Australia Pt. 5 – James Cook University: Aussie-isms and the Poison Room

Cairns, QLD – June, 2011

Continued from: Australia Pt. 4 – The Secret Beach: Coconuts and Croc Watch

Continued here: Australia Pt. 6 – Northward: Going Troppo in the Gum Trees

For the second time since arriving, we had to set alarms, this time not for an adventure, but for school – an orientation and a walk around the Uni. Mike picked us up in the same white van and we drove to the campus of James Cook, which wasn’t far at all from the lodge, but he wanted to make sure we would know the way for when we walk once classes start. He would also serve as our de facto tour guide for the day.

The campus is set at the base of the jungle covered mountains, far back from Cairns proper, along the Captain Cook Highway. It looked a bit similar to a small American college, with carparks circling the class buildings like seats in an amphitheater. Coconut trees and other tropical foliage squeezed inward, and the lime green buildings were all connected by covered walkways that echoed and protected pedestrians from the sun or monsoons depending on the season. The large sign had a logo of a sun rising over a shield of blue squiggly waves that looked vaguely like the flag of Kiribati. We walked into the admin building and got student IDs and then into the natural sciences building to meet our program’s main instructor.

Cheryl was a diminutive woman of about forty, a professor of environmental science who had moved to Queensland from Papua New Guinea as a child. She sat at a desk in an open concept office with two fish tanks by the door and a window overlooking the mountains

“Lovely to meet you all, sorry it’s so damn cold” she said, folding her arms deeper in her sweater and clutching a cup of tea to emphasize the point. It was another beautiful morning for those of us who didn’t grow up in the tropics.

“There’s still five of you, that’s a good sign.” Seeing we were confused, she laughed. “One day, one of the Americans just stopped showing up to class, checked out of the lodge. Mike wanted to go have a search for him but I just said ‘eh, he’ll be right.’ And he was, turned up two weeks later after going on walkabout in the Daintree. Funny, what Oz will do to Yankees!”

Cheryl was exceptionally personable and took a half an hour to talk to us, telling us her stories and what she was working on (sustainability planning in rural communities) and what we would expect in class. A type B in a land of type B’s, Cheryl would again remind us that the concept of Australian time runs deep. No scheduled office hours here, just text if you need something. And class starts at 8-ish.

We continued the tour of ‘uni’, as the locals call it, and made our way to the student center, which was, contrary to the near-shopping mall size of its equivalent at my school in the states, essentially a coffee shop that also sold books and hoodies. I went to order some caffeine and saw that the board showed three options: tea, flat white, and long black. I knew what exactly one of those were, so I asked the barista for some clarity.

“Flat white is coffee with milk, long black is coffee without milk.”

“Umm… I’ll have a long black then, thanks” I said, and paid cash. A ‘long black’ is actually espresso and hot water, like an Americano, and a flat white is sort of a cappuccino/cortado hybrid, but the folks down under wanted their own names for these things.

We waited for everyone else to order, which took forever with one barista, but we had nowhere to be, Australian time and all, so I sat down and sipped. It was mercilessly hot and I flinched.

“How’s your long black?” asked Asher.

“Delightful” I said, and didn’t take another sip for twenty minutes.

James Cook University has a large marine biology program, and as that was what Mike was studying, he took us to see a normally off limits part of the campus tour. ‘The Poison Room’ is an aquarium housing specimens of Australia’s most deadly sea life for research: blue ring octopus, stonefish, and the tiny Irukandji jellyfish. Nicknamed the ‘sea wasp’ and growing to be about the size of a fingernail, the Irukandji are some of the most wisely avoided animals in the country, an admittedly high bar. They are the second most venomous creature in Australia after the infamous box jellyfish, but, as Mike put it “if a box jelly gets ya, at least you don’t have to worry about it for long!”

While a box jellyfish sting can kill within three minutes, the Irukandji is a slow suffer, and though you can survive with medical intervention, it has been called the worst pain on earth. Mike told us he was part of a documentary TV crew that featured his boss, under heavy medical supervision, willingly being stung by one, which was possibly the most Australian thing imaginable. Apparently, at first the sting feels similar to getting saltwater in a paper cut, but progresses into nausea and extreme pain in the area of the sting. After about ten to fifteen minutes, the poison makes its way throughout the body and every inch, every muscle feels like it is being ripped off the bone. Intense psychological feelings of doom follow, and victims begin to panic. Even after delayed treatment, some Irukandji victims have needed to relearn how to walk. Without treatment, the outcome isn’t even that rosy.

“It’s a good thing we didn’t encounter any at the reef yesterday” Jeff mentioned.

“Ahh you don’t need to worry about them when you’re wearing the stinger suits.” Mike said, and we walked over to learn what happens if you step on a stonefish.

“We didn’t have stinger suits” I said. “Just regular wetsuits.”

The look Mike gave upon hearing that implied that maybe we were in fact a bit lucky.

The rest of the aquarium was filled with creatures that kill in traditional, non-venomous ways. One tank had sharks and rays in what looked like a suburban above ground pool.

“Let’s see if he’ll say a quick g’day” said the caretaker as she poured some chum into the water, causing the sharks to zoom toward us. They weren’t large, maybe a meter and a half tail to snout, but they darted in the direction of the food so quickly that they had the potential to flop out into the crowd in a prandial rage. The rays were more docile and allowed us to pet their heads like shelter puppies.

“So if anyone is regretting their career choice, and maybe wants to switch to marine bio, shoot me a line and I’ll get you in the water with these guys” Mike said, and I had to admit this made environmental planning seem spectacle-adjusting academic. After overhearing a bit of conversation between Jeff and Asher about the possibility of planking the shark tank, however, Mike probably thought better of his invitation and considered that we were better off in Cheryl’s hands.

On our first morning of the program, I was happy to begin the day at the cafeteria, which seemed to smell like rosemary all times of day, downing coffee and muesli without feeling like an interloper. We were no longer dependent on the generosity of the woman working that day, and through with having to guess whether it was the nice one or the one who made us pay ten AUD each for a rough meal. Even so, on the first Monday of summer session, it still paid to have the nice one.

“I can make you all a lunch to go, so you don’t have to run back and forth to Uni all day if you’d like” she said, and we all gladly used one of our meal plans for the service. She gave us a prompt to fill out and I selected a hummus and veggie wrap. In the special instructions section, remembering my folly with the tie-dyed tortilla, I wrote ‘no beets please!’

“No beets?” asked the cook, confused by my request.

“I know, I know, they’re good for you. But it’ll get a little soggy if it sits in my pack for four hours”

She thought for a moment. “Ohh…you mean beetroot. Got it, no worries dear!”

Out of any local words I expected to mispronounce or misunderstand, the names of vegetables were not one I would have expected. As the trip progressed, there were several ubiquitous terms in Australia I would fail to understand: Esky for food and beverage cooler was one, a term that arrived via the Eskimo brand. Brekky I probably could have figured out. Lollies as a catchall term for candy made sense as well, as did the general Australian habit of shortening trisyllabic words by thirty-three percent: sunnies, swimmies, and rellos. There were still others I found myself taking home beyond the now worldwide ‘no worries’, including ‘feral’ for drunk and disorderly, and ‘heaps’ for a lot. However, there were some terms that I would come across later that would have to be explained: bogans, goon sack, troppo, brolly.

One evening, a guy outside at one of the lodge parties who appeared to be in his late twenties, said something to me and Jeff along the lines of “wow, mother onion sure is bright tonight” and gestured up toward the moon.

“Ignore that” Phillip had said. “It’s a game. They try to see how much dumb shit they can get Americans to say and think its Aussie slang.”

“It really sounds like it could be” I said.

“Aye, that’s why it’s a good joke.”

My worst Australian-to-English moment occurred the second day of class when I mentioned that a something was ‘rooted in tradition’ and was met by cacophonous laughter by the local delegation in class and Cheryl, trying to suppress giggles herself, calmly explaining to Team America to try a different term next time.

After realizing that down under, root is a fairly common term for penis, Asher brought up a good point: “You know, if that’s what root means here, you’d think they would be less insistent on calling the food beetroot, right?”

Cheryl broke us into three groups of ten, each of which would, by the end of the term, provide a comprehensive sustainable plan for a chosen town. The entire class would travel together to far north Queensland to meet with the remote communities after which the plans would be put forward and quite possibly acted upon. But before all this, we would have a week of lectures from Cheryl, Mike, and a host of guest speakers.

My group, which included Team America and five Australians, were in charge of creating the plan for the Kuku Nyungkal community who live near Cooktown. In the interest of brevity, I’ll only introduce the other students in our subsection, even though there were at least a dozen more whom I got to know over the course of the program, nearly all characters who would be worthy of several paragraphs of their own.

Alex was the first one to speak up. He was in his mid-twenties and was a perpetual student, taking gap years and gaps within non-gap years to work on cruise ships or vagabond about. His new plan was to work his way into some regional planning department and then run for office. If half of the stories he told were true, he would more likely than not succeed at that too.

Next to him were Kelly and Ava, friends from Melbourne who were outgoing and invited all of us to lunch at a Sushi Train restaurant the first day of class. Kelly had red hair but otherwise looked a lot like late-eighties Kylie Minogue. Ava wore the same green sweater to class each day while waiting on the airline to find her luggage. We took to calling her ‘Greensleeves’ in private until we learned her name, but then apologized for the offense she had not witnessed by chipping in and buying her a JCU hoody when it looked like her bags wouldn’t arrive before our long trip north.

Elliot was only a haircut shy of two meters tall, and never uttered a thing unless asked a direct question, and even then with no more words than necessary.  Where are you from, Elliot? “Townsville.”  Oh yeah, where is that? “South.”  What’s it like there? “Similar.”

Finally, Mary was in her forties, and had decided to return to school after living in a cabin in the tablelands for nearly a decade. A sustainability ideologue with years of practice, she proved to be both an incredible asset and a stubborn speedbump at different times during the project. Often, we would all give our opinions on how to proceed, to which she would respond quietly “Well…I disagree.” And it was settled.

The second week of a trip can often fall into routine and Cairns was no different, especially since the days were taken up by what passed for productivity. I typically woke around 7, and immediately met the group for breakfast at the cafeteria: coffee, muesli, mangoes, and yogurt. One morning, I tried vegemite on toast and it tasted exactly as one would expect leftover brewers’ yeast to taste. Before leaving, we would order our premade lunch to be ready during our hour break midday. I would ask for no beets on my chicken wrap, the server would say “You mean beetroot?” and I would acknowledge that yes, that is what I meant, and the five of us would walk to class. We then sprinted across the Captain Cook Highway to shave ten minutes off the walk, and arrived Australian-early. After two hours, we would break for tea, which was just a word that meant ‘break’ and involved no tea unless I made my way to the student center. We would work in our groups and then take lunch, where we would pick up our preordered meals and I would call my girlfriend Lauren just before she went to bed back in the States. After a few more hours of class, we would typically hang out in the cafeteria, or somebody’s room, or one of the beaches. The sun went to bed early and so did I. Throughout it all, I tried my best to live on Aussie time but my American clock-watching would often overwhelm and I found myself hustling through the covered, echoey walkways only to be one of the first to arrive somewhere, despite being a minute late.

A large part of the discussion in class involved the differences between First Nations’ traditions and Australian local ordinance. Watching an Australian try to make the words law and lore sound differently as they say them is an uncomfortable thing to witness, their jaws moving one way, tongue the other as if trying to speak slowly with a mouth full of two dollar coins, only to realize after several grimacing attempts that they physically cannot avoid the homonym and moving on. This happened regardless of who was speaking when the concept came up, which was often, and eventually one would think somebody in charge would change the curriculum. Despite the brief mirth this provided, I became a bit jaded of the lectures and was ready to move onto the in-person portion.

Outside of Team America, our acquaintances were becoming a bit of a social Ship of Theseus, as all of the others in the lodge had gradually moved out, leaving Kaleo the lone original rafter on deck, replaced by those we had met in our project group and assorted others who had showed up here or there. In the evenings, we would dine together at the cafeteria and occasionally lose to Kaleo in ping pong. Day in and day out, the cafeteria smelled like rosemary, and I missed spicy food. One day I asked if there was any hot sauce to add to a slice of pizza and was given a bottle of what tasted like vinegary ketchup. At least the fresh fruit and vegetables were far superior to the dining halls back home.

After dinner, we either hung out near, but certainly not in, the pool, or we would take a bus to a different beach. I had fish and chips from a stand in trendy Palm Cove. We listened to dubstep on Asher’s phone in the middle of the night on Kewarra while waiting for the last bus. We drank XXXX at the lodge and watched and rewatched the video for Architecture in Helsinki’s Do The Whirlwind while discussing how alcohol is about the least effective substance to accompany the experience. I wasn’t bored, but the initial excitement of arriving in Australia had given way to a bit of tropical doldrums, so I was excited when it was finally time to wander again.

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