Kindergarten, Primary School, pass the tests and get into a good Grammer School. Study hard. Don’t be too much of a teenager, this is the rest of your life you have in your own hands right now. Don’t mess it up. Go live abroad for a year with a previously unknown family. Social, cultural, educational uprooting to grow more roots and expand as a person. Apply to uni. Work your butt off to get the grades you need to have a chance at being accepted at the unit at top of your list. Move to another different country; learn a whole new education system whilst studying three different subjects at the same time. Move abroad again to grow even more social and intellectual roots by pulling yourself out of everything you know. Learn another language, culture, get a whole new set of friends, family, authoritarian figures, work colleagues and surf mates. And a final chance to make your degree count by working your ass off again to get the best possible grade you could attain. This is your future life you’re defining.
Get a proper job in a real company that pays you via bank transfer, so you know that it’s serious. Spend the longest hours in a windowless post-production office; constantly up against first priority deadlines so you never even get to second priority stuff. Work your ass of so your volatile boss doesn’t fire you. This job is awesome and you’re so lucky to have it. Work through another weekend. Decide to switch into a different field. Work with international clients, across all timezones. Follow your dream or miss out in life. Start up your own company. And you know what they say about that. You’re never off work if your company is you and you are your own boss and drill sergeant.
And the driving force in this whole shebang? Roughly 150g of grey jelly. It sounds like a bit of a marathon, this thing called modern life, especially if you’re from a first world country, go through a standard education system, manage to get into higher education and get an office based job to kickstart your office career that will determine the rest of your life. This is by no means a rant, but an appreciation of how much that little lump of grey jelly is capable of. Because, apart from the practicalities of every day life, everything above, everything so many people go through in one way or another, can be achieved whilst living a wheelchair bound life. Focus is so much on cerebral work, where the body becomes a vessel for the brain, and our surroundings are adapted so much for this vessel to be able to transport the brain around without having to deal with things itself. Climate controlled commuting and shopping, takeaway lunches and dinners so you don’t even need to stretch your legs but can eat at your desk, head still buried further in your computer. God forbid you’d get dirt under your fingernails (those most primal tools nature invented for us). If it weren’t for the craze of going to the gym (again a very controlled environment), you would get so lost in your thoughts that you’d never even contemplate giving your body something to do.
Recent events however have taken me straight out of my brain-focussed world. My first year’s visa in Australia had been taken up by so much travel and work abroad that I felt I’d hardly seen the day-to-day Oz I had come here to explore, so it was time to find a way to extend. And Australia has a rather unique solution for all sorts of issues. If you want to extend your working holiday visa, you can’t just pay. You have to give the country something it has a real shortage of: for 88 days, you have to fill the gaps in the workforce that are hard to fill. And don’t’ be fooled into thinking it’s cleaning toilets in the big city. For the options that living in the big city offers, there are enough people willing to clean already. You have to work in a rural area, away from the big lights, and in an field that’s most in need of manpower: agriculture, landscaping, construction and mining.
“That’s a disgrace” I hear all you cerebral workers shout out. “My Timmy shouldn’t be forced to get his kneed scraped up in some iron ore pit.” “My Emily will ruin her beautiful English complexion picking pineapples in the Ozone hole death ray zone that is the Australian summer.” Well, whilst you might be right, Timmy probably got those scrapes when he fell of the back of a scooter in Koh Tao after a hefty day of buckets. And as for Emily, she’s been tanning ever since she entered an area of Oz that was above 15 °C. And in a way, it’s one of the fairest systems around, as not money but dedication to a non-glamorous task dictates who gets to stay. In comparison to other countries that don’t allow you to stay longer, in Oz, if you really want it, you have the option to make it happen.
Not saying it’s by any means easy. Days are long and physical work is hard, and often tedious and mind-numbingly boring. You’re far from everyone else, from anything to do and anywhere to go. This does mean though that you save money like a champion and for once in your otherwise over-stimulated life have the time to bond with the other unfortunate backpackers around you. This can go well or not so well, depending on the group you’re with, but many a good friendship has grown over bonding in the face of adversity. Exploitation of inexperienced, young workers has also been a feature in recent news, but the government is taking steps to make sure people get paid by recently outlawing work on a volunteer basis. There are bad eggs, no doubt, but that doesn’t discount the basic logic behind the scheme.
One thing that working for your 2nd year working holiday visa does without a doubt is make you do things and live places you would usually never dream of doing or living in. It forces you out of your comfort zone, out of your idea of what’s a minimum acceptable living standard for yourself. “What? You want me to stick my hand up that cow’s butt?” “Yes, cause otherwise it will get sick and might die.” No more worries about breaking a fingernail as I carry around thick planks of freshly chain sawed wood to make some benches for the river camp. Swapping mum & dad’s gentrified suburbia to live in a converted shipping container in the outback is suddenly not as bad as it sounded. You can even have a bath in the bathtub under the stars, so long as you hand fill it with water from the fire. And all the splinters and blisters were worth learning how to drive the 4×4 troop carrier off-road through sand sinkholes without getting stuck. Why didn’t I drive on the road? Cause we had to shovel out the gravel to build it first. Where else in my previously purely cerebral life would I have had the change to scale a tipi, chop down a tree, build a shed in a swamp, learn some basic joining and rusty engine mechanics, dig out trenches and appreciate the work that goes into shovelling 500kg of gravel in the Ozone hole death ray zone that is Red Rock in February.
Working in construction certainly made me appreciate my own brother’s endurance as a trained carpenter, and how we have lived side by side for nearly our entire life, but have never really had the chance to step into each others professional shoes for a while. And as from my friends who did farming, despite all the boredom, they have the best stories to tell of that one day they rescued a calf from a ravine or stayed up all night helping one of the camp’s sheep have lambs or proudly worked out how to pick blueberries around the huge red back spider webs without getting hospitalized.
Working for your second year visa is a pain in the ass, but it is also a unique opportunity to really step out of your comfort zone and do something you’d otherwise never chose to do, or have the chance to do. To learn to appreciate the work that goes into often undervalued non-cerebral work, and re-connect with how the vast majority of the human race lived every day before big cities and offices started sprouting up everywhere. And who knows, I’m tempted to head back for another stint after our next assignment. I’ve found that physically building something brings its own satisfaction, and I plan to build this into my previously cerebral-heavy life, to give my legs a stretch and clear my head more often.