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The McDermott Scholars Award covers all expenses of a superb four-year academic education at The University of Texas at Dallas, in concert with a diverse array of intensive extracurricular experiences, including internships, travel, and cultural enrichment.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Trees, Sheep, and Time in New Zealand

It may seem like an odd title, but I planted 5,000 trees, saw around ten thousand of the (purported) 45 million sheep, and had no doubts whatsoever that I was (after twenty hours of flights, thirty hours of flight delays, and fifty hours of layovers) in New Zealand. Also, a small warning: from here on, I refer to anything New Zealand as Kiwi. And, a second small warning for you, should you visit New Zealand, what you eat is kiwi fruit. Not kiwi.

Kiwi grass - and you'll excuse me if I get this out of the way now - is green. And not the Texas-brown sort of green that I see after the occasional rainy week we get. Lush, wavy, and undeniably green. In fact, here's a picture:

You may also notice that I've chosen a picture that includes a number of sheep (actually, it's hard to find a picture without sheep). The sheep stick in my mind for two reasons: there are more sheep than people in New Zealand by a factor of about ten-point-two, and I've now heard more sheep jokes than knock-knock jokes (How do Kiwis find sheep in long grass? Quite well, actually.) I've even heard more than a few sheep knock-knock jokes.

Now, the conservation group I was with consisted of me, three Brits, and a Australian team leader. Our job was to plant around 5,000 trees to (re)create the natural environment and to build a wildlife corridor - this also means that the trees I planted are protected against damage by Kiwi federal law, forever. I definitely plan to return to New Zealand by means of Google Earth in about ten years to check on my trees. I have no doubts that the kauri trees will be massive. We also sanded and restored a small bit of a historic Portuguese tram that had been lovingly shipped all the way from Colorado, and to pot a number of tiny, ant-ridden plants for future conservation purposes on the volcanic island of Motutapu.

So, Andy, Andrew, Suzie and I dug holes, fertilized, and planted trees for about two weeks. And it was awesome. Besides the free 'Shoveling Today' magazine you get (I'm making this bit up), were able to help restore the original, natural environment in one of the last places we have the chance to do so. Some of the other work done by volunteers was focused on restoring native kiwi habitats to the islands by moving or eliminating the rat and stoat populations. Of course, I was also able to make some great friends, share music, learn an awful lot about the native flora and fauna, watch the truly bizarre Auckland AltTV channel, ride a horse over miles of empty beachfront with a Maori guide, learn about ancient and contemporary Maori culture, gape at astonishing vistas along the coast, and ride boats out around in the beautiful bays.

But I still wish I could have arrived a few weeks sooner: someone had the job of fitting hedgehogs with tiny radio collars.

Tour of Europe

Hello everyone! I’ve been having a blast travelling in Europe! My journey started in Rome, Italy where I learned that knowing some Spanish and French helped me get around the city. Beyond the vocabulary, my reasoning skills took over and getting around became simple enough. Walking around Rome over the next two days was a welcome, albeit tiring, break from my many days spent driving in Texas. The main thing that struck me as I walked around the Eternal City, was that it lived up to its name. Noisy cars and buses whizzed past each other on the streets in front of two millennia old buildings, with Latin inscriptions-timeless as well since people today can still read them. It was interesting to see archaeological digs takings place next to and often on top of construction zones for new streets and buildings. Over the two days I spent there, I was able to see the Coliseum, the Roman Forum, the Circus Maximus (now converted into a running track for locals), the Arch of Constantine, and dozens upon dozens of beautiful palaces, government buildings, and monuments from various periods in Rome’s massive history.

Ancient Rome and the Coliseum
Part of my travels also took me to Vatican City, where I was hoping to get to finally marvel
at the wonder of the beautiful Sistine Chapel, and attend Pope Benedict XVI’s public appearance and blessing in St. Peter’s Square. Unfortunately, August 15th is a major Roman holiday, Ferragosto, in honor of Caesar Augustus, so most museums (including the Sistine Chapel and Vatican Museum) were closed, and His Papal Authority was elsewhere occupied as the day is also the Feast Day of the Assumption of Mary- so if you’re planning to visit Rome in August, plan more wisely than I.

Outside St. Peter’s Basilica
After my days in Rome, I trained on to Pisa to see the most famous example of poor foundation planning. From Pisa it was on to Florence and l’Accademia dell Galleria which is home to Michelangelo’s David. After basking in the shadow of the 18 foot tall masterpiece, and snapping a few photos I toured around the city to see the narrow walks, beautiful bridges, and massive open-air markets. Then one more train on to Venice where I had to catch a boat at one o’clock in the morning to get to the island where my hostel for the evening was located. The next morning I was up early to tour the city, mainly around St. Mark’s Square, bordered on three sides by a continuous line of three story shops and apartments, and on the final side by the massive, ornate, and beautiful St. Mark’s Basilica. I enjoyed an amazing pannini for lunch and then headed off to Milan to rest for the evening. Unfortunately, in Milan I didn’t get to see any of the sites I’d planned, but instead learned a fun lesson in planning. When I tried to book my ticket to Paris for the next evening, I discovered that there were no seats left on any train that day, or the next, or the one after… The first rude ticket officer told me to pick another city in Europe and shooed me away. Luckily the second, nicer officer spoke English very well and told me that Nice was lovely this time of year and that I might be able to get a ticket to Paris from there. So I was on the first train out of Milan the next morning to arrive in Nice, France. My luck changed when I arrived, and I was able to book a ticket to Paris for that evening. So what could I do with eight hours on a beautiful sunny day in the south of France on the coast of the Mediterranean I wondered?

On the Beach in Nice
That night I was on the Lunasa overnight train-Traveler’s Warning: This overnight train in France was one of the most cramped and unpleasant experiences in my travels, not to mention my two hour layover in the middle of nowhere..-but fortunately I arrived safely in Paris the next morning! That’s all for now, but look for the next update soon!
End of Part One of Austin in Europe