It was late January 2005 when I arrived in Sydney.
No pre-booked itinerary, just 6 months in Australia to do whatever.
Which initially meant finding somewhere to live and a job to build up some funds for my travels round the country.
The housing options for backpackers passing through Sydney were plentiful, cheap but basic. I moved into a house with an ever changing cast of residents from around the world.
In the few months I was there, the constants along with me were five Irish backpackers. At any one time there were up to ten of us in a four-bedroom house. And that was just the human inhabitants.
Most noticeably there were large and abundant cockroaches.
The kitchen and bathroom were their favourite hangouts but they also had a habit of squeezing through the light fitting in the living room ceiling and dropping onto unsuspecting residents provoking a reaction like an electric shock.
Then there were the mice.
At least they didn’t drop from the ceiling but it was still a shock to open the kitchen cupboard to find one in there and the mouse droppings they left behind weren’t the greatest gift.
And lastly: the Huntsman spiders.
These are large (as in their leg span is wider than your hand), fast, and they bite – similar to a wasp sting apparently. One night a housemate came home drunk to find one in the bathroom. With all the confidence of the inebriated he attacked it with his shoe. The spider got away but the wall wasn’t so lucky, a gaping hole left in the plaster.
The landlord thought it was hilarious. A few weeks later one turned up in my bedroom. It moved too quick to catch. My housemates wondered how I could sleep knowing it was still in there but I reasoned it had likely been in there all along and hadn’t bothered me.
Outside the house was just as interesting.
Turns out it was one street over from The Block in the area of Redfern. This was an area on traditional Gadigal People Land. The Block was established as a residential area in the early 70s as social housing for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. It appears to have been largely torn down since my visit and is being redeveloped. An article in the Sydney Morning Herald in 2010 described it as ‘Sydney’s notorious aboriginal ghetto’ and that it was; ‘synonymous with heroin abuse and violence’.
I didn’t know any of this when I moved in.
As one of my housemates put it; “Turn right out of the house and you’re on the sunny side of life, turn left and it’s certain death.” The reality wasn’t as bad but it did contribute to the only house rule which was don’t turn left after dark. The shortest route to the train station did mean turning left and passing a patch of wasteland.
Regardless of what time it was there’d often be a bonfire going with groups of men on sofas and chairs pulled up round it. Walking past men who would shout over and ask for cigarettes, beer, money or whatever I was carrying. There was also the odd occasion when rather than asking for something they instead told me to f— off out of the area. Across the street from my bedroom was a basketball court. I never saw anyone using it for basketball but there was plenty of traffic from drug users getting their fix.
Despite that and the area’s reputation neither me or any of my housemates saw any real trouble. As well as the negative side it was a vibrant area full of life and colour with a community working to improve things.
A word on the issues at hand here:
- Firstly the terminology I’ve used is based on this helpful explainer.
- The use of Aborigine or Aboriginals is now outdated and doesn’t reflect the diversity of cultures and identities. My writing up isn’t meant to deride or suggest this is representative of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. But at the same time, I didn’t want to just ignore the reality of being there.
- There’s a whole world of issues in the discrimination against Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples that have contributed to the current state of affairs, where some are left disenfranchised. The newspaper article I quote from demonstrates what appeared to be a typically dismissive and sensationalist response from those on the outside.
One tour guide I had when the subject came up, said that he didn’t see what ‘their’ problem was as the white people had gotten over everything that had happened so why couldn’t they?
A statement that was jaw droppingly insensitive in its willful misinterpretation of history.
Again, its not representative of all white Australians but there were plenty that it did apply to.
Moving to less controversial matters….
To find temporary work, it was off to a recruitment agency.
The first agency sent me to a job in telesales – not my kind of thing at all.
My new employer was organising a home improvement exhibition. My job was to cold call businesses and get them to pay for a stand at the exhibition.
Training took up the first morning and was basically a tutorial in how to lie. Promise them anything, they won’t find out until they arrive to set up at the exhibition that the prime spot you promised them is taken by someone else.
I was given a copy of the Yellow Pages (very old school despite being in the Internet age!) and told to work my way through the home security section.
I approached this with a complete lack of enthusiasm and spent a dispiriting day trying not to do it. Partly through a sense of personal integrity and partly just laziness. I’d spent 6 months in the open air getting back to nature.
A few months in a shirt and tie doing the bidding of the moral vacuum that was my manager didn’t appeal.
I surprised myself by turning up to work on day three. It was touch and go. On the way in I changed my mind, turned round then changed my mind again and went in. Which I quickly decided was a mistake. I spent the morning killing time and avoiding making calls. When it was time for lunch, I left without a word and didn’t go back.
It was an incredibly liberating feeling to just walk out of a job. Being a temp and not having any real responsibilities made it an easy decision but still, it felt good.tnocs.com contributing author and creative resignation expert JJ lives at leeds
I called the recruitment agency and told them what I’d done. Its fair to say they weren’t as enthused. They insisted I call the manager to apologise and explain otherwise I would be blacklisted. My year of living dangerously had rubbed off on me. I decided now would be the appropriate time to lie, assured them I would call, and then, didn’t bother. In a city the size of Sydney I didn’t think it would take too much effort to find a job and sure enough within a couple of days I found one that didn’t involve lying.
It was data entry for an insurance company. It was a stopgap for 3 months to earn a little cash so it was fine by me. The most positive aspect was the location. It was right next to Sydney Harbour Bridge, looking back across the water to the city.
Each lunchtime I’d take my sandwiches and sit on a bench at the waters edge alternating between taking in the view and reading a book. Never got bored of that view.
The people were nice too. Though there was one guy who delighted to have a Brit in the office told me all about his impending trip to the UK where he would be touring Stonehenge and other stone circles as he believed these were all made by aliens. He was part of a group of like minded followers of their mystic leader.
He described her as ‘out of this world’ which I took to mean she was an amazing person. But he quickly put me right and informed me that she literally comes from another planet.
I smiled and made a mental note to avoid passing his desk too often.
Job done, money saved it was time leave the city and partake in another backpacker staple:
I stayed on a farm outdide the rural town of Leeton with its own orange grove and where the owner hired us out to neighbouring farms. Mostly fruitpicking, but one guy was selected to go help out with castrating sheep on the basis he was the biggest and strongest looking out of us. The rest of us thanked our lucky stars for our puny frames. He reported back that there was surprisingly little blood.
Orange picking was hard work, appallingly paid and living conditions were….well, the male dorm was a tight squeeze in a portakabin for five.
Roasting hot during the day and freezing at night. It was a fun few weeks largely due to being with a great group of people. It was an early start each day then 8 to 10 hours up and down a ladder with an ever filling sack on your front.
Spiders were our biggest worry, but for me it was bees that gave me the biggest shock. I was at the top of the ladder and heard buzzing. Which quickly gained in volume as I looked round and saw an awful lot of bees whose home I’d obviously disturbed. Never mind the height I leapt off the ladder and ran. As ever in this year of invincibility I got away without being stung once. I wasn’t going anywhere near that tree again though.
The positives of the job were being in the fresh air all day.
All the oranges you could eat, and I got to drive a tractor. Which wasn’t so much fun the day I broke it. I spent three days picking for the sweariest person I’ve ever met. He collected me the first morning and I was pinned back into my seat by the sheer force and volume of profanity. Every expletive you can imagine and a few you probably can’t.
He sounded angry. But once I got up to speed with his way of talking he was a nice guy. Just with a vocabulary that required him to say ‘f—‘ several times per sentence. When I told him that the tractor starter pin had come off in my hand he reacted with a laugh rather than a volley of obscenities.
We went to his pick up to drive over to the tractor, at which point I somehow broke the pick up door so that it wouldn’t open.
I attempted to joke that I’d been sent to destroy his farm. He didn’t find that so funny.
Having eaten my fill of oranges and done my best to wreck one farmer’s livelihood it was time for sightseeing…
… more on that next week…
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