The Spiders in the Grapevines

Or: That dirt will never come off my hands again

Once upon a time there was a farmer named Michael.

Michael lived in a very funny place people generally referred to as ‘Down Under’, as everything in this country was upside down. His ancestors had come to the state of New South Wales many decades ago, from a far away land called Italy in Europe.

To honor their memory, Michael decided to take over a grape farm with hundred year old grape vines, and vowed to use them to make the best wine in all of New South Wales. He called the farm ‘Fruitshack’.

Luck wasn’t on Michael’s side, and he soon realized that harvesting grapes was tedious and very hard work – way too much for just one person. The big bad winery he had a contract with demanded tonnes of grapes, more than he was able to pick himself. Each day, Michael grew more and more weary and anxious. He couldn’t give up the Fruitshack…

In his very desperate state, Michael made a fateful decision: On a quiet and particularly dark Wednesday night, he visited an old witch that many didn’t know was hiding in the surrounding forest. He promised her 3 bottles of his finest wine each month if only she would help him out of his precarious situation. The witch agreed to this deal, and put a curse on the Fruitshack! No one who was to come here would be able to leave within at least 6 weeks, and was magically bound to help Michael pick grapes despite getting paid next to nothing. The poor souls should be happy and do the work with a song on their lips and good spirit in their hearts.

The curse proved to be a tremendous success; the Fruitshack was saved! Everyone was happy, and if you’re really quiet during grape season between 7 AM and 5 PM, you can still hear them yelling for more buckets.

True story.

ImageIn no way digitally enhanced dreamy sunrise beautifully captured by Emma.

The Fruitshack is a working hostel in the charming small farm town of Leeton, NSW. That means, in theory, the lovely owner Michael finds work on surrounding farms for you, when you’re not picking grapes for him on his own farm.

This includes orange picking, spraying weeds, nursery (trees – not babies) and everything in between. As with most farmjobs, the pay isn’t all that great. But something about staying at the Fruitshack feels very rewarding, even if you have earned only $20 on a 10 hour day. Maybe it’s because we’re ALL broke, and misery famously enjoys each other’s company. I think is the saying.

Initially, I came here to help with the grape harvest. Purely out of the goodness of my heart. And because I want to get my 2nd year visa done. Meaning, I put in 88 days of “regional and specific work” in rural Australia and get to fight for survival for another year. But the grapes keep getting pushed back. We were supposed to start picking the same week that I arrived at the Fruitshack, but they keep telling us that “the grapes aren’t ready yet”. Whatever that means, I will never know (I have learned a lot about orange farming during my stay here, but not much about grapes – more on that later). By now, we are roughly 25 – 30 people living on the farm, all lost souls dreaming of making a buck or two. Most of us with no jobs or hope. Sitting around all day every day with nothing to do creates a lot of, let’s call them ‘interesting’, situations (it almost makes me wish I hadn’t given up on Sociology yet).

Two boys raking the leaves behind the shed becomes one of the most interesting activities going on around the farm. I and two other girls spend a full 15 minutes watching them in complete silence.

It’s like Survivor without the island. Who’s gossiping about who? Who gets voted off next? Who has sex on the bus?? (It’s not what you think – it’s an old double decker that has been revamped into a bedroom) A daily reality soap. There is so much drama, intrigue and lies going on (may be mildly dramatized) that when the grapes finally start, everyone is more than happy to get up at 6 AM every morning.

On the first day, Michael explains to us what we have to do to successfully pick grapes. Some of us get to be bucket boys/girls, counting the buckets of grapes that the pickers have picked, as well as emptying them into the tractor so Michael can load them onto the big truck and take them to the winery. Most of us, though, are pickers. Or, in other words, get the shit end of the stick, because we get paid per bucket, and that’s most of the time not even a full dollar. We suck it up and get to work anyway. (Who’s to blame? The witch, of course.)

“Try not to cut yourself with these”, says Michael, lifting up one of the cutters high in the air so all of us can see it. “Only the bunches!”

Thinking this to be a lame joke, because it’s pretty much a given, I get started. Diving gracefully into the vines like fat kids (me) into cake.

But the vines put up one hell of a fight! They don’t go down easy, pulling on your hair or single branches slapping in your face. After a hard day’s work, all of us look like we just came from an 80’s theme party with a ridiculously teased hair-do.

And then, it happens. I have cut off my thumb!!!!

…. is what I am thinking in a panic. In reality, I have just cut a little through the skin so that it is bleeding a bit. Nothing a quick band-aid can’t fix, though. I think I’ll live.

Time goes by without being noticed. No one has any idea what date or day it is. They just seem all the same. It’s either hard work on farms, or sitting around trying to pass time with movie marathons and kitten-cuddling. The highlights are shopping days – which means going to Woolworth, and on a day you really want to treat yourself, McDonald’s.

ImageTraining for my days as Crazy Old Cat Lady.

I think I’ve never worked that hard, physically, in my entire life. On my days off from the grapes, I am going to another farm. It’s a huge orange farm, and I am taking care of the nursery; baby trees that need to be tended to and make sure they grow straight. The already pretty wealthy farmer is gonna make half a fortune off my work, my “babies” as I’ve grown to fondly call my trees, but my salary is less than minimum wage. Still it’s one of the better jobs around here, and that is really saying something. My boss there is a funny, middle-aged Australian bloke who likes to talk about real estate, drugs and orange juice. He teaches me so much about orange farming that I actually feel ready to become an orange farmer myself – if only I had patience and the back of an 18 year old. After work, he lets me ride around his farm on this awesome four-wheeler chasing kangaroos, which is something that I have dreamed of ever since I was 12 years old playing Tomb Raider III (well, minus the kangaroos). In these moments, I think life is beautiful. Nothing to worry about, just feeling the wind in your hair while kangaroos are hopping next to you. There, going 18 km/h, I finally understand those movie moments á la “I am the king of the world!”

Image

My new best friends.

Unfortunately, days off on a farm far away from any civilization (farm towns don’t count – trust me, live in one for a couple of weeks) gives you way too much time to think. I am falling back into my habit of contemplating the point of life, my life to be exact, and where I am gonna be 10 years from now. So far, I have figured out that I want to travel more (maybe I am a masochist). That I’d like someone to share it with (I am definitely a masochist). That morning, I wake up from a horrible dream about Gustav proposing to a girl sitting next to me at a runner’s conference. Yes, a runner’s conference. A conference for all runners. I am invited because I am a runner. Sort of like a Jennifer Lopez movie. On Gustav’s head covering his wild hair is a golden gladiator helmet, and his bare chest is covered in golden paint. He is the star of a running commercial and showed up to the conference in costume to ask for his girlfriend’s hand. I am not too sure about the meaning of that. If you do, feel free to message me.

During my sixth week at the Fruitshack, I spontaneously decide to leave. I guess I have grown tired of cold showers and dirty dishes after all. And I’m sure I have milked the place for as much money as I can get. It’s winter, farm jobs are getting scarce and I don’t want to spend it all while waiting for something to come along. Ironically, I have earned more money working 3 hours a day in a cowgirl costume in Sydney than I have with full days of hard labor.

Never thought I’d say it, but I’m gonna miss this scrubby old place.

I’ll miss the hectic after work kitchen hours that give me something to complain about. I’ll miss the weekly Fruitshack dinners that I was never invited to by the cool kids. I’ll miss the “German club” that was highly disliked by every non-German. I’ll miss trying to figure out who stole eggs out of my box. I’ll miss the smell of oranges fresh off the tree. I’ll miss standing in line for a shower.

But most of all, I’ll miss you people who make me miss this place.

On my last day, I immortalize myself on the walls of the toilets that have been scribbled on by people since 1997.

“I came to make money, but I didn’t make any money” – It’s a really good joke. I guess you had to be there.

Back to the motherland – Back to Sydney.

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