In Which I am Stranded in the Outback
I rocked up to my hostel in Perth at one o’clock in the morning, to the annoyance of the Irish backpacker who was working reception that day. Another backpacker, an Irish girl (the Irish come to work in Australia in droves; I am effectively surrounded but happily so, it’s been good craic) came with me from the airport shuttle to try her luck at finding a bed for the night. Luck was on her side, and we wound up staying up until 6 in the morning chatting with another Irishman and the bothered receptionist – whose mood improved considerably after Jen and I agreed to join them for a drink. It was a good introduction to Australia. Over the next few weeks, this hostel and the people in it would become a home away from home and a close approximation of family- of the entertaining and dysfunctional sort. Like if everyone, all fifty of them, were your crazy aunt and/or alcoholic uncle.
Perth is a lovely city; it sprawls like an indolent teenager in front of the television, but feels like a small town. There is all manner of cute shops, restaurants, green spaces, and drinking establishments in spades. The only real downside is that everything is expensive – Perth is apparently the third most expensive city in the world and has a population density rivaling Manitoba. Paying ten dollars for a drink and close to thirty per night in the hostel came as an unpleasant surprise, especially coming from Asia . Otherwise, I quite enjoy Perth. It’s familiar and yet not.
My hostel is in Northbridge, a suburb of the city proper, and a haven for backpackers and reckless inebriation. Like most of Australia’s larger cities, Perth is on the ocean (really the only reasonably habitable parts of the country lie along the coast), and the beaches are well populated. During the first month I was here, there were three shark attacks in the Perth area. All that was found of one unfortunate swimmer was his tattered speedo. It’s cruel – the weather is so hot and the water so inviting, but it’s filled with all kinds of malicious wildlife.
Australia in general is filled with malicious wildlife. Of the world’s top 25 most dangerous and lethal creatures, Australia is home to 22 of them. In the water, there are sharks, jellyfish – including the nefarious box jellyfish and one called a “snottie”, stingrays, stonefish, crocodiles and god knows what else. On the mainland, there’s all manners of horrible spiders, scorpions and snakes. Even the kangaroos are jerks, apparently. Australians have little fondness for ‘roos – they are hunted and eaten and hit by cars and generally considered to be vermin. There was an article in the Western Australian newspaper shortly after I arrived that documented a woman, taking her three dogs for a walk, and being viciously attacked by a territorial kangaroo. Evidently ‘roos hate dogs; they will drive them into the water and hold them under. Parenthetically, I saw a mama kangaroo and her joey this morning, bounding along through the brush, and I was still thrilled in spite of this new information.
So far the only creature I’ve encountered who won’t try to cause you bodily harm, is the flies. The flies are actually quite affectionate. So much so, they want nothing more than to crawl into your eyes. And they are persistent. They’re like that guy/girl who won’t stop texting and calling you and randomly showing up at your house no matter how many times you tell them you’re not interested.
I read somewhere once that talking about the weather isn’t as banal as people make it out to be, because weather is a constant witness to our lives so when we discuss weather, we’re really talking about life. Nowhere does this resonate more with me than in Australia. All facets of life are reflections of the weather – unrelenting, terribly beautiful and frequently lethal. Western Australia is especially barren and rugged, sparsely populated and consisting primarily of vast expanses of red dust, baking in the heat. WA is almost like another planet, like I’d imagine Mars to be – it’s even in a separate time zone from the rest of Australia. The main area of civilization is Perth, the rest is dotted infrequently with small clusters that they generously refer to as towns, but mostly it’s a desolate and sunburnt expanse inhabited mainly by gum trees and terrible wildlife.
Even the people here seem to be more aggressive than in other parts of the world. Heat has been shown to make people scrappier: there are more murders during the summer, and especially so the hotter the weather. And this appears to hold true here: so far, I’ve seen more fights and been witness to more aggression, usually baseless, in these two months than I’ve ever been. Even the swear words are more vicious and used more liberally. All in all, I’ve found Australia to be a rather hostile country, from the climate to the wildlife to the people – or, at least, WA; the rest remains to be seen. Not to say that I’m not enjoying myself, I am, very much. But it’s still an aggressive place.
I got a job straight away, but it was not meant to start for a couple of weeks. In order to get a second year visa (and I can’t see any reason not to), you need three months of regional work – meaning, work in the middle of nowhere, typically of the sort no one else wants to do. Since most of WA qualifies as the middle of nowhere, there is much of this type of work to be had. So, I was set up with a job working in the “office” at a grain recieval point during the harvest season. The money is good, and since you are stranded in the bush, you have very few opportunities to buy anything, so you tend to save up quite a sizable amount. Plus, the quicker I could get my regional work out of the way, the better.
I went up to do a week of training with an Irish couple (it’s proving to be a major hassle not having a car here), however the weekend was a complete disaster. We drove the three hours on Friday night, got into Koorda at 9:30 to find it a ghost town: there was no one about, no one answering phones, and nothing open, not even the pub. And since we hadn’t gotten very specific directions to the accommodations (actually, all we got was the name of the town), we drove around aimlessly for the better part of two hours. At one point we found some very friendly and very bored policemen, but they were completely unhelpful as they were not actually from Koorda, but from another town some 100 miles away. They seemed to appreciate having something to do but their search was just as fruitless as ours. Eventually we slept in the car in a caravan park. There’s nothing like sleeping in a small compact car to bond with people you’ve just met.
The next day, we went to our induction and were directed to the accommodation, which was essentially a rickety, dirty, metal shed; a Winnebago would have been a vast improvement. Upon entering the shed, we found it to be completely infested with large black moths. They were coming out of the oven, the air conditioner, the fans, the cupboards, from under the beds; everywhere. The girl, Natasha, lost her mind and refused to stay in such conditions. So we went off to see about our other options, of which there were basically none. Since training didn’t actually start until Monday, and the shed by then ostensibly could have been rid of the moths (nothing a can of bug bomb can’t fix), we decided to return to Perth until Monday morning. However, Sunday night, Natasha sent me a text to the effect of: screw that place, I wouldn’t go back for all the money or chocolate in the world.
So, I got in touch with the offices and relayed the story. They were sympathetic and said not to worry about the training week, they’d keep a job for me and I could just come up when the season started. “No worries, mate”, as they say.
In the next few weeks, I learned about “Aussie time”, which is not unlike South American time. They are really not fussed to accomplish anything in any sort of expedited manner, or to really have a concrete plan about anything. In general, I appreciate this approach to life; it is the way I approach travel. However, when you’re waiting for a job to start and your bank account is dwindling far more rapidly than you’d prefer because for some reason you decided to come to the most expensive city ever, and every time you talk to someone they assure you work will start next week so you don’t get another job for the meantime, it becomes a touch irritating.
A ridiculous amount of time later, I got the phone call: they wanted me there in two days time. Then ensued a series of transportation related mishaps and frustrations. They said they’d arrange a ride for me, but they lied (I should have known with all the ‘oh for sure we’ll start next week’ promises). Shane, the Irish hostel employee with whom I had become close, generously offered to drive me but his car nearly died and we had to turn back after an hour on the road. There’s only one bus that goes there and it only runs once a week; not terribly convenient. Getting around out here is more difficult than in Bolivia. Eventually, I got a train and a ride, and at length, I made it to the job site. I am officially in the middle of nowhere. I work in an under-airconditioned metal shed and live in another, slightly larger shed a few yards away. The “town” I’m in, Welbungin, has only a tennis court. No grocery store, no gas station, not even a pub. Just a tennis court. There is a town a few kilometers away that does have some amenities, but they are open at random hours, pretty much whenever the clerks feel like working, which doesn’t appear to be much. This is like the forgotten outpost of the middle of nowhere. There is one cell phone company that gets reception if you stand in the right spot with your limbs at the appropriate angle, the idea of wi-fi internet is laughable, however, you can get a couple of TV channels if you have the proper equipment (which at this point, we do not).
There are a few good things about my situation: the commute to and from work is a thirty-second stroll, so far we’re getting weekends off so we can go back to Perth in the hopes of retaining some semblance of sanity, and of course the money. I work with two Aussies: a bubbly eighteen year old girl, Grace and a socially awkward thirty year old guy, Steve. They live with me in the shed. I feel like I am both going to get to know these people really well and get completely sick of them. Most of the time, I sit alone in my dusty shed, trying to occupy the long work hours without starting to talk to myself. After work isn’t much better: there’s still nothing to do. The most excitement we’ve gotten so far is a disgruntled scorpion in the shower.
To be fair, this is one of the things I love about travel: you never know where you’re going to end up or what ludicrous things you’re going to be involved in.