When I landed at the Sydney Airport in Australia with three long, unplanned months ahead of me and only $400 in my pocket, I wasn’t sure what I’d been thinking. But, there I was, navigating toward baggage claim and then letting myself be pulled into Sydney proper, to a hostel, then to the first of many farms where I would work for free room and board.
It was at this farm where I nearly gave up on Australia. I’d only been on the continent for three days. *I’m going to stop here for a sec and say if you’d like to read the detailed story of day 4, you can do so – at your own risk! There’s a decent amount of bad language, you’ve been forewarned – by going HERE.*
Okay, where was I? Oh yes: I almost bailed on Australia. But, I didn’t, and I’m so glad.
Despite a mind-bogglingly rough start, I proceeded to have a great time in Australia. We moved to warmer places, met some lovely people along the way, and eventually my travel companion and I parted ways. He had actual money to spend on doing fun, touristy things, but I did not. So I stayed on the WWOOFing path, spending my money sparingly, traveling up and down the West coast and falling deeply in love with this country.
I inched along. At one stop in Gympie, I earned a little money helping a Japanese man practice his English in the evenings after work. At another, I befriended the owner of a little coffee shop in Nambucca Heads, New South Wales, who let me work for tips in his cafe a couple of times, and even let me crash on his floor when the motel I was WWOOFing for ran out of room and had to give me the boot for paying guests.
Everyone I met had me in awe. They were witty, kind, wildly intelligent and well-traveled, having spent more time discovering and holding more knowledge about my own country than I did. As for their own, I didn’t meet anyone who couldn’t tell me about a particular animal and how it came to Australia, or a tree and what it meant to the Aboriginal people. Australians are super smart, is what I’m saying.
As the end of my trip grew closer, I became more desperate to stay. I’d never felt this way about anywhere I’d ever lived, so this was new. I’d been spending time in hostels between farm stays, learning to play chess and discussing literature with strangers, sharing bottles of wine and learning to make a jar of spaghetti sauce feed far more than intended. I learned what ‘tea’ meant when referred to in the afternoon: sweets! I tubed down a river under massive trees with a group of people I didn’t know, quietly telling them after the fact that a snake had slithered right over my belly as we’d floated along, but I’d been too scared to shriek.
I rode horses so well that I was enlisted to help teach trotting to campers at one WWOOF stay, a girls’ camp. Afterward I taught my fellow WWOOFers an old camp song and together we taught the girls the song at dinner, complete with flapping arms and shrieking bird sounds. The following day I heard a continual chorus of girls singing “you’ll wake the darn birds!” ringing throughout the hills. This made me so, so happy.
At the end of that stay, because of my horse riding skills, I was bribed with fifty bucks and a free ride to the next town if I helped spray their cattle for ticks.
I thought this would be easy, until driven 40 minutes into the mountains where I had to wrangle my own horse from those who ran wild on the property, ride her bareback, then round up said cattle who also roamed free on the property, and drive them to my host who waited to pen them in for their spraying. When I finally slid off my horse and slapped her haunch to set her running free, a baby snake dashed against my boot again and again, making me laugh and kick at it gently. When I told my host this he asked “well did you kill it?! Little snakes grow up to be big snakes, you know!”
I spent my fifty bucks on a room, beers and billiards in a small, uncharacteristically unfriendly hostel that night. The rest went toward a coach ticket to Brisbane the following day.
In Brisbane, I let loose a little bit.
Okay, a lot.
It was my first experience with dancing until the sun came up, because the club in the basement of my hostel stayed dark 24/7. Only when I was slowly rising in the old elevator toward my shared room would I see the brightening of the sky, and feel a mixed sense of pride and frightening recklessness.
On one such night I found myself dancing on a table, as you do, (okay don’t judge: there was a contest or something going on…there was always a contest or something going on down there – usually these involved everyone taking off their shirts, if I remember correctly). After I’d climbed down, feeling euphoric and as though I could lift a whole car, I tried to walk through the thick crowd toward some new friends I’d made, but instead got stuck and so struck up a conversation with a man in a dress shirt and tie I was trapped near.
I don’t remember what we talked about. Does it matter? I do remember him suggesting that I should come stay with him instead of in this seedy hostel. I also remember agreeing that this sounded like a great idea. Have I mentioned how poor I was during this time? Free lodging blinded me to all reason. He gave me his card; I said I’d call in the morning. To his great surprise, I actually did.
True to his word, he picked me up; this time wearing a full business suit. We made awkward small talk on the way to his house, which I quickly realized was actually his mother’s house…a deduction I made when a smaller female version of this man walked into the kitchen and asked “who’s this then?”
Long story short: I got a new mom in Australia.
Lillian took me under her wing and never gave me a hard time about how I came to be living under her roof. She had multiple jobs and pulled me along to some housekeeping gigs, insisting I keep the money from these, even though I’d barely done more than dust around some glass figurines. She taught me how to put a duvet into its cover, and sat me next to her with a beer in my hand while she ironed, showing how to do it properly, assuring me that I wasn’t a pain, and was in fact keeping her company.
Eventually I felt I needed to move on, though she insisted I wasn’t a burden, and she dropped me at the station with some cash, a packed lunch and one of her old sweatshirts. Without her help and unconditional, non-judgmental support, I don’t know how I would have gotten through the rest of my time in Australia. We are still friends today.
And yes, we still laugh about her son showing up with raggedy little me on her doorstep, with no warning whatsoever.
After that, I went on to fall in love with Melbourne and to kick my intentions to stay into high gear. I called my actual-mom and asked her to do some creative money exchanging so it would look like I had some in my bank, got all of my paperwork in order, secured a promise of a waitressing job in the city, and headed to Canberra to plead my case for a longer stay.
Alas, my coach pulled into town an hour after the offices closed. And it was Friday. And my flight home was Sunday. I’d left it too close to the wire and it only took a few mishaps to set me off my course. If I were less of a rule-follower, I would have stayed anyway and figured it out later. As it was, I boarded another coach, this one to Sydney. After I arrived I walked around the city, feeling dejected and lost, and finally settled into a movie theater to kill time with a Wim Wenders double-feature. When I emerged from the theater, I looked up and, miraculously, saw my original travel companion waiting for the light to turn on the other side of the street. He smiled his big smile and waved his big wave, and we joined up to finish out our last few hours in Australia together.
I’d wanted to say goodbye alone. Looking back, however, if I’d still been on my own when it was time to leave, I may have never come back.
Here’s to Australia!
You can find Part One of this story HERE