I quipped to my roommate how prior to the coronavirus lockdowns, I was a huge social butterfly. She blinked at me in surprise – since coming to the working hostel, I’ve been a massive introvert. I spend hours in our dorm room or by myself in the next town over, only venturing out to join the social gatherings for a few minutes at a time most nights. Even in our room, I will often put on my eye mask and noise-canceling headphones to create a bubble of privacy. It’s been a surprise even to myself how rarely I’m able to mobilize the energy to spend time around the lovely backpackers in our hostel.
Part of that has been completely understandable, as often when we get home from work I need a few hours just for the physical exhaustion to abate. But the other part, I’m simply blaming on coronavirus speeding up my timeline for a slowdown, as I’d already been drifting more towards contentment with being stationary after three years of solo travel. Fortunately, with another two months left of farm work, I’ll have time to slowly get to know the varied and talented individuals around me.
Our farm work has finally shifted to the next stage, where we are rolling the remaining vine branches onto the wires, training them for their spring growth. Whereas with pulling the branches, we often could only make $30 in a day on piece rate (bearing in mind that minimum wage is over $19/hr), I’m now delighted to find that I can earn $30 per hour with relative ease. Even on my slowest day of rolling I averaged $20/hr. We are mostly working on a large farm about 45 minutes away from our hostel that should have enough work to keep us busy through September or October.
I’m finding delight in the fields. The physical labor wears out my body, and listening to audiobooks and podcasts keeps my mind sharp and entertained. Even as the branches pull free from their twists and whip me in the face and we curse loudly at the bushiest of the vines, I’m finding the duel energies feed off each other and leave me feeling proud at the end of a long day. I think it’s the same for others – my roommates have recently implemented an 8:45pm bedtime to prepare for our 5:15 alarm, but tonight all three of us were in our PJs with brushed teeth and 7:30pm.
We rise long before the sun and if we’re unlucky we find ourselves looking into it for hours at a time as we yank at the branches. Despite my best effort of repeated applications of sunscreen, a baseball hat, and safety glasses, I’m getting a new smattering of freckles across my nose and cheeks. It is quite striking, especially next to the various scratches and bruises. After years of my face looking relatively the same, I’m rather startled when I glance in the mirror and try to rub off dirt, only to remember that it’s a new kiss from the sun. Fortunately, my partner Michael thinks it’s adorable.
Michael came up to visit me last weekend. The train tracks were undergoing some upgrades and had replacement buses instead, leading to my 6’1 partner cramped for seven hours up to Mildura. When we checked into our hotel for the weekend, the receptionist balked at the news and informed me that it showed me how much Michael loved me if he would take the bus all the way up from Melbourne. We had a lovely weekend together, and he made it back home just in time to learn that all of Melbourne would be returning to Stage 3 lockdown procedures with much stricter enforcements for the following six weeks. Well, there goes our plans for trying to meet up again in another 5!
Fortunately, in the era of 2020, we can do digital dates. On my days off, we’ve tried Netflix Party, Disney+, and planning on YouTube movies with WhatsApp messages on the side. When he was here, he bought me a bottle of my favorite wine so that we can have a wine date soon where we’re both drinking the same vintage. Since I’m often off for work before the sun rises and fall asleep before 9pm, it can be difficult to actually chat, so instead we’ll send each other video messages and photos of fun things throughout our days. Most recently, that’s included pictures of the hostel cat, Sushi, staring down my food as though by not blinking I’ll somehow not realize he’s trying to eat it.
I’ve fully accepted that I’m getting too old for hostel life. After the delight of housesitting in recent years, I’ve come to appreciate a clean kitchen and bathroom, along with privacy in my bedroom for me to pace while reading a book. Our hostel manager, Gavin, refuses to let anyone help him clean (or use the hostel materials) because he’s picky, but he also is off on Sundays like the rest of us and during the week cleans once per day. I got fed up fairly quickly and bought a few sprays and kitchen gloves of my own. As I tend to be one of the earliest risers, I often clean up various countertops and trash cans for my own peace of mind.
Oh, and can I whimper about coffee? I bought a stovetop espresso maker just after arriving but decided I could handle cheap coffee for my early mornings in the fields. This, sadly, has turned out to be a mistake. I have shuddered down my sludge latte every morning because of my caffeine addiction, but today I finally gave up and threw the useless grounds in the trash. I went to the only café in the next town over whose coffee I like and bought specialty beans ground the proper size. Wish me luck for next week, perhaps I won’t regret every life decision that led me to this moment while drinking in the back of a bumpy van!
So far, so good. My wrists are still struggling with carpal tunnel, but my stretches, splints, compression gloves, and anti-inflammatories seem to be keeping it to numbness rather than pain. Now that we’re actually earning a decent wage I can fully tick days off of my countdown of farm work (77 more as of my payslips). I’m getting smarter with the weather – when it’s foggy or rainy, I wear disposable gloves under my work pair and wrap my socks in plastic bags. Every day I get a little faster, and it becomes a treat to wash my hair with conditioner instead of focusing solely on scrubbing my skin to rid myself of the dirt that has crawled into every nook and cranny.
So next time you reach for some grapes, or add some raisins to your oatmeal, think of me. Because I’m out here, turning into a proper farm girl and allowing you to eat something delicious. And hey, I think we’re turning it into a very vine art!