This is how I turned up for my first day of fruit picking:
In purple Capri pants, a black tank top, sunglasses and pigtail braids. The finishing touch was a trendy Billabong straw hat.
Let’s just say the farmer wasn’t exactly impressed.
Fruit picking in Australia is one of those things that backpackers do, so I hadn’t put much thought into it. How hard could it be? I turned up at the farm with a group from my hostel, including Alexa, my friend from home. Alexa and I were wearing matching hats.
“Let me guess,” Farmer Wayne drawled, looking the two of us up and down. “You girls have never done this before.”
He had a fair point. The other pickers included a pair of Kiwi boys, both of whom bore a stunning resemblance to Jesus and didn’t look out of place in the strawberry field. There were two Japanese backpackers who were short on English but long on sense, because at least they’d managed to put on comfortable long-sleeved white shirts. Rounding out the pack was a Thai woman in her 40s, in long pants and sleeves, wearing a battered straw hat that very obviously had not been purchased the day before from a surf shop.
As the hours crawled by, I realized that Wayne was right to be skeptical.
We were terrible strawberry pickers. Terrible.
I couldn’t find a comfortable position. Should I bend from the waist? Crouch so I was level with the plants? Shuffle along on my knees? The downside to all of these options was 1) they were slow, and 2) they hurt.
It seems that I wasn’t as physically fit as I thought, despite being a spry 23 years old. The Thai woman was effortlessly kicking my ass, having adopted some sort of magical technique that involved floating along the rows and making the strawberries apparate into her basket as she drifted past.
I, meanwhile, was struggling with every step, avoiding frogs, recoiling at beetles, and growing increasingly convinced that I now understood what arthritis must feel like.
Wayne came to collect us at two o’clock and surveyed the day’s progress – punnets of strawberries stacked into the bed of a truck. Fortunately, he couldn’t tell who had been quick and who had been slow, but I suspect he had a fairly good idea.
He was all smiles as he paid each of the backpackers, with special words of kindness for the Thai woman. When he got to me and Alexa, the smile dropped from his face. Slowly, he counted out the $80 we’d each earned for our 8 hours of work.
“All right,” he said. “Youse can come back on Wednesday.”
It was as if he was doing us a favor. Which I suppose he was, because I was pretty desperate for work.
The ride home in the hostel van was quiet. We were all too exhausted to talk. My muscles were knotted in pain, to the point where it hurt just to be alive. There was a strip of vibrant sunburn on my lower back, where my ill-chosen tank top had ridden up each time I bent over. I was dirty, I was terrible at my job, and my boss thought I was city scum.
Yet somehow, despite all of that, it was one of the most satisfying 8 hours I’ve ever had.