Thursday, June 23, 2011

All Good Things Must End

Here I am, three months later, once again in a backpacker's hostel in the Brisbane Central Business District.  I have turned in both of my final assignments - not perfect, but done.  This trip started out very slowly, but the past several months have just flown by.  This is the least stressful quarter I have ever had, despite the fact that my program was 21 quarter units.  I snorkeled on the Great Barrier Reef for research, watched hundreds of hatching baby green turtles run to the water, woke to the sound of kookaburras calling, hiked below majestic tree ferns and up moss-covered ravines, waded through rushing creeks, hung out with kangaroos and wallabies, gazed up at massive Eucalyptus trees, viewed ancient and modern Aboriginal art, meandered past strangler figs and venomous snakes in the rainforest, slogged through chest-deep water to stake dead fish to the sand, saw dolphins surfing waves and humpback whales breaching, and learned about the amazing ecology all around me.  And that was just for school!  In my spare time, there was dancing (including teaching lindy hop), karaoke, mountain climbing, weekend trips to explore the Sunshine Coast and Byron Bay, comparisons of culture between the United States and Australia, time to relax with my homestay family or with friends, and so much more.  Living in a foreign country on my own has been both exciting and challenging, and I am both very ready and very sad to return to my regularly scheduled life (after I tour around Australia for a while longer, of course).  Overall, I am very grateful that I made the decision 2 years ago to stay in college an extra year, in order to fit studying abroad into my schedule.

Some Reflections, Recommendations & Life Lessons:
- Trust that things will work out
- Getting a few points below perfect on an assignment may not be the end of the world (*gulp*)
- Don't eat vegemite unless you really like salt
- Sometimes activities that involve getting cold, wet, sandy, muddy, or handling stinky dead things can be fantastic experiences
- Take the time to watch the sunset
- Don't touch it unless you know for sure that it can't kill you
- Don't let the talent of any good cooks go to waste
- Be aware of your surroundings.  Several benefits: you're unlikely to get mugged, and you might spot something really cool like a koala in a tree.
- Dance at every good opportunity
- Learn new things every day
- Have conversations with people you don't know (just not the sketchy ones)
- Travel, even if you're just visiting a location close to home that you've never taken the time to see before

Sunset at N. Stradbroke Island

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Mangroves and Stinky Prawns: Straddie Days 5-7

Life is busy with data analysis, report writing, and NSF grant proposal writing, so this will have to be brief!

I am finally done wading through cold, murky, chest-deep water to stake both freshly dead and rancid fish and prawns to the sand flat in order to see how quickly they were eaten.  Surprisingly, it appears that rancid fish are consumed more quickly than freshly dead fish, though we haven't done the data crunching yet to see if this is significant.  In terms of prawns, not many of either age of dead prawn were eaten.  Also, just for the record, 2-day-old prawns smell MUCH worse than 3-day-old fish.

Last night, our professor made us churros and hot chocolate!  They were amazing.  We also roasted marshmallows at a small bonfire on the beach, which was fun.

This morning, we took a walk at Myora Springs, which has both creek and mangrove habitat, and is very nice.

The creek was yellow from the tannins of the trees. 

Root structures that allow mangroves to "breathe"

Snails live in seemingly-unlikely places, like on tree trunks 

Mangrove roots look really neat 

Me standing in mud near some mangroves

Thursday, June 16, 2011

The Sad Fate of Mr. Deaddington: Straddie Days 3-4

For me, the last several days have been filled with work on research projects: a) experiments in the field regarding consumption rates (preferences) of whole carrion versus mangled/damaged carrion, and b) prep work for our experiment on the rates of consumption of fresh vs. aged carrion.  It has certainly been a learning experience.

Preparing prawns for aging (experiment in a couple of days)

Yesterday, we found a wobbegong shark trying to eat one of our fish.  It was about 2 feet long, and really neat!  (Kind of scary to be in the water close to a shark, but at least it wasn't a bull shark.)  We named him George.  We also became familiar with another set of scavengers: Icarus and the Rat Pack (all birds).  They were out in force during yesterday's experiment, trying pitifully to dive and get the fish that we'd staked just a little too deep for their reach.  For some reason, they weren't really around during today's experiments.

This morning, we attempted our first experiment at high tide.  We waded out into chest-deep, cold, somewhat murky water, wearing wetsuits and snorkeling gear, and carrying dead fish attached to stakes and buoys.  My borrowed wetsuit was a tiny bit too big, so it managed to let in water - not so good for retaining heat.  Our first challenge was attempting to actually put the stakes in the sand.  This is harder than it sounds, in 4-5 feet of water with a decently strong current.  The experiment involved checking on the fish in 15-minute intervals, to see if they'd been eaten.  Unfortunately, given how far out we were, it wasn't particularly feasible to go back to shore in between checking the fish, so we stood or floated in the chilly water for an hour.  Some of the fish still hadn't been eaten at the hour mark, but we decided to modify our experiment slightly at that point, since we'd been in the water for about an hour and a half (including experiment set-up time), and were all shivering.  Science can occasionally give way to not dying of hypothermia.

Immediately after we got out of the water, we had the option of going for a snorkel with our instructor and other classmates.  I declined.  Tea and warmth were more important.

In the afternoon, we took a walk on the other side of the island - the ocean side.  So beautiful!  We saw humpback whales migrating off the coast, and dolphins playing in the waves.

Humpback whale 

Dolphins surfing the waves

This afternoon was Round 2 of today's experiment - at low tide, thank goodness.  We attached the usual number of dead fish to the stakes and headed out.  We named one particularly mangled fish Mr. Deaddington.  Waded out - the water much warmer than that morning - and placed the fish.  Mr. Deaddington was eaten in half an hour, probably by the large fish I saw nearby - one of the first bait items to go.  R.I.P.

About 15 minutes into our experiment, we looked down the channel a few hundred meters and saw two dolphins fishing!  They would speed through the water at an incredibly fast pace, the fish jumping frantically into the air, and the dolphins catching the fish.  Amazing to watch!  In other news, one of my team members stepped on a little stingray (which didn't sting her), and one of my other team members got within about 3 feet of a 2-foot-long shark (that was NOT a wobbegong, but has not yet been positively identified as a bull shark) that then decided to swim directly towards him.  Just goes to show that science can increase your adrenaline levels.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

To Squish a Fish? Straddie Day 2

Science never goes as planned.  I think my group has completely re-worked our experimental design at least 4 or 5 times today.  We started the morning out with gathering supplies, setting up equipment, and discussing our plan of attack - all fairly straight forward.  Since we need to wait until Friday to have "old" dead fish available to us (we are testing freshly dead vs. 3-day old fish in this experiment, and their respective rates of uptake in a sandy shore environment), we decided to perform a trial run of attaching fish to the sand flat to perfect our methods.  The initial idea was that we would observe fish stuck to the benthos (bottom environment) twice daily, with the expectation that we could observe the same fish getting slowly consumed over the course of several days.  

So we took four freshly dead fish, and attached each of them to the sand with a different method - staking, tying to a rock, etc.  The first fish was easy to place, as it was tied to a rock, and we moved on a few paces.  We stuck the second fish through with two tent stakes (head and tail) looked a bit like a morbid, sacrificial offering.  We walked another few paces to place a fish that was attached to a stake using wire.  One of our group members looked back towards the previous site.  "Didn't that fish have a tail?" he asked.  "I don't think all of them did," was the response, presuming that he was talking about the tail fin - some of which had been missing from the fish to begin with.  

Well, no, actually by "tail" he meant "entire body."  We'd been gone from the double-staked fish for about two minutes, and it was now mostly just a floating head, with no sign as to what had eaten it.  So much for our ability to "observe the fish over the course of three days"!!  We placed our fourth fish (tied to two tent stakes with fishing line), and then decided to stand and observe for 10 minutes.  The fish that had been damaged by stakes or wire were partially consumed by small fish within that time period, though the other (un-mutilated) fish were untouched.  [We have since decided to consider this damaged vs. non-mutilated variable in our experiment, but that's a different story.] We decided to come back and check the fish in 2 hours.

Two hours later, we waded back out to our sample site.  Not only were all four fish completely gone, but  one of our stakes from the tied-to-two-stakes fish had been ripped out of the sand and dragged along the bottom for several meters.  Obviously something pretty big had come along and found a great snack!  But back to the drawing board for us.

At the research station

A nice bag of dead fish, waiting on a table (in a caged area) for the next three days

Arts and Crafts for Biologists: designing buoys, markers, and methods of fish attachment

Looking out towards our study site in the bay; very pretty, but not without challenges

Suiting up for field work!

Monday, June 13, 2011

Welcome to Stradbroke: This Might Get In-Seine

Thought of the day: studying life (that is, the subject of biology) often seems to necessitate a close proximity to death as well.

I arrived on another island research station this morning - not near a beautiful coral reef this time, but next to the wonderful seagrass beds and other habitats of Moreton Bay.  After a brief orientation, lunch, and settling into our rooms, we headed out to the water.  Stepping carefully to avoid things that might kill us, like stonefish and blue ringed octopuses, we waded out to a sand bar.  Saw a variety of neat creatures: a porcupine fish (looks like a puffer fish), a bearded ghoul (looks rather like a stonefish, is not, but is second to the stonefish in terms of deadliness), a couple of crinoids (feather stars), hundreds of crabs (including scuttling armies of soldier crabs), and many other organisms.

Tomorrow, our research projects start for real.  I am working with a group that is studying the impacts of carrion on marine systems, with the variable being the age of the carrion.  It sounds like a simple research project, given our hypothesis, but nothing is easy in science.  Fortunately, we have 3 days of prep work to figure out how this is going to actually become a functional experiment, while we wait for some dead fish to get older and stinkier.

After dinner (and therefore after dark, since it is winter here in Australia), the entire group took a seine net down to the beach, both as an opportunity for everyone to see what sorts of fish are found here as well as practice for the smaller group whose project involves catching fish and performing gut analyses.  We must have all looked rather strange: wearing shorts and water shoes/booties on the bottom, and layers of jackets, hats, and other warm clothing on the top.  Several of the guys waded out into the (dark, and rather cold) water, to drag the large seine net around in a circle.  We found a lot of garfish, a couple of shovel-nosed rays, a squid (which inked in the bucket and made it challenging to find the other fish), and many smaller fish, tossing most of them back after we'd admired them.  Unfortunately, as with any fishing activity, there ended up being some bycatch - fish that got caught in the net and suffered because of it.  I tried to help sort through the net, as well as catch the few fish that were washing up onto the sand; saved some, lost others.  Such is the research life, and I will have to get used to it, though it also provides experience that gives me some food for thought regarding the much bigger issues of bycatch in the commercial fishing industry.

Ten days left of this program, and I still don't know where the time went.

I Leave (Brisbane) and Heave a Sigh and Say Goodbye

Two months in Brisbane went by incredibly quickly!  I finished two finals this past week, and then had the weekend off before leaving for Stradbroke Island this morning.  The hardest part of all this was not the part where I had to take final exams - it was leaving the friends that I have made during my stay here (mostly dancers, from both Australia and the U.S.).  I was fortunate to be able to spend a fantastic final weekend in their company; going out on a great note, I guess.

I took a mini road trip up to the Sunshine Coast with several of these friends on Friday.  We went to the Ettamoga Pub, to be touristy, and I got to try a classic Australian dessert known as pavlova (which my marine biology teacher uses as a model for reef formation, but that's another story).

We also ended up going to the beach (cold but sunny), cooking an amazing vegetarian dinner, and finding a koala crossing road sign, among other things.  Lots of fun!

The rest of the weekend was filled with more time with friends, including another fantastic dinner/dessert (made by two excellent cooks, who also happen to dance), as well as a nice evening out with nearly the entire dance group.  I will certainly miss them when I head back to my 'real life,' but I appreciate how much better my stay has been while in Brisbane because I met them.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Mount Tibrogargan Or, How I Hiked 1.5 Mountains Without Reaching the Top

Yesterday, 20 dancers from UQ (including myself) went hiking at Mt. Tibrogargen, one of the Glasshouse Mountains at the Sunshine Coast.  Only a couple of people in our group had been there before, and so the rest of us had no idea what we were in for.  We carpooled to the mountain in the morning, and split up into two hiking groups.  They were initially dubbed the "Easy" and "Hard" hiking groups, but it quickly became apparent that it was actually "Hard" and "Harder."  I set out in the hard group (per the initial classification), along with 11 other people.  We hiked around the base of the mountain, and then up to the base of the rocky part of the mountain, where we met some climbers who told us we couldn't get to the top at that spot without climbing gear.  They told us where we should go instead, but shook their heads as if they thought we were insane.  So we hiked back down the mountain, around the base some more, and up a different path.  We hiked to the base of the rocky part of the mountain once again, at which point we decided to split into two groups: I didn't particularly want to attempt the insane, steep climb, so myself and 5 others headed back down to the "Easy" way up the mountain, while the others continued up.  My group had a nice lunch, and then hiked halfway up the mountain for a third time.  I ended up deciding not to try the last part of the trip, which was more rock climbing.  So I didn't actually reach the top of the mountain, but I had fun and got my exercise anyway!

The view from Halfway Up #3 

 The "Easy" way up the mountain; pretty much straight up, with a nice big drop-off.  The guy in the picture is ~6 feet tall, for comparison.  I didn't make it past the point that I took this picture from.

My carpool group, after the hike.  We survived!  (Photo: Marina Ar)

Friday, June 3, 2011

Crikey! Adventures in Brisbane, the Sunshine Coast, and Other Places

It's been a while since I've written in this blog, I know.  Life moved very slowly at the beginning of this trip, and now my program will be over in hardly any time at all!  I am leaving Brisbane in just over a week, to spend 10 days on another research station, and then that's pretty much it for this academic term.  I have finals this week, and other assignments due as well, so things are at their most busy when I am wishing that I could just have more time to spend with the wonderful people I have met here in Brisbane.

I packed about a week's worth of activities into last weekend.  The first half of the weekend was spent with dancers (the group of friends that I've met here; an interesting mix of Australians and American exchange students).  We had a movie night, where we watched "Hairspray," and then there was salsa dancing, and plenty of good company.  On Sunday and Monday (since we were given a long weekend), I went with two girls from my program to the Sunshine Coast.  We went kayaking on a river, which was amazingly fun, even if we were in about a meter of water, with three people in a 2-person kayak, paddling in a zigzag pattern, and we accidentally crashed into a fisher's line at one point.  Monday, we went to the Australia Zoo, which was founded by the Irwin family (of Crocodile Hunter fame).  It is a wonderful zoo, which seems to have a fair amount of money.  I got to feed an elephant, watch a crocodile show in the "Crocoseum," and pet kangaroos and wallabies.

The croc show.  Crocodiles are amazingly fast animals! 

 Hanging out with the kangaroos!

Sitting on a model of a crocodile, which is theoretically life-sized (though they haven't found any modern crocodiles this big in years)

This week has been filled mostly with lectures and school work, though there was also the last night of UQ dance (the dance club I've been going to).  We went out to karaoke afterwards, as often happens.  I finally got up and sang my first karaoke song ("Don't Stop Believing" as a duet).  I have learned that it is incredibly hard to hear the music/yourself singing while you are on that stage.

Yesterday, my class went on our last Terrestrial Ecology field trip.  We hiked Mount Barney, which is about 2 hours away, towards New South Wales.  It was a nice hike, even though we didn't hike the intended 10 km due to time constraints.  We spent a fair amount of time next to a set of beautiful pools and rapids.  The highlight of the trip, though, was seeing a real live koala in a eucalypt tree!!!  (This is a rare occurrence, and even more rare is the fact that the koala was actually awake and moving around!)

Looking up at Mount Barney from our lunch spot 

 The river - very, very cold!

The KOALA!!!

After the hike, I went back to the UQ campus for one last dance event: the end-of-semester dance party of UQ Dance.  Salsa, swing, and many other dances.  While here, I have learned salsa rueda (including a move called the kangaroo), zouk, the wobble dance, and a few sneaky ninja moves for swing, among other things. I hope to be able to take some of these skills with me back to California, even as I look forward to returning to a place where people waltz, swing, and blues much more frequently.

One dancer makes truly amazing desserts! 

Dancing through life

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Pademelons and Bush Dances: Travels in Lamington National Park

I spent four days this past week in a beautiful rainforest.  Technically, this is the rainforest that "Fern Gully" was based on, but since I haven't actually seen the movie, I can't verify how accurate the comparison is.  We were staying in Binna Burra, which is a few minutes' hike outside of Lamington National Park (you can't stay in the park for conservation reasons), in a rustic bunkhouse.  Out in front of the buildings was a nice sloping lawn, where we could spot pademelons grazing at dusk.  I had never heard of a pademelon before this trip, but I saw a LOT of them.  They are marsupials, and look rather like small wallabies - very cute, though skittish.  We also saw a bandicoot, which looked more-or-less like a large rat, but is also a marsupial.

A large portion of the week was spent hiking and doing fieldwork.  I think I totaled about 45 km over the course of the 4 days, even though I didn't go on the 12 km waterfall hike on the last day due to rain, leeches, and being tired.  We hiked through areas of wet sclerophyll, dry sclerophyll, sub-tropical rainforest, warm temperate rainforest, cool temperate rainforest, and heathland - I bet you didn't know that vegetation in a relatively small area could have so many different classifications!  One morning, my group got up at 4:30 a.m., hiked to the top of a cliff, watched the sunrise, and counted the calls of specific species of birds.  It was cold, but worth it.

Sunrise from the cliff top - beautiful!

The trip included many educational opportunities, and I have now learned that:
1. Strangler fig ecology is pretty neat.  They have a weird symbiosis (mutualism) with a specific species of wasp.  If you are in need of some more procrastination after reading this blog post, you should go look it up.

2.  Bower birds make interesting nests.  The male builds a mating platform (those upright twigs in the picture below), and then attempts to lure the female in with a carefully arranged selection of bright blue objects.  He also dances for her.  The male with the best platform, blue objects, and dancing abilities wins.

3.  Many things in the rainforest try their best to painfully stab you with nasty thorns or spikes.  These include caterpillars, plants like the stinging tree, and the ever-present wait-a-while vine (a wall of which is pictured).  Even a slight touch can cause a large amount of pain.

4.  Scrub turkeys will gladly eat leeches, if fed them.  This is useful to know when you are very tired of being bitten by the leeches.

5. Allowing college students to use play dough during lecture is great for keeping people awake, and is a good teaching tool for kinesthetic learners.  However, there is a good chance that the models of plants and volcanos that you were hoping for will instead devolve into collaborative creation of penguins and ichthyosaurs eating fish.

6.  Even when you see the venomous creatures that Australia is famous for, they probably aren't interested in hurting you.  We saw a Red-bellied Black Snake (creatively named, of course, for its black back and red belly), which is on those lists of Scary Venomous Snakes, but really only bites if provoked.  It was just on the path in front of us, hanging out in a patch of sun, and let us get a few pictures before gliding off into the vegetation.  

Overall, we spent a lot of time looking at waterfalls, buttress roots, epiphytes (ferns, palms, mosses, etc. that grow in trees), spider holes, and glow worm threads, among other things.

[Side note: I hope to never have to hear the glow worm poem again on this trip, but I doubt I will be so lucky.  It is from a card that was found at a rest stop on a previous field trip, and has been recited numerous times in my group.  It goes:
"I wish I were a glow worm
A glow worm's never glum
'Cause how can you be grumpy
When the sun shines out your bum?"]

Three tall waterfalls, viewed from an observation platform over a cliff edge

On the final night of the Lamington trip, our group participated in a bush dance, led by one of the staff at the Binna Burra resort (which is across the road from the bunkhouses we were lodged in, and is where we ate all our meals).  This involved simple group dances, such as the heel-and-toe and strip the willow, and one where you had to hop around like kangaroos.  There was a fair amount of crashing into one another and not dancing in time with the music, but it was still fun!  I did miss being able to co-teach lindy hop at UQ for a second week, but had an enjoyable time anyway.

Friday, May 13, 2011

10 Things I Have Learned In Australia (Thus Far)

1.  Bus drivers in Brisbane carry DNA kits to help identify and prosecute people who spit on the bus.

2.  The Australian concept of personal space is much different from the American concept, particularly on the dance floor.  Dancing in a standard close-hold ballroom position is considered very intimate.

3.  There will likely be ingredients in your food that weren't listed on the menu.  For example, they may put mustard in your mac & cheese without telling you.  Australians also put butter on everything, including PB&J sandwiches (perhaps they mentally insert a comma: peanut, butter and jelly?)

4.  Australian birds are loud.  As a whole, they are much more noisy than American birds, and are great alarm clocks as they get up at about 6 a.m. every day.

5.  Australians shorten both words and phrases.  For example, a mosquito is a "mozzie" and Brisbane is often shortened to "Brissie."  In terms of phrases, a common one is "sweet as" or "fun as."  As in, "that's sweet as!" - without mentioning whatever word was originally at the end of the phrase.  It is kind of the equivalent of saying "that's awesome!"

6.  Kangaroos and koalas really are amazingly cute.  I have seen plenty of kangaroos in the wild, though have so far only seen a koala at the RSPCA (animal shelter).  One of these days, I will make it out to Lone Pine Sanctuary and possibly get to cuddle a koala.

7.  Scaridae (parrotfish), Siganidae (rabbitfish), Pomacentridae (damselfish), Acanthuridae (surgeonfish), and Blenniidae (blennies) are all important grazers in coral reef communities.  Surgeonfish and blennies stay the same gender their entire lives, while parrotfish and damselfish change gender (parrot fish go female à male, and damselfish go maleà female).  Yes, I have been learning things in my classes, too.

8.  Vegemite is an acquired taste (I find it unappetizing).  Tim tams are great.

9.  The gender gap in economic earnings is larger in Australia than in the United States.

10.  Sports are a very common pastime, both to play and to watch.  Australians seem to get very competitive on the subject of their favorite teams.  I need to remember to not wear blue to school in a week and a half (when the state of origin game occurs; the team I am automatically supporting is maroon, where the other is blue) - I am under the impression that the competition may be fiercer than the Stanford/Cal game.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Byron Bay + Back in Brissie Again

I haven't written in a while, I know.  Life is sneaking up on me here, as is school work!

This past Monday was a holiday (Labor Day), so it was a three-day weekend.  Our teachers surprised us by canceling classes on Friday as well, which made it a four-day weekend.  As I had spent the 5-day Easter weekend in Brisbane at home, I decided to travel with some of my fellow classmates this last weekend.  Half of the class decided to go to Sydney, and the other half chose Byron Bay.  I went with the Byron group, as it was much cheaper and closer.

Byron Bay is a laid-back town about two hours south of Brisbane by bus, popular for its great surfing and other water activities.  My group went down on Friday afternoon, ready for some time on the beach, and arrived in a torrential downpour.  It rained off and on both Friday and Saturday, but cleared up for the rest of the weekend.  The rain wasn't too bad, overall.  All of the companies that specialize in water activities (diving, kayaking, surfing, etc.) canceled their trips Friday-Sunday due to the weather - mostly the wind and the swell - but there were other things to do.  I spent a lot of time on the beach, reading when it was clear and huddling under my raincoat when it was pouring.  Others in my group went boogie boarding, though the waves were a bit rough.

Monica (one of my group members) and I hiked up to the lighthouse on the hill/mountain overlooking the bay.  It was a nice hike with beautiful ocean views.  We reached the lookout where we were able to stand at the Easternmost point of mainland Australia, which was pretty neat.  It's the closest to California I'm going to get until this program is over!  When we reached the lighthouse, the rainstorm on the way up had left us a gift: a beautiful, full double rainbow over the ocean.

Staying at a youth hostel allowed us to meet a lot of interesting people from all around the world.  We hung out with a group of them (from Australia, Holland, Canada, and elsewhere), and spent several enjoyable nights exploring Byron in their company.

On Sunday night, Monica and I found a bar that had live music, and decided to go check it out.  There was a really awesome guitar player.  He played a 12-string guitar, which he also used as a drum while he was playing it, and he was an absolutely fantastic musician.  Local live music is always a good thing to support!

On Monday, Monica and I decided to go for a kayaking tour in the ocean.  The kayak company said they were running, and they picked us up, dropped us at the beach, suited us up (wetsuits, lifejackets, helmets), and gave us instructions.  There were about 15 2-person sea kayaks.  Monica's and my kayak was one of the first in the water.  It was very challenging to get over the breakers and out to the calmer water, but since I've never been sea kayaking before, I mentally put it down to my lack of experience.  We were out there for a long time, waiting...  waiting...  We met up with two other boats of people, and waited some more, trying not to get capsized by the farther out (huge) waves that we kept drifting towards.  Eventually, one of the guides from the company made it out there.  Once he got there, he basically had us just head back in to shore, giving us instructions on how to surf the waves.  Getting back in past the breakers was just as challenging as getting out!  Monica and I perfectly surfed one big wave, and then were promptly capsized by the second.  Fortunately, we were in shallow enough water that we could stand and drag the boat the rest of the way in.  Because the other ~12 kayaks didn't even make it off the beach due to the crazy waves (which had picked up since our boat left shore), the kayak company gave us all our money back.  Free adventure!

That afternoon, Monica and I rented bikes from the hostel and pedaled about 3km out of Byron to a quarry that the woman at the hostel front desk had recommended.  It was just off the main road, and it felt like stepping into a different world.  The quarry was long since abandoned, and was filled with water.  It had become a lovely lake, with water lilies (purple and white flowers) covering most of the surface.  It was incredibly peaceful, and I spent a lot of time acting like a biologist, wondering what various plants were.

I was sad to leave Byron.  It was a wonderfully fun and relaxing weekend.  Now that I am back in Brisbane, I have 2 assignments and an exam in the next week and a half - and after that, I leave for another field trip.  This one is to a rainforest: Lamington National Park.

Tonight, Monica and I decided to check out the on-campus social dance club.  It meets outside one night a week, and I've been wanting to go for several weeks now.  The lesson tonight was bachata, which is a form of latin dance (basic: side-step-side-touch, repeat other direction).  Apparently, latin dance is the big social dance scene in Brisbane.  There's not much else.  I did, however, meet several good swing dancers.  I danced lindy with one of them, an exchange student from Iowa/Purdue of all places, and he was quite good.  We figured out that we both blues danced, too.  He got the DJ to put on a blues song, and we started dancing blues/fusion.  It's a style that no one else knows, though, so it was funny to look around and realize that we were the only people on the dance floor and everyone else was watching us! (They clapped when we were finished.) We were commiserating about the lack of swing dancing in Brisbane, and he mentioned that he's teaching a beginning lindy hop lesson next week for this club.  He asked if I wanted to teach it with him (he was in need of a follow), and I agreed.  Should be fun!

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Easter Kitten

There is a new kitten living downstairs, at least temporarily.  His name is Charlie.  His previous owners bought him, and then for some reason shortly thereafter decided they didn't actually want him.  Their solution to this problem, while at a party and likely under the influence, was to decide to kill him with a brick.  Fortunately, one of the people who lives downstairs from me happened to be there, rescued the kitten, and brought him to live here until a better home can be found.  He is only a few weeks old, and is in that adorably energetic stage where he scampers all over the house and pounces on whatever he can find.  If you are looking for a model to exemplify the idea of new life at Easter, Charlie is nearly perfect.

The girl who lives here wants to rename Charlie "Cadbury," because he is chocolate-colored all over: 'white chocolate' socks, 'milk chocolate' body, and 'dark chocolate' tail + ears + nose.  He is amazingly cute, and I have a hard time imagining anyone ever wanting to harm him!

Friday, April 22, 2011

Nature, Art, and Screaming Children

This morning, I decided to take a solo adventure downtown to see some museums.  The great thing about Brisbane is that many of their museums and galleries are free, except for special exhibits.  I toured the Queensland Museum, Art Gallery, and Gallery of Modern Art (GoMA), with a quick stop in the State Library as well.  All of those buildings are right next to each other, along the South bank of the Brisbane River – an easy walk from my bus stop.  Because it is Easter weekend, several of the museums were offering special programs for kids and families, so it was packed with people and the noise level was rather high.

Walking across the river, to get to the museums

My first stop was at the Queensland Museum.  It is mostly a natural history museum, with a huge collection of taxidermy specimens and fossils, though it also has displays on Aboriginal history and culture.  I really appreciated the conservation focus of many of the exhibits, and how well they made complex ecological concepts accessible to the general public.  There was an entire room about endangered species in Australia, and one about marine conservation.  The other nice thing was that the displays were written for all ages – they didn’t significantly “dumb down” any of the information directed at children, and they also included plenty of interesting and relevant material to keep the adults entertained.  The Easter holiday program at the museum had to do with dinosaurs, so there were digging sites for the kids as well as other activities, and you could watch staff at work excavating actual dinosaur bones from rock.

I next stopped at the Art Gallery, which is similar to other fine art galleries I have visited, though with a focus on Australian artists and history.  It was nice and quiet, since they weren’t offering any special programs for kids.

I really liked this water feature outside the Art Gallery
- It reminded me of dandelions

Finally, I visited the Gallery of Modern Art.  It was one of the coolest modern art galleries I have seen, with a definite focus on making art interactive and accessible to everyone.  They were also having special workshops/events for families (including free ice cream, from a solar powered machine - the colors of the ice cream were designed to look like colors from a sunset watercolor painting by a particular artist).  This was probably the loudest of the three museums, but I really enjoyed it anyway.  There are definitely still art pieces reminiscent of the classic “blobs on a canvas” style, but most of the art is either interactive or designed to make you think.

There was an entire wall covered with these ribbons.  Each of them has a different wish printed on it, everything from world peace to a better night's sleep to wanting a tail.  You could take one, and tie it on your wrist; supposedly when it fell off, your wish would come true.  In return, you had to leave a different wish written on paper, rolled up, and stuck into one of the holes in the wall. 

 A massive table, where you could build cities out of lego-like blocks.

A 3-story slide, in the foyer

 There was a fair amount of art that was intended to make a statement on consumerism, or human interactions with the planet.  This is a walk-in supermarket, about the size of a gas station store, that looks normal - until you figure out that everything on the shelves is empty packaging.

There was a huge arch made out of nested cardboard boxes. 

A massive, ceiling-to-floor display made entirely out of plastic bags. 

Part of a display of "birds nests," all made out of shredded money.  A statement on the economic importance of our ecosystems, perhaps? 

A room, filled to perhaps 6 feet deep with balloons.  There are people in there; it is essentially like a ball pit, only cooler. 

Top view of the lego-city-building table.  Fun for adults & kids alike!

This was a performance by an "iPhone orchestra."  They played song medleys, using 'pianos' and other 'instruments' on their iPhones, broadcasting it through a speaker system.