April 10, 2008
Greetings from Australia!
After our stay in Melbourne, when you last heard from us, we headed off to Wilson's Prom, a beautiful National Park down at the southernmost point of the mainland. We had a great week there, learning about various ecosystems and performing some interesting field research projects - one on the succession of vegetation on coastal dunes and one that related grassland health to the amount of various types of scat (excrement) which we had to count and identify. Our guide and professor for the week, Aaron, was very popular with the group. He was an enthusiastic teacher and also hung out with us between activities, which was fun. When we weren't in the "classroom", we had free time to explore the park's great beaches and trails including a couple great group hikes at sunset - one to the top of Mt. Oberon the first night and then one up Mt. Bishop our last night, both of which provided amazing scenic views of the coast. We were also fortunate enough to have a great cook and bus driver. After our week at Wilson's Prom, we were bussed to Melbourne where we commenced our first independent travel break.
We met up again in Sydney and took a bus to Canberra, Australia's capitol city. Our lectures for the week tended to be on the topic of Australia's economic and social history, but we also had a guest panel of policy makers talk with us about the formation of environmental law at the federal level. While in the Canberra, we visited the Federal Parliament House, the National Museum of Australia and the Australian War Memorial.
After Canberra we traveled by bus to Jindabyne, a town in the foothills of the Australian Alps/Snowy Mountains. Much of our time early in the week of our stay was devoted to study for our midterm examinations. Aside from mid-term exams, we took a 21 km hike along alpine ridges in Kosciusko National Park. In fact we were able to climb to the peak of Mt. Kosciusko, the highest point in Australia, but it was not a terribly difficult feat since it stands a mere 2,229 metres above sea level (Mt. McKinley is 6,194 metres, Mt. Everest is 8,850 metres). We identified a number of flora and conducted field research on invasive plant species in the National Park. During our free time many of us were confined to studying, however we could stroll the grounds at our accommodations and view a number of kangaroos, which would emerge around dawn and dusk. They would even get close enough to us so that we could feed them breakfast scraps. It was a very comfortable and relaxed place to study for mid-term exams.
Sydney was next on the agenda. We received lectures in Sydney and visited a couple museums, as well as receiving a tour of the harbor area that identified sites of historical significance to the indigenous people. We stayed in a hotel that provided us with breakfast everyday, and a meal allowance for the other meals. Students explored cuisine all over Sydney, while spending the afternoons on beaches, ferries in the harbor, or in the botanical gardens. We all got a good look at the world-renowned opera house, and some students even attended an Italian opera.
After Sydney, we flew to Brisbane and caught a bus west of the city, a ways into the interior to an environmental education centre located in Numinbah Valley. It was here that we had our "Aboriginal Field Camp" -- an opportunity to engage traditional Australian culture firsthand. The diverse range of experiences each individual student had over the course of this week makes it challenging to describe homogenously. Our learning rarely ever took place in a classroom setting. We were divided into family groups and given certain areas as our own "country" and we learned the strict social rules involved in traveling through someone else's country. Some students were married off to other students and that meant moving from one bunkhouse to another, in order to live with the new family. Women and men have strictly-followed social roles, and so many of our activities were divided along the line of gender: "men's business" and "women's business". Essentially our experience was a simulation of indigenous Australian culture. Things became complicated when white settlers arrived and began to take our land and members of our family away from us. This was a troubling new issue for many students, and we called off the simulation because of the real emotional stress it had created. It was much more powerful than any lecture we have received, to get a glimpse (through a pretend simulation) of the confusing emotions indigenous people faced at the time of white invasion. On a lighter note, we danced for at least two hours every day, learning some 20 dances and the songs that accompanied them. Every evening, between dinner and bedtime, we would spend a few hours around the fire "yarning up" with the elders. To "have a yarn" is Australian slang for "have a chat" and so yarns involved telling stories, jokes, and further exploring the ideas we had been presented over the course of the day. At the end of the week (after long preparations), we had a huge ceremony with fires, dancing, singing, and eating, called a "Corroboree". We students bonded well over the course of the week and underneath the charcoal and ochres that covered our bodies on Corroboree night, we were all full of smiles and good energy. Not to mention, our favorite caterer, Jade, was back with us cooking amazing food. Our "teachers" (Uncle Wayne, Auntie Jodie, and more) created a positive learning environment in which our group became even closer as a social entity. Although a diverse experience, this camp was a good experience for all of us.
We are currently in Brisbane staying with Australian families. Most of us are paired up with one other student, but three have the family all to themselves. Most students are very pleased with their host family. The juxtaposition of Numinbah to Brisbane provided for some good cultural analysis. This homestay is also a much-needed rest before our adventures in North Stradbroke Island and Lamington Plateau. Each day we have lectures and on a couple of occasions, we have been fortunate enough to host a panel discussion. Our afternoons and weekends have been free for us to explore the city and the Gold Coast with our homestay families or with one another. We enjoyed the nice weather last week, spending time at a public plaza called South Bank, which has an outdoor swimming pool with a sandy bottom, an abundance of cafes and restaurants, a market on the weekends, and even featured an outdoor jazz concert a couple nights ago. Last night, Enid and her husband invited us all out to a barbeque, which proved to be a very successful social event. Tomorrow morning, we say goodbye to our host families and commence a long week of field studies, after which we will go on break again. We enjoy hearing updates from friends and family back home, and think of you often.
09 April 2008
Hello Friends & Family,
It's amazing to think that just two weeks ago we arrived in Brisbane from our Aboriginal camp experience in the Numinbah Valley. Tomorrow we will once again commence with our field excursions. First we will travel to North Stradbroke island, one of the world's most substantial sand islands to study more marine biology. On the weekend we will depart for Lamington National Park, near the Queensland and New South Wales border. During our stay in Lamington we will get up close and personal with subtropical rainforest environments.
So, what have the last three weeks held for the group? It's difficult to pick just where to start. It's probably safe to say that our immersion experience with Indigenous Studies opened many minds to the issues faced by indigenous people as well as tested one's boundaries and sense of self.
Our hosts for the week were members of the Wiradjuri and Darkinung language groups. Uncle Wayne and Aunt Jodi (yes, in Aboriginal culture, your elders are typically described as uncle, aunt, father or mother) led the group with assistance from Uncle Rob and Uncle Mikey. Both Wayne and Jodi are accomplished artists and shared much of themselves with the group. You can learn more about Wayne at his web site (www.waynekrause.com). Uncle Rob has a daughter about the same age as many students in the group, and he expressed that his experience was akin to the St. Olaf group becoming part of his family. We learned much about the pre-European nature of Aboriginal life, the spiritual connection with the land and creation, as well as with the division of responsibilities between genders, familial relationships and totems/skin. The group also had a hands-on taste of what impacts European colonization brought to each language group's country and how those experiences continue to impact the lives of a vast majority of native people. In the end we learned how to celebrate culture, land, family and creation by putting on a Corroboree (dancing, singing and eating!). Two of the attached pictures show members of the group rehearsing the dances. On a few days they spent 2-4 hours in dance rehearsal. Needless to say the group was tired at night, but Wayne and Jodi stated that they have not had a group learn the dances as quick as this one. It was a sight to behold! We were extremely proud of the effort put forth by the entire group and simply impressed by their dancing prowess.
The experience in Brisbane continued the theme of family; each student (or pair of students) met their Aussie host families and set out to live in homes around the greater Brisbane area for the past two weeks. Each day the students and instructors commuted on public transit (buses, trains and boats!) to GED office for classes. This past Tuesday was a “big day” for the group as we learned about contemporary issues in Aussie society – gender, race, socio-economic stratification and unemployment, took in the Andy Warhol exhibit at the Gallery of Modern Art, and had an authentic “barbie” at the South Bank Parklands with our GED host, Enid Bird, her partner Paul (a Marine biologist working at CSIRO) and Jade, one of the caterers that the group has enjoyed at Queenscliff and Numinbah. Needless to say the barbie was still a subject of conversation this morning.
We thoroughly enjoy our New Farm neighborhood and the apartment accommodation near Merthyr Village – a collection of boutique shops, restaurants and other stores just east of the Brisbane Central Business District. Our commute through the city involves walking about 1 km to the Brisbane River City Cat terminal on Brunswick Street, riding the catamaran upstream to South Bank Parklands and walking about 1.25 km to the GED offices. We both love being on the water to start and end the day, and the boats are fun – a city cat picture is attached. A picture of the CBD looking through “Streets Beach” at the South Bank Parklands is also attached just to give you a little flavor of the city. As major cities in Australia go, we both rate Brisbane at the top of the list. There is just something special about this place that appeals to us. Perhaps the pace is a little more laid back and the mix of ocean and river provide a lovely backdrop to each day. Or just maybe it is our walk past the lawn bowling facilities and parklands.
We are very pleased with the group's ability to lift each other up when they are feeling down and how they have persevered through a round of colds and intense physical activity. We are all looking forward to the upcoming field experiences, another break and heading out to the Great Barrier Reef towards the end of the month.
Paul & Ann Marie