So Far, So Good

I’m a little wired right now (I knew there was a reason I don’t drink coffee after dinner…) and I’ve been meaning to blog for a while, so here goes.

I think my junior year is going to be my best year of college, if not my life (at least so far). I’ve already had so many amazing experiences in Australia and New Zealand, which I’ve obviously written pretty extensively about. This semester so far has been really awesome. Now, granted it’s only been three weeks, but I have been doing really well. I set three goals for myself for 2013. One is fitness related, which I haven’t been really great about. But, I’ve been walking all over campus and taking the 4 flights of stairs to my room most days. My second goal is academic. I want to increase my GPA this semester. It’s going to take a lot of work, but I think I can do it. I’ve been good about staying on top of my assignments and avoiding procrastination, which is really my worst academic problem. I’ve also been practically living at my physics professor’s office hours. On top of all of that, I’ve been to the library almost everyday. I normally only go there for huge assignments and finals week, but it’s also become like a second home.

My last goal is social. It’s a lot more vague than the other two (which actually have concrete numbers tied to them). It’s essentially that I want to be more social. I don’t want to live like I did freshman year, holed up in my room glued to my computer. (That is tempting, especially living in a single.)  I have little goals that fall under this like: most of the time eat with a friend, spend Friday or Saturday night with friends, talk to someone new. I’m a little worried about staying true to myself. I don’t want to become a yes man or start doing things because I feel like they’ll make me fit in more. Luckily, I have great friends who care about me and won’t care if I break my “no sweatpants to class” resolution.

So far, so good. I’m sticking to my resolutions and meeting most of my little goals. And I am really happy. I mean, I always get like this the first time the weather gets above 50, but I’m noticing all these little things that are just awesome. Simple things, like laughing over a meal with a friend or working really hard and finally understanding something. It’s such a huge change from winter break. Once the holidays were over, I sort of fell into a rut. I was really lonely and I felt purposeless. I was unhappy a lot of the time. Now, I have friends everywhere. Anywhere I go on campus I have friendly acquaintances who return my smile. I have a bunch of friends that I can call up for coffee or studying and they’ll be there. And when it all becomes too much, I have my tiny 9X11 room with four walls and a door that locks, that has all of my favorite material things in it. I am so happy to be blessed with so much.

 

“Just know you’re not alone

‘Cause I’m gonna make this place your home…”

A Long Post

This is going to be a long one, since I haven’t written a blog in quite some time. My plan is to start at what’s happened most recently, and work my way back to the farewell dinner, right around the last time I blogged.

I’m currently sitting in my hostel room in Rotorua. I don’t have internet access because I refuse to pay ten bucks for 24 hours of access. So, I (and many of my friends) have been walking to the local McDonald’s and using the 50 MB of free wifi offered there. I’d rather pay $3 for a large diet coke and free internet. This will be posted when I have access in Auckland, when ever that is.

The group just got back from a two-night stay on a Marae just outside town. It was a fantastic experience. A Marae (Muh-Reye) is a traditional Maori meeting house. It’s sort of a combination of church and town hall. It was traditionally the center of the village, with all the houses around it. Maraes currently serve as the centers of cultural life for Maoris. When we got to our marae, we were told to stay on the bus, as our entering was going to be a bit of a ceremony. The women went first, and the men followed (women are sacred in Maori culture, and sending the men first can be interpreted as a declaration of war). Jen called us into the Marae with a song in Maori. We paused halfway to allow all of our ancestors to follow us (gotta let those old guys catch up!). We then were welcomed into the Marae itself, first removing our shoes. The women sat in back, the men in front (on the “front lines”). Sean welcomed us in Maori and in a song. We then shook hands the Maori way: clasp hands, touch noses (to share a breath), touch foreheads (to share our thoughts, there are no secrets among friends). This was a sort of strange and uncomfortable experience for us Americans. It’s pretty unusual to allow someone into your intimate space in American culture. To share that space with a person you had just met? Eee. We then were invited to share a song from our culture. We had some deliberation on the bus and chose “God Bless America” (easier than the Star Spangled Banner and more people knew the words to it than “America, the Beautiful”). It felt a little awkward and nationalistic, but I guess the whole point was to show pride in our “tribe”. We then met Garry. Garry led the discussion we had for the next several hours. It ranged from pest control and invasive species to the evils of pharmaceutical companies. We challenged his radical views, he challenged our radical views. Cultures clashed and whirled and swirled and every once in a while we’d look around in the resulting dust and think “What the hell just happened?” It was an intense and interesting day, and it was pretty amazing how open and honest everyone was. That night we had some amazing kai (the Maori word for food/meal). All the meat had been hunted or raised by Garry’s family.

The next day we headed out for a fun-filled day of bushwalking and white water rafting. I was frankly a little bored with the bush walk. It was short, and much of what we heard from the guide we had heard already from John Hall (who presented it better). White water rafting, on the other hand, was awesome. I had a great team and an amazing guide. The scenery along the river was fantastic. The rapids were not too challenging, but enough to give “Warrior Vanessa” some time in the spotlight. That night, the men learned a haka. The haka is performed to strike fear into the hearts of your enemies, as well as get the tribe pumped up. It was traditionally performed before a battle, but in modern times is used most often for sports. While the men were learning the haka, the women did yoga. We felt that we were balancing the energies on the Marae. Today we broke into 3 groups. My group started at the river behind the Marae. We listened to an Elder speak about the work the tribe has done to improve the water quality of Rotoiti. After a quick morning tea (I’m definitely going to miss that when I’m back in the States) we went out to learn how to paddleboard. That was so much fun, although it made me realize how little upper body strength I have (need to work on that). We went back to the Marae for lunch, then out for a walk with a medical herbalist to learn about bush medicine. We walked into the bush a little, and she pointed out different plants and their medical applications. We also saw another group of white water rafters who went down a giant waterfall. The last boat in line flipped over and everyone fell out. That was pretty funny to watch. When we got back, we had to wait for the paddleboarders to return. Matt and I took the Marae’s kayak out for a spin. We saw a pair of black swans with their babies (so cute!). Then we got on a bus and headed back to Rotorua.

Before our stay at the Marae, we spent three days in Tongariro National Park. The first night we just got settled in. We stayed in tiny two person cabins that were really cute. On Thursday we hiked the Tongariro alpine crossing. It was a 19 kilometer hike up and down along an active volcano. (“Just up the hill and back down the hill” I told myself.) It was one of the most physically challenging things I’ve ever done in my life. The higher up we got, the colder, wetter and windier it got. I had a pretty bad cold, and at points I felt like I couldn’t breathe. That’s when the emotional challenge started. Luckily, I was hiking with my friends Alex and Ben as well as our professor, Meghan. Meghan was amazing at keeping us going and keeping our spirits up. It was a pretty awesome feeling to finally get to the top of the trail. We paused next to a rock that offered some shelter from the wind. We had a snack and some water, and Meghan told us that we should be next to Blue Lake, though we couldn’t see it in the fog. Just then, we spotted a patch of blue sky. It spread over us, and like a veil being lifted, the fog parted and we saw the lake. It was so beautiful and felt like a huge reward for all of our hard work. Of course, we were barely halfway there. The weather finally broke and it was gorgeous as we continued down the other side of Mount Tongariro. However, when we stopped for lunch, I felt awful. I was freezing cold, shivering, had a pounding headache and felt sick to my stomach. I realized I had only drunk half a liter of water. I quickly finished the bottle and poured myself some more and put on an extra layer of clothing. Once we got moving again I felt much better. A little further down the mountain I started shedding layers until I was only in a long sleeve tee shirt. We later joked that we experienced all four seasons in one day. It was cool, crisp and fall like in the morning at the start of the hike. As we climbed, it got colder and started sleeting. With our descent, it got warmer and at the end of the trail it felt like a summer day. The crossing was an amazing experience, and I’m so glad I got the opportunity to do it. It was very beautiful and it kicked my ass. In a word, awesome. Oh, the best part of the story: yesterday we found out Tongariro erupted. The crater we had seen venting steam threw volcanic ash two kilometers into the sky. 50 people were hiking the crossing, but no one was injured and there was no need for search and rescue. Pretty crazy to think about!

The last day in Tongariro we went to a hydroelectricity plant. We learned about the work they’ve done to restore the population of Blue Duck or Whio that are found within the hydro scheme. The speaker was really informative. Then we went to the town’s hot spring. Most of us went in the public bath, which was essentially a giant swimming-pool-sized hot tub. The water is heated through heat exchange with the nearby volcanic hot springs. It felt so good to soak our weary muscles in the warm water and splash around. Some kids paid extra for a private bath, which is untreated water straight from the hot springs. We were warned that you can’t put your head under the water because there are microbes in the water that can cause meningitis. I decided I didn’t want to pay extra for the privilege of contracting a fatal brain disease and stuck with the public, treated pool. We went back to the lodge after that. Every night we would hang out in the lounge, playing cards, playing pool and watching rugby and the Lord of the Rings. It was so cool to watch the movies after hiking Tongariro, which was the basis for Mount Doom. It was a nice time of togetherness for the group and I really enjoyed that. We spent a last night in the national park, then drove to Rotorua where we had a free day to explore.

Before our stay in Tongariro, we spent a few days in Wellington. Wellington is the capital of New Zealand, although it’s really a pretty small city, especially by American standards. During this time we took field trips to a wind farm and a landfill and heard a lecture from two local professors.  Wellington was a cool little city and I really enjoyed our time there. One of the highlights was visiting Somes Island, a predator and rodent free island just offshore that acts as a biodiversity sanctuary.

My trip to Cairns and my last days in Brisbane will be detailed at a later date. For now, studying and planning for my final final exam!

Leaving on a Jet Plane

This morning I went to the Queensland Museum. It was just supposed to be an interesting way to kill a couple of hours and it’s something I’ve wanted to do since I got here. It ended up being a really fascinating way to tie what I learned this semester together. First I went down to the “Sciencentre”. There are lots of interactive displays about transportation, physics and the human body. It was (of course) overrun by giggling primary school students, running around and pressing all the buttons and pulling all the levers. Thankfully, I wasn’t in one of my “I hate kids” moods. I wandered among them for a while, feeling very out of place and making chaperons nervous. I had enough of that, and decided to explore the rest of the museum. At every display, I could hear my professor’s voices saying the things I read on the exhibits. An entire room was dedicated to one of the questions on our marine biology final: Why are turtles endangered, despite their nesting spots being protected? There was a WWII exhibit that had Murray’s voice bouncing around my head, and the model of a strangler fig brought John’s botany lectures front and center. It was pretty incredible to see things stuffed and mounted that I had seen living and breathing in their natural environment. It was so cool to see so many of the things I learned about this semester under one roof, and I’m really glad I went.

After the museum, I wandered through the “rainforest walk” on south bank to the Brisbane Wheel. When I first laid eyes on it, I was determined to ride the big Ferris Wheel. It was officially on my bucket list. My enthusiasm was dampened a little when I found out it was $15 to ride it. But, I decided YOVAO, I’ll probably never get the chance again so I might as well. It was a really cool experience. The little gondolas are enclosed, air conditioned pods with speakers that play an audio tour of Brisbane, pointing out major landmarks. I got some really cool pictures. Maybe not worth what I spent, but it’s all good. After the ferris wheel ride, I continued wandering down the south bank of the Brisbane River. I got some pizza at a cafe and sat next to a water feature. As I ate lunch, I was amused by the antics of the ibises that splashed around in the fountain. The pizza was pretty good by Australian standards (definitely can’t wait for some real pizza when I get home). I walked down to the ferry terminal and sat in the shade reading until the ferry came. That was the next thing I wanted to check off my bucket list. My plan was to just go one stop down the river to get back to the CBD and do some shopping. Of course, I got on the ferry going the wrong direction. I decided to scrap the idea of shopping and instead just enjoyed the ride and took a bunch of pictures of the city from the river. The ferris wheel and the ferry combo was a really great way to say goodbye to Brissy. I got to see a lot of the city in a short period of time and took some cool pictures. 

Once I finally got back to the CBD, I met Sarah and we took our last 109 bus to Uni. She had all of her gear with her and looked like she was running away from home (which she kind of did, since she couldn’t find our host parents to say goodbye). We met with everyone for a farewell dinner. It was a really lovely evening. The food was fantastic. It was really great to have the chance to say goodbye to the program staff and our professors. John Hall recited one last poem and told one last joke. Tom Cribb tried to convince us why staying in Australia was a better idea than moving on to New Zealand. We got lots of pictures, told stories and recounted memories and wished everyone safe travels. The group is splintering off and heading in several different directions. Most people are going to either Sydney or the South Island of New Zealand.

Since I’m going to Sydney with my parents later and I’m not really one for hiking and backpacking, I’m going to Cairns with Cierra. I knew at this point in the semester, the only thing I’d really want to do is to relax, preferably on a sunny beach with a fruity drink. Since it’s just the two of us going, we booked the flights and hostel and are going to be winging it when it comes to the day to day. I really want to go snorkeling, I’d love to do some day hiking, and swimming and laying on the beach are definite must-dos. Hopefully it all works out!

After the dinner, I made my way back home to Ashgrove. It was very strange riding alone. Sarah’s starting her adventures a day earlier than me, and is spending the night in the airport in order to catch her ridiculously early flight. I’m not leaving until Saturday morning, so I have an entire extra day without her at our homestay. It’s weird being without my partner in crime. (It’s definitely for the best that we’re doing different things for the break. I wouldn’t have been as happy if I was backpacking in South Island, and she wouldn’t have been as happy if she was coming with me to Cairns.) I’m really looking forward to reconvening in New Zealand to hear everyone’s travel stories. 

Bittersweet

I’m feeling so strange and conflicted. On the one hand, I am absolutely ready to be done. I’m burnt out, exhausted and ready to move on to the next thing. I am ready for the next adventure. I have done pretty much everything I wanted to do here in Brisbane. I’m ready to eat different foods, see different scenery and be done with Uni for a while. On the other hand, it’s painful and it’s scary to say goodbye. I love Brisbane. I love it here. It’s become my home. I have my routines, my favorite place to stop for sushi, I’ve figured out how to get pretty much anywhere on public transport, I know where you can get $3 drinks on a Wednesday night. I’m so sad at the thought that I might never ever in my life see this beautiful place ever again. Although I know that if I want to come back, all it takes is time and money. (Really, any problem can be solved with enough time and money…) I am bored, feeling stagnant, burnt out, ready for something new. And yet… I’m happy with where I am right now and I’m not sure if I want to go just yet. There’s this strange dichotomy in my mind: I feel like I just got here, and simultaneously, like I’ve lived here all my life. I’ve lived in Brisbane for 10 minutes and simultaneously 20 years. I am so glad my parents are coming over at the end of the program rather than during this break. Maybe it’s selfish, but those extra 20 days in Oz are going to be as precious as diamonds to me.   I will do my best to savor these last weeks in the land down under. I have 3 more full days in Brisbane, then 7 in Cairns, 14 on the North Island of New Zealand with my class, then 16 traveling all over the eastern half of the continent with my parents. A little over a month left in this beautiful, foreign-yet-familiar world. So all at once, I mourn and I rejoice, I smile and I cry, and I count down the moments left.

Carnarvon and Reflections

Our last Australian field trip has come and gone. Carnarvon was absolutely beautiful. The hikes were so cool. The first day my group did the long hike, 14k. The first half of the day we were with our American professor, Meghan. It was a really great opportunity to get to know her better. That morning we hiked to a cave in the rock wall named the Amphitheater. It was practically a religious experience. We hiked in in silence and just absorbed how ancient this place was. It was sort of an oasis, surrounded on all side by bare sandstone but with enough light and plenty of water for a little garden to grow. Being in there made me feel small, but connected to a larger whole. It was fantastic. We then hiked to the “Art Gallery” a place where Aboriginal people carved and painted the rock face many years ago. It was beautiful, and it made me think. I wondered what it was like when the art was being created. Were the people joyful? Solemn? What did this art mean for them, and what would they think of me looking at it? After a while we hiked back to the center of the gorge and had lunch while soaking our feet in the creek. We then swapped over with another group and spent the afternoon with our Australian professor John Hall. John took us to two side canyons in the gorge. One was host to a species of giant fern. What was interesting about this fern was its next closest habitat is hundreds of kilometers away, on Fraser Island. The gorge acts as a refuge, remaining cool and wet enough that this species can still survive. A little further down the trek we went to the Moss Garden. John had us close our eyes and conga line into the garden in order for our first impression to not be a visual one. It was cool and damp, quiet except for the rush of a waterfall. When we opened our eyes we saw lush green had overtaken the pale sandstone. This place was the very bottom of a huge water filter, where water trickles out of the bottom of the rock formation. This allows enough moisture for moss to grow on the rock. It was a beautiful place.

The next day we got up very early  and headed out to Boolimba Bluff. We climbed nearly a thousand stairs to reach the top of the gorge. The view was spectacular, and it made the climb worth it. We did some field work, then headed back down. A nap, some homework time, and then we headed to the waterhole for a swim. That was so much fun. That afternoon we did more field work and Josie talked about fire management in the dry sclerophyll forest. The next day we observed kangaroo behavior, went for a swim and then hiked out to another side gorge. We sat by a stream and reflected for a while, and then John told us to get the Indiana Jones theme playing in our heads. We hiked into a very narrow canyon, climbing on the walls and scrambling over rocks. It was totally a blast, and really beautiful. That night we had “Carnarvon’s Got Talent”. We had magic tricks, skits, impressions, and I showed the group a kata and then got attacked by a zombie. Josie sang a beautiful heartbreaking song about the Vietnam war that almost made me cry. John, of course, recited a poem. Every night I slept under the stars. Every evening I camped out by the bank of the stream to catch a glimpse of the platypodes that live there. It was a surreal and beautiful experience. 

I skyped with my parents this morning and they asked what I’ll miss most about Brisbane. We’re leaving so soon. My first answer was “Not Translink.” But when I thought about it seriously, I decided what I’ll miss most after this program is the people. It’s been amazing getting to know the 40 or so personalities that I’ve been travelling with. Everyone is unique, everyone has a different perspective. It’s been really interesting watching people fall together like puzzle pieces, and every once and a while things get shaken up and fall back together in a different way. If I were an anthropologist, studying a group of young people going abroad for three months would be a fascinating project. It’s been a privilege to get to know every student, every professor, every tutor, every family member. If I had the power to stop time, to freeze things exactly as they are, the moment we were all laughing together under the pavilion in Carnarvon would be worthy of consideration.  

Politics

I’d like to preface this by asking for respect. I’d also like to ask that anyone reading this post realize my ballot is currently winging it’s way to Herkimer County, so even if you do change my mind, it won’t help anything (and thus it’s probably better not to try). 

I voted this week! For the very first time ever I voted in a presidential election.  It’s an exciting milestone to reach. I honestly wasn’t sure if I was going to vote, but since voting is compulsory in Australia, our professors made it compulsory for the students in our group. (It was pointed out to me that this rule would be difficult to enforce, but I voted anyway) I wasn’t sure if I was going to vote because I really wasn’t pleased with either candidate. If someone only knew me in 2008, then timewarped to 2012, they’d probably be surprised to hear that. I was a very staunch Obama supporter then. I picked him out really early, way back in the Democratic primaries. I liked the way he presented himself, I liked his policies and I thought he would make a good president. I was hopeful, and wanted change, and all those other things that have now become cliches attached to our president. I followed the election progression with interest, I debated policy with my classmates, I cheered when I found out he was going to be our president. I told everyone, way back at that early stage, that I would definitely vote for his re-election in 2012. Being from a small mostly republican town, I was told I was full of shit. But, I wasn’t. The guy I wanted from the beginning was the President of the United States of America.

Fast forward to present day, and my approach to politics has been completely different. When people bring it up, it’s all I can do to stop myself from stuffing my fingers in my ears and singing “lalalalalalaIcan’thearyou”. I’m not sure what has changed. Maybe its how hurtful the conversation about politics has become. Before, I feel like I used to be able to have friendly discussions, but now it’s all out war. Everything seems radicalized, moved to the far extremes of the spectrum. Politics no longer seems interesting, it seems caustic. I feel like discussing politics is just asking for anger and discord. I feel like people can no longer agree to disagree. And though I know most of my friends are like-minded, I can’t bring myself to bring it up. Maybe it’s just more real now. It’s only now that I’ve actually got (and have wielded) the power to vote, that the desire to be a political ostrich has come about.Maybe it’s because I’m ten thousand miles away on a huge island. Maybe I just don’t want to be judged. I told anyone who would listen that I was going to “throw my vote away on some third party candidate” but I knew that I wouldn’t. Ultimately, I voted for the candidate whose values I felt most aligned with my own. That’s the best I could do, and I imagine it’s the best anyone can do. I’m still hopeful that the politics of the US can change. I hope that the vicious throat jumping can be put aside and civilized adults can act like civilized adults again. Maybe that’s asking for too much. I hope not. 

Last Night on Heron

Last night we went for a night snorkel. It was fun and kind of spooky to be swimming out to a shipwreck at night. As I was laying in bed, I could still feel the fins on my feet, the snorkel in my mouth and the gentle bob of the waves. It was then that I knew a part of me will never leave this island.

I have had a simply amazing experience. This is definitely my favorite field trip so far. To actually see the Great Barrier Reef is a dream come true. Honestly, every time I’ve gone for a snorkel there’s been a moment when I had to remind myself that I’m actually here. It’s not a dream, it’s not a TV show, I’m actually in the ocean with turtles, sharks, cleaning wrasses, parrot fish, giant starfish and coral as far as the eye can see. I have seen and learned so much. Twice this week I’ve woken up at dawn to the terns chattering, pulled on my wetsuit and slipped into the ocean. Let me tell you, there is almost no better way to start the day. I’ve spent every spare moment snorkeling. Honestly, I don’t understand why anyone wouldn’t. Sleep has so much less value to me. I can sleep in Brisbane. I can sleep in Geneva and Ilion. I can’t see these amazing organisms there. This has also been my most productive field trip. For whatever reason, the more things pile up the more drive I have to get them done. The vast amount of work ahead of me is daunting, but it makes ticking things off my to-do list that much more satisfying. I am not ready to leave Heron Island. I don’t want to go back to buses and classes and grades and papers and presentations. I don’t even really want to go on to our terrestrial field trip. I honestly think I could happily live out my days here. Maybe it’s good that we’re leaving tomorrow, before the magic has worn off and I’ve gotten sick of this. (Though right now I doubt that could happen). Despite my protests to the contrary, the ferry back to the mainland leaves late tomorrow morning and I have to be on it. Thank God for memories, for pictures and stories and dreams. I’m leaving Heron Island tomorrow morning, but a part of me will be here as long as I live.   

Heron Island

Tuesday night we trooped onto a bus to get to Heron Island. Heron is a little island on the Great Barrier Reef. And it is little. The only things on the island are the UQ Research Station where we’re staying and the resort where our American professors and their families are staying. The bus ride took all night (and we got very little sleep). We left Brisbane at 11:30 pm and arrived in Gladstone around 8 am after a brekkie at Macker’s. (McDonald’s breakfast). We then sat in a grassy field next to the ferry until it was time to leave at 11. (That was pretty nice actually. Some guys tossed around a rugby ball, I finished a book I was reading, we worked on our tans a bit.) Then it was time for the ferry. We had been told by Tom, our Australian Marine Bio professor, that this ferry made even experienced boaters sick. We laughed it off; Ozzies love to tell Americans all the ways that Australia is fit to kill (or injure, or cause discomfort). He was right though. A show of hands that night said 13 of the 32 of us lost their mcmuffins on the way over. I, thankfully, didn’t puke. It took every ounce of will I had, and I was white as a sheet, shaky and sweaty, but I kept down my breakfast. Once we arrived, we had an introduction, got into our rooms and then it was off to explore the reef flat. It was really cool to see the corals and other critters. We had burritos for dinner (I thought Mexican was an interesting choice after our “eventful” ride over) and I fell asleep around 9:00.

I woke up with the sun around 6, thought about going to back to sleep but couldn’t, so I got changed. I walked over to the jetty, where Tom said he’d be if there were any interested early risers. I was the only student who turned up, so I was the only student who saw Gus, the big (3 meter long) grouper that visits the harbor occasionally. There wasn’t too many other exciting things, but that was cool and I won some brownie points. After breakfast we suited up for our first snorkel. After signing out wetsuits, fins, masks and snorkels, we went down to the beach and waded in. I had some trouble at first. I would put my face down in the water and hold my breath. When I reminded myself that I could breathe through the snorkel, I would take a huge shuddering gasp (not the advised method).  This lead to a weird panic-attack feeling. I gave up on snorkeling for a minute and focused on swimming. Then I tried looking down while floating, and that was ok. I figured out that what really freaked me out was hearing my own breath rattle around in the snorkel. Once I identified that, it was easy to ignore, and snorkeling was a lot of fun. We saw tons of fish, most of them really pretty. We also saw a Linckia laevigata which was just gorgeous and huge and cool. Once I really felt like I was getting the hang of snorkeling, it was of course time to get out of the water. We had some free time, then at low tide went out onto the reef flat again. At this point, we worked with our assigned groups on our assigned project areas. I’m with another girl and two guys (Tom tried to get a guy and a girl from each college) and we work well together. Our project area is gastropods (aka snails), so not the most exciting project in the world. We decided to pick three habitats (reef flat, sand flat, rocky shore) and compare the richness of species we find in each. So the afternoon was spent counting all the gastropods we could find in various square meters on the reef flat and sand flat. Dinner was steak and potatoes, and then a lecture on the various types of fish we have seen and will see. After attempting to get some work done (a succeeding a little) I sat down to write this blog. Once this is posted, I’m off to bed early. Big day tomorrow, Team Gastropod is one of the teams going on a boat snorkel on the reef proper. Can’t wait!

Lamington

I spent the past week in Lamington National Park. We stayed in a bunkhouse in the middle of the rainforest. It was one of the most amazing experiences I’ve had so far in Australia. It all started getting up at 5:30 in the morning to catch the bus leaving from Uni at 7. We piled into a bus and started a fairly standard drive out of Brisbane. Then we headed up a long and winding mountain road. That was a bit nerve wracking, especially when someone pointed out the “car skeletons” that lay off the side of the road where they had clearly rolled off. We got to the bunkhouse and found out we’d be staying nine to a room. The bunk rooms literally had three sets of triple bunk-beds built into the wall and nothing else. That first day we hiked about 5 kilometers, stopping every so often to get acquainted with the rainforest around us. It was beautiful, but by the end we were a bit tired and cranky. We got to eat in the resort’s restaurant, which was really nice, although it got a little repetitive by the end. We were then asked to line up by star sign, in alphabetical order. I thought it was weird, but it was just a random way to mix us up. We counted off and were divided into 3 teams: Alpha, Delta and Omega. I was on team Alpha and everyone on it was really cool. The next day, Team Alpha was assigned to the “Dusk to Dawn” or “John Hall” hike. We got up at 5 am to listen to bird calls and see the sunrise. (2km hike) We took a break for breakfast, and then it was an all day 12km hike with our professor, John Hall. He is pretty amazing. He makes the littlest things seem huge and important. He’s a fantastic story teller, and it’s really a privilege to learn from him. This hike took us through a huge variety of rainforest environments, up and down and all over the place. It culminated with a show put on by the glowworms. These tiny larvae glow blue at night, turning the hillside into a facsimile of the night sky. They even twinkle. By the end of the first day, we were exhausted and ready to sleep. The next morning we were able to sleep in until 7:30, which felt like heaven. This day was Alpha’s “independent day”. We could choose from 3 hikes. A few members of the team decided to do the two shorter hikes, but most of us decided to hike 17 km. That was probably my favorite day of the experience. It was really nice to be able to set our own pace. We felt like we could be kids, and just enjoy. By the end of it, I was in pain from the hips down, but I was so proud of what we accomplished. The next day was our “waterfall hike” with our tutor Josie. She is a really cool person, and I am a little jealous of the way she lives her life. She is essentially a nomad, traveling where she can find work that interests her. She is really fun to talk to, and I wish I was in a better mood to enjoy our hike. I was still hurting from the day before, and several times wished I had stuck with my original plan of doing the shorter hikes the day before. We first did an assignment, analyzing biodiversity (that was about 2k), then went for a 12k hike to the base of a waterfall and back. That night after dinner we learned “bush dancing”. It’s sort of a mix of Irish and Scottish dancing and American square dancing with some Aboriginal influence thrown in. Learning these dances was hysterical. For the first dance, I was paired with John Hall and I could not stop giggling the entire time. It was so much more fun than I was expecting, everyone was breathless and laughing by the end of the night. We then trooped back up to the bunkhouse and had a small campfire. John told a ghost story about the min-min lights that haunt the outback, it was really spooky and awesome. A few of us dragged our mattresses outside and slept under the stars that night. It was pretty magical. I woke up with the sun, and watched a pair of parrots play for a couple of hours. We then packed up and drove a few hours to a littoral rainforest. Good news: littoral means “by the sea”. We had a little time to play in the ocean and lay on the beach before heading back to Brisbane.

After a good night’s sleep, Sarah and I headed out to the West End Market. We met up with our friend Alex and browsed the market for a little while. It was really cool, all kinds of fresh produce and artisan products. We then walked across the pedestrian bridge into the city. I bought a new camera since mine got broken during Lamington. Then we came back to study for a while, and that’s what I’ve been doing since. It was a great week, and for those of you keeping score at home, I hiked 50 kilometers in five days. Pretty damn good.  

Rose tinted glasses

The honeymoon has sort of worn off, and I’m starting to settle into a routine. Brisbane is still beautiful, most people are still kind and helpful, Australia is still lovely and fantastic and I wouldn’t trade my time here for anything. However, the rose tinted glasses are losing their sheen. I’m realizing that I need to work just as hard as any semester at Hobart, and with the added distraction of legally being able to go out to bars and clubs, a balance needs to be struck. Also, I’ve been homesick for the first time. I miss my dog, my family, familiar food, familiar surroundings. I almost feel guilty about feeling homesick. I’m having such a great time, I don’t want to miss anything by being wrapped up in thoughts of home. Maybe going back out into the bush will help. I really didn’t feel homesick at all on Straddie, I was so excited about learning about my surroundings, seeing koalas and kangaroos and all kinds of cool sea creatures. We leave for Lamington on Monday, and maybe that will help. 

There’s one last thing I’m worried about. I’m a meat eater in a house full of vegetarians. I’m really worried that I’m being judged for my choices. I have considered a vegetarian lifestyle, but I ultimately decided it wasn’t right for me. I have no problem eating vegetarian meals while I’m at home, and I’m grateful that my host parents buy ham for my sandwiches and that sort of thing. I just don’t want to be made out as the bad guy, or the girl who has that weird gross habit of eating animal flesh. I’m assured that’s not the case, but I’m not so sure. 

No witty or insightful ending for this one. Except maybe, don’t worry Mom, things are fine, I’m still having a great time, learning a lot and enjoying myself. Just needed to get these thoughts off my chest.