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Mid-Semester Break: A Week in Thailand (Part 2)

Welcome back to the exciting conclusion of my week in Thailand! If you happened to miss the first half of this post, you can catch up here. I last left off with the ThaIntro group pulling away from Bangkok on an over night train, heading off to our next exciting location. A few people were expecting the train to be something similar to the Hogwarts Express. They were severely disappointed. We were informed that new trains were going to be installed next year, so the train we were on had a very “dated” feel. The worst part was probably the bathroom, which had a traditional eastern style toilet. Translation: it was basically a hole in the floor which ran to a tank. I tried not to focus too much on the surroundings and mainly concentrated on writing a paper that was due soon after I returned. Each seat had a nice, large window that allowed a cool breeze to run through the train. At one point while I was busily working away, the window suddenly collapsed and scared me half to death. It was defiantly a testament to the age of the train. I put my work away and walked around to see what everyone else was doing. Some people were playing games to pass the time while others were busy drowning their claustrophobia in alcohol. I returned to my seat and played a couple games of chess with Andrew. One of the train workers soon came by and turned the chairs into beds, which was pretty cool. After a few hours of catching up with Andrew, I tried to go to sleep, in hopes of getting off the train that much sooner.

Monday April 21, 2014: Floating Bungalows

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We got off the train at 7am, only to get on a 3 hour van, then finally a 30 minute boat ride to this hideaway located on a huge lake. Khao Sak National Park was a gorgeous place floating on the water full of places to swim, kayaks to use, and space to lay out. Once rooms were settled, everyone jumped in the water and started taking it easy. Khao Sak was a much needed change of pace from the hustle and bustle of Bangkok. There did not seem to be people around for miles. As the afternoon went on, some rain rolled in, but that did not slow anyone down. The fun continued on into the night where the entire group played this odd game with a box. The objective was to pick up this box using only your teeth. After each round, the sides of the box were partially torn off and people tried again. This continued until people were picking up a flat piece of cardboard off of the ground. I was terrible at this game, being eliminated in the first round, but one guy in our group managed to make it to one of the last rounds.

Things quieted down on the bungalows and the electricity was turned off at 11pm. We were provided with oil lamps to navigate the narrow walkways. Before bed, everyone got together and gazed at the stars above. Aside from the few people that did not realize star gazing works better when their cell phone flashlight turn off, the view was incredible. A few of us snuck away onto a boat to get away from those that could not go without electricity.The glimmering, starry sky above painted the perfect scene for us to  just talk about life, the universe, and everything. After several minutes of mind stimulating conversation, our group leader busted us and we were forced to get off the boat much to our disappointment. We changed locations, but it was getting late so we said our good nights and went to bed.

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Tuesday April 22, 2014: Arrival at Koh Phangan and the Half Moon Party

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After a great night’s sleep, we ate a quick breakfast and shipped off for our next location, the island of Koh Phangan. Since the usual place the group stays at was booked full, we would be in the resort next door. This resort was awesome, but had one, minor flaw. The day we arrived, the staff decided to clean the water. Apparently, the way to do this is to pour what I presume to be gallons upon gallons of chlorine into the water system. Everyone looking forward to getting a nice shower had their hopes quickly dashed , unless they wanted to endure the eye stinging, suffocating showers. I suffered through and got ready for the night’s main event, the half moon party.

Before we left for this party, everyone was required to wear bright neon shirts and get painted ridiculously. It was about midnight before we arrived to The Half Moon Party.  Once everyone was reunited, the group made the journey up the hill and into the heart of the party. I stopped for a brief moment to appreciate the sea of several thousand neon painted party goers, the colorful surroundings, and the bumping bass beats of a party that would stop for no one. Soon enough, I was grabbed by the wrist and lead into the chaos which was about to ensue. We posted up on our “Party Platform”, which overlooked the madness of The Half Moon Party and was conveniently located next to a bar. The number of people in attendance was incredible and it was obvious the party would continue until the sun came up. Once we had our fun, the leaders arranged taxis to take us back home so we could end the night.

Wednesday April 23, 2014: Koh Phangan Island Tour

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Today we would be taking a boat around the island of Koh Phangan. After waking up at 10am, we went out on our boat actually named “Snoop Dogg” and started to explore the island. A few laid out on the front of the boat while others were exchanging stories about the craziness of the night before. An hour or so into the tour, we stopped to do a bit of snorkeling. Before jumping in, some of the leaders tossed bread in the water to attract fish. I grabbed a mask and jumped in to the sea life below. The water was teeming with a rainbow of ocean life. Small black and white minnows moved in swarms all around me. Several meters below lay a multitude coral hosting many other exotic and beautiful fish. We snorkeled for around 30 and it was definitely one of my favorite parts of the trip.

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Snorkeling with the fishes.

We were called back to the boat and continued our journey around the island a little while longer before stopping at a beach resort for lunch. A couple of the residents were impressed how many of us managed to fit on the boat. After lunch, we relaxed on the beach for a few hours, swam, and even played some volleyball. My team was unstoppable and we were easily the kings of beach volleyball. Once the group was ready to head back, we boarded the boat one last time to return to our hotel. It should have been a quick hour ride home, but as luck would have it, the trip took a little bit longer. A couple minutes after pulling away from shore, the engine made a large chunk sound. The boat began to slow down. Something was wrong with the motor. Even though we were still moving, travel was much, much slower than anticipated. Between this and the showers, I took these events as a good reminder that no matter how ready a person may be, life can happen in some of the most unpredictable ways.

Eventually, we did make it back. On the bright side, most of the chlorine was out of the water system. Tonight, we would be heading to The Drop In Bar. We were not told much about this place, but it was a nice to have a good surprise ahead of us. The Drop In Bar was located on the shore of Koh Phangan and was nothing short of a crazy beach party. With options to either show off on the dance floor of sand or hangout on the shore, this place had everything. Including…fire rope jumping. Exactly as it sounds, two guys would light a massive jump rope on fire, start swinging it, and anyone brave enough could just jump in. I watched in disbelief as several people took turns jumping in and facing the danger. Most managed to get in and out without a problem. Most. Some would trip on the rope and get a little tangled up, but everyone managed to get away mostly unscathed.

The rest of the night was pretty tame after that. A couple more hours were spent watching others press their luck and just enjoying the beach. We later caught a cab home and got ready for our last full day in Thailand.

Thursday April 24, 2014: Elephant Rides and Thai Massages

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For our last day in Thailand, we would be visiting the Maneerat Safari Elephant Sanctuary to intact with and ride some elephants. Once we arrived at the sanctuary, we were split in to two groups. Luckily, I was in the first, because I could not contain my excitement. There was an odd number of people in our group, so somehow, three of us guys ended up riding on a single elephant. The three of us got on this elephant’s back in a dodgy, make-shift bench that was tied around the elephant’s stomach. We sat down and took off on our safari journey. The sanctuary had a small trek through some wooded areas before ascending to the top of a hill overlooking Koh Phangan. It was a surreal experience and I loved every minute of it. We watched as the elephant ate some food, wandered around, and interacted with other elephants. I was pretty sad once the ride was over, but at least we were not leaving just yet.

Even though the primary purpose was to rescue elephants, the sanctuary was home to many other animals as well. While the other group took their turn on the elephants, the rest of us stayed back played with a monkey named Peepo. Peepo was a friendly, but curious little guy. He played with anything he could get his hands on. To interact with Peepo, we were required to sit on a bench perfectly still. Then, the keeper would set Peepo on our lap and let him do his thing. If Peepo just kind of sat there and hung out, then we could pet him. But if he was feeling adventurous, Peepo would climb all over and get into trouble. He was very unpredictable. For some, he fell asleep in people’s laps, while for several of the girls, he stole their hair ties.  The funniest Peepo moment was when he was sitting on the lap of one girl, then decided to use the bathroom right where he was. I felt bad for the girl, but it was hilarious. To calm him down, the keeper would occasionally massage Peepo’s face and body. Before I could get my chance, the second group came back from their rides.

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Feeding the elephants.

Everyone got back together and it was time to feed the elephants. Armed with a basket of bananas, the elephants snatched the bananas right out of our hand and ate them, peel and all. I think I fed an elephant at least 20 bananas one by one. Then we moved on to just giving him the basket, but it still did not seem to put a dent in his appetite.  After feeding what I assumed to be the entire islandls stockpile of bananas, one of the keepers filled up the elephants trunk for what I though was a drink of water. Not quite. The elephant raised his trunk in the air and sprayed water all over us. Just in case anyone did not get wet enough the first time, the keeper decided to do it again, just for good measure. It was awesome and I am pretty sure the elephant thought it was hilarious. The experience gave me a whole new appreciation for elephants and I could have stayed all day at the sanctuary, but like always, our time was up and we had to move on.

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We got back to the resort and got some Thai messages. This woman twisted and turned me in all kinds of direction. At one point, I was pretty sure I was going to snap in half. At the end, I felt like the abuse my body had taken all week had disappeared and I was ready to start the whole trip again. Unfortunately, the sun was setting and it was time to get ready for the farewell dinner. Everyone gathered together one last time and went to this gorgeous restaurant on the beach. It was a calm evening, the wave were softly crashing on the shore, and we had one last Thai meal together as a group. After dinner, we lit some paper lanterns and set them off into the night sky. Many of the others were continuing on to other parts of Thailand or other countries, but as for the Thailand Brigade, our journey was coming to a close. We caught a taxi back home, sat of the beach, and laughed at all of the incredible, ridiculous, and amazing memories that were made on this trip. Good byes were said, hugs were exchange, and just like that, we reached the end of our adventure.

Without experiencing it for myself, I could never have imagined that such a place existed in the world. Between all of the food, people, culture, and scenery, there is no other place like Thailand. The new friends I made, the experiences we shared, and the memories we created are those which I treasure deeply. I find it hard to believe that the journey is over, but I look  forward to retelling these stories for the rest of my life.

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So long Thailand. Thanks for the life changing experience.

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Mid-Semester Break: A Week in Thailand (Part 1)

Hey everyone! I have been working away at getting a post together about the craziness I experienced while in Thailand, but I did so much that I think it will be best to separate the trip into two blog posts. Here is the first half of my mid-semester break. Enjoy!

Friday April 18, 2014: Arrival in Bangkok

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The journey to Thailand was a fairly long trip, but I was luckily taking some direct routes to get there. A couple hundred meters just outside my house, I caught a 45 minute train directly to the international terminal at Brisbane International Airport. My flight was scheduled for 2pm, so I showed an hour early to be on the safe side. The check in ran smoothly and soon enough, I was on board the plane and headed to Bangkok. It was only 9 hour direct flight from Brisbane to Bangkok, and the flight itself ran pretty smothly. I collected my bags at the Suvarnabhumi Airport and found a ThaIntro organizer who would arrange for a taxi to take me to the hotel the rest of the group was staying at. One last 45 minute taxi ride and I was finally at the White Orchid hotel. Alan, one of the three group leaders supervising us all for the week met me in the lobby and got me checked in to my room. He went through a broad itinerary of the week and some general basics on how to survive Bangkok.

From the hotel balcony.

From the hotel balcony.

Alan left and I surveyed the room. It was nothing too extravagant, just two beds and a bathroom. The group was leaving in an hour to head to a bar, so I got cleaned up. I thought the shower was kind of cool as it was outside on our balcony overlooking the main road into the hotel. Downstairs, most of the group was gathered together, meeting each other and getting excited for the week ahead. I met as many of the 44 others in the group as I could before finally crossing paths with my friend Andrew. He has been studying in Sydney this semester, so I was glad we were able to meet up in Thailand. Andrew introduced me to some people he was traveling with and I was happy to be accepted as a part of their brigade.

Our group leaders gathered us all together and properly introduced themselves before we left for the bar. The first was Alan, who I already met. He was the main lead who boasted a Scottish accent that was quite capable of capturing our attention. The next lead was Mena. She had ran this trip several times before and was actually retired from ThaIntro, but since the group was so large, her expertise was required. She was pretty crazy and always in the mood to have fun. The last lead was Simon, the fresh meat. He had been on the ThaIntro trip before as a group member and liked the experience so much that he decided to get a job as a lead. This was his first group ever. He was a friendly guy who was definitely taking notes on how things should be ran. Between the three of them, I was pretty sure I would survive Thailand.

After introductions, it was time to head out to the bar. Mobilizing 48 of us was no easy task, but we followed the familiar faces through the bustling night time streets of Bangkok. Past street vendors trying to sell the “finest” suits available and taxi drivers that would take you anywhere we wanted to go, this city was alive with people and opportunity to rival that of Las Vegas. Several minutes of snaking through these busy streets later, we finally arrived at the bar.

I keep calling this place “the bar” because it was pretty uneventful and we did not stay long. All 48 of us packed in to a room with a bar and tiny stage in the corner, which was located on the second floor of what seemed like an apartment complex. The bar itself while nice, was much to small to accommodate the entire group. Our small Thailand Brigade got together and decided to bail on the bar to see what the streets of Bangkok had to offer.

Back on the streets, I finally got my first real look at Thailand. Markets still open late into the night, tempting passersby with the lure of inexpensive, knockoff accessories. Other vendors walking by selling fresh fruit, street made Pad Thai, and even cooked bugs, of which, I was urged to try the latter. I bought a deep fried scorpion for 50 Baht ($1.50 USD) and contemplated what was about to happen. This is a deep fried scorpion I am about to consume. This is the start of an epic adventure. This is Thailand.

I bit into the scorpion with a resounding crunch. Everything finally felt real. I was ready for the week ahead. It tasted ok, definitely worth a try if the opportunity presents itself. The rest of the night was spent taking in the vibrant street life and picking pieces of scorpion out of my teeth. Eventually, the crew grew tired and we made our way back to the White Orchid Hotel to conclude or first night in Thailand.

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Saturday April 19, 2014: River and Temple Tours

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Rested and ready for a new day, all 48 of us loaded in a small boat and took to the river to see Bangkok from a different perspective. Several interesting buildings and temples lie along the river, the most interesting of which housed the King’s boats. Whenever there was a parade or festival on the river, these boats would lead the King’s to announce his presence. A little ways down the river, we took a break to feed some fish. We all were handed some bread and tossed it into this massive, uncountable swarm. It turns out that we were parked outside of a temple which is a protected area for all aquatic wildlife. Naturally, the fish population really flourished around the area. The tour continued on a little further until we were stopped by a river vendor selling various items from her boat. Items for sale included hats, souvenirs, and of course, beer. Our group leaders purchased heaps of little figurines and told us that if we took care of them, we would receive a prize at the end of the week.

Scaling the stairs at the Temple of the Dawn.

Scaling the stairs at the Temple of the Dawn.

Another 30 minutes down the river, our boat reached the first temple, Temple of the Dawn (or Wat Arun). We walked in to the temple and gazed at all of the massively tall and intricately detailed structures. Buildings that stretched hundreds of meters into the air were able to make a person feel quite small. In Thailand, it is offensive to touch the top of a person’s head, as it is the closest part of the body to Nirvana. This is why (I believe) the structures were so tall, to be closer to Nirvana. The buildings themselves had staircases to the top. Getting there was pretty dangerous, as the climb up felt similar to scaling a wall. Nevertheless, we ascended to the top and looked out towards the Bangkok cityscape. Several minutes of appreciation later, it was time to continue on.

The second temple on the tour lie just across the river. I cannot remember the name of it Called Temple of the Reclining Buddha (or Wat Pho), but it was much larger (and way cooler) than the first. We were lucky enough to have a tour guide through the temple. Named, James Bond, this guy really knew his stuff. He had been a guide at the temple for over 20 years and was able to give us intimate details about every inch of the temple. Fun fact: Buddhist monks can stop being monks whenever they desire, as it is not a life long commitment. One highlight of this temple was seeing the laying Buddha. World famous for its size, the laying Buddha depicts the final position of Buddha before he died. The size was daunting to say the least, as I had never seen such a large statue. Other areas of the temple included several other large statues of Buddha to meditate at, rooms to house old statues and restore them, and of course, amazingly tall architecture. This temple was gorgeous with all of its intricate artwork and is a true jewel of Thailand.

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A Tuk-Tuk. Image from phatthaisf.com.

Our tour ended after the second temple, but we were not returning to the hotel by boat. Instead, our group leaders organised several Tuk-Tuks to get us back. Pictured to the left, Tuk-Tuks seem like one of the craziest means of transportation in Thailand. I loved every minute of it. Four of us loaded in to the back, and we soon took off at the mercy of our driver. Our driver was an older gentleman, so I trusted in his experience of the road, but there were a few moments where I thought we were going to damage something. In the 20 minute ride home, our Tuk-Tuk stayed in the on-coming traffic lane for a good majority of the trip. We weaved in and out, dodging cars by mere inches. I sat on the left edge in the back seat, and at one point, a car mirror grazed my shirt.  We were one of the last groups to leave, but our driver got us back far before anyone else. I left the Tuk-Tuk, thanked him for getting me back alive, and went to my room to get ready for the night ahead.

Dinner was served at an Indian restaurant that night, which we thought was odd considering we were in Thailand. Our guides assured us that it would be well worth it. They did not disappoint. Again, all 48 of us gathered in the lobby of the hotel and made our way through the chaos of Bangkok street night life. At the restaurant, we removed our shoes and took a seat on the floor in traditional fashion. The inside of the restaurant was gorgeous and it looked like a decently classy establishment. A DJ was present to provide a party atmosphere and each table had either Jenga or Connect 4 to pass the time. After ordering our food, I continued to meet others in the group and tried to assert my dominance in Connect 4.  The party kept going, the DJ played awesome music, and everyone was having a great time. Eventually, the food came, and it was the best Indian food I had ever eaten. Granted, I had a couple of buckets which most likely assisted with the flavor, but none the less, it was delicious.

After dinner, most of the group continued the party at “The Club”. That’s right, it was a night club with the name, “The Club”. So we get to “The Club” and inside, the place is packed. Complete with a massive bar, a dance floor large enough for a couple hundred of people, and a stage next to the DJ if anyone felt like their dance moves were particularly good that night, “The Club” was epic. It was about 2am before we finally left, but everyone seemed ready to head out. We stumbled back to the hotel and I promptly passed out.

Sunday April 20, 2014: Thai Cooking Class

I was looking forward to today, as we would be testing our cooking skills and making some traditional Thai cuisine. It was a 30 minute walk to the kitchen we would be working in. Inside, we were handed an apron, a bandanna to cover our hair, and a recipe guide. Our chef introduced himself and lead us into the kitchen. There were only 11 stoves, so cooking took place in two shifts. All 48 of us packed in to the kitchen and watched as our chef prepared the first dish, Tom Yam Soup. After the demonstration, I partnered up with my buddy Andrew and he took the reigns on this recipe. Several minutes of sizzling, stirring, and cooking later, we produced some Tom Yam Soup. We took the dish out of the kitchen and into the waiting room where the second shift was ready for their turn. The Tom Yam Soup was delicious, and we scarfed it down within minutes.

Once the second group cooked and ate their soup, all 48 of us were once again called back into the kitchen for a demonstration of the second dish, Pad Thai. I would be doing most of the cooking for this dish, so I watched closely. Again, the dish seemed easy enough, so Andrew and I took our positions and got to work. The pan was oiled, the veggies cooked, an egg mixed in for flavor, I pretty much had the hang of it. I mixed in some rice noodles and BAM! The perfect Pad Thai was ready. Back in the lobby, we added some peanut sauce the chef had prepared that was ridiculously good. Again, the Pad Thai did not see the light of day for long.

Chris Coffee, Master Chef.

Chris Coffee, Master Chef.

For the third and final dish, everyone was regrouped, then split in to three teams for a competition. Andrew and I were placed in Group 3. Given the recipe and ingredients, we were tasked with creating the best Massaman Curry possible. There were about 13 people per group, so I was unsure how any team would be able to do this properly. Regardless, we set to work. No one in our group had made curry before, so we were definitely making it up was went. At the end of our time, we plated our curry and hoped for the best. Most of us thought it tasted good, but we were at the mercy of the chef and group leaders. They tasted each dish and deliberated a bit. Finally, the results were in. Our dish was reviewed first. The chef built up our confidence and made it sound like we had done really well. Of course, he was just kidding. “You guys need to stick around for another class.” Were his crushing words to our group. I was hurt, I thought we had it in the bag. Group 2 was in the same boat, only mediocre at best. In the end, Group 1 was declared the winner with the best Massaman Curry. Oh well, I know I still ate it.

Everyone returned to the hotel and was free to spend our last remaining hours in Bangkok as we pleased before getting on the overnight train to our next destination. A few of us took to the streets one last time to get in some last minute shopping and appreciate the city. I thoroughly enjoyed Bangkok, but I was growing tired of the crowded streets and ready to move on. After making some final purchases, we headed back to the hotel, packed our bags, and carried on to the train station. Our train left at 6:30pm, so we arrived around 5:30pm to get some snacks and get ready for the ride ahead. One interesting note about the station: At 6pm, everyone in the station stood at attention towards a large mural of the King and the national anthem was played over the loud speaker. It was an interesting cultural experience to say the least. Eventually, we boarded the train and took our seats. This was not going to be a comfortable ride. Andrew and I sat facing each other, knee to knee. Some others on the tour were experiencing some claustrophobia.  The next 13 hours was about to be real interesting. At 6:30pm on the dot, the train took off and we continued our journey in Thailand.

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To be continued...

To be continued…

Disc Golfing at Karrameer Links

Last summer, some buddies and I began playing a leisure sport called disc golf (“dolf” for short). The sport is mostly similar to regular golf, but has some key differences. Instead of swinging a club and hitting a ball, the player will run and throw a disc. Another difference is that most courses are located in public parks, so the only cost of playing is buying a disc. Many of the courses I have played consist of 18, Par 3 holes. Scoring is the same and the objective of the game is still trying to make it in the hole. As in golf when choosing the appropriate club for a shot, so too a variety of discs are available for different distances, stabilities, and flight patterns. My buddies and I must have played over 50 rounds last summer, so when choosing a place to study abroad, I looked for a location with a couple of courses close by to keep from getting rusty.

After talking the sport up to my housemates for a while, I persuaded a couple of them to come out for a round this past Saturday. I found a course in Karrameer Links that “runs the span of Victoria Park” that was relatively close by and looked like a good place to play.  Lucky for us, Nick had a car to drive us to the location. Nick, Tom and I hopped in the car and took off for our destination. A 20 minute drive through the city lead us near near the park. The car was parked and we walked through Kelvin Grove State College to make our way to Victoria Park. Several minutes of walking past and suddenly, we stumbled into a golf course. Unsure of where we were, we continued to look for some mention of disc golf. A concession cart passed by us and we stopped the driver to ask if she knew of a disc golf course near or in Victoria Park.

“As far as I know, Victoria Park is just a golf course.” She said in slight confusion. Great…it looks like we had been lied to on the internet. Thinking, “Maybe we are supposed to be on the other side”, we made our way through the course, trying to avoid the golfers playing around us. To its credit, Victoria Park was a very beautiful golf course and we thoroughly enjoyed the scenery. The 3 of us finally reached the other side. We looked around but sadly, still no dolf course in sight. Again, we gathered our thoughts and considered our options. There was a park a not too far north of where we were, so we gathered ourselves and marched on.

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We continued for a few kilometers before finally arriving at the next park. Up and down we searched the park, looking for any signs of the course. The park contained several net ball courts, a couple field hockey spots, but sadly, no disc golfing. I was not surprised at this point, but it was a little disappointing. A little further north we found a convenience store. All of us were a little tired, so we purchased two liters of ice cream and some plastic spoons to re-energize. That ice cream did not last long, maybe  20 minutes from start to finish. In between spoonfuls of Neapolitan goodness, I did some further researching into any other possible location of this course. One website mentioned a location just east of Victoria Park. It was our last chance before sunset. We caught a bus and hoped for the best.

The bus ride was 20 minutes back towards Victoria Park. We stepped off into a nice looking park full of green space that would have been ideal for disc golfing. One last time, we searched all around in hopes of finding something, anything that signified a place to play the sport. Alas, no dolf cours was found and the three of us made the journey home defeated. Later that night, I did some serious research as to why we could not find any course. It turns out that the final park we were at, was in fact the course. However, there were no traditional holes to play with. Instead, the hole was a tree, bench, or other random object in the park.

All in all, it was a successful day. I saw a new part of the city, got some solid exercise, and had a pretty fun adventure. Even though the three of us did not get to disc golf, we still made the best of the situation and made some memories to laugh about in the future.

 

Advanced Engineering building.

What I am Studying Abroad

Even though it may seem like my time in Australia has been nothing but fun trips and exotic adventures, I have actually been going to class in between. However, my course load has not been nearly as tough compared to other semesters. During my time in uni, I have been heavily focused on completing courses directly related to my degrees in electrical and computer engineering. A focus so intense that I have yet to actually take any electives. So, what better time to enroll in some electives than while on a semester abroad?

I am currently enrolled in 4 courses, of which 3 are electives and the other required for my major. The first and easiest is my Introduction to Microeconomics course (ECON1010). Building on the knowledge I learned in high school, this course has some basic maths and some seemingly common sense economic ideas.  We had a test this past Saturday which was our first piece of assessment. The exam was held at several locations across campus and our location was based on our last name.  I took the exam in a large exhibition hall with over 500 students in attendance at the UQ Center. It was impressive how many people were in the hall and I could not believe that there were several other building most likely packed the same way.  The exam lasted an hour and I am feeling confident in my grade.

Another course I am taking is Introduction to Sociology (SOCY1050). Slightly more difficult than economics, I would highly recommend this course to any study abroad student looking to fill a general elective. A wide variety of topics are covered from the history of societal constructs to gender and race issues. What I like most about this course is how the lecturer relates many of the topics to Australian culture. We look at issues both past and present, allowing me a deeper understanding of Australia as a whole.

My third course is Introduction to Philosophy (PHIL1002). Oh philosophy… I never would have thought I would struggle so much in such a course. Even though the material is a little difficult, I still very much enjoy the course. I am confronted with a wide variety of ideas about life, existence, and ways of thinking that are wildly different from the topics covered by my engineering background. It is a truly unique course unlike anything else I have ever take before and I always look forward to attending the lecture.

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Debugging code…

The final course I am enrolled in is Integrated Microprocessor Systems (CSSE3010). Being a third year course and one required for graduation from my uni, I expected a challenge, but I was not sure just how much. In my first lecture, several students quickly informed me that CSSE3010 was legendary for its difficulty. Consisting of a 2 hour lecture and a 3 hour practical each week, the material we cover in class is not too tough. The trouble arises when trying to complete the pracs. The first week, we were given a Net Duino 2 Plus programmable board, a software programming environment, and everything else needed to be able to accomplish the pracs at home. I was excited about the idea, but soon realised this was done because the assignments are pretty tough. In the passing weeks, we have completed tasks such as controlling a motor with a joystick, wireless communication via transceivers, and laser frequency detection with a light sensor. Many late (and a couple sleepless) nights have passed trying to get everything working properly to be graded on a pass/fail basis. All of these objectives have been leading up to our first piece of assessment and project.

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Block Diagram for the CSSE3010 Project 1. Image from UQ website.

Worth 20% of our grade, we have 3 weeks to complete this project. We are required to move a laser attached to pan and tilt motors via joystick or keyboard input to align with a light sensor. Ocne the connection has been made, data must be typed in, encoded, sent over the laser, received by the light sensor, decoded, and verified. Other tasks include having the laser autonomously search for the light sensor or be controlled by a partner through wireless transceiver communication. There are 11 tasks total to complete with less than a week to go until it is assessed, I think my project is looking pretty good. CSSE3010 is without a doubt a difficult course, but working with a wide variety of technology has been greatly worth every ounce of blood, bead of sweat, and drops of tears.

The University of Queensland is an awesome university. Gorgeous architecture, a thriving student life, and lecturers and tutors who are passionate to pass their expansive knowledge on to students willing to learn has never caused me to question my choice in university. Only one more week separates me from a week off for mid-semester break. In the meantime, I will continue working diligently to make the most of my semester abroad.

Mostly functional CSSE3010 Project 1.

Mostly functional CSSE3010 Project 1.

Learning to Surf in Noosa, Australia

Another weekend, another QUEST adventure. This past Saturday, I took a day trip to Noosa, Australia. A couple hours north of Brisbane near the Sunshine Coast, I have been told that Noosa is one of THE places to surf in the world. So naturally, we were heading up there to get a surf lesson.

Rain had been coming down all week in Brisbane, so we lucked out when we got to Noosa and the sky was clear. Our bus was divided into 2 groups to attend either the morning or afternoon surf session. Tom, Aman (another study abroad student from Purdue), and I jumped into the first group, as we were not sure the nice weather would last. The surf instructor introduced himself and we followed his lead to the beach where a red tent was set up to put all of our stuff under. After dropping off our nonessential gear, we made our way over to pick up our rashies and surfboards. We carried our boards back to the beach and our group was further split into 3 groups of 8. Our surf coach Michelle introduced herself and took us to an unoccupied spot on the beach for training. Originally from California, Michelle had been in Australia for 14 years surfing, giving lessons, and enjoying life in Noosa. She ran through the basics of surfing. Lessons on catching waves, dangerous spots in the water, and proper surf technique were all explained. Everything seemed manageable.

Tom and I about to surf

Tom and I about to surf.

After 30 minutes of theory and practicing on the sand, it was time to get in the water. Some of the more experienced people in the group went straight out to the larger waves while the rest of us stayed back and were walked through the process. I watched most of the group go, some managing to stand, others losing balance. My turn came. I rode over a few smaller waves, turned around, and started paddling. The surf caught my board and I began to accelerate. I pressed up, popped my leg forward, and stood on the board. I was surfing! The wave took me all the way back to the shore, but I had done it. I caught my first wave. The rest of the session was spent refining my technique and challenging myself to catch larger waves. Paddling out to the surf, setting myself up, and managing to ride a wave was quite a process and when our session ended an hour and a half later, I was exhausted. Our group brought our boards back to the red tent and the next group came in for their turn at success.

We left the beach and started exploring what the rest of Noosa had to offer. Most of the town near the beach had heaps of shops to buy anything you wish. They were nice places, but a little on the expensive side. Some people were busy setting up for an outdoor wedding, which we came back to later and saw the ceremony taking place. Definitely a beautiful choice of venue. Our walk around Noosa continued for a while before it started to rain. We found some shelter in the Noosa Beach House bar. The building itself was very minimal, but had details of a fancy establishment. Tom, Aman and I grabbed a beer and waited for the rain to subside. Sitting in the bar, it was obvious we were all tired from getting beaten by the waves. The rain faded, we finished our beer, and went back to the beach to spend our last remaining hours in Noosa.

Noosa Heads, Australia

Noosa Heads, Australia

Although I may not be ready to enter a competition just yet, I felt quite accomplished standing up on a surfboard and catching a wave. Noosa was yet another beautiful place to visit and I thoroughly enjoyed my time in the sun, sand, and surf.

Byron Bay: A Weekend of Firsts

After my last, quick trip to Byron Bay, the beaches were calling my name to return. So when I heard that QUEST was getting a group together to go to Byron for the weekend, I had to find a ticket. I posted a desperate plea to Facebook, asking for the ticket of anyone unable to attend. Luckily, someone came through. I was heading back to Byron Bay. I did not really plan too much for the trip or try to get a group of people together to go, I just saw an opportunity to have amazing weekend and I seized the moment.

Friday morning rolled around and I had to be at the Chancellor’s Place bus stop by 10 am. Since I would be gone all weekend, I walked the 3 kilometers to the bus stop and left the bike at home. This would not have been too big of an issue, but the sky decided to open up and pour down rain about half way to the pick up location. I continued on with my bag slung across my back, determined to get to Byron. The bus stop was finally in view and I took my place in line, waiting to be checked in with the other Questies. The rain continued to soak each and every one of us, but it did not matter. Soon enough, we were all loaded on the bus and making our way to Byron.

On the bus ride, our QUEST execs handed us pamphlets containing the general itinerary for the trip, phone numbers to schedule activities, and a map of the city in case we got lost. There were all kinds of unique things to do, and I was getting anxious to get there. Raffles for kayak trips and surfing lessons were held on the bus, but sadly, I had no luck winning any. That is ok though, because I had other experiences in mind. We also signed up for rooms to stay in at the hostel. I had never stayed in a hostel before, so this was going to be my first “first” while in Byron. I signed up with some people I met on the bus and hoped for the best.

The bus trip took 2 and a half hours before we reached Nomads hostel. Nothing too fancy, but I did not plan on staying there too long. I met everyone else staying in the room and a couple of us hit the bay to find some lunch. We found a burger shop that made a fantastic BLT, then made our way to the beach. Just like before, the sand was incredible and the ocean felt amazing. A couple hours were spent on the beach before the sun began to set and it was time to start our first QUEST event.

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There were about 250 people in total on this trip, so the remainder of the group were staying at Backpackers on the Beach hostel just down the road. All of us gathered together and made the trek over. Once we arrived, we lined up were served hot dogs off the barbecue. The party was in the back courtyard of Backpackers. Live music, picnic tables to sit at, several hammocks to relax in, and an unobstructed view of the stars made for an excellent venue to get the night started.

The next stop of the night was to a club called Cheeky Monkeys. Again, most of us got together and made the trip to the line to get in. We waited a few minutes, had our ID’s checked, and went inside. The club itself was pretty big. Several tables to sit at, a bar to get drinks, but the main draw of Cheeky Monkeys is the stage area and dance floor. This area contains several bleachers for club goers to stand on to watch everything happening on the main stage. It was an interesting idea, but it definitely takes away some of the social aspect when it is hard to talk to the person in front of you. I stayed for a while and things got wild, but I eventually had my fill of fun and made my way back to the hostel.

Lighthouse at Byron Bay

Lighthouse at Byron Bay

Even though many of the QUEST members had a long night, someone thought it was a good idea to organize a morning walk to watch the sun come up at the Byron Bay light house. We were supposed to meet in the lobby of our hostel at 5:45am, but I had a little trouble making it downstairs on time. I get to the lobby around 6am, and of course, the group had left. Not wanting to feel defeated, I decided to set out on my own journey to the light house. A 4km road leading directly to the lookout separated me from the sunrise. I started my walk and hoped I would make it in time. With about 1km to go, the surrounding were beginning to illuminate. Deciding to beat the sun, I began to jog the rest of the way. Although only a kilometer remained, it was an up hill battle. It took a lot out of me to reach the summit, but I had done it. I beat the sunrise.

At the top of the climb lay a gorgeous view, overlooking all of the bay. The lighthouse whirled away, signaling incoming ships of the land ahead. Over the hill was a path leading to the most eastern point of Australia. I was tired, but I stood at the edge of Australia, waiting for the sun to come up. After several minutes of the surroundings becoming brighter, the sun finally peaked over the horizon. I cannot remember the last time I saw the sun come up, but this was truly a sight to behold. The great ball of fire greeted us on lookers and seemed to pose for us. It was a scene that could inspire a painter to create a masterpiece, a perfect way to start off the day. I met another Questie who looked like he had as rough a night as I. We chatted for a bit about our homelands, Byron itself, and why we were watching the sun rise at 6:30 in the morning after last night. We stayed for over an hour admiring the sights and taking pictures, before taking a much shorter path leading back to the hostel. I had never done anything like it, and again, added it to my list of “firsts” I seemed to be completing all weekend. I made it back to the hostel, grabbed some breakfast, and planned the rest of my day. Once I was happy with the arrangements, I put my plan to action. I went back to my room, packed a bag, and made my way to the beach. I found a good spot, put on lots of sunscreen, and fell asleep.

Good morning from Byron Bay.

Good morning from Byron Bay.

I woke up a couple hours later to my phone reminding me of my plans for the day. I went back to the hostel, changed into some more appropriate clothing, and made my way back to Backpackers to be picked up. At Backpackers, I met a few others who also signed up for this experience. None of us had done this before, so we were all a little nervous, but we were sure it would be a good time. We waited for a little while, then were approached by our bus driver. “Are you guys here to be picked up for skydiving?” Yup, that was us. We shuffled to the van and took our seats. The seriousness of the matter began sinking in. The bus was pretty quiet until we arrived at Tyagarah Airstrip. We unloaded, filled out some paperwork, and put on our gear in the hangar. Outside, there was a huge field where the airplane would take off and the skydivers would land. We watched as a group came in. One by one, the divers slid across the grass followed by their parachutes for a safe landing. Everything seemed well under control.

DSCN0582We waited for a few more minutes before our group was called to jump. A brief training session was held outside talking us through the basics, the positions to take, and what to expect. Once the instructor left, everyone fell silent. We were all contemplating what was about to happen. Jumping 14,000 feet our of an airplane, reaching terminal velocity in a matter of seconds, and free falling for another 30 seconds, before a hopefully nice landing in the field. One by one, our personal dive coach came and introduced themselves to us. We got to know one another, they inspected all of the gear, and then we were in the plane. The door was closed and we took off.

Ascending to 14,000 feet.

Ascending to 14,000 feet.

Ascending to 14,000 feet took a while in this small aircraft which I was not sure would even make it that high. I sat in the back of the plane near the door, so we were going to be one of the first groups to jump. On the wall in front of me were three lights reading “2 Miles”, “1 Mile”, and “Landing Zone”, along with emergency evacuation procedures. I though, “Great, this is exactly what I need right now.” I shifted my attention outside and watched the coast. It was beautiful outside, a picture perfect day to jump. The plane went a fair bit out over the ocean before turning around back towards the landing zone. The “2 Mile” light turned on. We were getting close. The “1 Mile” light signaled. I felt my coach check everything one last time. “Landing Zone”. It was time to jump. The door was pushed open and the first team jumped. Then the second. Finally, we slid over to the door. My legs hung out of the plane, I assumed the position, and took one last look around. We jumped.

We twisted and turned for the first couple of seconds before we were able to stabilize. I had never felt the full force of gravity like that before. We accelerated downwards for a few more seconds before finally reaching terminal velocity. Air was rushing wildly across my ears and I could not hear anything. No matter, because the scenery was spectacular. The view went on for miles and I thought I might be able to see the other side of Australia. All of Byron Bay was visible. The coast ran for miles. It was incredible. I extended my arms and continued my graceful decent for what seemed like several minutes. My coach tapped me on the shoulder, signaling it was time to open the parachute. I grabbed my harness and he opened the chute. After a quick jerky sensation, we stabilized and he passed me the controls. It was awesome. I was controlling our parachute after just jumping out of a plane. I guided us downwards and continued to be amazed by the surroundings. It was a gorgeous day. The landing zone came into view and we braced for landing. We slid across the grass and came to a stop. I survived my first sky dive and could check it off my bucket list.

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The bus took us back to Nomads and I got ready for the night. We were partying at our hostel, so I did not have to travel far. QUEST managed to rent out the gathering area and turned it into a party complete with a DJ and dance floor. The party lasted for 2 hours before it was time to move on to a pub called Woody’s. Again, many of us gathered together and walked to the pub. Woody’s was smaller than Cheeky Monkeys, so just after stepping inside, we were packed together. It was a fun time, but I could not stay in the cramped club space for too long and went back to the hostel, exhausted from the day.

Sunday morning came, I got some breakfast, and spent my remaining hours on the beach. It was a relaxing way to end a hectic weekend. A weekend full of new experience and accomplishing goals I never thought I would. Byron Bay once again showed me a good time and reproved that it is a truly unique place to be in Australia.

Australia Zoo: Home of The Crocodile Hunter

After devoting four summers of my life to working food service at the Fort Wayne Children’s Zoo, my attitude towards zoos had become slightly jaded. Walking by tigers, monkeys, and penguins on a near daily basis can cause a person to lose a real appreciation and wonder for these “exotic” animals. I quit that job last summer, but remnants of said attitude still remained. So when I heard that QUEST was taking a trip to Australia Zoo, I was a little hesitant to attend, fearing that I would not be able to really enjoy everything Australia Zoo had to offer. I’ve never been happier to be wrong.

It was a quick bus ride with my housemate Tom to Beerwah, Queensland  near the Sunshine Coast before we entered the parking lot of the Australia Zoo and were greeted by a large portrait of Steve Irwin. From Wikipedia, “Australia Zoo was opened by Bob and Lyn Irwin on 3 June 1970 under the name Beerwah Reptile Park. Their son Steve, had helped his parents since childhood to care for crocodiles and reptiles and to maintain the growing number of animals in the zoo. In 1982, [...] Steve and Terri changed the name of their now growing wildlife park to Australia Zoo.”

Australia Zoo: The Home of the Crocodile Hunter

Australia Zoo: Home of the Crocodile Hunter

So we were heading in to a zoo that used to be overseen by The Crocodile Hunter? Awesome! We got our tickets and made our way inside. Immediately, we were greeted by a zoo keeper holding a koala and another holding a small alligator. No more than 30 seconds had passed, and we were already up close and personal with the animals. I approached the zoo keeper with the koala and asked if I could pet him. Of course I could. I gently brushed my hand along the back side of this adorable animal and felt some of the softest fur ever. My day was already made and we still had 5 hours ahead of us.

We started our journey by looking at the reptiles. Everything from small lizards to Komodo Dragons were available for viewing. At the end of the reptile exhibit lay the crocs. These guys were massive and I was surprised how close we could get to them. The zoo had over 10 different crocodile enclosures with several containing more that one croc. Each enclosure contained a pool, some trees, and grass for the crocs to feel right at home in. I felt surrounded, but it was in this feeling that I really got to marvel at the true nature of the crocodile and gain a new respect for their raw power.

Wombat on a walk.

Wombat on a walk.

On our way to the next exhibit, we came across a zoo keeper taking a wombat on a walk. Again, I asked to pet the animal. The fur of the wombat was more coarse than the koala, but I was still ecstatic to have such an opportunity. When trying to take his picture, the wombat was really camera shy. He kept walking away, turning around, or trying to dig into the path we stood on. I managed to get one good photo, but he really made me earn it.

The snakes were the next exhibit of the day. I learned that they only feed the snakes once a week, and feeding day happened to be the same day we were there. I was not there when feeding took place. The walls around the exhibit were lined with different kinds of snakes from all over Australia. Many of them were venomous, so I now have a much clearer idea of what to lookout for. In the center of the exhibit was a massive display case containing the skeleton of the Reticulated Python. This massive python was several meters long and used to weigh a couple hundred kilograms.  After a quick photo, we continued on.

The Reticulated Python and I.

The Reticulated Python and I.

Our path continued to an aviary containing several birds of Australia. We made our way through and admired many of the wonderfully colorful and exotic birds. After exiting the aviary, we arrived at the gates of Heaven. Roo Heaven to be exact. A large sign posted on the gate told us the dos and don’ts of interacting with the kangaroos and wallabies inside. We read the rules carefully and made our way in. The inside of Roo Heaven was exactly as the name implied. A large field full of shady trees and green grass for kangaroos and wallabies to hop through or just take a nap in. The roos were very friendly and we hung out with them for quite a while feeding them grass, taking photos with them, and just relaxing in Roo Heaven. It was a surreal experience and I again felt more closely connected to another native Australian animal.

Roo Heaven.

Roo Heaven.

Roo selfie.

Roo selfie.

Roo Heaven led immediately into The Koala Walk. This place is made of tourist dreams. It is a path twisting and turning for a couple hundred meters lined with trees on either side filled with Koalas! Signs notified us to look up to try and spot the furry creatures hiding away in the trees. Further along the path, a couple huts were set up by zoo keepers to get up close and personal with the Koalas. I took more photos with these animals than I care to admit, but yet again, it was an incredible experience to be able to get so up close and personal with these icons of Australia.

Koala selfie.

Koala selfie.

Koalas in the trees of The Koala Walk

Koalas in the trees of The Koala Walk

After I finished indulging myself in The Koala Walk, it was close to noon and almost time for The Croc Show. We made our way to The Crocoseum and took our seats in the middle of this coliseum with a large pool running through the center. At 12 o’ clock, the show started and we were greeted by a highly theatrical zoo keeper. He got us riled up and ready for the show. First to take the stage were some snakes, followed by a small alligator, nothing too crazy. Then came the birds. Several different types flew wildly around The Crocoseum performing all kinds of aerial maneuvers. They brought a bird out that managed to take a $5 bill from a man in the audience’s hand (and promptly return it). The last bird they showcased was a massive condor. With a wingspan of over 2 meters, this condor made a grand entrance. It was unbelievable how such a large bird could even fly.

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Here’s Murray.

The birds were removed from the arena, then the show’s namesake began. The open gates to get to the main stage were locked, and the atmosphere in The Crocoseum suddenly changed. Things were getting much more serious. The Australia Zoo Crocodile Exhibit Manager came on stage and began explaining the next part of the show. Murray was about to make his appearance. At 5 meters long and weighing over 600 kilograms, Murray was no laughing matter. His jaw could close with over 3000 pounds per square inch of pressure, and these zoo keepers were about to bring him out for all to see. The manager made her way into the water and began splashing about. As she made noise, a large, dark spot appeared in the water. The spot continued towards the keeper in the water. Murray had arrived. The keeper moved out of the water and Murray quickly followed her. A second keeper stepped in and fed him a fish. He seemed content for the moment. 

The keepers continued to explain all sorts of interesting aspects of crocs, the dangers of crocs, how they hunt, ect. The most interesting part came at the end with a demonstration of a crocodile’s ability to push itself out of the water to snag unfortunate, low hanging prey. A keeper got in a low tower over looking the pool, lured Murray over, and dangled a fish within his view. After a few dramatic seconds had passed, 600 kilograms of raw, unstoppable Murray was propelled by his tail out of the water and a few meters into the air. The keeper dropped the fish in Murray’s mouth and he splashed back into the pool. It was unreal. The crowd roared and the keepers led Murray back to his enclosure.

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Murray leaping out of the water.

For the last bit of the show, a video was played over the large monitor in the stadium. On it, was Steve Irwin. He explained the history of the zoo, his goals in maintaining it, and why he was in his line of work. He spoke about how he wanted the zoo to be a place where people could get close to animals, to understand them better, and to strive to better coexist with them. He talked about being The Crocodile Hunter and how he wanted to help the world understand animals. “It’s why I’m here! It’s what I was put on this Earth to do!” Said an excited and passionate Steve. Those words stirred something in me. An odd feeling full of clarity, compassion, and a touch of sadness. It was disheartening to think that someone who did so much good for the animal kingdom left us so soon, but the legacy he created at Australia Zoo is a testament to his love of animals which continues his goal of uniting humans and nature.

The rest of the day was spent walking around the remainder of the zoo. We saw animals such as tigers, camels, rhinos, and many more. I continued thinking about Steve’s words and was constantly reminded about his goal to help humanity understand animals. It was evident in every aspect of the zoo. The openness of the exhibits, the zoo keepers walking various animals around the park, and even the shows put on by the zoo keepers. Steve Irwin was a man who loved animals, and his legacy lives on at Australia Zoo.