I love Sydney. I love Kings Cross, where ultra-hip, ultra-rich 20 somethings and gay, retired millionaires walking their ridiculously tiny dogs up and down the tree-lined streets of Potts Point coexist peacefully with the scantily clad prostitutes and down and outs who litter the infamous Darlinghurst Road. This is where I called home for 8 months at Zing backpackers, conveniently located near the subway (2 stops one way and you’re in the CBD, 2 stops in the opposite direction and you’re in Bondi), Mr Liquor (whose $4 bottles of red will be sorely missed) and opposite the Golden Apple (one of the Cross’s most reputable brothels apparently, if you’re that way inclined…)
I had a great job teaching at an English Language school, great friends and my days off consisted of barbecues on the beach, taking day trips to exciting places and drinking too much previously mentioned $4 wine. Life was good, albeit a bit stressful at times. It’s hard to keep up with a ‘proper job’, marking homework and planning lessons while living in a hostel, but I couldn’t have left Zing if I tried. That place has some kind of magnetic pull that prevents people from leaving. A few days turn into a week, then a month, and before you know it you’re in a long-termer dorm, using an inflated goon bag for a pillow and on first name terms with the cockroaches in the kitchen.
But all good things come to an end, and as other longtermers started drifting off to various banana and mango farms around the country I realised that if I was going to attempt getting a second year visa I had to act now. The original plan, of course, had been to travel up the coast to Cairns, (which I did) then stick around in northern Queensland till I found work on a farm , (which I didn’t.) After a few days of sticky heat and strange aboriginal people shouting at us in the streets my friend and I decided that Cairns wasn’t for us and we hotfooted it straight back to Sydney. (Which turned out to be the best decision I could have made, as this particular decision led me to a posh boy from Essex, aka my boyfriend.)
Following a friend’s advice, I called mysterious John who owned a working hostel in Innisfail, land of abundant bananas ripe for picking by enthusiastic backpackers. So a month later the new boyfriend and I are on a flight to Cairns and a Greyhound bus to Innisfail. John who turns out to be a bald, middle-aged Aussie, picks us up from the bus station and takes us to the hostel where we eagerly sign the workers papers with our visa and bank details. We are a bit confused when John says, in between explaining the correct way to ‘hump’ bananas, that there might be a bit of a wait for work. OK, how much of a wait are we talking here, I’m dangerously close to my visa expiring and I need work straight away (which we’d been led to believe we’d be getting on the phone.)
‘Oh you’ll most likely get work in the next couple of weeks, if not sooner” John assures us, avoiding most of our questions, before giving us a quick tour and showing us our dorm room. To call it a hostel is generous, this place makes Zing look like a 5 star hotel. The set up looks like a prison, the dorms are located in different coloured blocks, A-F which surround a large, square patch of grass in the middle. There is a filthy kitchen with one functioning hob, a dilapidated room with a couple of chairs with the stuffing ripped out and a couple of weights in the corner, which John introduces us to as ‘the gym’. That is it.
We are shown to Block F and a 12 bed dorm. As we meet our room mates we realise that, unsurprisingly, John may have been telling a few porkies. This place is full to the brim with jobless, pissed off backpackers that have been spun the same spiel as us and led to believe that there was plenty of work when the reality is quite the opposite.
I’ve been waiting 5 weeks for work’ one girl says with a shrug.
‘Why don’t you just leave?’ I ask her. ‘Go somewhere else?’
‘I’ve waited this long, there’s no point in going anywhere else now. I’m next on the list and work’s picking up. I reckon I’ll be working next week.’
This is the mantra here. I’m next on the list. Work is picking up. I’ll have work next week. People here are so desperate for their second year visas they refuse to admit that they’ve been royally screwed over by a very clever conman who takes rent money and promises work that doesn’t exist. There’s simply too many people and not enough work. Those that do have work are given half days, or 3 days a week at the most, only earning enough to cover their rent and maybe a box of goon for the weekend and then, after a couple of weeks, are told that their farm doesn’t need them anymore. This means that instead of 3 months on one farm (where your days are counted even if you don’t work every day of the week) they then have to start on another farm and complete the 88 days required to get their visa signed off. 88 days, when you’re lucky to get a couple of half days a week, means these guys are going to be stuck in this hellhole for a very, very long time.
Most nights everyone who actually has worked on a farm all day are in bed by 8.30 and the lights turn off at 9pm, so other than sitting around in the dark and damp feeling miserable there’s really nothing to do, unless you feel like fighting a bunch of lads for the only Xbox control, or risking cooking anything in the filthy kitchen. (Even the nearest liquor store is a 40 minute walk away.) When the weekend finally rolls around though, it’s like a break out from the zoo, a hundred or so boozed up backpackers, released from their cages, on the loose in Innisfail town centre and the only nightclub in town, Rumours. (Think groups of menacing looking Aboriginal men, 50 year old women dressed as 20 year olds drinking alcopops and dancing in the haze of a smoke machine. Depressing to say the least. I last about 10 minutes in Rumours before heading straight to Maccas with a fellow inmate from Cell Block C, (equally cramped and mouldy as Cell Block F). Maccas is only open for drive-thru (unsurprising really, I’d want to be separated from anyone in this town by a thick sheet of glass too). Help comes in the form of a real-life hillbilly, complete with mullet, buck teeth and a pick up truck who takes us through the drive-thru and drops us off at the hostel where we wave him off, greasy paper bags in hand. So at least the locals are friendly, if slightly odd…
As it turned out, I lasted a week before escaping.
Funnily enough, I never saw a single banana.