Around the world in 52 suburbs: New York, Auckland, Wellington, Melbourne, Sydney

Last time I checked in here we'd left Japan and had been back in New York for a week.

Tokyo had been a blast. It was so interesting I could well have called it a fitting finale, packed my bags and headed home. But I had a project to finish. I had seven more suburbs to explore before I could call it quits, but where those suburbs would be, well that was a mystery.

For most of the year I'd known exactly where and when we were going next, way in advance.

But during the final stages of the project I made it up as I went along. Having wound up back in New York – mainly to satisfy my daughter's one request, to spend Christmas with friends – I'd already explored the Upper West Side. But what next?

I settled on a little known neighbourhood in Brooklyn called Prospect Park South. Instead of brownstones or apartment blocks, this small neighbourhood of 200 supersized houses was an eclectic, whimsical and somewhat crazy mix of colonial, Queen Anne, Italianate, French Renaissance, Japanese, Elizabethan and Jacobean. Absolute buggers to heat but utterly amazing homes.

With our round-the-world tickets about to expire, I had little time to decide where to go next.

It had to be somewhere in the southern hemisphere – eventually I fixed on New Zealand. Considering I live just three hours away by plane, it's pitiful I'd never been.

I knew it had magnificent mountains, had suffered a terrible earthquake and that Australians like to make fun of the way Kiwis say "six" , but that was about it.

It was time to head across the ditch, starting with its most populous city, Auckland, and one of its southern suburbs, Otara.

Otara? One of the poorest areas in Auckland and one which that only a few years ago was ruled by violent gangs and had one of the worst crime rates in New Zealand? "That's where you want to go?" our Auckland friends asked.

Well yeah. Given I was in the country with the largest Polynesian population in the world, I wanted to check out the Polynesians – Otara was where many of them lived.

The suburb wasn't postcard pretty and it would be silly to think nothing sinister happened there, even if it had moved on from its recent dark past. But I found the place pretty interesting despite barely scratching the surface. Of most interest was the way the Samoan, Tongan and Maori communities continue to keep their cultures alive.

Having spent our first week in Auckland, I decided to check out the nation's capital, Wellington, the next week, before finishing up back in Auckland.

So, from a city with a population of 1.4 million to one with fewer than 400,000 people. Accordingly, we spent only three days there – surely such a small city would only need a small amount of time to digest. But the “coolest little capital in the world” (according to Lonely Planet) punches above its weight – I left feeling as if I needed at least another week there.

I chose the suburb of Te Aro and loved it. You could get your fix of alternative-urban there and then head for the hills, leaving the city behind in no time at all.

Once back in Auckland, I nosed around the multicultural suburb of Avondale. I met men in white salwar kameez-type suits making their way to the local mosque, Indian and Bangladeshi women buying spices at a store run by Afghans, and loads of Chinese at the weekly markets.

I also hung around some Christian Tongans, obsessed with the decorative waistbands – kiekie and ta'uvala – they wear for church.

There was plenty more to explore in NZ but I was getting antsy. With the finishing line in sight, I felt the need to leap off somewhere else. Melbourne? Why not? I'd been a few times but never ventured beyond the obvious – Fitzroy, St Kilda, that sort of thing. After much deliberation I chose Footscray, home to many Asian and African Australians. Unlike nearby Yarraville and Seddon, Footscray is yet to be gentrified.

As one woman said, “The trendies haven't made it here yet, thank god”.

I met artists taking advantage of the cheap rents, revelled in the colourful traditional dress of East Africans and crashed a gypsy wedding.

All set to finish the project in Melbourne, at the last minute I decided to race back to Sydney so my daughter, Coco, could start school along with the rest of her class.

After spending just over a year setting up temporary homes in 13 cities – a total of 18 different addresses – we were finally back in our own city and home.

But the project wasn't finished; I had two more suburbs to do. The problem was, coming home wasn't all that I'd imagined. After 13 months of wonderful discovery it felt as if someone slammed on the brakes. Instead of the shock of the new it was the shock of the known.

There was nothing for it but to head to the more beachy suburbs, places I'd previously eschewed for being too cliched. And anyway, I was tired, it was hot and I'd forgotten how blinding Sydney's sun was. Being by the water sounded like a damn fine idea.

First up was Rose Bay, somewhere I'd driven through many times before but never closely examined. I roamed across the shore at low tide with galloping canines, invited myself onto a yacht and soared skywards with Sydney Seaplanes. It was the perfect way to re-enter "normal life" – by realising that you can still have mini-adventures, even in your own city.

It was time to wrap up the project with the last suburb, Coogee. Previously not a big fan, when I took the time to really look around, I was delighted by its old-world charm, from the few remaining examples of kitschy signage and original flats to the incredibly original Wylie's Baths.

And I loved the lack of pretension or feeling of exclusivity you can get at other eastern suburb beaches. Everyone is welcome at Coogee, from Venus and her family, visiting from Parramatta, to long-time resident Heidi, who spends her days swimming across the bay and then painting it.

With Coogee done, my year-long project was complete. Despite exhaustion and ambivalence at being home, I feel extremely lucky. I've been able to do what I love for an entire year – exploring, photographing and sharing. Looking back, I can't believe how little else I did, aside from keeping my daughter fed and watered. It's been an obsession, but a most wonderful obsession.

And to share it with my daughter as well as followers on my blog and readers here has been absolutely incredible.

It's too early to offer any profound insights, but while it's hardly an original thought, I was struck time and time again by the fact that as different as people are around this globe of ours, we are all so incredibly the same.

On a personal level, however, I did learn something significant – there is nothing quite like the feeling of chasing a dream and making it real. Aside from anything, it's a relief – because one of the things that terrifies me the most is being on my deathbed thinking, if only.

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