Nov 29, 2020

Memoirs of a Terra – A Sonnet in Perth

In 2002 as I was given another working visa I made it my goal to migrate to Terra Australia. This time was in an orchard in Donnybrook, Western Oz.

(Last of Three Parts) ‘Bussi aufs Bauchi’- was the postscript she wrote on her snail mail. The letter was from a Fräulein named Eva whom I met through an EU-funded Agri Project in Mindanao. A flicker began way back in ’99 so we stayed in contact thru e-/snail mails. The Bayerish words were expressing the gobsmacking desire for affection.

In 2002 as I was given another working visa I made it my goal to migrate to Terra Australia. This time was in an orchard in Donnybrook, Western Oz. A couple named Helgo and Helga (H&H) Huebner ran Sunnyhills Farm. Hastily, I sent the details of my next employment to Eva. Before I knew it, she was on a Lufthansa flight from Munich down to our tryst – a week ahead of me. (Like a BMW, speedy was she).

As I stepped out of the bus in Donnybrook Bus Stop, there she was standing – the blond sheila who crossed half the globe to hug me once again. Love was yoodling and it was an enchanting feeling.

When I arrived at the orchard, espaliers of fruit trees saluted me – plums, pears, peaches, avocados, and apples.

The Huebners from Bavaria, Germany migrated to Western Oz in the 90s. They bought the old trodden farmstead from a local and converted it systematically like a German garrison of drupe and pome arboreals. As we passed by, Asiatic and caucasian backpackers were dotting the branches working as seasonal pickers. I joined the ranks later on.

When I met H&H for the first time, a twitchy feeling surrounded me. Eva introduced me as her ‘special’ friend from Pinas much to H&H’s surprise.

I excitedly got on a good tour of the apple lanes. Cultivars like Royal Gala, Fuji, Sundowner, Pink Lady, Washington, Golden Delicious, and Granny Smith were strategically interspaced between the undulating front part of the property. The orchard was a dreamlike paradise with thousands of apples.

In Latin, ‘malum’ from which the word apple is derived from means ‘evil’. The transliteration somehow resulted as ‘apple’ equating to the forbidden fruit, although Biblically, the fruit which sent Adam and his offspring to sin was unnamed.

From a wild species (Malus sieversii), apples originated from Central Asia. Over 7,500 cultivars of the culinary or eating apples (Malus sp.) are known distributed worldwide. Of all the varieties found in Sunnyhills, Granny Smith was the only Aussie cultivar.

In 1868, Maria Ann Smith propagated the cultivar from a chance seedling. Named after her the cultivar originated in Eastwood, now a suburb of Sydney. Smith found the apples good for cooking and baking. And like Smith, our hostess Helga enamored the Aussie cultivars in the acreage – for her desserts of inherited clandestine recipes. She boisterously presented her evening desserts – “Ya, zis evening ve are hevin Apfelstrudel from awer Granny Schmith Apfels, Ya”. The next evening, Apfeltorte and the next Apfel cake, Apfel pie – the list was endless in Helga’s Kitchen.

Not long after, the hullabaloos between the germanic bosses developed. Whenever we picked fruits – Helgo first would inspect us and instruct us to pick ONLY the big ones. A minute later, Helga would order us to pick ONLY the small ones. On many incidences, they shouted at each other auf Deutsch as the confusion surmounted. Both gone bonkers most of the time.
As harvest time went on, we were to either pick or pack. Helga awaited us every morning on the veranda (a scene much like in the movie Evita) and spoke in her gothic English, “You today must peck”. Those chinky eyes of my Jap co-workers turned explodingly large as they got lost in translation.

As new Nippon-jin backpackers arrived, Helga took great interest in teaching the newly arrivals. She’d escort the girls and in her own words, “So today I vil teach you how to peck apfel fruits”. But as Helga had been accustomed to taking baths only when she felt like it, most Jap girls maintained a meter distance away from her. (Physical distancing rules that time was not even heard of). Watching from above the canopy as I was busily picking my lot, Helga was chasing after a newly arrived girl around the tree. Helga almost shouting, “You must see how I do it, but you must stay in one place! Let me show you”. Round and round the tree they went. The frightened girl was covering her nose and moving away as Helga tried to move closer to her. She left the next week.

Food was terribly rationed (likened to concentration camps) in which a picker got 2 sandwiches for the morning and another 2 for lunch. Plus a personalized pack (our respective names are written on) of 1 L milk per week. But what detonated right into my ears was – No Wages. Just free board and lodging and lots and lots of Apfelstrudel. That was the punchline. In my head, I could still hear the Kookaburah’s laugh echoing behind the fruit trees. But being without income neva mattered. After all, the apple of my eye was there beside me.

When Eva asked for a week’s holiday, H&H was most generous – they happily said yes. They simply couldn’t refuse a Bayerish lady who flew thousands of kilometers down to Oz to have holidays with her ‘Schatzi’. Seven adventure days down towards gorgeous Albany and returning to beautiful Margaret River county. We drove through miles of gargantuan Jarrah Woods (Eucalyptus marginata are endemic trees in SW Oz towering up to 40meters) snaking through its natural habitat in Torndirrup National Park. By the coast, blowholes called the Gap was already spitting love in the air when we reached it. And when we kissed at the foot of the Cave Point Lighthouse, those sweet kisses spun me in a whirlwind of emotions and culminating with vows of love exchanged.

We road-tripped through the scenic routes and wended back towards Margaret River. There was an interesting wine tour along with the wine estates in the area where I tasted larvae sandwich, emu meat, roo meat, and some other typical outback bush food. Nine wine cellars with five wine samples from every winery to taste test. Thinking it would be such a waste, I didn’t spit the wine so I was quite tipsy at the end of tour. Eva looked so intoxicatingly lovely.
But like many happy sonnets, came sad interludes. Eva had to fly back to Munich to continue with her Master’s in Horticulture. Like a fast Audi car, she whisked off in a wink of an eye. We had no choice but to part ways keeping in mind the vows made (she re-appeared unrecognizably 8 years later in an alley in Vienna). I, however, most dreadfully had to finish my contract with the Huebners. Life continued in Sunnyhills (with ’em two Hels).

A Jap girl called Rumi arrived one day. She used to work as Sushi Assistant in Sapporo I learned later on. A Korean named Tae Moon came along. Like any other Asian, we craved to eat fish or seafood. The closest seafood we had on the farm were crustaceans. Two large dams sheltered river crayfish, Marron (Cherax canii or C. tenauimanus). Unlike lobsters, these carapace cousins are smaller and inhabit rivers or sweet water. Marron crayfishes are considered a luxury product. By and by, Helgo fished them out and sold them at the local market. He did the fishing and packing by himself. We were strictly off-limits.

One morning, we finished up sorting fruits and he asked us for help. He was under a lot of stress that erratically, he placed his hand on one crayfish trying to arrange it properly. In a split of a second, one agitated crustacean clamped onto his thumb. Helgo shouting and leaping from pain flung his arm up and down until the pincer let loose and the poor snapper somersaulted into the air landed flat on the hard cold concrete floor belly up. As he was pressed for time, he ordered me to bring it back to the dam, as it may probably revive itself. Rumi followed me. We placed the lifeless exoskeleton into the water only to realize it was 100% stiff. Rumi looking crazy at me pointed to the ripe avocados nearby. With her speed and prowess, I, Rumi and Tae Moon ended up having fresh delicious Marron ‘maki’ filled with avocado slices that luncheon. (We gave the same old sandwiches to the chickens.)

During one hazy day, Helgo insisted on climbing a large tall apple tree so we can be done with picking soonest. I desisted as I was already on top of the canopy of the same tree. Besides, as we were on a steep area, it was dangerous for a 6 ft. tall man to stand on a small ladder. I told him to choose another smaller tree instead. Stubborn as he was, he stepped onto the ladder and lost his step. He landed on one knee (lost his crown as well) and tumbled down the hill like Jack ‘n Jill. Immediately, I climbed down ran after him to check any broken bones. I asked, “Are you hurt?” He replied with blood on his nose and knees, “Only my ego”.

Gradually, as all the Asiatic and European backpackers left as harvest season ended, I became alone and empty. There was no more Eve in the Garden of Eden for me. Tired of working for two warring employers, eating the same sandwich day after day, and Apfelstrudel for months with no salary at all – I said I gotta go. Helgo was reluctant but I was not going to put up as a modern slave.

I rode up to Perth and waited for the next assignment. The exchange program’s head contacted me that a Swiss girl (another blond?!) coincidentally was heading the same way as I was. As I met Karin she uttered in her broken English, “Hallo! I am Karin, I am Swiss Girl, I am Swiss Army, I am Swiss Knife”. Meanwhile, I visited Boola Bardip museum where I found myself staring at an archaic foto of a Pinoy diver in the 1870s. The poster recounted the first migrant Filipino workers in Oz who worked for the Broome pearling industry in Western Australia. Known as “Manillamen”, the pearl divers were described as “responsible, daring and brave reportedly diving up to 35 fathoms (64 metres). My thoughts dwelled on the ‘kabayan’ before me. The image sent shivers down my spine. What drove these valiant men to risk their lives onto shark-infested waters? I reflected on the fate of these brave men as I together with the Swiss lass headed towards the next farm up north in Guilderton – a secluded vegetable farm. We were housed in derelict caravans. I met many migrants – Poles, Ukranians, Bosnians and a few Ozzies as well. It became a fiasco when one-day Immigration Police rounded us up and checked our papers! We knew who the undocumented were right away as they fled to hide in the nearby thickets. A lot of chasing happened that day.

After the circus, we worked gruelly on the wide vegetable farm. Washing radishes and carrots, cutting broccolis and cauliflowers, harvesting burdock – we were flustered every single day. After work, Karin and I would drive to the nearest beach spent late afternoons walking along the beach just like long time friends giggling after the day’s work, walking hand in hand. Until one day, she looked at me differently in the eye and said, those charming words, “I mag dich”. She asked if I can come to Suisse with her. An enticing offer. I reversed it and asked if she can visit Palawan instead. (She visited me in Palawan a year later in 2003).

In time, Karin left for Switzerland and I finished my contract with the vegetable farm right after she left. I was alone walking on the beach hopeless and undecided. Finally, I decided to go back to South Oz and took the Indian Pacific locomotive. It was the longest melancholic ride I eva took. The train’s route includes the world’s longest straight stretch of railway track, a 478-kilometer line of the Trans-Australian Railway over the Nullarbor Plain. It took me almost 3 days from Perth to reach Adelaide. The train ride just went on and on through miles of outback desert. Like my adventures, I was trailing into the unknown. Like the historic Pinoy divers of Broome, all I had with me was the courage and dare to discover those fathoms in life.
Back in Adelaide, I reunited with my ‘foster’ family and as soon as I received a note from the Immigration Office that I needed to lodge my migrant application in Manila, I decided to go back to Palawan and start the process from there. I said “See Ya Later, Mate!” to Oz in 2003 and thought of returning to Australia in due time. I never did. I ended up in a country with a pair fewer syllables instead.

Oz was a magical place. Although Dorothy and Toto the Dog wasn’t there with me, the journey along the imaginary yellow brick road – all the weird-looking fauna, its land, and seascapes all throughout fascinated me. The meeting of different characters added color to the realities of migrating and my growing up into adulthood. It was a dream come true exploring the smallest continent of the world – well, at least the lower half of it. To be independently alone on foreign soil while facing my own fears, and rising above every occasion – it made me appreciate more my providence, my being a ‘probinsyano’, my Nanay and Tatay, our friends, the food, boat rides, diving, the sea, people, islands, fish, beaches, and simple lifestyle.

As I flew back entering Palawan airspace, the clouds tinged with pink and red greeted me with that familiar warmness one can only find in Puerto Princesa. From the plane window, I saw Honda Bay beneath and the islets about it inviting me. I was in a trance for some minutes. How it felt good to be home again, where I left my heart from the very beginning.

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