Page 11 of 11

Tomorrow We Will Kill Chickens

Just occasionally you find yourself in an odd situation. You get into it by degrees and in the most natural way but when you are right in the midst of it you are suddenly astonished and ask yourself how in the world it all came about. 

~ Thor Heyerdahl, The Kon-Tiki Expedition


It’s my birthday soon. Another turn of the wheel, so to speak. In my kindergarten class, the calendar was displayed in a giant circle at the front of the room, with January on top and my month in the bottom, left hand corner. When I entered first grade and the months were displayed in a straight line, hanging down from the top of the chalk board, I was confused. How did one get from the bottom of December to the top of the new year in this linear set up? I still visualize my years as circles.

Last year on my birthday I was conspicuously in Taipei, like a beetle in a bowl of rice, breathing incense in the temples, and eating my body weight in dumplings. This year, I will be shearing sheep on an Australian biodynamic sheep and cattle farm at the end of the middle of nowhere. To think of where I might end up at my next birthday!

Earlier this week, the Farmer and I were at his wife’s chicken farm in Boyup Brook. She is small, compact, and bursting with a frantic energy. Where the farmer is calm and slow, she is quick and impatient. Their farms are to match: his is sprawling and indolent; hers is smaller and every inch of space is used for plants, chickens, books, art work, etc. The night I met her she said to me, in a strong and abrupt Dutch accent, “Tomorrow we will kill chickens.”

By the time I woke up, at the appointed time of 6:30 am, they had already chopped the heads off fifteen roosters. She had explained to me, that while it’s a dirty job, it’s necessary. When there are too many roosters it upsets the balance of the coop. They fight, gang up on the weaker ones and harass the hens. So she picked out fifteen of the worst offenders and the ones not likely to breed well.

With sleep still in my eyes, I joined the others around a large table with two wheelbarrows at either end, lined with straw for putting the feathers into. The farmer soaked each chicken in a vat of hot water – 70 degrees is the perfect temperature for softening the skin enough to easily pull out the feathers without cooking the meat. We each grabbed a chicken, floppy, wet and headless, and began to pluck out the feathers. When they were naked, they went into a cold tub of water.

From there, the good Dutch lady went about the task of gutting them. I stood next to her and prepared the gutted ones for packaging, watching her pull out each organ, splitting them into piles for the dog and for the compost, and for those who wanted to make their own chicken liver pate. At one o’clock in the afternoon, we finally sat down at the kitchen table, exhausted, and had lunch.

Yesterday, I pulled one of these chickens out of the fridge and roasted it whole. As we were eating it, I thought of how I’d been present for the whole process from live chicken to dinner. And I thought about what she’d said: to be a proper caretaker, you have to know how and when to kill.

The Idiosyncrasies of Making a Fire

I’ve been thinking about what John Steinbeck said in “Travels with Charley”, about how every trip has its own unique, idiosyncratic personality. What, then, is the personality of my trip? Travel personification must in some way reflect the personality and emotional state of the traveler, but what of that ephemeral other quality that each trip individual trip possesses?

At first I thought I might compare my time thus far in Australia to a turtle. Metaphorically, turtles make excellent comparisons to backpackers. I’ve always liked the image. And also like a turtle, this trip has been paced, slow. I fell into my first black hole – a common pitfall of extended travel, as many backpackers can attest – early on, and it was a doozey. Granted I am in no rush to the finish line because I am endeavoring to live abroad for a long time, but my turtle has been overly leisurely, sipping a few cocktails and lounging on the beach. The 88 days of farm work required for the second working holiday visa application lit a fire under my indolent turtle’s backside, and here I am, herding sheep with a truck that uses prayer instead of functional brakes, and picking up rocks the size of toddlers from paddocks of organically grown oats. And grateful for the opportunity to do so, much to my surprise. I had never put farming in the list of things I might try, but I am glad for this paperwork necessity. It’s good, I think, to see where your food comes from, and to get your hands dirty.

After nearly a month of getting dirty, I think that my turtle metaphor has lost its relevance. Along with toned muscles, I have gained a new level of focus and determination. When I arrived, I was immediately keen on being the one to light the fire first thing in the morning. My very limited fire lighting experience was always aided by accelerants. I had never before lit a fire with just twigs and paper, but I was determined to figure it out. It took me forever to get the fire lit the first few times. I’d set up two or three balls of paper, and nestle in a pine cone or two, and cautiously hold the lighter to the paper. I’d sit crouched on the floor for ages, fiddling and fussing with the cones and bits of paper, getting frustrated but refusing to let anyone else do it. I’d go through four, five, six crumpled bits of paper and after much coaxing, the cone would finally light and I’d watch the flames gather and flicker and dip, with a deep sense of satisfaction. The Irish backpacker, Sally, who only had seven days left of her eighty eight was watching me one day and she asked me gently, “you haven’t lit many fires, have you?” I shook my head no, “Is it that obvious?” She gave me some pointers and sat back again, watching. From that point on, my fires caught on much faster.

Even with my new strategy and my increasing prowess, the lighting of a fire is very idiosyncratic. Some days, the pine cones and twigs are dry and compliant, almost combusting by themselves, and other days they are stubborn, making you work for it. Sometimes the fire will roar to life only to peter out and die when your back is turned. I am still very keen on the lighting of the Tallawarra fires. In the morning I light the stove fire that heats our water and the house, and in the evening I light the one in the living room fireplace. I get a thrill from watching the paper flare up, and lick the pine cones until they burst into orange and yellow, and the twigs following suit, crackling. The house fills with the scent of wood burning, smoke curls around the windows, and I’m warmer inside and out.

The Bee Invasion

ImageThe first time I noticed the bees, I was chopping wood around the side of the cottage. At Tallawarra, this mainly involves sweating and verbally abusing the wood – I frequently volunteer for this chore for it’s cathartic benefits. After a particularly satisfying crack and split, I looked skyward and saw a handful of bees buzzing around an old cloth that was inexplicably sitting on top of the roof. They were long and oval, like wasps and not like the fat fuzzy bees of Canada. I thought nothing of it and went back to bashing the logs around.

The next morning I went out to feed and say hello to the chickens and the house-sheep, and on the way back, I noticed that there was another cluster of bees on a different corner of the cottage. I stood and considered them a moment – why are they on this corner and not the other one? Did they move? Or is that a different colony? And then I went inside and forgot about them.

A couple of days later the bees had spread to the front of the house and were congregrating around the part of the roof that hangs over the front door. What had started as a scattered buzzing here and there was now a low pulsing hum, like the deep throated growl in a very, very large cat. I inspected all corners of the cottage and found bees buzzing and carrying on everywhere. They had us surrounded.

The girls and I were out in the garden – a haphazard affair with about equal parts weeds, vegetables and spiders – and I absently looked into the window of the room Sally and I shared. It was darker than it should have been… and moving. I went closer. There were approximately thirty bees ramming their heads into the window. On any given day there were a couple of bees in the cottage’s living room, buzzing around on the window, engaging in insect self harm. But this was ridiculous. There were bees everywhere. My pile of clothes and books was heaped underneath the window, at the foot of my bed, and it was seething with bees. They didn’t pay me much attention, and so I watched them crawl around on the sill and their sisyphusean onslaught against the windowpane. They were dopey, like they had gotten into the wine. They lazily bashed themselves against the window, and then crawled around for a while, drumming up the motivation to go at it again. The ones on the bottom of the sill huddled in groups, crawling and falling over one another. Some were dead or in various stages of slowing and dying. The more verile ones paired off and looked like they were either dancing or fighting, forearms interlocked, feelers waving. Upon closer inspection they were actually grooming each other. Jess brought in a small plate with a glob of honey in the center and we ushered as many of the bees as we could onto it with a piece of cardboard and put the plate outside.

The following day, Jess frantically called out to us from the front yard. I heard them before I saw them. It
sounded like the spin cycle on a giant’s washing machine. They had gathered and risen in a massive cloud above the corner they had originally emerged from. The sky looked dirty, as though a tornado was flinging up all the dirt from the garden. They hovered, undulated and droned menancingly. One flew in my direction and got caught in my hair. In our panic, he became more entangled and frightened and stung me, right above the ear. I yelped and rushed back inside, and made faces while Sally expertly pulled the stinger out of my scalp. I could hear the bees inside the house, too – the deep hum was muted but no less threatening – and there was a small army of them against the living room window, struggling to get back to the group. It felt like the buzzing was now coming from inside my head. I iced the sting with a frozen container of milk and eyed them suspiciously while we ate lunch.

The next day it rained, and the giant cloud dispersed, leaving only a few stranglers darting around the original corner. And just like that, the house was quiet again.

On The Road Again

Saturday night. Homemade bread is baking in the oven, the fire is crackling, The Tallest Man on Earth is warbling, and I’ve just sat down with a cup of tea and a good book. Today was productive. I woke early, fed the chickens and the house-sheep, started the fire, chopped wood, dug a trench in the garden, had lunch and argued, long distance, with my Canadian credit card company, hung up the washing, checked the electric fences, moved the sheep to another paddock, collected wood, and made dinner. Just another day on the farm.

I extracted myself from my black hole in Perth just over a week ago, and took the bus out to Esperance – a good sized town on the South coast of Western Australia, about midway between Perth and Adelaide. The farm I’m working at is about 30 minutes away from the town. It is the middle of nowhere, but it doesn’t feel nearly as forgotten as the sunbaked outback – here, there are hills, trees, all verdant and throbbing with life. At night the frogs and birds and bugs have raucous jam-sessions and all the constellations I don’t know are clear as glass. Esperance itself is a series of beaches, and therefore a tourist attraction in the summer.

The farmer is away on a holiday road trip with his wife and has left his farm under the care of a young, English backpacker, Jess. She had been here on her own for a few days when she invited me down to help her out. The two of us are babysitting the 1000 hectare farm with its spread of sheep, cattle, a couple of alpacas, a few chickens and a house-sheep called Lamb who prefers the company of humans and chickens to her own species. Everything from the vegetables to the cleaning products is organic, the house and the water are heated by wood stove and the house perpetually smells of campfire. I have taken to the lifestyle change quite amenably. My skin is sun kissed (don’t worry Mum, I’m wearing sunscreen!), I appear to be developing biceps, and the restlessness that had been accumulating and festering has been subsumed by the excitement of novelty and the peacefulness of the farm itself.

The great flop of the road trip reminded me that travel is like a relationship, it does not do to try and control it. As John Steinbeck says: “we do not take a trip; a trip takes us”.

Return to Civilization

There is nothing more in this world that I appreciate more than change. I don’t know what this almost pathological urge to keep moving is about, but it propels me to travel, so I’m not complaining. I love being in transit, changing from one country, city, town, suburb to the next. I even got a perverse kick out of some of my uglier break ups. That feeling you get after you’ve finally mustered the courage to tell him to get lost is not unlike the feeling I get from getting off the plane or bus: freedom and possibility.

All that said, there is a serious dearth of possibility and change in my current situation. In short, I am bored. The outback is boring. It is insufferably flat – would it kill them to have some hills? Seriously. My severly under air conditioned existence (it is also insufferably hot) is constricted to a shed barely suitable for a lawnmower, and appears to be held together by ancient yellow foam and spider webs. I suspect it is primarily the spider webs that are keeping it intact. Also, I’m fairly certain I could train the spiders to do my job.

There was a huge thunderstorm two weeks ago that we are still feeling the effects from (farming and rain do not get along so well). The storm itself was cool. It was three Tuesdays ago, around 3 in the afternoon, the exact time when the day really starts to drag and the heat headache settles in. On this day, however, it had begun to cool down and dark clouds gathered. The power in my shed had already begun to flicker on and off. Grace called me from her shed and told me that a girl working the weighbridge (my job) on another site had been hit by lightning. She survived but was in the hospital, in rough shape. Apparently this company hadn’t splashed out for lightning rods. (The following week we got a notice saying we needed to be on the look out for “electrical incidents”: safety is in our hands. Right, thanks!) We hung up and left our sheds in record time. I laid down on the concrete slab beside my shed and watched the storm gather from underneath. Grace joined me and we pointed our cloud shapes to each other, as you do. That one looks like a dinosaur; that one’s giving us the finger, etc. And then the storm really started. The rain was torrential; it monsooned. We even got a little bit of hail. And the lightning was biblical. I spend the night in my room, listening to the rain and the leaks dripping from the ceiling, and reading a Stephen King novel.

For the following three weeks, our site was dead, even more forgotten than usual. We had a smattering of trucks here and there, but mostly we sat around and watched movies, napped and ate. I’ve got to say, working was better. Sure, it’s stifling hot and that shed is a horrible hole of a “workplace”, but at least I was doing something that required me to be upright. I can’t complain, though, I did get paid for all that loafing around. It could be worse. It could always be worse.

Now, in the last few days before Christmas and the end to this experiment in sanity retention, time has slowed down. We are a little busier, though. We worked last weekend and everything. Steve was convinced that we needed to be open on Sunday, too. Grace made up a doctor’s appointment so she could go back to Perth, but such was Steve’s conviction that I was stuck here and we brought in another lady to do Grace’s job. We did not get one single, solitary truck. Nothing. When Terry, Grace’s fill-in, showed up first thing in the morning, she was all energy and action. She cleaned, she organized, she dressed Steve down for all the things he’s been doing wrong. By 9:30, she looked at me and asked, “Is it always like this here?” She looked as despondently bored as I felt. The poor thing wound up sitting around all day while Steve chatted her ear off and made her watch ventriloquist videos. Eventually she retreated into the sample shed, even though there was nothing to do.

Thanfully, its nearly over. A couple of days left to deal with the heat and the bugs and Steve, and then it’s back to civilization. I could not be more excited.

Here is a short list of the most interesting things that have happened since my last entry:

1. Steve got a snake. A tan colored python with evil looking yellow eyes. He named it Jack, and he spends a great deal of time talking to Jack, especially in the mornings and nights, when I’m trying to sleep. Upside: it’s slightly less disconcerting than when he talks to himself.

2. I had a battle with a giant huntsman spider. I won, but he put up a helluva fight. Apparently you could hear the screaming from all of the way down the road. Every time I thought I had killed it, it sprang to life again. Eventually I got one of the trucks drivers to run it over. Grace and I have a running joke that spiders are the real causes of the world’s problems. The recession: bad advice from spiders; Corruption and crime: spiders; Twilight: written by spiders. This is what conversation is reduced to when you are stranded in the middle of nowhere with nothing to do by watch the time go by.

3. One of the farmers took me out for a ride on the header – the giant lawnmower they use to harvest the grain. I was left with exactly two impressions: it is very dusty and loses its novelty in about a minute. The machine literally drives itself. I did learn a lot about farming, and saw the countryside a bit more. The farmers are very passionate about their land. And I can see why. There is something beautiful about all that empty space. However, my overwhelming conclusion is that I am definitely a city girl.

4. Nearly got asphyxiated by “organic” fly spray during a particularly horrendous fly infestation in the hut. It was like Hitchcock’s “The Birds”, but the “The Bugs”.

Civilization, here I come!

Happy Christmas, Everyone 🙂

Perth and Western Australia

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.