By alternative, I guess I just mean different from the upper middle class suburban existence of my San Francisco Bay Area childhood. It’s not like I naively think that most people have the option of living a stable suburban life but choose not to do so in favor of something “more interesting”; I'm just saying that I yearn to be brave enough to live a somewhat alternative lifestyle even though I have the option of going down the route has been laid out for me.
|Australian sunset (my favorite cocktail)|
When my good friend Caroline announced months ago that she was planning on moving to Australia for a year, I thought about how much I have always wanted to travel to the Land Down Under. In college, I used to fantasize about working on a wildlife preserve there for a couple of months or something so that I could get a feel for what I had long considered to be the highlight of the country: nature (a.k.a. “the bush”). Then, it hit me: I want to help people. I want to observe alternative lifestyles. I want to go to Australia to spend time in nature…
Voilà. I’m going to “WWOOF” there.
Once my mind was made up, I enthusiastically informed Caroline of my idea. We spent months planning, applying for a WWOOF membership, contacting farms until we found hosts, deciding what to pack, etc. Now, finally, we are here.
After a thirty-hour journey involving multiple flights and obscenely long layovers, I arrived in Cairns, Australia at 11pm on Oct. 3, utterly exhausted. Luckily, Caroline and I had scheduled a little bit of recovery time into our itinerary, so we nursed our jet lag for a couple of days in a kitschy “girl’s hostel.” We were planning on meeting our host couple, Ned and Dee, yesterday on Oct. 5, but we had been calling them every couple of hours since the early morning and we weren’t getting an answer.
“Well,” I finally said to Caroline a couple of hours before the bus headed in their direction was to leave, “Let’s just hope they meet us at the bus stop…” After we began our journey to Mareeba, a town about an hour and half inland from Cairns, I sat with my headphones on, writing in my spiffy diary that I bought specifically to record my Australian adventures.
“I am actually feeling really nervous right now,” I wrote. “I have no clue what we are getting ourselves into. The woman behind us on the bus just winced when we told her that we were about to work on a farm and not get paid…is this a bad idea? Is the work going to be hard? What if Ned and Dee turn out to be serial killers?!”
Before I knew it, the bus rolled to a halt, and the driver (who was sitting on the right side of the vehicle, might I mention) called out, “Mareeba!”
I stuffed my diary into my backpack, threw that and my duffel bag over my shoulders, and followed Caroline off the bus. There was only one old woman sitting at the bus stop, and, to our horror, the man stepping off the bus in front of us said, "Hi, Mom!" As the driver opened the luggage compartment underneath the bus to pull out Caroline’s and my large suitcases, we looked around the gray, deserted little town, and I felt my heart sink. “They aren’t coming for us,” I said to myself, panicking, “and the next bus back to Cairns isn’t until tomorrow afternoon…is there even a hotel around here?!
Just as frantic tears were pricking the corners of my eyes, a middle-aged couple somewhat magically appeared from around the back of the bus. I eyed them hopefully. “Ned and Dee?” The woman, who had long, scraggly brown-and-gray hair and crow’s feet around her pale eyes, nodded. Relieved, Caroline and I shook her hand, and then moved to greet her husband. The first thing I noticed about this sinewy man was his incredibly retro 70’s glasses. I could also tell that he was relatively shy—he didn’t speak much, and he appeared awkward when trying to participate in conversation.
The couple helped us hoist our excessive load of possessions into the back of their 4-wheel drive, but Caroline said she didn’t want to leave the town until she had taken pictures of the run-down train station near the bus stop. “This place is so beautiful!” She exclaimed cheerfully, and as she passed me, she whispered, “I love this. I love them.” I wanted to share her enthusiasm, but truthfully, I was terrified. Ned and Dee seemed nice, but a little strange. And I didn't think Mareeba was beautiful...I thought it was, frankly, a shithole. But I tried to swallow my negative impressions, and Caroline soon returned to the car so we could head out of Mareeba.
Over the course of the drive to their remote 300-acre property, I began to feel much more comfortable with the couple. They stopped several times at scenic spots so that Caroline and I could take photos of the sunset, and Dee even pulled out a bottle of sparkling Italian wine at one point and poured each of us a cup (although I suspect that there’s an open container law in this country, I found her behavior amusingly indicative of a certain free-spiritedness). She also told us that she and Ned make their own soap and fruit wines, which I thought was pretty cool.
However, when we pulled up to their dwelling, my nervousness came flooding back. Ned and Dee don’t live in a house. They live in a structure made entirely out of aluminum panels and logs. This structure has no door, hardly any walls, and no screens except for the mosquito netting around the couple’s bed (which is sectioned off by bookshelves into a bedroom of sorts). I was amazed that access to the Internet could exist in a place like this.
“This is where you’ll stay,” Ned said, leading Caroline and I to a nearby trailer. “All of the electricity is solar, so make sure not to leave the light on for too long.” Caroline and I thanked him and entered the tiny space, which Dee and Ned had referred to as “a caravan.” There were two lumpy double beds, one on either side of the dusty trailer, and a couple of built-in drawers that contained a mishmash of objects that seemed to have once belonged to a young girl (we found out later that one of Ned and Dee’s daughters had grown up with the trailer as her bedroom). Caroline sat down on the bed closest to the door, smiling dreamily. “I am obsessed with this.” I wasn’t sure what exactly she was referring to, but it took me a couple of seconds to realize that she wasn’t being sarcastic. Not wanting to acknowledge my feeling of dread and—simultaneously—the fact that there was a shiny black beetle roaming around the comforter behind her, I responded with the handy smile-and-nod.
“Um…want to share a bed?” I croaked. I decided to point out the insect, and I then motioned to the other bed, which looked cleaner. She laughed. “Yeah, that sounds good. That way, we can use this bed for our suitcases…I don’t know where we would put them otherwise!”
After lugging our stuff out of the car, up the trailer steps and onto the bed, Caroline and I stumbled through the dark to Ned and Dee’s “dining room” a few yards away. Dee stood up and began to prepare dinner in the attached kitchen, which miraculously contains a sink and an old-fashioned refrigerator that you have to kick to properly close. “Let me show you the bathroom,” Ned said. “Here is a little torch for each of you.”
Flashlights in hand, the three of us walked outside (not that we weren’t basically outside while in their house) and Ned walked us over to a building that looked like an over-sized shed. He opened the door, revealing a shower in a battered red tub. “The hot water comes from our stove,” he stated proudly. “Cool!” I responded, trying to participate. “And where does the water come from?” “It’s piped in from the river,” he replied matter-of-factly. I innocently assumed that it was then somehow filtered before touching the heads of showerers...
“And down that way is the outhouse,” Ned gestured. I was expecting them to have an outhouse, so I wasn’t phased by this information. “Come down there with me, Caroline,” I said as Ned returned to the house. “Let’s find it.” Gripping each other’s arms, we trudged down the path, the dim light from my flashlight guiding the way. Suddenly, something moved in the brush near our feet.
"AAAAAHHHHH!" Caroline yelped, leaping backwards. "What was that?!” (Let me just interrupt here to inform you that, over the past few weeks, Caroline has done an unnecessarily large amount of research on the many dangerous and/or poisonous creatures that call Australia home, so I knew she was jumpy about being attacked by a funnel web spider, taipan, irukandji, crocodile, or cassowary. Death by Koala—
--> they're aggressive when provoked!) I shined my torch up and down the path, and the culprit of the disturbance was revealed: toad.
Back in the house, we sat down at the table as Dee was putting dinner (called “tea” here) on the table. We ate a delicious dinner of chicken, stuffing, vegetables and potatoes au gratin off of what looked like clean plates, and I was relieved by these details. I ate until full and then asked Dee what to do with the excess food; she told me to scoop it into a little bowl kept by the sink. “It’s for compost,” she said, and I was impressed. “That’s so wonderful that you have a compost pile,” I replied cheerfully. “I have been trying to get my mom to start one, but she’s scared of attracting rats.” Dee scoffed. "There are no rats in compost piles!"
I ignored her oddly condescending tone and scraped my food into the container as instructed. I then leaned over the sink to wash my dish, and as I turned on the faucet, light brown water come spewing out. Well, I guess I was wrong about the water filtration thing, I noted. (Later, Caroline, who had already noticed the slightly dirty kitchen water, told me to refill my water bottle at the tap outside. “It looks clear.”) I ignored the brownish tint and washed my plate, telling myself that a little dirt never hurt anybody. In fact, I had had a lot of fun embracing dirtiness a year and a half ago on a college spring break camping trip to the Grand Canyon. This is like that. It’s like camping, I assured myself.
Caroline, who was exhausted due to jet lag, started to get ready for bed by brushing her teeth at the tap outside, and I sat talking to Dee and Ned for a bit. Dee seemed a little uncomfortable, and she finally asked me, “So, what exactly were you expecting coming here? Were you expecting something like this?” Maybe she could tell I was secretly shocked, or maybe she was simply aware that Caroline and I are spoiled suburbanites. I laughed and responded, truthfully, “I wasn’t expecting anything, really. I didn’t know what to expect.” Then, out of the blue, Ned threw in: "My father-in law says he wouldn't want to live in a place like this..."
I didn't know what to say to that.
After chatting with them a little while longer and concluding that they are both considerate but introverted and rather reclusive people, I excused myself and met Caroline in our caravan. We collapsed on the bed together, and after a pause, I giggled. “All I have to say is…can you imagine if our moms saw this?” We both screeched with laughter, the stress and exhaustion of the day reducing us to delirium.
As I fell asleep, I couldn’t help wondering why Ned and Dee live the way they do. I respected them very much for their "rustic" lifestyle, but what was their motivation? Do they want to live closely with the land...or do they simply not have the financial means to live differently?
This morning, I slowly emerged from sleep as the bluish sunlight poked through the blinds on the trailer windows. I tried to nudge Caroline awake, but she was sound asleep. The clock read 5:50am. I could hear Ned and Dee moving around close by, so I got up and started to put on my working clothes—sports bra, long-sleeved cotton shirt, t-shirt, long yoga pants, socks, hiking boots, hat—as the sunlight peeping under the blinds became brighter. When I pushed open the trailer door, beautiful daylight and the sound of tropical birds streamed into the room. The air felt fresh against my skin, and I was immediately struck with a feeling of optimism. The whole situation felt way less nerve-wracking by the light of day, and I began to feel embarrassed about my anxiety the previous day. I told myself to really make an effort to learn from the way these people live, and I reminded myself that part of the reason why I am here is to observe alternative lifestyles. Once this mentality set in, I began to enjoy myself.
When Caroline woke up and got dressed, we walked into the house and sat down at the table, ready to eat. I didn’t mind that the tablecloth was dirty and that the cement floor of the structure was sprinkled with leaves and dirt; in fact, I looked around the place—noticing details I had missed—and I was actually charmed by wind chimes enveloped in cobwebs hanging from the ceiling and the fact that there was a tiny bat clinging to a rafter.
After a breakfast of muesli, fruit and tea, the four of us walked out into a patch of ginger plants that I hadn’t noticed in the darkness of the night before, and I grew excited thinking about how many different parts of this property Caroline and I had to explore in the next week or so—Ned and Dee grow tapioca plants, bananas, jackfruit, cashews, mangos, papayas and more, and they also own a huge portion of untouched rain forest. (The foliage here looks so tropical, by the way; the leaves on some of the trees are gorgeously large and green, for one. It reminds me of French Polynesia or Hawaii.) Dee and Ned bent down with us in the ginger patch and showed us which green stalks were the ginger plants. “Please pull up all the others, as they are weeds,” Dee said, and we began to tear the invaders from the ground.
I found it oddly satisfying to hear the ripping sound of the roots being yanked from the soil, and when I mentioned this to Caroline, she said, “That’s funny you should say that because I know a woman who thinks weeding is the most soothing activity of all time—she thinks it’s better than meditation!”
After a little while, Ned and Dee had to stop because they both have ruptured discs in their backs from years of physical labor, and Caroline and I continued the task, avoiding red ants—thank goodness for the gardening gloves we thought to bring—and wishing we had knee-pads as we knelt in the mulch (the couple spreads a hay mulch around their plants to try to prevent weeds from growing; it blocks out sunlight from the soil). It’s funny—Ned and Dee walk around doing their chores barehanded and in shorts and flip-flops, and Caroline and I were covered from head to toe. It’s slightly embarrassing how over-prepared we are, but frankly, I’m happy about it.
By 8, 8:30, it was getting surprisingly hot, and every time I stood up to find a new area to weed, I felt myself getting kind of lightheaded. I acknowledged to myself that I was probably wearing too much clothing and was overheating. (After a little while, I ditched the t-shirt and simply went with the long-sleeved cotton shirt.) At one point, I said to myself, “I gain satisfaction from hearing the ripping sound as I pull up the weed, yes, but overall weeding just isn’t my favorite task of all time…” I then thought about all of us wimpy “city people," and I had to laugh over our inability to deal well with physical labor. I also kept thinking, If only my friends could see me now!
When we had finished the ginger patch as well as the nearby tapioca patch, Dee came out and fetched us. “Would you like a cupper, girls?” Having figured out at breakfast that this meant a cup of tea, we agreed and followed her into the house structure. We sat down at the table, sipping the tea and nibbling on biscuits (the English kind, so a.k.a. graham cracker-like cookies) when I felt myself grow overwhelmingly tired. Working in the sun for an hour and a half had really sucked up my energy. Ned and Dee told us that their friends were coming over to help them cut up a fallen tree—Ned can’t operate a chain saw anymore because of his bad back—and when the couple arrived, I took the opportunity to steal away into the caravan for a half-hour nap. (I slept on the floor so as not to get the bed filthy.)
After about half an hour, Caroline came into the trailer to tell me that Ned and Dee’s friend George was going to start chain-sawing the tree pretty soon and that we were supposed to help load the pieces onto a truck. She handed me a little water to revive me, and before long I was feeling much better. We grabbed earplugs and the handkerchiefs we had dorkily packed and stomped down the path past the outhouse until we reached a very dry area of dead trees; there had been a fire there a while back, Dee told us. This patch of yellows and browns starkly contrasted the beautiful green plants close by.
As we approached, wearing protective gear from head to toe including our hankies around our noses to protect us from the tiny pieces of sawdust flying from the chainsaw blade, George’s wife Sonia shouted, “BANDITS!” and then began to laugh hysterically. Again, I felt slightly self-conscious about our over-preparation, but I was extremely glad for the earplugs when the machinery started grinding, for the long-sleeved shirt when we started to haul prickly pieces of cut wood onto the truck, and for my heavy-duty hiking boots when I nearly dropped a large piece of tree on my toe.
After a few hours of loading pieces of wood (to be used next June—winter in Oz—for firewood) into the pick-up, Caroline and I sat in the open bed of the vehicle while Dee drove it back up towards the house, and then Dee, Caroline, Sonia and I unloaded the wood and stacked it near the house.
Caroline and I were really enjoying ourselves because it was a great work-out, and when everything was done, we had Ned and Dee take pictures of us standing proudly next to the pile. While walking back into the house to wash our hands before lunch, Caroline quipped, “Look at us, covered in sweat, sunscreen and sawdust: the three things that make up a real woman!”
Then, Caroline turned to me and said, “Janel, there is no where I would rather be in the world than here in Australia WWOOFing with you.” I took her hand and smiled. “I know, girl. This is exactly what I’ve been needing to do.”
Sitting down to lunch was such a treat after the hard work, and I finally understood these people’s lack of concern about dirt. Dirt and being dirty is just a part of life here, and I am so happy to be experiencing it.
Participating in a conversation with six people as opposed to four was a nice change because George and Sonia were both vibrant and talkative, and I found myself wondering if you have to be kind of introverted like Ned and Dee to be happy living such an isolated life. (George and Sonia are not bush dwellers; they live in a "caravan pack" close to Sydney.)
After a delicious corned beef “supper,” the men stood and began to do something with large metal barrels over near the bathroom building. Curious, Caroline and I followed them to find out what they were doing, and Ned told us that he was double-straining grease from a fish-and-chips restaurant. I didn’t register the meaning of what he said until I saw a piece of denim cut from old jeans secured over the rim of an empty bucket like a saggy drum head; a pool of liquid fat with small chunks of food in it was draining through the cloth.
“Why in the world…?!” I said, flabbergasted.
“Oh, we use it for fuel.” Ned told me.
“Excuse me, but what?”
Dee, who had joined us, informed me, “The liquid fat powers our car—it’s been running on grease for eleven months now! We even did a long road trip through the Outback with it and everything was just fine.” Ned then explained that they pick up barrels of used grease from restaurants every year and use it for all of their machines. “The engine that pumps water out of the river takes solid fat, but our car uses double-strained liquid fat.”
I was absolutely dumbfounded at this information. How Ned and Dee figured out that they could do this was beyond me. “I wonder why more people don’t know about this…are the oil companies keeping the fact that fish-and-chips grease can power cars a secret?” I thought aloud. Caroline, also incredulous, said, “Wow. You guys are the most self-sufficient people I’ve ever met!” Dee looked at Caroline for a moment, taking in what she had said, and then she rolled her eyes.
At that moment, I realized the answer to my question from the night before: Ned and Dee are not self-sufficient because they aspire to be progressive and eco-conscious like us guilt-tripping yuppies. They simply want to live removed from the outside world because they like the bush and because they want to save money. They are self-sufficient out of necessity. To confirm this, I asked Ned innocently, “Why do you choose to use grease as fuel?” He shrugged. “So as to not have to buy gas, I suppose.”
Soon after, we hopped into Ned and Dee’s grease-powered car and headed down to a nearby river to swim per Ned’s suggestion. The river’s water level was low, and the massive granite boulders that it revealed were absolutely stunning. I felt like I was exploring the face of the moon. Years and years of water pressure had carved interesting holes and pools into some of the huge slabs of rock, and all of us had fun exploring the boulders as well as splashing around in the river.
Under the influence of outgoing George and Sonia, Dee was much more goofy, sarcastic and relaxed than I had seen her up until that point, and I decided that I liked her. And, at one point when I was examining a now-empty pool set into one of the slabs of granite, Ned approached me and gently began explaining how the flooding of the river shapes the rocks. I decided definitively that I liked him then, too; I admire his quiet knowledge and the way he looks right into your eyes when he speaks to you. I like how easy-going he is, and I think his awkwardness is cute (for instance, when he can tell that Caroline and I are excited about something, he tries to act excited, too, even though it’s clearly outside of his nature).
After a little while, I wandered off by myself and stood on top of a boulder, looking out at the river. I took a deep breath while a gust of wind cooled my skin, warm from the hot afternoon sun, and I said to myself, You are in Australia, and you are WWOOFing. You did it. Feeling very pleased with myself, I hopped from one boulder to another playfully until I spied Caroline, who was wet and muddy from just having frolicked in the water, laying next to the river. I climbed down from the boulder and joined her on the slippery granite protruding from the water. She turned her head towards me and grinned the dreamy Caroline grin that I love so much.
“Um—we’re in Australia right now!” She exclaimed. “I was just thinking that, Caroline!” I gasped, and we began to giggle. The two of us continued to lie there for a while, overcome with the satisfaction that can only come from the realization of a dream.