Rachel Down Under!


Posted in Australia, Canberra by rssmith218 on August 31, 2010

My latest Australian journey started early last Wednesday morning with a quick, 25-minute flight to Australia’s inland capital city, Canberra.

Canberra has a bit of a reputation in Australia. Mention of my trip to Canberra has solicited condolences, warnings, and even a couple of physical grimaces. My Australian traveling muse, Bill Bryson, also describes Canberra as a desolate, dull, and generally awful place. And yet Canberra is Australia’s national capital? Why not Sydney? Melbourne? Anywhere else?

When Australia was becoming a proper nation and choosing a capital in the early 1900s, squabbling cities Sydney and Melbourne could not agree on a site. Canberra was chosen as a compromise, as it lies almost exactly in between these two great cities. In the words of Bryson, “Cold in the winter, blazing hot in the summer, miles from anywhere, it was an unlikely choice of location for a national capital”.

At the time of its choosing, Canberra was little more than a farming community and the city was designed from scratch by Chicago’s own Walter Burley Griffin. The city was modeled after Washington DC; the surrounding Australian Capital Territory (ACT) was created as an equivalent to the US District of Columbia. Canberra was planned as a garden city, and circular streets enclose the main government buildings, which are placed in DC-mall-like parks. Here is an example of Canberra’s faux-mall appearance.

While these architectural ideas may work fine in DC, they do not translate well to Canberra. The streets are empty, and the buildings are separated by huge expanses of park, making it difficult to get around. The circular streets are confusing and impossible to navigate; I walked to get a coffee (I’ve recently become addicted to Australian flat whites) and I became lost for a good half hour (and embarrassingly I had a map!).

Anyway, Canberra is an eerie and strange place. It is difficult to explain what makes it so off-putting; I can’t put my finger on it. I think it has something to do with the fact that it is so expansive and yet so quiet, so obviously planned and yet so empty.

Does it surprise you that I still managed to have a great time in Canberra? The Fulbright Enrichment Program was truly a wonderful experience and I was glad to meet many of the other 2009 and 2010 US Fulbright Scholars to Australia. Upon arrival, we had a quick lunch and were introduced not only to each other, but also to the Australian Fulbright Commission program coordinators with whom we have all been in touch with for the past couple of months. It was neat to finally put names to faces, and after lunch we piled onto a bus to head to the US Ambassador’s house for tea (Little known fact: Did you know that Jackie Chan grew up in the Embassy house? His father was the head cook for the US Embassy in the 1960s).

It seemed like we were driving in circles (hello, Canberra), but I didn’t care because I saw my FIRST WILD KANGAROO! Unfortunately I was too shocked/excited to take a picture, so you will just have to take my word for it. Post-tea, we headed back to the hotel and some of us went on a walk around Canberra before dinner (and wine!!) in the “city.”

Fulbrighters on the move…is it empty here or what?

My future traveling companions! Did I also mention that Canberra was COLD?

Aww that’s better. One thing that Canberra does have is rainbows. We saw 2 separate double rainbows during this walk. AND I saw a double rainbow on my descent into Sydney on the flight back from Canberra. I think you can actually see the pot of gold in this picture. Pretty nice.

The next day was spent doing mostly administrative stuff, but in the afternoon, we went on a “behind the scenes” tour of Australian Parliament, which was particularly interesting considering the fact that Australia currently doesn’t have a government! Yes, I am in Australia during a landmark time in Australia’s history in which there is a hung Parliament; I am experiencing a true democracy at work!

For those of you that have not kept up to date with current Australian politics (not that I can really claim much knowledge on the subject), the Australian election, which took place last Saturday (August 21st) did not lead to a majority in Parliament for either of the two main parties (Labor and Liberal). The future direction of the Australian government now falls to 3 rural Independents and 1 Green Party representative who will decide the government’s future balance of power. See the Sydney Morning Herald website for more information, it’s pretty interesting.

Because of these abnormal circumstances, Parliament House, like the rest of Canberra, was empty during our visit. Parliament House is an odd, modern-looking building from the outside, but it is truly beautiful on the inside.

The outside is a bit odd- compare this to the US Capital building-

But, the inside is stunning, isn’t it?

Here are the two houses of Parliament:

The House of Representatives- the cool green color of the eucalyptus plant leaves!

And the Senate- the deep pink color of the eucalyptus plant’s buds

Fulbrighters storm Parliament (photo credit to Josh Daskin)

There we are!

And here I am!  You can see the old Parliament building in the background.

Post-Parliament we went on a “bus tour” to the top of a tall hill in Canberra from which we looked down on the city before returning to a formal dinner with many Fulbright and Embassy associates.

Great view! You can see pictures from the dinner at the US Embassy’s Flickr page, see here.

The next morning was spent at the Australian Museum of Canberra, which was also pretty cool. We went on a “highlights” guided tour of the museum. All of us had personal headsets through which the voice of our tour guide, who was standing maybe 6 feet away from us, was oddly amplified. Here are some highlights of the highlights:

The building is designed as if it is forming the outside mold of a tied knot! Whoa.

Look I’m in the Garden of Australian Dreams!

We were given a significant amount of time in this really neat exhibit about the Canning Stock Route. Aboriginal paintings  were used to tell the story of how the establishment of this cattle trail shaped the lives of local people. Overall, a very cool and well-done exhibit.

Fulbright as an Aboriginal painting!

I was pretty exhausted by the end of the program, and I happily returned to Sydney (a city for which I have a new appreciation) with new friends, future traveling companions, and plenty of ideas about what I want to get out of my Fulbright experience (a lot!).

At the risk of creating a monster blog entry, I will quickly try to document the rest of the weekend. On Saturday, I went on another solo walking excursion to explore a bit more of Sydney. I chose a neighborhood from my guidebook, Darling Harbour, and set off to the city. Here’s a quick photo tour of my trip:

From the train station, I immediately became lost, and found myself wandering through Chinatown…

…but I finally found my way to my goal- Darling Harbour- which actually turned out to be a bit more touristy and family-oriented than I had expected. However, check out this monster McDonalds (Or Mackers as they call it here. Also, Burger King is known as Hungry Jacks. And my Chilean housemates have taken to referring to KFC as Dirty Bird, claiming that it is also Australian slang; however, this is unconfirmed by a true Aussie as of yet).

Can’t really complain about these views….

From Darling Harbour I headed to Sydney’s fish market….

Lots of fish! And finally, I ended my day at a market out by the Rocks. You never know what you’ll find in these beautiful markets…

Is this why kangaroos seek refuge in Canberra?

And the next morning, we find ourselves on the way to yet another Fulbright event- Fish and Chips in gorgeous Balmoral! I meet up with a couple of Sydney Fulbrighters for the ferry ride out to Balmoral- again, great views!

Sydney’s looking fine! Though so is Balmoral…

As do the Fulbrighters! (all with flat whites, I might add. So delicious!)

Fish and chips at a local Fulbrighter’s house was a great opportunity to meet some Australian Fulbrighters, including a couple people who had either just returned from the US or who were about to make their way over. Lots of interesting conversations!

Lastly, upon our return to Sydney proper, Aisha and I took some time to explore the opera house at sunset.

You know, just chilling at the Opera House. What a life.

Anyway, this has been an epic update, but I am finally up to speed. Congrats if you made it through! It has been a FULL(bright) couple of days, and now I am looking forward to getting back into work. Talking and meeting with other Fulbrighters has further impressed upon me what an awesome opportunity this is and I can’t wait to take full advantage of it.


Tour of a tour

Posted in Australia, Sydney by rssmith218 on August 24, 2010

When I was in elementary school, I used to have looped nightmares in which I attempted to reduce impossibly irreducible fractions (17/4 = ???); in college, I dreamt of circuitous protein pathways. Last night, I dreamed that I was trapped in a never-ending, Spanish-narrated tour of Sydney, which admittedly sounds much better than either of the previous two dream scenarios, but it still reveals me to be a huge nerd.

I believe this most recent dream is potentially indicative of two things:

1) I may have overdone myself as a Sydney tourist this past weekend, and

2) Maybe (hopefully) I am picking up a bit more Spanish?!?

Regardless of the amount of Spanish that Dream Rachel may or may not know, I have quickly learned that in my real-life, Spanish-speaking apartment, the only word that really matters is, cerveza, that is, beer!

The past couple days have been fun but busy, and I successfully fulfilled my weekend goal of seeing a bit more of Sydney. I spent Saturday wandering the Botanic Gardens and the surrounding area. Come along with me on this quick photo tour!

We begin in Hyde Park, a park that, unlike the Chicago neighborhood, actually offers what my Sydney guidebook terms, “a peaceful respite from the hectic streets”. You be the judge.

Don’t be fooled, though; I found my first Australian Starbucks lurking just around the corner…

Would you believe it if I told you that there are only 22 Starbucks coffeehouses in all of Australia? As a point of reference, check out this website, which creepily shows that Richmond, VA alone has waaaay more than 22 coffeehouses.

My labmate, Damo, who successfully managed and opened several stores of Australia’s own chain of Gloria Jean Coffee shops before becoming a marine biologist, suggests that perhaps Australians “just don’t need coffee the same way that Americans do.” Perhaps it’s just a matter of size. Australians don’t crave a Venti jumbo-size cup of coffee; instead they appreciate a small, cozy coffee shop and its associated charming features. For example, what do the friendly hummingbirds and butterflies that accompany the coffee on Gloria Jean Coffee’s homepage suggest about this business? What do Australians want?

Enough about coffee- back to my Sydney tour! From Hyde Park I traveled along Macquerie Street, a street that showcases many of Sydney’s oldest public buildings, hinting at Sydney’s “architectural heritage.” There are too many historic buildings along Macquerie Street for me to document here- St. Mary’s Cathedral lies next to St. James Church, followed by the Hyde Park Barracks, the Mint, the Parliament House, Sydney Hospital and the State Library of NSW. Rest assured that they are all beautiful, though here’s a quick taste:



From the State Library, I walked through the Domain, a wide open grassy space, to the Royal Botanic Gardens, my main destination for the day!

The Royal Botanic Gardens were awesome. Why?

1. Bats

2. This view

3. Look I’m a tourist!

I ended my day with a trip to the Art Gallery of New South Wales. I originally planned to explore the museum, but I was distracted by the café and after stuffing myself full of jam and cream, I headed home to the house of cerveza.

Mmmmm. The next morning….

Road trip! Ziggy takes me and the Chileans on a tour of Sydney’s Northern beaches. Some photographic highlights are below. I have to give credit to Gregorio for most of these photos!

The first beach, and my favorite beach of the day!

A picture of Gregorio taking a picture….maybe this picture?

Or this one?

Housemates (Pablo, Gregorio, Ziggy) + fish and chips for lunch!

6 or more beaches, several pubs, and by the end of the day I was ready to crash!

Long post, but there are so many adventures to document! I’m beginning to make progress on my lab work and today was my first day out in the field. However, an account of this work will have to wait for another day. I’m headed to Canberra tomorrow for a Fulbright Enrichment Program and I still have to pack! I swear I’ll talk about my research soon- it’s slowly coming together!

Game on!

Posted in Australia, Sydney by rssmith218 on August 19, 2010

Have you ever heard of netball? I hadn’t either until today when I participated in my first netball game!

As you can see from this video, netball is like basketball, except that it is a bit lamer. Well, for the sake of objectivity, let’s just say that netball isn’t a contact sport. The premise of netball is similar to basketball- get the ball through the hoop- but there are LOTS of rules in netball that distinguish it from my favorite American sport (to watch, not play- March Madness!).

For example: You can’t dribble the ball, and when the ball is in your possession, you aren’t allowed to move your feet. You’re only allowed to hold onto the ball for three seconds. Depending on your designated position, you can only step in certain portions of the court. And, if you’re defending, you have to be at least 3 feet away from your offender. Got all that? Watch these ladies play- they know what they’re doing!

Netball does have its origins in basketball. When basketball was introduced to England  from the United States (though, did you know that basketball was actually invented by a Canadian? Further, the same guy that invented the football helmet? Whoa), it was not embraced by traditional Englishmen, but rather, netball became, according to the official Netball Australia website, “very popular with the ladies.” However, the “skirts, bustle backs, nipped waists and button up shoes” worn by women at the time (1895) made it difficult for them to run, dribble, and make long passes- hence netball was born! Check out this historic picture from the Netball Australia website:

Looks like fun, huh?

Anyway, the rest is history. Netball made its way to most Commonwealth countries, and it is particularly big in Australia.  There is a Netball World Championships that takes place every 4 years, and netball is now an Olympic-recognized sport, free for inclusion in future games; planning has started for the 2012 Olympic games so keep an eye out!

Netball may not be as exciting or aggressive as basketball, but I still had fun playing this popular Australian sport. Not only did I not have to worry about getting hurt on the court, but netball must also have the shallowest learning curve of any sport I have ever attempted. Either that, or I’m just a natural. Looking forward to next Thursday’s match!


Posted in Australia, Sydney by rssmith218 on August 15, 2010

As my first full week in Sydney draws to a close, I am only looking forward to the weeks to come. It has been a week full of reading, writing, and generally getting my bearings in Sydney and Bondi.

It has also been a week spent in pursuit of a bike, and I am sad to say that it has generally been an unsuccessful search. It turns out that bikes are very expensive in Sydney and the UNSW bike club website claims that it is difficult to find a second-hand bike unless you are lucky enough to find a bike that “someone has thrown out on the street for fun.” My experiences this past week reiterate this point, and after searching unsuccessfully for a second-hand bike, I eventually gave up and decided to just buy a new bike.

Early in the week, I visited two bike shops close to home in Bondi Junction and neither of them had bikes that weren’t fixies (just some slang I picked up in LA) for under $900. Enter Ziggy, who bought a bike from Sydney’s own (and slightly sketchy) Cell Bikes for only $500! Still expensive, but hey, I have an establishment fund and I need a bike!

Ziggy has been out of town for the past four days to help Mariana with her move to Perth, and he generously lent me his bike to use while he was away. Yes! I planned to bike on Thursday to Cell Bikes after work, but it was pouring rain and cold, so I decided to go on Friday instead. My bike ride to work on Friday morning was ill-fated, as I ended up breaking Ziggy’s bike and having to walk it most of the way to uni. I hoped to fix it up enough to still take it to Cell Bikes after work, but at the end of the day, most of my lab headed for the pub, and I, in need of a drink, decided to join as well. After a great night at the pub (I really like my lab!), I walked the poor bike home.

Having broken Ziggy’s bike, I turned to the bus system on Saturday, and ended up spending most of Saturday riding different buses around Sydney, but I wasn’t able to find the shop before its closing time. I didn’t have a chance to charge my camera batteries, but I was able to snap these three shots before my camera died.

Not the bike store, but this is the Circular Quay- you can see the Harbour bridge and all the ferries that you can take to other parts of Sydney!

Also not the bike store, but Hyde Park, which is right next to the Royal Botanic Gardens, where I want to go next weekend.

Also not the bike store, but this is Sydney’s Town Hall. I wish I could have gotten a picture of the other side- it is huge, very beautiful, and, according to my tour book, it is “the city’s most elaborate building by accident,” because its builders were trying to outdo the rest of Sydney’s skyline.

I continued my search for the bike store yet again today, even waking up extra early to increase my chances of finding it. After many wrong-turns, and getting drenched in a monster storm, I finally found the store, and I am the proud new owner of a bike (it is actually identical to Ziggy’s, but smaller). I have to go back and pick it up next weekend, but I am glad that my bike search has finally come to an end. The $10 bus ride to work was starting to get to me- did I mention that Sydney is expensive?

Here is a picture of Ziggy’s bike. Imagine a smaller (and less broken) version.

Luckily, in the wake of my misadventures, I have found solace in a new comfort food, Tim Tams. These chocolate biscuits were Ziggy’s answer to my question of, “what is Australia’s national food?” and I am addicted. There are all sorts of interesting facts to be learned from the Tim Tam’s wikipedia page, including the fact that when Pepperidge Farm tried to introduce them to the U.S. this past October, they also “launched an online community site that allowed users to track the cookies’ journey from Australia to U.S. stores”.

In addition to being delicious, they are also the center of an Australian tradition known as the Tim Tam Slam, which involves biting off the two ends of a Tim Tam and then using the remaining cookie as a straw to drink a hot beverage. I just tried it with tea, and it is pretty good. I’m already on my 3rd packages of Tim Tams and I have only been here just over a week! Yikes!


Aside from these misadventures, I am excited for my work in lab, and for the opportunity to explore the city without searching for a bike store. I haven’t nailed down my project for lab yet, but I’m getting started by reading this book, which, as the title suggests, is a general review of species invasions, and I have slowly been writing chapter summaries and making lists of papers to read. I’m almost done, and tomorrow I have a meeting with Graeme to start brainstorming my project. Hopefully soon I will have a better idea of what I’m actually going to be doing, and I will give more information about my research shortly!

Ziggy also gave me a book written by his beloved USyd advisor that he claims is the “Bible of Ecology.” I’ve only just started it, but it seems really useful, so I’m off to read up on some ecology experimental design!

No worries, mate

Posted in Australia, Sydney by rssmith218 on August 8, 2010

I’m finally beginning to settle into my new life in Sydney, and I couldn’t be more excited. The past few days have been busy and at times a bit overwhelming, but I’ve met a ton of new people and it’s been a great taste of what it is going to be like to live here. I’m still not quite on Australia-time, and I have been getting really tired around 9 pm each night, so I have spent a lot of time pretending to be awake and engaged, but hopefully this will pass soon!

So, despite my constant sleepiness, what have I done so far?

The first night, I went to a birthday party for Ziggy and Mariana’s friend Giulia at a cute and very delicious Mexican restaurant (Mariana is Ziggy’s girlfriend and one of my housemates). Dinner was for 25 people and it was crazy and completely overwhelming. Ziggy and Mariana both got their PhDs from the same lab at the University of Sydney with the well-known scientist Tony Underwood (he retired this past year) and most of their friends have some connection to this lab. The lab is both huge and extremely international. Ziggy and Mariana alone are Argentinian and Brazilian, but at dinner, I met people from Italy, Chile, Australia, the UK, Germany, and Portugal, among others. Everyone is so friendly, but also loud and outgoing; I’ve been amazed at the level of energy and enthusiasm that everyone is able to maintain, though I guess that is probably just my jetlag talking.

I don’t think I’ve ever been around so many people from such different countries- I really like it! It is interesting to hear people talk about their respective countries and communication is very different; most conversations are held in English, but most people speak Spanish, and I have been struggling to understand. My other two housemates (Paolo and Gregorio) are also Chilean, so everyone in our apartment speaks Spanish except for me- they have been really nice about speaking in English when I am around, but I still feel bad that I can’t speak Spanish with them.

On Friday, I spent the morning trying to get my bank, Medicare and phone set up, which ended up being more of an ordeal than I thought, though it worked out in the end. Afterwards, I made the trip to UNSW to a “welcome party” at my new lab. I finally met my advisor, Emma, in addition to my direct supervisor, Graeme, and I can’t wait to get started. I went on a tour of the lab, and had a chance to meet most of the lab; unlike the lab at USyd, most people are from Australia, and everyone is again very friendly, though a bit more reserved. Emma was very chatty and easy to talk to- overall a very different vibe from my lab at Northwestern. There are many younger PhD students in the lab, and it seemed like it would be easy to make friends. Also, I talked to Graeme a bit about the project, and it sounds awesome- I’ll give more information later once I know a bit more.

Afterwards, Ziggy and I went to the USyd lab for a going away party for Mariana, who is moving to Perth next week for a new job. It was neat to see another comparable lab- the USyd lab is much bigger, though the lab space is about the same. From the lab, we headed to a nearby pub, which was fun, but we stayed out very late and I was exhausted.

Yesterday, I spent the day wandering around Bondi and running a few errands. I love that Sydney feels very European. Bondi Road, the main road between my apartment and Bondi Junction, the main shopping area, is full of restaurants and little shops. There are bakeries, chocolate stores, fruit and vegetable stands, seafood shops, and even a “fresh game” store.

I love that you can get everything locally. For example, yesterday afternoon I just popped into the corner seafood store to get fresh fish to put on the “barbie” for my first Australian barbecue. Ziggy cooked an entire cow leg and cow ribs “Argentinian” style, which was pretty cool to watch.

This post is getting long, but today I had the opportunity to go sailing out on Sydney Harbour! The woman that Thomas and I stayed with in LA, Jacquie, put me in touch with one of her friends, Lea, in Sydney and this morning Lea invited me to go out with her family on her sailboat. I walked to meet them at Rose Bay, and from there we toured Sydney Harbour, which, as you can see, was absolutely gorgeous.

Rose Bay, where the boat is held.

I’m on a boat! Note the Australian flag in the background!

What’s that I see? The Sydney Opera House?

Yep! And the Harbour Bridge!

Pretty nice. Tomorrow I start my first real day of work- looking forward to it!

Coast to coast!

Posted in Australia, Sydney by rssmith218 on August 5, 2010

After a LONG flight, I have ventured from the east coast of the Pacific over to the west side! The flight was lengthy but smooth, and I spent the flight sandwiched between two twenty-six-year old “bros”. One of them ordered 7 Coronas over the course of the flight, including one beer that he drank with breakfast at 5:30 am. Needless to say, they were good company and the time passed (a whole Wednesday skipped!) much more quickly than I had anticipated.

And now I am in Sydney! It has been a long day. Ziggy picked me up at the airport at 6:30 am and took me on a quick tour of the university and the neighborhoods surrounding the apartment. He dropped me at the apartment before heading to work, and since then, I have slowly been unpacking my suitcases. I took some time away from packing for a walk down to Bondi beach and then continued to walk along the “Coastal Walk” to see some of the other nearby beaches. Check out these pictures- it is so beautiful here!

The famous Bondi Beach- only 2 minutes from my apartment and looking fly

This is the beach closest to my apartment- Can you spy my place in the background?

It is amazing how much my first glimpse of Sydney reminds me of Santa Monica in Los Angeles. There are the same beachside walks, the tropical-looking plants and flowers that I can’t identify, the oceanside skate parks, and larger-than-expected hills (I barely made it back to my apartment; I am going to get into good shape around here!).

However, Sydney does seem cleaner than LA, even though there does seem to be a lot of grafitti here.

As beautiful as Sydney is, I am looking a little worse for wear.

I know that a nap will probably only hurt my efforts to fight my jet lag, but I am too tired to resist! Off to nap before dinner!

We got it on lock…

Posted in California by rssmith218 on August 3, 2010

Hello from LA, the first stop on my big adventure!

I have to admit that I had some very strong preconceptions about LA before I arrived-mainly that it would be a dirty, grungy, polluted place- a real-life eco-dystopia! To be fair, this vision was based primarily on LA’s portrayal in The Fifth Sacred Thing, a sci-fi novel I read (and became mildly obsessed with) this past fall for an Ecology and Religion class. However, I am happy to say that so far LA has been wonderful, and the parts I have experienced these past couple days have been anything but an ecological mess. For example, as I write this post, I have the following view from the courtyard in Thomas’s house. Pretty beautiful, isn’t it?

The past few days have been busy, but relaxing, and Thomas and I have taken several short day trips around LA.  We’ve explored Santa Monica and Venice beaches, tested out the LA nightlife, and spent a day at Will Roger’s State Historic Park. Overall, a great trip!

Here are some photographic highlights:

Soaking up the sun at Santa Monica beach-we forgot to bring sunscreen and by the end of the day we were both bright red!

A rowdy drum circle at the beach- I tried to convince Thomas to dance, but he was too shy.

Out for drinks at the 3rd St. Promenade. Thomas is rightfully a bit skeptical of that hot sake!

Will Rogers State Historic Park is the site of Will Roger’s Pacific Palisades ranch, but it is also home to beautiful hiking trails, expansive polo fields, and friendly weekend ultimate Frisbee pick-up. We biked to the park, played a bit of Frisbee, and went on a short hike to Inspiration Point, where, ultimately, we were inspired. We then lounged around on the grass while watching polo (Malibu vs. Palisades).

When hiking in LA, it is MOUNTAIN LIONS, not bears, for which you must always be wary!

Inspiration Point- Do you feel inspired?

LA has been the perfect stop on my trip to Australia; I finally feel relaxed and ready for the rest of the journey. I leave LA tomorrow evening for a red-eye flight to Sydney. Ziggy will be picking me up from the airport, but I’m unsure of where I will go from there- Straight to the university? Off to set up my new apartment? To the beach? I am nervous and excited, but I can’t wait to get going!

Reminders of Australia are everywhere, but the next time you hear from me, I will actually be in Bondi! Looking forward to it!