Well, I have been in Australia for 2 weeks now. 2 weeks?! I can already tell that if I blink one too many times, I’m going to be back in the States. Things are settling down, so I have a little bit of time to write a blog post of impressions and experiences so far.
For the first week of the trip, chaos was the best word to describe the experience. It took a week for my luggage to show up, and United wouldn’t deliver it to my house, which meant working my way up to the airport (about 45 minutes away) to collect my bags. I’m happy to have my bags back, but very unhappy with United. If I can avoid it, I won’t be flying with them again. The customer service was absolutely lousy. Speaking of a house, I finally have a room! That also took about a week. I was staying at the youth hostel in town which is a 30 minute bus ride away from the campus. That was okay (particularly because it was in the center of town), but I am glad to have my own room that I don’t have to share with 3 other guys. I was very stressed out the first week here (when things don’t go as I plan, I stress hard), so I tried to spend time doing things that would relax me including going to see Inside Out (highly recommended) or going to Newcastle Beach to photograph the area (largely the birds there). That helped quite a bit, but I am now glad that things have calmed down.
The house I’m in is not great, but it’s cheap and that’s what I want. I have lived in a lot worse, and I don’t have to be here long. The strong benefit is that it’s only a 10 minute walk from the office which means I don’t have to hop on a bus all the time. Buses are expensive here! It costs $3.80AUD ($2.91USD) for a 1 hour ticket. With all of the running around I’ve had to do, I reckon (there’s an Australian term for you) that I’ve spent nearly $50 on buses. They have a card you can get and charge that will have slightly cheaper fares ($2.50-$3.10AUD depending on distance), but still, it ain’t cheap! So, I’ve been walking a lot. It’s good exercise and it will help prep me for laying transects in a week or two.
This last week, I went to Sydney on Monday as a brief stop before going to Canberra. While I was in Sydney, I stopped at the Taronga Zoo, which is an impressive zoo. It’s not necessarily the largest, but it has a lot of exhibits. The one thing I really liked about it was that it is forested. So rather than being on a manicured estate like a number of U.S. zoos, it actually feels like you’re out in nature observing the animals. I didn’t have as much time as I would have liked, but I did get to stop by the reptile house with the express purpose of seeing the Corroboree Frog breeding facility there and talking with the head keeper. Southern Corroboree Frogs are critically endangered. You can count the number of calling males in the wild on one hand. The Taronga Zoo is one of four institutions working with Corroboree Frogs and they’re being quite successful. Fortunately, the frogs breed well in captivity. Unfortunately, they’re easily susceptible to chytrid, a deadly fungus wiping out frogs all over. While there are reintroduction efforts, it is currently unclear as to how successful they are, in part because it takes the frogs 5 years to reach maturity (pretty long time for a frog). The head keeper there gave me the opportunity to photograph some of the frogs. I had asked and was expecting to be turned down due to the status of the amphibians, so when he said it was no problem, I was so very excited! I think it’s now a bucket list item to see one in the wild. That may be a tall order.
With my remaining time, I looked around the zoo but was sure to watch the bird show, which I was told was excellent. The reviews didn’t lie. It was probably the best bird show I’ve seen. Pretty seamless transitions between species (with the one exception of a rat going off script and trying to escape), and lots of good information. It was very interactive and immersive as well. They had a large variety of birds from cockatoos to a buzzard who cracked open a fake emu egg to an Andean Condor! If I get back to the zoo, I’ll have to go again. It was a fascinating show.
The following day, I hopped on a bus to Canberra for the official orientation for the East Asia and Pacific Summer Institutes Fellowship at the Australian Academy of Science. There were 30 recipients of the award this year for Australia, and all showed up to officially kick off the “summer.” It was a very nice experience because I got to know the fellows better than when I went up to Washington, DC in April. It is somewhat intimidating hearing everyone’s projects and when I get to mine, I basically say that I’m making clay models. But I’m answering big questions with them, so there’s that. But it is hard to compete with a project aiming to get humans and robots to work together better or one to better capture energy from waves for alternative energy. I hope, at least, that the other 29 people felt the same as I did. It was really neat to see the wide variety of projects, as well as fellows.
The first day was rather light in terms of activities because it was generally assumed that most of the fellows would have arrived in country a day or two earlier and would be dealing with jet lag. After the first day, we went to the Australian War Memorial which is dedicated to all of the service men and women who served in all of the wars that Australia was involved in. It was nice to see the dedication, and it was a quite nice museum that had a pretty complete history of Australian wars. And as a random fact, since World War I, Australia has aided the U.S. in every war we were involved in.
Following the War Memorial, we went to Parliament to learn about how Australia is governed. The whole Constitutional Monarchy confuses me a little. They’re their own independent country, but still have ties to the UK, and in particular, the royal family (Queen Elizabeth is on all of the currency). They have a government similar to ours in that they have a house of representatives and a senate, but it operates in a parliamentary fashion. After touring Parliament, we got to sit in on Question Time.
Question Time sounds like something out of Sesame Street, but it is anything but. Imagine that you have a group of five year olds who naturally separate themselves into boys and girls. One group stole something from the other group because it felt it had the right to it, which led to a debate on who should be able to have that object. When one group questions the opposite, it’s questions dripping with distain and seeking to undercut the other group. When individuals question each other within their group, there are softball questions meant to build up the confidence of that group (i.e., “boys are better than girls because boys play sports and girls don’t”). Now, because we’re dealing with five year olds, such arguments are not civil. Insults are thrown left and right, and whenever someone makes a particularly good point, his or her group guffaws in approval. Occasionally, when these arguments occur, a parent may butt in to scold particularly boisterous individuals, and if those individuals are particularly bad, they’ll get a time-out. I’m sure all of you can relate to this scenario.
Now, what does that have to do with Question Time you may ask? Well, take that scenario and rather than have the individuals be five years old, have them be thirty to eighty. And that’s it. Just the difference in age. No maturity that comes with age, just the difference in age. And there, you have a pretty good approximation of Question Time. Members of the two leading parties (the Liberal Party – equivalent to US Republicans – and the Australian Labor Party – equivalent to US Democrats) question the other of topics of the day and try to undermine the other party while bolstering their own. It’s not civil, not really anyway. The Speaker will warn or throw out particularly boisterous members, but otherwise pretty much anything goes including yelling, laughing, sneering, etc. When the opposition party (the Labor Party) asked question of the Prime Minister (Tony Abbott of the Liberal Party), they were about a letter sent to the Attorney General from the hostage taker in Sydney last year (basically, the guy sent a letter to the AG two months before that happened asking if it was okay for him to talk to the leaders of ISIS). The AG didn’t do anything about the letter, which the Labor Party hammered on. The Liberal Party just asked fluff questions of the Prime Minister or his other ministers (i.e., what are you doing to better education in Australia, how are you helping farmers in Australia, etc.). It was basically like watching a bunch of 5 year olds argue. Except that it was grown men and women. And they are in charge of an entire country. It was interesting to witness, to say the least.
The following day, we started off with breakfast with the U.S. Ambassador to Australia, John Berry. Seeing the entourage along (security detail, photographers, aides, etc.) was intimidating. Fortunately, the Ambassador was quite jovial. He was enthusiastic about hearing what we planned to do while in Australia and, here and there, had anecdotes that related to our research. I was impressed with how knowledgeable he was (for instance, he actually knew what chytrid was and why it was a concern). He was a busy man, so we didn’t get much time to spend with him, but it was a pleasure to spend the hour or so with him. After that, we headed to Tinbinbilla Nature Reserve which was about an hour outside of Canberra. There, we got to meet an indigenous ranger who told us a little bit about Aboriginal culture, tool use, and history of the Reserve. Then we got to walk around the reserve and enjoy the bush. This habitat is completely foreign to me, and it was so interesting. The Eucalypt forests are pretty open (almost reminds me of tropical dry forest). The leaf litter layer isn’t really deep and the ground is pretty covered in herbaceous vegetation (often grasses). It was quite unusual, but I can see how brush fires are such a problem (most of the larger trees had charring from a fire in 2003). The bird life there was pretty good, and I did hear a number of frogs calling (all Crinia signifera). I didn’t get a chance to dig for them since we were on a tight schedule. But we did finally see a ton of kangaroos and even an emu (which was very aptly described as being out of a Dr. Seuss book). While there were wild koalas in the area, I only saw some captive ones (two fellows managed to find a wild one). And after all of that, we headed back to Canberra to head our separate ways and start our research. I took the bus back to Sydney and then the train to Newcastle Friday morning.
Today, I finally started getting into making models. It took a while getting all of the stuff I needed to make them, but now I should be set to get into it. I think I can get around 2000 models this week, which means I may be able to start placing them next week! Until next time!