Way Down Under

Having its merits, traveling is great but there’s nothing like the comforts of home, even if “home” is 7,000 miles away from your real hometown. Relaxed and rested, Diane and I returned from Australia a week earlier than planned. Having experienced our first attempt at a “working vacation”, we discovered three things we already knew but rarely admit. First, cubicle life is a piece of cake compared to most physical work. Second, those vendors you see at the local farmer’s markets work harder than anyone sitting behind a computer (yes, financial advisers and lawyers may work longer hours but they don’t set up the office and then take it apart again ). Finally, they call it “work” and not “play” for a reason. Many workaway hosts remind potential candidates that those seeking vacations and tourism opportunities should look elsewhere. Before the 20-something crowd that forms most of the work exchange volunteers rips us apart as being old farts, let me clarify. As assignments go, this one is certainly not challenging like creating a new water source for third world villages or grueling like planting and picking crops in the hot tropical sun and it doesn’t need much brain power like forming lesson plans for kids in English classes. Quite the opposite, this place is actually fun and I’m telling you up front you’ll probably never get two hosts as generous as Ann and Bill who keep the beer and wine flowing and gave us home cooked meals that rival any bed and breakfast. But for us, it was still work and ten days was just perfect for us.

Our first look at “Tassie” from the airport

Fresh off a week of tourism in Melbourne, we had no idea what to expect as we boarded the plane for the short one hour flight on Jet Star, the discount arm of Quantas. Noting one major difference from what we’re used to, security on domestic flights in Australia is lax at best. Unbelievably, other than the x-ray machine for carry on luggage, nobody asked for any form of ID or even a boarding pass right up until boarding time. Obviously not caring what happens within their country, transporting liquids, gels, plants, food or anything else is perfectly fine as long as your flight doesn’t leave the Australian continent. Making the return much easier, we simply carried all our liquid condiments we bought from TassieTasteBuds (our host’s business) in a plastic bag before repacking them in our main luggage in Melbourne for the flight back to Malaysia.

Like Air Asia, Jet Star is an upscale airline with brand new shiny planes and the same type of pay-as-you-go options as other discount airlines and with 6 daily non stops to Hobart, booking a flight is rarely a problem even in “peak season” which allowed us to move our return flight up by a week. Possibly the strangest request made by the airline, we wondered why they announce that your seat belt needs to be unfastened while they refuel the plane upon boarding and curiosity forced us to Google the answer. Apparently the only nation to guard against the seemingly unlikely occurrence of an emergency mishap while gassing up an airplane, it appeared contradictory to policies that don’t even ask for a picture ID. Fortunately, the routine flight passed without incident and we stepped off the tarmac for our first glimpse of the most southerly piece of populated land in the southern hemisphere’s eastern side. With nothing but the Southern Ocean and 4,000 kilometers of ocean all the way to Antarctica, it creates a bizarre weather battle between cold arctic winds from one direction and blazing hot wind from the outback coming from the other. Often changing four times in one day, Diane and I apparently got lucky and had the nicest 10 days possible with temps in the low 20’s and comfy overnight lows of about 16 to 18 Celsius.

As promised, Ann’s partner Bill picked us up at the airport in a rather old and rickety but reliable “white Caddy” pickup van. (We recently learned that “partner” in Australian does not mean a same-sex companion and wondered why they don’t use the term husband or wife). In stark contrast to Ann, the proprietor of the small business we’d be helping with, Bill is American, quite tall and has an incredibly storied background that includes living in places like New York City during the beatnik era, Miami when everyone still spoke English and almost everywhere else in America. Well versed in almost everything occurring in the western news media, Bill engaged us in all kinds of great conversation at dinner each night covering everything from Trump’s insane popularity to the refugee problem around the European world. An unlikely pair, Ann is totally opposite. Standing barely over five feet, she looks as quintessentially “islandish” as they come. Slim, trim and fit, she’s an incredible fireball of energy with Belgian roots that looks and sounds like she’s worked hard and lived life to its fullest since before I was born. Lifting incredible weights that almost gave me trouble, she’s very easy-going and flexible which was thankfully good for two early retirees that hadn’t worked in two years. Unlike most Workaway hosts, she’s willing to let you work 8 or 9 hour days in exchange for several days off for sightseeing. Although we’re told you can hitch and we did take the bus into Hobart one day, a rental car is the way to go for seeing the sights in Tasmania. Oh, and their dog Bonny is a well behaved Shetland Terrier that greets everyone right away and loves to play.

Looking like the 1930′ dust bowl era, Tasmania is bone dry despite its rolling hills and forests and with practically no rainfall in months, the hills look like as yellow as the Canadian prairie in a snow free winter. Surprisingly similar to western North America, Tasmanian traffic is a pleasure since there really isn’t much and the drive to Woodbridge took about forty minutes. Having arrived on a Friday afternoon, we’d be seeing Hobart soon enough since Ann “trades” at Salamanca Market every Saturday morning and workaway participants spend weekend mornings setting up and manning the booth allowing a first hand look at how small businesses run. (More Australian-speak, they call business hours “trading hours” or sometimes “opening hours“. For some reason, selling is called “trading” which baffled me until I learned that the word means “engaging in trade” as in business so it’s actually North Americans that changed from British English). Noting Ann actually asked us if we wanted to take part on Saturday morning, it seemed obvious we’d learn quickly how things work despite arriving only the afternoon before. Delicious food is one of the highlights and the pictures below shows what Ann cooked us on our first night. Offering lunch and dinner in the main house each night, Ann also bought us bread, eggs, yogurt and snacks for cooking breakfast.

Pulling into Ann’s property about a half mile from the Woodbridge general store and small post office about an hour after landing, we had our first look at our “home” for the next 10 days and it looked amazingly similar to the Workakway profile pictures. Set on a hilly piece of land overlooking Bruny island, the “cabin” is a very small but cozy little trailer with barely enough room to do anything more than sleep. Featuring a bunk bed, we tried one person on top and one on bottom but the top bunk’s coverings were hard so we slept next to each other on the bottom which was fine. Included is a small TV with the same channels they get in the main house, a very strong heater that we didn’t need, two chairs and a small desk. Perfectly suited for basic and comfy accommodations, the “lunchroom” extends out from the work area and has a table and chairs, couch, fridge, microwave, toaster oven with burners and best of all, a strong wifi signal. Eating dinner hours later than we’re used to (sometimes as late as 9:30), we spent most early evenings relaxing in the lunchroom or on one of the chairs outside the cabin enjoying a few pleasant sunsets.

The lunchroom

The lunchroom

Adapting to rural life off the municipal water source takes some getting used to for ex suburban homeowners but didn’t make for any undue difficulties. Taking short showers, dumping all the water from sinks and showers into the potted pants and turning off all the power when not in use are the understandably simple rules. Surprisingly strong, the water pressure in the shower was great and Ann gave us plenty of plush towels that were harder than we’re used to owing to lack of a dryer. (Personally, a dryer is a must for us even in Asia but again, we know we’ve led a “privileged life”). Enjoying lunch and dinner inside the main house, it’s very tastefully decorated and reminded us of a Marin County, California style residence with a perfect combination of artsy and comfortable furnishings. Providing an incredibly delicious array of locally sourced foods, Ann cooked lamb, sausage, beef, chicken and burgers all smothered in local veggies and seasoned with fresh herbs and her own products that include chutney, jams, jellies, Worcester sauce, relishes and hot mustard.

Ann stirring the beets

Ann stirring the beets

Taking only a few minutes to unpack, Ann cooked us a BLT for lunch and put us right to work peeling 40 kilograms of beets that were boiling in the industrial sized pot. Right next to the lunchroom and bathroom, the work area consists of a kitchen area for cooking, peeling and pureeing, and two rooms for packaging, labeling and storing. Making different products weekly, the work you do depends on what’s in season, demand for each product and other criteria that Ann didn’t really explain. Amazingly manual, her recipes come from scrapbooks and index cards and she admits the computer “slows her down”. Although we did some of the manual labor, the assignment doesn’t teach as much as we’d hoped about running the business but we probably ask too many questions anyway. Preparing to make chili beetroot, the peeling process was relatively easy and then we cut them all into bite sized chunks. Assuming she adds the rest of the ingredients without us, we took home the sauce as a marinade for pork.

Having completed our first task, Diane and I retired to our little cottage, changed for dinner and felt a sense of accomplishment but didn’t realize that about half of the work involved physical labor including picking rhubarb, clearing “windfall” (branches that blow down), mulching the entire flower garden and painting a fence. Apparently not making products every day, the property is rather large and Bill just completed a greenhouse that Ann hopes will help ease the dry conditions hindering vegetable growth. Unaware of what lied ahead and with no advance training, we agreed to be ready at 6:15 AM for the drive to Salamanca Market and we helped load the ancient minivan that looks an old hippie van from the days of The Fillmore East  with over 200,000 miles that somehow transports an entire stall and a week’s worth of product from the house to the market. Sputtering to life, it’s a bit scary and squeezing three people in the front isn’t a good idea if you’re even slightly overweight.

Ann's garden

Ann’s garden

Feeling tired and a bit anxious, our first afternoon of being a work exchange volunteer came to an end after an incredibly delicious meal and a few glasses of wine. Volunteering to do the dishes each night because we assumed everyone would do that, Bill appeared pleasantly surprised and we surmised perhaps the young internet generation may not necessarily share all of the values handed down to us. Either way, it seems only fair to help when someone invites you into their home every night so we drank wine, chatted politics and eventually made our way back to the cabin for some well deserved rest. Knowing we’d be working a complete day, we slept like babies despite missing the bed at The Radisson Flagstaff Gardens where we’d spent four nights as tourists. All in all, a very adventuresome day and well worth the trip.

Thanks for following and please feel free to leave comments or questions.

Next: Setting up, trading and taking down a stall at the largest pop up market in the Southern Hemisphere


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