Tuesday, November 13, 2012

It's Almost Over


I quit my job and left in search of koalas. I found lots koalas. I am leaving Australia in six days, and don't need to describe the excitement and sadness of leaving a place for a new one.

Since I've been here, people have asked me tentatively if I've liked it. For me there have been two Australias. The first was my first six months here, which saw me living in the forest and getting exploited by one employer after another. I loved living in the forest, with its freedom and excitement (see earlier posts for background, but basically I was picking grapes while not making enough money for accommodation and lived in the woods above Margaret River for three months). This was the first time ever while in a foreign country where I was told to "go home". Actually it was, "Go home, fucking backpackers, fuck you, go home". Welcome to the Land Down Under.

There was a constant campaign and flurry of letters to the editor of the small town paper describing what a problem it was for the locals to have travelers working in the town and fueling the local economy. It was a very very small, unfriendly town, completely oblivious to all the amazing individuals who were living on the fringes waking up in the morning and picking grapes. We were completely invisible to the locals. In response to one letter in the paper that called for the eviction of travelers by "whatever it takes", I wrote a letter to the editor, which became the first piece of mt writing I've ever seen in print. From the Augusta Margaret River Times, here it is:

FRIDAY MARCH 23, 2012

MARGARET RIVER IS 'HOSTILE' TO TRAVELLERS

I am beginning to feel nervous at Rotary Park. Being an itinerant grape picker with no permanent residence in Margaret River, I spend a lot of time in the city's parks. I cook, eat with my friends, play cards, read, write, sometimes toss a ball around, and do a lot of hiking in the woods. It is truly a gem of a park, and I do my best to make sure it is available at all times to whoever wants to use it. It is after all, a public space.

As far as I know, nothing I am doing is illegal. Like most people at Rotary Park, I never overnight in the carpark and certainly don't plan to. I pick up all my trash and more whenever it's time to clean up. I share this space with travellers from diverse areas of regional employment, from hospitality workers to housecleaners to winemakers. A lot of travellers who are living in the hostels or caravan parks pass their time at Rotary Park because it is such a wonderful place.

It seems that most travellers spending any time at Rotary Park are easily lumped together, viewed as a threat, and treated as such. In the most recent issue of the Times, Margaret River resident Nigel Leigh called for "whatever it takes" to keep foreign itinerant grape pickers from accessing Rotary Park. I hope this doesn't include violence, but this call to arms, coupled with the half-dozen threats passing motorists shout daily on the Bussell Highway is a bit troublesome.

As a migrant labourer-whose income is heavily taxed-I already feel pushed to the edges of Australian society. Now there are threats. This was not what I was expecting when I spent the last of my cash on an Australian work/holiday visa after a year on a bicycle en route from Portugal to China.

After all these countries, and all the cities, I have never had a more hostile welcome than in Margaret River. I invite anyone who is interested to come talk to the foreigners at Rotary Park. Or read the Grapes of Wrath, which is available from the local library, which I also use.

-Nathan Roter, somewhere between Cowaramup and Rotary Park

The only person that ever came to interact with us was a grumpy man with his family on Easter Sunday, who came to yell at us because my friend had parked briefly in a zone reserved for tour buses. There were no buses, and this man drove no bus. He came and accused us of being blind and too stupid to be able to read the signs that read "reserved for buses". He then insulted my friends' English. When as the only native English speaker I stepped in, he asked me if I was on drugs, reached past me and grabbed my journal and threw it across the park. I left the next weekend. Thankfully, I got to Melbourne, which has seemed like a new country.

So if you ask me if I liked Australia, I'll say, I loved Melbourne. This is my second Australia. Melbourne is a fine city. There is art and music everywhere, more so than anywhere else I have ever lived. It is surrounded by beautiful coast, and beautiful hills. The food is good, as are the people. The architecture is gorgeous, and in my unemployment I am finally getting a chance to appreciate and explore it. Most importantly, there's a seven storey IMAX screen where I watched Batman. If I hadn't come to Melbourne, I probably would've gone home in May. I'm so glad I came, and worked and saved, and now I can continue on.

This will be the last entry in this blog. It's been complicated, but in the end, this blog is full of inspiration. Throughout all the struggles and poverty, I can only be thankful that I don't have a family to feed, and that I was here completely on my own choice. Like applying for visas, if I get rejected, it only means I can't go explore that country. I'm not trying to go home and visit family, or work in a new country to support family.

So I started a new blog that will follow me to Shanghai and Mexico and back to California and home. Its address is:

www.ultracontinental.blogspot.com

Please read it! It'll be the best I can do! Also read www.supercontinental.blogspot.com!

Hell, become a follower! Tell your friends and family, and your local publisher as well!

Thanks for reading everyone, and come to Australia, have your own experience. After all, you can make $22 an hour washing dishes.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

It's OK, You Can Skip to the End


"And then many things happened at the same moment."

-JK Rowling

It's interesting to sit and consider how plans form. I did this the other day after a giant moment of, "How did I get here?"

I was hanging around in Malvern, an upscale neighborhood of Melbourne where I often go to work, to fundraise in the street. It's a place where people park their Rolls Royces five feet from the curb, go shopping for tomatoes at $15/kg. They then swear at you when you ask them if they have a minute for mental health, and tell you they can't afford it

I didn't make that up.

I suppose that a theme of this blog has been travel. It's hard for me now to consider that I ever traveled, it being those wee morning hours and I have work at 9am. This whole work/holiday visa thing has turned out to be work and about ten days of holiday. But wasn't that the point?

I remember having a party at my house on a weekday in spring during my 2nd year of university. What a glorious spring that was! I had a massive test the next day, so I wasn't really doing much other than reading about brain plasticity and you know, synapses. I could hear distant noises through hallways and doors proving that there were other things in the world than study. I occupied the bedroom closest to the front door, which was often the first stop for visitors to the house. Visiting that night was a friend of mine named Pete. Pete had just returned from four months studying in Spain then traveling around France and elsewhere before returning back to Oregon. He had always been a motivating fellow, but for these few months after returning from his first time abroad, he was Inspiration itself. He walked in my front door and immediately plopped himself down on my bed before seeing what the goings on were deeper into the house. Happy to take a break I put my book down, gave my heartiest welcome to my house's newest guest, and embarked on a conversation that would last for hours. This would end up in a plan, even a pact, to ride our bicycles across the US in two years' time, after we had finished those degrees of ours.

At the time we hadn't really heard of people doing that but we were sure that there were roads spanning the continent, and if bikes went on roads and we went on bikes, then we could traverse this landmass. Our eager friend Kelvin jumped on board and joined us. Sure enough, two years later with degrees in hand we set out from Charles G Washburn State Park on the Pacific Ocean in Oregon to land 2.5 months later on Long Beach Island in New Jersey. This was the longest I had ever planned ahead for anything, by about a year. I still can't believe that we did it. It opened up a wide door for me in terms of what was possible with a little time, a bicycle, and some cash. You can read all about it at www.rollingrealdeep.blogspot.com.

Two years after that I had another idea burning in my head, only made possible by my experience riding across America. I wanted to ride across Eurasia. I really only wanted to go to Central Asia, and I thought it would be easy and practical enough to get there by bike. I didn't want to go alone because I wanted to share the story with someone. Reminiscing about the trip across the US was so much sweeter with Pete and Kelvin, my companions. After a lot of talk and not much planning, I sat down with a friend of mine named Jake R and ordered some pizza and some beer in North Portland. After some pizza and some beer in North Portland, we were bellowing of what it would be like to cross the Caspian Sea in a ferry to Turkmenistan. A few days later Jaco went back to Berkeley and told me he'd think about it. He said he'd call me soon to tell me if he was into the idea. Jaco called me a few days later and told me he had found a Russian dictionary in a box on the streets of North Berkeley. Although not a supersticious man, Jaco nonetheless interpreted this as a sign, and we began planning to ride our bikes from Portugal to China. Then we did it, and near the end I began running out of money. This happened in Yunnan Province, in the South of China. I was told it would be a good idea to go to Australia with a work/holiday visa and make more money if I wanted to keep cruising. The next day-which would have been about a year ago-I bought my visa and plane ticket from Hong Kong to Perth. A few months after that, it's spring again in the southern hemisphere and here I am in Melbourne, making new plans.

So that's how I got here, eh? This conversation with Pete in my room when I was 20 years old got me to Malvern, contemplating how people getting into Rolls Royces can't afford a few dollars a month for mental health? Well, maybe. It's kind of silly to think of life as, "EVERY MOMENT OF MY LIFE HAS LED TO THIS VERY ONE!" Jaco and I would joke about that at times, although I'm not sure if he remembers. Maybe he can post a comment about that on this blog? JK Jake, you know how it is! I'm getting distracted. Not every moment has brought me here, but there are a few moments that I like to think have played some good roles. And I can think of a moment that is bringing me to my next plan: when I realized flying through Shanghai to Mexico City was cheaper than any other route! This brings me to Shanghai for a week for Thanksgiving with my blond-haired cousin Max, then Mexico City and riding north from there to the city of:

The Oakland Athletics clinched a spot in the American League playoffs with the lowest payroll in the league! So if anyone need a young, vibrant, dynamic, revolutionary baseball team to follow, follow the A's, now more than ever!

Friday, August 17, 2012

Crikey! New Basketball Shoes!


Did everyone know that the new Air Jordans came out this morning at 9am? Basketball shoes. You can buy two pair for $450. Actually, you have to buy two pair. Minimum purchase. Come one come all people were camping out for it last night. I saw them on my way home, in front of every shoe store in downtown Melbourne, camping, waiting for the new Jordans. And I thought it was a protest.

Although I still have a few more months here in Australia, I can feel my time winding down. I'm making preparations to leave that I have been putting off for months. Like replacing my shattered rear hub in my bike. And replacing the rear rack that cracked through in Tajikistan. And renewing my passport. It will expire in May. Today I set off to do my taxes, and was put back into the perpetual state of fury I knew in Margaret River. To claim taxes back you need to provide an ABN, (don't ask me what it stands for, Archaic Bureaucratic Number is my best guess) that is an identification number for businesses, for each employer. I got every single one except for the one from Vinepower, the labor exploitation artists that indentured me and several hundred other grape pickers this summer. They don't provide it on their payslips. I think they're conning someone here. I tried to call the people who could help me, the business card gives four numbers. Only one picked up. Jim claimed to have no idea, stating that he was, "only an employee". He told me to call the numbers I already had. I drank some tea, calmed down, and resolved to put this off until Monday when I could call the office, today being Saturday. Am I really writing about doing my taxes?

I'm planning on buying my plane ticket back to the Western Hemisphere any day now. I often dreamed of that day while in the shackles of itinerant farmwork. As it approaches, I'm afraid of it. The Western Hemisphere is my hemisphere. I actually feel some ownership and responsibility about how things go there. Going back to Margaret River, our angry gripes about our situation in Australia would often turn into amateur and ill-informed dissections of the problems in our home countries. The Italians would often discuss Italy's current plummet, and how their friends' and parents' wages were dropping and dropping, and what to do about it. Some nights would end in great passion and great declarations. One night, Andrea bet Cris 100 euros that he was the "man who would change Italy". I love this grandiose talk and expectation. It's infectious, and as the day approaches when I eventually will return to the United States, I laugh and think of myself as: the man who will change America!

I saw Batman the other day on a 70 storey Imax screen, the third largest movie screen in the world. This led me to wonder what are the top 3? Google searches easily provide numbers 1 and 3, but number 2 is pretty elusive for the second biggest movie screen in the world. It was pretty cool though.

I hooked up my roommate's record player, after 2 months of procrastinating. It's very nice.

And tonight I'm going to see Monsieur Remi, freshly back from a 10 day silent meditation retreat, play at Open Studio on High Street in Northcote. Remi is my French guitar playing former roommate. He sings live karaoke most Thursday nights at La Niche on Gertrude and Smith, in French and in English, and is the man to play at any wedding, bar mitzvah, or summer music festival.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Today We Rest

Queen Elizabeth II was born on a shiny sunny April day in 1926, the 21st to be exact, as the songbirds sang and canaries croaked in their anticipation of a summer which would see Britain fall under martial law because of coal miners striking in the North. Even under the yoke of martial law, Britain would that year manage to achieve great heights, culminating in the creation of the country's first race track for dogs, in Manchester. The young Elizabeth was oblivious to all this though, this being her first year. In the following years Elizabeth grew and grew, and just 20 years later she had expanded more than tenfold in size. Due to this great achievement, she was crowned Queen of England in 1952. In all the celebration and rapture surrounding this great event, a lot of people everywhere forgot when her birthday was, and decreed to all the Commonwealth that each country and each state had free reign to choose a birthday for the Queen, and like this that sunny day in April, 1926 was forgotten, and in Victoria, we celebrate the Queen's birthday today, June 11. But next year it's different, because the Queen is ALWAYS born on a Monday.

So I have the day off here, and am wishing I had some great stories to tell about descending a snowy pass somewhere in Tibet, and eating roast yak in a heated tent. As you may see from the above paragraph, I'm a bit desperate for material here.

I've been living and working in Melbourne for a month and a half now, digging in to settled life for the next few months. I got a job raising money for charity on the street, brewed a Stout, and bought a basketball. Actually, I didn't buy it, my friend Pete did to trumpet his glorious arrival on the windswept winter courts of the Southern Hemisphere. Pete is one of my dearest friends, with whom I traversed my first continent by bicycle. He left Portland in April for Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam, where he cruised around and saw caves and rented motorcycles and bought a tailored suit. Then, clad in his suit he boarded a plane for Melbourne, and arrived by surprise at 7am on a work day.

And as one friend arrives, two depart. The first two of my forest campmates in Margaret River have left Australian soil, one departing for a land journey to Turkmenistan where he hopes to become an oil executive; the other returning to the sloping plains of Frisia, where no one will know that one southern summer he, Maarten Grunstra, was the fastest grape picker in Western Australia. And no one will be there to tell it, because Maarten doesn't go around saying, "Hey! I pick grapes really fast!"

All that now remains of the camp now is me, Erik, Cris, and Flo. Last I heard Erik was living in a beautiful house in the middle of the forest outside of Margaret River, quite an upgrade from his lonely green tent. Cris fell into the trap of car ownership, and now lives with an infected finger and works as a dishwasher in Carnarvon, where he lives in a caravan park. Flo, as far as I know, is working on a fishing boat, probably scaring people and doing backflip 180s into the warm turquoise Indian Ocean.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Like Lions Perched on Lightning Bolts



First things first, the lovely Becky Krenz has uploaded "Keep it Rolling America", a documentary made by soon-to-be-mayor of Melbourne Peter Kass. This is a 40-minute film about Pete's ride across the United States with two friends after graduating college. It's complete with guest appearances, 2008's hit tunes, sports highlights, and cute doggies. Check it out, I've added it as a link on the right of the page!

Ok I think my last post was a bit scathing. It wasn't untrue, embellished, or exaggerated, but I'm a bit more dug in now, a bit more focused. I found a job raising money on the street for a charity. It's good, strange work, and I truly enjoy the interesting conversations I have every day. These usually range from how we're doing such a good job and people like us are so important, to there wouldn't be a problem with child malnutrition if we just lined their parents up against a wall and shot them all before they could have more kids.

Kids kids kids. Boy it's nice not to have to look for work any more. I have begun to discover Melbourne's fresh music scene. I went to two shows last weekend, and two this weekend. My roommate played in one, he's a French guy who plays French classics as well as his own songs on guitar. He played a little jazz basement while another gipsy jazz band launched their album. I had heard about places and shows like these. This was one of the huge factors of moving to Melbourne instead of following summer with all my bush bandits and going north where I would surely get shafted working more harvest type jobs. Yesterday I started by seeing a jug band, accompanied by a massive IPA, and I thought I was back in Oregon. Then I saw a Cumbia band, which apparently is Colombian dance music, and boy was it a boog woog. It was good, but it was short. And I am no longer looking for a job!

So now I'm dug in. I'm getting ready for my first cold months of May, June, July, etc. It's kind of weird, to be honest, to have these months be cold. I always have to revert to their northern hemisphere equivalents, and think, it's not May, it's November. I didn't really do this when it was hot, I guess I didn't really think about it. Melbourne will be my launchpad, the place where I slam enough bills into the bank to get the hell out of here, and continue on to Chapter III, whatever that may be. There is no urgency, and my bike still idles, unrideable with only one set of hub bearings.

I read about a woman riding from New York to Milwaukee carrying a typewriter. She stops in certain places and invites people to write whatever comes. She calls herself the "type rider". This reminded me slightly of when people would approach Jaco and ask to play the small guitar he had strapped to the back of his bike in Istanbul. They only ever strummed all the strings open, and chanted some local song. To say they were playing his guitar would be misleading. They were entertained nonetheless, and sometimes would play for a few minutes like this. Then they would usually request a local song that there was no chance either of us knew how to play, and be disappointed when we didn't know how to play it. Then Jaco would launch into an American classic, or in the later stages, "We are the Champions", of which he does a fantastic version, ask him to do it when you see him.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Lies, Deceit, and Another Ocean: This is Australia


Lightning can strike anywhere, and when it strikes the face of a cliff, it heats up any moisture in the cliff and causes the fluid to expand cracking and exploding the cliff from the inside. This usually triggers a portion of the cliff to wildly fly out, then down onto whatever soon to be ruin may lie below.

I left Margaret River in a flood of tears and uncertainty. The pack of bushdogs had broken up. Flo, the French roofer was the first to go, leaving in the middle of the harvest rush because he had been told he would have steady employment in Perth as a roofer, which is his trade. After spending most of the money he had earned during the grape harvest just to get to Perth and find lodging, this "steady work" that Australian employers so often promise ended up being two days of cleaning gutters, and two weeks of waiting. Fed up with this ill treatment, deceit and false promise, Flo headed north to the banana capital of the West, Carnarvon, where the last I heard he had steady but underpaid work picking bananas.

The second to go was Ben, a budding historian from Philadelphia. Having saved some picking grapes and washing dishes, Ben left when most others wisely left Margaret River when the harvest really started to slow down in mid-March. He posted a few ads on the internet offering his services as a chess or social studies tutor in Melbourne, packed his bags, and hitchhiked across a continent. It took him a week, but he made it and is now working in a kitchen getting good hours.

Then Erik left the bush. He bought a car, added a bed, and lived in that. Erik is French and holds a degree in oenology. The day after he arrived in Margaret River he interviewed for and got a job making wine at a nice winery. During the heyday he would return from work carrying liters of wine from his estate. Passing it around, Erik's offerings were some of the few opportunities we had where we could actually access the product we woke up at 4am to harvest. When he left the bush and moved into his car it brought the number in the camp to three: Cris, Maarten, and me.

And the weather turned grey. Being in the bush had been fantastic, a fairytale! You wake up to birds chirping, with the sun out and bright but cool under the eucalyptus canopy. When it became too hot we went swimming, either in the Indian Ocean or the Margaret River itself, jumping from trees, swinging from ropes, living with no rules and no responsibilities: itinerant laborers on the edges of society. But in the cold and the wet none of this is possible and there is nothing to do when you don't have a house and you finish work at 10am. I became feverish to leave, and posted ad after ad on an internet ridesharing site looking for a ride across Australia to Adelaide or Melbourne that would have room for my bicycle. Finally I found it, in the form of Edward and his white Toyota Camry. Then I only had three days left, and the prospect of leaving all my friends to go to an unknown city with winter approaching filled me with a leaden dread of loneliness.

I second guessed my decisions so many times in those last few days. Cris and Maarten, the only people in Margaret River who had managed to save a decent amount of money would be buying a car and driving North, away from winter, and into one of the most remote coasts on the planet. With its red cliffs meeting blue ocean, the northern coast of Western Australia would certainly be beautiful, and it would be a continuation of the spring/summer I had started back in March 2011. This made my plan, which was to go to Melbourne where it would most certainly be winter and where I knew no one, seem ridiculous. I was set though. I was sick of these harvest jobs, where you grovel and beg for these jobs where you hardly make anything and get treated like a part of a machine. I had applied to a job teaching wilderness education in the mountains North of Melbourne, and I was on step 4 of a long application process, and things were seeming good. This is the logic that took me across a continent (the first time I've ever traversed a continent by land and not been on a bicycle!).

So that day came, and I piled all my stuff into Edward's Camry. We drove across the nothingness that is the Eyre Highway, and I got dropped off in Tailem Bend, just past Adelaide on the shores of the Southern Ocean. It would be a ten day ride to Melbourne, highlighted by the Great Ocean Road for the last 350km.

My lonesomeness quickly deteriorated to joy as I dove into my old familiar routine of riding a bicycle all day. The limitless freedom was a breath of life into my time in Australia, and I met friendly people, who treated me like a person! I saw eagles and emus, koalas and kangaroos. I camped next to the ocean; I camped at a winery; I saw a comet through my newly purchased binoculars. Things were good., but this is Australia. While at a wine tasting in the Coonawarra, I got a call that I couldn't get that job that I had already done several interviews for doing the wilderness education because they didn't take people who had my visa. That's ok, I understood that reason, and I appreciated the honesty. Then a few days later my bike finally broke down big time: after 17,500km my rear hub had disintegrated.

I cracked the cone on the hub, which holds the bearings in place. Luckily I realized this when I was at a standstill and not going my average 322kph uphill. Luckily, I was only 12km outside Warrnambool, which is the first city where you can get a train directly to Melbourne. Ironically, it's also where the Great Ocean Road starts, which is one of the only things I had heard about doing in Australia that I had planned on doing. Sometimes, someone rolls the dice for you.

I went to the Warrnambool Art Museum-which has some great stuff, especially the painting of the lady fishing with a massive urn of wine at her feet-saw some skateboarders get arrested for bashing up a ledge, and got on the train. I arrived in Melbourne last Sunday night and stayed at a couchsurfer's house, David, who welcomed me in without even a day's notice given my emergency circumstances.

My first day in Melbourne I got a job at a bike shop, or so I was told. “Consider yourself hired,” were the exact words Phil uttered after my trial where I built two bikes. “I'll call you in a few days to tell you your hours.” After not hearing from Phalse Phil after five days, a gave him a buzz and, “Oh, sorry, the position's been filled, mate, no worries.” is what he said. No worries indeed, Phil, that's a nice cheap epitaph, hope you enjoyed the free labor.

So here I am, winter's fangs sinking in, looking for work in Melbourne. Exploitation, deceit, lies, and illegal wages are my expectations. I've already got some stuff lined up, in a factory packing roses for Mother's Day. Maybe I should have listened to my mother.

Despite all this, Melbourne is AWESOME, full of color, people are unique and original and unafraid. Ben is here, and we laugh about having rooves over our heads. There are rumors of friends coming out here to join me, and Good Beer Week starts May 12, and I might even have a job in a brewery during that week, but I don't believe a SINGLE WORD of that until I see it.

Friday, March 2, 2012

My Life as a Chump

Work indeed, I did find. The day after I last wrote, I received that now familiar text message: show up to work at 5am, wait around for 30 minutes while we organized what we should have yesterday, then pay $7 for $1 worth of fuel to get a ride to the grape vines and pick as much as you can in an extremely limited time.

The message actually only says show up at 5am and let us know if you can't make it. So you show up at around 5am to the agency's office. You fight your way to a position from which you can see the massive bulletin board where you see your name posted and assigned to a team. Then you split a sea of aspiring or affirmed grape pickers and plod on up to the counter, where you check a box next to your name. You have now officially shown up for work (one day I forgot to check the box, was recorded as a no show, and lost my seniority on the list and had to do the whole show up at 5am without a job for 5 days thing all over again). Now it is time to organize your passage to the vineyard. Sometimes you see a familiar face with a car who is in your team, and you're set. Other times you have to bully or beg someone for a ride. This isn't too hard because they get $7 for every passenger that they drive 20km or so. If you don't get a ride, you don't work, and someone else with a car takes your place. If you do get a ride, you sit around and wait and listen as the supervisors and organizers at the agency make racist comments and xenophobic jokes as they reject people who have woken up at 4am to hike to the office and ask for work.

Assuming you do get a ride, you cruise over to the vineyard. These next few hours make up my favorite part of the day. You see the sun rising over the vines, and eventually illuminating the grapes. At this moment the grapes are orbs that could easily turn into something so profound as wine. But you can't look for too long.

Picking for around $2.50 a bucket, you have to go fast. You are a slave to your own lust for cash. After all, isn't that why you came to Margaret River in the first place? You have no time to appreciate the beautiful place you're in. No time to talk to your partner across from you, in fact you are fighting this person for grapes because if you waste time and don't pick the big, lucrative bunches, they will. You have no time to drink water, and certainly no time to piss it out. You pick, you pick, and you pick. You cut, you cut and you cut. You cut your fingers as you cut the grapes. You cut yourself and you're bleeding? No time to stop for a Band-Aid! Bleed on the grapes! Fill the bucket! Get paid!

But on payday you only get around $200 for your week's work. Unless you're Mad Dog Maarten Grunstra, the Frysian who makes twice as much as you because he was God's gift to grape picking, or maybe vice versa, I'm still not decided. I have the pleasure of sharing a campsite with Maarten, and to what does he attribute his skill for liberating grapes from the shackles of vinedom?

Practice. The Mad Dog worked on a cherry farm, which he says were 10x harder to pick than grape. If you wanted to make money there, you had to be fast. There he was, on the windblown, dangerous cherry orchards of Tasmania. Maartin Grunstra learned to direct his arms, focus his head, and set his feet wide for to pick cherries. If you can make money picking cherries, he says, you can make more money picking grapes. I asked the Mad Dog about how to pick faster, and he mentioned the above, but emphasized focusing your head and mind above everything. As you're picking one cluster of grapes, you should always know where you're going to pick next, and next and next. Like a chessmaster dominating, Mad Dog is at least 7 moves ahead of the vine. This is why, when everyone meets up again at lunch after work, and everyone is asking everyone else the most boring and inconsequential question of all time, "How may buckets did you get today?" Mad Dog smiles, says some absurd number that is at least 10 buckets more than you, and contentedly rolls a cigarette. I try to focus like he does, planning my moves, my cuts and the way I'll place the grapes into the bucket, but in the end I lack the enduring focus that he has. I can pick in this way for an hour maybe, but no more. I lose focus. For his speed, for he is the fastest picker in the biggest grape harvest in Australia, he gets work every day.

I too, get work every day, but I think this is because I'm from California, and therefore recognizable. If they recognize you and see you've been coming in at 5am for 2 weeks, they'll try and give you work. If you don't speak English with a native accent though, this is not the case. There is a clear distaste for the French here. One morning, a supervisor was telling the team before we set out about the importance of wearing safety glasses at this particular vineyard. At the end of his lecture, he apologized for wasting everyone's time and said he didn't want "some fucking Frenchman" to come up to him and ask him for safety glasses because they didn't understand the message. Then there's my French campmate who has been in town and an employee of this agency for weeks before most people showed up and hasn't gotten more than 1 day of guaranteed work a week. The prejudices and preferences seem clear, but for my part, I don't feel an urgency to resist or protest. Yes, it is unfair, but it is mine and everyone's choice to stay here and be exploited on piece rates and wake up at 4am to make $200 a week. I hope for fairer and more lucrative jobs in Australia in the months to come. I am thoroughly enjoying myself living in the woods with my contingent of fellow grape pickers. Well, there is one who is not a picker, and that is the other Frenchman who speaks English with a German accent and is a winemaker and earns $1500 a week but lives in the woods simply because he likes it.

It is a wonderful lifestyle. I bathe in the river but without soap because that's nasty for the fragile river. You wouldn't know it though that I haven't used shampoo or soap in weeks! Well maybe you can, the ladies haven't necessarily been gravitating towards this planet. But this isn't for the ladies, this is for the cash.

Monday, February 6, 2012

On Whales' Fin: Migrating South for the Summer

As the southern right whale swim south for the summer, so too did I migrate in this direction. Leaving Fremantle, my plan was to head to a small town called Donnybrook, which is known for its apples, and the filthy people that harvest them (me). I had heard of an ancient path leading from near Perth all the way to Donnybrook, called the Munda Biddi trail. The trail winds and bends its way through ancient forests of trees called Karri, Marri, Bullitch, and Jarrah, all of which have invaded the rest of the world, all of which I would call simply eucalyptus. In their native habitat though, these trees are quite appealing, and massive. The Munda Biddi caused my first, second, third, and fourth crashes of this bike trip. It was slow going through the forest, mostly due to the often poor surface of some of the wider sections of the trail, which were finger deep gravel. Lots of pushing a heavily loaded bike uphill there. But I perservered, braved the biting insects and ENORMOUS snakey snakes, and cutey pie kangaroos who move in such a ridiculous manner. I'm sure the feeling is mutual there.

So I arrived in Donnybrook. I made my first stop the cafe to have a cappucino, which are the same price as all coffee in this country, about $4.00 US. But one resigns oneself to such prices in Australia. Full of coffee and plans of picking fruit for the next several weeks making Gs, I headed to the local hostel, which here are called "backpackers". The hostel also serves as a labor placement agency, as it is mostly foreign, educated people in their 20s who do most of the agricultural labor in this country. It was around 9am, and I cruised down the hill, across the famous brook, and up the hill again to the agency. The first thing I saw from the road was people sleeping on the grass with bottles next to them. No tents, no blankets, just bottles and people scattered like fallen statues on a lawn. Luckily for all, there were none on the way up to the office, so I didn't have to use my expert bike handling skills to dodge any on the road. I went into the office, which was closed. So I wandered around the building, past the kitchen, past a swampy courtyard that smelled of doodoo, past some dorm rooms and out onto what seemed like the the front doorstep. There were some folks there watching videos on technology I couldn't work, and I asked them, "Excuse me, where is reception?" They ignored me, so I said it louder and more angrily. This worked, and they directed me past a TV room with people sleeping on bare hardwood, through a hall, and into reception. As I approached, I could hear a woman lamenting to a younger man about how the one police car in town last night was called in to the hostel for its third noise complaint in 3 days, and how none of the guests respected the place. Indeed, there did seem to be a general lack of respect among the guests. My approaching footsteps caught her attention, and she turned to me, smiled, and asked how she could help. I told her I was looking for work and would like to stay for a few nights. Despite my interest as a customer interested in paying $30 a night to sleep at her odd, smelly hostel, it seemed like my news made her sad. She replied that yes, they had rooms, but I shouldn't stay there. The work situation was bad because of the recent heat wave, and some people had been waiting in small, shitty, smelly Donnybrook for five weeks waiting for one of 20 positions, and the waitlist was currently at 40. She told me to go west, to the shaded lanes and rolling hills of Margaret River, Western Australia's wine country, as the grape harvest would soon be rolling. I gulped, thanked her for her honesty, wished her good luck, and wheeled the old machine out the door. West I did go, to Margaret River.

I did however, have an excellent stop just 10km south of where Sue's Road splits off from the bicycle unfriendly Bussell Hwy. It was getting towards sundown, and time to camp. This was farm country, with barbed wire encircling every field, making normal camping impossible. After doing so in Portuguese (Spanish), French, Italian (Spanish with an Italian accent), Slovenian (Slavic: Jaco's and my mix of Russian, Bulgarian, and bits of Serbian), Bosnian (if you consider that a language), Montenegrin (same, I'm playing it safe here for Balkan political reasons), Bulgarian (Slavic), Turkish, Azeri, Russo-Uzbek, Uighur, and Chinese, I asked a farmer-in fluent English-if I could camp on his land for a night. I must say, I was more nervous here than with most of the other times I've asked in these sometimes obscure languages. I figure the expectations of me were higher. Nerves quickly turned to having a beer with salted peanuts playing frisbee with nice doggies (Aussie kelpies), playing guitar and watching the sunset. I was treated to a most hospitable welcome by Russell and his daughter Zoe. After a nice coffee and fresh bread from Russell's bakery, I took off into the wind for the last 60km to Margaret River.

Soaring against the wind is hard for any eagle, and on a bike it is only slightly easier. I made it though, in the late afternoon, to the promised land of Margaret River where wineries outnumber workers. So I was told. The reality is quite different. There are at least 500 work/holiday visa people like me looking for work right now doing whatever in the wineries around this town of 4000. Most are following the 'harvest trail' which is a rough clockwise loop around the country. When it becomes any given season, the painted vans and ruined cars arrive in town, their grimy occupants spill out into the parks and hostels, and the search for a job begins.

There are professional roofers, researchers, fishermen, computer programmers, mental health workers, cooks, winemakers, accountants, and even bankers all competing against each other looking for work from 5am to 11am picking grapes, getting paid by the bucket. All three hostels in town are full, if you can afford them. If not, you sleep in the marri and karri forests around town, or in your car or van, if you have one. You can cook on your own stove, if you have one. If not, you can use the electric griddles at the Rotary Park, which are on from 8am to 8:30pm. You can bathe in the river, or take a shower at a hostel for $3.00. And every morning, you get up at 4.00am, job or not, to hike down to one of the agencies in town that supposedly arrange work, and the first thing they always ask you is if you have a car. My response is always, "no, but I have a bike and I can go really far on it," agency bot: sorry, you'll be asked to go over 15km to your job, and me: yeah, I can do that, easy, I rode my bike from Portugal to Hong Kong! agency bot, not programmed to understand sentences like this: sorry, priority is going to people with cars right now, but put your name on a list and we might text you later in the week if there's anything available.

Yet, the lists restart every day. I was told today by an agency that they didn't operate with lists like that, although I had signed one every day for the past 6 days, one for every day I've been in Margaret River, including the day before! This makes it so you have to go every day at 5am, and ask if there is work. It is the same pattern, with the same results. But people are getting jobs, one by one, as each winery begins to harvest its individual vineyards. This is my hope at least, that as the three month season progresses I will be swooped up in the wings of a great eagle, and carried straight to the vineyard, where I will watch the sun rise as I gorge myself on, I mean harvest, premium grapes.

It is a fantastic community of travelers here. There are mostly French and Italian, with a few Brazilians and a few Yanks and Canadians and some English and Irish. Last night a Frenchman cooked us fish with grilled tomatoes, garlic bread, and potatoes with rosemary. Tonight an Italian fisherman is cooking me to his dismay frozen Australian fish. Tomorrow I will cook Chinese food. And like this it continues. A guitar playing Dutchman just moved into our little community, and he said he made $50 playing in the street in Darwin during the mango season. A lucrative business prospect awaits.

Like this it will be here in Margaret River, for the next month or two, as the grapes ripen and are picked by my eager and austere hands. The grapes will then turn to wine, and the bottles may sink to the bottom of the ocean in a deep sea catastrophe in which no one is injured but a ship will be lost. There they may age or sleep or do whatever grapes do for centuries upon centuries until some ancestor of mine finds them and drinks them. I can only hope that an eye twitches in the strangest way, as their body recognizes the traces in the wine left by my hands. And they will be confused.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

From the New World

I just ate xihongshi chaojidan, and I feel good. I've been living the incredible human achievement of the settled life, but that geyser's about to blow, and I'll soon be back on the old steel frame.

I arrived in the Western Australian city of Perth. I took a plane here. Planes move very quickly, much faster than bicycles alone, but bicycles in boxes move very quickly on planes. Bicycles in boxes quickly become bicycles out of boxes, with a few wrenches at the airport. That confused morning I made my way from the airport to my couchsurfing host's house in the coastal suburb of Fremantle, on the Indian Ocean, where I am now.

I came here with intentions of making money. I had not budgeted to come to Australia, in fact, I had not budgeted to travel further than Hong Kong, but due to some unplanned events, I had some cash left over. Here's what happened:

Jaco and I were just out for a bike ride in Tajikistan one day in August, eating almonds, apricots and dates on the summit of 4655m Akbaital Pass in the Pamir Mountains. Len Collingwood had just scalped his newest high altitude victim, and had departed down the other side when a converted military jeep cum 4WD RV with Austrian plates crested the pass. Its drivers whose names I regretfully forget gave us some water, and stopped for a chat. They had planned on driving through Tajikistan, and crossing into Kyrgyzstan to do a month of cruising around before crossing into China for a few months of exploring the country and Tibet. To drive a car in China, you need at least one permit, a state-employed guide with you at all times, and lots of money. It is virtually impossible to obtain these three things. But they did it, and informed us that their travel agency had told them that the border (Sary-Tash via Irkeshtam Pass) we were all planning on crossing would be closed in just four days for an indefinite amount of time due to ethnic violence in Kashgar at the beginning of the month. Now, Jaco and I had planned on doing a three week loop through Kyrgyzstan for several reasons. One is that there is a bird of prey festival in August, and we wanted to see that. Since the border with China would be closed however, do we take the risk to spend three weeks in Kyrgyzstan to find that we couldn't enter China on the date we wanted to? If we couldn't cross at that border, we would have to obtain a Kazakhstan visa, and ride through Kazakhstan and cross into China from there, which was much further north and would have to involve a side trip to Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan to get the visa. Then who is to say that we could cross that border on the dates we would have wanted to?

We took the surer option, and rode straight to China, and consequentially only spent 1.5 days in Kyrgyzstan instead of the three planned weeks. Sorrow quickly faded into revelry as we ate our first pork dishes since Georgia when we arrived in Kashgar (exception: post-baseball pork belly from Italy on our first night in Azerbaijan). Not spending 3 weeks in Kyrgyzstan also saved us three weeks-worth of budget. This was ultimately how I was able to afford my Australian work/holiday visa and plane ticket here from Hong Kong.

So here I am. The first order of business when I arrived was to find a job and augment my personal wealth, which upon arrival rested confidently at $19.00 US. From all accounts, this would be easy. I guarded myself in the highest keep behind lots of alligator infested moats and huge walls with minions dumping hot oil on invading optimism. I could only think of my most recent job search, in Summer 2009 which took me from Berkeley to Eugene to Portland, lasted three months and was a rather demoralizing experience. But things would be different here, I was told by the intrepid ones that came before me: "You can find hospitality jobs in a second, or farmwork, or work with cattle and other beasts, tame and wild." So there I was, spending $10 on a pint of the last IPA I would have for a while, considering my options watching the World Sailing Championships, which happened to follow me here.

I headed to the Fremantle public markets. There was a stand called "Soulchef" selling "authentic Mexican salsa" and offering free samples. In a tactic to delay my hunger, I slithered over to Soulchef and stuck a chip in some sauce they called pico de gallo. More like pico de gallows. It was brown and viscous, not the way I knew pico de gallo to be: chunky. A rooster should be able to pick up the chopped tomatoes and onions with its beak. I inquired at the stand, and a Dutch guy ensured me it was authentic. I then asked if there was any work available, and he handed me the boss's card and said email a resume. So I did, got hired the next day, and started work a few days later with the promise of 40-50 hours a week at $19.97 base pay. I've held this job since, working weekends at the Swan Lounge Cafe pouring coffee and cutting things in the kitchen. We share the building, the Swan Hotel, with a bar and a venue in the basement. Thursdays are skimpy days in the bar, where the bartenders forget to put their clothes on or something. It's metal night in the basement, so the whole place thumps with the most righteous double kick drums. Sometimes there are cool shows on Fridays, but usually it's pretty quiet. Same for Saturdays. We used to be open Sundays, but now we're closed. Goodbye hours. I've had to say goodbye to most of my hours. The 40-50 hours promised turned to a spoken 30, though I've never worked more than 28 in a week. This week, my glorious last, I'm scheduled for a mammoth 5. So it's time to go.

And go I will, south, in search of eagles, once my bike is back in order. My bike was in serious disrepair after putting 16,000km on it and never switching the chain (glory be to this chain! Sram PC-90 if anyone cares). When one switches such a chain, it is necessary to switch all the gears fore and aft at the same time. I looked for the fore gears in Hong Kong to no avail, and after several days of searching for the oddly sized rings here, I was in despair. Enter Captain Walker.

Captain Drew Walker runs the one of the finest bike shops I have ever known in my 12+ years of cruising around on two wheels (Craig's Bike Shop in Grinnell, Iowa being the only shop worthy of comparison). The Captain helms a small room with a sliding door housed in the Fibonacci Centre, at 19 Blinco St., a small residential street. The Fibonacci Center is an artist space, with a very good café in front with very limited hours. The Captain carries the basics of bike maintenance for retail in his shop, and I wasn't expecting much help in the chainrings department. When I approached him (being at least the 5th bike shop I had asked about chainrings) about my problem he easily and swiftly directed me to a British website (www.chainreactioncycles.com) from which he ordered most of his parts. He listed my rings on his next order, and they arrived in a week. Wrong size! What could have been disaster became another episode of the humbling generosity that I am so eager to return the second I can. He lent me a spare set of his cranks and chainrings off of one of his bikes, for me to use during the week or more that it would take for the new rings to arrive. What a fine merchant. This is Community.

One of the finest things about traveling outside of the Western world is a sort of relaxed, anything goes mentality. In rural areas, lacking insurance and liability, if it works, do it, get paid. In the West, for reasons that make such heartbreaking sense, the simple and possible become impossible. Like not being able to take bikes on buses, or not being able to get passage across the Pacific on a freighter. I can't imagine many bike shops lending me spare parts for a week so I can still ride to work. The simplest things become complicated, and everyone suffers for it. Captain Walker triumphantly reverses this trend in his simple and efficient stall in the Fibonacci Center. And his business is thriving, which it should.

So my bike will be in order, and ride on I will. I am heading south to big old eucalyptus groves, and wine country. Also some big waves around Margaret River. This Californian tried surfing for the first time ever over the weekend, and laughed like a child the whole time. My ears are still full of water, and every now and then when I lean over water falls out of my nose. I also jumped off a 30 foot cliff into the river which was absolutely nuts, I am still suffering from a terrible case of the willies whenever I think about that.

I plan on leaving Sunday, unless I can find a decent place to watch the NFC championship game, which airs here on ESPN Australia or oneHD at 10.30am on Monday. And then I'll be off.