Forget About Exchange: DIY or Die

There’s something gloriously cathartic about tossing a bunch of clothes, books, and curiously-shaped power adaptors into a backpack and setting off to some far-off land. On the other side, the delicacy that is liberation from all things familiar and comfortable can bring about some unfortunate experiences.

I’m not here to give you some horribly-contrived drivel about how travelling helps you find yourself, forge new experiences, meet fascinating people, and shatter every semblance of what was once your comfort zone. We both already know that, but what you might not have considered is that taking some time out of your degree to fend for yourself is actually what you need.

If, like me, you happen to have found yourself midst of a five year struggle or a three year struggle that feels like an eternity which not even $2.50 UniPub specials can cure, then it’s certainly something to consider. Some common symptoms of said struggle are a complete, overwhelming indifference to gaining those hard-earned participation marks in tutorials or finding the time to devote the modicum of thought to reading materials each week beyond that necessary to field a stray question from an enthusiastic (or sadistic) lecturer.

If you came to university to get a job certificate and head out into the workforce, then this probably isn’t for you and I’m sorry for wasting your time. But on the off-chance someone reading this has felt the wondrous fascination of their chosen field fade into routine and resentment, there’s no better choice and you should read on.

With solo traveling, there’s ample opportunity for everything to go horribly wrong at any stage. Maybe the game of administrative roulette that is sleeping in hostels leads to sharing a room with a middle-aged Portuguese man who has a penchant for playing Latino music at 4am and gracing half a dozen fellow roommates with his finest solo bachata. Maybe that same roommate will enthral you with tales from a Honduran gaol, generously impart invaluable folk wisdom on how to spot your local narcotic dealer at a train station or helpful advice on where the best gelato in town is.

Maybe you catch the wrong train, fall asleep, nearly get stranded in a very sketchy area of Ukraine and not a single person in sight speaks a word of English. Experiences like these bring about sheer elation at achieving more than four hours sleep, discovering that Google Maps has an offline memory complete with your precise, creepily accurate location in real-time, or discovering that when Berliners talk about “underground clubs” they aren’t just hipsters – they’re actually talking about an underground sewer filled with hundreds of other hipsters. There comes a point at which you realise, “hey, shit could really hit the fan here but absolutely everything around me is new, unpredictable and fantastically wild”. You begin to realise that worrying about what could go wrong, where you are, or what you’re doing isn’t going to help, and develop a real capacity to deal with anything that gets tossed your way.

It’s a far cry from three hours of lectures, one tutorial, multiply by four, rinse and repeat.

Nearly two months ago, the furthest west I had ever ventured was Adelaide and the furthest north was some town in North Queensland. I then packed everything up into boxes, performed the action described in that highly poetic opening sentence, and hoped that I’d saved enough money to keep myself alive in Europe for five months. After popping a few sleeping pills, I woke up in the sandbox metropolis of Dubai to field constant questions from highly confused expats as to where my copy of the Sydney Morning Herald came from. Before I had time to explain the marvels of international travel and complimentary reading material, my stopover was finished and I was in Amsterdam. That’s where the story began and unfortunately has to end here.

Sure, I could have gone on exchange to meet some fellow International Thought Leaders and dug into that tired old game of tug-of-war between what I’d like to do and what needs to be done. But the simple reality is that by separating myself from everything I know, an unforeseeable result was that I not only rediscovered that same passion for my chosen path, but now have a level of understanding that dwarfs anything even our esteemed institution could begin to impart. Living out of a backpack can be pretty rough, but it’s the most valuable thing I’ve ever done.