Random Additional MBTE memories - Chinchilla edition

Mia and I were chatting, and she reminded me of a funny little interlude we had on our way to Carnarvon Gorge. It had given us and a couple others several kilometres of giggles on the otherwise lengthy busride.

At one point, we passed through the town of Chinchilla. From the bus window, we spotted a variety of businesses with names like Chinchilla Laundry, Chinchilla Golf Course, and Chinchilla Masonry. Others on the bus could not figure out why we found these so funny and cracked up so hard at other  Chinchilla businesses we made up, even as the town faded in the distance behind us. We were mostly at a loss to explain the humour.

I feel that this imagined chamber of commerce (as well as the real one) was funny for two reasons. In addition to the mental image of horrible industries and economies based on small South American mammals (who would play golf with a chinchilla?), we also imagined a small village of anthropomorphised chinchillas doing small town human activities.

And if you do not find that interesting or funny (and why would you?), there is the consolation prize of a photo of Toby sleeping with his wakeful kitty mask on...

It was a very long bus ride.


Marine Biology and Terrestrial Ecology Miscellany...

I wanted to take time to compile some notes on the Marine Biology and Terrestrial Ecology (MBTE) EAP that I just returned home from. Hopefully, this will serve as a repository for some sundry notes that I think might be helpful to future students considering this experience. Anyone about to embark on this already has a ton of reading to do (pre-departure check-lists, program guides, participant page details, etc.) While I intended this to be less dense, it did not fully come out that way. My apologies for adding to the load of reading. I tried to include mostly details that are not covered in the program materials.

I am all too happy to chat and share my experience, if any clarity is needed (mpavesic@uci.edu)

First thought: Do it! It is amazing.

But here are some things that are worth thinking about and preparing for...

(*) The Program Office
This is an amazing resource ready and willing to help. Ross, Justine, and Jemma are three wonderful human beings. They have brilliant humour and a tender empathy. Ross helped a few of us navigate the confusing urinal trough etiquette of Australia. Jenna and Justine went out of their way to help me track down resources for interests and needs I had outside the program. They really were the spokes that kept the whole thing rolling.

(*) Library
Make sure you have figured out remote access to your UC campus library system. Unfortunately, the nature of this program (and the visa on which we travel) prevents us from being official UQ students. Therefore, our library access on the UQ campus is iffy. Since we needed to do literature searches and analyses for our Terrestrial Ecology writing assignments and our Marine Biology research projects, it is imperative that you can easily log into your home campus' database.

(*) Commuting
I had originally wanted to purchase a bicycle and use that as a means of getting to and from uni in Brisbane. However, I discovered that my homestay was on the side of a mountain. While I would have come out of it ready for the Tour de France, my first few weeks would have been miserable as I crushed myself into shape. I found it rather enjoyable, if at times frustrating and bewildering, to navigate the Brisbane public transit system. The program furnishes us with a Go Card that you tap on a sensor as you enter and exit busses, trains, and the ferries. Translink.com.au is a good resource for plotting trips (Google did a decent job as well) and re-loading the Go Card (allow a couple days before you are out of money, as it sometimes takes 48 hours to approve the payment and get the money onto the card). Transit is not cheap in Brisbane, but then nothing really is.

(*) Money-stuff
I am by no means a financial genius. Far from it, in fact. I am borderline fiscally illiterate. There is a lot to consider with this program, given how expensive it is. Additionally, Australia is very expensive. For some reason, no one in our crew got used to that fact over the course of the three months we were there. Up to the very end, people were still wincing over the prices charged for certain things. I do not drink. However, I would occasionally join everyone in a bar to hang out. The coca-cola I would order (that would come in a pint glass for $2.00 in the U.S.) would come in a smaller glass for $4. I am sure alcohol was even more inflated. Everything is more expensive.

However, all meals on this program are provided. If you manage it correctly, any money you spend out of pocket is just for enjoyment. I treated myself out for a couple meals, but mostly, I made sure to pack lunches and then return to my homestay for dinner. I barely spent money on anything besides transit, coffee, and souvenirs at the end.

Be prepared that transit is expensive. I believe there is a recommendation on what to budget for that in the program manual. However, one thing they do not tell you is that after 9 or 10 trips on public transit in a week, the remainder of the week is free. Therefore, after a week in Brisbane of going to the UQ campus (Uni, as it is abbreviated), the entire weekend was free. This made going out on a weekend a piece of cake. Some people made weekend trips out to the Gold Coast or Sunshine Coast. The transit there could be expensive, but they could count under the Translink deal. Good to plan ahead.

Additionally, it helps to avoid the ever-lurking fees for international banking. Some banks, like Schwabb and some credit unions do not charge internationally, I believe. Bank of America has a deal with WestPac bank in Australia (don't worry,  it is just about everywhere) and does not charge international ATM fees. Therefore, I could get cash in AUS$ without much fuss. I was not a BofA customer but opened an account for this trip. At the end, I was able to close out the account once back in the States without incurring their minimum balance fee (which has a 3-month grace period).

Oh, and something cool...the bank notes in Australia are made of a propylene polymer. Essentially, they have plastic money! The money barely tears and survives a run-through the laundry. In addition to being durable, it is highly colourful and more environmentally friendly. Also, their $2 coin is tiny, which means that when you find a dropped coin on the street, there is a much higher chance that it is of actual value than a penny.

(*) Homestays
At a certain point in the spring, I was sent a questionnaire to fill out. This included my dietary preferences for the field trips and some details to help them assign homestays. Be very honest and up-front about your needs. I did not really want to live with children. I said so. In order to avoid confusion and issues with my varied dietary restrictions, I decided to eat vegetarian on this trip (and very glad I did).

You will get lots of input on this. Take it seriously. Communicate. Politely ask for what you need. A lot of families are similar to middle American families. They may not understand the degree to which Californian students eat their vegetables. Many of my classmates found themselves in need of more. When they asked more than hinted, they got more. Be prepared that everything is going to seem so much more alien, precisely because it so vaguely similar to home. This program does not offer a lot of interaction with Australians. Take the homestay as an opportunity to rectify this. Participate where warranted in their lives. Most were all too happy to have the homestay tag along to birthday parties, family outings, etc. My hostess (Heather) was incredibly excited to have someone who would engage in conversations about Americans and Australians. I had the opportunity to go on outings with her and her granddaughters. We had a marvelous time. I also got to be the weird foreigner to the kids. I offered to help with cooking and cleaning. A couple times, I prepared meals for Andrew (my roommate) and Heather. It was great. Andrew and I helped he with computer issues sometimes. All these tiny things, often started by our just stepping forward and offering a hand, brought us closer to Heather and enriched our experience.

 (*) Coursework
A big thing we all constantly had to remind ourselves was that we were not on vacation. Everything was beautiful. We were just coming off summer vacation. The classes start a little gently. Then, it picked up big-time. There are three courses that make up this program: Marine Biology, Terrestrial Ecology, and Australian Studies. I do not understand the way everything was scheduled, but sometimes we would have two weeks of intensive lectures (four per day) followed by exams and papers. There is work to do beyond that we did on the field trips. We had readings to do for Australian Studies, as well as final paper. Terrestrial Ecology has a field manual that you work in during the field trips, but the manual also has some writing assignments and other tasks to accomplish while in the city. We had to write a research proposal and two research papers (tied to the field trips) for Marine Biology. Stay on top of it.

The academic climate in Australia is very casual. Professors go by their first names (in the blog, I use Dr. John to help differentiate him from my classmate Jonathan and Tibbetts because he does go by his last name and to differentiate him from my classmate Ian). Remember, though, that the faculty are still worthy of respect, and first names do not mean the work doesn't still need to get done.

Assessments (exams) are conducted in an interesting way. We generally were given 5-10 minutes at the beginning of the exam to read it over. Sometimes we were allowed a highlighter, but you could not otherwise mark the exam or truly begin working on it. This time was to review the exam, ask questions about parts that you do not understand, and plan how you would approach it.

Unlike UC, the grades are not on a curve. Therefore, while we come to this accustomed to competition and adjustment, that does not apply to the grades you get in this program. Also, most universities in the world grade on a harsher scale. While I felt crushed about scoring an 80% on a certain assignment, they told me that was exceptionally good. The sort of go-getter students who end up participating in MBTE are used to high scores. Remember that assessments are scored a bit more strictly (with lower percentages awarded) and it is not uncommon for grades to slip slightly while abroad anyways.

(*) Sun
The Australian sun is intense. The hole in the ozone is actually filling in, something we do not hear much about, even though it is a truly encouraging outcome following a multinational response to the CFC-induced environmental crisis. However, for whatever reason, it is really easy to burn. My first sunburn (and it stung!) came on the last day of our Girraween field trip, when it was overcast and raining. Apply sunscreen liberally and regularly. Wear a brimmed sun-hat. It helps. I also bought polarized sunglasses for the trip, as my eyes are really sensitive.

And hydrate! If you ever have experienced dehydration, you know that the headache and nausea are no joke. It can also be truly medically serious, and on field trips you are not a short ride from a hospital. Drink more water than you think you need. It is okay to have to stop and urinate in the bush. Oh, and remind Dr. John to hydrate...he sometimes forgets and gets a bit loopy.

(*) Australian "English"
Be prepared to ask people to repeat themselves, and to occasionally be lost. While they speak "English" some people have a difficult time with the accent. It is okay. They also have a difficult time understanding us. They have a tendency to abbreviate things, to excess. University is Uni. McDonald's is Macca. Mosquitos are Mossies.

There are also some common phrases worth being aware of (because you will find yourself using them unconsciously, regardless of any intention not to)...
G'day : Hello
How you goin'? : How are you doing? How is it going?
No worries : general statement of wellbeing. They also use this in place of "You're welcome."
Cheers : Thanks
Ta! : Thanks (normally used by women)

And for those who were wondering...

The water goes down the drain in THAT direction.


That League of Extraordinary Students

I was blown away by the herd of University of California students of which I got to be a part. In past classes, it always troubled me that so many students around me seemed ill-equipped to be in college or university. That was not the case in the Marine Biology and Terrestrial Ecology EAP this year. It is a privilege to call this talented, dedicated, conscientious, and intelligent group of student peers.

Thank you to Erin, Shira, Kimberly, Anna, Sami, Alissa, Selena, Jacqui, Jennifer, Corinne, Annie, Laurel, Arizona, Mia, Bianca, Alyssa, Daniela, Andrew, Leah, Mark, Tyler, Ryan, Ian, Max, Rodney, Jonathan, Kyle, Ryan, and Dan.

Dr. John would take group photos on our Terrestrial Ecology field trips. At the end, he gave them all to us. Here they are.

At Girraween National Park

All lined up according to roll, which was counted off from shortest to tallest (I was tallest at 30).

That rainy last day at Girraween, when I got my first sunburn.
At Lamington National Park:
With Mt. Warning in the background.
We were divided into three teams (alpha, delta, and omega) on this trip.

Α (Alissa, Dan, Corinne, Jonathan, Anna, Leah, Ian, Annie, Erin, and Selena)

Δ (Mia, Bianca, Kimberly, Andrew, Jenn, Ryan, Arizona, Kyle, me, and Alyssa)

Ω (Rodney, Daniela, Laurel, Jacqui, Sami, Shira, Max, Ryan, Mark, and Tyler)

After Lamington, there was a swim day at Burleigh Heads:

And then there was Carnarvon Gorge:
At the swimming hole.

Warrumbah Canyon

Warrumbah Canyon

The final day, Dr. John in front, beloved cycads in the back.

Thank you to all my new friends.


The end of the program

Upon returning to the backpackers' in Brisbane, we all set about the crazed task of writing up our final research papers from Heron Island. The general mood was that this would not be our finest work. A certain amount of spring-fever/senioritis set in. It was the end of a magical three months. Many were in the throws of planning their post-program trips to New Zealand or Bali. Yet, we somehow needed to pull off a paper (allegedly better than our previous papers from Moreton Bay Research Station on Stradbroke Island) in two days. Given the generally studious atmosphere of the hostel, everyone more or less scattered to the various city locations that best facilitated studiousness. Some went to the UQ campus. Others walked down to various cafes or the State Library in Southbank. That is where I spent the better part of the days. I scrambled with the data analysis, conclusion, and discussion with the research paper.

Here are some photos I took of Brisbane during the week, mostly while walking home from the library.

We worked really hard, and in the end, I feel alright about the paper I turned in. It certainly could have used another week of revision and work, but I turned in what I could given the time constraints.

On Wednesday night, a group of us went out to have an amazing dinner with Renee (one of our tutors from Heron Island) and a few of her friends. One was from South Africa, and she and I had a lovely chat about Cape Town (in addition to discussions about queer issues, racial privilege, and other such things). She helped fuel my excitement about my next study abroad trip.

After that, we met Toby (Dr. T, as he is now known to the group since his dissertation was completed and his PhD awarded) at a bar. I had a coke, chatted with him briefly, and then excused myself as the place filled up. I was tired from the paper writing (and the general lack of sleep from Carnarvon and Heron) and wanted to crash.

The next morning, a bus came for us and took the whole lot of us out to Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary, a zoo dedicated to the preservation of Australian fauna. Although it was a touch odd to see so many of these animals that we had had the privilege of seeing in the wild locked up in pens and cages, it was still an exciting experience.

The cutest sleeping flying fox tongue


Tawny frogmouths (not just a stripper name, also a bird!)

It was a dingo!

Sleeping Tasmanian devil

sleepy taz!

And from among the ratites, some of the world's largest Gondwanan bird relics:

The cassowary

and the emu

kudos for the unimpressed

A wombat made a rare diurnal appearance

And came out to sun its belly...squee!

Hello, you're upside down.


A beautiful perentie, which is the largest lizard in Australia and up there in the world.

Mertens' water monitor
As cool as everything was, from the platypus tanks to the reptile house (including a type of snake whose enclosure was designed to look like a suburban backyard), the peaks of Lone Pine surely are the kangaroo petting zoo (where you wander around hand-feeding a bunch of kangaroos and wallabies) and the koala-fondling exhibit. That's not really its name, but you get to hold a koala...

Yes! We had a nose-rubbing snuzzle moment!

It was all almost as cute as this:

Now I know where they got the idea for those backpacks.
It also was the birthday of Ross (our guy from the International Programs Office) and we sang him a loud American "Happy Birthday" much to the dismay of his British modesty.

After Lone Pine, we returned to the backpackers' to shower and get dressed for the farewell dinner. We knew that neither Ross nor Toby would be there, but everyone else we had been in contact with would. It was our chance to formally close the program and have our send off. It was the reason any of us brought nice clothes to Australia.  Storms were brewing north and west of the city, which brought a special ambiance to the evening on the rooftop of one of the campus buildings.

There was the dinner. There were speeches, teary in the case of Dr. John's delivery of a Kipling poem or humorous in the case of Tibbett's send off. There were songs (including a version of Waltzing Matilda). There were skits (by request, the Tiny Ecologist came back to go snorkeling and re-enact an alternate ending to Jonathan's and my encounter with the blue-ringed octopus). There were the awarding of the prizes for our photo competition (something we had to submit our entries for while also completing our papers). And then there was the yearbook and whole ton of hugs, photos, and tears. Over the course of several weeks, Alyssa had designed a yearbook (apparently the first time ever for this program) that included some less-than-flattering pictures of each of us with nicknames, superlatives, and letters from the lecturers, tutors, and the programs office. Jemma and Justine had managed to get it printed and delivered to the dinner (those women are pure magic). I am rather pleased that I was selected as "most likely to make an inappropriate joke at any moment." My work here was finished.

I won't bore you with pictures of us all hugging each other and saying goodbye. I probably did not take as many photos of my companions as I ought to. It was a special evening.

But no goodbye is good unless it is completely and excessively drawn out.

So, we all bussed back to the hostel and then wandered out for an evening in the West End. Fortunately, they picked a mellower and more spacious bar where people could have drinks, and yet I could still have a soda and tolerate holding conversations. Even after that, there were farewells at the hostel throughout the evening, the following morning and that next afternoon.

Eventually, I made my way with all my bags (Mia and Jacqui helped me haul them to the bus station) to my friend Antony's place. He was kind enough to offer me a place to crash for the remaining two nights I had in Brisbane as well as a ride to the airport. He is a true demonstration of the warmth and generosity I discovered in Australia (as is his family for allowing me in, while they prepared for a family vacation of their own).

All in all, I was ready to be home. Sure, part of me wished to make Brisbane my home, but I missed my fellow and my animals. I missed my own bed and the view out the front door of San Gorgonio peak and the sun setting behind it.

I am so grateful to have had this experience. Ever since I was a child, I dreamt of studying abroad as well as going to Australia. It had not crossed my mind until I was there that those two life-long dreams could actually come true simultaneously.

Ross, Jemma, and Justine at the Program Office were an amazing resource and warm hosts to the group of us Californians. Chris Salisbury, John Hall, and Ian Tibbetts were amazing educators (as well as the guest lecturers and tutors we worked with). Heather (my homestay hostess, and I assume everyone else's homestay families) gave us beautiful homes to reside in. It was all amazing.

I was blown away by the beauty of Australia, both natural and human. I do hope to make it back there, and I urge anyone to get there.