Before we even knew we slept, morning broke on the Tasmanian horizon and as promised, we hopped out of bed and prepared for the hard but rewarding experience of “trading” at Salamanca Market. Only having arrived the afternoon before, Ann already put us to work peeling 88 pounds of beetroot (simply known as “beets” in the USA and Canada) before dinner. Still tired from touring Melbourne, we wiped the slumber away and brewed a cup of strong coffee in the little one cup plunger Ann supplied us with in the lunchroom.
Thinking I’d have to go to work smelly, I forgot Tasmania is probably further south of the equator than Edmonton is north of it so fortunately the dawn breaks almost two hours earlier than Penang and by 5:15 AM there’s plenty of light to make your way from the small cabin into the bathroom (about 200 feet away) for a quick shower. Incredibly lucky with the weather, we may have picked the best week of the Southern summer and our day at the market was warm and sunny with very little wind. At 6:15 on the dot, Ann emerged from the main house and we all piled into the Market Buggy.
Cramped and barely fitting three skinny people in the front, we fiddled to find the seat belts (it surprised there were any given the age of the van), buckled in and revved up the old transport van. Sputtering to life, it needed to be restarted about four times and with a fully loaded cargo that includes a 200 pound fridge that Ann transports for the Bruny Island Cheese Company vendor that shares her stall, we wondered if it would actually get out of the driveway. Like an old but reliable old working farm animal that simply won’t give up due to their devotion, the van eventually sputtered along and actually drove the speed limit, even on the piece of highway where you can go up to 110 Kmh. Devoid of much traffic, the drive took about 30 minutes and as we reached town, Ann told us she takes “special short cuts” instead of simply pulling in the main entrance. Bucking up and down a series of hilly side streets, the mostly glass goods bounced back and forth against each other as she raced through the back streets seemingly making up any time lost to the shaky start and soon we pulled into a side street closed to traffic on Saturdays and meandered over to the spot reserved for TassieTasteBuds, Bruny IslandCheese Company and Liz, a third vendor that sells personalized cheese cutting boards.
Totally unaware how to set up an entire pop-up stall from scratch, the educational part of the work exchange began right away. Ann’s stall-mate arrived about two minutes later with her own car filled with goods but almost everything needed to set up a medium-sized vendor’s stall at the weekly market was somehow packed into the back of the van and we began with the easy stuff. Handing off plastic containers filled with product, testers, business implements and cleaning materials, we placed them all neatly on the directory sign on the sidewalk outside the main stall area. After we unloaded everything, we began the set up process. Needing help for the 200 pound fridge, Ann enlists a weightlifter guy that works for the market to help grab it on the outside and amazingly, she carries it from the inside of the van insinuating she can do it better than a relatively fit workaway helper. And strangely enough, she can. Looking like her parents taught her how to do this type of work at age 4, she maneuvered the enormous fridge into place with the strong guy and moved on to the next step without missing a beat.
Standing off to the side, Diane and I got involved when it was time to put up the pop-up tent. Salamanca is the largest pop-up market in the Southern hemisphere so everyone goes through the same procedure but we noticed most vendors brought lots more people and almost all the larger stalls selling food and bread were already done by the time we arrived even though it was only 6:50 AM and the market doesn’t officially open until 8 AM. Grabbing all four corners of the tent, we each walked in opposite directions, pushed a little button that allows the tent to “pop-up” and set it into place. Securing it with some small stakes and a few carabiners, we then placed a velcro strip on the left side to protect from large wind gusts, attached the TassieTasteBuds sign to the left and took a five-minute break while drinking a second cup of coffee.
With the nuts and bolts complete, we then went through the set up process. Meticulous about every last detail, Ann spent the next half hour instructing us as we unloaded all the boxes and needed instructions on each box like how many to put out, proper placement, and signage maneuvering. Manually tapping a few plastic tacks into a small little board, eventually Ann approved the positioning of all the signs and product placement and we moved onto the tasters.
Very different from the stringent regulations we’re used to at Contra Costa County farmer’s markets, there wasn’t any hygienic training or rules for that matter and we simply took out unrefrigerated half empty bottles of almost each product and placed them on the counter behind each product. With many products having pasty consistency, taking out samples can be messy and annoying so Ann showed us how to use different implements including spoons, plastic tabs, toothpicks and small pairing knives to give samples. Although not briefed on washing procedures, it’s assumed each workaway volunteer is clean enough to serve food to the public without spreading germs. Not really confident of this, we passed on samples from other vendors as we walked around later that morning.
About an hour after we arrived, Ann deemed the stall’s set up complete and ready for business. Treating ourselves to a well deserved cup of incredibly delicious coffee at the perfectly placed coffee and pastry stall right across from ours, we ordered a latte and a “long black”. Everywhere we go outside of North America there seems to be a name for basic brewed coffee and since nobody drinks it anyway, they like to make up a fancy sounding title to give it more appeal. Another interesting tidbit is except for Starbucks, there’s no such thing as iced coffee beverages in Asia and Diane wondered why the price of “ice coffee” was so high on the coffee vendors sign. Ordering one later, we discovered that “iced” meant coffee with vanilla ice cream which was interesting but not really what we expected. Immediately on our right was a vendor selling pies of every type and his specialty is scallop pies so I tried one for breakfast. Like most food in Australia, I found it good but not great.
By 8:30 the market starts getting crowded and since it was the last week of school holidays and a perfect summer day people began browsing around. Located directly across from the Salamanca Fresh grocery store and a stone’s throw from the alley leading to the gourmet restaurants and bathrooms, the stall appears to be in an ideal placed and given that Ann’s sign is prominently visible, we expected a lot of traffic. Instead, most of the traffic that strolls by heads right for the never ending queue of people waiting to sample cheese from our stall mate. Run by a tall Australian guy named Johnny, the cheese sells itself and Johnny’s charismatic personality and story telling abilities usually means he’s sold out two hours before the market closes. Oddly, Johnny shows up after we’d already completed the set up work and sometimes leaves without helping take down the stall yet his fridge is the heaviest item in Ann’s van. Unclear what inspired this relationship, Ann didn’t offer an explanation and we didn’t ask.
Filled with caffeine and ready to sell, Diane and I donned company aprons and started small talk with anyone that approached. Unusually trusting, Ann made her way off to get some breakfast leaving two people she just met the day before in charge of the business including the cash. Understanding most workaway volunteers are honest or the program would never work we still find it a bit odd placing so much responsibility in strangers week after week. Unsure what she does if there’s no workaway volunteers available, it seems like way too much for one person to tackle even with set up help from Liz but I guess that’s what makes Ann such a vibrant person. Even taking a nap for an hour in the van the second week, I suppose the products mostly sell themselves and we noticed the biggest request was Quince Paste, a fruit totally foreign to those with no European roots. (it’s part apple, part pear). Other items like the horseradish mustard (my favorite) went the entire day without so much as one person asking for samples.
Strangely different from California markets, hardly anyone we asked wanted to sample any of the products. Not considering shyness an Australian trait by any means, we wondered why so many people wouldn’t budge when offered something for free. Totally opposite from Americans, vendors with samples always have long lines of people although that doesn’t necessarily add up to more sales. More than a few times, stodgy old women came by asking questions we couldn’t answer about how we made the product and then after tasting it complained how it’s not made properly. Encountering lots of different visitors from most of the world, we did manage to sell what we considered a decent amount of product but Ann disagreed and told us it was an average week both weekends we worked. Seemingly a huge amount of work if that was an “average take”, we decided not opening a small business as part of our early retirement was probably one of the better decisions we’ve made. But as I’ve alluded to before, our careers in cubicles were physically easy compared to manual labor and we both learned a lot about how hard much of the world works for less money than we’d want to make.
Probably my favorite part of the workaway assignment, I always enjoy interacting with people from all over the world so the day whizzed by. Most people were friendly although not as engaging as the urban city dwellers we saw in Melbourne. As the strangest character of the day, a beatnik looking hippieish guy came to stall asking us if we “needed coin“. Having no idea what that meant we simply said no and then one of our stall neighbors said he approached them also and they sent him away. Known as “bogans“, Australia has a large contingent of what’s usually known as “white trash” in the USA albeit generally less violent and even in a nation sporting a $17 an hour Federal minimum wage, there’s inevitably some people who choose to be useless and contribute little to society. Fortunately, we saw very few of them and San Francisco’s homelessness far outweighs most social problems faced in Tasmania. (well, not during Super Bowl Week when there’s obviously no homeless people).
Before we knew it the “trading day” came to an end and we began taking the samples down at 2 PM and placing them all in a small bucket of water used to wash (and re-wash) everything. Naturally, as soon as we took the samples away a bunch of people disappointed that the cheese stall was long closed decided they’d get something out of the stop and we had to open new jars for them. As expected, hardly any of them bought anything and it reminded me of my humbling three-week career at a gourmet supermarket in Calgary when I couldn’t find work. Someone always comes to the door as you’re closing and management never knows how to say “sorry, we’re closed”. Eventually, the crowds faded and we set out taking apart everything. Slightly easier than setting up, the hardest part is driving the van down the alley without mowing down any oblivious patrons who refuse to move no matter how many times you blow the horn.
Overall, learning how to set up and sell locally made products at a local farmer’s market seems like one of the more interesting assignments you can find on the Workaway site and we both think it was an excellent experience that we’d highly recommend. Planning our next trip, we’re heading to an eco-lodge in Myanmar in April to help staff with daily chores like gardening (yuk), housecleaning (not so yukky) and whatever else needs doing. Unlike Ann, the proprietor expects volunteers to work every day they’re at the hotel in exchange for three meals and an air-conditioned budget room so ten days is our limit and we plan on spending another ten days touring Kalaw and Inle Lake in the northern part of the country. Meanwhile it’s back to lazy days mostly spent at the pool in Penang and experiencing our first Chinese New Year in Asia. Stay tuned and thanks for reading.
Next: Touring Tasmania
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