There was a happy reunion of the EAPSI fellows at the Sydney airport before boarding the prop-plane to Canberra for the shortest flight of my life. Yet the efficient stewardesses still served us food and drinks even though we practically started our descent the moment we reached cruising altitude because we were flying on Qantas (a much nicer airline compared to most American ones). It was the Queen’s birthday (a public holiday) so the city seemed quiet as we drove from the airport to the luxurious Diamont hotel. On a side note, this hotel sadly burned to the ground only a week after we stayed there- yikes! Luckily no one was injured, but it’s still crazy. I’ve recently had this common theme of fire in my life as someone attempted to burn down my apartment building the week before I left (Melbourne better watch out!). Anyway, Canberra is a sleepy capital city (oxymoron, right?) that was only deemed capital because they couldn’t decide whether to use Sydney or Melbourne so they went half-way between the two. That evening, a group of us walked around the large, tranquil manmade lake and documented the colorful sunset with our cameras as it hid behind the mountains. We also saw some of the local fauna including an Australian water rat and numerous black swans (which I particularly enjoyed because we had a few black swans living on our ponds at my undergrad school, Ohio Northern). That night we walked through the empty city to have dinner (a tasty steakburger with chips and a rich waffle dessert).
The following morning we were given a guided tour of the National Gallery of Australia, a modern building with a large collection of Aboriginal art. Of particular interest were the grave poles, which are hollowed-out tree trunks decorated with a person’s life story. When a person dies they are left to decompose in a tree until only the bones are left (the aboriginal people believe a person’s spirit is in their bones). The bones are then placed in the pole and the pole is situated upright into the ground (above the surface) to free the spirit. I didn’t realize there were several hundred groups of indigenous people in Australia each with their unique culture so it was interesting to learn about them. We then walked around the planned city, which reminds me of a very small Washington D.C.
After a pleasant lunch with ginger beer (similar to ginger ale, but better) we headed to the Parliament House to view the question and answer session. Essentially, one member from one party asks another member from the opposing party a question that must be answered. However, we all know that there are no direct answers in government (which the speaker of the house even said outright at the start) and the sessions became quite heated with name calling and ridiculous retorts (really fun to watch). The main topic of discussion was the carbon tax, which seemed to elicit a large response from the members. The prime minister Julia Gillard (who looks like Tilda Swinton) was an eloquent speaker, but I read later in the day that she is currently very unpopular. I have to say the best part of the experience was sitting across the room from the Dalai Lama who just happened to stop by! That evening we had a merry time at Kamberra Winery (Kamberra is actually the name of the local Aboriginals). Everyone even sang happy birthday to me (as it was my birthday), which really made my day!
On the final day of the orientation we had an official session with the members of the Australian Academy of Science who organized this entire event (and partly funded our trip, thanks!). We heard an interesting lecture on “Sex and Australian Mammals” where we learned that males may become obsolete in the distant future – I don’t like the sound of that. We said our sad goodbyes as we all split up to fly to our respective destinations. I really developed some great friendships even during that short time span, and I look forward to our debriefing session in Sydney when we all meet up again. Now off to my host city, the capital of culture in Australia – Melbourne!