Not very much would convince me to leave Sydney and head out to the back of beyond to become a lettuce farmer – setting foot anywhere close to the periphery of suburbia is enough to send me running back to the city, heels clattering, Starbucks skinny chai latte aloft!
But, when the choice is being sent back to the UK or working for 88 days on a farm…there really is no choice.
So, bananas? Nope. I read that they are packed with spiders and the heat of Cairns does nothing for my hair, plus the bunches weigh more than I do and my travel insurance expired long ago. Courgettes? well, apparently they grow on the ground and bending over all day does not become me. So…grapes in Victoria then? A fine choice given my wine-dependency but it’s June and far too cold to head south. This leaves me with…lettuce? Apparently, yes. Lettuce is grown in hydroponic channels at waist height so no physical labour required and I guess it’s infected with slugs over spiders so could be the lesser of the rural evils.
One snag. When I say one, obviously it’s one of a thousand but it’s a fairly sizable one. It’s unpaid! Work for 88 days in exchange for a bed and three daily meals. What kind of deal is that? Unless I can pack away $150 of food a day I’m totally losing out and I haven’t packed maternity wear so it’s not feasible anyway.
I throw up in my mouth a little as I click ‘buy flights’ on the Virgin Blue website. Sydney to Duranbah, NSW, leaving in a week.
No more job at Universal Music with 4pm Beer O’clock on Fridays, tea and biscuits on tap and free concerts every week. No more nice apartment, sushi lunches or clocking-off cocktails. My new horizons bring a 7am start in a wet field, a shared shower full of spiders, a two hour walk to the nearest supermarket, a ‘no alcohol in the apartment’ rule and – my personal favourite – ‘if you didn’t arrive as a couple, you cannot become a couple during your stay’ rule!
It’s an 88 day sentence. I expect I’ll be wearing an orange jump suit with ‘convict at work’ on the back and a chain between my rubber boots. I’ll have to be up at 6 to get my make-up on in the dark. Lucy, my partner in crime will be up at 5 to get her hair straighteners warm! Although, we may as well pitch up dog-rough if the ‘no new relationships’ enforcement is being policed.
***seven days later***
I emerge in to the sun at the Gold Coast airport to be driven away in a white van with ‘LetUs Grow’ on the side. I shrink down in the seat embarrassed at the pun emblazoned in a 4ft font, next to a lettuce with a face.
We will be sharing with three Irish girls, two Dutch, Six French guys and a couple from the north of England – the girl of which is heavily pregnant.
Awoken by some God-forsaken creature of nature that shrieks outside our window at 6am, I get dressed in what wouldn’t look out of place on a fireman and trudge out to the field in wellies that belong to a giant.
For the next nine hours I will be standing in a field cutting beetroot leaves. Filling my crate, taking it down to the wash room and re-filling a new one.
Ten minutes has passed and my arms ache from holding the crate which can be rested on the ground only at the penalty of death. Aside from the occasional over-enthusiastic laughter that comes every time someone slips over in the mud with the added indignity of getting told off for spilling their crate, it’s uneventful.
Maybe the wash room is more fun. With a little sucking up, Lucy and I are moved out of the field to the relative comfort of the shed. We weigh parsley and bag it up for Coles supermarket. We wash lettuce in a giant vat and compare how much of our nail varnish has fallen off. It’s a dry haven from the rain and the perfect place to stand and perv unnoticed on the sunny days when the hot Frenchies have taken their shirts off and the lettuce fields turn in to the setting for a Diet Coke ad.
Long days pass with nights watching Australian Masterchef in front of the TV, trying to eat as much food as our stomachs will allow and sneaking in boxes of goon when someone new arrives with a car so we can get our loot back from Kingscliff bottle shop.
After two months in the country, we look like trailer trash, there’s three inches of regrowth on all the blondes, a few people who might be well advised to steal a strimmer for their bikini line and enough beards for a Real Ale convention.
But, the sun is often shining now as spring arrives and there’s barbecues at weekends and trips to Kingscliff beach to watch the French boys failing to surf. There’s a lovely cafe by the water which does great fudge cake – even if they’ve never heard of skinny soy lattes.
There’s the evenings when we’re all huddled up on the sofa drinking the contraband wine, playing poker and starting prohibited relationships and I wonder if I’ll actually be sad to leave our little commune.
The golden morning finally dawns and I’m ready to hand in my papers for the signature and ABN number that will entitle me to another 12 months in Australia. Farm work complete and I imagine it’s how prisoners feel when they’re at the gates with the box of clothes and a mix of excitement and fear about fending for themselves again.
88 days, 24/7 with mostly the same people could go one of two ways. For me, it was some of the best days of my two years away. I came away with some incredible mates, knowledge of six types of lettuce I’d never heard of and that no one will ever want to hear about, some of my favourite travel memories, one 12 month visa extension and one illegally-gained French boyfriend – ten years my junior.
Work on a farm for no money? What’s not to love.