Monday, December 21, 2009

October 6 - Day One

I have always been fascinated by people who are brave enough to live alternative lifestyles.

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)
I am hungry to observe and test many different ways of being alive, which is why I am happy with my somewhat eccentric job as a cruise ship singer, through which I meet quirky and adventurous people from all over the world in a unique setting. It was through the suggestions of a couple of these folks that I discovered WWOOF, or Willing Workers of Organic Farms. This organization pairs you up with an organic farm anywhere in the world, and you can volunteer your labor there in exchange for food and shelter. Since I have been yearning recently to help people (singing for spoiled tourists on cruise ships isn’t exactly philanthropic) and since, as I said, I am fascinated with alternative lifestyles, WWOOF sounded like the perfect way for me to spend a little bit of my time in between ship contracts.

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…

VoilĂ . 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.

Friday, December 18, 2009

October 7 - Day Two

Two things, first and foremost.

One, I apologize for the novella that was my last entry. I apologize not just to you, my dear friend, but also to me—I would like to focus more on enjoying every moment of this experience instead of on documenting it. But, alas, I know I will continue to write epic blog posts because obsessing over details is what I do best.

Two, something funny I forgot to mention (can you believe I actually forgot to mention something in that monster of a post?!) that Caroline reminded me about—I fed a baby cow with a fake nipple attached to a soda bottle filled with milk on Ned and Dee’s friends’ farm. I am not going to go into more detail than that…except to say that it was disgustingly messy and gloriously adorable. (Also, I have to tell you that the cow was named Sausage. Poor future lunch.)

Anyway, please indulge me as I finish up about last night:

When we returned from the river to Ned and Dee’s place yesterday evening, the first thing Caroline and I did was to take turns in the shower while the others enjoyed their “cuppers.” Ned had to “turn on the hot water” for us, whatever that means, and we deeply enjoyed the transformation from dirty to clean…well, let me just say that, out here, clean is relative. As soon as I stepped out of the bathroom structure, my wet flip flops became caked with mud that crept up onto my feet and flicked onto my jeans. But I didn’t care. As I mentioned earlier, I’m embracing the dirt. After all, as we used to sing in elementary school, “dirt made my lunch.”

When George and Sonia said their goodbyes, I was feeling the need for some alone time. Without the presence of the vivacious couple, Ned and Dee seemed more introverted than ever, and I just wanted to sit alone and work on this blog. I popped into their “office,” which is another “room” in their dwelling sectioned off by bookcases and drywall. There was a gecko on the wall and mosquitoes buzzing around my head, but I didn’t bat an eye. (About the mosquitoes, though…I hate to admit that I am being eaten alive. I am applying “Off” religiously, but nevertheless, they find me oh-so-tasty.)

As I was writing, my American computer charger plugged into an Australian converter plugged into an oddly-buzzing extension cord, Ned and Dee made us a meal of rice, homemade mango chutney, homemade zucchini pickles (a new—and delicious—sensation for my taste buds), and curried chicken. Caroline and I complimented them on having the energy to cook after such a full day, and Dee looked mildly shocked. She rolled her eyes at us as if half-expecting us to say that we regularly eat McDonald’s for dinner in the States. “It’s just what we do—we both like to cook. We never serve WWOOFers the same meal twice,” she stated matter-of-factly.

I finished my meal, washed the dishes for Ned and Dee (who don’t thank me for doing them, I’ve noticed; they must expect WWOOFers to do them automatically. Good thing I thought to make it a habit while I’m here…and, frankly, I prefer to wash the dishes myself because all Ned and Dee do is rinse things with cold water. At least I rub a little bit of their homemade soap onto stuff before rinsing), and then headed out towards the various bush accommodations to get ready for bed.

When I burst into the outhouse with my flashlight in hand, I was shocked to see two toads hanging out in there, one on either side of the toilet seat. I coaxed them onto the floor of the outhouse with the back of my flashlight, and after a few moments of gentle prodding, the floor is where they remained—I couldn’t entice them to hop out of there even after stomping my feet several times near their slimy little bodies. Resigned to share the bathroom with two other creatures for the time being, a thought came to my mind: there aren’t only two other creatures in here… I pointed my “torch” down into the hole; sure enough, the beam revealed dozens of cockroaches busily decomposing excrement. I thought, Oh, great. My worst and most unreasonable fear as a child was having something pop out of the toilet and bite my ass while I’m peeing, and now it could actually happen! Taking a deep breath, I did my business as quickly as humanly possible, wishing I hadn’t looked.


This morning, Ned and Dee brought us out to the avocado tree orchard and instructed us to build a trench and bury a hose used to carry water to sprinklers underneath each one of the trees. We were all about to bend down and unravel the hose when Dee casually said, “Look, girls—have you ever seen a wallaby before?” Our heads snapped up. Sure enough, a couple hundred feet away from us was what looked like a small kangaroo alternating between grooming himself and staring at us suspiciously. Too bad we didn’t have our cameras at the ready; now we know to carry around our point-and-shoots wherever we go in case of an unexpected animal encounter.

Then, Ned demonstrated how to use the tool we were to use (which resembled a pick ax). He made it look so easy, even with a bad back; smoothly, he lifted the tool above his head and brought it down swiftly into the soil, cutting out a sizeable section of earth that he then scooped to the side with his hand. Caroline opted to be the first to dig while I would trail behind her, scooping away. As Ned and Dee looked on, she clumsily clawed at the earth, bringing up much less dirt than Ned had. “You made it look so easy!” she exclaimed in his direction while staring bleakly at the chop job in the ground beneath her. But she quickly got the hang of it, and the couple left to go work on other projects around the farm.

When it was my turn to handle the pick ax thingy, I gave the trench digging all the strength I had, tearing into the soil ferociously and managing to dig up some pretty big chunks. This gave me the pathetic illusion that I’m stronger than I actually am—as it turns out, my vigor was foolish. It quickly resulted in exhaustion slash blisters on the palms of my hands slash a stabbing pain in my right arm muscle.

Although the task was arduous (on more than one occasion, I eyed the length of hose we had yet to bury and gave out a little moan), Caroline and I enjoyed digging more than the weeding and log lugging from the day before. As Caroline put it, the chore was a whole-body workout that had the power to distract us from focusing on anything but the present moment. That got me thinking about how it must be rewarding for some people to work full-time as a gardener or “farm boy” (Princess Bride!)…but probably not for me. I was dizzy—and exceeding sore—when we finally decided to call it quits after burying ¾ of the hose. But I really did enjoy the activity in a masochistic, “self-improvement” kind of way…

At around 10:00am, we took a break for a cupper and some cheese & crackers, and Ned mentioned to us, “By the way, I noticed that you girls were digging pretty deep. You can make it easier on yourselves tomorrow and make the trench shallower; there’s no need for it to be so deep.” Well, thanks for coming over and telling us that while we were slaving away out there, Ned, I thought. Ai, ai, ai. However, Caroline and I took it as a backhanded compliment, and we were secretly proud that we were working “too hard.” We were also relieved to hear that the work would be easier and would probably go a lot faster the next day when we weren’t trying to gouge out a mini-moat in the avocado orchard.

After lunch, we helped Dee transport a bit more timber, and then we had the rest of the day to veg out. Caroline sat in the hammock (apparently they DO have a hammock here! Good news!) rereading Paulo Coelho’s “The Alchemist,” which I had purchased in the Auckland airport. I wrote more, of course, and Dee did some laundry in their ancient washing machine that evidently becomes the habitat for mosquito populations when left full of water for too long.

Eventually, I helped her pin up the clothes on rope strung between two trees, and as a gust of wind enticed the wet shirts and pants to gently billow, I happily imagined that I was living out a scene from “The Little House on the Prairie.” Until I noticed the unusually large yellow-and-green ants marching across the line and onto my fingertips. I began violently shaking my hands to knock those suckers off of me, and Dee noticed. “Don’t worry about those,” she said nonchalantly. “They won’t hurt you, and they are not poisonous. We used to eat their bellies when I was a kid.” I pictured the only form of insect consumption I’ve ever heard about, which involves creepy crawlies dipped in chocolate and served as a gourmet treat. But I had a feeling that this was not the same concept.

In the late afternoon, Ned and Dee brought us along to the pump they use to extract water from the river on their property. Ned told us that he built the engine himself, and that the system carries about 80,000 liters of water a day to the various plants on their farm. “He’s going to have to replace that engine soon with one from an old car our friends gave us—this one’s about 30 years old!” Dee said, motioning to the rusty, rattling device in front of us. Caroline and I were of course amazed by all of this information. “How do you know how to do stuff like this, Ned?” I asked, incredulous. “Did someone teach you?” He shook his head and looked bashful. “Naw, I guess I just taught me-self. I’ve always been interested in machines.”

He proceeded to tell me about something of his dad’s that he took apart as a kid, but I couldn’t really understand what he was saying because he mumbles when he speaks sometimes (I cannot imagine how non-English speakers survive at Ned and Dee’s because Ned’s mumbling and both of their thick accents cause even Caroline and I to frequently ask them to pretty please repeat themselves). Anyway, Caroline and I just kept shaking our heads in disbelief at Ned’s handiness, and Dee squinted at us as if trying to figure out what planet we were from. To her, knowing how to be self-sufficient is a necessity of life. So, of course, she rolled her eyes.

Later, back in the privacy of our caravan, I finally approached the subject of Dee’s sarcasm with Caroline. “Has it been bothering you, the way Dee’s been treating us?” I asked. “Well, to be honest, I do feel a little bit uncomfortable about all the eye rolling that she does,” Caroline responded. “Yes! I have been getting annoyed by that, too!” I said, relieved that Caroline felt the same way. Caroline is a remarkably patient and nonjudgmental person, so when she becomes irritated with someone, you know there’s a problem.

But then Caroline shrugged. “She might not mean to offend us—eye-rolling might just be one of those little unconscious habits she has. Don’t let it get to you.” She fell silent for a moment, seeming to contemplate something. “Or, Dee could feel insecure because we seem rich in comparison to them.” I protested, “But nothing about us screams ‘rich,’” (besides our Macs…and my Bose headphones…and the fact that we each have two cameras…and Caroline’s iPhone…) “and it’s not like they don’t have nice things—they have a brand new laptop!” Caroline looked me dead in the eye. “Honey, to these people, we are rich. We grew up in the suburbs. IN AN ENCLOSED HOUSE. Maybe Dee thinks we’re judging the way they live.”

It’s true that the contrast between how Caroline and I grew up and how Ned and Dee did is vast. Both of them were raised in the bush. They don’t have a college education, nor do they even have high school diplomas; both of them dropped out of school when they were 14—the minimum age you had to stay in school until back then—to work. They probably didn’t have the luxury of mooching off of their parents until their early twenties like we did. Dee had her first baby at 18 and her last at 24 (just a year older than Caroline and I, which we, of course, couldn’t fathom).

Ned, Dee, George and Caroline

But Dee is wrong if she thinks that we are secretly turning up our noses at their lifestyle. I like the way they live in many ways. I like the way they don’t mind dirt and don’t care about appearances. I like how in-touch with the earth they are. I like the way they work for a few hours in the morning, tending to their plants and doing other chores, and then play (swim, hike, read, etc.) in the afternoon. They have a healthy balance of leisure and work; even though it might not be the most “efficient” lifestyle, it’s certainly better than slaving away at a desk for six months just to take your kids on a two-week vacation to DisneyWorld.

I was feeling restless, though, because I hadn’t been very active since the morning; because I was frustrated with Dee; and because I was really missing my boyfriend, Tony. However, Dee distracted me from my little slump just before dinner when she announced that I should come with her to feed the sheep. “Sheep? You have sheep?!” I sputtered. “Yeah!” She cried, “Haven’t you heard them? They are in a pen just behind your caravan!” Sure enough, we trudged a few hundred feet through the bush behind the trailer that is Caroline’s and my bedroom and found a small enclosure containing four beautiful sheep.

They didn’t look like ordinary sheep with their toned bodies, slender faces and sleek black horns, and Dee told us that they are a South African breed called Demara or something like that. Ned and Dee had originally purchased them to eat the weeds in the mango orchard, but the animals ended up sucking at that task—they only ate one type of weed, so other kinds began to flourish. Now, Ned and Dee are keeping them for their valuable wool…but the problem is that the sheep are extremely nervous around people. In fact, Dee told me that her and Ned had to wrestle the creatures to the ground and hog-tie them in order to transport them from the mango orchard to the holding pen. The image of Dee rolling around in the dirt trying to hog-tie a sheep nearly made me laugh out loud, but I decided to stifle the urge.

When we walked back to the house, we saw that there was a dusty white van in front, and Dee announced, “Ah, our neighbors are here!” Around the back of the house, a scruffy man with dreads in his hair and beard and wearing a faded blue jumpsuit was pushing what looked like a motor mounted on a flat square platform out of Ned and Dee’s shed; a thin, thirty-something woman with crooked teeth, a shell necklace and an elephant-themed handkerchief for a top looked on.

Suddenly, Ned appeared riding a gigantic, rust-coated tractor (I am absolutely not exaggerating when I say that the wheels were five feet tall) and wearing orange earmuffs; he backed the noisy tractor up towards the shed, and the fabulously hippie couple began to attach the motor thingy to the back of it. “It’s a generator,” Dee yelled over the din, pointing to the device. “And, by the way, that tractor is 70 years old!” I watched, my mouth agape, as Ned lugged the generator away on his antique machine.

The couple stood up, brushed off their hands, and approached Caroline and me to introduce themselves. Their names were Colin and Cathy, they said. “We’re Ned and Dee’s renters,” explained the woman, her accent clearly French, “we live in another pole house about a kilometer down the road.” “Where are you from? And what do you need the generator for?!” I asked. The woman laughed. “Well, I am from Quebec, first of all. And, about the generator…we are using it for a catamaran we’re building.” I didn’t understand what she said because of her thick accent, and so I turned to Dee with a confused look on my face. Dee leaned towards me with a grin on her face, her eyes wide. “They’re building a yacht to sail to India!”

As it turns out, Colin and Cathy have the most romantic life ever. Cathy left Quebec with her three-year-old daughter after she broke it off with her daughter’s dad and decided to bike around the entire Australian continent, her kid riding in a little seat on the back. She didn’t get very far on her bicycle, however; she met Colin after only a few weeks and stayed in Queensland (the state I’m currently in, which is ALSO called “The Sunshine State”…copycats!) to be with him. Now, her daughter is in Canada with her dad, and Colin and Cathy live here on Ned and Dee’s property with their seven-year-old son, who goes to school in the nearest town (just because they live in a “pole house” in the middle of the bush doesn’t mean that they can’t raise a child properly). And they are indeed building a boat in order to sail to India. “I hope to have it in the water by April,” Colin said.

Meeting the couple was such a pleasure because hearing about their life reminded me that all kinds of lives are possible, even with kids. Thoreau said, “live the life you’ve imagined,” (Caroline taught me that great quotation the other day), and Colin and Cathy are certainly doing just that.

As the sun was setting, Caroline and I sat down with Ned and Dee for dinner, and the four of us ended up talking for hours—until 9:30pm (bedtime), in fact. For the first time, I felt that Ned and Dee were comfortably engaging in and enjoying conversation with us. They seemed more dynamic and open that usual, and I had a great time chatting with them. Ned even showed us some pictures he’d taken over the years. (Caroline and him kind of bonded—as much as anyone can bond with Ned—over the fact that they both consider themselves photographers). Most of them were generic landscape shots, but one unique photo caught my eye—it was a picture taken looking down at a cup of water, which contained a ripple captured in mid-movement from the middle out. “Ooh, that reminds me of ‘Jurassic Park’!” Caroline said approvingly to Ned. Dee, as you might expect, rolled her eyes. “Oh, Ned takes some weird ones sometimes…” But I liked it. I really liked it. It was unusual, and it showed that Ned happened to be both creative and observant. Through that simple photograph, I felt that I suddenly had a glimpse into his guarded soul.

At one point in the conversation, I asked them to tell us about the worst WWOOFers they’ve ever had, and to my surprise, Dee described a whole slew of people who didn’t meet her expectations. There was the fat, lazy British woman in her 70s who hardly lifted a finger; an Estonian man with a creepy stare; a couple that fought viciously to the point that they would emerge from the caravan in the mornings with scratches on their faces (and, apparently, Dee found the girl crying naked outside one night after a particularly violent argument), etc. I guess I should have known that she would be critical of her WWOOFers, but it made me wonder again what in the hell she thought of us.

Dee also mentioned that her and Ned don’t like to leave some WWOOFers alone in their house because they’re afraid that the WWOOFers will steal something. But they keep their computer, their gems—which they’ve mined themselves—and other valuables locked in a filing cabinet at all times, so I’m not sure what it is that people would steal from Ned and Dee. Maybe someone could fancy their copy of “The Encyclopedia of Australian Spiders”? Their numerous boxes of mosquito coils? Or perhaps just one of their abundant canisters of Australia’s Number One Long Life Deep Frying Fry-Tol Edible Animal Oil?

Well, I’ve reached the sixth page of the Word document in which I’m formulating this post, so I guess it’s time for me to wrap it up. There will probably be a few days in between each one of my blog entries because it takes me so damn long to describe everything and because Dee is sensitive about us using the Internet too much, so bear with me!

As a closing statement, I would just like to share with you a hilarious and true detail from one of Caroline’s mass “Australian update” emails that she forwarded to me. Since I didn’t include much of a description of the inside of Ned and Dee’s “shower shed” in my first post, I’m happy that she took the time to write about it:

“The trickle of sweat, sunscreen, and sawdust makes a shower sound reallllly appealing. So off to the shower I go… but this isn’t just any shower. Oh no, no my friend. This is a low red bathtub, with a tall spicket above. And while there is no glass or curtain surrounding it, there ARE about 18 cans of deep fat lard, one enormous 50 lb. bag of Pedigree dog kibble, and three racks of homemade soap… just chilling with you while you shower. Not to mention the stacks of fruit packing boxes and several sweet potatoes rolling around in a bin nearby. I vaguely muse that the soap is rather handy, if you should ever run out mid-shower. Fancy feeding the dogs mid-shampoo? No sweat. And if you’re hungry, have a sweet potato. Brilliant.”

Aaaannnnnd scene.