“Beach Cleaning at Bahar ic-Caghaq in Malta during Our Ocean 2017”

25 kilograms of garbage consisting of mainly plastics, broken glass and cigarette butts was collected on the Bahar ic-Caghaq beach after one hour of beach cleaning by twelve ocean activists.


Photo: Janan Khamo Gawra

The cleaning initiative was proposed by a Patricia Villarrubia Gómez, a Spanish research assistant at the Stockholm Resilience Centre.  She believes that coastal clean-ups are an effective and practical response to maintain the cleanliness of the marine environment, as well as for the collection of scientific data to fill the knowledge gap on how and where marine litter accumulates. For this occasion, Marine Debris Tracker was selected to track the amount of litter accumulated on the Bahar ic-Caghaq rocky beach. Initially skeptical, Patricia was impressed by the good turnout of this event, as having conversations and networking with people is a great way to discuss and exchange ideas, but action speaks louder than words.

The clean up was joined by a child and his father. The boy was asked what motivated him to participate and he simply said “so the animals don’t get sick”. This was a good sign as it showed that the locals are aware of the importance of keeping the marine environment clean.


Photo: Janan Khamo Gawra

One of the beach clean participants, Eliana Silva Pereira, found a large amount of broken glass and explained her concern for the general safety of beach-goers, as she urged everyone to think twice before they throw something away. “Are you going to let your children play here with all the shards of broken glass lying around?’


Photo: Janan Khamo Gawra

Olga Mironenko, a researcher specialising in marine pollution, found a decomposing squid intertwined with bits of plastic. She believed that organisms laced with anthropogenic influence is becoming a far too common sight; “This is not just trash in the ocean, this is a systemic failure of our current civilisation with its linear economy, race for profit and lack of long-term thinking. We need to think about the well-being of our planet-mates as much as our own, because we’re all inherently interconnected.”


Photo: Janan Khamo Gawra

Janan Khamo Gawra, a master’s student in tropical biodiversity and ecosystem (TROPIMUNDO) in Malta for the Our Ocean Youth Summit- Malta 2017, was one of the many participants who pledged to #StopSucking. Many used straws were recovered on the beach during the hour long beach clean. A typical plastic straw takes over 200 years to decompose – this means that a straw manufactured today will remain in the environment and  will outlive us, our children, our grandchildren and probably our great-grandchildren.

Straw-By Jack.jpg

Photo: Jacques Azzopardi

Have we really come so far as a species that we would rather extract oil from the ground, distil it, manufacture plastic utensils, transport them and distribute them near and far; when all we needed to do is to give the items a quick rinse? Is it worth the hassle, for a short moment of convenience?

Let’s start small: next time you are offered a straw, please say no.


Janan Khamo Gawra & Fiona Chong

October 2017



Welcome to the ‘Tropimundo Family’ with our new YouTube channel!


Hi everybody!

Hope you’re having a lovely Sunday wherever you are. Personally speaking, here in Brussels the day it’s not worth its name…quite grey and humid…and cold…Sun, where are you?!

Good news is that our mate Jessica Micklem has just created a brand-new YouTube channel with video contributions from our Tropical Family: check it out at Tropimundo Family for some inspiration from our favorite places! New material will be uploaded, but there’s already some good stuff to satisfy your crave for Tropical beauties.

A good reminder of how rich and amazing our world is, and that is our responsibility to take care of it. Thanks to all present and future contributors.


GMOs: an overlooked responsibility


Tropimundo students honoured to meet Em. Prof. Marc Van Montagu at VUB seminar

This past week our universities in Brussels, Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB), in collaboration with the Université Libre de Bruxelles (ULB) and Ghent University organized a seminar in the framework of the Biotech Week 2017. The showing (one of the first in the world) of the brand-new documentary “Food Evolution”, directed by Scott Hamilton Kennedy and narrated by science communicator Neil deGrasse Tyson, opened the event, which was followed by a public discussion.


The debate regarding genetically modified organisms (GMOs) is still one of the strongest and most polarized. There is a disproportionate number of documentaries (and propaganda in general) supporting the anti-GMOs side, to the point that when something that shows “the other side” comes out, it’s a very welcomed surprise. As with many US productions, it is slightly sensationalized, and perhaps a bit simplistic in some passages (but this is probably the “flaw” of any popularizing product, especially when seen by scientists). It did however bring up several strong points.

The purpose of this post is not to praise nor to review the documentary itself (this has been done extensively here and here), but I would encourage people to watch it. Regardless of whether you are pro or against GMOs, or if you care about the matter at all, there is a good reason for watching it. The thing that really struck me, and that I had never realized before, is how much our attitudes and behaviors can influence a big portion of the world. How far the effects of our – at times trivial – arguments can reach.

We view GMO’s suspiciously in Europe. Basically, we haven’t decided if we like them or not. There is no uniformity across the continent, some crops are authorized in some countries, but not in others, and then the same countries ban them again after few years… just to give an idea. As there is still uncertainty on the matter, the principle of precaution rules the game. Since the invention of genetic transformation of plants, in the early 1980s, there hasn’t been a single study showing any direct harm to the environment or to the human health caused by GMOs (see Report on GMOs). However, as we are still not 100% sure that they are completely safe, we can’t freely authorize their use in Europe and there is still wide disagreement. Over the same period of time, Africa has been through 8 major famine episodes, involving millions of people (CNN Famine fast facts). Clearly, crops don’t grow that easily there. The development and implementation of more resistant, genetically engineered varieties could make a huge difference. Clearly, this doesn’t seem a big issue for Europe, as we have forgotten what real hunger is.


Failed wheat crop in Western Australia due to drought – James Hagan

Food Evolution brings the case of the banana wilt disease in Uganda, which is one of the many examples. There, a bacterium causes banana plants to die and there is no “classic” countermeasure that can effectively stop the spreading of the pathogen. Since this fruit is a fundamental source of nutritious food for the rural population, the results are potentially disastrous. Science however, brings a solution: modified banana plants genetically engineered to resist the infection, a blessing. However, the anti-GMO movement makes its way to Uganda too, and proselytizes against this potentially life-saving innovation. The general opinion gets scarred from their misinforming campaign claiming that GMOs cause cancer, HIV and a bunch of other random diseases for which there is evidence. Not only villagers, but also politicians get convinced and the use of the engineered plants is prohibited by the law.

This is what gets me mad. This unscientific, groundless beliefs come from us, the rich and developed Europe and US, and affect the lives of millions of people in the developing countries. Blinded by the sparkles of our privileged lives and distracted by our tiny problems that we perceive as enormous, we forget to look a little further away from our home. We underestimate the power of our privileges. We know that there are countries where drinkable water or antibiotics are scarce, but we don’t consider that phone signal and internet do arrive. People there do look at us, and think we are examples to follow. Right or wrong, what comes from the rich part of the world is perceived as right. We influence common people as well as politicians, but that’s not all. Research is fundamental for the growth of any country, but it costs money. Money, not only attitudes, flow from the leading economies to the developing ones, influencing the direction of their process of “catching up”. Logically, if we don’t want to invest in the genetic manipulation of food here in Europe, we will not support research in this field in other countries.

People in Europe still discuss GMOs, because we can. Because we have forgotten the meaning of starvation. People die of it while we can afford to be picky with our groceries. We can afford to say no to a certain kind of food because we are scared that it will make as sick, even if it has never been observed nor proved. The majority of kids in this world don’t have access to enough food, or to food good enough to allow for an optimal development: undernutrition translates into “shorter adult height, less schooling and reduced economic productivity.” (Victoria et al. 2008). They will have no bright future. This happens every day, while we waste our time on superficial issues. But we can afford to do so. Precisely because our life expectation is more than 20 years longer than theirs (WHO Life expectancy). By saying no to GMOs as a whole, we, the lucky ones that can happily live without them, are potentially saying no to the future of millions of human beings.

The GMOs issue needs to be given the importance it deserves. I am not saying that we should fully and firmly agree with their use, but that we should finally (after 30 years, c’mon…) make a move. The products of the genetic engineering should be treated objectively, case by case, by looking at the evidence. The majority of the anti-GMOs activist are people who don’t have a background in biology (or they didn’t understand it at all), and you can easily tell by the thesis that they bring about: most of the time are fake (all the various diseases that GMOs are said to cause) or misleading, talking about the use that is made of them (see Monsanto profits and so on) with what they actually are in their biological sense. Politicians too are not scientists, but differently from the rest of the citizens that can be forgiven for their ignorance and lack of engagement, they have a big, huge responsibility. It’s their responsibility to make informed decisions, by asking the right people. When policies regarding a scientific object are to be made, then scientists (and scientists only) should be interviewed. Not businessmen, not religious leaders, not wizards: that’s just not their magisterium. Europe and the US must always bear in mind the critical role they play in the global dynamics, and their representative must make some extra efforts to fulfill their responsibility. We all do.

Giulia Puntin

A change of mind

What a wonderful world! Just. Absolutely. Spectacular.


This has been my line of thought many times in the last year. When I signed up for Tropimundo, the masters where you experience the diversity of the natural world throughout your studies, I was excited but my expectations were nowhere close to the reality. Both the good and the bad!

By now I have studied on four continents: Africa and Australia for my BSc and Europe and Asia for my MSc. Each place left an imprint on my heart. The sunshine and the dry, dusty smell of the African veld with its red sand and shy bokkies. The calls of the kookaburra and threats of drop bears which mix easily with the easy-going folk of Australia. The art, history, language and deep roots of European culture which can vary over the smallest of distances. The strange and flavourful food which complements the strange and colourful natural world in South East Asia.

I believe that travelling (really travelling, not just going to a tourist spot for a week or two in your summer break) enlarges your heart. It always feels full when you leave one place and yet the next place tests the seams to wiggle into its own spot. Many travellers speak of all the places they’ve been with a nostalgic air and a wistful smile. But as your heart grows, it also takes in more than just the beauty. There is space for other emotions like, shock, empathy, horror and sadness. These are the things that family and friends don’t want to hear when they ask for stories of your travels. Only the romantic adventures please!

These emotions can be dealt with in two ways. Either, you can let them fade with time. Or you can let them cement themselves into your being and fuel changes in your way of life that no one at home expects or understands. I’d like to belong to the second category.

To put this into context, in South Africa, we are in a unique position to live close together with the very rich and the very poor. You learn to value small things such as being full and warm in winter as many people in this country go hungry and cold through no fault of their own. In Belgium, the gap is much smaller. The poor are still helpless in the sense of job opportunities but there is adequate social welfare and the starvation rate is very low. There, I experienced consumerism in a way that I hadn’t before. For example, the purchase of a new blouse for no reason other than it was on sale. This casual attitude surprised me, as in South Africa, the cost of such a simple accessory could be the same as another person’s weekly wage. This isn’t to say that nobody in Europe cares about those who are struggling financially, or that nobody in South Africa flaunts their wealth through accumulating possessions, but in general I noticed a definite difference in attitude.

The impact of this culture shock made me angry at the consumer industry. I could see how good their marketing is, and how much social pressure there is to always look good. It brought out a stubborn streak in me and I made the decision not to support any of these big fashion brands nor the cheap stores which most likely took advantage of poor communities across the world to produce cheap clothing in awful conditions.

In Malaysia, the main issue that impacts many people on their travels is the amount of plastic pollution. It was everywhere and we couldn’t understand how it doesn’t bother them. When we went to eat out we got a fright. Plastic plates, plastic cups, Styrofoam everywhere and so many straws! To me, the more frightening aspect was that in cases where people decided not to use single-use plastic containers or implements, they used hard plastic instead. This is not a choice but a result of their low-income wages and the availability of cheap plastic items due to Malaysia’s oil wealth. As environmental students, we tried to fight against the system. We had all sorts of ideological ideas which didn’t manifest into any worthwhile solutions. We did end up refusing straws, reusing plastic bags for shopping and investing in Tupperwares for take-a-ways.


One has a natural urge to chastise people when one sees them doing something one believes is wrong. However, in these situations it would have been extremely hypocritical as I had been just as much a creature of comfort or a product of my circumstance in my own country and I could not fault them for being the same in theirs. Therefore, I decided to pull up my pants and hold myself accountable to the environment I had sworn to love and promised to protect.

A good slogan that environmentalists often use is: Reduce. Reuse. Recycle.

In the light of that I made a pact with myself. I could start with some easy ways to be a better human:

  1. I would refuse straws
  2. I would use fabric shopping bags
  3. I would reduce my wardrobe (this is easier when one is living out of a suitcase anyway)
  4. I would buy second-hand clothing whenever possible (not underwear)
  5. I would buy natural clothing as much as possible (biodegradable)
  6. I would ask myself, “do I really need this?” when I went shopping
  7. I would cook vegetarian and try to avoid meat when not cooking myself
  8. I would not buy plastic souvenirs for friends while travelling
  9. I would recycle and compost when I was able to

My family expected me to come home with many amusing travel stories. They did not expect some of the changes in my attitude. I hope they are just a start to a lifestyle that is more considerate and environmentally friendly.

Jessica Micklem

Mangrove: “The coast guards”

Mangrove Except their natural benefit as a protective barrier against the flood and tsunamis, mangroves are valuable for the people living in the coastal areas. They have the most commercial value as charcoal. Mangrove charcoal is the best in quality and has many medical benefits. Mangroves are having huge crisis nowadays and are at risk, not of extinction, but from being overexploited by harvesting it too much for income. The risk here will be directly to people living in coastal areas which will be suffering from flood in future. The people living in the coastal areas should be aware about the risk of overexploitation of mangrove. The old generation is difficult to change their minds easily as they grow up without any awareness about the mangroves. I think that the best way of awareness is to make the new generation aware, for certainly in future they will be mindful about the mangrove use in a proper way.


Tropimundo students from worldwide (14 countries) while studying their second semester in University of Malaysia Terengganu (UMT), took the Mangrove field work course. In the course of 14 days in field (Matang forest in Perak and Setiu wetland in Kuala Terengganu). The course was designed to introduce the mangrove habitat for students and help them understand the mangrove species differences and see how the different habitat of mangroves are. And especially understand how Matang has been managed for 100 years. One of the activities was to conduct an awareness activity for children of villages in mangrove areas.

dscn0785.jpgThe school was informed about our visit there and we conducted different activities in a way of fun and games for students. The children were very active and happy with the games presented for them and they were interacting with games in way of good understanding of the material that we wanted to teach them. More such activities should be carried out by each one according to their abilities and study field as well as more awareness programs are needed especially from government side in order to aware about the mangrove importance. Mangrove is important for other organisms like fishes, crabs, mollusks and many other organisms living in water and/or in land.



Janan Khamo Gawra 

Tropimundo 2017

Mangroovy memories

Flameback woodpeckers hammer away at the trunks of gigantic mangroves, the sound of their hammering almost like a low-pitched percussion instrument. Kingfishers chatter away noisily and out of tune, their scintillating blue hues catching the rare hint of sunshine as they flit impatiently from tree to tree.
Below the boardwalk, dozens of crabs crawl on the mud, feeding on decaying matter, some with pincers larger than their bodies, the fiddler crabs. Some others crawl out angrily if you step too close to their burrows. Leaf litter obscures most, though, covering the forest floor wherever it can.
Through the carpet of dead leaves, ferns unfold their fronds, crimson tinges on their leaflets. The rare pit viper raises its head, almost as if it were annoyed at your presence. The smell of decomposition fills the air, but the large numbers of bird calls distract you enough to forget it.

You, are in Matang. Continue reading

The Real Life Tropical Classroom

In-between our academic studies of Tropimundo’s globally travelling class room, me Olivia from England and Liam from Ireland, found ourselves in the midst of a real life tropical reality, on the island of Flores, Indonesia.


The scooter team, complete with tropical ponchos!       Photo by Liam Lachs

This is in no way a rich country, and outside the pockets of touristy mayhem, it was incredible to discover the reality of Indonesia, its people, their infrastructure, landscapes, wildlife, and of course… the tropical rainy season’s weather!

Having just travelled from Australia, where tropical life and plants are integrated into the city’s in a controlled and landscaped manor, adjusting my mindset was necessary. Hot, dusty, mo-ped traffic mania, a new smell around every corner and discovering beaches full of litter! Perhaps these things don’t sound surprising for a developing country and to anyone who’s ever travelled these parts of the world before. But to me, I was shocked and it seems vital to me that beaches of litter do remain a shocking state, not an unfortunate, accepted reality- Too few people are exposed to these issues, leaving a lack of inspiration for change.


Rainy season photography.               Photo by Olivia Hewitt 

So did I mention the rainy season? Our holiday’s buzz word; ‘no boats going, it’s the rainy season’, ‘No! You can’t drive there, rainy season!!’, ‘mmm well…, if it wasn’t the RAINY SEASON!’ Well, being determined and stubborn western tourists, these tropical thunderstorms took us on an unexpected journey – quite literally a 7 hour, bum numbing, scooter ride in land to the volcano region and to a small unassuming town called Ruteng.

The everyday reality for tropical rainy life; getting around is a ridiculously challenging affair. ‘How far to Ruteng?’, ‘…mmm about 5km, so 2 Jams (hours)’, unusual, yes? We thought so! But not to anyone who’s ever travelled those island roads. Every bend and uphill climb presented a new challenge, though apparently not too dissimilar from Liam’s home Irish roads- Thank goodness!!

But similarity stopped there, when a tropical phenomenon we’d learnt about from our serene classroom confines became a reality in the very path that we had to cross. Blocking the only road, was an incredibly large and dangerous mud slide. Seeing the sheer power and strength of this movement, its impact to the man constructed road, and feeling the liquid consistency of this mud as we delved through it with a scooter taught me more than I could have ever learnt from class room studies.


The mud slide, and the road that we couldn’t turn back on.       Photo by Olivia Hewitt


Damage to the road  from the mud slide’s impact.       Photo by Olivia Hewitt & Liam Lachs

But what was an exciting adventure for us, is an everyday reality for the people who are everyday travelling, living on and working these roads of the tropics. And their response, just take it chill! Life’s too hot for stress in the tropics! Mini food stalls pop up by the road for those waiting out the mud slide’s eventual clearing. There’s money to be made in carrying the wealthier travellers’ motorbikes across the muddy madness. And for entertainment they can watch the bewildered English girl and Irish guy attempt the impossible task of washing their legs clean in a muddy puddle of water. Yes, we were a great source of entertainment for some reason!


Endless rice paddy fields under a dramatic, thunderous sky.         Photo by Olivia Hewitt

For me, the beauty in each of our challenges was, through frequently never actually finding our original destined tourist objects (mostly because of the weather), we instead, discovered the welcoming, friendly nature of the Indonesian people. Like sheltering from the rain in a jungle mountain home and sharing tea and pineapple with a family we could hardly communicate with. Every road we drove, the Indonesian’s smiled with absolute glee at seeing two very white, odd looking tourists in funny rain poncho’s flying down the hill. They’d shout ‘Hello Mr!!’ or ‘Bule’ (a friendly word for tourists… we were told!). Whole families came out to help us with the directions and see what all the fuss was about. I could sense a real pride in the people for their country and their excitement that we were there to experience it!


Me and some super excited Indonesian kids hanging by the rice paddies. Photo by Liam Lachs


On top of a volcano, near Ruteng with two Indonesian students that were great fun and guided us around. We came back loving Ruteng!!                           Photo by Olivia Hewitt 

So, in the end, the rainy season is not so bad. Despite the surface busyness of everyday life, we found a calmness through the tropical rain storms. And when the sky falls down on your head, the laid back, friendly Indonesian folk would just put a fricken good poncho on and keep driving!

Olivia Hewitt

Tropical Master’s with a Sprinkling of non-Tropical Snow

Perhaps it is just my coldblooded, rain drenched Irish genes but in my experience the body does some peculiar things when it is violently shaken from the damp breezy chilled European climes to the horrendously hot and humid Tropics. The first sign, for me at least, is that the backs of the hands and even the palms begin to sweat profusely. Everything that you touch instantly becomes wet, which is quite a pain when you are trying to write on what was once a perfectly fine copybook but can now only be recognised as a soggy paper towel. Following the palm sweat, the appetite flies out the window for about a week during which time I can expect to be getting quite well acquainted with a particular servicing room. But I think I will leave the rest of that story for another time.

What I really want to talk about is the forgotten 50% of Tropimundo (Tropical Master’s programme), and that is of course the non-tropics. Although in Florence for semester one we spent all our time learning and dreaming about warmer climes, the fact of the matter was that Europe just experienced a winter that will  be going down in the history books for its absolutely atrociously cold January. Luckily we missed the deepest of the low depression but by just taking a look at the pressure charts for Europe you could see how close Florence and Italy was to getting hit. Anywhere north or east of Italy was plunged into a bitter cold which dipped well below zero. The most insightful evidence of the central European cold spell which I found came from an old colleague from Galway. I was complaining to him about the -7C that was outside in Florence and was trying its best to creep through my window and closed curtain and freeze me in the night, when suddenly I was put in my place; This colleague of mine had been making a Christmas visit to Lithuania and had to endure a whopping -27C when the only toilet they had was an outdoor toilet. But now it seems I have digressed again to this distasteful humour, so let me get back to the point.


On January 17th Italy saw snow; even Florence saw snow. It was a great privilege to witness Meenakshi Poti‘s first time with snow. She swung open the wide kitchen windows on the second floor at night, letting in a god-awful breeze and hooting her heart content to the flakes of powder which swirled past they window and pirouetted beneath the streetlamps.



To the east or west of Florence there were sights to behold, from places where the roads wiggled onwards and upwards to the Apennines in the east or the Apuan Alps in the west. What was seen in Florence was really just the final wheezing cough from the heavy snow clouds of the previous week. The clouds true belch had occurred on the mountains, where the snow was even too deep to walk in, and branches and twigs of trees were caked in it as if it were a crunch icing. On the lower reaches of the mountains little kids would come hurtling down walking paths, bee lining straight for you in their sleds before slamming on the breaks or just rolling out of the way but somehow never hitting you. Further uphill the slope became steeper, skiers would fly by at cracking speeds and as a walker this high snowy zone became like a hamsters wheel; for each upward step there were two steps backward.

At the top of Monte Falterona there was a most unexpected and welcome guest. As all the hikers sat down on the icy snow one opportunistic wood mouse ran to and fro, whizzing between peoples legs, looking for any sandwich crumb or other morsel that might hit the floor. Upon finding one of these little gifts the rodent would dance as fast as he could into the undergrowth, presumably adding to his collection of crispy bits. This wood mouse was the only wildlife we actually saw on the snowy mountains; he was in some way forced to


act extra bold due the harsh conditions on the peak. But animal tracks were caught like a snapshot in time. The snow we walking on was only 6 or 7 days old but there were already extensive networks weaving through the white forest floor. A jack rabbits tracks would hop off in one direction followed keenly by those of a fox who was most likely on the hunt. The snowy floor was a gift for the fox but a curse for the rabbit. Occasionally there would even be sported a pile of wild boar droppings. So with mention of poo we have come full circle back to the unintentionally recurrent theme of this post, toilet humour.

Until next time folks, when it surely will be a more tropical post,

Liam Lachs

13 thoughts about traveling


Hello people! Here it’s Giulia Puntin “speaking” from Friuli (the most unknown and underestimated region of) – Italy!

Spending my last days at home before leaving for the “tropical semester” in Malaysia, I managed to fit in some writing time between planning, drawing up lists, dreaming and compulsively checking the status of my visa.

No matter what the reasons for doing it are, travelling always carry a great deal of excitement and emotions. As we’re all approaching that moment, I thought this was the appropriate time to bring back to light and share (on our brand new blog!) a bit of writing of mine from two years ago, after I came back from a “gap year” of backpacking in Australia. 

It might sound a bit off topic, since we are meant to talk about our current experience, but I probably wouldn’t be here, doing what I’m doing with this beautiful folks with which I share time, knowledge, passions and ambitions, if it weren’t for this very journey. But, to be honest, I am not just going to talk about this one specific journey, as I think (hope) many people will find pieces of themselves too between these lines. Through my own personal experience I’d like to write it as a celebration of Travelling itself, and all its bearings. 

What are we, if not the result of all of our experiences? Not only we can’t ignore our past, we owe the good things that happened to us be remembered and be given the value they deserve. 

Here I’m going to share with you some of the thoughts and impressions that left the deepest marks on the person I am and, looking backwards, led to a chain of events I am still not ready to fully appreciate. 

Holding my one year working holiday visa, I travelled around the Land Down Under following this basic “plan”: from Sydney, moving northwards towards the tropics through Queensland, Northern Territory and then West, exploring the remoteness of the Western Australia and descending it to Perth.

I didn’t really care too much about the Southern Coast (it’s not tropical, you know…ahah!) , but then it just worked out to keep going through it and back to Sydney again, that also allowed me to “close the circle”.

I didn’t get to see some places I thought, before, I couldn’t really miss out. I ended up loving places I didn’t even know existed.

I made my own mistakes, accepted compromises (mainly with myself) and hold some regrets that maybe, from a different point of view, have no reasons to exists. But I’ve learnt a lot. Beyond the usual, so acclaimed “personal growth” that in the common view goes hand in hand with this sort of experience and that everyone inevitably expects: I’ve learnt a lot of practical skills, curiosities and heaps of facts and insights about the Australian wildlife and how to explore it.

As a junior biologist, I’m not going to say that I’ve learnt what can’t be tought by books, instead, I’ve got the chance to see and touch what books talk about, finally in 3D and High Definition.

Personally, I hold this feeling that travelling doesn’t really change the person you are, it rather enables you to get in touch with some hidden aspects of yourself that you didn’t know existed or couldn’t properly express. It allows you to witness and experience aspects of life that otherwise you wouldn’t have, maybe better defining your inner self. But definitely not, travelling doesn’t change the essence of your person. In simple words: if you’re a dic***ad, you’ll stay a dic***ad, and trust me, I’ve seen many around.

When I came back home, I felt changed more “outside” than “inside”. Besides the much more blond and longer hair and the suntanned skin, features which easily standed out among the european winter look of the rest of the people around me, I received a lot of compliments about how “grown up” I looked (apparently I’m still in the age in which getting older is considered a good thing, or at least something not to feel upset about). Several times I’ve been asked if I were grown taller, and this still puzzles me.

I thought many times how I will have found myself once back home again. Come back to the same place I lived in for nearly my whole life, overlap my old and new me, and spot the differences.

It seems I aged more than the year I actually spent away. For sure, that year seems to me to have lasted longer than an average “normal” one. My eyes have seen and maybe got accustomed with a huge number of different and always changing views, my body had started to adapt to different environments…but it was still me, it’s still, just, me. With a much better English, and a backpack full of anecdotes.

In the heat of the moment, that was my impression.

At this point a premise (or better a clarification) is needed: my first travel solo was when I was 18, and that has probably been the very experience that enlightened me. Four weeks in Queensland volunteering in a wildlife Sanctuary, then two weeks to travel a bit around the north. So this first time was the most “shocking” one, the one that I came back and felt overwhelmed by emotions. Going to Australia for the second time, I found the way kinda smoother, as I had already been through some intense stuff…

Something stupid like staring for the first time at the Departures sign of an international airport, whose destinations reach every corner of the world, and yours is among them. You feel just one step from Everywhere.

My very first flight, 20-something hours, crossed the equator and both the tropics, finally got to see what the southern hemisphere looks like.

I felt I could go everywhere and after that I couldn’t anymore picture myself living a whole life in the same place. There’s a whole world out there, not that out of reach as you were induced to believe…

it took me weeks or even months to realize the real extent of my “personal growth”, which, as I said before, consisted not in a change of my own person, but in a widening of my perspectives. A slow process, a journey of little steps…

  1. WHAT IS REALLY TRAVELING? Is it about how much we see or how we feel? Quality or quantity? To me, the real breakthrough is not when you face a different reality, but when you start considering it “normal”, the everyday life. In that context, you don’t fully realize the real magnitude of the set of things you, at that moment, take for granted. I kept staring in owe at the view of my beach kissed by the sun, at every sunrise and every sunset, every turtle, at the view of the forest from my kayak, feeling among the few blessed ones who can call it home, but as time went by, week after week, the astonishment faded away. That was my place, my ordinary life. My real life. Cape Tribulation will always be in my heart, but only when I left I could understand the grandeur of that piece of paradise of mine.

    My life, even if for only six months, has been about working as a bartender next to a beach right between the Great Barrier Reef and the Daintree Rainforest, considered one of the world oldest tropical rainforest. English was my language, my house a sort of upgraded quirky shack, surrounded by any sort of life. You can’t see my now, so I’ll tell you: just thinking about it got me goose bumps and shiny eyes.

  2. AN UNUSUALLY NORMAL LIFESTYLE. I got accustomed to a lot of things, a lifestyle I’d say, that usually people would consider as an unacceptable compromise. Beyond the situations described above, there are other habits I acquired and feel proud of, that changed the way I see travelling: as budget is limited, there are heaps of superfluous stuff you can easily get away without yet have an awesome experience. Actually, I’d say it allows you to have a better experience.

    Examples: of course, camping and/or sleeping in the car instead of hostels; using public showers and toilets, and if they are not available a bucket of water and a hole in the ground are good substitutes, which means that quite often you just pee on the ground (for example, in one place I got asked to use the toilet only for “solid wastes” and use the lawn for the rest), this doesn’t mean you have to give up to your personal hygiene, simply do it in a slightly different way (I don’t understand people who think travelling on a shoestring means being dirty, it’s so easy to keep decent!); cooking on public barbeques or on a camping cooker, powdered milk (it sucks, but doesn’t rotten); living with perfect strangers and sharing everything with them; couchsurfing; wwoofing; check if the water tank has enough water in it, if not, look for any tap available, from the one at the petrol station, to public fountains; worry about where your passport is, and you’re camera as well, as they are the most valuable things you own; the constant rain, its perpetual sound and the mould growing on everything, then the drought and the sun burning everything; dry you’re washing over every sort of structure, like fences, walls, chairs, cars or part of them, hedges, benches; use a single soap cake for all the purpose indicated on the box, namely as shampoo, body soap, laundry soap; got used to spiders, gecko pooh falling from the ceiling, goannas feasting with kitchen wastes and mice with your food, of any sort, that you didn’t secure/hide properly…and so on.

  3. THE MANY THINGS I COULD HAVE DONE BEFORE, BUT I NEVER DID are maybe the biggest surprise. I’ve seen many weird things that I could have never seen anywhere else, but sometimes what hits you more is to realise all the things you’d been missing just because you had never bothered to seek for. I started camping, became a quite good kayaker, tried horse riding and couchsurfing for the first time, all in Australia. Also I cooked my first pizza in a real wooden pizza oven (and I call myself Italian?!). Why? I guess because when you travel you are in a more open mood: you know your visa is not going to last forever, you might not be there ever again in your life + you find yourself living in a totally different environment attended by people you were very unlikely to meet otherwise.

    I’ve probably seen more sunrises during the first two month than in my entire life. I’m definitely not a morning person. But if you have an active life, spending the whole day under the sun, going to bed at dark because there’s not that much else to do, then the first ray of light that knocks on your eyes is more than welcome.Did I need to go to the other side of the world to start living according to the daylight, waking up at sunrise and going to bed at dark? No, I didn’t, simply the life I lead at home, in Europe, works against it.

  4. THE REAL VOYAGE OF DISCOVERY CONSISTS NOT IN SEEKING NEW LANDSCAPES, BUT IN HAVING NEW EYES”, as someone else said…and maybe I had to travel half the way around the world to find it out. Despite a lifelong innate interest for the natural world I started looking at it in a different way in Australia. There I was constantly scouting new landscapes, made of plant and animals I had never met before. Every day a new finding, I was growing competence. To give you an idea, there are fishes and birds whose counterparts are found in Italy too, but I have no idea how to call them in Italian. Furthermore, it appears to me I see more things now, I recognize birds and plants I had never noted before.

  5. FEEL LIKE A FOREIGNER, at least once in a lifetime, everyone should experience what it feels like to be not understood. To worry about being scammed or mocked because you can’t speak properly. Or simply don’t understand jokes. I’ve been lucky I met mostly nice, very nice people, but sometimes it doesn’t take much to feel humiliated (this is something native English speaker will never get). Sometimes I’ve just been too hard on myself, maybe. This change of perspective revealed suddenly one day I saw an Italian insulting a black guy, who was doing his job, because of a “misunderstanding”. The black guy was right, but nevertheless the italian felt legitimated to reply with a “go back to work, or just go back to your home”. I felt personally offended, and wondered if he ever tried to make a living abroad, where no one cares about his family name.

  6. FEEL FREE There’s something wrong about always living in the same environment: you have to keep playing the same role, listening to someone else’s opinion again and again, forcing yourself to agree on matters just because they’re generally thought to be good. I’m not saying that you have to renounce to anything, just go away from the general “real life” and try a new, exciting, momentary one. There’s so much freedom in the loneliness. Personally, I felt free to do so much bullsh*t in this year, things that I would not have dared to do while at home. You must allow yourself the privilege of totally screwing up on something, without having someone saying “I told you…”.

  7. AN INHABITANT OF THE WORLD, THIS IS WHAT I AM. Only travelling makes you understand this, nothing can explain you better the reach of this sentence. Gives you the right perspective, the right proportion, makes you feel (just) a little part of this beautiful blue dot we live on. It first shows its beauty and then how we threat it, and it hurts. It makes you realize how important are all those little gestures like recycling, reusing instead of buying every time new stuff, reduce the use of plastic and so on … and how far they can get. This world is home, our own home, it deserves much more respect.

  8. THINK IN ANOTHER LANGUAGE is another thing a recommend everyone to try, at least once. It’s unbelievable what our brain can do! I never thought I could have had problems finding the words in my own language. It was a funny moment when me and a friend of mine who lives in Australia, suddenly allowed to speak our mother tongue, simultaneously apologized to each other for our Italian being so broken.

  9. BECOME SPOILT AND PICKY ABOUT SIGHTS: one awesome view after another, your standard gets so high you always want more. I several times found myself asking wondering if that place, that landscape, was really worth all the time and energy spent to get there. Would I recommend someone else to invest in such a journey? Funny is, looking now at the photos I took there (and photos, in my opinion, still can’t compare with reality) I just laugh at it. That place was awesome, just little less awesome than others, but still well worth!

  10. THE SADDEST AND MOST ANXIOUS MOMENTS HAPPENED BEFORE TOUCHING AUSTRALIAN GROUND. Even if the enthusiasm overcomes the fear, the idea of a long-term travel may scare a bit. Will I feel alone, lost, miserable and have no one around to seek relief? It actually only happened in my mind, only before leaving. I had my down moments, doubts, maybe fears, but I never felt overwhelmed by them. Exactly because I was alone, I was too busy thinking how to make it work. The hardest moment of the whole year was the time to say goodbye, when I turned my back to my family and best friends and walked through the boarding check. I waved goodbye again and disappeared. The flight was dramatic in both the meaning: I got two sunsets and a sunrise all spectacular, but I was always about to cry. What the f*ck am I doing???. I didn’t know what I was going to find, but surely I knew (then even better) what I was leaving behind. Luckily an airplane is not something you can just jump off, it kept me safely locked until the end. A day and a half later, with no proper sleeping and 7 time zones forward, it dropped me off in the summer hot midnight Sydney. Totally recharged. Peaceful again.

  11. THE BUCKET LIST SERVES ONLY TO INSPIRE, don’t take it too seriously! Its bias lies in the fact you write it before actually knowing what those things are about. It’s easy to fall in the mistake of overestimating: the most popular things not always are the most beautiful, but surely are the most attended! And maybe spoiled…

    There are things I really wanted to do, but I had to give up for good reasons: extended my stay in places I couldn’t know before I would have fallen in love with, had to deal with seasons, weather, unexpected good opportunities… Work out your own way, be flexible, enjoy what you get, catch the moment. Don’t stick to a list, you’ll have the time of your life…

  12. WHERE ARE YOU REALLY WHEN YOU ‘COME BACK’? It seems that your mind doesn’t always follow your body…who is you, and where? You’re head is still full of colors, sounds, feelings of a distant land. You can’t get rid of them, but you can’t even really share them with anyone else who hasn’t felt the same. In your wallet, a mix of ‘here’ and ‘there’ of currencies, debit card, business cards and receipt from places very far from each other. The backpack you packed in one day takes three months to be completely unpacked. In one year, you expect to find things much more different and you ask yourself, did it really happened? Was I really there? Was it real? It must have had, because you can’t stop thinking at it…

  13. HOW YOU RE-EVALUATE YOURSELF ONCE BACK HOME is maybe the brighter side of the ‘aftermath’. You see yourself under a better light, you have a better comprehension of your capabilities, as well as of your weaknesses. You have proved yourself you made it through, and you can do it again. And it’s not only about yourself, but also about the things and people who have always surrounded you, you appreciate them more now. The sense of humor of your friends and the still strong bond between you, it’s wonderful! Making jokes in a foreign language is very difficult, but in my own language, omg, I didn’t remember being so funny! Having a pizza that really tastes like pizza is an awesome feeling too.

Actually, there’s something that has changed in you, and it’s an irreversible process: something that will stay with you forever and will never let you alone, like an unpaid debt or a work left half done. What about the rest of the world I haven’t seen yet?


Advice for undergraduates on contacting supervisors in ecology: Aim high and understand that it will be an anxious experience

Recently I have applied to do a thesis with a well-known community ecologist, based in a foreign country for no reason other than because I liked her work and the research direction of her lab*. I’m not going to lie, this was a daunting and anxiety inducing experience. You immediately think of many reasons why you shouldn’t do it: “I don’t want to bother them”, “what if my idea is stupid?” etc.** I’m here to give you six reasons why this is something we should all do as aspiring ecology graduate students, and offer some advice based on my own experience.

1. As an undergraduate, you have probably had experience with one university and one set of faculty members. At most two if you did a semester abroad and maybe a few more if you engaged in some summer research experience. A new university exposes you to an entirely new set of ideas and expertise. Even if you are not directly engaged with large numbers of faculty (like in undergrad), you will attend seminars, discussion groups and at the very least meet new people, which can broaden your academic perspective.

2. Different universities have different ways of doing things and these can be important skills in your future. How lab groups are run, the various teaching methods employed, course structure and even administrative structure. Having these experiences can help formulate your own ideas around how to set up labs, manage students, teach and integrate into different universities in the future.

3. It allows you to pick and choose (literally) from an enormous pool of academics to try and suit your interests and skills. In some (rare) cases professors from your undergraduate will directly overlap with your interests and then it is a good idea to stick with them. However, in my experience at least, this is rarely the case. Even if academics from your home institution partially suit your interests, I would still argue that trying to look elsewhere is a good idea. A Masters or a PhD is a big commitment and it is important that you make sure that you are engaged in a field/topic that you are passionate about and can see yourself working on in the future.

4. Networking. If you go from undergraduate to PhD at a single university, you will undoubtedly do some networking. However, attending a new university in a different country (or the same country) basically doubles the size of your network off the bat. As a personal example, in my international Masters program so far, I have met people from probably 20 different universities. Obviously not all graduate programs are this diverse but you get the point. It is also not to say that networking will bring you any sort of instant success, but it can’t hurt to have connections with more students and academics.

5. As I’m sure you’ve noticed, academics tend to be relaxed people, or if not relaxed people at least nice people. Academia requires you to participate in all kinds of interactions like collaborating on research, teaching, supervising, public speaking etc. which makes social skills an important part of the job description. In my own experience, the chance of an academic being unwilling to even discuss the possibility of a thesis is very low (this obviously has caveats: see below). However, I am also not an academic, so don’t take my word as law here. When/if our readership goes up, maybe we can insert a Jeremy Fox, Dynamic Ecology style poll here? But really, why wouldn’t someone want to discuss a topic that they have dedicated their life to with a young, enthusiastic student who shares those interests.

6. What’s the worst that could happen? In the second worst case scenario, they may reply and say: “Sorry I am not accepting students right now”, or “I am not willing to start up a new project in this area”. In the worst case scenario, they don’t reply after a follow up email and then you will know that they aren’t interested. That’s the worst case. I know that nobody likes rejection but it will happen from time to time, that’s just life.

Now, some advice about how to go about this. Firstly, don’t be scared to contact people who you think are suited to your interests independent of their credentials. I’m not advocating a willy-nilly approach to contact any ecologist whose paper you like, there are obviously caveats which are detailed really well here and here. However, a well written and thought out email is something that any academic wouldn’t mind receiving (any academics that can confirm this would be appreciated) and I think even be enthusiastic about if it clearly comes from a committed and interested student. Also, you might not be successful on your first, second, third etc. try but that’s what it is about. Very few people get the first job they apply to, so getting into a graduate program should not be any different. Chances are that going through the process of thinking, researching and trying to come up with your own ideas will be very beneficial anyway (it certainly was for me) so it isn’t wasted time.

So come up with your own ideas, send them out and chances are you will be successful!

*This seems to be common practice for students in the United States but not in many other countries with which I am familiar (several European countries, South Africa, Australia, Bangladesh) where it is reasonably common to go from undergraduate to PhD at a single institution. This is obviously anecdotal though.

**Chances are if you are thinking a lot about why something might be bad, it might actually be okay. This post presents studies showing that people who are doubtful about their competence and worry a lot tend to be intelligent. Then again, they also say you might be intelligent if you own a cat so…

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