Thursday, 2 September 2010

Crazy George, banana's and the wettest place in Australia

In June of 1993, whilst travelling around Australia I find myself in an extremely weary place. This place is so weary that I can only imagine that it was crafted by the Devils own hand on the day that he realised that his arch enemy had miraculously resurrected. Tully is a small town in Northern Queensland. The only reason to go there is to work in either the sugar cane or banana plantations for which it is famed. It was the latter of these 2 reasons that brought me and Little Andy in this direction. The travellers grapevine had imparted us with the knowledge that Tully was the place to repair the financial damage inflicted in Cairns. We were not the first backpackers to arrive there for these reasons and I doubt very much that we were the last (unless they had heard my story). So, what exactly makes Tully such an awful place I hear you ask. This can be answered in 2 words, rain and mosquito's. Tully is down on record as being the wettest place in Australia and consequently it is a place infested by mosquito's.

We pitch our tent in the pouring rain and feeling weary already, go to check out the prospects of finding employment. The campsite is full of tents and it does not take long to find somebody eager to give us the bad news that there was very little work around. Little Andy takes the news worse than me, for he is in a far more desperate place. After talking to lots of people around the campsite, I begin to feel guilty because I am in a far more luxurious position than everybody that I talk to.

The way to get work around these parts, it turns out is to go to the local post office at 5am and wait for the prospective employers to turn up. With this information in mind Little Andy and I retire early to bed and set the alarm for 4.15 am. I guess that if there had been anything else to do around the campsite we may not have elected for this early sleeping arrangement. However, the only entertainment on the campsite comes in the form of a telephone box with a fluorescent tube. This in fact is a double whammy for we can either make a phone call or sit around the base of the phone and play cards in the light of the tube. This being Tully, even that pleasure was ruined because the mosquito's are drawn to the light, like a traveller drawn to an area of financial reward through hard labour.

There is no need for the alarm clock because we are awoken from a fitful sleep by the rain driving into the side of our rather inadequate tent. The tent was put up in haste which is reflected by the rather large puddle which has accumulated in the far corner the next morning. Most of the night has been spent trying to dodge mosquitos resulting in pockets of light sleep which are few and far between. We reluctantly emerge from the tent into the relentless rain and decide to skip the showers for which people are queuing around the block. Now, at this stage I am so convinced that I am not going to find employment that I have not taken any precautions in case I do. I leave the campsite, post office bound without eating any breakfast or making any lunch, in case I actually do manage to get a job. Deep down I harbour the thoughts of standing in front of the post office for 30 mins, whilst watching the few unlucky ones get picked up and whisked away to the banana plantations. After which I plan to return to the campsite and get back into my sleeping bag for a lovely sleep, followed by a leisurely breakfast in one of Tully's greasy spoon cafes.

Little Andy and I arrive at the post office and try to find shelter. It's 4.50 am and people are turning up in their droves. I take refuge from the rain and through tired eyes begin to take in the characters around me. What an interesting array of people! Of course there are the backpackers of the usual description, sun tanned, bodies toned from travel and travellers jobs and usually wearing similar clothes (back then cut off jeans and frayed t-shirts). But backpackers are in the minority here and by far outweighed by an odd assortment of itinerant workers. These are people that spend their lives chasing the harvest from season to season, whilst living in tents and drinking heavily. The average demographic appears to be male, aged 40 to 50 and of Australian or Australian Islander origin. It seems that to pick fruit you should have a long scruffy beard and wear a big hat with nothing on your feet.

Drawn in by this colourful bunch of characters and still heavily fatigued, my mind wanders off, as it often does, into some trance like state. Whilst I am in this state, the farmers begin to turn up in their 4 by 4's and small trucks and there is a mass surge of workers all trying to get noticed. In general these guys are big and look extremely menacing, not the type of guys that you want to be denying the opportunity to work. As they all surge forward I am caught up in their mass of bodies and dragged along like leaf in a whirlwind. Not only are they big and menacing but by god are they noisy. I am propelled along in their burly mass, dragged backwards and forwards, left and right and all I can hear is their desperate pleas for employment "Hey mate, over here", "Yo, me, I've got 15 yrs experience", "Hey, come on I really need this mate, I'm a great worker". Suddenly the crowd pushes backwards and I am miraculously ejected at great speed in a forwards trajectory. I have no idea how this happens but I end up slap bang in front of a farmer who seems impressed by my athletic endeavours and shouts "Hey, you boy, get in the jeep". There is no time to look around because I am grabbed by farmer and literally thrown into the back seat of his 4 by 4. Behind me the wild beasts beat their chests and shout out in frustrated anger at the farmers choice of hired hand. The farmer puts his foot down and the jeep roars off down Tully's main street, ugly faces glaring at me through the jeep window. I feel like a murderer emerging from a court house whilst the waiting mob vent their anger and hatred at his crimes.

I wait till we are off Tully's main street before I dare to sit upright in my seat. It is only then that I realise that there in fact 2 people sat in front of the jeep. The farmer, a rather slightly young man, appears to be Indian of origin and next to him sits an elderly lady who wears a headdress, sari and has the tell tale Hindu mark in the middle of the forehead. This all seems to add an even more bizarre edge to the whole scenario, I'm in the middle of Queensland but it feels like I'm in India. For a while I sit in reflective silence, bemused by my fortunate misfortune. I try to work out the relationship between the farmer and his front seat partner and come to the conclusion that it his mother.

After 15 minutes or so I am starting to wonder if we are anywhere near to the farmer’s plantation and I attempt to break the hitherto stony silence with my own personal brand of questioning. I have always been an inquisitive person and this often results in irritation of the recipient. I tentatively begin to fire my questions out "Are we anywhere near yet?", no response, "What's your name?”, still no response, "Is this your mother?". My final question rouses a response but not in my direction. The farmer and his mother (whether she likes it or not), begin babbling on at each other in a much accelerated tongue. This conversation goes on for the next 10 minutes or so during which time I can only guess what they are saying. In my head I reconstruct their conversation "Son, why exactly did you decide to choose this rather weak looking specimen of a man?", "mother, he chose himself, you should have seen the way that he fought his way through the pack of brutes and vagabonds to emerge triumphant in front of me". Mother and son fall silent again and I am left with my own thoughts. By now it is at least 30 minutes into the journey, we are travelling at over 100 kmh and there appears to be no end in sight. I decide that I will keep quiet until the journeys end. There is a bad air in the car and I don't want to further infuriate it.

After driving down a straight road for the best part of an hour through what looks like one endless banana plantation, the jeep slows down and makes a right turn. We travel down a dirt path which is completely waterlogged and would be totally impassable in any normal vehicle. At the end of the path there is a small concrete building which houses amongst other things, a tractor, a cart and some other farm yard machinery. I am summoned out of the jeep and thrown some gloves, which I drop (a sign of things to come). There is barely pause for breath before the Indian guy is on the tractor and gesturing that I should jump on the attached cart. I am wearing training shoes which are totally unsuitable for this terrain, which in places resembles a river. I forgot to mention that throughout this whole charade the rain has unabatedly continued to pour. The Indian then tells me to take off my shoes and work barefoot. Now this seems like pretty harsh advice but I follow his instruction without question. I am later informed that this is what the soldiers did in the trenches during the First World War to prevent them from getting trench foot.

Five bone crushing minutes later and we arrive at out destination. The farmer jumps off his tractor and urges me to follow. We trudge our way through rain sodden trees, mud literally squelching between my toes and upon some strides I am knee deep in water. The farmer is obviously used to every hollow of his land, seems to glide across the terrain like Robin Cousins winning Olympic figure skating gold. He shows obvious distress at my slow progress and makes angry gestures. I feel my own anger and frustration beginning to well up inside me. At this point I feel I should educate the reader on my previous banana picking experience some 3 years ago on a kibbutz in Israel. In short it ended disastrously because I was unable to handle the 35kg bunches of bananas. Now let me tell you, the banana's that I see before me in this Australian plantation are at least double the size of the ones in Israel and are beginning to strike fear into me. I know that there was no way that I could lift them and a plan to escape this ridiculous situation is already beginning to formulate.

Just when I thought the situation could not get any more surreal, an figure emerges from the trees. This latest addition to the whole debacle is around 6ft 5, sports a rather long and bushy red beard and is wearing an outfit that would not be out of place in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. His appearance on the plantation seems to anger the farmer who hurls abuse at him, "Where the fuck you been George? you're late now get your lazy arse on the tractor there's work to be done". George, who is visibly drunk, does not take kindly to the farmers tone of voice and lets out an inarticulate grunt. I think that George has just told the farmer to go and fuck himself but I cannot be sure of this because years of drug and alcohol abuse appear to have pickled George's brain. At this point the farmer jumps on the tractor and drives off into the distance. He makes no attempt to cover up the fact that he is extremely angry and we hear his cursing even though the tractor is well out of sight. I turn to George with the intentions of making conversation. However, when I look at him I notice that his eyes are completely skewiff. This throws me and I stall. Regaining my composure, I once again attempt to look him in the eyes whilst talking to him. I begin my conversation with "So George how long have you worked on the plantation?" He looks at me, or at least I think that he looks at me through one of his flittering eyes but he does not seem to register that I am there at all. I think that my English accent has melted his remaining brain cell and his brain has gone into overload. I persist with the conversation and after 10 minutes of questioning I have ascertained that George has worked on the plantation for 10 years, the farmer is an arsehole, the old lady is indeed the farmers mother and George is cultivating marijuana plants, the proceeds of which he will be using as a source of income, to liberate himself from the plantation.

In the distance we hear the tractor returning. When it finally appears in our field of vision, we see that the farmers anger has not abated. I wonder to myself if he was cursing all the way to wherever he has been and all the way back. He jumps off the tractor and grabs a machete from the trailer. I freeze in terror and think for one minute that he is going to finish us off. George, who after 10 years knows the routine, strides over to the tractor and jumps in the drivers seat. The farmer then walks up to the first banana tree in the row, grabs the biggest mother fucking bunch of bananas I've ever seen. With one hand he pulls it down to cutting height. He points at me and in insinuates that I should come over to him. I make my way barefoot through the muddy plantation, slipping with every second step and at one point going knee deep in a puddle. This does not amuse the farmer who seems to be growing ever more conscious of wasted time. Upon the farmers instruction I take my place under the bunch of bananas and position my shoulder under this enormous mass. I am conscious of the farmer taking a swing with the machete and just about hear the "thwack" of the machete hitting the stalk of he bunch before I feel a gigantic weight on my shoulder. I am immediately knocked from my feet and end up in a pile on the floor, the bunch of bananas on top of me. The farmer, who is not amused, offers no assistance but instead cuts the next bunch himself, and proceeds to miraculously cut another bunch with one hand. He then positively strides across the muddy terrain with a 75 kg bunch of bananas on either shoulder before depositing them onto the awaiting trailer. Throughout this feat of human endurance I remain in a bundle on the floor. I watch on in amazement like a child watching the world’s strongest man. In fact I remain in this position for the next 10 minutes before regaining a modicum of composure and attempting to get my bananas to their destination. I eventually manage to get the bunch to the trailer, through a mixture of shoulder carrying, carrying in my arms and out and out dragging. It takes a further 2 minutes to get my bunch onto the trailer, although from the shouts of disapproval, "don't damage my bananas”, I understand that I have not done this right.

The next hour continues in similar vain, we take position, the farmer swings his machete, I fall down, the farmer shouts, I remain immobile, the farmer carries 2 bunches at once, I get up and drag my bunch to the trailer, I take a breather, farmer looks on in disbelief, I summon up all my energy and heave the bananas onto the trailer, farmer shouts that I'm damaging his bananas, I curse to myself and the loop repeats. I begin to wonder at George's involvement in this operation. How has George managed to get the job of driving the tractor? To my understanding all that George has to do is drive the tractor 10 yards every 5 minutes (15 minutes today) and then sit off waiting for us to fill up the trailer whilst he dreams of his dope cartel. Eventually the trailer is full and George sets off on his merry way back to the unloading shed. I take a breather whilst the farmer sits and glares at me. I am wondering how "Crazy George" as I have labeled him, is going to unload the trailer alone, when hear him returning. I assume that there must be a larger stock of trailers than I have first seen.

Things are about to take a turn for the worse. Crazy George appears at the bottom of our row of banana trees at an alarming pace. He is driving the tractor in a most erratic fashion and seems to be out of control. Halfway down the row of trees he loses control of the tractor completely and ploughs into at least 3 banana trees, totally obliterating them. The farmer goes ballistic, "watch my fucking trees, you crazy fuck!". George emerges from the carnage and immediately gives the farmer the finger, "fuck you". At this point whole hell breaks loose with abuse being thrown around in what I can only describe as abuse tennis; "You useless bastard", "fuck you", "look at my trees", "fuck you", "you're fired", "fuck you". I watch on in a mixture of amusement, excitement and fear. Inside I feel a sense of relief that the pressure has been lifted from my own futility. George, who has just been sacked disappears off into the undergrowth. The farmer turns to me and points to the trailer. He reverses the tractor to dislodge it from the broken banana trees and we head off into the murky plantation.

Five minutes later we are sat under a make shift veranda which extends from the concrete outbuilding. Our shield is in the form of corrugated plastic, which accentuates the patter of the driving rain. The farmer and his mother are sat to my right with their backs to me. They have laid out a picnic blanket and are tucking in to a lavish Indian feast. My stomach at this point is knotted with hunger and provides bass to the rhythm section of the pattering rain. The vocals are added by the farmer and his mother who have reverted back to their accelerated mother tongue. Every now and again, in-between filling their faces with chapatti's, pakoras and bhajis, they cast an evil glare in my direction and their conversation takes on a more aggressive tone. Once again I find myself imagining what they are saying; "I told you that he was useless", "Oh, he's worse than useless, he is costing me money". "Of course we won't be paying him", "No, he should be paying us"," you should see him sat on his lazy English arse whilst I carry 2 bunches of bananas to the trailer", "Oh mother, I've fired George by the way, you are going to have to drive the tractor this afternoon". They wash down their feast with a large container of water. I am so thirsty that I am catching the rain drops from the end of my nose but I am too scared or proud or both to ask them for their canteen. They make no effort to offer me any. To me, this is the final straw. I have been on the plantation for a morning. I assume that I am not going to get paid and I no longer care. I know that I am just one step away from going out in a blaze of glory.

The Indians have digested their lunch and it's time for the fields again. The farmer has fired up the tractor and pointed to my place on the trailer, as if I were his farm dog. I take my place once again we drive off to the plantations. When we arrive at our row of trees, Crazy George is back and working hard. I start to build a picture in my mind that the scene that I earlier witnessed is just part of their normal routine. Like some comic double act (farmer and George), every scene ends in George being sacked and then in the next act he magically reappears, whilst the crowd fall about hysterically. We continue with the banana harvesting in the same fashion that the morning session ended. I am getting tired both mentally and physically and feel that I cannot last much longer, when a rather long and petrifying snake passes between my legs. Now snakes are not something that don't normally scare me but when they are passing right between your legs they give cause for concern. I cry out in alarm "a snake, a snake". At this point Crazy George proves that he is indeed human after all by pointing and laughing like a hysterical hyena. He shouts "It's not the snakes you want to worry about look at the size of this spider". I look over and indeed there is an immense spider clinging to the side of one of the banana bunches. Even the farmer finds this funny and they both fall about laughing and pointing at me. They hit me with comment after comment "you're not scared of rats are you?" hahaha, "there's rats a plenty" hahaha, "don't worry about the snakes, they only make you ill for a week", hahahahah, "the spiders though, don't go anywhere near the spiders" hahahaha. They are particularly happy with their last comment, so pleased that the farmer appears to forget that he is hours behind schedule. Their laughing eventually subsides and we take our positions under the next banana tree. The farmer swipes his machete, I brace myself ready for the hit, the bananas crash down onto my inadequate frame, I stagger forward, I've done it, I've held the bunch. On wobbly legs and still harnessing the momentum of the fallen bananas, I drive towards the trailer with the determination of a marathon runner in the last half mile. I see a puddle in front of me but attempt no evasive action. I am being driven by a higher force, I am superhuman, no puddle can stand in my way.

I'm drowning or at least that's how it feels. Sinking deeper and deeper into a muddy pool, my life flashes before me. I'm gasping for air, an enormous weight bearing down on me, my resistance is futile. My mind is racing, is this how death feels? What happens next? Who will meet me at the pearly gates? Suddenly I hit the bottom of the pool and I regain my composure. I am fully submerged in murky, insect and reptile infested water. My arms are aloft and still holding onto a 75 kg bunch of bananas, intent on delivering them to the trailer. I emerge from the pool with the resolve of a raging bull and I'm driving forwards towards the trailer. When through the buzzing of the anger I am feeling, I hear the farmer shout "watch me fucking banana's". This is it, the straw that broke the camels back, the magic trigger. I run at the farmer, with an unsurpassed rage, the banana's aloft and my mind intent on killing him. As I approach him I find a strength that I did know I possessed and I launch the 75 kg bunch at him, whilst screaming "fuck, your fucking bananas". The banana's hit him plum in the chest and he goes down in crumpled heap. I give him no time to react, I look down on him and bare my teeth. I am frothing at the bit and in no mood for any back chat. The farmer and indeed Crazy George feel the anger in me and remain silent. I turn around and storm of into the distance without pause for thought.

I continue in this state for what seems like hours but can only be 5 minutes tops. Gradually I am returned from my elevated spiritual position to the material world. I begin to gather my thoughts, right I'm on a banana plantation - ok, I'm miles from the campsite I'll refer to as home - ok, it's mid afternoon - ok, the place is rat, spider and snake infested - ok and oh Christ, oh no, shit, he's got my shoes - not ok. I am contemplating this thought when in the corner of my eye I catch sight of the farmer and Crazy George. It seems that in my resolve to get off the plantation, I have gone in a full circle. I pass the farmer and we glare at each other (George just looks on bewildered). This little charade goes on for the best part of the next hour, as every path I take turns out to be a cul-de-sac. I am forced to turn around and walk passed the farmer again, each time we glare. Eventually I swallow my pride and dare to ask the farmer the way off his plantation. Once again he glares at me, only this time he tells me to "f*ck off".

I estimate that it takes me at least another hour to navigate my way off his plantation and back to the road. I make a detour en route to retrieve my shoes from the concrete outbuilding. The farmer’s mother glares at me and I give her the finger. Putting on my shoes I walked to the road and begin walking in the direction from whence I came around 7 hours ago. The road is long and straight so at least I can not get lost. I am fatigued but full of determination and looking forward to telling Little Andy my tale. After around 2 hours walking the fatigue begins to overrule the determination and I feel myself fading. I have an overwhelming urge to relieve myself but I am scared that a car will come sailing past as I am in mid flow. Thus far, I hasten to add absolutely no vehicle has gone down this road.

Eventually the urge to urinate takes over my whole mind and I venture from the road to a nearby cluster of trees. I ask you men, what pleasure can compare with a long overdue release of urine. I am in mid orgasmic flow when in the distance I hear what I think is the rumbling of a vehicle in the near distance. What a dilemma! Am I to break off mid-flow and try and hail this vehicle or should I continue and take the consequences on the chin afterwards. Not for the first time in my life, I am 2 minds. In my hesitation I do the worst thing possible, I emerge from the trees with my penis still hanging out of my flies. I am running after a vehicle, completely covered in mud with my penis hanging out of my flies, p*ss cascading into the air and my arms flapping. To my dismay and probably theirs, the car visibly accelerates. To add to my misery I am now covered in mud and my own urine.

Eventually, I am picked up by a bunch of hippies in a VW combi. I relax in the back of their campervan whilst relaying the day’s events. The hippies are only too happy to listen to my tales and empathise with my situation. They even detour from their path by some considerable km’s and deposit me on the campsite gateway. Darkness has now well and truly fallen and the campsite is quiet except for a small gathering around the payphone playing cards. All I can think about is my sleeping bag, the story can wait for another day. I climb into my tent and fall asleep with great ease, happy in the knowledge that I will not have join the crowds outside the post office the following morning or ever again

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