Saturday, August 08, 2015

Gladstone Trip

My program is unique because some of our classes are not on campus or in Brisbane at all – come November I’ll be in Thailand for a class while some of my classmates will be in Perth. I’m telling you this because second semester started, which means for us that for ten days we flew up to Central Queensland to an industrial town called Gladstone.

Gladstone has a good amount of water-related issues. The city has tried to grow with the boom of industry, which is no longer booming over there as much I hear. The overall water situation is not great, though surprisingly the water quality does not look all that horrible considering there are coal dunes sitting on the harbor and the waste from dredging the harbor piled on the side. But, the Great Barrier Reef is nearby, and the dugongs and turtles (and other fish) suffer from industry (like boats hitting them) and people’s mindless behavior with their solid waste (like cigarette butts choking things in the water). Meanwhile, agriculture upstream can put gross stuff in the water that accumulates in the harbor, and people are worried that the safety of the water in the harbor is dangerous for a myriad of reasons.

For ten days, about 50 of us students went over to study and analyze what is happening in the area with interviews and presentations from different groups within the community. This was all in hopes to come with an integrative understanding of things and perhaps even provide recommendations for change to those with power. The hard part is water holds such a dynamic and varied yet crucial role for all of these groups (aquatic wildlife, industries, farmers, fishers, government, etc.) that it’s hard to find a common ground for them all.

Gladstone is a small town, according to me - It’s just over 65,000 people – that will probably get smaller over time, as some industries could begin closing up shop. It was quiet and had a few nice things, like a token night club and a main drag with restaurants and bars. We counted about four places to get decent coffee; one of them was a gelato joint on the harbor. Often we were driving or walking around the sprawled town, and I felt like I barely saw other humans out (but maybe I was just not looking hard enough).

We visited an aluminum refinery plant, and it felt as if we had been dropped on Mars as we gazed out to the red mud vastness of the plant’s dregs. But it wasn’t all October Sky – the town had a nice harbor to frolic alongside, and there were some leafy areas to relax and stroll during our tours of different parts of the town, when/if we had downtime.

Something that I have only recently begun to grasp is that Australia is an industry-heavy country. Over 8% of the economy comes from mining, including coal-seam gas (liquid natural gas), coal, aluminum, and probably a few others I am forgetting. Australians gripe that the government is completely controlled by the strings of the big mining firms (which I believe), and a lot of people I have met in class (and in passing) work for mining in some way, shape, or form. At first I was appalled, but now I see how a lot of the country stands on these industries to create a higher quality of life (financially, I would say), and that to them it is simply what it is. I’m just surprised how accepting people are of their career options are, particularly the environmentalist types – people talk about how they are working to minimize the damage of the mining industry. I guess if that’s what your country chooses to harness for the economy, you have to make a living however you can.

Ten days is a long time to learn eight hours a day. By day five my brain was leaking education all over the floor and pooling around my feet in a messy, gooey pile. There were a few times I don’t believe English was applicable to me anymore, either. Some of the week remains a blur (worryingly), but I feel like I did come out of it with a larger bird’s eye view of a complicated mess of a water system.

We were what Colorado Meg calls “glamping” (glam + camping), sleeping on bunk beds in permanent canvas tents outside an environmental education center. I woke up to infuriatingly enthusiastic kookaburras who would howl with laughter at us while perched on the top of our tent, and we had to watch out for possums and mosquitoes trying to enter our tent.

Outside of the tent, it was fun at night to have the possums come join us by the campfire – Australia is rabies-free, which thrills me and makes me want to attempt to pet/cuddle/squeeze all furry wildlife whenever I’m outside.

The bathrooms were a 5-minute walk outside on some precarious steps that jolted me awake up every night as I cautiously navigated them to go urinate between REM cycles. I will admit my aging and lack of experience camping outside has made me a bit of a princess when it comes to what I am comfortable doing for prolonged periods of time. For example, I would love to never have a toilet that far from my bed ever again.

But we still had fun times. San Diego Jenny (she hails from California but works for the program here now) brought s’mores ingredients so that we Americans could introduce the rest of the group to the joys of our delicious camping dessert. It was delightful to watch them trying hard to make the perfect marshmallow and attempt to navigate eating the gooey sandwich of joy. The Australians tried showing us their campfire bread they make while out in the bush called “damper” – it’s not gluten free, so I can’t tell you how it is, but I hear it tastes like bread.

And there was some fun with our meals. The lady who was managing all of our food, bless her, was Trudy. Trudy had bit off far more than she could chew – she had 50+ grown adults wanting at least 3 filling meals a day…and 2 were Celiacs, 4 were Halal, 3 were no red meat, while 3 more were pescatarians. So, in a sense, she had to make a general meal for 38 people, and then 12 individual meals for us special-needs eaters, every few hours. This lady has been making food for smaller, much younger school groups for years, and her children don’t have so many food restrictions, outside of nuts. Sometimes the food was not enough for us all, sometimes the food was strangely prepared, and sometimes it was amazing and delicious. There was a fair number of people in the group who griped and complained a lot about the meals the entire time. Considering we were kind of camping outside in a quiet place, however, I was expecting far worse for meals, and was pleasantly surprised how diverse each meal was.

She did never fully grasp what Celiac means – I tried a number of times to explain to her that chicken and beef are naturally gluten-free (unless they’re sausages) despite the label not saying so. Overall, it kept me amused for the week and half.

The part-time students were shocked with how early us full-time students would go to bed. They stayed up socializing until the wee hours of the morning, while some of our full-time cohort were passed out by 9pm (I tried to get to bed by 10am). What can I say? We are just trying to make sure we make it through another semester without breaking down.

We did get a day off in our learning, where I went back to the Great Barrier Reef! But I’ll write about that in a bit.

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