This is the last of the big blogs I promise; from now on shorter and more frequent!
The last chapter of my Australian trip was a bright and prosperous one. Based at a beautiful and chilled ocean beach location in the suburb of Cottesloe, I brimmed with productivity, completing a three week residency at the University of Western Australia (UWA), making great leaps forward in the organisation of the turtle project, and forming awesome new friendships and networks in the process. The last time I recall being so busy was when I was writing up my PhD, the major difference this time being that I actually believed in what I was doing. I made myself extremely tired, often staring at my laptop screen for 12 hours day after day, but I woke up each morning feeling inexplicably motivated to do it all over again. Needless to say, my daily routine did tend to stand out in stark contrast to that of the hedonistic bunch of sun-worshipers and surfers staying at the hostel, but in the end I enjoyed a perfect work-life balance in Perth and brought neatly to a close a bunch of projects before leaving Australia: a triumph of forward planning, and luck.
Perth is most definitely a city of opportunity. Australians and internationals alike gravitate to the place to seek out the riches promised by the mining mania that has gripped WA in recent years, each one of them chasing a new Australian Dream. Mining corporations currently offer absurdly generous incentive packages designed to lure labour to the remote mines in country WA, and construction and housing industries just cannot keep up with demand. The city of Perth is growing - or rather the suburbs are sprawling - at an astonishing rate, the economy is booming, and the quality of life for most there is ridiculously high. If you're an architect or engineer, or even just someone who doesn't mind working in an office in a city, then you'd be crazy not to come to Perth: it's clean and safe, with superb weather all year round, and is surrounded by mile after mile of deserted white sandy beaches. But, working in an office is not for me just now, and I found Perth to be far too car-centric - yet another city built with ignorance woven into the infrastructure. Standing at the viewpoint in King's Park (a huge expanse of landscaped gardens and bushland up on a hill overlooking the CBD) one day, I was searching for something inspirational to write about the city, with its ring roads, flyovers, and all five of its skyscrapers. But, I found nothing. In my opinion, despite its flashy suburbs, the city of Perth is probably Australia's most underwhelming capital; and let's be honest, it's up against some pretty stiff competition for that title.
Two kms out of the city though lies the UWA campus, which, despite only being a few decades old, is really quite attractive and clearly a great place to go to university. I was based there for about three weeks working as a visiting researcher at SymbioticA (www.symbiotica.uwa.edu.au): an artistic laboratory that functions as a meeting place for artists, designers and scientists to network and collaborate in 'cross-disciplinary research'. They gave me pretty much free reign to do whatever I wanted while I was there, so I decided to conceive a molecular system for the delivery of beneficial or protective genes into human embryos, which could be switched on or off by the engineered child, thus protecting their right to consent. The system used an artificial chromosome which could not be passed through to the germline, and as such it circumvented an ethical obstacle regarding eugenics too. I based all of the science on contemporary technologies and as such the whole idea had aura of feasibility about it, which freaked even me out a bit. At the end of the residency I gave a seminar which was a real success and stimulated a lot of debate afterwards, and in the end SymbioticA paid me for my work, since they planned to use the presentation as a teaching resource. It was such an honour to work with the staff there, and it was fantastic just to be given the time and space to focus on one idea - one that had been rattling around in my head for a few years, but to which I would never otherwise have dedicated time to develop. It was also really refreshing to be immersed in an academic environment again, to be received as a specialist, welcomed into a team, and treated to various extra-curricular excursions to exhibitions and performances around the city. It made me realise just how much I missed some aspects of academic life.
Whilst at UWA I took the opportunity to network with turtle research groups in the Zoology department, forming some useful contacts with experts in the field, and even securing some potential collaborators for the biological research station that I am planning to set up at the project in Costa Rica. The department invited me to give a seminar about the turtle project, and so I spent the first few days at UWA putting together a new promotional presentation. This seminar was also well-attended, and I already have one member of the audience coming to work as a volunteer at the turtle project later this year. I realised that the presentation could be used to promote the project at other universities too, and after an initial round of emails to UK universities I had two invites to present the seminar in London in June (one back at UCL!). This work was quite timely since back at the hostel, during the evenings and weekends, I had been working round-the-clock preparing materials for the turtle project, including a new turtle sponsorship initiative tied into the Foundation's fundraising campaign, new promo posters, forms and manuals, new facebook groups, and new advertising. It was during this time that I recruited my research assistants for the season, had various skype conferences with the Foundation, and did a whole bunch of other work related to the project. It all now seems like one big smear of effort that I find hard to dissect retrospectively, but I was really pleased with my output during this time, and I had finished all of the urgent work by the time I had left Australia.
Another pressing priority whilst I was in Perth was the issue of the Cakmobile. I had advertised the car for sale as soon as I got to Perth, and I had some interest right away; but this interest soon ebbed away when the reality of just how many kms it had done came to light. It was true that there was apparently nothing wrong with the engine, but 400,000kms on the same tired old Mitsubishi piston rings was hardly a selling point, and it was obvious to anyone with half a brain that every day that passed was a day closer to it finally blowing up. In the end though, salvation came from an unlikely source - a local guy who just wanted a car to drive to and from work in. I did my best to point out to him that he might be better off with a smaller, cheaper and more economical car that didn't have a bed and a cooker in the back, but he seemed convinced that he wanted it. After a bit of soul-searching I just came to the conclusion that he was an imbecile, which was precisely the kind of buyer I was looking for. I didn't tell him about the missing shock absorber, or the slippy clutch, or the leaky roof - but hey, he didn't ask - so I just ripped everything out of the back and sold it to him the original 5-seat configuration. I couldn't believe my luck. After selling the camping stuff to some backpackers I had made over $500 more than I originally paid for the car. The first thing I did was text Laura to tell her she could have her $250 back that she paid towards the new starter motor, and we made plans to go to the casino when she got back to Perth and put the whole lot on black on the roulette table. In the end, this never happened, but we did blow a chunk of money on a big meal on my last night to celebrate.
The last few weeks in Australia were blissful. Despite being really busy, I was having a great time with the people at the hostel and had made a bunch of really good friends there. We were completely spoilt in Cottesloe, treated to a spectacular sunset on the Indian Ocean each night, a vast and often empty beach on our doorstep, and a cool and breezy backpacker vibe in the clean and well-equipped hostel. Every Sunday night we would head to the bar next door for the infamous Sunday Session, which invariably spilled out on to the beach afterwards, for booze, bonfires and bongos until dawn. We would often pop down to Freemantle, or catch the ferry over to Rottnest Island - a picturesque playground just off the coast of the city, free of cars, and full of people on bikes seeking out hidden coves in which to relax and do some snorkelling.
Three days before I left, on the 26th April 2011, it was by 30th birthday. I had, for some reason, always assumed I would be with my friends in the UK for my 30th, where some sort of a gigantic piss-up would be guaranteed, and so I really wasn't expecting much of a celebration given that I was at a backpackers in Australia with a bunch of people I hardly knew. In the end though, it turned into a bit of a three-day party thanks to the sweet and thoughtful efforts of Amy, Felix, Ashley, Ross, Steph, Katrin, Theresia, Sappire, Ricarda (plus a bunch of others) and Laura - who had come to live at the hostel after finishing her volunteering. A 'surprise' party was arranged with a massive barbeque in the courtyard, prior to which I had been banished to the kitchen to prepare potato salad and definitely not allowed to go downstairs, from where the sound of random balloons popping was inexplicably emanating. Debauchery ensued; then in the morning (on my actual birthday) Laura and I headed to Rottnest for the day, before coming home to yet another barbeque and a home-made cake from Amy. After an indulgent meal out with Laura on my last night, complete with three courses and a bottle of Chandon, I packed my things and left.
All in all, Australia had worked out rather well for me in the end, and in truth I have nothing but good things to say about the country and its people. I'm definitely a convert, having arrived not knowing exactly why I had come back, with hazy memories of not having especially liked the place when I travelled from Sydney to Cairns in 2003, yet leaving with a really positive feeling about my experience this time round. Australians have managed to stay relaxed, informal and friendly, with a wholesome appetite for sport, booze and the great outdoors, whilst producing some of the best food and wine in the world, presiding over an economy that is the envy of the world, and enjoying one of the highest standards of living in the world. They handle this new reality with confidence but also genuine modesty, a characteristic contrary to what you might generally jump to conclude about Australians. I can't help but be extremely impressed. I had become so accustomed to living in Oz that I was convinced that I would really miss the place once I had left - after all I had good reason to.Do I miss it?We'll see.