The Best Vacation Ever Part Two: Western Australia

After a few days of Hong Kong chaos, we were excited to head to my parents’ new hometown of Perth in Western Australia. Perth is located on the west coast of Australia, right along the Indian Ocean.

A quick note about Australian terminology: the accent of most Australians is not as dramatic as Americans expect. People don’t walk down the street yelling “crikey!”  and “G’day Mate!” I believe that some Australian slang we know of like “mate, bloke, g’day” were more popular in earlier generations. American film and television has penetrated Australia, and more and more Australian youth sound very similar to American youth, albeit with an accented twist. One of the interesting phenomena related to this is that almost no one in Australia cared that we were foreigners, especially not that we were Americans. Americans and American accents are old hat to them. When I consider how much attention an Australian gets in America, it really is an interesting contrast. As I write, I will include Australian slang and terminology in italics for clarity. For example, when I write “Aussies” you should know that this is actually pronounced Ozzies.

My first impression of Perth is that it really reminded me of San Diego, but with hotter summer temperatures. It’s definitely the land of beautiful people, with tall, blonde, tan, fit young people lolling around with casual confidence. Of course a major difference is that everyone drives on the left, which is a huge psychological hurdle to overcome, but for the next few weeks my parents drove us around which was nice. (I now think that being a passenger in such a situation is even more stressful than being the driver, but you’ll read more about that when I write about Eastern Australia). Another big difference is the cost of living, which is astronomical when compared to American salaries. The nice thing about Australia is that everyone gets paid higher wages than we do, so they don’t think things are expensive. But when you plop down a relatively low-income American (farming certainly isn’t lucrative, at least not yet!), she will experience some severe sticker shock.

The first few days we spent in Perth were extremely relaxing. My parents are renting an apartment right on the Swan River, which separates Perth’s downtown (the Central Business District, AKA the CBD, as Aussies call it) from the surrounding neighborhoods. At night we watched the skyscrapers of Perth light up with rainbow colors that shimmered off the smooth waterway. River dolphins sometimes swam by in the mornings as we drank our coffee on the veranda before the climbing mercury drove us back inside. It was truly a beautiful, peaceful place to call home base. We spent some time exploring Perth’s sights and sounds, taking walks in the CBD, and shopping in vintage stores in the hip neighborhood of North Bridge. When you walk into a shop the clerk always says “howyagoin?” which I thought was great.  This is where I had my first major sticker shock. All the girls walking around Perth were wearing high-waisted denim shorts with little crop tops, so I thought maybe I would buy a pair of second-hand denim shorts and join the fun (since I can’t wear stylish clothes on the farm!). Unfortunately the USED denim shorts hovered around $55! Needless to say, I opted instead for a delicious passion fruit popsicle (icy pole) and saved my dollars for more reasonable souvenirs.

Since my mom and stepdad have only lived in Perth for a year and a half, they decided to plan a little road trip with us to explore some parts of Western Australia they’d never seen. Our drive south was full of interesting bush scenery. The bush is what they use to refer to a wooded area. Again there was a resemblance to Southern California with a plethora of eucalyptus trees. Of course the trees are native to Australia and were introduced in Southern California, but having lived there for years my mind kept putting me back there. One of the major differences was the color of the soil, which ranges from burnt umber to strikingly bright red-orange. Our first destination on our trip was the small port town of Albany (the “Al” in Albany is pronounced like the name Al).  Albany was quaint, and it was apparent that many tourists flock here in other times of the year due to the variety of souvenir shops and restaurants, but when we arrived in the middle of the week on a non-holiday time of year, the town was pretty much closed for business. It was pretty though, and it’s always exciting to see a new body of water for the first time: in this case the Southern Ocean! It’s an amazing feeling to stand on a beach and imagine that on the other side of the horizon is Antarctica!

Next on our itinerary was a tiny town on the coast called Walpole. My mom had arranged for us to take an ecological and educational boat tour, and our guide Gary was a walking, talking encyclopedia. His family had been living in Walpole for generations, and he literally knew everything there is to know about the town’s history. He was charismatic and clearly pumped up on life (or something!), because he was non-stop animation as he explained how the continents shifted to form Australia using stuffed animals and other random objects as props. One of the most interesting tidbits he provided was about our American marsupial, the opossum. The word “opossum” comes from a Virginia Algonquian word, and the Australians borrowed that same word when they named their own tree-dwelling marsupial creatures the possum. I can tell you with confidence that they are entirely different animals. The Australian version is an adorable little guy with big friendly eyes and round ears, and I’m sure you know what ours looks like! Anyway back in the day there were TONS of marsupials roaming around North America, but eventually the “placentals” (as Gary called them) came around and started killing off the marsupials. The opossums survived because they are gross, ugly, and play dead, and no placental mammal in its right mind would eat that!

After exploring one of Walpole’s gorgeous beaches (while alternately discussing interesting anthropological books with Gary and watching him run laps on the beach just for fun), we headed to the amazing “tree top walk” in the Valley of the Giants. This wonderful experience was comprised of huge metal scaffoldings with gently sloping walkways that take you into the tops of the tallest eucalyptus trees I have ever seen. They rival the size of California’s giant sequoias, and the views from the top are stunning. These old growth eucalyptus trees are referred to as Tingle Trees, which is how they made me feel!  That night we stayed in a private chalet out in the bush, which had lounging kangaroos for lawn ornaments and laughing kookaburras in the trees. For dinner we hit up the local fish and chips shop and enjoyed a true Australian experience.

As we traveled around I started noticing some of the minor, every day differences between Australia and the United States. One, which I think is actually genius, is that almost every public restroom (toilet…no one says restroom or bathroom in Australia) is equipped with a lock that turns a little sign to read “vacant” or “occupied.” You know how they have those in porta potties? They have them EVERYWHERE there: in parks, restaurants, bars. It’s amazing. No more bending over to see if there are feet! (Ok, maybe this is only an issue for the ladies, but still!). Also the toilets all have two flush level options, which helps conserve water. This is the norm in Australia, not the exception, and it makes me wonder why such an easy environmental safeguard isn’t more common in the US.

In stores when you use a credit card to pay, you are asked credit or debit like normal, but when you say debit they ask “checking or savings?” So you can use your debit card to access your savings account, which seemed totally foreign to me. Also if you use credit, you can either enter a pin number or sign the receipt. The cars are slightly different too, especially their version of pickup trucks. They don’t have big pickup trucks like we do, or rather they don’t have the same style of bed. They have flat beds with no body around them, and they are all customized to suit the owners’ needs. Some are equipped with toolboxes and the like, while others are decked out with popup travel tents and camping gear. It’s a great idea! They call these vehicles utes which I assume stems from “utility vehicles.” The worst thing though, is that they have cars that look like ordinary sedans in front, but have flatbeds in the back. So they’re like a ute sedan hybrid, and to me they just looked like the automobile version of a mullet.

Finally, the biggest difference I noticed everywhere I went was the wildlife. The people and culture aren’t terribly foreign, so it’s a bit easy to forget how far away from the US you are, until you see a wild flock of white cockatoos screech by. Even the ordinary birds like crows, magpies, and pigeons look and sound different in Australia! Of course the kangaroos and wallabies that hop across the road at dusk are extremely unusual to us, although when you really watch them closely they remind you of funny looking deer more than anything.

Next up we visited the gorgeous area of Margaret River, where we checked out some wineries. Andrew and I especially enjoyed the small Adinfern Winery where the man pouring our samples was the grandson of the original owners. During the off-season they run sheep and ducks through their vineyards to help with pruning, pest control, and fertilization. This guy had all the same complaints about regulations and laws concerning food production that we American farmers have, and it was really interesting to get the Australian perspective.

After returning to Perth we braced ourselves for Australia Day, the country’s biggest national holiday that is similar to our 4th of July. My parents ordered a ton of food and hosted a bunch of their friends since they have a great spot for the annual fireworks viewing on the Swan River. Andrew inexplicably wound up as the barbecue (barbie) chef for the evening, which brings me to another interesting difference. It’s true that Australians love to barbecue, but most of the barbecues they use are basically propane-powered hot plates. There is rarely open flame or charcoal involved! Anyway Andrew didn’t mind the job, and everyone enjoyed the traditional Australia Day grub of sausages (snags) and burgers. The fireworks show that evening was the best I have ever seen in my entire life, and it was made even cooler when one of the unmanned barges in the river caught fire afterwards (no one was hurt!).

One of the best days we had in Perth was spent on Rottnest Island. Rottnest means “rats nest” in Dutch, and it was given this name because the island is overrun with quokkas, which are just about the cutest marsupial you could ever imagine. There is an interesting dynamic about Rottnest Island. It is a very expensive place to visit. Just to take the ferry over to the island was ~$80 AUD per person. Then once you are there you either rent bicycles or buy a bus pass (another ~$30 AUD per person). This is the only way you can get around the island. One of the major benefits is that the island is beautiful and immaculate, and it’s obvious that the people who come here love and respect it. The downside is that the prices mean many locals probably can’t afford to visit, and so being there felt a little bit like a privilege I didn’t deserve. The snorkeling on Rottnest was some of the best I have ever experienced, with sightings of gorgeous tropical fish and giant spiny lobsters that were splotched in bright pink and purple.

Our last day in Perth was spent checking out the animal rehabilitation center where my mom volunteers. We got to get up close and personal with many of the native marsupials that are generally shy and hard to spot in the wild. I can’t stress enough how cute marsupials are…almost every single one looks like it wants to be squeezed and cuddled. Fortunately for these critters there was a “look but don’t touch” policy, or they would have been in for some unsolicited Micha love. Afterwards we got lunch at a hotel that is known for its ring necked parrot population, who gather around as you eat, hoping for some French fries (chips) to drop off your plate. Later that evening we said goodbye to Meghan, who was flying back home to her husband and the cold Maine winter. We hugged my parents tight, knowing it would be a while before we could see them again, and boarded a red-eye flight to Brisbane (pronounced Briz-bin) in Queensland on the Pacific east coast of Australia.

The Best Vacation Ever Part One: Hong Kong

A little over a month ago Andrew and I hopped on an airplane without looking back, finally taking a much needed vacation from the farm. I have only spent one season on a farm so far, but I can already say I don’t know how people who farm year-round in more temperate climates do it. Visions of our imminent winter vacation are what kept me motivated during our busiest times; times I otherwise might have folded myself into a fetal ball and wailed the days away.

Our first stop was a mini-family reunion in Tucson where we celebrated my grandmother’s 90th birthday. You’ll be happy to know that Grams is in excellent health after all that happened last year. She looked gorgeous in her black evening gown, and everyone was excited to celebrate her life with good food, fun music, and family camaraderie. We had a whirlwind few days there, taking in all the sights the desert afforded us. It was fun to watch my brother-in-law Jonathan experience the Sonoran desert for the first time. Having been raised there I forget how alien and unique the saguaro-filled landscape can seem.

Our next destination was Hong Kong, where my sister Meghan, Andrew, and I had an extended layover on our way to Australia. My mom, stepdad Dale, and his daughter Liana flew in from Australia so we could explore Hong Kong together. We rented a tiny little apartment from a local, where we camped out in bunk beds when we weren’t busy tromping around the “world’s most vertical city.” Hong Kong is a very lively, bustling place, but it doesn’t feel exactly foreign. A lot of the signage is in Chinese, but English is also spoken so it was really easy for us to find our way around. Many of the people who live and work in Hong Kong are from countries around the world, but aspects of Chinese culture pervade. The street markets, and especially the meat vendors, reminded me of being in San Francisco’s Chinatown. It was more interesting to see the hanging meats and live animals on display having spent a season on the farm. I can happily say our animals definitely have the good life by Hong Kong standards!

Most of the time we spent in Hong Kong was spent on our feet. We walked everywhere, and when we didn’t walk we took the incredibly clean and efficient subway system. In fact the public transit in Hong Kong is amazing, and it’s a good thing too because the only cars we saw on the roads were obviously owned by the wealthiest inhabitants. Mercedes, Audi, Jaguar…these were the models that whizzed by as the rest of the population walked or hopped on the copious busses, trains, and trolleys. Escalators are another unique mode of transportation in Hong Kong. We visited a neighborhood that was built in levels on a steep mountainside, and pedestrian escalators are used to access the various streets.

Hong Kong is known as a financial powerhouse, and you can see the influence this has had in the downtown district. The streets are clean, buildings are tall, modern, and impressive, and people whisk their way from office to office in tailored suits and fancy shoes. On the other hand, there are parts of Hong Kong that clashed with this aesthetic, and my overwhelming impression of the city was one of beautiful contradictions.  Many of the side streets throughout the city offered glimpses up hillsides covered in old banyan trees, and it’s apparent that much of the construction in these areas was designed around these ancients. Old temples are sprinkled throughout the city, and it was an amazing experience to walk inside and smell hundreds of incense offerings burning at once. The natural and meditative spaces in Hong Kong offer a welcome respite from the never-ending clamor of commerce.

One of our days in Hong Kong was spent at the “world’s largest bronze outdoor seated Buddha.” What seems like it should be an ancient marvel was actually built in the 1980s, and after a really cool gondola ride up a mountainside you land in a mini commercial district complete with a McDonald’s. Once you pass all this nonsense you climb a million stairs with a thousand other people to take pictures, and if you’re especially unlucky (as we were), construction will prevent you from entering the actual temple where the actual Buddhists practice. I felt like this was one area where Hong Kong officials really tried in earnest to bridge the gap between commercialism and introspection, and unfortunately they failed. After all, there’s nothing quite like buying souvenirs and meaningless trinkets under the watchful gaze of the man who obtained enlightenment by giving up earthly desires for a life of poverty and meditation.

On our last night in Hong Kong, Andrew, Liana, and I took the advice of some local Germans (yes, locals!), and headed into the craziness of Lan Kwai Fong. This neighborhood, affectionately referred to as LKF, was the equivalent of Mardi Gras, but on a standard weeknight. The streets were flooded with young drunk people from all corners of the world. Bottles rolled down the cobblestone-paved roads, and women walked around selling novelty glow-in-the-dark items. It was a sight to behold, and while I’m glad we experienced this bit of Hong Kong nightlife I can’t imagine how anyone could make it a regular habit. Of course 19-year-old Liana probably disagrees!

If you’re looking for an exotic locale, but want the peace of mind knowing that if you ask for directions in English you will likely get an answer, Hong Kong is definitely worth checking out. Most things are priced slightly lower than in the US, but you won’t save oodles of money like you would if you went to Thailand or Vietnam (or mainland China for that matter). While we were there we made sure to spend some time off the beaten track and explore lesser known gardens, temples, and sanctuaries. This helped give us a real sense of Hong Kong’s soul: a unique combination of throbbing city life and peaceful tranquility.

The Golden Hour

There is a time of day I like to call the “Golden Hour.” I started noticing it a month or so ago, when the weather shifted towards winter and the trumpeter swans began flying low overhead.  Just before sunset, (at 4:15!), on days when the sun is shining and the frost lingers in the shadowy areas, the light hits the trees across the river and a brilliant golden glow radiates. Golden Hour is actually a misnomer, because the moment is brief; maybe five minutes lapse before the sun’s rays weaken and twilight sets in, turning everything to muted shades of grey. But in that short time I look around, take a deep breath, and absorb the last gasp of energy from the sun while I can. This is a moment that I believe only happens in climates where the seasons are distinct and change rapidly. I have seen it before, while going to school in Ohio or when I lived in the Eastern Sierras of California, but here on the farm it is different. Maybe it’s because I’m outside most of the time it occurs, but I think it is because I am in tune with my environment like never before. I can feel the seasons switching over, and the Golden Hour is like a beautiful warning. Take heed: winter is coming.

I suppose, (since everyone keeps telling me), that we have been lucky with weather this year. Having never lived in the Pacific Northwest I have to take their word for it. Though the mercury has dropped dramatically, with night temperatures in the twenties this week, the sun has made frequent appearances. Don’t get me wrong; there have been some blustery, grey, misty, and torrential days. But they are mixed in with marvelously clear, cold, brilliant days where the snow-capped peaks in the distance pull my gaze, reminding me of their quiet splendor.

Tuesday was one of those days, and it also happened to be the day we slaughtered our five pigs. I was worried most about this day, despite having witnessed the slaughter of cows, and having taken part in the slaughter of chickens and turkeys. We raised the pigs from little weaners, and they were an integral part of our life on the farm. Daily they frolicked, squealed, played, ate, scratched, escaped, ate, grew, nuzzled, snorted, ate, ate, and ate some more. I was worried that I had become too emotionally invested in the pigs, (I did name them after all), but throughout the process I understood that the pigs had gone from friend to food in the most humane way, and I now feel a sense of peace about the totality of the process. It doesn’t hurt that as pigs get older and bigger they get a lot less cute and cuddly! It also doesn’t hurt that I watched the birthing of a calf after all the pigs were slaughtered. In death there is life and in life there is death, and to me this is the essence of farming.

Last week we spent Thanksgiving with my father and stepmother in Sacramento. We took a road trip down there, and brought with us the dog, fresh eggs, a sack full of potatoes, and one half of a 30lb turkey. We have been eating our own chickens and beef since the spring and so I am used to the tangible difference between fresh, naturally raised meat and the kind you buy shrink-wrapped at Safeway.  Even with elevated expectations, this turkey blew my mind. The juice, flavor, texture…it was absurdly divine. If you have access to a nearby farm that produces Thanksgiving turkeys, I urge you to take advantage. Sure, you pay a lot more than you would for a Butterball, but you really are buying a different product. That’s true for all sustainably-raised meat, but if you consider it a splurge, do yourself a favor and splurge on the turkey!

In addition to our Thanksgiving getaway, I have recently traveled away from the farm quite a bit. My mom came in from Australia and I spent time with her and my brother and sister-in-law in Seattle. Then I flew to Portland, Maine with my mom and spent time with my sister, her husband and some more of my extended family. I had a great time visiting with everyone, and relished the easy access to a hot shower. I found myself getting “comfortable” living the city life to which I was formerly accustomed. I worried that it would be a hard transition back to farm living, that the cold would get to me and I would regret our lack of running water and dependable electricity. Fortunately coming back to Andrew’s warm arms made all of my doubts fall away, and I am happy to be back in my little house, sitting in the glow of the lantern as the fire rumbles nearby. As long as the Golden Hour keeps the “Big Wet” at bay, you won’t find me complaining!

All About Community

There is so much to tell you, friends! I could write paragraphs about the crazy, bewildering, exhausting, frenzied, super-charged, awesome weekends spent working at Bob’s Corn in October. I could write about how much we accomplished these past weeks (more chickens were harvested, some turkeys were dispatched, we completed our CSA season, built a new goat shelter, survived a massive windstorm, huddled around the woodstove, tromped around in pig muck, etc etc). But what I’d really like to write about today is community. Now that our harvest season has ended, I want to take some time to reflect on the role our members played and how their encouragement and support made our first farming foray such a tremendous experience.

Every week for 21 weeks, the same 26 families stopped by the farm to pick up produce. Slowly but surely we learned everyone’s names, met their children, chatted about the weather. As the weeks progressed we picked up on members’ personalities, hobbies, professional interests. We traded recipe ideas, asked for advice on where to eat, play, hike in the area, and got more and more comfortable with our new friends. Two new babies were born during the season. Many of our families brought their kids to the farm so they could feed the pigs, pet the goats, have picnics, and enjoy their farm. This was more than just a weekly service. The farm is a community space, and having an authentic connection to the people I fed nourished me emotionally.

As the season progressed so did the relationships. One of our members gave us probably ten different homemade jams to try, along with cookies and treats for Zephyr. Another member brought us homemade granola. She always set aside a couple bags, one for her kids, and one for us. We received an offer to borrow kayaks, made a new fishing buddy (who always gives us new poles and bait to play with), and attended a member’s dinner party. I started reading a couple of blogs written by a few moms who are members, and they started reading mine. One of our members frequently travels to Afghanistan for work, and recently she returned with a gorgeous pashmina for me and a warm scarf for Andrew.  Another couple gave us a card with the cost of admission to a local Native American heritage museum and an invitation to have dinner with them. We have received offers of warm showers and laundry room use. One of our members is a pilot, and has promised to take me flying over the Cascades. Another member gave us some (very!) constructive criticism, and she was so worried about hurting my feelings that she was in tears (which brought me to tears) and afterwards we hugged each other tight.

These are not experiences I could have had working in an office. I miss the daily interactions with coworkers who became dear friends, but the weekly interactions with my new community eased my anxiety about living in a new place, doing something so new, fumbling my way through this farming adventure. We asked our members to complete a survey for us so that we can improve for the next season. Many people had ideas for growth, and we know that we have much to learn about how to produce the best crops possible. But over and over again we received high marks and comments about our customer service, friendliness, and personalities. This farm isn’t just a business; it is a lifestyle, a place for connection to the earth, food, and people. In other words, this is my community, and I am so grateful to have found it.

Well Hello Winter, Where Did You Come From?

Apparently when the seasons change in the Pacific Northwest, they change fast. A couple days ago I was pulling weeds in a tank top and shading my eyes from the glaring sun. Today I sit here typing this (as I wait for members to pick up boxes), and I’m wearing full on winter regalia. Or at least winter regalia as it was known to my former SoCal self.  This “brisk” autumn day reminds of me of deep December in San Diego. I knew that I would be in for it after complaining about the copious sunshine this summer, but I didn’t think late September would bring winter already! My new life as a farmer has made me more aware of the seasons than ever before. Obviously seasons matter greatly for the plants (soil temperature, daylight hours, heat units…all things I’m struggling to learn about!), but just being outside every single day has made me so much more in tune to the environment around me.

I have noticed a real change in wildlife, especially the birds. Early in the spring we had daily sightings of bald eagles, to the point that I was almost unimpressed with the one that flew over my head with a fish. Then we had gaggles of Canadian geese honking as they landed in the nearby cornfield. For a few weeks we had hundreds of barn swallows trying to make nests in really inconvenient places, like our awnings and storage spaces. Nowadays I don’t see or hear much from our feathered friends, except of course for Homer and Marge, the homing pigeons that still visit daily for their grain smorgasbord. The rabbit population has dropped dramatically, much to Zephyr’s dismay. The coyotes are seemingly more active, vocal, and closer in range as the days get shorter. I only hope there are enough rabbits to keep them occupied and away from our chickens throughout the winter.

October is gearing up to be a crazy place around here, thanks to our great neighbors at Bob’s Corn. They have everything all decked out and ready for the hoards that descend for the corn maze, pumpkin patch, squash harvest, hot cider donuts, roasted sweet corn, BBQ, etc. etc, ad infinitum. Of course all of that people-wrangling involves lots of employees, so Andrew and I have signed on to manage a hay wagon Saturday nights and Sunday afternoons. Our first shift was this weekend, and it was a cold, wet, windy mess. We had a great time ushering the few diehard corn maze trompers back and forth on the hay wagon, and we sipped hot cider while drying off in the country store every hour or so. The Bob’s Corn Crew is a lively, ragtag bunch and we are excited to spend some more time getting to know everyone. Not to mention we are earning a little extra spending money for our Australian excursion!

The change in season also marks the beginning of the end for our CSA. We have five short weeks left for box pick-up, and we are both sad and relieved that the end is in sight. It has been a tremendous learning experience for us both, and our newfound knowledge will surely make next year even more successful. On the other hand, we are feeling pretty fatigued and more than a little burnt out from the nonstop pace. The slow winter days with minimal chores will be a relief, and our trip to Australia is shining like a beacon on the other end of that grey, wet, cold tunnel ahead. Maybe instead of pining away for the summer that seemingly vanished just like that, I will greet the coming fall and winter with open arms, ready for what new adventures await. Now if only we had a hot shower hooked up!