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Swapping A Backpack For A Suitcase Down Under

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In Australia, we bought an eggshell white 1984 Ford Falcon with fake wood paneling, blinkers that didn't work and a Playboy Bunny sticker on the back window. We paid $1600 -- divided by four -- to a German backpacker with a brush cut. He said it was worth twice that. It probably was worth half, at best.

It was January 2001. I was 20 years old and on my first trip abroad as a backpacker. My friend and I planned on spending three and a half months cruising around Australia, learning to surf, hitting on young European women on the backpacker circuit and exploring what seemed to us an exotic locale on the other side of the earth. I was taking a semester off university and the trip offered what I wanted most: adventure, life experience, freedom.

We landed in Sydney and checked into a hostel in King's Cross -- a down and out district known for drug addicts, strip shows and, most importantly, cheap hostels. A young Korean traveler was fast asleep in the dorm room in our hostel when we arrived. His underwear was dangling from a clothesline he'd strung between the bunks.

That first night, as I struggled to sleep through jet lag and the screams of junkies outside my window, I had the thought that I imagine every young traveler does on their first trip, their first night, even in a place as tame as Australia. I thought: "What am I doing here?"

We traveled south down the coast to Melbourne and the Great Ocean Road. We cut back through Victoria and Canberra, the capital, and returned to Sydney to rid ourselves of our piece-of-crap Ford Falcon in King's Cross, where we ripped off a couple of young backpackers over pints in a bar, the same way the German had done to us.

We bought bus tickets up the coast, stopping at every beach town along the way. We struggled to surf, partied too hard, dove at the Great Barrier Reef, and ended in Caines before turning back around to Sydney and flying home just in time for North American summer.

* * *

A few weeks ago, eleven years after my first trip, I had a chance to revisit Australia. It was for work this time. I flew from Beijing, where I live, and tacked on an extra week to visit friends and retrace a few of my steps as a 20-year-old, shaggy-haired backpacker.

This time, my hulking backpack was swapped for a suitcase. Filthy hostels were now decent hotels or friends' houses. My hair was shorter and instead of spending evenings in backpacker bars offering cheap highballs of Bundaberg Rum and Coke, I drank $20 cocktails in upscale bars (albeit reluctantly).

This is the first time I've had the opportunity to revisit a place that had provided so many defining moments to me as a young traveler. I tried to catalogue two things during this second trip: The changes in the place and the changes in myself.

The latter changes were far more striking.

First, changes in the place: I visited five cities and towns I stopped at during my first trip: Sydney, Melbourne, Torquay (a surf spot near Melbourne), Canberra, and Newcastle, a city a few hours north of Sydney where my work obligations were taking me.

On the surface, I noticed very few changes in any of these places, but one difference stood out in the extreme: Australia is crazy expensive. It wasn't exactly cheap in 2001, but it was affordable. This time, not so. From food to accommodating to transportation, Australia in 2012 is one of the priciest places I've even traveled. (It doesn't help that the Australian dollar is worth more than the greenback; when I visited in 2001, it was about 50 cents to the dollar.)

Eleven years ago, I was hungry for the experiences I'd encounter. It didn't matter that everybody around me spoke English, or that I was basically in a warmer Canada (where I'm from), or that it was one of easiest countries to travel on earth. It all felt like an exotic adventure to an inexperienced 20 year old.

Now, I'm a little embarrassed to have gone to Australia looking for exotic adventure. It's a beautiful place, but culturally exotic it is not.

Some things about me haven't changed. I still like spending too much time in bars. (And I have to admit, I longed for the days of doing shots with tanned Norwegians while sipping a beer alone in a hotel bar after work this time.) I still enjoy exploring new places. I still get a bit of a rush when I go to the airport about to embark on a new adventure.

But at 31, after almost six years living abroad, those rushes are harder and harder to come by. I've been fortunate enough to have traveled to many countries, from Burma to Mongolia to the fringes of China. After that, it's hard to get excited about a country like Australia, as gorgeous as it is.

And that's why I felt nostalgic and little sad visiting this time around. Nostalgic not for the place, but for the young man with an over-stuffed backpack, barely able to contain himself in the face of the adventure that awaited - one that began in a King's Cross bar, buying a beat-up Ford Falcon with a Playboy bunny on the back window.

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