Monday, February 17, 2014

First Impressions of Greece

We arrived in Athens on February 14th after two days of travel. All of our biological clocks where off and we were all sleep deprived from the kids waking up ready to go at 2am. I have spent many nights in full activity for 3-4 nights without much sleep during the day time. We had an 18 hour layover in London, where we got a hotel close to the airport. We went for a little walk at a nearby park, but it was quite cold and windy, so we spent most of the time in the hotel. The kids were also wide awake in the middle of the night, so we took a night-time walk and played around the lobby in the wee hours of the morning. The kids are just now getting their sleep cycle back in tune with the diurnal cycle.

We flew into the Athens airport which turns out to be just as close to Rafina as it is to Athens. For 33 Euros we took a taxi for about a 20 minute drive to get to our house in Rafina. It was great to see some artwork associated with the 2004 Athens Summer Olympics at the airport. We did not see much of Athens since the airport was so far out of town. 

We arrived at our rental home which has a view of the Aegean Sea and is surrounded by some wonderful Greek architecture with white washed walls and terracotta tile roofs. We had our first night dinner that included olives, feta, bread, and Greek wine.  

The house is mostly marble tile floors and ceramic tile walls, which is good in the summer heat, but a bit cool in the winter. The high temperatures are in the 60s and lows in the 50s, so it is not too cold. Individual rooms have wall heating and cooling units so we can control the temperature on a room by room basis, but that means that the hallways and some central rooms are relatively cold without heaters. The hard surfaces are also a bit of a concern with the kids, but there is a nice carpet in the family room. There are also a number of stone stairways, which are off limits to the kids without supervision. The house also has balconies and sitting areas around all sides of the house. There are at least four good sized formal balconies or patios and them many smaller areas where one could set up a chair.

Rafina has a large feral cat and feral dog population. Two cats have adopted the house and spend a lot of time on our balcony to the enjoyment of the kids. We see cats and dogs throughout the village as we walk around and many residents have dogs in their yards as well.

On our first day we took a walk around the village that resulted in covering about a quarter of the main village in 3.2km (or about 2 miles which is equivalent to about 4000 steps if one is counting such a thing). Of course the majority of this walk was with a 30 lb. child on or shoulders and half of the trip was with six grocery bags as well.

We visited the dock where there is a row of shops, about half of which sold fresh fish. The other half was mostly cafes that were pretty full. Even though this is the winter off-season, most of the shops were doing a good bit of business with the locals.


Phoenix in February with the Family

I came back from Australia and New Zealand on January 31st and spent two weeks in Phoenix at my parents’ house until we all left for Greece on February 12th. I was able to spend some time with Karla and the kids and to try to recover from jet lag before our next trip. 

We visited the McCormick-Stillman Railroad Park at the recommendation of Nathan English. This was a great park with a train ride for kids and a carousel. They also had a train museum and a new large building with three model train scenes. Two of these were under construction which was interesting because you could see how the landscapes where created.

The Arizona Renaissance Fair started in Apache Junction the weekend before we left. This has been going on for more than 20 years and each year it gets more developed.  I remember attending this when I was an undergraduate at the University of Arizona in the 1990s and it just had a few temporary structures. Now it is an entire village that has many medieval activities, shows, food, and many craft shops with medieval goods such as blacksmithed swords, leather pouches, clothes, and toys.

We went to the local AAA office to get international driver’s licenses and it turns out that this office also houses Hertz Rental Car. They had two electrical car charging stations out front. It seems that electric cars are becoming more popular which is nice to see. This is especially true in Arizona where the sun shines over 300 days a year and solar power is an obvious and easy alternative energy choice. Many houses have solar panels for energy production on their roofs and even more have solar water heaters on their roofs.

I received some good news while I was in Phoenix. One of my favorite ice creams (Ben and Jerry’s Coffee Toffee Bar Crunch) would be sourcing non-GMO toffee bars. I am glad to see more companies are thinking about how the food is produced that goes into their products. I do think that someday, we will have GMO labelling on food products so that we know what goes into our foods and we can make the choice of what we want to eat. On the flip side, I am a little depressed that Ben and Jerry's Ice Cream was not sourcing non-GMO ingredients before.

We had some time for walks around the neighborhood with the kids on tricycles. This was nice to make up for some of the time that I had been gone for the whole month in Australia. I particularly liked how L1 would take L2 on his tricycle when L2 got tired and then he would tow L2’s tricycle with a rope that I brought (It has been suggested that it might be good to keep our kids identities off of the internet for as long as possible, hence the abbreviations for their names above with L1 being the elder). L1 is taking photographs with his imaginary camera. They had a lot of fun playing outside in the backyard for much of the day since the high temperatures where in the 60s with sun every day.

 We experienced some classic and beautiful Phoenix sunsets on just about every night. The dust that is kicked up in the desert combined with some light clouds tends to create great sunsets in Phoenix on most evenings.

Organ Pipe Cactus with California Poppies.

Friday, February 14, 2014

A Day in Fiji

I had booked round-trip tickets from Phoenix that were through Fiji Airways and had long layovers in Fiji. I was supposed to have a 12 hour layover in Fiji on the way to Australia and a 15 hour layover on the way home. My plane to Fiji had technical difficulties and never took off, but I was able to get booked on a Quantas Air flight that went directly to Sydney and then on the Melbourne.  I actually got in to Melbourne about 7 hours earlier than I was supposed to, but I missed Fiji on the way out.

My flight through Nadi Fiji did work on the way home. I had enough time to explore part of the island and my timing was great as I missed two days of heavy rain and flooding. After landing, I talked with a local travel agent. She set me up with a private taxi driver that she knew (Ronnie). He took me around the southern part of the island and showed me many sites. He was an excellent tour guide and provided me with much of the information in this post.

We went to First Landing which is where the first native peoples were thought to have arrived 3500 years ago from Melanesia. This was a very nice simple resort right on the beach, but there were no other tourists there. The resort had been evacuated for the past few days because of the flooding and it appeared that no one but the attendants had come back yet. The resort owners built up a small island just off the coast in the shape of a foot to commemorate the first landing. It gave a nice view of the shoreline.

Ronnie took me through the town of Nadi and we stopped at a market that was covered, but mostly open on the sides. This was a massive market that was full of fresh produce, local foods, and flowers. I saw a lot of roots being sold, so I asked about it. It is a native plant called kava whose root is ground and soaked in water as a drink that is usually shared with company in the evenings and morning. This variety was called waka which is made from the lateral roots. One of the stall workers made me a cup of it. It was good, slightly spicy, and seemed to make my tongue a bit numb. I felt like it would not be polite if I declined to drink, but I was a little concerned, because it was made from water out of a bucket and hand pressed in the water. As it turned out, I did not end up with any major gastro-intestinal issues which was a relief. In looking this root up on Wikipedia, I was surprised to find that it has sedative and anesthetic properties with active chemicals in the kavalactone group. It has been demonstrated to significantly improve short-term social anxiety over a placebo trial but has been banned in some countries because of its potential hepatotoxicity. That was an interesting cultural experience.

We went to Garden of the Sleeping Giant which was Raymond Burr’s house where he raised orchids and now it belongs to Fiji as a tourist attraction. The Sleeping Giant is the name for the mountain at the foot of which the property is located. It was a very nice landscape that had a great variety of orchids and also had a walk through native jungle. This was a beautiful property and was one of my favorite sites to visit. I spent about an hour walking through the trails and taking pictures of orchid flowers and other tropical plants. The property went up the hill slope into native jungle. This was the most natural area that I saw of the island because most of the rest of the area that I toured was cleared for agriculture and settlements. 

Ronnie said that the island gets most of its power from hydroelectric, but that they have diesel generators as a backup. We drove by this oil storage facility which was quite massive. There is also an active pulp wood industry on the island that is from an introduced pine tree which Ronnie called African pine. I saw some of these trees around the Garden of the Sleeping Giant, but did not identify the species.

Fishing is a major industry here and the locals where just preparing to go back out on the water. They had not been fishing for the last few days because of the storms that came through. Ronnie pointed out a series of houses that he said were from British occupancy. Each of these houses had an elevated water tank which was presumably filled by rainwater and provided the indoor water pressure for the house.

I also quickly visited the Sri Siva Subramaniya temple that was at the site of the original temple built in 1926, but was rebuilt in 1976 during its golden jubilee. This is one of the more popular tourist sites in Nadi, but I just stopped to see the temple from the outside.

We drove by two universities (The University of Fiji and Fiji National University) that were located near Nadi, although I did not stop to visit. The University of Fiji was established in 2005. I liked their objective statement. "The University’s objectives include providing higher education relevant to Fiji ‘s needs, but within a global framework and to support Fiji ‘s development as a sustainable, peaceful, inclusive and progressive society committed to good governance."

I visited three different resorts in my short time on the island and they all had some nice characteristics. First Landing was a nice secluded resort directly on the shore. It had some very nice dining areas and it looked like you could rent kayaks and other water sport activities. This was my favorite site which would be nice to visit if I return to the island. I spent about half of the day at Smuggler’s Cove which was mostly populated by young people that were out sun-bathing. This was also a nice location right on the beach. It was a small place with a bar and restaurant looking out over the water. Ronnie dropped me off here for lunch, so I stayed around there reading a book until it was time to go back towards the airport at 6pm. I took a taxi back towards the airport and had him drop me off at Russel’s resort which was across the street and walking distance from the airport. This was a very nice place, but was not on the coast. It was much more family oriented with swimming pools and many families walking around.  There were two guitar players that were playing and singing during my last hour at Russel’s which was a very nice treat.

Most of these places seemed to be fairly economical and also had day rates for people like me that were only staying during daylight hours on a layover. I did not get a room anywhere as I wanted to explore, but it would be nice to spend some time here if I ever come back this way. Interestingly, I asked many people where they liked to go in Fiji (including Ronnie the taxi cab driver); everyone indicated that they mainly leave the main island and go out to the more secluded islands off the coast. This would definitely be a nice place to explore more in the future, but it would be an easy place to come and relax on the way to Australia or New Zealand and it reduced the single flight time to about nine hours from Los Angeles.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Sustainability at James Cook University

I was invited to give a talk entitled “Sustainability at Indiana State University” while I was visiting James Cook University (JCU) in Townsville, Australia. The talk was attended by Adam Connell the director of sustainability for campus (which is a facilities management position here), Adella Edwards who is a staff member who is the director of the JCU Bicycle Users Group (, and Bob Stevenson who teaches about environmental education among others. It was nice to talk to them about sustainability on each campus and Adella took the time to give me a tour of the sustainability initiatives at James Cook University.

Adella is the staff sponsor for the Bicycle Users Group (called BUG). They had some facilities changes on campus that actually freed up space. They built a centralized chiller facility which should be more energy efficient and save them money in the long term. This consolidation also opened up a number of spaces around campus that used to be facilities for cooling units. BUG got one of these spaces as a long-term bicycle storage unit and repair shop. They can store bikes throughout the summer break (their three month break which runs from November through January). They also have waterproof storage lockers which bicyclists can claim on a first come basis. They have a small bicycle repair shop in this facility and have a student attendant at least two hours a day for people to come and get things fixed on their bikes.

JCU has been getting more bike racks on campus including these racks where the central post is made of recycled plastic. They also have a bike share program where students can check a bike out for $50 a year and they get $20 back if they return them at the end of the year. The bicycles are labelled with the JCU BUG logo so that they can be recognized around campus. They had started with about 15 lime green cruiser bikes that can still be seen around campus and then they went to conventional bikes that they had collected and repaired from abandoned bikes on campus.

JCU has also installed bike repair stations where anyone can come and use the tools to fix their bikes. This station used to have an air pump incorporated into it, but they found that the rubber tubing would not last in this tropical climate. They had to replace the tubing every year to keep it working, so that part of the repair station has been disassembled. They are working on another air pump alternative that is better suited to the climate and should last longer.

JCU also has a community garden on campus, which is maintained by a faculty member. They have actually designed their own raised bed system that is self-draining, but maintains a water reservoir for wicking moisture up to the plants through the soil. The managers of this garden maintain the plants, but allow anyone to come and pick produce as they need it. It really functions as a test case for many of the technological applications that are being demonstrated. They have the wicking beds mentioned above, and the manager has been reclaiming trampoline frames to make semi-circle shade frames for the gardens. It turns out that it is so warm and the sun is so intense, that the plants grow better here under some shade.

As mentioned in a previous post, JCU also works to maintain the native vegetation of a eucalyptus woodland that covers much of the campus. JCU maintains these native plants and preserves the woodland as they can. Along with 350 other institutions they have signed on to the Talloires Declaration which is an international agreement that is a “ten-point action plan for incorporating sustainability and environmental literacy in teaching, research, operations, and outreach at colleges and universities”.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Sustainability in Townsville, Queensland, Australia

Australia seems to use much more solar power than New Zealand. I found solar panels on many houses during my travels. I spoke to one sustainability fellow at James Cook University that mentioned the government had provided tax subsidies for private home owners to install up to 4.7kw solar panels on their homes. That is more energy production than the wind turbine that we recently installed at Indiana State University. That home owner had noted that they always provide more energy to the grid than they need for their own home. This is a great diversified energy production model that does not rely on a few large polluting power plants. It also has the opportunity to have greater resilience, because that energy is produced throughout the grid rather than in a few centralized locations.

We also saw some state installed solar panels such as this skate park that had a full canopy of solar panels that provided shade as well as energy production. This was located on Maggie Island which is technically part of the city of Townsville.

I saw a wide variety of recycling and litter bins such as this one on the beach at Maggie Island. Recycling seemed to be more regularly integrated into the trash system throughout Australia than I have experienced in the US.

Maggie Island, also frequently had mini Mokes for rent which is a small jeep-like vehicle that was mainly produced in the 1960s. They have great gas mileage and look fun to drive around, although they could not handle the many steep dirt roads that were fairly common on the island.

Paluma (where we did a rain forest hike) is part of the Australian National Park System. This was a nice area, although I was interested in seeing that there were residents in the park area. I believe that they had 100-year leases from the Australian Government to maintain their homes. We had a nice picnic at a local park that was next to the Paluma Environmental Education Centre. Nathan said that most of the eight grade students in the state spend three days at this environmental centre.

During our visit to the waterfalls at Crystal Creek in Paluma Queensland, we saw wild mango (Mangifera indica) trees and one squished Cane Toad (Rhinella marina). Both of these organisms where introduced. The mango was introduced from South Asia for cultivation and is a major tropical fruit product for the area. The cane toad was introduced to control the sugar cane grub but because of differences in their life cycles, was never very effective at controlling the cane grub. It has become an invasive pest in Queensland because there are no native predators that can handle the toxicity of the cane toads.

We ended our day of rainforest hiking and Crystal Creek swimming with an obligatory stop at the Frosty Mango. They cultivate a large variety of tropical fruits and make them into ice creams that were quite good. I was most impressed with their displays of the fruit. They had a poster of all of the species as well as a fruit stand outside that had the scientific names of all of the fruits they had to offer. Queensland is also a major producer of sugar cane, pineapples, and bananas. We saw fields of this production from our drive from Townsville to Paluma. Just like I saw in Tasmania, Melbourne, and around Aukland in New Zealand, much of the land has been cleared of its native vegetation for agricultural production (and grazing in New Zealand). This made all of these landscapes very familiar since they were similar to the European landscapes that are also common in the US.