Stephen in Australia

Stephen is a junior majoring in finance and political science. In Australia, he will be studying at Curtin University of Technology in Perth, where he will work on an international community service project in addition to taking courses.

My last blog

The dawn approaches over the Pacific Ocean as I sit on my second-to-last plane ride on this remarkable journey. This is my 10th flight over the last 22 days, and in that same amount of time I have been in five countries (Australia, Malaysia, China, Singapore, and soon the United States of America) and six if you count our two-hour layover in Taiwan. Travelling to Perth seemed to take forever and a day; however, after leaving Malaysia at 10 am this morning, it will take only an hour and a half to arrive in LA at 11:35 am the same day.

Kuala Lumpur
Anyway, I’ll give a quick recap of the last few days. We arrived at our hotel in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, late Tuesday night, I believe. Wednesday we set out for a good day of sight-seeing. We visited the outside of the king’s residence/palace, saw a mosque (Islam is the main religion of Malaysia), and visited a Chinese temple palace.

We grabbed lunch in the mall at the base of the famous and most recognizable landmark in KL, the Petronas twin towers, which were formerly the tallest buildings in the world.

Afterward we travelled to the Batu Caves, which were my favourite stop of the day. While passing playful monkeys on the way up (reminiscent of Bali), we climbed a long, steep staircase to the entrance of a cave, where a man greeted us with a large snake around his neck asking us if we wanted to take our picture with it – we declined. The cave was a sort of Hindu temple and was absolutely huge. I was very impressed with it.

After those sights, we went back to the hotel, and I took a nice long nap before going out to an Indian place for dinner. The food was good enough, but after seeing a rat on the floor toward the end of the meal, I quickly lost my appetite.

After dinner, we went to a foot massage place. They have these huge fish tanks where you can put your feet in the tank and the fish come to suck off the dead skin and it’s supposed to be quite good for you. I tried it for a few minutes, and they tickled like crazy! So much so, that I couldn’t keep my feet in the tank and had to settle for a half-hour foot massage for around $5USD.

Later that night, we went out to the coolest bar I have ever been to. It was 30 floors up on the balcony of a hotel, with comfortable lounge chairs surrounding a lit-up pool that looked directly across at the twin towers, which were lit up beautifully. This night we also met up with our friends who do not go to SMU, but were other Americans studying abroad in Perth with us. They had gone on a study tour around Malaysia. It was really good to see them one last time and to swap stories from our experiences.

We were able to sleep in and have the following morning to ourselves. Since I had seen most of KL, I did some reading and caught up on a few emails before we headed out that afternoon for one last meeting on the Asia Pacific region at an institute.

That night, we had our final meal together – and what a special evening it was. We ate at the revolving restaurant on top of the sky tower where we were treated to amazing views and an all-you-can-eat buffet. Our group leader, Dr. Jim Elliot, made some closing remarks about our time together and had a funny, memorable comment to make about each one of us on the tour. We all appreciated having him as our group leader; he treated us like adults, sent email updates to our parents, had fun with us, and ensured everything went smoothly and according to plan.

Singapore
With the study tour officially over, we had a full free day on December 12, and we decided to pay $50 for a round-trip 50-minute flight to Singapore. We woke up bright and early, and were met by my Singaporean flat-mate from Australia who graciously agreed to show us around for the day.

Singapore is such a unique place. It’s a small island off the coast of Malaysia that is both a city and a country covering 600 square kilometres (roughly half the size of the Hawaiian island of Kauai) with a population of 4 million people. The humidity and ethnical make-up is similar to Malaysia, but other than that, Singapore is distinctly Western with clean everything (it is illegal to sell gum and there are hefty fines for littering), developed infrastructure, English as the official language, its own stock exchange, and other “luxuries” that are consistent with developed nations across the globe.

Upon arrival we took the train/subway into the main portion of the city to walk amidst the abounding Christmas decorations. Next, we travelled to a Singapore opera house-type place with a perfect spot for viewing the waterfront and the main downtown buildings. Following lunch, we proceeded to briefly explore little India before resting for a bit at a famous hotel/bar place. Stewart and I then proceeded to walk around the city for a while before meeting back up with the group to return to the airport. During this time we found a nice park, discovered a river walk area, and encountered another SMU (Singapore Management University). We arrived back in KL at around 10 pm, which was exactly 12 hours before our flight back home to the US in the morning!

Home!
After reflecting back on all my experiences studying abroad, I still cannot believe all that has occurred in the last five months. I have seen countless new sights (including six new countries), eaten many new foods (such as jellyfish, a bit of chicken liver, peacock, bullfrog and ox-penis wine), made many new friends, had a ton of fun, and experienced much personal growth.

Besides the amazing memories, silly souvenirs, and countless pictures, I come back home a changed person. I am much more aware of the global world and the accompanying issues faced in addition to the differences in lives of those across the earth. In short, I have learned to expand the intake of my eyes and ears to occurrences outside the borders of the United States.

Personally, I come back home with a greater desire for simplicity. This last semester took me out of the busyness of life and away from the crazy schedule that I took upon myself while at school. I want to slow down, appreciate life more, and concentrate on what I have found truly matters in life – relationships.

Lastly, I have also grown in my personal relationship with God this semester through the extra time spent reading the Bible and through being removed from my “Christian comfort zone” back at school. I have truly been able to experience the beauty of His creation.

As I have returned home these last few days, it seems I cannot get away from Australia :) My flight home flew through LA, so some friends of mine flew down to meet me and go to Disneyland for two days. Two Australians were in the shuttle bus on the way to the motel with us, more Australians pointed out my Aussie rules football jersey while waiting in line, and the magazine on Alaska Airlines featured a whole article on Perth, which included descriptions of Fremantle, Rottnest Island, and Margaret River! I am excited to see how the memories and experiences there will continue to follow and shape me.

Have a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

Stephen

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The streets of Shanghai

I just arrived back at the hotel from an amazing afternoon of walking and exploring the streets of Shanghai. This is another enormous city with a population of 22 million!!! There is not a skyline; rather, skyscrapers and high-rises stretch in every direction. The Bund River splits the city in half. After first seeing the river and then proceeding to the top of the Shanghai TV Tower, I have concluded that Sydney and Shanghai are the two most fascinating cities I have ever seen. We went up the tower at dusk so we got to see the city in the daylight, at dusk and at night. Amazing.

I have two favorite buildings – the Jim Mao Tower, which is the 3rd tallest building in the world and is also home to the world’s tallest bar (which we explored on the 87th floor). Its shape somewhat resembles an ancient Pagoda. My second favorite building is the 2nd tallest in the world, and it looks like a bottle opener because it has a large cut-out square near the top. I wish I could show you pictures, but unfortunately my camera has malfunctioned and will not work any longer. Therefore, if you are really interested, google Shanghai, and I’m sure you’ll find what I’m talking about : )

Shanghai has a much more Western influence. All the sign have English subtitles, many more people speak English, and we run into many more Westerners. The city also appears to be quite affluent – though there is never any shortage of people trying to sell fake Rolex watches.

Wine session
Friday we travelled to ASC Fine Wines, which is a foreign wine importer and distributor in China. One of their employees gave an hour presentation about the wine industry in China and about their company. We were then able to ask more questions related to our individual group projects. This session was probably the most informative thus far.

We then had Brazilian BBQ for lunch, and this was our first non-Chinese food meal in quite some time. Later in the afternoon we stopped by the Australian consulate for another briefing before going up the TV Tower. The weather has been biting cold at near freezing temperatures with a sharp wind. We have been quite cold!

Trip to temple
Saturday the 6th we left to go see the Jade Buddha temple. We saw many people bowing down to statues and lighting sticks on fire so that the smoke would carry their prayers to Buddha. I did not particularly enjoy this experience; especially with the suffocating smoke enveloping the whole place. Next, we went to the Shanghai museum. Here we viewed ceramics, paintings, bonze things, and old coins. I probably could’ve lived without ever seeing this museum, but I guess it was interesting enough – maybe …

Later in the day we stopped at some more markets before going back to the hotel for a two-hour nap before dinner at the hotel. My awesome group and I spent the whole rest of the evening working on our project and putting our PowerPoint presentation together. We made good headway, which enabled us to explore the city today.

Making friends
After sleeping in, we worked on our project a little more and then took the subway downtown. This was our first Chinese subway experience, and it didn’t disappoint us. Even though it was a Sunday, all the train cars were completely packed, but we were still able to wiggle our way in. After we surfaced, we pulled out our map to see where we were, and three young Chinese people asked us, in near perfect English, if we needed help.

Long story short, we ended up making friends and walked around with them awhile before going to a little teahouse with them. The y were very friendly and kept on saying, ‘more people, more fun.” I was highly impressed with their English, and they asked many questions about the US. They also said that we didn’t look like Americans because we were so skinny :(

After trading email addresses and parting ways, we went to Pizza Hut for lunch (they’re actually nicer sit-down restaurants here.) Then Stewart and I walked up and down the waterfront and took in the sights while discussing all that we have seen. This time next week we’ll be home. That point is almost unfathomable to us! However, most all of us are very excited to be home and see our families for the Christmas season.

Tomorrow (Monday) we give our presentations and then have a celebration dinner that will conclude our time in China. We fly out on Tuesday to spend a few days in Kuala Lumpur.

Take care and God Bless,

Stephen

Romans 8:39

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The Great Wall and more

Hello again! Reflecting back on being on the Great Wall of China almost seems like a distant memory. Nonetheless, it was another sight that did not disappoint in the least.

The sheer scale of the Wall made it one of the most impressive sights I think I have ever seen. It curves across the jagged landscape like a snake and stretches some 6,000 kilometres! I cannot fathom people building such a massive structure so long ago. Some parts of the Wall were also very steep as we ascended and walked along it for about 45 minutes before turning back at the end. We all enjoyed it very much, and it was another one of those “pinch me” moments.

The Olympics scene
The following day was a free day for us, and I spent the morning around the Olympic buildings. The main stadium commonly known as the Bird’s Nest was much bigger than I expected. Also, I was previously a skeptic of its unusual architecture, but after seeing it in person, I converted to not only appreciating it, but liking it as well.

Walking around the stadium and actually going into the 91,000-seat capacity and $3 billion Olympic stadium was an amazing experience. As I walked on the track in the stadium, I thought back to all that had happened in that building. Just three short months ago the immaculate opening ceremony occurred with countless world leaders in attendance, gold medals were won, world records broken, and dreams were fulfilled. I could not imagine how cool it would’ve been to be able to watch the Olympic events in that stadium.

I also visited the renowned Water Cube where the swimming events were held. After viewing all these facilities, I have decided to put “attending the Olympics” on my list of things to do before I die.

An alum in Beijing
That evening after group meetings about our project, Stewart, John, and I went out to dinner with a friend of John’s dad who lived in Beijing and was actually an SMU grad! He took us to one of the most amazing dinners we have had on this trip. They brought out a pot of boiling water for each of us and plates of uncooked meat. We then proceeded to cook the meat in the boiling water and finished by dipping it into this amazing peanut sauce. We enjoyed the conversation as much as we did the food, and we talked about everything from doing business in China to life at SMU.

Our last day in Beijing we visited the Australian Embassy for a brief meeting about the economic, social and political considerations when dealing with China. It was informative, but the Political Science major in me was almost more excited about the dynamics of an Embassy and what they did.

Wine tours
We had an evening flight to Yantai, which is a smaller city (but still in the millions of people) on the east coast of China touching the Yellow Sea. We are staying in another amazing hotel that sits right on the water in a picturesque location.

The last two days we have spent doing wine tours throughout the region. We have been treated as VIPs at the wineries because they are not used to having western visitors. Everywhere we go we receive detailed tours of the vats, the bottling assembly lines, the wine cellars, and we have meetings with the general managers of the wineries. Overall, the wine we have tasted has been much improved from our initial Chinese wine tasting. Though not overly amazing, the wine in this region and at these upper-end wineries has been quite impressive.

Yesterday, I went on a delightful run all along the sea and even ran on the beach for a bit. Yantai really is a nice city. Also, Bratton and I climbed up a lighthouse earlier this afternoon. We stumbled upon a secret meeting of Chinese naval officers at the top of the lighthouse after enjoying the view of the city.

Tomorrow (Thursday) we leave for our last but probably most exciting city in China, Shanghai.

I hope you enjoy these brief little updates.

Take care,
Stephen

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Thanksgiving in Beijing

Greetings from the 2008 Olympic city, Beijing!

But first, we must go back to Xian to tell about the Terra-Cotta Warriors. The first covered “pit” housed around 8,000 different warriors, which were originally built for an egotistical emperor (there were many) so that he could have an army in the afterlife. Each one has different facial features, and all were actually quite impressive.

We viewed a number of smaller pits that held the generals, chariots and a few other artifacts. We briefly walked through a museum, and I realized that I am not a museum guy. I love what I have now deemed “experiential tourism.” An example of this followed our time with the warriors. Xian has a city wall that is 14 kilometers in circumference, and we got to bike around the whole thing. A number of us got tandems, and we all had a blast. It was one of those few truly unique experiences of a lifetime.

That evening a few of us had delicious Indian cuisine, and it was our first meal which was not Chinese food. After dinner, we walked over and saw an amazing fountain/water/light show in front of the Wild Goose Pagoda. Once again, this was a truly unique and wonderful experience we all enjoyed immensely.

A Thanksgiving to remember
The following day was Thanksgiving in China. As I sat in the hotel restaurant eating breakfast I couldn’t help but chuckle to myself about my situation. This was certainly going to be the weirdest Thanksgiving yet.

After a leisurely morning we had lunch in the city and proceeded to travel to the capital of China and home to 18 million people, Beijing. After the two-hour flight, we met up with our guide and had Thanksgiving dinner at – yes, you guessed it – another Chinese restaurant. The closest thing we had to anything resembling Thanksgiving cuisine were these fried pumpkin wedge type things that had a slightly furry consistency in the mouth …

After arriving at our hotel we set out for Thanksgiving dessert by walking to the Dairy Queen and eating blizzards.

Sight seeing
Today we explored Beijing by travelling to Tiananmen Square, the Emperor’s palace and the Temple of Heaven. Tiananmen Square is supposedly the largest city square in the world, and according to the Chinese government, there was never a massacre that killed thousands of protesting university students in 1989. However, our tour guide did acknowledge the incident.

Anyway, we walked all around the former Emperor’s palace, which was very long with lots of courtyards and grand structures. The palace was adjacent to Tiananmen Square. Whoever reads this may be interested to know that the emperors had about 3,000 concubines. Don’t worry, that was not the only fact I learned while touring the palace …

After another delicious lunch (still not tired of Chinese food yet) we visited the Temple of Heaven. This public park is also a popular place for retired people to hang out. We saw ballroom dancing, card playing, cultural dances, and we heard some disappointing karaoke. The temple was fairly impressive, and the guide pointed out time and again that the building was pretty much a miracle because there were no nails used in constructing it.

After a brief stop to grab some money at the hotel, we went to some markets. Bartering is very fun. Very, very fun. I probably had too much fun. That in addition to the money feeling like Monopoly money led me to probably spend too much money. I won’t tell you all that I got (some of you reading this will be direct recipients of my mad bartering skills), but I will tell you that I bartered something down from 1400 Yuan to 220 Yuan (about 35 USD). We will be going back to some more markets tomorrow afternoon after seeing some tourist destination called The Great Wall of China or something – I’m not really sure what it is. We’ll see … ; )

I am impressed with Beijing thus far. Traffic isn’t too bad (partly because the government doesn’t allow a certain number of cars to drive on certain days) and the buildings are all nice with many lights. The smog is fairly bad, but I don’t feel like I’m breathing in fumes all day or anything. Well, that’s all for me for now.
Take care!

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Nihao! (Hello from China!)

IMG_4132-600.jpgWe are off to a great start on this amazing adventure in China. I will first give you a brief overview of our travels thus far and then tell of my overall perceptions of China.

We spent a short night at an airport hotel in KL, Malaysia, before waking up bright and early at 5:30am for our flight to Kunming, China. Kunming is a city of roughly 6 million people (considered medium-sized), which is known as the city of eternal spring and is also known for being quite natural.

Our amazing guide, “Mr. E,” met us at the airport, and we drove to our nice hotel in the center of the city.

We had our first authentic Chinese meal on the top floor of our hotel overlooking the city. I am slowly but surely figuring out how to work the chopsticks, and all of us on the study tour have agreed that we are eating like kings!

That afternoon a number of us guys went walking down a street with a ton of markets where they were selling everything from Nike shoes to pig faces. I made my first bartering purchase when I stumbled upon a Phoenix Suns (my favorite NBA team) warm-up jacket. The guy wrote down a price, and then I wrote down a price. He countered, and then I countered before we agreed on the final price.

For dinner we drove with our guide to another fabulous dinner. On the way back from dinner I asked our guide a lot of questions about China, such as what he thought of George W. Bush, the problem of Taiwan, the family planning/one child policy, the tax system, what the Olympics meant to the Chinese people, and one government policy he disagreed with (he skirted this question by saying he disagreed with a decision to do construction on two major roads at the same time).

IMG_4146-400.jpgWine business
The next day (yesterday) we were up relatively early again for a three-hour bus ride to Yuann Winery. The vines looked drastically different than the vines we had seen in Australia. The winery was surprisingly large with huge vats and a large cellar with thousands of wine barrels. We proceeded to sample the wine – one white and one red. Ben (one of our group leaders who is a viticulture major) said the wine was much improved from his last visit. Though no wine expert myself, I did not find either particularly enjoyable, and most all of us were in agreement.

Wine is a growing industry in China and is quickly becoming a status symbol to display one’s wealth. Chinese are not educated about wine, and they often add sprite to it. I believe only about 5 percent of Chinese drink wine, but with a population as large as China, that means about 100 million people buy wine on a regular basis. I will continue to keep you updated on more of what I’m learning about the wine industry since this is one of the focuses of the tour.

IMG_4169-600.jpg
Stone Forest
After the winery we drove another two hours (long drives are becoming a theme) to a famous tourist spot called the Stone Forest. I was impressed with the enormous limestone rocks that jet out of the ground across countless acres. It’s rather hard to describe them, and I hope to include a picture of them in the next day or two thanks to the generosity of my friend Bratton, who will help me upload pictures.

After walking around the stone forest for an hour or so, we boarded our bus for another long drive to dinner, where my favorite dish was Peacock. We were supposed to watch a cultural show, but we arrived too late. Last night we also hit the town for a little bit, and at one of the bars we watched a show with a guy who did some cool tricks. At one point he put James on his shoulders and walked over glass and even jumped on the glass in bare feet. Later, I participated in tug-a-war where the man was in the middle and the rope was around his waist. It tightened around his waist dramatically as both sides pulled hard! Quite amusing and unique experiences.

On to Xian
This morning we said a tearful goodbye to our beloved guide, and we boarded our flight to Xian. Though sunny, the weather is significantly colder here (around 45 degrees), and this reminds me of Thanksgiving back in the States. We drove an hour into the city from the airport and stopped at the Wild Goose Pagoda, where we climbed the stairs to the top for a nice view around the square and the city as a whole. We then drove to the hotel and checked in before going out to explore the city and find food.

Nothing was planned this afternoon so we split up and did various things. I just returned from a long walk to the Bell Tower where we had dinner after searching for places for a long time. Tomorrow we head out to visit the Terracotta Warriors.

IMG_4206-400.jpgViews of China
Okay, so now some brief thoughts on China. My initial impressions of China going into the trip included the “made in China” label, a huge population, Yao Ming, Communist government, fireworks and the Beijing Olympics. I have learned a lot in my first few days here.

Also, if you have any questions about China please post a comment, and I will be sure to answer them as best I can.

First, the cities here are enormous. Only in China is a city of 8 million people (Xian) considered a medium-sized city. There are gigantic apartment structures built all around the city. They are also continuing to build a lot, and I counted about 30 cranes as we approached the city center earlier today.

IMG_4220-600.jpgThe cities are much more modern than I expected, and there is more wealth here than I thought. However, there is also a huge contrast between rich and poor. I can’t get over seeing BMWs pass mules pulling carts on the road. There is such a contrast! The disparity becomes even more stark as we drive 15 minutes outside the city and there are terraced rice fields and workers using hoes to weed the plants. The best picture I can give would be combining a modern city like Dallas to a town in Mexico – as weird as that might be, that is how I would describe China.

My picture and understanding of a communist government has changed, and I’m still trying to learn more about it. At this point, my understanding is that it’s not based on a system of distribution of wealth, but the defining aspect of Communism is that it’s a one-party system and the government still has a lot of power over the people – it’s a little mind-boggling that the government can dictate that you are only allowed to have one child.

Mr. E told me the tax rates were quite low, and even lower for private enterprises compared to that of the government-owned businesses. 1978 was the most pivotal year for the Chinese economy because that was the start of the open door policy and allowed for outside investors to come in. Since then, the Chinese economy has grown exponentially. The other thing I have noticed, which will come as no surprise, is the group mentality of the people and the national pride they have. However, I also found it interesting that the Chinese name for America translates as “beautiful land.”

Well, that’s all for me for now. Please let me know of any questions.

Take care and God Bless,

Stephen

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Last words from Australia

GreatBarrierReef169-sm.jpgYes, I knew this day was coming, but I did not really think it would ever come. When I arrived in July, four months seemed infinitely in the future. However, as I sit to write this, the end of my time in Australia has snuck up on me, and we leave in 48 hours for China!

The last week and a half I have spent a lot of time studying. I had two finals in both my finance classes, and each one was worth about 50 percent of our final grade. My very last final had six questions, so each question was basically worth 10 percent of my grade. I remember back in high school where it was a school policy that no final exam could be worth over 10 percent of our grade. Those days have definitely changed.

I had a number of other friends in these classes, and studying together was very helpful as we motivated and challenged each other to finish this semester strong academically. Overall, the tests went fairly well, but we’ll see how they’re graded …

In the midst of studying, I still managed to try to enjoy my last week in Australia. One day I ventured downtown with friends to do some souvenir shopping, and I also studied there at a coffee shop a number of times. On a sunny afternoon I went to a cafe overlooking the beach to continue my pursuit of understanding futures, forwards and options contracts.

Great%20Barrier%20Reef%21%21%21%20172.jpgWe’ve had three more family dinners together, and I have included a picture from one of those gatherings. One thing my friend and I commented on is how much we will miss evenings like those, with simple gatherings of everyone together. When we return home, busyness and conflicting schedules prevent the ease of gatherings like the ones we’ve been blessed with so often while abroad.

Great%20Barrier%20Reef%21%21%21%20187.jpgSunday, Fremantle had a festival, and I went there with a friend. Fremantle is the best place to people watch that I have ever been to. There are so many styles, people, cultures, and funky outfits everywhere you look. We also visited the Fremantle prison and took a guided tour through its halls. During the tour I felt like I was a tourist in my own town, so I guess that means I have been able to make Perth home for the last few months. One sidenote, the cells looked surprisingly similar to our dorm rooms here in Australia ; )

Great%20Barrier%20Reef%21%21%21%20194.jpgThat evening, we went to a large gathering of over 200 churches right on the waterfront in a park in downtown Perth. There were close to 15,000 people there, and it was a really neat experience to see the unity in the churches coming together. The guy who spoke was even a pastor from Portland, Oregon (my hometown) – it truly is a small world after all.

Tuesday was the day of my last exam, and it felt great to get it over with. Though it doesn’t quite make up for the stress in studying for a final, the relief one feels when finishing finals week is something truly unique and special. I will miss that feeling when I graduate from college.

Great%20Barrier%20Reef%21%21%21%20199.jpgYesterday, we had a meeting to go over everything for our study tour to China, and afterward we spent the day at Cottesloe beach. Also, Stewart, one of my good friends here, met up with Dale, a guy he’d spent time volunteering with over the semester. Dale has cerebral palsy, and he wanted to have lunch with Stewart one last time. A number of us guys joined them, and it was a neat time.

Great%20Barrier%20Reef%21%21%21%20201.jpgAfterward, Dale expressed his sincere gratitude for Stewart’s help and encouragement over the last few months and said how he would miss Stewart. It was quite touching and I believe Britney Jo would’ve cried. Anyway, way to go Stew for truly having a positive impact on someone’s life this semester! (We rewarded Stew by burying him in the sand and I have included the picture :).

Today, I have spent the morning packing, doing laundry, and writing this blog! Tonight, we are hopefully going to make it out to watch one last amazing sunset over the Indian Ocean. Tomorrow evening, they are doing a going-away dinner for us at a local hotel. Since we will be in China on Thanksgiving, they are preparing a Thanksgiving dinner for us! Needless to say, we are very excited!

I will try to update this blog every few days in China to inform you of our daily happenings. Please let me know if you have any questions.

Take care and God Bless,

Stephen
1 John 5:3

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Trip to Australia’s East Coast

I am honoured to once again share with you another experience of a lifetime here in Australia. Last week we had a study week with no classes and no finals. Since my first final isn’t until the 14th of this month and because the U.S. dollar is doing so well, I took a trip over to the east coast. My first stop was Sydney.

S-sydney%20and%20cairns%20035.jpg After a very early morning flight, I caught a train to Circular Quay (pronounced “key”). My friend from high school is studying abroad in Sydney, and I was headed to meet up with her. She told me to get off at Circular Quay and proceed to wharf #3 to take a ferry across the harbour to Manly beach, where her school is located.

S-sydney%20and%20cairns%20078.jpgI proceeded to follow these directions rather robotically, as if I was just going through the motions. However, as I descended the stairs from the train station, the grandeur of the famous sights in Sydney stopped me dead in my tracks. While only seconds ago I was blindly following directions in mundane public transport, I was now standing near the centre of Sydney Harbor staring at the enormous Harbour Bridge off to my left and the notorious Sydney Opera house off to my right. I had to pinch myself in half-disbelief that I was actually in Sydney!

I met up with my friend, Deborah, at the ferry terminal, and we walked around the quaint beach town while also taking a stroll down the very popular Manly beach. After some amazing ice cream and catching up on former classmates, we embarked on the first of many climbs up a huge hill to her school, which looks like a castle but is actually a former palace where priests lived.

That evening a group of Indigenous Australians put on a performance and made the students an Australian meal complete with Kangaroo meat.

The following day, we were up early to take the ferry into Sydney, where we went to a popular restaurant called Pancakes on the Rocks. I highly recommend this restaurant to anybody visiting Sydney. After we were loaded up on sugar, we went through some Saturday markets and viewed everything from glass-blowing performances to American license plates and racing wooden kangaroos.

Though I enjoyed the markets, I was ready to move on and continue to conquer the city, so we proceeded to walk over the Harbour Bridge. Next, we walked through the city past countless retail stores, old government buildings, and large skyscrapers to the Sydney Tower.

We took the elevator to the top, where we had a view across the whole city. I didn’t realize how much of Sydney was surrounded by water. Additionally, I saw just how big the city is. Compared to Perth, Sydney is an enormous city that is very developed with sprawling suburbs and countless high-rises. This does not mitigate its beauty, but it was striking to compare the size of the city after spending the whole semester in Perth. I was also able to see the Olympic stadiums from the top of the tower.

Later that evening, Deborah’s study aboard group had a dinner cruise around the Sydney harbour. We dressed up in semi-formal attire and spent the evening cruising up and down the harbour while enjoying the food and meeting new people.

Sunday, we travelled to the famous Bondi Beach and walked around before following the boardwalk and viewing countless sculptures and modern art exhibits, which were part of a show that was going on.

S-sydney%20and%20cairns%20074.jpgNext, we took the bus back into Sydney (only about a half-hour ride), and I walked up the steps of the Opera house. It is a much bigger structure than I imagined, and it didn’t fail to impress me.

S-sydney-and-cairns-sm.jpgWe then walked around the gorgeous botanical gardens, and we were so exhausted from being on our feet since the early morning that we took a nap in the park. That evening we met up with some more friends and went to a concert by a world-renowned worship band called Hillsong United. Hillsong is a well-known mega church in Sydney, and it was celebrating its 25th anniversary. The band performed from a barge in Darling Harbour (about a 20-minute walk from Circular Quay) and ended the night with an amazing fireworks show.

Monday, I was ready to slow things down a bit, and I had seen pretty much everything I wanted to in Sydney. Therefore, I decided to stay around Manly, and that was a great decision. To start the day, I went on a truly delightful run up along the beach, which led up to some cliffs, and then proceeded up to Northhead, which is an old military establishment. It ranks as one of my top five runs ever (I decided to make a list during the run).

The rest of the day was a beach day. Deborah had class, but another one of her friends came and joined me for the day. We went surfing for a majority of the day and then played beach volleyball, where we got beat fairly badly (I was the weakest link, and with only two players, there’s not much room for error). However, the two guys we played against were really nice and took time to teach me different techniques and things. That evening, we enjoyed a delicious meal at a quaint Italian restaurant.

The following morning, I said goodbye and had another early morning flight up north to Cairns, which is the town known as the gateway to the Great Barrier Reef. This also marked my first truly solo adventure.

Upon my arrival, I immediately delayered as I encountered the tropical climate, stifling heat, and extreme humidity. I walked around town for a bit, and I honestly found myself a little underwhelmed with the city. It was fairly “resorty,” but it didn’t have a beach. It looked out onto the ocean, but there was more of a swamp in the immediate vicinity.

However, there was a great community pool right on the edge of the water and in the center of town. I had a few hours to kill before I boarded a boat for a three-night adventure out on the reef. By the second hour, I was twiddling my thumbs and second-guessing my decision to come alone. However, that feeling did not last for long and I embarked on the boat around 4:30 that afternoon.

S-sydney%20and%20cairns%20152.jpgThis dive trip was one of the best experiences of my life. The boat had 27 passengers, and after a few dive briefings we “steamed” through the night, and in the morning we arrived at our first of 10 dive sites. However, I am not a certified diver (the only one on the boat who wasn’t. oops.) so I only went diving three times and I snorkelled about five times. However, the times I snorkelled were just about as good as the diving, and the times I dove were simply unexplainably amazing.

S-Great%20Barrier%20Reef%21%21%21%20067.jpgSteve’s Bommie was the name of my favourite place. It was a pinnacle of coral reef, and from above the water you could only see a lighter-colored circle just under the water. Once we were under the water, the story changed completely. Countless fish of all shapes, sizes, and colors swam all around us. Never before have I seen such variety in designs of fish, and never have I seen such vibrant colors!

S-Great%20Barrier%20Reef%21%21%21%20035.jpgThe few pictures that I took do not even capture 1/1000th of the sheer beauty and colourful creations under the water. Once again, I was pinching myself as I tried to take everything in. When recounting the trip to my good friend, I told her that if I could go anywhere in the world this second, it would be underwater somewhere on the Great Barrier Reef!

My very first dive of the trip was at a place called Cod Hole. Here, we formed a circle while kneeling on the sand underwater and proceeded to feed these giant cod. They swam all around us and were in our faces, and we got to touch them and everything. It was so cool.

I enjoyed getting to know the people onboard the boat. We spent a lot of time together and told many stories. There were people from Germany, the UK, Sweden, Japan, Spain, New York, Indiana, and a few other places. Though I was the youngest one there, everybody was very welcoming and engaging. One man was a professional butler. It was very interesting to talk with him and his wife about their experiences in that field. I also got to know another wonderfully nice young couple who were originally from the UK and now live and work in New York. The husband was even gracious enough to give me a brief tutorial in regards to a few questions I had on finance.

At the end of the trip, I also had no place to go for eight hours before my flight, and they invited me back to their hotel for the afternoon. I am continuing blessed and thankful for the kindness and friendliness of strangers. On the trip, I also discovered that there is also quite an underground cult following of serious divers. After experiencing these dive sites, I now understand why. Once again, I can’t recommend the Great Barrier Reef enough. Simply awe-inspiring and amazing.

Well, this has been a very long blog entry, and I appreciate your patience in reading it (assuming I haven’t bored you to tears and you are still reading at this point).

We have less than two weeks left, and it’s time for me to hit the books hard over these remaining days to finish strong.

Take care and God Bless,

Stephen

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Trip to Rottnest Island

rotnest2.jpgHello again!!

I’m up late as I sit to get in one more writing before I leave for Sydney in three hours. A 5:45am flight did not seem too bad when I booked the flight; however, I forgot to calculate leaving for the airport two hours early, and I am now beginning to regret that decision …

Last weekend was another adventure-filled excursion. On Friday the 24th, Stewart and I caught a ferry bright and early, which took us to an island off the coast of Perth called Rottnest. You can see the island from the coastline, but it took roughly an hour and a half to get there by ferry with slow cruising through channels and a stop in Fremantle.

Once arriving on Rottnest Island, which does not have any private ownership, we met up with the rest of our crew and rented bikes (there are also no cars on the island besides a few maintenance vehicles and a bus). From there we embarked on a 10-mile exploration loop around the island.

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We stopped at a few spots along the way and spent the majority of our afternoon on a completely deserted and white sandy beach. The beach was ours to enjoy, and we wasted no time in enjoying our time – for as soon as we left our bikes, we sprinted over the small sand dune and ran into the ocean. I have never been on a completely deserted beach before and neither have I seen sand so white. If you can’t tell, I’m already slightly nostalgic about the place : )

Anyway, the rest of the afternoon we leisurely rode our bikes to a few more beautiful bays before heading back to the campsite for a cookout. That night we built a fire on the beach (I had been waiting to do this for a long time). However, the rain came right after the park rangers, and we had to put out the fire and run for cover from the torrential downpour. Thankfully, Stewart and I had looked at the forecast and booked a hostel that night in anticipation of the rain. The campers abandoned the drenched campsite, and we had a few extra visitors that night.

In the morning, we went into “town” for breakfast and later went to spend a good part of the day at the beach we had enjoyed the previous day. However, the weather still did not want to cooperate with us. It rained off and on, and we left to go back to Perth on the 4 pm ferry. I hope to go back to Rottnest once more before I leave.

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Sunday after church, I went to Fremantle with a few friends to visit one of the oldest cruise boats in the world, which was docked in Fremantle for a few weeks. The Doulos is older than the Titanic, and it is currently run by a Christian organization. The boat is staffed by about 350 people, all of whom are volunteers, including the captain. They travel all around the world hosting a book fair at each port they visit in addition to supporting the local churches and doing some evangelism.

I had actually met a few of the people who work on the boat at the beach earlier in the week, and they were gracious enough to give my friends and me a tour. Two of them even had the afternoon off and hadn’t really explored Perth yet. I enjoyed playing tour guide for the evening as I picked their brains about many of the experiences they have had travelling the world and sharing the Gospel.

The rest of the week, I hunkered down and did a lot of school work. Yes, we do end up doing school work here. My friends and I made a website for a final project in our Indigenous Issues class and I wrote/finished three papers – two of which were worth over 40 percent of my grade.

Well, I’m off to bed now for about two hours.
Not to sound like the end of a TV show or anything, but … stay tuned next week for an account of my trip to Sydney and up to the Great Barrier Reef.

Take care and God Bless.

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Soaking up Australia

There is something distinctly satisfying about attending class wearing a damp swimsuit with sand between your toes.

I caught the bus early this morning and headed to the beach for a few delightful hours spent reading on the beach before an afternoon class. The weather has finally been consistently nice, and has actually gotten quite hot. Consequently, our dorm rooms also heat up rapidly, and there is no escaping the heat unless, of course, you are swimming in the ocean, which I did after a quick jog down the beach.

My jog turned somewhat interesting when I approached a section of the beach where people seemed to have forgotten their clothing. Needless to say, I was surprised to find a nudist beach not far from one of the most popular beaches in Perth. It wasn’t a huge issue until one of the many overweight and middle-aged men happened to be directly in front of my running path. Wanting to keep as much distance as possible, I swerved and soon found myself half swimming in order to maintain an appropriate personal space area. No worries though, I made it back safely and relatively unscarred with a good story to tell.

I actually just returned from going to the beach this evening for the second time in one day. After doing my laundry and cooking dinner for myself (look, mom! I’m growing up! :), a friend I met at church here invited me to go to the beach with her and some of her friends.

As we sat eating gelato, I couldn’t help but notice how cool it is to be surrounded by people from different cultures with such different backgrounds. Among our small group of five people, we were all from different countries – Zimbabwe, South Africa, Ethiopia, and Australia.

And this is where I feel a need to make an unsolicited plug for studying abroad: living overseas has truly opened the door and provided a unique opportunity to continually engage with others from different backgrounds. The understanding from these conversations cannot be taught in a classroom, but must be experienced first-hand. I have learned so much about the world we live in through numerous conversations with international students from across the globe. For whatever reason, tonight brought about a culmination of thoughts I’ve had now for some time, but which I have never been able to put to words.

Exactly one month from today, I will be saying goodbye to Perth. My friends and I are starting to look at the clock and realize that our time here is quickly coming to an end. My Grandpa wrote me at the beginning of this adventure, saying that “almost anywhere you can go in the world there are interesting things to see and do and experiences to live. You should do it all while you’re there because there’s a reasonably good chance you may never be in Perth again.” He went on to say that “when people grow old many of them regret things they did in their lives, but many, many more, maybe almost all, regret things they DIDN’T do. So do it, enjoy it, and keep us informed.”

I am still trying to follow his advice, and I hope to make the most of my remaining time abroad with no regrets upon my departure.

Thanks for reading.

- Stephen

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G’Day Mate!

(I figured I had to start at least one of the blogs with the “traditional” Australian greeting)

margaret%20river%20023.jpgAnyway, this last weekend all 11 of us SMU students had to participate in a mandatory weekend in the Margret River area. At the end of the weekend, my friends and I concluded that this was by far the best “mandatory” thing we have ever been assigned.

After driving four hours south of Perth, we arrived in Margret River, which is a region famous for its wines. The weekend served as an introductory lesson to the world of wine tasting in preparation for our forthcoming study tour to China, where we will be studying the wine market.

We spent part of Friday evening in a laboratory at the local college, which specializes in viticulture (yes, one can major in wine making). In the lab we began to learn about the differences between riesling, semillon, sauvignon blanc, chardonnay, shiraz and cabernet merlot, among others.

I soon found myself realizing that wine connoisseurs speak a whole different language. I was struggling to retain the meaning of descriptive words and phrases such as, “This has more legs,” or “Here you notice the buttery feel that is rather dry with a rich American oak flavour with tannins that grip to your gums.”

margaret%20river%20001.jpgI concentrated on trying to learn the vocabulary as I tried to train my tastebuds to recognize the peppery spices in the shiraz as well as the blackberry or blueberry qualities of the cabernet merlot (I later found that wines do not actually contain any berries or spices. I was a little disappointed).

Well, after a truly scintillating introduction to wine tasting, the following day we were up early to volunteer in the community. We started at a park, where half of us painted an ancient train named Kate, while the other half spread mulch.

margaret%20river%20010.jpgThe second part of our day was rather exciting as we helped the local fire station prepare for a potential disaster situation.

They made up seven SMU students with fake burns, charred clothing, charcoal all over our bodies, and blue make-up around the faces if the “victim” was having trouble breathing. The fire station was filled with smoke, and we were given roles to play.

margaret%20river%20013.jpgStewart was the only person who actually “died,” and they even put him in a body bag! Jonathan had a broken leg and didn’t speak any English. By the end of the day, I was ready to nominate him for an Academy Award. His acting was truly brilliant.

margaret-river-017a-sm.jpgOthers suffered from burns, asthma, and smoke inhalation. The production was quite large, and they even loaded us onto stretchers and into ambulances before taking us to the hospital!

margaret%20river%20006.jpgWe had no idea we were going to be so involved. Later that night we laughed numerous times as we recounted the events of the day.

On Sunday we visited four wineries including the best winery in Australia, according to some award it had won. Through these excursions I was finally able to begin to memorize the disparities between wines, and I even began to taste their different characteristics. That being said, I don’t foresee myself becoming a wine connoisseur in the near future. After an amazing lunch at our last winery, we all slept very soundly on our way back to Perth.

I hope you have an amazing rest of your day – and feel free to leave comments on the blog as I am happy to answer any questions that you have.

Cheers!

Stephen
John 15:5

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