The Exchange Program Orientation Conference, held at the William Wilkin’s Gallery in the historic Department of Education Building, Bridge Street, Sydney, was a much anticipated event on my calendar. It was on the last day of the school term, which I didn’t mind at all. I would be staying in a hotel in the city but more exciting was the thought of all the new and interesting information I would gather and the like-minded people who would be heading off on their own adventures.
The excitement level rose as a representative from Awards and Recognition congratulated us on our exchanges. Later I was to discover that only four teachers were exchanging to England. What had happened? Three years before there were 30. The Canadian contingent was quite large, with about 27 going to British Colombia, Nova Scotia, Ontario and Alberta from state and private schools.
Of the assembled group of 38 teachers I found S, a special education teacher who was going to live in Wimbledon, J, a school counsellor, who was leaving in two weeks for her job in the Surrey Childrens’ Service and the only Primary School teacher, B from an Anglican College in Newcastle. Her husband was also going, having taken a year’s leave without pay from his teaching job. He hoped to pick up casual work but was not too stressed about being a house husband for a year.
The afternoon was filled with a rather confusing mixture of information on tax, finance, health, unions, travel and visas presented by representatives of various organisations. By this time I was fighting an annoying cough and sore throat so I happily agreed to my husband’s suggestion to skip drinks at the Gallipoli Club and return to my hotel room for a rest. Little did I realise that my throat infection would come back to haunt me in the months to come.
Boxing Day 2003 was unlike any other. For over a month we had been frantically preparing our house for our new guest. A single woman named Carol was exchanging her semi-detached house in Chasetown, Staffordshire for our home of nearly 30 years in the Wollongong suburbs. We would not be able to show her around as she was staying in England until after our arrival. We would meet her on her own territory.
Can you imagine taking a year’s supply of everything you might need in one suitcase weighing no more than 25 kilograms? Leaving our cleaner, Enid, to do a final vacuum, we drove to the airport in the Prado. Grabbing a trolley we headed for the check in and breathed a sigh of relief as the bags came in at 25 kg and 23.8 kg. John requested an aisle seat but the Cathay Pacific officer could do better than that. He announced we were getting a late Christmas present, an upgrade to Business Class.
Our son Cameron had parked the car and was looking after our hand luggage. We said goodbye but I had hopes that maybe he could come and join us for a few weeks. He had just been offered a job as a computer analyst with the Public Service in Canberra and would be searching for accommodation without our help. A feeling of guilt was mixed with the knowledge he was 21 and quite capable of looking after himself.
Friends had also come to see us off. After all, a year is a long time. I hadn’t let my mind dwell on that too much but I was anxious about John’s father who at 86 might not be there when we got back.
Travelling Business Class helped dispel my worries. Our personal flight attendant, Edward, was continually offering us another wine, a tempting pastry or anything else our hearts desired. The lay flat seats were a luxury and the individual, high quality TV screens gave us an almost unlimited choice of programs. It seemed no time at all before we landed in Hong Kong. After cheerful farewells to the crew we struggled off with four coats, two cameras, a laptop computer, three bottles of wine, and two heavy backpacks. It was five years since we had last been in Hong Kong so we forgot you had to catch a train to the luggage rondo. Once we found it the luggage soon appeared and we ran for the train to Kowloon. It was just about to leave but waited for us while helpful porters threw our luggage in and took our trolley. The journey gave us time to regain our breath but the next concern was that the free shuttle bus stopped at 11.00 pm and it was now 10.55 pm. The bus drivers cheered us on as we jumped onto the last bus at 11.09.
Everything had gone so well we were a little taken aback by the room at the Orchard Garden Hotel. It was clean but about twice the size of a double bed so we continually fell over each other and our luggage. The shower was adequate but I slept badly as there was a dip on my side of the bed and I was continually sliding downhill.
We had moved from Summer to Winter in a few hours. Dawn was late so we woke in the dark. We meandered through shops, buying a camera and presents, trying not to eat too much of the delicious food. As evening approached the streets were lit up for the Christmas season and carols played continuously through the loudspeakers.
The downside of travelling business class from Sydney to Hong Kong was that on the longer second leg to London we were downgraded to economy. Gone were the horizontal seats, the cheerful service and the delicious wine and food. Even the TV screens were small and scratched. I looked down below where small clusters of lights pierced the blackness. I guessed we were somewhere over the Siberian lowlands. It didn’t do to think too much about the incredible feat of flying in a small tin can way above the earth in the dark. I just trusted that everyone knew what they were doing and that I would land safely at my destination.