By Cara Jean
When my best friends turned 18, some exercised their newfound legal rights by purchasing lottery tickets and pornography. Some bought cigarettes they didn’t know how to smoke. Others made plans to attend university. I was a little more lost than my friends were. So I applied for an Australian Working Holiday Visa.
My parents thought my performance in a local theatre production of The Vagina Monologues would be the story of rebellion they tell about their free-spirited teenage daughter. But they blame their grey hairs on my decision to backpack Australia alone – mostly on what I did for work when I was there.
Travel writer Cheryl Strayed once said of backpacking: “You don't get what you expect. You get what you didn't expect, and you deal with it.”
I don’t know what I expected to get out of backpacking, but shovelling cow shit to pay rent wasn’t part of the original plan.
“Remember to look up the aerial view on Google Maps before you take a job. Make sure there are no heads on fence posts.” After the floods that devastated Queensland in 2010, my dad was especially nervous that his baby girl would end up destitute.
I was in Australia four months with no job, spending my days bumming around the outback and applying for waitress positions. But with half of Australia underwater, and the other half on fire, it became painfully obvious that I would have to take work wherever I could find it.
I was sitting outside the employment agency in Perth, Western Australia when I got the call. Backpack between my knees, huddled with a crowd of other smelly travellers desperate for work, I waited two hours on the hot pavement in 30+ C heat until the office opened. We were then ushered into a tiny purple room that had a pole in the middle. Not a pole-dancing kind of pole, but a height pole. Depending on how tall you were, you could pick different kinds of fruit. Berries, grapes, bananas, passion fruit. That was how a backpacker found work. I was grape height.
I stood in that room, determined to get anything. My pocket rang—a call back from an online job posting. A farm in southern Victoria needed a dairy-hand.
“I’m looking for a Cara Jean?” asked a thick Australian accent.
“Oh, speaking.” It wasn’t until the moment I heard an Australian dairy farmer say “Cara Jean” that I realized my name sounds facetiously country.
“I’m looking at your resume here. Just a couple questions for you. Are you a good, strong Canadian girl?”
“Well, um… yes.” I weighed a little over one hundred pounds.
“Can you cook?”
“Just Canadian food.” I had never cooked a proper meal in my life.
“I’m sure it’s all the same. I’ve always had good luck with Canadians, not so much with the Irish. When can you fly out?”
As teenagers living at home, we are constantly reminded of how good we have it. The rent is paid, and most of us will leave home with a high-school education. It’s hard to know what good is until you’re standing in a room with a height pole for berry picking. Until your best job offer is milking cows for minimum wage, working for some stranger who is prejudiced against the Irish.
March 16, 2011
Dear Mom and Dad,
It has been 11 days since I first left Perth Airport and landed in Melbourne, to begin work on a farm in the small township of Nullawarre. A man named Max Anderson owns the farm, and I work with an English girl named Tara Jayne. The fact that our names are so similar confuses everybody. Together, we milk 200 cows twice a day, five days a week. We share a room in what is, essentially, a furnished garage.
The idea of finding oneself in Australia sounds awfully romantic at first. When I first bought my visa, I imagined myself as a mysterious foreign waitress who would make a few lifelong pen pals, and find some necessary enlightenment before coming back to Canada and starting post-secondary. But instead of folding cloth napkins and discovering the secrets to adulthood, I combed cow shit out of my hair every morning and night.
Tara and I wake up at five every morning, before the sun has risen. One of us takes Toby the cattle dog to herd cows while the other opens the dairy. I finally got the hang of where all the pipes lead so now I am able to set up and shut down the dairy on my own. The first milking of the day is always the hardest because it's cold and even the cows are grumpy from being woken up early.
The job wasn’t so bad, but I had a rocky start. Maybe it was because I looked Irish enough—dark hair, green eyes, and alabaster skin—that Max the farmer didn’t trust me at first. Not to mention, I didn’t have the handshake of a strong Canadian girl. But I knew how to boil a potato, and he saw how willing I was to take the job, so he kept me on.
Whenever I made a mistake, I took solace in the fact that Max didn’t like a lot of people. I discovered that Ellen DeGeneres was banned from his living room, that he refused to buy a Japanese television, and that he watched a lot of conservative talk shows. Max lived alone. His son and grandson sometimes visited.
“My ex-wife took everything,” he told me during breakfast one day. “Everything except that refrigerator. Because, being a woman, she found it too much work to carry.”
To give the experience meaning, I told my friends back home some narrative about honest work and self-discovery. But every morning when I heard the shlurp of suction cups as I placed nozzles on cow tits, I realized I was just as lost as when I started out. And working for an Aussie “bogan” who only hired me because I was a “good, strong Canadian girl” didn’t feel honest.
However, I was doing more physical exercise than I had ever done in my life. My part-time retail job, local theatre, AP classes in high school —none of these could have prepared me for the physical drain of farm work. Tractor driving, wood chopping, operating a dairy and shaking tarantulas out of my boots every morning—all of this became routine for me.
March 20, 2011
I woke up early this morning to milk with Max while Tara had a day off. It went really fast this morning because Max is faster at herding the cows than Tara and I combined. He hits them too, which is something Tara and I won’t do. I try not to be judgmental of farmers, but I don't agree with hitting animals.
I found out today that one of my favourite cows, Bridget, has to go soon because she's not producing enough milk. For this reason Tara and I call the truck ramp “The Stairway To Heaven.” This next week is going to be hard for us, I think, with calves being born and sold for veal, and the older cows being sent away to the stockyards…
Since the age of six, I had been riding motorbikes. It came as a shock to everyone, including me, when I ended up in a motorbike accident that hospitalized me for a week. This happened when a bunch of cows escaped during the pregnancy tests, and I hopped on a bike that didn’t have brakes.
“Ride like the wind!” yelled Max.
So I did, wearing no helmet and a rubber apron covered in cow shit. When I realized that I had mistaken the sensation of an engine break for an actual manual break, I knew I was up shit’s creek. I couldn’t slow down. I had a choice between the cow and the fence post, and I chose the fence post.
I can’t remember if I flew off the bike, or if I stayed on upon impact. Whichever way I went, I snapped my wrist in the process. I also uprooted about a half-kilometre of wire fencing. The herd stopped running to watch as I attempted to pull the bike out of the barbed wire, with no success.
I marched four kilometres back to the farm with a herd of runaway cows trotting ahead of me, my broken wrist, and a piece of barbed wire imbedded in my thigh. I was swinging a stick so that the cows would keep moving. High on adrenaline, I remember yelling at cow butts: “I’ve been here six months, and now it’s ruined! I don’t even know who I am yet.”
Part of me wondered if I would have been better off hitting the cow. While I felt stupid at the time, the story of my motorbike crash ended up being the story of strength and discovery that I took home with me. I managed to round up all of the cows that had escaped with no herding dog and no bike. The cows were trotting dutifully ahead of me when Max and Tara saw me walking back towards the farm, swinging that stick, bloody and covered in cow shit.
I didn’t lose my job, in part because Max didn’t want to lose his employers’ insurance. But I was a little out of sorts after my stint in the hospital. Before my cast was even off, I tried helping out again with the daily chores. I ploughed fields, I cooked meals, and I helped chop wood for the Lion’s Club raffle. An old Irish professor who was also chopping wood lent me a pair of safety goggles that Max had neglected to provide me with.
“They’re a boomerang,” he said.
“A boomerang. Get it? You’ll get it.” He winked.
After six months, I was used to locals trying to convince me of weird happenings in Australia. Not this time, I thought as I threw the goggles into the woods to prove that I knew they weren’t a boomerang. The entire Nullawarre Lion’s Club halted work just to laugh at me. The Irishman picked up the goggles, and brought them back.
“A boomerang, meaning that they come back. A loan.”
“I am so sorry…”
“Don’t be sorry, I heard about what happened. You’ll get it back… And Max!” He shouted through the trees, “Give your employees safety goggles!” He winked at me again, and I laughed.
Tara left the farm shortly after my accident, but we still keep in touch. She’s engaged to be married. During my last month as a dairy-hand I trained a Scottish girl, Michelle, who ended up leaving the job when I went. Turns out that Max was too ignorant to work for, especially without a friend to cope.
When it was all over, Tara, Michelle and I met up in a pub in Melbourne to blow off steam. To celebrate our survival and return to civilization, we drank our weights’ worth in pints. I remember accidentally slamming a pint down on the table with muscles I didn’t know I had. The next morning, before sunrise, I woke up to Michelle sleep-talking in the other room: “Cara, Cara… we have to go get the cows...” I didn’t understand the rest of what she was saying—her Scottish accent was thicker when she drank. Knowing that I could fall asleep, and that there were no cows in Melbourne, was the best feeling in the world.
I didn’t find myself in Australia; I got lost. I’m still lost. But if I learned one thing, it’s that life is a piece of cake after an almost fatal motorbike crash in the middle of nowhere with a herd of runaway cows. I discovered that what you get from travelling isn’t an answer, but a story. Then you write about it and carry on.