Sunday, February 22, 2009

Frenching (and quick NZ update)

How was it to be a farmer on a remote, deserted island? Relaxing. The work was, in the words of one of my co-WWOOFers, “piss easy,” and since we only worked from 8:30-1:30, we had lots of free time. There wasn’t much to do in that down time, which may have made it go by even faster. I stayed from Monday to Saturday the first week of February, working in exchange for my room and board.

The French Island is right next to the Phillip Island, world-renowned for its penguins, and is about as well-known to Australians as it is to Americans. I got lots of puzzled looks when I told people in Melbourne where I was going. But the locals I met on the quick ferry ride over said that they like being overlooked, even after pop star Kylie Minogue bought a house there. There is also no running water and electricity, although with generators and water tanks you could hardly tell.

The work itself consisted of watering the plants, either the pumpkin patch or the bigger field with a myriad of crops, in the morning. After our half hour mid-morning break, we were usually sent to the garlic shed to cut and beautify garlic, shucking off the bruised and ugly layers to make them look, nice, clean and white.

Despite how easy the work was, within a half hour of my first morning working, it looked like I had been working (and sleeping) in the same clothes for weeks. Mud and water splashed all over my jeans and shirt, and a few days in the dried dirt had the desired effect of allowing my jeans to stand up a little all on their own.

And for the duration of my week-long stay my face was coated with a fine mix of sweat, dirt, sunscreen, bug spray and grime. We were allowed to shower with the cold water every other day, but that only served to help move the dirt around, not actually help us get clean. I also perfected the Aussie or Outback salute of batting away the flies in front of my face who actually seemed to relish the bug spray.

In our down time, we read, took long, leisurely afternoon naps and played games like Monopoly, poker and other card games. We watched the tv, which helped to really simplify the answer to “what’s on?” since it had only one working channel.

I read Randy Pausch’s The Last Lecture (absolutely great) and made some headway into John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany (took a while to get into, but then gripping in its own slow way) and Frederick Nietzche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra (thought-provoking). We rode bikes and ATVs (known as quadbikes here), and the 11 year-old daughter of the farmer’s owner taught me how to drive a stick shift in a pick-up truck missing one functioning door, a radio and a sideview mirror.

The farm was used as a prison until the late 1970s and the WWOOFers dorms were converted former prison cells. While the room wasn’t bad, if not a little sparse, it also wasn’t that much of a step up from its prison days. It had just been spruced up with a better paint job, a better bed and carpeting, but the layout remained almost entirely the same as the one cell they kept unchanged for tour purposes.

My first night at the farm I made the mistake of leaving my light on and door open. I was attacked by moths all night long, and had trouble sleeping with the feeling of them crawling all over my legs. Turning my flashlight on to try to bat them away only made more flock to me. So after some morning pest removal, I returned to my room the next night to see a huntsman spider patrolling one corner of my ceiling. The huntsman to my untrained eye resembled a small tarantula, but was supposedly harmless. I joked that I would be freaked out if I woke up to find it was no longer in the same corner, but I didn’t have to wait that long. I came back to my room later that night to find it gone. My search proved futile, so I spent the rest of the week with my friend the huntsman lurking somewhere in my cell.

There were a handful of other WWOOFers there during my stay. There was one couple from Scotland, two friends from England, and Germans who left and came while I was there, all pretty much in their early to mid-twenties. The Scots were interesting people, sort of fantasy freaks. He had “stylish” tattooed in the Elf language (Elfish? Elvish? Elvis?) on his stomach, and she was part of a paranormal investigative unit with friends back home. Not the type of people I normally hang out with, but not bad either for a change of pace.

I was real friendly with the two Brits. The guy was from Liverpool, which I’ve decided narrowly beats out the Scottish variety for hardest native English-speaking accent to understand. When I was able to understand him we had a good time, including an epic ping pong marathon that started with me teaching him how to keep score and ended with a crushing, nailbiter loss.

All the other WWOOFers were long-term travelers, in Australia for at least a year, who were using the McLeod Eco Farm as a sort of free base camp and some work to fill their days while they had recruitment agencies look for paying work. When they found out I was staying in Australia for only a short month, they exhorted me to get back to civilization and enjoy the country. So I listened and shortened what was initially planned to be a two week stay to five days.

The proprietor of the farm was probably the most interesting part. Mark Cunningham is a self-described Jewish, Christian, Muslim with a Hindu, Buddhist, capitalist outlook. The others found him to be annoying, but I always enjoyed it when he broke up the monotony of the work by preaching his philosophy on life to us. I wrote down some of his more memorable pearls of wisdom.

He talked about “making love to the land” instead of raping it as others do, to try to learn its secrets. He was also big on what he called the parachute theory; the basic premise is that we all know absolutely nothing. Once you open up your mind, like a parachute, to all you don’t know, then you’ll finally start to learn. He called all religions, stories, which is probably how he rationalized calling himself a man of so many faiths. He just simply liked the different stories.

He also loved to tell us about his own story. He told us that he was using the farm to build the Garden of Eden economically, because “the only way you can save the world is through economics.”

I personally couldn’t really connect all the dots, but he planned to open a Japanese wagu beef burger restaurant. The restaurant would turn a huge profit because he’d put it right next to one that’s currently doing good business, but sell his burgers for almost half the price. He talked about copying the McDonalds formula too, but I don’t really know how that applies considering his burgers would cost significantly more, and would hopefully be of higher quality. But I guess the fact that he’s doing all this biodynamically (you got in trouble if you said organic, but don’t ask me to explain the difference) sort of fits with the whole Garden of Eden analogy and returning the land to its natural, chemical-free state.

Oh and as a postscript, I’d like to paint the picture of the Scots’ arrival to the farm as they told it to me. From the ferry, they were picked up in the broken down pick-up by a paid employee of the farm named Jamie. The car wouldn’t start so Jamie took a sledgehammer to the engine, to get it going. Then once they hit the road for the half hour ride, he took a few swigs from his bottle of Jim Beam, explaining that it was okay because there were no cops, and all the locals kept guns anyway.

Ladies and gents, the French Island!


I'm currently in Auckland, New Zealand. I've been here for three days now, staying in a hostel. I had planned to spend the rest of my week at the vineyard I referenced in one of my earlier posts, but yesterday I met a group of Americans studying abroad here from Wash . U in St. Louis and they invited me to come with them in a rented camper van for the week traveling around the North Island. It'll be a quick, fun week in New Zealand, by far the least amount of time I'm spending in any country, and then I'm off to India this Saturday!

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