Australia: Unravelling

I have now been in Australia for two months and three days. Work has finally begun on the blueberry farm, which means that, although I am far from moneyed, I am no longer trapped. Eventually, whether it be a week or a month, soon enough I will be continuing with these slapdash adventures.

Work at the blueberry farm is fine, and also very not fine, largely depending on your ability to turn your brain off and quash the angry little rebellions that begin in your mind once every hour or so. You are paid by the bucket of blueberries you pick – each bucket is roughly ten dollars. As I have only just started work, I’m filling just over one bucket an hour. This means my wage is something like 12 bucks an hour – half the minimum wage of Australia. In an eight hour day stooped picking fat berries under a burning sun, the most I’ve earned thus far is 90 dollars, or about 40 quid, which is very rubbish and makes me quite furious at the level of exploitation that the owners are happy to dish out, especially considering that one bucket of blueberries weighs over 2 kilos, and will sell for a couple of hundred dollars. Holy capitalism, Batman!

Yeah, it feels like a kick in the teeth to know that I had such a dream cushy job in Berlin with so many perks and that now I’ve been relegated to working in a field for wages that my 15 year old pot washer self would have laughed at, but whatever, I didn’t come here to make a lot of money – I came because I wanted to experience a different way of life. And I’ve certainly gotten that.

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From rodeo clowns to grubby-handed mechanics, from ice-heads to Bible-toting Jesus fanatics, local cops to out-of-town businesspeople, there’s every country stereotype you could dream up out here. Last night I was at Tabulam’s only pub with Seth and Ben and Locky (a hitchhiker we picked up last week who now lives with us). It was Friday night so we treated ourselves to a few scooners and a game of pool – and as I sat drinking and thinking, I thought it was nice to know that there are still pockets of the world like this, archaic, sweet, jaws happily clamped around the juicy steak of the good old days. The locals were off their heads, they were wearing Stetson hats and boots, motorcycle t-shirts covered in oil grease, greying beards down to their sternums, cragged brows lined with sweat and dust, and they crushed you when they shook your hand with calloused old fingers like bunches of bananas. They were all 65 years old if they were a day, and started smoking dust while we were drinking with them in the beer garden around a chiminea. One of them showed me his faded tattoo of the Grim Reaper from 1979, while in the background a beer bellied old man with cowboy hat was dancing alone to Shania Twain’s ‘I Feel Like A Woman’.

We played the raffle and Seth won a mixed grill, we cheered loudly, youngest in the bar by thirty years. You feel a little on edge in these old man country pubs, but I kind of enjoy it. Shania Twain and his mate, the ones smoking crystal meth outside, were pretty eye-bally and intrusive, but they’re old men, not out for a brawl. They like to take the piss out of you and make crude jokes, maybe they want to menace you a bit, but there’s no danger. Back home it’s the same. It’s the young ones you need to look out for.

I spoke to an old Aboriginal woman in the smoking area who teaches at the local preschool, and she warned me that the summer would be along soon, and with it the snakes. Somebody at the blueberry farm spotted a spider as big as your head the other day. But I’ve done my research and I’m not worried – the big spiders can’t hurt you, and even the bad little ones, Redbacks, can only fuck you up for a while. You don’t die if you’ve help nearby and you’re in reasonable health to begin with. Brown snakes, too – they’re the second most venomous land snake on the planet, and frequent farms in the summer. But they don’t bite to kill, they only defend themselves when feeling threatened, delivering a dose of venom that is, in 90% of cases, non-fatal. I suppose 10% mortality is still quite high still. I wear long trousers at work.

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I like it out here. Yes, there are things that piss me off – occasional loneliness, cabin-fever, homesickness, alienation, frustration – but these are things suffered by every person at this hostel. It’s all part and parcel of living here, and we help each other through it. It’s been two months at this rural little place now, miles from anything at all, and the 25 of us have bonded to the point of family. It was touch and go for a while – I went mad for a fortnight or so trying to figure out what my role was and how I was useful and functional within the group, and if I was loved or missed or valued at all.

I think part of my identity crisis at this hostel stems from the fact that between the different people here, every part of my personality that I covet is neatly covered by someone else. I like the fact that I’m a dreamer? There’s someone here who dreams bigger. I feel proud of my sense of humour? There’s someone far wittier. I think I’m genuine? I feel a fraud compared to the gleaming sincerity of others here. It’s brought me down a few pegs, actually. Usually I have a very solid idea of my role and who I am within a short time of entering a new group of people. I might be the funny one, the silly one, the romantic one, the clever one, the idiot. I’m not anything here. I’m just Dan, and he changes every day. I feel as though I’ve unravelled. Why do I need to be the most likeable person? Why do I need to feel adored and listened to and all that shit? I don’t really know. I guess I’m just a bog standard human after all, and I need affection.

But I suppose that’s inevitable. When, in normal life, do you spend two months straight living cooped up with 25 strangers? It never happens, ever, and so I feel that any madness or insecurity that has cropped up is probably par for the course. A couple of weeks back it was Seth’s 27th birthday, and in order to pick up party supplies we’d headed out on a road trip to the nearest town, Casino, the big smoke, some 50 kilometres away. On the way back the radio died, and Antoine pulled out his harmonica to entertain us instead. He played birthday songs and Matteo sang along, laughing and screaming and rolling around crazy in the backseat of the car as we wound through the bush on the way home, with the car straining under the weight of five blokes and all the booze we could carry. I remember thinking what a hilarious and fun and fantastic guy Matteo was with all his mad energy. A couple of days later, I bumped into him in the kitchen and he barely spoke a word, moody and quiet, and upon reflection I realised that it’s only through living with people that you see their full spectrum. We hide huge swathes of our personality, day to day. Back home, you meet your friend for a drink once a week, and you are on form, full of pep and sunshine. But that’s a falsehood. The reality is that we are, all of us, prone to silence and ugliness just as much as we are to clear skies. It’s only through living on top of one another that this becomes apparent.

I like watching relationships unfold out here. New alliances and friendships, rivalries, romances. We’ve all become very comfortable with one another, hugging good morning, huddling on the sofas under duvets for movie nights, and candidly discussing personal events without the slightest fear of judgement. I’ve watched more than a few couples form; it’s charming to watch people fall in love. Appearance no longer matters – the girls have long since given up beauty products, the guys rarely shave and their hair is growing out. There’s no need when you’re a family. It’s nice. I feel supported, there’s always somebody around for a chat and a hug if you’re feeling low and need to vent or have questions answered that you would otherwise ruminate on endlessly. I’m a big ruminator.

Work in the fields is hard, life in the hostel is strange, but it’s all a lesson – in humility, in work, in confidence, in shutting up and getting on with it. I’ve gone from pitching articles to a room full of editors in Berlin to gushing with gratitude for being praised for the quality of the berries in my little white bucket. I’ve gone from cocksure traveller to self-effacing question mark in a charity shop jumper. Dissolving like this has been a struggle.  So many nights I nearly gave up. However, I feel now that the worst is over, the hardest days are done. I’ve been through the mill here, and despite some dark days I’ve found something worthwhile in myself. I don’t have to fulfil a role, put on an act. I needn’t strive to be cool, a romantic, a clown, a mediator, a wit, a cynic, a drunk, a traveller, a writer. I can just be me, the whole twisted rainbow that is the reality of my Self.

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