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Wonderful winter in Oz

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Teens experience culture, nature in lands down under

By Randy Patrick

It’s been an unusual summer for some Bethlehem High School students.

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In fact, it’s been winter in the part of the planet where they met strange creatures, visited hobbit houses, climbed a volcano, marveled at a Maori war dance, watched whales and witnessed a dazzling light show in what has been called the “Emerald City” in the land of “Oz.”

“It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” Lillie McDowell, 17, said of the journey “down under” to Australia, New Zealand and Fiji.

Lillie was one of the group of 43 students and adults from Bethlehem who took part in the school’s 13th Educational Tours expedition led by her mom, Connie McDowell, who chairs the high school’s science department. Her brother, Cole, 23, also went.

The tours Connie McDowell leads every other year have mostly been to Europe, but this time, she decided to guide the students on an adventure to the South Pacific nations where she made her first educational tour 22 years ago with her former Bethlehem English teacher, Carter Lasure.

This one was the best, McDowell said, because of the variety of experiences.

The June 9-21 trip began when the group landed in New Zealand, where they spent four days in Rotorua on the North Island, followed by four days in Sydney, Australia, and two days in Fiji.

Although it wasn’t a science trip per se, there was a heavy emphasis on biology.

“I didn’t know there were so many marsupials!” the biology teacher said.

Americans know about kangaroos and wallabies, but there are many others, some as small as mice.

In New Zealand, some of the team made a strenuous climb to the summit of a dormant volcano, Tarawera in Rotorua, and descended into its crater.

“There were several that said that was the best thing they did the whole trip,” McDowell said.

Students visited Hobbiton, the movie set of Sir Peter Jackson’s “Hobbit” films based on the works of fantasy novelist J.R.R. Tolkien.

“If you’re a ‘Lord of the Rings’ fan, it was amazing because it looks just like it did in the movies,” she said of the halflings’ village.

In New Zealand, students interacted with Maori natives who performed their haka war dance, made famous by the country’s Rugby football team, the All Blacks.

“They do that dance at the beginning of every game. It’s pretty intimidating,” McDowell said.

Later students watched a Rugby match in Australia with a team from Scotland.

Although no longer British colonies, New Zealand, Australia and Fiji are still influenced by the culture of the mother country. “The Queen is on their money,” McDowell noted. But unlike the Aborigines of Australia, the Maoris have preserved their native culture rather than being assimilated, and their language is making a comeback.

“The Maoris were fierce, and they stood up for themselves,” she explained.

In Sydney, the group watched humpback whales and the annual Festival of Lights from the harbor bridge, and some, including McDowell, attended an operetta, the comedy “Two Weddings and One Bride,” at the city’s renowned Opera House.

The island nation of Fiji, where farming was still done “by hand or horses,” said McDowell, was a sharp contrast to the modernity of Sydney.

At their hotel, the students were serenaded by four men, and they visited students in a village school.

“I’ve never seen a more joyous, happier people,” the teacher said of the Fijians.

A marine biologist took them on a tour of coral reefs in a glass-bottom boat, and some of the students tried scuba diving, snorkeling and surfing.

Lillie mostly enjoyed the surfing, visiting Hobbiton and getting to know people of other cultures.

“They were all very welcoming and nice,” she said.

Two of the students, Madison Brady and Izzy Neel, described their experiences in emails to the Standard.

“I love to travel, and I had heard that the Bethlehem trips were amazing,” Madison said.

She found New Zealand and Fiji beautiful, and enjoyed being “up close and personal with Australian wildlife.” But she was most impressed by the village school.

“As an elementary education major, it was exciting to see how proud the students were of their school, how passionate they were about their classroom and what they were learning,” although they lacked many of the educational resources of schools in the West, she said.

This was Izzy’s second educational trip. She had gone with McDowell’s class to England, France, Switzerland and Italy two years ago, so she knew “it would be a wonderful educational opportunity” into a wider world, she said.

The cultural interaction showed the importance of “becoming a global thinker,” and breaking down barriers of race, creed and ethnicity, she said.

But there was also plenty of time for fun, including zip lining, petting a koala and rolling down a hill in a giant “hamster wheel.”

“Adventure Dan” Rogers, their guide, was great about finding fun and fascinating things for the kids to do, McDowell said.

During their time abroad, the students didn’t neglect their religious instruction. By attending Mass, they learned the Catholic liturgy is largely the same the world over and transcends cultural differences.

McDowell has learned over their years that the EF trips are beneficial in broadening her students’ outlook.

“It just really opens their world and opens their minds,” she said.