Down and out Down Under

It was going to be so sweet. After eight long months of laborious, urban drudgery we were finally heading toward the rich and dazzling adventure that brought us Down Under. We sailed out of Sydney as crew on a private yacht and tacked north up the coast. Sitting astern, our eyes watched the city bob further and further behind us.

Six weeks later, rich and dazzling adventure was nowhere to be found. Jen and I were sitting in a cheesy strip mall in far north Queensland, broke and broken, desperately debating our options. And the prospects weren't good.

After a few weeks on the sailboat, our buoyant hopes had been riddled with unpleasant holes: violent weather; toothsome seas; an incompetent, sexist captain; as well as an unfortunate tidal stranding. What was more, it was expensive. Our captain refused to rely on the cheap availability of wind power and instead insisted upon running the twin diesel engines 24 hours a day. He claimed the winds were blowing wrong, but after a few beers he would admit he was trying to make better time to get back to his 19-year-old bride-to-be in Papua New Guinea. We had agreed, he reminded us, to share in all fuel costs, which turned out to be over $100 a day.

He woke us early one morning while at port in Airlie Beach, deriding us for our insufferable laziness (after we had cooked his meals, swabbed his decks, and quietly borne his humors and near-death experiences). We held a short meeting in our cabin, nodded our heads and packed our things. As he rowed us reluctantly to shore, whining about how we were abandoning him, we were able to smile and let his pleadings equalize the pain, degradation and fear we had been suffering under him for the last few weeks.

We were free again. Free, but desperately in need of an infusion of cash. So we combed Airlie Beach for work. Airlie Beach is a backpacker's haven situated optimally in the Queensland sunbelt and south of the stagnant beach waters of the Great Barrier Reef. It is a place everyone wants to be. As such, there is little profitable work, especially for those without visas. I was one of the few North Americans who had a wide-open working visa. Jen had made that a condition of employment before accepting the job offered to her by the World Wildlife Fund. Now that we were off and traveling, however, her visa was useless, and any work she found had to be under the table.

What we found in our short job search was a wake-up call. We could get the job taking snapshots of tourists for $2 a photo, but if immigration came through, which it did every few months, we were on our own. For a couple whose visions of the future were consumed by world travel, we knew that being deported, an unsightly blemish on your permanent record, was too high a price to pay.

In the hostels, we heard word of a place a few hundred miles up the coast never raided by immigration, where one could make pretty good money picking bananas. It was this that led us to our Australian crossroads, in the wettest town on the continent, Tully.

Tully is a place of almost interminable gloom, where hordes of strapped travelers come in hopes of staving off bankruptcy. Many young Australians come to collect the dole, sell drugs, and generally profit from and terrorize those who are stuck there. They are all largely confined to the inhospitable accommodations of the Tully Backpackers Hostel, whose sign cruelly displays a smiling banana wearing a backpack and giving the thumb up. Here we were piled onto cramped bunk slabs, where normally buoyant backpackers shivered with desperation. It was a refugee camp, a place of little hope.

What you did, we learned, was rise before the sun, then stand out in the early morning rain and wait for the Torres Strait Islanders, who ran the labor gangs. They would pull up in their pickups, peruse the new arrivals for men of ample strength or women of significant salaciousness, then signal them into the backs of the trucks for the ride out to the groves. Those who weren't picked trod glumly back to the hostel where they would wait another 23 hours before trying again. Some people had been trying for days, and if they weren't picked soon were going to have to leave the country, or, God forbid, accumulate some credit card debt.

The lucky chosen, on the other hand, faced long days of hauling banana satchels through the mud, dodging snakes, spiders and angry bosses, only to be paid 10 cents a pound. We were told that eventually everyone works barefoot, because shoes won't last two days, and the payout doesn't come close to covering the cost of footwear.

It was amid this situation that Jen and I reconvened in a bar for an executive meeting. It was unanimously agreed that Tully was no place for two university-educated Americans holding lucrative English degrees. We decided it was best to seek our fortunes in the fabulous resort town of Cairns. We were off again. Cairns, at least, had some degree of urban respectability: coffee houses, nice restaurants, comfy hotels. It was a breath of fresh air after weeks of difficulty, but this feeling was short lived.

We decided that I would seek employment and we would evaluate our income level in a week or two. I applied at the coffee houses, the hotels and the restaurants, and received no encouragement. Soon, I was desperate enough to answer an ad calling for people to dress up in koala bear suits for the Wilderness Society and beg for donations. I would receive up to 25 percent of my haul. So on a mild, 103-degree day, I donned a heavy, velvet bear suit and attempted to guilt people out of their money. I was a complete failure and told that no one had ever done as poorly as I had.

So sitting at our cheesy strip mall food court table, Jen and I racked our brains over the cheapest pitcher of beer in town. Then, she had an idea.

"What about Hawaii?

"What about it?" I asked.

"Let's move there," she replied. "Sun, sand, Mai Tais, no need for work visas... "

A lifetime of cliched Hawaiian images scrolled through my mind surfing, volcanoes, Magnum P.I. and I began to nod involuntarily.

"Yes," I said. "Definitely. Let's do it."

We toasted, "Aloha."

Bryan Fryklund



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