Monthly Archives: December 2015
My alarm goes off at 4:45 am. I don’t need to get up that early. I just like to be one of the first ones up before the flow of activity starts in earnest. Outside, the land remains dark, but twilight is imminent enough to walk around in the dim light unaided. The first streaks of crimson light have already appeared in the far reaches of the eastern sky. The sun will make its way above the horizon shortly.
I crawl out of my tent into the cool morning air for the start of another day. The cold from the night will linger still for a while longer. A few early risers mill about in the murky dawn. Rows of vans and tents line the fields of this makeshift migrant worker camp at the Orange Agricultural Showgrounds. Life in the backpacker camp is about to begin a new day.
Brushing off the sleepiness from my eyes, I slowly start stirring about, preparing my body for the day ahead. Sore, blistered fingers gingerly make their way down my second-hand button-up work shirt. A quick rinse of the face in the mobile restroom unit washes the remaining sleep out of my eyes.
I make the short walk from my tent to the backpacker kitchen, if the facility even deserves that moniker. The kitchen is located inside an open-air animal barn, the sign labelling the building’s use for ‘dairy goats’ has been temporarily taken down and now lays solemnly against the wall. In place of showground dairy goats, the backpacker’s makeshift kitchen has sprung up. An odd assortment of worn tables and mismatched chairs are scattered around the trampled dirt floor in what can only be described as the unwanted leftovers of a bankrupt thrift store. On the left hand side of the building sits the kitchen area—a row of second-hand refrigerators, a lone sink draining directly to the lawn outside, and a folding table filled with a hodge-podge of small appliances.
I brought my own bowl and spoon for breakfast. Around here, dishes face a grim future. Lying shattered on the floor amidst the cigarette butts, unwashed on a table for days on end, or disappeared without a trace. My morning breakfast consists of a cut-up banana and seven Weet-Bix biscuits with milk (or yogurt, if dumpster-diving in town has proved successful). A hearty breakfast like this has proven to keep me satiated for a full 12-hour day of cherry-picking, provided enough cherries are snacked upon during the day to keep energy levels topped off.
I wash my bowl in the sink and head back to my tent to change into my work boots. Activity at the camp has picked up considerably. Rank-and-file cherry pickers mill about. By now it is well past light enough to pick cherries. Around 5:30 am, the first contingent of workers departs the camp, going silently off to unknown orchards in the countryside. Soon I will follow in my own van to see what type of harvest is in store for the day.
Who knows what goes on during the day in this camp when most people are gone working? Those who spend their days on the Australian harvest trail are not cognizant of such endeavors.
For, harvest work can come all at once, or not at all. Those lucky enough to have work for the day eagerly take the opportunity to earn whatever money they can. Around here, money earned is used to finance an extended period of holiday in Australia. Those for whom work wasn’t available, the whole day remains for enjoyment. Thus, on any given day there is a lot of hanging around in camp. A soccer game may break out in the field. The make-shift will kitchen gradually fill in the afternoon with workers, watching a movie or playing cards.
A day of cherry picking can last only for the morning, or well into the evening. With the amount of work varying day to day based on any combination of the number of workers, amount of ripe cherries, and the weather conditions, the amount of harvest work available is always in flux. In any case, the workers will eventually return to their seasonal camp once more, where evening activities are much more conspicuous than the morning lull. The evening hours sees the camp kitchen full and boisterous. The upwards of 100 people living and working here are unwinding from their days and celebrating the night. Clusters of people are scattered about akin to the furniture. The handful of young Australian pickers sit on a couch drinking beers and alternating practice on a skateboard. A group of young but mature Germans stick quietly to themselves, making and eating their dinner in hushed tones. The French are the most prolific and animated demographic here. They cluster in large groups all over the kitchen area. Soon the French will start their nightly session of Goon Pong. It’s the game of choice at camp, played exactly like beer pong, but the beer being substituted for Goon—Goon being the Australian slang for any form of cheap alcohol. In this case, the Goon of choice is boxed wine, but taken out of the box so that the internal wineskin can be slung around person to person.
All signage put up by the Showgrounds administration, as well-intentioned as it was meant to be, is disregarded by the backpackers. The harvesters roll their own cigarettes and smoke in the kitchen under the no-smoking signs. The butts are discarded on the dirt floor in jest. Dishes are used and left dirty, and half-eaten food litters the tables when the distraction of drinking games becomes too much. Activity will continue long after the posted hours of 10pm, unless the neighbors across the street call management to shut things down
The camp kitchen at night is not the place for me. I make an easy dinner with the limited utensils and eat it among some even-tempered fellow harvesters I have meet during my time here. We relax, we talk smack, but under no circumstances do we talk about cherries. After a while of hanging out, it has come time for me to leave.
As I walk back to my spot on the edge of camp in the mottled lamplit dusk, cheers from the Goon Pong game erupt. Another game has just ended in an apparently spectacular fashion. I settle into my tent between 9 and 10 pm, tired from the day and in anticipation of better cherry picking the next morning. As I get comfortable under my blankets, I pull out my book to read. I’ll be dozing off in a matter of pages. Clamorous uproars continue to emanate from the camp kitchen, fading out of cognition as sleep encroaches upon my mind. The cool air of night begins to settle over the Showgrounds.
Having left the luxuries of the big city and the comforts of a hostel bed, I have moved on into the Australian countryside in order to earn my pay to extend my stay. And I live in a van… (sorry, but it’s not down by the river).
The campervan culture is very conspicuous in rural Australia, as all the foreign workers (that is, the working holiday makers) flock to agricultural towns in anticipation of the fruitful harvest season.
I bought my van and have joined the ranks of itinerant fruit pickers. Just wanted to introduce everyone who is curious to my new digs.
This is Frank the campervan. He’s a 1997 Mitsubishi Starwagon. At that age, he’s developed quite a number of quirks, but the most important thing is that he’s reliable and a hard worker…sort of like me!
Here’s a look at my gourmet kitchen. Built-in sink, mini fridge, lots of storage…
Here’s my grand banquet dining room and home office…
Here’s the master bedroom. The table folds down and converts to a bed at night. Comfy.
And finally, here’s what I look like driving the van. Australian driving is a daily feat of pure determination!
It’s a common question that gets asked when travelling.
“Where are you from?”
Answering the friendly chatter, you state where your home is.
“Ah,” muses the asker in polite conversation, “it must be beautiful there.”
As often as we hear this archetypal dialogue, we may not feel like the place we’ve come from is beautiful. But maybe it is. Maybe we ourselves just fail to see the everyday beauty that surrounds us in the places we come from.
As a traveler, visiting places for the first time, I am often struck by the beauty of the places I am venturing. It’s that initial shock—that sensation of something new and different being experienced—that gives the visceral feeling that this place is uniquely beautiful. The novelty of traveling to places unknown draws specific attention to the beauty held within.
In the five-week course of my Australian travels, I have repeatedly been struck by the beautiful landscapes I have seen, ranging from the inner wilds of Sydney itself to the untamed bush on the edge of civilization. Continually I’ve been awed by how different—and wild—and beautiful—it all seems. I feel like the people who live in Australia must daily be astonished by the beauty that surrounds them. How could where I come from even begin to compare?
After a pause, I answer the question posed by my fellow traveler.
“Yes, I suppose it is beautiful where I come from.”
Why do I seem to disvalue the place where I come from, as if all these other locales in the world are more scenic and more beautiful places to be? Is it perhaps the familiarity of where I come from which desensitizes me to the geography of my own homeland? For, where I come from is the known, the familiar, the common, the quotidian. The landscape of home becomes a daily occurrence, one that loses saliency in the day-to-day routine. As the backdrop of daily life, one’s homeland doesn’t seem to invoke that sense of witless awe or grandeur that one may experience travelling to a new place for the first time. In a sense, we don’t appreciate the magnificence of the places we come from to the degree that a traveler would.
But where I come from is beautiful. I know it. I can remember it. There are certain aspects of where I come from that I love—and I’ve come to realize how beautiful they are based on how I miss them. I long for that big lake I’ve known since childhood, that expanse of freshwater so vast that you can’t see across it. To this day, whenever I encounter a body of water I can’t see across, this feeling of nostalgia is invoked within me, reminding me of how beautiful that lake is to me. Similarly, a forest just doesn’t seem right unless it’s composed of northern hardwoods. For all the grandeur I’ve seen of the towering Coast Redwoods or the monumental Giant Sequoias, the prosaic humble hardwoods hold a spot in my heart—one of that comfortable embrace of a broadleaf canopy overhead. And the smells of the forests too—and the visceral sensations! That watery hug of the humidity on your skin on those sticky summer nights. That glorious smell after a fresh summer rain when the plants are green and the worms come out. The soothing sounds of crickets at night and the neurotic blinking of the fireflies. All these things about my home I’ve missed. These things are what home feels to me, and together they form a beautiful image in my mind. Sure, my homeland may not have the imposing majesty of Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park, or the international status of the Great Barrier Reef, but it is beautiful nonetheless. It is the beauty of a place unique to itself.
Environmental historian Bill Cronon, in his profound but controversial essay “The Trouble with Wilderness,” reminds us that conservation starts at home. We need to start seeing the beauty—i.e. the wilderness—in the places we call home. Travelling to the wild and scenic fringes of the world may invoke in us a sense of grandeur worth protecting, but we need to learn from these sentiments and bring them home to value and protect the places we know as home—whether home is in the central city itself or in the uncouth fringes of the urbanized world. As Cronon puts it:(emphasis mine, and I’ve substituted the word ‘beauty’ for ‘wilderness/wildness’ as a synonym in two places)
“Wilderness [Beauty] gets us into trouble only if we imagine that this experience of wonder and otherness is limited to the remote corners of the planet, or that it somehow depends on pristine landscapes we ourselves do not inhabit. Nothing could be more misleading. The tree in the garden is in reality no less other, no less worthy of our wonder and respect, than the tree in an ancient forest that has never known an ax or a saw—even though the tree in the forest reflects a more intricate web of ecological relationships. The tree in the garden could easily have sprung from the same seed as the tree in the forest, and we can claim only its location and perhaps its form as our own. Both trees stand apart from us; both share our common world. The special power of the tree in the wilderness is to remind us of this fact. It can teach us to recognize the wildness [beauty] we did not see in the tree we planted in our own backyard. By seeing the otherness in that which is most unfamiliar, we can learn to see it too in that which at first seemed merely ordinary. If wilderness can do this—if it can help us perceive and respect a nature we had forgotten to recognize as natural—then it will become part of the solution to our environmental dilemmas rather than part of the problem.”
We need to learn—or maybe relearn—to appreciate the wonderful world that daily surrounds us. Travelling to the wild and pristine parts of the world can invoke the sense that such places are beautiful and worth our protection. But also, in seeing the innate beauty in a landscape that is so unfamiliar, we can learn to see again what is spectacular and worth protecting about the stage of our daily lives—a stage that sometimes seems to become just the merely ordinary. It doesn’t take a particularly observant eye to see the beauty in one’s surrounds; it just takes a perceptive mind to recognize it again when it becomes commonplace. I didn’t need to go to Australia to see beautiful landscapes—although admittedly it is much easier for me to sense it here. Instead, beauty abounded as well in the home I left behind.
Maybe sometimes we need to remind ourselves of the beauty that surrounds us. Maybe we should try and view the places we come from with the eyes of a traveler.
(Photo Note: Three Sisters Formation, Blue Mountains National Park, New South Wales, Australia)