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On her trip Down Under, Rebecca Gaguine liked the camel ride, ``even though they smelled funny,'' and learned how to crack a whip. ``That was pretty cool.''
Travis Larsen enjoyed watching the landscape and the people change as he traveled from the coastal cities to the interior bush.
They were among eight Juneau students who visited Australia for two weeks this summer as part of the People to People Student Ambassador Program. Sixty-one Alaska middle school and high school students went in all.
Students paid about $5,000 for the trip, which was set up by People to People, a nonprofit organization created after World War II to foster understanding among nations.
``Pretty much everywhere we stopped there was an educational component,'' said Alan Degener, a Juneau-Douglas High School math teacher who helped chaperone the high school group, which traveled separately from the middle school students.
Students visited the Australian Woolshed in Brisbane, learned about native animals like kangaroos and koalas at Carrumbin Sanctuary in Dalby and the Koorana Crocodile Farm in Rockhampton, and snorkeled at the Great Barrier Reef of corals and fish.
They learned about the aboriginal culture of the rainforest, saw the biggest rock in the world (it's a six-mile walk around it) and flew in a hot air balloon over Alice Springs.
``It was all unusual. It was all unique,'' said Sheila Degener, a Juneau teacher who was one of the middle school chaperones.
Students stayed mostly in hotels, but they spent two nights with an Australian family and one night sleeping out at a bush camp. It was strange to look out at the night sky and not see the Big Dipper, said Gaguine, an incoming JDHS freshman.
``Everyone thought we had accents,'' Gaguine said. ``I wasn't used to that.''
Gaguine found the Aussies more friendly and polite than Americans - and smarter. Visiting an elementary school, she was impressed with the science questions some second-graders could answer that she didn't know. ``I was, like, whoa.''
Larsen, a JDHS sophomore this fall, said he started to pick up a bit of an accent and a few foreign terms, like loo for the bathroom.
Gaguine discovered that American terms didn't always translate. When she ordered a milkshake, she got milk with vanilla syrup and ice. What she really wanted, she learned, was a thick shake.
Larsen, who has been to Europe with his family, said the Australian trip differed from a vacation because he traveled with so many other youths and met so many people there.
``Australia actually made me feel at home,'' he said. ``I could talk to people. ... I didn't feel too foreign in that country.''
Larsen said he learned from the trip that people aren't so different in other countries, ``and when we do have differences, it's really fun to compare them.''
Students prepared for the trip with six two-hour meetings in Alaska, including doing some research assignments. They kept journals, and some are doing short papers in an effort to get high school or college credit through Eastern Washington University.