Coming back to Australia was one of my most anticipated experiences at the inception of #ScienceTheEarth. Having traveled here in 2004 through an organization called People to People, I was looking forward to revisiting the first country to which I had traveled outside of the North America. My memories of Australia include my first introduction to rugby, Weet-bix, and tea- my first glimpse into the life of marsupials- and the introduction to one of my first loves.
These expectations only exacerbated the overwhelming discontent I experienced Australia. The wonderland which I had experienced as a child on a tour bus with friends was not the same when experienced through hostels and self-planned day trips. Australia has been the only country to which I have traveled whose hostels are inhabited almost completely with people that have entirely different life aspirations than me. For more on this story, read through the blog below.
However, I want to start off with the highlight of my Australia trip and the one exception to this sentiment- my trip to the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia.
Brisbane was the city to which I was looking forward to visiting the most. For some reason, the central market of the city was one of my most memorable moments in Australia as a child. This, no doubt, is likely due to the fact that this is where I purchased my black Kakadoo duster that you see me wearing in many of my pictures. It is also the city that contains the University of Queensland where I am visiting the lab of Stefano Freguia, whom you may remember from AP-ISMET in Busan, South Korea.
To get to The University of Queensland, you can take a boat along the Brisbane River and debark at UQ St Lucia ferry terminal, St Lucia. The campus is beautiful and contains many open fields on which to lay and study. As I walk through campus, people can be seen lounging around on the grass with birds walking joining them. Before I visit the lab of Stefano and give my presentation, I went to a presentation about sewer pipe corrosion.
Xuan Li is a graduate student working with Guangming Jiang to measure microbe induced corrosion in concrete sewer pipes. To understand just how this works, we need to understand the microbes and the chemistry of the reactions happening in the sewer system. When we flush our fecal matter down the toilet, it enters into a series of sewage pipes which are installed under the ground (imagine where the Ninja Turtles live). Our fecal matter contains the remnants of the food we eat, including left over lipids, proteins, and carbohydrates. Within those remnants are certain elements including carbon: measured in chemical oxygen demand (COD) or biochemical oxygen demand (BOD), nitrogen: measured in total nitrogen (TN), Phosphorous: measured in total phosphorous (TP), and sulfur: an element often found in proteins due to their role in amino acids like cysteine and methionine. Once in these lines, the flow of the sewage down the line is determined by many factors including the amount of water and solids entering the lines, in addition to the size and shape of the lines.
Since the sewage entering a sewage line is not immediately flushed through the line, it spends a certain amount of time sitting in the sewage line degrading and/or fermenting. As a result of this fermentation process, volatile waste products can form including CH4 (methane) and SO42- (sulfate) (which eventually becomes hydrogen sulfide, H2S). Xuan is interested in the sulfate because it is the sulfate produced from our waste that ultimately leads to the corrosion on concrete sewage lines. This occurs because sulfate is reduced to sulfide (S2-) and eventually hydrogen sulfide (H2S) under the anaerobic (low O2) conditions of the sewage line by sulfate reducing bacteria (SRB). As sulfide, the sulfur becomes more volatile and escapes the liquid phase of the sewage in the pipe, rising to the parts of the line that are exposed to air and oxygen (O2). In this part of the pipe, sulfide oxidizing bacteria (SOB) are able to oxidize the sulfide to produce sulfuric acid (H2SO4): a highly corrosive acid which corrodes certain types of cement including those composed of calcium hydroxide (Ca(OH)2). The chemical process looks like this:
SO42- (anaerobic) + (SRB) -> S2-+2H+ -> H2S (volatile) + 2O2 +SOB -> H2SO4 + Ca(OH)2 ->
CaSO4 (salt) +2H2O
With this understanding, she hopes to develop a method to inhibit this corrosion by integrating new materials into sewage pipes. Although not all sewage pipes contain calcium hydroxide and there has been research on developing alternative materials for the production of sewage pipes, Xuan’s research seeks to reduce corrosion by inhibiting the growth of SOB. To do this, she is trying to incorporate nitrite (NO2-) which is eventually transformed into free nitrous acid (HNO2) into the pipe structure because this compound has been shown to act as a biocide in for SOB. Chris Hertle, a chemical engineer with GHD, serves as an adjunct professor at UQ and is helping to commercialize new sewage lines incorporating the microbe inhibiting material.
After the lecture, I made my way over to the lab of Stefano Freguia. The lab at the University of Queensland is where Korneel Rabaey studied for his doctoral degree. The lab also has a strong influence on urine research and nutrient recovery using microbial electrochemical cells (UGold Project) which is partly what intrigued Pablo Ledezma- a former student of Ioannis Ieropoulos at the Bristol Robotic Lab. Similar to the research underway in the lab of Enrico Marsili in Singapore, Pablo is interested in capturing the phosphorous (P) in pee since it is a finite resource that will become increasingly valuable in the years to come. The lab is also working with cyanobacteria- the same photosynthetic microorganisms which Binh Nguyen researched at Arizona State University and at Hanoi University of Science and Technology in Vietnam.
At UQ, Stefano asked me to give thelecture about traveling and the philosophy of my travel. The lecture was well received. After the event, we went to a gathering on campus and discussed life, science, and exotic birds. As we were discussing, some Rainbow Lorikeets gathered in a nearby tree and we listened to their music.
Also, the South Bank in Brisbane utilizes a rainwater capture system for their irrigation which provides 85% of the park’s water supply.
Brisbane is also the location of a major brewery for the XXXX ('4 X') brand beer from Australia. Here, they offer comprehensive tours of the facility that permit you guided access to much of the plant from production to bottling, labeling, and packaging. You can ever see classic pictures and porcelain sculptures of their logo Mr. 4 X which look a bit like Mr. 4 X suffered a severe stroke.
Brisbane, like Perth (below), is a great city for a family, featuring public sand pools next to the river to which you can visit for a swim. Many of the museums, including the Queensland Gallery of Modern Art (QAGOMA), are free to visit and explore. The QAGOMA had original art by Nick Cave (the African-American artist not be confused with the Australian musician whose concert I attended in Sydney) on display in addition to several other Australian and international artists.
Perth was a lovely town for a family, but did not have much going on otherwise. I would suggest Perth to someone looking for a small town feel in a slightly bigger city. From Perth, a 45 minute cruise on a passenger boat can escort you to Rottnest Island.
My first stop in Australia kinda set the pace for things to come. I had booked a hostel in Perth near to the airport since my flight was landing late. After arriving, I received an email that said the hostel had closed at the last minute for 'emergency renovations' (this usually means bed bugs). I was told that I was moved to a different hostel. The new hostel was several blocks away from the one which I had booked due to its proximity to the airport so I sent an email asking for a price adjustment. There was no response to the email so I found a bus and went to the hostel to which I had been moved. When I arrived around midnight due to the long bus ride, no one was at the front desk. I went to the back where I encountered a large group of drunk people. I asked if any of them knew where the person whom checks people in was located. One of them stood up and proclaimed it was him.
We slowly made our way past the broken furniture and moldy staircases to the particle board window that was the front counter. Once the particle board was removed, I was shown into a room that had a few CRT computer monitors.
Drunk guy: “Awe, you’re lucky we had another one cancel or else you wouldn’t have a bed. You didn’t give us your email address so we couldn’t confirm.”
Me: “I did not book this hostel; I was told that I had been transferred here from another hostel via email. When I contacted the other hostel about it, they did not respond. Odd that they would send you my name and not my email address.”
Drunk guy: “Well, we have you in the system for a 12 bed room.”
Me: “No, I booked for a six bed room. So, you can either put me in a six bed room or charge me less for the 12 bed room.”
Drunk guy: “We had a guy in a six bed room cancel.”
Rottnest Island is named after the quokka marsupials which inhabit the place. Legend has it, due to their similar appearance to rodents, early settlers mistook them for giant rats and thus named is 'Rats Nest' Island. This later became Rottnest. In the videos below, you can watch me take a bike ride around the island to the Rottnest Island (Wadjemup) Lighthouse, Pink Lake, several beaches, and you can even see me pet a live quokka!
After my one night in that hostel, I was eager to change to a different one so that I could take a shower without feeling as though the process had made me dirtier than when I walked in. The hostel to which I moved, although more cleanly, was again inundated with drunk people. Travel pamphlets for fun day trips hung on the walls offering limited time offers that expired in 2010. The hostels of Australia are among the worst in the world. I do not use this term lightly as I have been to hotels and hostels from Pakistan to Egypt to India. In Australia, every place was infested with insects, broken furniture, and moldy infrastructure. Often were stories and incidences of fights at least once a week. At one hostel, a male inhabitant even went as far as to molest a female inhabitant in front of everyone sitting around a table. In response, a witness got very angry and nearly punched the perpetrator. This is the worst case I have seen to argue against travelling alone as a female in any country in the world. Anywhere.
In Australia, I was confronted with a harsh reality- the philosophy of travel for self-discovery, invention, and reinvention is not always one that yields fruitful results. For me, every incidence of travel has helped me to grow in profound ways- from a greater appreciation for other cultures to an increased awareness of self and a renewed motivation to take responsibility for the planet. However, without guiding our journey with those intentions, the outcome can be profoundly different. I have no doubt that these individuals will learn something from this process- they are on their own path to self-discovery; whether or not they find their way, I cannot tell.
What I found in Australia was a bunch of relatively young souls looking for place; looking to discover themselves. Many had left home to work as day laborers in Australia and to establish themselves outside the context of their ‘home’ and their ‘family.’ This was their opportunity to be an individual and lead a life by their own terms. For many, it seems, the life which they were ‘leaving behind’ chased them to the island continent. The escape they were looking for in another nation on the other side of the world was no escape at all; they were just as lost as they were back home and had merely transplanted themselves to another continent to be so.
Their struggle for self, for place, and for identity had led many of them to alcoholism. Not the kind of alcoholism that we tend to recognize as alcoholism, but rather alcoholism that had become so normalized only an outsider would recognize it. A common theme in every hostel was a cheap wine product called ‘goon’ (boxed wine). The first few nights, the concept was a little charming- drinking wine out of a carton with some friends to relax and have a good time. By day twenty- the problem was blatant and alarming. By the time I got to Sydney, other than at the University of Queensland, I had found only three people with which to have a conversation about something other than goon. One was a man from Germany that was on a spiritual journey in Australia, one was a man from Britain that was looking for a new life and was confronting the concept of feeling ‘stuck’ in a beach hostel in Perth because life, as he stated dreadfully, had gotten ‘too easy’, and the third was an 18 year old from the Netherlands that was escaping a family of alcoholics back home.
All the rest were too occupied with Netflix and goon to talk about or plan anything. During my stay in Sydney, Australia there were very large celebrations for Chinese New Year and Australia Day. For both of these events, there were fireworks shows, people with parachutes jumping out of helicopters, boat races, airplane shows, live concerts, art festivals, street performances, complimentary museum admissions, the list goes on. And although I did greatly enjoy these festivities- I visited them all by myself. For Australia day, I left around 10AM and did not return until about 11PM after the ceremonial fireworks show.
The severity of the alcoholism became perfectly clear when I returned to the hostel that night and discovered that no one in my hostel had left. Every single one of them had started drinking at 9 or 10 AM or had merely slept the entire day since they were up until the early morning drinking goon the night before. Many had passed the day by drinking, sleeping, and watching Will Smith movies on Netflix. Some had left, but only to visit the bar next door (a mere ten seconds walk from the front door of the hostel). When I asked some of them if they had seen any of the festivities many stated that they did not know what was going on, some had awoken for the first time that day, and others simply laughed about how they had spent the whole day in the hostel drinking. Most claimed that they had acted this way because it was Australia Day and they had the day off. This story I would believe if they had not exhibited the same behavior every day, other than when they were at work, for the entire week I was there.
This is by no means an indictment of these individuals. I consider myself very fortunate to have bypassed what many refer to as their ‘party phase.’ When I was in my early twenties, I was inelementary schools teaching kids about college- that’s where my heart took me. I didn’t drink alcohol until I graduated with my bachelors in science and my certificate in the philosophy of science. My party phase lasted about two months after graduation and ended when I started graduate school that August and put a down payment on my house. For most, this is not a simple path to choose.
Sydney also features a boat that operates much like a taxi. With this boat, you can travel around to places in the city including Manly Bay- a popular beach and surfing point located next to Syndey Harbour National Park.
The lure of alcohol is extremely enticing when we struggle to define ourselves. When we undergo major life transitions, like the transition from our childhood into adulthood, we are forced to confront many hard truths in life- truths from which we are shielded for most of our childhood. We are confronted with the realities of responsibility and alcohol offers an escape from that reality. It introduces us to a realm where we can interact with other people undergoing similar transitions that have attached themselves to similar habits for dealing with those transitions. I know many people that have suffered from alcoholism, some that have nearly died, and I understand that it is a very serious condition. Speaking to people that have been to rehab for everything from heroin to cocaine to alcohol, the story is often the same- alcohol is perhaps the most dangerous drug on the market since it is so readily available and culturally acceptable. Think about it- if someone is addicted to heroin we perceive the situation as clearly dire, but if someone drinks too much, it is easy to convince ourselves that maybe they are just having a bad day.
You can also travel to Luna Park- a creepy theme park modeled after Coney Island. The theme park is marketed mainly towards children which is the most frightening aspect of the whole place. As you walk around, the parked is donned with painted signs of clowns with razor sharp teeth and strange figures with disproportionate bodies; in the background ‘Pure Imagination’ is on continuous loop. One painting displays what appears to be a circus act with an on looking crowd, but upon further inspection you see that the man has a very serious face and that the stack of heads behind him all contain expressions of extreme discomfort.
Nick Cave sample from the concert.
My visit to Sydney also happened to coincide with a musical performance by Nick Cave. Nick Cave is a very famous Australian singer known best for his work with the Bad Seeds, but also for his early post-punk outfit the Boys Next Door and his early goth band the Birthday Party which performed Release the Bats. You may know him from the sound track to Dumb and Dumber which features his single Red Right Hand.
If you are reading this and can relate, or if you think I am overreacting, I urge you to consider why you feel this way. The normalization of alcoholism is not acceptable. And it is something that beer and party culture advocates should be doing more to talk about. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, over 20% of Australians drink more than the recommended guidelines for a healthy lifestyle. We cannot sit back and tell everyone that they are sexy for drinking beer and then tell them to drink responsibly and pretend there is no lasting and potentially negative impact. Think about the situation of these people. They were between the ages of 18-29 and all of them had spent an entire day drinking a $9 box of bad tasting wine product in the basement of a dark hostel in the capital of Australia so that they could get drunk and watch Space Jam during one of the largest celebrations in the country. And this happened every day (and was repeated during the Chinese New Year celebrations). What is their everlasting life story, what are their unique experiences, how do they define their individuality?
Chinese New Year Celebrations
I also happened to be in Sydney during the Chinese New Year(January 28, 2017) which was historically associated with the Lunar New Year. Despite whatLouis CK may tell you, no, not all calendars are based on the birth of Jesus. The Chinese calendar currently has about 100 different variants and used to be determined by the emperor in charge, but it is widely accepted that the current year is 4715. According to the Chinese zodiac, 4715 is the year of the rooster which, according to legend, means that this year will be opinionated, exciting, and action packed. For this, there were dragon dances, fireworks, concerts, and lanterns!
Australia Day Celebrations
I got to enjoy Australia Day and its festivities. Australia Day is a celebration of the landing of the first fleet of British ships at Port Jackson, Australia. It is a bit of a contentious day since the aboriginal people see it as Invasion Day- the day they began surviving the invasion of British forces.
At the Australia Day event, I met some aboriginals playing digeridoo and saw a live performance by children performing a traditional aboriginal dance. I could see their mothers and fathers watching from beside the stage. They had so much pride in their eyes that it nearly brought me to tears- the moment was so moving.
In addition to the main celebration throughout Sydney, an aboriginal themed event called Yabun also occurs. This festival had a stage consisting of mainlyaboriginal acts and performances. Featured, was a surrounding market which had handmade aboriginal themed crafts. One band that I enjoyed in particular, and which played at both events, is called OKA! They are an eclectic mix of flute, digeridoo, and electronic. Check them out on Soundcloud.
OKA! - Culture live at Sydney Day festival
OKA! - Live at Yabun 2017
Salt Lake Band live at Yabun 2017 Song 01 and Song 02
For those of you dealing with alcoholism or know family members that do, I strongly encourage you to start talking about it. Call a helpline and educate yourself. Enjoying a beer every now and then is great. But if you find yourself drinking so that you can sleep, socialize, or ‘get through the day’, then I strongly urge you to start thinking about your health.
My biggest dread would be that I end up like the 29 year old I met in the hostel in Sydney. This Dutch guy had lived in a ‘temporary hostel’ (in Sydney, hostels claim to not accept stays longer than four weeks so that they are not legally obligated to pay certain taxes but most of them simply advertise this and then take people for as long as they want, and then find a way to alter the books so it looks like they only stayed a few weeks) for three months, was my age, acted like he was in charge of the hostel because he could 'drink the most', and had been playing drinking games every night I was there. I would never want, at my age, to have nothing more to show for my day than an empty box of goon and a story bragging about how I let people win during my fifth game of beer pong on a Wednesday night because I simply got tired of drinking (although “I definitely wasn’t drunk”).
Perhaps the most difficult aspect of this trip was the internal confrontation of my current state and the memories of my childhood. Witnessing the hopelessness of the current situation, juxtaposed with my childhood, triggered a visceral realization- the naivety of my childhood is obsolete and I appreciate the ephemeral pleasure of that time and place- a time and place unique and reserved only for those fleeting past moments. For now... for now we must recognize this time and this place for what it is- the moments which some day you will recognize as the fond memories to which you wish you could return.