter. When she is not bemoaning the systemic inequalities that underpin Western society, she can be found with her nose in a book or her eyes glued to her latest TV show of choice. Although she misses Leeds, with its thriving night life and incomparable selection of takeaways, Melissa is loving the Australian sunshine and is in no hurry to return to bleak Yorkshire skies.

It’s been almost four months since I arrived in this strange, upside down country and I’m still trying to make sense of it all. Perth is weird, but being a fan of all things outlandish, I welcome its eccentricities. If you ask for an iced coffee in Perth, instead of, you know, an iced coffee, you are given a cold latte with a scoop of vanilla ice cream in it. There’s nothing quite like having a cup of ice cream for breakfast to make you feel like a real adult. Perth is also the most isolated city in the world, with the Indian Ocean on its left and a vast stretch of outback to its right, which gives it a slow, laid-back vibe that sets it apart from most cities. So laid-back is Perth that shoes are an optional accessory here; I’ve lost count of the amount of barefoot Aussies I’ve seen sauntering across campus. I guess this is just testament to the easy-going Australian lifestyle, one my neurotic London upbringing will not permit me to understand.

At a first glance, the UWA campus looks more like a tropical rainforest than an academic institution. Bursting at the seams with vibrant flora and actual peacocks (!!!), it puts the drab concrete buildings at Leeds Uni to shame (sorry). There is also a duck that waddles into the ground floor of the library from time to time, sending love and good wishes to frazzled students. Perth has lots of great locations off campus too. Cottesloe Beach is 20 minutes away by bus, and while I don’t go to it very often, I’m comforted by the fact that it’s there. Nearby towns like Leederville and Fremantle have more character than the corporate city centre where UWA is located. Fremantle is my particular favourite, a small harbour town with quirky vintage shops and a breathtaking street art scene. On a bleaker note, I recently stumbled upon a shop there that sold golliwogs (ragdolls with caricatured Black features), which was a harsh reminder that ignorance lurks in even the most benign places.

In an attempt to immerse myself fully into Australian culture, the first week I got here I signed up for surfing lessons. Despite having the physical aptitude of a slug, I was determined to become the ultimate Surfer Babe, gliding across waves with poise and dexterity. This dream was brought to an abrupt end after my first lesson, which I can only describe as me being assaulted by the sea and narrowly avoiding a cold, watery death. I came to the glum conclusion that surfing was not my sport. I persisted with the lessons nonetheless (I’d already paid for them) and even though I lacked the balance and upper arm strength to push myself up to stand, I did manage to ride several waves to the shore while lying stomach-first on my surfboard, which, according to a sympathetic instructor, is all that matters anyway.

Other Australian things I have done include getting up close and personal with some kangaroos. Much to my disappointment, none of them were sporting their offspring in their pouches. For the most part, they lay on the grass indifferently, like me after a large meal. Also like me, they were very camera shy, and I had to contort my body into near gymnastic proportions in order to obtain a selfie good enough to let people on all my social media accounts know that I’m having more fun than them.

During the late September “study break”, some friends and I went on a road trip up the north coast of WA, covering almost 800 miles in 9 days. This was my first camping trip and being a Londoner, I had virtually no experience with the outdoors, unless you count walking to the nearest supermarket to buy food. I can’t drive and I have no survival skills; the only things I had to contribute were my quick wit and an impressive supply of snacks. We had a great time, though – one of the campsites we stayed at had a hot tub, so for a couple of evenings I was able to live the decadent bourgeois lifestyle I was destined for. We did all kinds of outdoorsy stuff too, like snorkelling and kayaking in water so crystalline that you could clearly make out fish and stingrays. According to my friend, there was a baby shark near our kayak at one point, but I wasn’t wearing my glasses so I cannot confirm.

There were 10 of us in total, all international students, tackling the wild Australian outback with no insider knowledge. Surprisingly, we made it home relatively unscathed, but not without some mishap.Our group went hiking through ancient rock formations in the Kalbarri National Park on Day 2, which was fun for the first 15 minutes. After an hour of climbing over rocks and ducking under branches in 30 degree heat, I began questioning the sanity of people who enjoyed this hellish pastime. My lukewarm water turned scalding within minutes and for the entire ordeal I was followed by a posse of flies who remained unfazed by my frantic swatting. On another night, a 40 minute journey from the beach to our campsite took over 2 hours because kangaroos kept jumping in front of our car. We had to drive at a snail’s pace in order to avoid hitting one of the leaping demons, who seemed more concerned with the headlights of our car than with their own health and safety. The defining mishap of our trip, however, occurred on Day 3. It started so beautifully; after spending the afternoon at the beach, we took a long scenic drive to our next stop. Through the car window, I enjoyed the vibrant hues of rural West Australia – the brick-red dirt track, forest green shrubs and beautiful lilac flowers gave me a newfound respect for nature. I could finally understand why those annoying Romantic poets were alway banging on about the profound beauty of The Outdoors. I soon learned that I had been lulled into a false sense of security. About three hours from our next destination, our car broke down and five of us were stranded in the rapidly darkening outback for over 3 hours (the tow truck driver who picked us up informed us that we were actually on a highway and not in the outback but I think he was lying). Luckily, we had a gas cooker in the boot, so the five of us were able to enjoy an alfresco meal of plain pasta eaten out of the same pot. A great time all round.

I’ve only been here a semester but I already have enough material for a lengthy and groundbreaking memoir. I can only imagine what larks the next few months have in store for me.

Melissa Gitari

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