And We Begin Again

Let’s flash back to four years ago. My life doesn’t flash far back enough to be sepia toned, so picture this in the inferior resolution of a 35mm automatic film camera…or Polaroid shots if you prefer. We’re going back to February 2004 when I was in Los Angeles at an AFS Orientation being prepared for spending the next six months of my life in Australia. This was my first journey to the other side of the world and I sat in the orientation session attempting to anticipate without being able to actually grasp how much my life and I were about to change. In that orientation which took place one year after the first bombs fell on Baghdad, fourteen, seventeen-year-old, American, high school students were gently warned to be careful. In 2004 the world was not entirely friendly toward Americans or the United States. We were told to stay away from all political demonstrations and advised that we did not have to offer our opinions when the subject of politics came up. Above all we were reminded that we were not responsible for the actions of our government, but we were ambassadors for our country and culture, and would be responsible for the impressions we lent to those we met while abroad. In other words: we’re in the hole already, don’t make it any worse.

I boarded he plane prepared with the phrase "Hey, I am not old enough to vote. Don’t blame me," and I embarked on my first study abroad during the W. Bush era. Until this moment, President George W. Bush has been in office the entire time I have been in high school and the entire time I’ve been in university. I have heard in several different countries and several different languages about how my government and its actions have been less than admirable and held in very low regard. My answer to those comments has never changed over the past 8 years since in 2004 I was a month too young to participate in the election. I still didn’t vote for him, no one could blame me.

I am told that on the night of November 4, 2008 and early into the morning on November 5th, my peers at Rutgers paraded around in the streets celebrating while George Washington University students danced in front of the White House in DC. Once again in Australia, I sat with all of the American students at Union College in my college TV room along with the Australians and international students who didn’t have exams. At 2pm East Coast Australian Time, as we watched CNN international, our world as we knew it changed. We cheered and as we watched President-elect Barack Obama walk onto the stage with his family by his side and fell silent to listen to the subtly epic speech that Obama delivered with his usual grace, candor and grammatical perfection, a feeling I had not felt since I was little crept up on me. It was the feeling that I used to get as a little kid from singing songs like America the Beautiful and My Country ‘Tis of Thee with my first grade class back in the days when I still believed that the Pilgrims and the "Indians" were friends, and that George Washington chopped down his cherry tree. The feeling was pride that stealthily overrode my usual abhorrence of all things remotely patriotic. And as I watched our first African American President speak and thank me along with the other 54ish% of American voters for helping him get into office, I fought back tears that I did not quite understand.

I read an article in the New York Times today (it’s a good read) called "Tears to Remember". In the article Judith Warner powerfully summarizes the reactions of those who were happy about the outcome of this year’s election by explaining that "[o]ne generation released its grief. The next looked up confusedly, eager to please and yet unable to comprehend just what the tears were about." This election holds significance for many people and for many reasons. I feel I can add another perspective to Warners’ as I begin to understand why it is that I tear up every time I hear Barack Obama speak–I think it is relief. After having been abroad for so long and at different stages in my life, I can finally stop acting apologetic and feel openly excited about something my country has done, because we have finally done something that the rest of the world is behind. Perhaps it’s nothing more than a case of severe peer pressure. Maybe it is wrong to depend on the approval of other countries. After all, as AFS taught me four years go, I have no control over where I was born and I am not to feel personally responsible for the actions of my country that have so incensed the rest of the world…but neither is it possible for me to be deaf to the stereotypes, the derision, the derogatory comments that usually end with an absent-minded "oh, sorry Ruth"; and the crushing feeling of not being able to be entirely proud of the country from which I come. Shrugging it off and laughing along with the joke does not prevent the comments from building up on my conscience, nor does it shake the feeling that behind the "joke" is a degree of seriousness. But on Tuesday, to have been an active participant–a voter–who helped to bring about the change that set me free from that inexplicable and blatantly unjust feeling of guilt…I think that is what brings the elated tears every time. I made a difference. I helped make all those crowds so jubilant and move those grown men and women to tears and it’s something I get to be proud of.

I believe that Barack Obama will do his best as President, but we are not in a good situation right now. Both the US and our entire world has daemons to battle, and it is doubtful that everything will go down as flawlessly as Obama’s campaign. It’s not going to be easy and perhaps my feeling of pride will have to go hide for a while as the mess is untangled. However, I think the important thing to keep in mind here–and it’s something that I think many people forget all too often–is that the President of the US is not the same as a super hero. There is no way Barack Obama is going to be perfect and he has admitted as much himself. What we need to remember is that the President is a leader and leaders do not solve problems single-handedly. They are the ones that come up with ways to solve a problem, but the idea is that leaders are supposed to have a team. They are responsible for managing the team and keeping everyone working together. Everyone and working are really the key points of that sentence. If we do not help, Barack Obama’s plans will not work. President Obama’s acceptance speech called on every American citizen, whether they voted for him or not, to help put ourselves back together. I believe that one of the strongest qualities in a leader is to know when and how to ask for help. Ladies and gentlemen, I think that was it. We have officially been asked within Obama’s first five minutes of leading to help him achieve his goals and ours. This is another chance to start over again, so let’s go find out what we can do!

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It is not just the political era that has ended and begun in my life. I am currently staring at the last week of exams in which I have one test right at the very end. With that exam I finish a very long stint of university that has left me, quite frankly, exhausted and ready to relax. Lucky for me, the 16th of November begins a two-month-long period of nomadic bliss in which I will hop from friend to friend and not think about anything except reading for pleasure and how best to spend the rest of my money. :-\ I am currently enjoying some time with my former Australian host family up in Cairns where I am able to leave the majority of my luggage and where, I reasoned, I would be able to study without as much distraction as college has with all of my friends. This last rationalization has turned out to be more wishful thinking, because in an effort to avoid studying I have constantly offered to do chores around the house, exercise, catch up on The Daily Show’s election coverage now that I have no internet quota…write blog entries…the list goes on. Still, I am really glad I came up here because at least I’m filling my time with more than just sitting…at the computer…

My flight to Cairns actually got in EARLY. I sat next to some interesting characters on the plane who ensured my time on the flight would not be boring. Mike and Lizanne picked me up at the airport and I had total deja vu about the first time that they picked me up and took me to their house four years ago. The air in Cairns hit me with the familiar punch of hot and humid, but I love the way it smells as soon as I step into that air–like fruit and jungle. Upon arriving at home I was informed that one of the doggies had passed away that day. I was sad I didn’t get to say goodbye to him. Now there is only one labrador waddling around the house and garden. 😦

I went to bed early and spent most of Friday at home trying to work, but only after I went for a walk and a swim. It was awesome. My friend Bonny, from when I went to Cairns High, happened to be having her 21st birthday party on Friday night, so I went along to that for a while and hung out with her and Skye. It was great fun. I kept it an early night though because this is supposed to be a study weekend and Mike and Lizanne and I were supposed to hang out together today. I woke up early and walked up the mountain to snap some morning pictures of the sun rising over Cairns. Michael ended up having to work a little bit this morning, but not before he brought home a dog that he found in distress on the side of the road. He was probably lost and he spent the morning barking and trying to find creative ways to get off his lead until the council representative picked him up to take him home.

When Michael came home he, Lizanne and I headed up to a coffee plantaion for lunch and sweeping views of Mareeba which is a bit west of Cairns. It’s a totally different world over there because you cross the mountains and all the humidity goes away completely. It’s beautiful bushland and farms all over that area and we enjoyed a delicious lunch. Aftrer lunch we went to a place where they make mango wine and Michael and I sampled dry, medium, sweet, sparkling wine and then mango, mandarine, lemon and lime liqueurs. (They were in REALLY tiny quantities). It was delicious. We’re saving them for Christmas. Then we went and explored the wetlands in the area a bit and then stopped at a rose stand and a fruit stand. It was a very adventurous day and we got home and chilled out for a while.

Tonight we’re going to dinner with our neighbors and some other friends, then tomorrow I am accompanying Carla (the Aussie girl I stayed with in Italy) to a high school play. It will be good fun. I miss high school theater. Those are all the plans I have for Cairns except for studying and swimming in the pool as much as possible. The only downside is that the mosquitoes and other bitey bugs up here are snacking on me. I’ve had to put on insect repellent that smells bad and is giving me a headache. I’m not sure if the smell or the itchy bites are worse. There was a really cute frog in my room last night. I was hoping he would eat all the bugs so I left him alone napping on my jeans. I didn’t need to wear them anyway.

Right well, more detailed information about my upcoming weeks of wandering to follow. As always, thanks for reading.


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