The last time I owned a car was in New Zealand, so I’m not entirely certain if Australia works the same way. But in New Zealand, we had to get a yearly “Warrant Of Fitness” to prove our car was roadworthy. The hostel vehicles that we ride in strike me as the type that would definitely not get their WOF renewed.
We alternate between a few vans to get everyone to the worksite. Our OG white Toyota properly feels like the wheels will fly off at any moment. You could probably bring fresh cream, stick it in the back, and have butter by the time we get to the fields. And actually, the wheels did have quite the issue the other day: the front driver’s tire wore through and our supervisor managed to avoid hitting a tree as the vehicle careened on the rim off the highway. Well, so much for having a car with a functional door.
Oh, right, because in the “good” van (the grey Toyota), the only way to the middle and back seats are to open the front passenger door and climb over. Either that, or get hoisted through the boot over the back seat. Be careful not to open the back window either – it has a tendency to get stuck. And even though the van drives smoothly, it has a nasty habit of deciding to die while idling and refuse to turn back on.
So lately, we’ve been driving the Nimbus. Functional doors, smooth driving. Naturally the aircon doesn’t work, but we can make do with windows. Unfortunately, when it claims to be a seven passenger, it definitely doesn’t mean seven adults with 5 liters of water each and their lunches. So it can be a wee bit cramped.
I feel as though I have clawed my way through every day of the last three months. I’ve worried over every dollar, counted and recounted every physical day in the fields. My spreadsheet is filled with calculations, wondering if I’ll have enough proof for my visa application. I’ve emailed my sister with my anxieties, asking her to double check my math. I’ve had Michael sit on hold with immigration to try get a straight answer about how to calculate my time. And at the end of the day, it still may come down to how an immigration officer feels that day and require an expensive appeal to try to stay.
I have two or three work days left – depending on how much money I’m able to get on those days. Will it be a cruisy day where the vines are worth 70 cents apiece, or an agonizing one where they are only worth 22 cents? Will I even find out before 11am? Spring has properly sprung and the barren vines are now bursting with life – although along with it the temperature is steadily rising. We poor winter workers are used to starting with freezing temperatures and being hot is so unfamiliar we can’t figure out the right method of how and when to drink water. It’s making me so antsy to go home that I’ve begun daydreaming of the seven hours on a train until I get back to Southern Cross Station and seeing the sun set off the bridge by Crown as I walk to Michael’s car. It’s taking all I have to stay, just to make 100% sure that I have all the days required.
Pops walked into the hostel one morning and saw me wrapping my wrists before heading out to work. He asked what happened and I just shrugged. “I’m broken!” I am now also the semi-proud owner of a cane for when my foot hurts too badly to put weight on it. I sleep every night with a hard ball under my ankles to relieve the pressure on my back from the plastic mattress. I’ve started entertaining myself when I wake up at 4am by bending my fingers and feeling the joints catch and pop. All the memes about turning 30 and your body properly saying goodbye to feeling normal are painfully true – even if I’m a few months ahead of the age that agony is supposed to hit.
My clothes have taken just as much of a beating as my body. As I’m so close to the end, I’ve taken to just throwing out anything with holes in it instead of darning them or using fabric glue to keep it together. Socks, pants, shirts – they’ve all faced the wrath of the vines. I’m fairly certain that any pieces of clothing that do survive long enough to come back to Melbourne will occasionally cast their revenge on me in the years to come by stabbing me with a thistle hidden in a seam. I’ve bought three pairs of gloves since I’ve been here – and they are wonderful gloves. I’m one of the few that really hasn’t had blisters on my fingers. On the other hand, the reason I’ve bought three is because they get torn to shreds by the vines. This final pair I’ve been desperately trying to save with glue and prayer. Just a few more days, babies, you can do it!
This is the time that people are leaving. One guy bolted in the middle of the night without even telling the hostel manager. Another gal is saying her final goodbyes as I write. I think that I’ll be the next to go, but a few others won’t be far behind me. I don’t particularly mind that I’ll be heading back into Stage 4 lockdown in Melbourne just as regional Victoria lifts to Stage 2, but some people are wary of leaving a job and roof over their head for that many “maybes”. Others are keeping a close eye on the border to New South Wales and plan on crossing the first day that it is open. Yet others are electing to stay and complete their six additional months required for a third-year visa, justifying that there’s not much else they can do right now and they might as well hope for a year and a half of pure travel when Covid is less intrusive.
This certainly isn’t how any of us thought our time in Australia would go. A global pandemic wasn’t exactly on our checklists of things to plan for down under. Scorching heat? Of course. Wild fires? Almost definitely. Snakes, spiders, and kangaroos oh my! We expected wine, not masks. The Outback, not social distancing at the grocery store. The beach, not one hour of outdoor exercise a day. We expected exploring various states, not closed borders. But here we are anyway. We are the backpackers who stayed. We are the ones who continued to work in the fields, toiling away when the entire labor force pipeline was abruptly shut off.
The rumor is food next year is going to be very, very expensive. Without the cheap labor to harvest the crops, fruit and vegetables will rot where they grew. We saw that on the farms we were working on already – rows and rows of grapes that have died and shriveled up on the wires, unharvested. So next year, as tempting as it might be to drive to a megastore for your food, consider spending a little extra to support your local grocer. It’s not going to be easy on them either. And next time you eat an orange, think of the worker in the fields wearing long sleeves and pants to protect from sunburns and scratches in the scorching heat.
Next time you hear from me, I should be settled back in Melbourne and hopefully my body will have forgiven me for the last three months. So unless all goes wrong, this is the last time I shall be writing from this shoddy hostel in rural Victoria. Wish me luck!
(Also, I may have had the Hamilton soundtrack stuck on replay for the last several weeks, so forgive the overdramatic post title.)