Monday, March 7, 2011

Brisbane and Straddie

Right now I sit in a concrete block room in a backpackers’ hostel on North Stradbroke Island (“Straddie”). The room is spare—very spare—but there’s a surprisingly tasteful abstract oil painting on one wall. Strange.

While I’m here studying sand island ecology with the students, Philip’s unfortunately back at our apartment in Brisbane recovering from a stomach bug that’s been going around. Poor guy.

One consolation for Philip is that his surroundings are pleasant. Our apartment is a charming, decent-sized studio located on the ground floor of a modified “Queenslander” house. Designed for the warm, humid climate of this part of Australia, a Queenslander is raised off the ground and has a wrap-around verandah (or at least a well-shaded front porch) plus large windows that swing wide open to circulate air around the house (see picture below). Outside our apartment is a small garden with subtropical plants and a barbie (barbecue). A couple of nights ago we made delicious T-bone steaks—yum. What we enjoy most about the apartment, however, is having a bathroom all to ourselves. It’s also nice not having to live out of our luggage. An added bonus is our neighborhood: the urbane yet laid back “New Farm” suburb. Down the street in one direction is a beautiful riverside park, a wharf for the city’s public ferry, and a cultural center called the “Powerhouse,” an old power station refurbished to house performance spaces and cafés. In the other direction is Fortitude Valley, home to Chinatown, nightclubs, and hipster hangouts of various sorts. Also on our street is a lawn bowls club. You don’t have to be a member or even wear proper bowling whites to play, so Philip and I plan to go next weekend with Nat (our coordinator) and her soon-to-be-husband Ken, who’ll teach us the ins and outs of this once outdated but now retro-cool sport. The students, meanwhile, are living in homestays, and it seems they’re enjoying settled life as well.

We’ve been in Brisbane for about a week now, and so far we like it. It doesn’t have Sydney’s harbor and beaches or Melbourne’s sophistication, but it’s big enough to be interesting and small enough to be comfortable. A river winds its way through the center of town, and fortunately it’s no longer flooding the way it was back in January. When Nat drove us to our apartment, she pointed out one building after another that had been flooded. The river is still a bit swollen and muddy colored (due to all the silt that’s washed in), but overall, it’s remarkable how back to normal the city looks. Most of the buildings Nat pointed out look perfectly fine; you would never guess they’d been inundated just over a month ago. Sadly, it doesn’t look like Christchurch will recover from its own recent disaster any time soon. When we were there a couple of months ago we could still see some damage from the September quake, but apparently the latest quake was far more destructive. Fortunately Chet, the bed and breakfast owner we befriended in Christchurch, didn’t suffer any injuries. He’s also lucky to have an artesian well on his property, so he has plenty of water not only for himself but also his friends and neighbors. We wish him the best . . .

Over the past week we’ve been attending lectures at the downtown office of Global Education Design (GED), the company owned by Nat's family that manages our program. I don’t have the energy to share everything we’ve learned, but our lectures here in Brisbane have covered Australian politics (the students were fascinated to learn how a parliamentary form of democracy differs from our own), immigration (a “whites only” policy was in place from 1901 to the 1960s), and memorialization of 20th-century military campaigns (the World War I debacle of Gallipoli looms especially large in the national psyche). We also paid a visit to the Queensland state parliament, a grand 19th-century building whose every feature reminds you of Australia’s ties to Britain, from the design of the House of Representatives (modeled exactly after the House of Commons, down to the use of the color green) to the enormous stained-glass Queen Victoria who stares down from a grand staircase. In one of the more stately rooms there’s also a cushy red seat that can be occupied by only two people: Queen Elizabeth or the governor general (the queen’s representative in Australia). When we were done with our tour we bumped into the speaker of the house, who had just returned from a trip to Alaska. A typical politician, he made sure to shake each of our hands and ask what states we were from. Nice fellow.

As I said earlier, I’m now on Straddie, an island consisting almost entirely of sand about a 45-minute ferry ride off the coast. We’ve been exploring each of the ecological zones of the island, our favorite so far being the mangrove swamps and mudflats by the bay. Yesterday all of us trudged through the mud and at one point intentionally twisted our way down so we could lean all the way back from our knees without falling over. It looked like we were all in a limbo competition. Of course, we all missed Philip. Hopefully he’ll be better soon!


Classic Queenslander in our neighborhood

Mangroves on Straddie, with roots above ground to get more oxygen

Among the mangroves

Exploring the mud flats

Stingray print

Nat doing the mud limbo!

Marni and John

Me too!

Searching for a lost shoe

Anna-Brooke with rescued shoe

Straddie surf

Flooded road--yet again

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