Walking out of the airport, I was struck by warm air and a cool breeze. The sun was shining. It was a seemingly perfect day. Perhaps it was because I had just come from the Maine winter, but all that I wanted to do was be outside. As I took the bus from the airport, I saw all of the people walking through the city outside and envied the fact that they were outside on this gorgeous day. As I continued watching, I noticed just how many people there were walking around. Sure, there were also people in cars driving to get around the city, but there was a shockingly large amount of people walking. Additionally, all of these walkers appeared to be relatively fit, even the ones who were not walking for exercise but rather to get to work, as it was about 7am at the time. Compared to the people who I typically see walking the streets at home in New York City, this crowd of people appeared to be much healthier. This observation of fitness led me to do a little research. My findings confirmed my initial observation. In the Bloomberg 2019 report of the healthiest countries in the world, Australia placed 7th. Although the study was condensed to include only 169 countries that met a certain set of population and health criteria, this ranking is nonetheless very impressive. The United States ranked 35th in the study to put this into context. Although I am sure that the activity level that I observed on the streets plays a role in the overall health of the country, I am also quite certain that there are other factors at play. Throughout my time here in Sydney, I hope to discover, observe, and experience some of these other factors that make Sydney a country so relatively healthy.
The main reason why I chose to study at James Cook is because it specializes in marine biology and environmental science. When I arrived on campus, I discovered that the campus fully embodies this academic ethos. Practically everywhere you look there are either natural structures or man-made structures designed to look living things. Outdoor study spaces curve gracefully to provide shade from the harsh sun at all times of day. Ponds situated underneath the outdoor study spaces are carefully maintained ecosystems of native flora and fauna. There are abundant walking and running trails that weave around the outskirts of campus. Creeks run through the middle of campus in multiple areas, and these provide additional study spaces, as well as important habitat for organisms like bush turkeys.
Maybe it’s just that I’m used to spending 75% of the year in a frozen hellscape, but it seems like there is a lot more life here. Geckos scurry on every flat surface imaginable, birds chirp at all hours of the day (and night!), wallabies stare at you curiously as you run by them. There is wallaby poop EVERYWHERE. Furthermore, the perpetually sunny weather means that people are outside all of the time. It’s kind of invigorating to see people swimming and biking and running and skateboarding barefoot to class everyday. Besides the wallaby poop, all of this is a lovely change.
Sunset at the summit of a campus hiking trail.
It seems to me like this high level of exposure to the natural world contributes largely to the success of James Cook’s science programming. You can read about a fish for as long as you want, but in order to truly understand its movement you will probably benefit more from having a look at the fish in the university’s coral reef aquarium tank. Or if you are specializing in reptiles, you can go out on one of the walking trails at night and catch several different species of geckos or snakes. I’m not saying that Colby necessary lacks these opportunities– the arboretum is a fantastic on-campus resource. But I do know that many U.S. college students don’t have this kind of constant exposure to the habitats and organisms that they are studying. Here, it’s a truly immersive education system.
Another thing that I have noticed is the emphasis on paying respect to the indigenous people of Australia. This attitude manifests in multiple ways. Most formal events begin with an acknowledgement of the traditional owners of the land on which James Cook was built– the Bindal and Wulgurukaba people. This ceremony is usually performed by a member of one of these communities and followed by a welcoming music ceremony. I really enjoyed this ceremony and I hope that this practice spreads from Australia to the U.S. for acknowledging Native American ownership of land. Secondly, most academic buildings contain some form of indigenous artwork. Native flora planted on campus are also often designated with both their indigenous and English names, and usually have descriptions of their traditional uses by indigenous communities.
In my indigenous studies class, we recently learned how Aboriginal people use a place-based knowledge system. The way they process information and pass it down is based on the continually changing natural properties of the world around them. This unique knowledge system means that their culture is adaptable, but also centered around a respect for the natural world. It is interesting that James Cook uses indigenous knowledge and art around campus to both show respect for Aboriginal people and expose students to a different way of understanding the natural world.
However, I’m not sure how widespread this integration of indigenous knowledge is in Australia. I know that the welcoming ceremonies are now popular throughout the country, but it seems to me that indigenous people are still viewed as outsiders in their own country. Outside of indigenous studies courses, classes don’t usually include indigenous knowledge in their coursework. One way that Australia parallels the U.S., therefore, is in both countries’ reluctance to apply indigenous knowledge to environmental conservation strategies. There is a lot we still have to learn about living in harmony with the earth, and many people think the best way to achieve this is through incorporating a place-based knowledge system into western systems of environmental policy.
The pace of global issues, many of the environmental issues, is incredibly high and constantly increasing. Bernie Sanders’ policies did not quite keep pace with the severity of this crisis. However, despite this it looks as though he will lose the nomination because he is too radical. This is ridiculous. He is not radical. Americans are just way too conservative. Australians are no different. Although there are small niches of people with a sustainability focus in the neighbourhood of Newtown, which has the City’s only organic grocery store and most of its bulk food stores, the level of environmental focus is abysmal. I don’t know what to do. It seems that the only way to inspire large scale change is through immediate economic consequences, and even then fossil fuel lobbyists and climate scepticism and laziness will often lead to negative results.
I thought that the bush fires would increase environmental action, but nothing of the sort. The government is inactive as ever and public upset has quieted down. I am looking forward to interning with Greenpeace to hopefully initiate some change.
Last week I went to an animal sanctuary called Billabong sanctuary. We saw a ton of cool animals like koalas, crocodiles, kangaroos and wombats. The wombat was my favorite animal by far. It’s a marsupial, native to Australia. Their closets living relatives are the koala. They borough networks of tunnels under the ground as a way to escape the Queensland harsh summer heat. They have a plate sized calcium disk right near their back and butt. They are pigeon toed so they waddle everywhere which is super cute. Wombats bite other wombats on the other’s calcium plate as a sign of affection but apparently their bite hurts humans as we have no such plate. Although the wombat is not super fast compared to their predators, they do something really cool to defend themselves. They run into their tunnel networks and when their prey enters the wombat swings their butt up and crushes its prey in between their hard calcium plate and the tunnel wall… Clever!
Here is a photo of my timidly petting the wombat.
Growing up in a suburb and going to school in rural Maine, I have had limited exposure to life living in the city. After 3 weeks of getting used to the hustle and bustle of city life in Sydney, I decided to go partake in a “Country Life” exploration that was offered by my abroad program. The Country Life weekend was a unique opportunity to travel outside of the city and gain some insight into Australia’s way of life. The family I stayed with lived on a huge property filled with animals and wildlife, such as chickens, sheep, alpacas, kangaroo, cattle, and even a koala.
During my first week in Sydney, I went to the Taronga Zoo where there were heaps of animals that were kept in habitats that replicated their natural home. Although this exhibit of animals was an incredible display of Australian wildlife, the experience felt a bit artificial, as my program had set up a private tour throughout the zoo before the normal operating hours. This adventure was directly catered to my abroad program and did not expose me to true Australian culture and natives.
My weekend trip to the country of New South Wales exposed me to a side of Australian lifestyle that I didn’t know existed. It is easy to think of Australia as a country that is very similar to America in terms of a fast paced, developed, first world country, but my weekend to Bathurst, New South Wales showed me the slow paced, small town, simple side of Australia.
While I was in Bathurst, I stayed with a host family that consisted of a man and a woman named Ian and Sonya, and their two young boys, Mitchell and Reece, ages 6 and 3, respectively. The family lived in a sweet country home that sat on a 100 acre property filled with animals of all kinds. The house that they lived in was Sonya’s childhood home that her parents had given her. They live in between her parents’ new home and her brother’s family home, each owning 100 acres. I really appreciated the family focused culture of country living. Mitchell and Reece are able to grow up near their cousins who live next door and Sonya gets to stay close to her parents and brother. This got me thinking about family culture in the United States where children don’t usually stay close to their parents once they grow up and have children of their own. Once kids in America reach 18 years of age, they are presented with a newly found independence which separates them from their parents and siblings, while Sonya gets to live next to her family while she raises her children. I find it endearing that children stay close to take care of their parents after their parents have taken care of them during their adolescent life.
Not only did I admire the family centered culture of country life in Australia, I also must mention the beauty and simplicity of living on a farm. I stayed with this family for 2 nights, and those nights showed me the brightest stars and the most colorful sunsets that you don’t see in the heart of the city. This weekend was really special to me as I got to explore a part of Australia that I didn’t know existed while getting to interact with locals that call this place their home.
In the past two weeks, we made two separate trips to the Opera House. The first we got to see the musical “SIX” as a part of our program (so it was free which is always welcome). I was a little confused when it first started but once it got going, I got more into it. I was not expecting it to enjoy it as much as I did because I’m not much of a theater person but I ended up having a great time. I would recommend it, very fun experience to go to downtown Sydney for a night and see a fun musical in such a beautiful setting. We took the obligatory pictures in front of the Opera House and then went to a nearby Gelato store. Stuck to my wheelhouse with some chocolate ice cream with chunks of brownies and M&M’s on top. The next week we came back for a private tour. A friend I met at the gym (who was in Hacksaw Ridge), offered to take us on a tour and of course I accepted. On Friday, we went all through the Opera House seeing the storage, dressing rooms, rehearsal rooms, orchestra pits, the wig room, concert hall, fake blood, etc. The place is an absolute maze but super cool to see all the moving parts that go into a performance. Later in the day, had some more ice cream where friends had me try a new flavor. I know it’s ice cream but, hey, I’m trying. It was Ben & Jerry’s new flavor, Netflix and Chill’d. It was a vanilla based ice cream which is by no means up my alley with some pretzel and other stuff. I have never been a fan of mixing pretzel with sweets. I didn’t hate it, but probably wouldn’t have it again. One thing I will say as a note here about my experience with food here in Australia is that cooking my own food has been amazing. I love having the flexibility of choosing my own meals and cooking them to how I like the food. I was worried before that my cooking abilities would be insufficient but I’ve learned a lot and become good enough to make what I want. This has been slightly limiting to being able to try new foods as I’m less willing to spend the money, and try new foods that I may not like. Working on it though! I tried making corn on the cob which actually went pretty will. I found it’s actually super simple.
It’s been a little over one month since I arrived in Sydney!
Part of what makes my BU program so special is its integration of travel within our class curriculums. I’m currently taking a class on the Australian Wine Industry, and we were lucky enough to take a weekend field trip to the Hunter Valley, one of Australia’s preeminent wine regions, towards the end of January. Our class did eight wine tastings over our two day trip, and it was truly a surreal experience, not only to see the region’s natural beauty, but also to learn about the wine industry from well-respected professionals. I found it particularly fascinating to hear about how the recent bushfires have impacted the region’s wine production. While the Hunter Valley did not directly encounter the fires, they did battle smoke taint on grape crops, often wiping out hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of product. Additionally, it was encouraging to hear that each vineyard we visited presented plans for sustainability initiatives looking forward.
This past week, our program visited Melbourne as part of a full-group field trip for our Australian Culture and Society class. It was amazing to gain perspective on a new Australian city, and Melbourne provided a perfect point of comparison. Slightly smaller than Sydney, Melbourne had a far more distinct culture, and featured expansive networks of alleyways lined with local shops and food vendors. The alleyways are an incredibly important component to Melbourne’s identity as a city. It was also sobering to witness Melbourne’s struggles with homelessness as a result of sub-optimal state legislation in Victoria.
My sporting traditions class has also had its fair share of field trips. Earlier this month, we took a tour of the Sydney Olympic park, witnessing the history of Australia’s pursuit to become a global sporting power. The class has additionally toured the Melbourne Cricket Ground, undoubtedly the most prestigious athletic stage in Australian Sports. It was fascinating to learn about not only the history of the MCG building, but the development of cricket and Aussi Rules Football.
This weekend, I took a trip to Tasmania. It was great to get out of the city and explore on of Australia’s most stunning natural landscapes. Tasmania, like the Hunter Valley, stuck out as having a commitment to sustainable practices; the houses in the neighborhood within which we stayed all had solar panels and used exclusively rain water. We spent our days doing some really fun hikes and taking in our beautiful surroundings!
Looking forward to what’s next!
Upon arrival to the land down under, I was relieved to find fellow study abroad students in the airport that looked just as nervous as me as we were embarking on this new and unfamiliar adventure. The more I talked with kids in my program, I learned that most of the people in my apartment building were study abroad students from America. Although I was slightly disappointed not to have direct and easy access to interact with students that come from Australia and different countries, I believed that it wouldn’t be too hard to seek them out. Throughout my program orientation, we embarked on some incredible journeys such as a private tour of the Taronga Zoo, a hike overlooking palm beach, and Sydney harbor cruise.
Although these orientation activities and suggestions were amazing and allowed me to ease into my new city, I was really seeking to immerse myself into local culture. I quickly figured out that nearly all the recommended restaurants, bars, beaches, hikes, and hotspots were dominated by tourists; specifically, by study abroad students. It seemed as though we were all being told to go to the same places that lacked local presence. The study abroad students, who were mostly American students, were being put on a schedule that created a whole new culture that was not Australian.
Interestingly enough, the idea for the topic of my blogs came while I was in an Uber, an American ride-hailing company. For every night of the week there is a bar or club that is known to be THE-bar-to-go-to for that night, so as new members of the community, we were on our way. Our Uber driver told us that he didn’t even know about the bar we were going to which startled me. I started asking about recommendations he had for us, and he started talking about the local hidden gems that he said we “would never find in a tourism guide or map.” He was so excited and willing to share all the places that have made Sydney a place he calls home. When he dropped us off, I started talking to people at this supposed “hotspot” in Sydney, and I realized that the places that were recommended to us by our program were popular for study abroad students, not Australian locals.
Disappointed in this realization, I went on to attend my University orientation for study abroad students. Luckily, we got tours of the University of Sydney from current University students who were born and raised in Sydney. As I talked about all the places I had been going to since I arrived in Sydney, my student guide seemed to mirror the reaction of our Uber driver the night before. She then proceeded to talk me through all her favorite local places with such excitement and passion.
My goal with this blog is to break out of the study abroad culture and interact with locals in order to unlock the hidden local gems of Sydney. With this being said, I still plan on participating in the cheesy tourist attractions while I am here because I want to compare the culture that is cultivated by study abroad students with the local attractions that I will seek out by recommendations from Australian locals. I want to understand the strong and evident culture of study abroad students that overpowered my first week in Sydney. I want to continue interacting with local Australians in order to break down the following questions: Why is there such a divide between study abroad students and local Australians and is there any way to break it?
This week is the first week of the Term 1 classes here in Australia. Technically the “Autumn semester.” The flipped seasons has gotten me some weird looks from locals. There is quite a difference between the way classes run in Australia in comparison to Colby. For one, “professors” are called “tutors.” But for each class there is usually one or two lectures a week with hundreds of students. And then there is a tutorial with about 20 students which is kind of like a lab or workshop that meets one time a week. Similar to Colby, most if not all classes use Moodle! All lectures are recorded and posted on the Moodle which is super useful to go to retroactively if I forget something from the lecture. Based on talking to my tutors, friends I’ve met here, gym-goers, and other Australian students, the culture here is much more laid back. In fact, during orientation, that was made very clear. Australians during a presentation said that the culture here is much more laid back in comparison to Americans. Aussies will downplay their achievements, swear more freely, are less politically correct, and abbreviate everything. Arvo means afternoon, macca’s is Mcdonald’s, lappy is laptop, biccy is bicycle, devo is devastated, defo is definitely, and the list goes on. As to why I’m a picky eater, I’m really not sure. I’m not stubborn or reluctant to try new experiences. My parents made me sit at the table when I was younger until I finished my vegetables. Yet I’m still picky. Coming to a new country is a great time to try to expand my palette. Going to a friends house for dinner and not liking the food is the worst. I either hide it best as I can because I don’t want to be an inconvenience to the people being gracious enough to have me in their home or out to dinner. Going out with friends to food, I always try to be up for whatever they want to eat, but they know my reservations about foods. And so, increasing what I like will be both convenient for me socially but also from a nutrition standpoint. I don’t eat very healthy, mainly pasta, meat, other carbs, and caesar salads. But if I start to like more healthy foods, I can benefit from that. Here’s a picture of me surfing! I went to surf camp with bunch students at my university, locals, French, Italians, Swiss, English, and other Americans. I even met someone from the town over from me in Massachusetts. The surf instructors were all long haired-blonde dudes who perfectly fit the surfer stereotype (in a great way!).
I have been discussing a lot about sustainability and environmental ideas with two of my roommates over the past week. Neither of them are at all sustainable, and so I was curious to hear the perspective of more typical Americans about environmental issues. One of my biggest take-always was their ideas of human dominance, superiority, and right to do, well, whatever the hell they want. They don’t think human liberties should be restricted for the sake of the rest of nature, and when I tried to push them further they kept returning to their “humans are better and more valuable” argument. Clearly, I have a much lower opinion of human nature than they, and most other people, have. We are destroying the world, and are barely trying to address sustainability issues. Moreover, when I finally got past the humans are all important argument, my roommates still refused to accept that we are destroying the environment through practices such as meat consumption and that we can make a difference.
I have also been reflecting upon my time in Germany, and have realized it was about as good as it could be. Freiburg is so perfect! At first I thought Sydney was better, with its infinite climbing areas, beaches, and access to city and outdoor life. However, there is something about Freiburg that sets it apart. Perhaps it is its excellent supply of sustainably sourced vegan food, its greater immersion in nature, or its more environmentally minded and thoughtful people. Either way, it felt like a nearly perfect system of sustainability, in almost every aspect, and it had a very positive atmosphere. Sydney feels like much more of a vacationland; unsustainable, lots of things to do for fun, and less connected to nature. I enjoy it, and based on its population and popularity, so do many people. However, I think people should stop looking at Sydney as a the ideal city and the place to be, and instead, places more akin to Freiburg.