A Gator’s View From Down Under

Editor’s Note: Allegheny College junior Joseph Merante is spending the spring 2019 semester at James Cook University in Townsville, Australia. He shared his thoughts on life there so far:

The first thing that hits you when you step out of the airplane on the eastern edge of the Australian continent is the heat. My experience might have been intensified, since my first step onto the tarmac was in daylight. I had one more plane to board once I got to Australia, and I had to wade through a thick curtain of heat hovering above the asphalt to get there. I’ve been to California, places like Palm Springs, and the weather there is hot and balmy. The airport in Brisbane is hot full stop.

Student Joseph Merante interacts with a kangaroo.

The good thing about all this heat, though, is that Australians don’t mess around when it comes to air conditioning. Each room has its own Aircon unit that lowers 10 degrees Fahrenheit in 10 minutes. And, of course, you get used to it. At this point, when it’s 70 degrees in my room, I’m shivering in my pajamas.

What’s bad about all this heat are tropical flowers and fruit plants. What comes from them, I mean. Sunlight is everywhere, which means foliage is everywhere. And if foliage and fruit are everywhere, that means flies are everywhere. And if flies are everywhere, that means things that eat flies are everywhere. The food chain here is quite bottom heavy. Unlike in the United States, where you have mountain lions and moose and bears, the biggest terrestrial predator is an emu, if that even counts. Dingoes, I guess, are next. There are tons of lizards, frogs, snakes, birds and bats. They are having a pest problem with the frogs; drivers will swerve out of their way to try to run them over. It’s the same with bats, they try to expel colonies only to move them to the next town over.

What’s good about all this heat are the beaches. The water is warm, the sand is soft, the seagulls are disrespectful — everything you’re looking for from a beach experience. The coast nearest to Townsville, called the Strand, has the unique situation of being penned in by an island and the Great Barrier Reef. Although that’s not good for surfing, the lack of angry waves means it’s perfect for nice and relaxing dips into the ocean. Right now it’s jellyfish season, so we are warned against choosing your own locations to swim, but there are plenty of netted areas that are dragged in the morning that are open to the public. There is also a place known as the rock pool, which is a large stone basin that filters in seawater each week that you can swim within, if the nets aren’t enough. Each of the beaches has a stand where a container of vinegar is placed. Should you get stung, you are told to run to the vinegar and pour it on the wound.

A waterfall cascades through Australia’s lush vegetation.

In terms of culture shock, it’s much less of an adjustment than I was expecting. If someone’s popular, you can talk about how they went on “Oprah.” I’m studying the effect of trauma in one of my classes, we immediately went to clips of 9/11. The “What the Fox Says” video went viral here. People love Minecraft. People love the “Walking Dead,” and the “Walking Dead” video game. A lot of the music is familiar.

The water in restaurants is different, however. You don’t get the server hovering at your elbow filling up your glass whenever it’s empty (which is not good for me since I’m still sweating profusely). They do indeed say “G’day” and “mate.” They say “uni” and not college. They don’t have ketchup, they have tomato sauce, and they like beets (yay!) on a much greater variety of things.

While in Australia, I am taking two English classes, one about narrative theory, the other about different forms of biography. I am also taking a political science class that focuses on developing nations, charting the different methods and timelines for countries. My final class is called “Indigenous Australians,” which studies different native groups, including the Torres-Strait peoples.

My time at Allegheny has done a great job of teaching me to be self-sufficient, sensitive to other people’s values, and considerate of those who have different academic backgrounds, all of which has had a major impact on my experience here. I’m looking forward to coming home this summer, but in the meantime, I’m going to spend as much time at the beach as physically possible.