A thousand lives : my time as a house painter in Darwin

One of the things I love about traveling is all the people you get to be. I have been away two years and I have lived a thousand lives. Worked so many different jobs, been in so many different families, met and became friends with so many different people.

This is going to come across as incredibly snob and princess like but I was so happy to get the chance to do those odd jobs. When I was a student I didn’t work at McDonald’s, didn’t do the dishes in some shady pizzeria. The worse job I had was probably being webmaster for a really cool company.

So when I got to Australia and suddenly I was a waitress, a maid, a barista, it was like being somebody else. Adapting to your surroundings, always.

When I arrived in Darwin, Australia, it was near the end of a 10 months round trip across the country, and I needed money.  The ex-husband of the women I was babysitting for saw me one day in my “work pants”, covered in old paint, and hired me on the spot.

I spent 10 days with him, painting the inside of a WHOLE HOUSE. It was one of the most physical job I’ve ever done. We were working 10 hours a day. I did every single freaking ceiling on that house, and my arms were so sore it was uncomfortable to sleep. I LOVED it. John was completely insane, “on” 24 hours a day. Always on his way, always working some deal, always a cigarette between his lips. Laughing his barking laugh and making jokes and being busy so busy. And I was one of the guys. I was working like a maniac, being tough, dripping sweat, aching in my bones. But none of that mattered because every night, after the hours of hustle and hard work, John went and got a pack of Bundaberg. We sat on the back porch, lighted up a cigarette and opened up those rum and cook. My muscles were sore, my hands dirty with paint, I was stinking and famished. But that rum in my stomach was sweet and the hot Darwin night air was all around us. And we talked about life and we laughed exhausted laughs and it felt amazing. Physical labor has its perks, I was feeling productive and like I deserved a rest. My brain was mellow and I was just at ease. I loved that life of mine.

Sunset in Darwin

Sunset in Darwin

The open road is calling. Always and forever

One of the main reasons I wanted to go to Australia was for the Outback. I wanted to taste it, to live it. Those endless roads, the red dust, the infinite blue sky. I wanted to drive for hours without seeing anyone. Be lost in a lost world. I wanted the roadhouses on the side of the dirt track where old tough drivers were drinking old tough beers.

Having arrived in Perth and bought my car there, if I wanted to continue my circle I had to drive through the desert of the Nullarbor. At the time it didn’t seem special. I didn’t understand the surprised expressions and look of worries of people around me. I didn’t get why my last boss before the long drive got me all those tools and camping equipment. Telling me to call when I made it through.

I guess it’s only from the other side, when people responded to my crossing with things like “by YOURSELF ?! in THAT car ?! oh my GOD it’s a story you’re going to be able to tell to your grandchildren” that I realized that I might have been a little reckless about it all.

But it was one of the best experiences of my life. You can’t drive through the desert at night because of all the kangaroos. They are nocturnal animals and bound to jump in front of your car in the middle of the night. Which would be as lethal for the kangaroos as for my adorable car.

So you’ve got to drive the 700 k between the last city and the only motel in the desert in daylight hours. Which means you cannot stop. Ever. You just drive. I drove 8 hours straight for 3 days. 8 hours without pausing, just for gas (and you pause EVERY TIME you see a gas station, because who KNOWS when the next one is going to be). I got so many cramps in my foot that I used the other one to push on the gas pedal. I had stages of intense deep thinking. Then almost falling asleep, so blasting the music and singing at the top of my lungs, the windows rolled down, the desert smell in my hair. I saw dingoes and kangaroos. Giant lizards making a slow crossing. You meet so few people than when you do see a car coming from the other direction, you do this awesome little salute, two fingers from your  temple and away.

Those three days were intense and exhausting. Exhilarating and delirious. It was the purest form of life on the infinite, open road. It was endless possibilities, the feeling of going somewhere and being nowhere at the same time. It was moving as fast as I could and standing still because the road would never end. It was dangerous and amazing. And I loved every second of it.

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More travel pictures on my Instagram

Adapting to the new rules

I had very few moments in my life on the road where I wanted SOMEONE to come and FIX IT all for me. That night in my wooden house in the middle of my national park was one of them.

The night started normal enough. Taking my torch to go one last time to the bathroom outside the house, meeting a few large kangaroos passively chewing while watching me, hearing the bats flying around, going to bed in the deafening silence of the forest. But THEN, in the middle of the night, something woke me up from under my bed. It already took me a good 10 minutes to sum up the courage to put that foot on the floor, get up and turn on the light. That’s when I saw SOMETHING jump behind the curtains of the widow.

What the HECK was that ?! no mouse could jump that far. No iguana was that fast. Grabbing the curtain and going up and down. What if it was something dangerous ? what if it could kill me ? No way I could just choose to go back to sleep. But what if it stung ? bit ? Breathed fire ? I couldn’t just pull that curtain.

In the middle of the forest, alone in my little wooden house, no one was there to help me. I then spent about an hour throwing shoes, t shirts, socks at the curtain in a desperate attempt to at least SEE what I was dealing with. Clearly the problem was the unknown. And I was tired. And annoyed. And felt inadequate. I didn’t know what to do. And SOMEONE needed to come RIGHT NOW to my rescue and fix everything so I could go to sleep.  I was on the verge of tears when suddenly, the little mouse came out from under the curtain. Australian mice are like tiny kangaroos. They can JUMP pretty high.

As soon as I saw that it wasn’t lethal, my whole body and mind relaxed. I put a cookie on the floor to apologize to my new roommate for all the shoes throwing and went straight to bed. THAT is the amazing power of adaptability of human beings. Back in Europe, NO WAY I would ever have been ok sleeping with a mouse creeping around my stuff and person. There, the rule was, if it couldn’t kill me, I didn’t give a damn.

Little did I know how MUCH I would adapt during my time on the road. That was one of my first stop. 10 months later I would be sleeping in a tiny little metal house in the bush where I would wake up with mice on my pillow smelling my hair … Oh well. If it can’t kill me.

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Bonus pictures on Instagram

A thousand lives : my time as a construction worker in Melbourne

By the time I got to Melbourne at the end of the great ocean road, I was ready to go back to the ground, the simple life and the locals, annoyed by the thousands of Asian tourists running to take pictures at every stop without pausing a second to look at what they came all this way for.

I found a construction job in a little city not far from Melbourne and I was de-lighted. Little did I know that it would be the hardest of all the jobs I had on the road.

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The very first day, dressed in my heavy boots, construction helmet, goggles and gloves, I was introduced to the saw mill. This massive piece of machinery, implying a lot of adjustments that I should master pretty quickly, to cut big ass trees into something that could be used in the construction of the house that we were building.  That was only the start. Then it was loading heavy metal into my wheelbarrow and dragging it from one side of the job site to the other. It was making mud bricks and turning them every day towards the sun. It was breaking rocks, putting gravels on the floor, sanding and polishing the wood. And, my master piece, by the end of my stay, I was in charge of the mud floor. From the gravel to the bricks to the mud to the beautiful leveling and smoothing it all at the end. It came with sore muscles, bruised arms, messed up hands, cuts, blood, sweat and dust but oh man was I proud.

20170422_191811I guess the other thing about the job was the living conditions. Eco friendly would be an understatement for those people. Mud brick house where it would rain inside as well. One tap only would provide drinkable water, everything else was brownish recycled water. Yes, the shower as well. After three weeks none of my cuts were healed and some of them were just turning a weird black color. The floor was uneven and not finished, you could hear mice INSIDE the walls and by the end they found a huge wasps nest right underneath by bedroom. I would sleep with the sound of those insects buzzing right there all night.

Was I happy to leave at the end ? Yes. But was it one of the best job experience of my life ? Absolutely. Those people were amazing. Honestly. It’s the kind of people you read about in books. The three sons were all working in construction. They would come home late in the afternoon, dirty from mud and paint, in washed up disgusting clothes, and then … One would sit at the piano and just play Mozart. The other one would be talking about the latest philosophy book he’d read. And the third about his soon to be trip to Argentina to perfect his Spanish. The mother was this tiny little thing with messed up white hair and delicate little hands, who would cook this amazing food in this stone age kitchen, loved by her three sons like the goddess she was, reading, listening to classical music while working the whole household and the whole money.

And the father. This eccentric with revolutionary ideas, who had me paint his van in bright yellow and put a big sunshine on it to go to farmers markets and talk to people about solar energy. Who would steal wood from the road to build his son his house. Who would yell at every single worker he ever got and love them all anyway.

Yes, it was rough, and I’m not one to say that lightly. But it is one of those stories I can tell at bars all around the world. And really, isn’t that the whole point ?

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A thousand lives : My time as a Camel farmer in Alice Springs

As soon as I arrived in Australia, Alice Spring was always on my mind. And yes, it seemed impossible to get there. And yes, it was at least 2 to 3 days of driving no matter where you started from. And then 2 or 3 days no matter where you wanted to go. It was in the middle of the red dust, forgotten by the Gods, lonely under the endless blue sky. It was the very heart of the Outback and it was for me. When I finally got there I got a job in a camel farm. Yes, Camels. It didn’t sound very Australian to me but apparently a lot of them are out there in the wild, from that time when they moved things with camels. Massive trucks ended up replacing them, and they were set free.

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Alice Springs, Australia

It was the Outback at its purest. My boss was a camel rider who always wore a messed up cow boy hat, spoke with that lazy crackling accent, moved in this careful wary way, and talked about the rest of the world like we just didn’t get IT.

I got this tiny metal house in the back of the garden, were mice would climb on my bed every night and I would wake up when they were smelling (or eating ?) my hair. I was sharing my bathroom with the tourists and the camel guys, and was always showering while singing loudly because there was no lock and I was letting everybody know that the bathroom was indeed occupied. My jobs were marvelous. I would wake up every morning and put a shitload of camel poo in a wheelbarrow, push it to the chickens and put that in there. I would then spend my mornings in a personal combat with the dry, nasty and inflexible outback earth, trying to dig up the weeds that were conquering everything. In the afternoon I was weaving smelly camel hair. And then for my all-time favorite : the douchebag bird. It was this 70 years old white cockatoo. The sweetest possible bird when the owner was around. Just loving and purring like a cat and snuggling under her arm and being adorable. As soon as the owner was gone though, that bird was just plain vicious. If I opened the cage to feed him, he would go for my feet and try to bite me. He always watched me in a careful way, looking where he could attack, going for the fingers if he was close enough, circling his food bowl, daring me to go in. By the end of my stay I would just throw the seeds through the bars and pour the water from the outside, insulting him under my breath while he was just giving me his satisfied smile.

But the camel farm gave me some serious Outback credit. Ridding a camel in the red sand at sunset, callused hands from working the shovel so hard, endless talks with Marcus about their aboriginal friends, red dust over all of my clothes that will never ever leave. For a split second, I was part of that forgotten rough world, and it felt powerful.

 

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Why I write

Even though I feel like my “life on the road” ended (at least for now) a couple of months ago, here I am again, my bag on my shoulder, entering another coffee place to wait for hours for another cheap mean of transportation. May be life on the road will never stop. May be I just have to accept that it’s in me and part of me. And that’s how I know it’s time. Time to start writing. All those people I have met, all those amazing characters deserve to have their stories told. I have been asked to write when I was on the road. I was too busy absorbing it all to be able to have any kind of thought about what I was living. Now it’s time to put the pen to the paper. From my comfortable chair in another comfortable European city, it’s time to talk about the dust and the heat, the animals and the muscle sores of the thousand lives I got the chance of living while on the road.

And I know a travel blog is supposed to be the stories of amazing adventures. It’s the exaltation of endless opportunities, amazing people, breathtaking views. But I’m writing it from afar, and I feel good about it. It seems the more you move away from that time in your life, the more you cherish it. A traveler is who I am. I have the scars and the tattoos to prove it. And having been on the road THAT much THAT young is both amazing and scary. On the one hand, sure, I’ve already accomplished so much. No matter what happens next, no matter how much I screw up, I will have done THAT, be that. No one can ever take it away from me.  But on the other hand, what if that was it. That was the biggest achievement, the thing I will be the proudest about ? It the high of you life happens at 25, it’s only downhill from there, and that is just not working for me. Life on the road is forever.

Yalboroo, Australia

Yalboroo, Australia