(First of Three Parts) Over twenty years ago – I landed in the state of Victoria of the smallest continent, Australia. As part of an agricultural exchange program, the aim was to broaden horizons in modern and rural agriculture in the new world.
It all sounded exciting and promising. The dream of finally meeting roos and koalas or any odd-looking marsupial face-to-face in dreamland Terra Australis was to fulfill at last. And perhaps, I might fall in love with Victoria and settle on her shores permanently or so I thought. It was a chilly cold wet April morning on the southern hemisphere, when a huge bloke named Craig, a farmer of Scottish descent, approached and asked if I were ‘Balcos’ — I was muddled up with uncertain emotions as he wasn’t sympathetic at all. But I was sleepy-eyed from the tumultuous journey so tarrying along was the best thing I can do. We had to drive about 3 hours northwestwards to a tiny town called Minyip.
With his distinct Ozzie accent, Craig, asked – “Have ya had breaky, Mate?” – I had no idea what he meant at that time. (Breaky meant Breakfast.) And why was he calling me Mate – There was never any mating!? Halfway through, he jolted me up with another question – ‘If ya eva need to go to the dunny, there’s a joint by the corna!’.(I have never heard of the word ‘Dunny’ all my life. Anyhow, he meant Toilet). Apart from my not being able to sleep due to the overexcitement on the plane, my biological clock was disoriented – and it was exasperating. I slept the whole day after reaching my bed – and woke up the early evening as Craig knocked on my door and announced, ‘We got Tea ready for tonite, Mate’. I said to myself – they only serve Tea during evening here? What have I done to myself? I will starve in this country! (I later found out that Tea is evening meal in Aussie slang).To my dismay, the evening atmosphere of introductions was sad and volatile. Craig’s wife, Jessica was undergoing chemotherapy as she was diagnosed with breast cancer. One of her breasts was already nipped off and the other one was due for extraction. It didn’t last long before I met the host’s extended family and after a while, trouble began. In due time I learned, the family only needed cheap labor to cope with the surmounting financial situation due to the medication and therapy costs. Like many rural areas in Victoria, manpower was running low. The younger generations of Australians head off to metropolitans like Sydney and Melbourne. In cities await bigger pay, bigger opportunities. So foreign backpackers and young exchange students came in handy.
Meanwhile, by chance, I met a wonderful family from a nearby town called Horsham. The Hardys, were descendants of the first English settlers in Australia. They were very kind and lovable. I grew particularly fond of the second son, Luke. We clicked instantly. We had fun all the time. We just talked and talked all evening and shared stories. He was fourteen at that time. So meeting a Pinoy probinsyano who came out of nowhere was a spark in his trail of adventures! It was like he found E.T. and hid it in his room! I often called him ‘Look, Stop and Listen’ just to get his attention. And we had unforgettable priceless memories. (After twenty long years, I finally met Luke on Facebook- but that’s another chapter to narrate). Back at my work farm – tensions were rising. After a series of mishaps, racial slurs, and unfortunate events in my host family’s farm, I asked the exchange programme head to be re-assigned after a month. I left Minyip and headed down south to the town of Colac in the Gippsland Region.
The only slot available was a dairy farm. Bovines nor any other ruminants were not simply on my list of preferred training interests. But I mustered all my strength and pursued it come what may. As soon as I arrived on the paddock – an army of huge Holstein Friesian cows twice bigger my size mooed at me. These breeds are monstrous milking machines – with a max of 50Liters produced per day! The whole 120 udder-some beasts were all mine for the milking! Twice daily, I had to gather the horned beauties first as early as 4 AM and later towards evening. The farm herd dogs Border Collies who were used to the whistles and commands of their former owner were useless – they just stared at me so I had to round all the Bella Bovines up by myself. It was absolute painstaking work. As soon as the cows lined up ready for milking and their hind legs face me – hot biological ooze and excrement would shoot down precipitously in random order. Likened to an aerial attack on a minefield – one has to duck as soon as tails rise up and dash off to the safe dry ground as soon as the bombarding starts – away from all the stinking mushy detonations. Once again, after two months I asked for re-assignment. Milking cows alone was already draining and living out alone with them 24/7 was psychologically straining. It was simply depressing. The owner never bothered to visit me. So I left the pied pattern herd. I met a variety of personalities along the way – and surprisingly met many Pinays in the most ridiculous corners in Oz county! Crikey!
Most Pinay women I met started correspondence to the (puti) husbands as Mail-To-Order-Brides (MTOBs), which tarnished the reputation of the Pinay kababayans. One was Amy from Mindanao who became second wife of an Ozzie (of German descent) whose first wife filed for divorce after the man was diagnosed with a degenerating ailment. Desperate to free herself from poverty she found herself writing to Mr. Schoenhofen. Having a hard time pronouncing the German surname, she called her husband simply Mister Shokoy.
There were others as well. I even met two bugtitinays from Northern Palawan – also MTOBs.
In Oz, there are more Filipino girls and women than boys and men, with females making up 61% of the Filipino migrant population and males comprising just 39%. That imbalance of men and women is partly explained by the wave of Filipino women coming to Australia from the late 1970s onwards.
Adding injury to the insulted reputation of MTOB Pinays was when an Ilongga, who was former maid to an ailing gold mining tycoon ended up as his wife, engaged in a series of scandals which caused court inquests and lawsuits – hence national media hysteria. She was dubbed ‘The richest woman in Australia’. Not one Pinay came close to her title.
I thought I had enough of that as I proceeded to my next assignment.
Traveling southeastward of Victoria – in Warragul, was a vacant trainee placement awaiting in a wide complex of Tomato Hydroponics Farm. I was in Cloud 9 when my Swedish boss Kris Kristofferson (He was not the popular actor/singer of the 70s) welcomed me at the train station. As soon as I finished signing contract papers in the office – surprisingly one Asian woman who accidentally passed by, asked, “Pilipino?’ “Opo”, I answered immediately. She was thrilled. I was bewildered. (Tomato fruits if collected are anvil heavy and the Pinays were Pickers/Harvesters doing quite much heavy lifting).
Later on, I found out eight Pinay women were working in the tomato farm. Mostly married to aging Ozzie men, and mostly originating from the Visayas and Mindanao – it was peculiar to meet these extraordinary women in one place – and a few of them MTOBs. As they needed to send money back home to their pamilyas, they had to earn extra income and not rely on the monthly pension their spouses received. No choice but hard work.
Of the eight, Maria’s character and the story of migration were inspiring. Originating from Masbate, through her sister’s help, Maria found her way onto a foreign land. Her sister, Nor, who worked in the La Rota Distrita of Manila met an Ozzie pensioner. It was the Aussie bloke who financed the whole cost of migration of either sisters. Nor, after settling in greater Melbourne returned to Manila to assist Maria with her documents and personally attended Maria on her first ever plane ride. Maria recounted they sprayed toilet aerosol on their armpits on the Qantas flight bound for Tullamarine coz it smelled sooo nice and was free after all. Little did Maria know that her sister and her brother-in-law inhabited a houseboat! When she arrived, she was perplexed as they were stepping up into a boat. She complained, ” Manang mura ta anig Badjao! (Older Sister, now we look like the sea nomads!). Nor, answered – “Ok lang Dang, damo isda sa gilid sa baroto! ” (It’s ok, there are lots of fishes around the boat.)
Maria like many who due to poverty never acquired good education in Pinas early on, struggled with her English, and communicating in the Aussie slang was bound to be a Cabaret. But I do admire her terribly as she laughed at her own mistakes and learned from them.
Once, we were planting tomato seedlings and as soon as anyone finished the first seedling trays assigned; one had to yell out loud to the supervisor (another guy named Craig) so another tray would be sent over. Maria, who’s a typical Pinay who confuses the ‘F’ with the ‘P’ and all ‘Es’ are sounded hard, shouted at our leadman as she was already done with her first tray, “Kreggg!!!! I’m PINIS!!!!’
Craig, looked astonished and laughter followed.
On another instance, as tomatoes sometimes suffer fungal disease called ‘Bortrytis’ which wipe off fruit production – it was detrimental to report it as soon as we notice early symptoms on any stem.
Maria, with whom I worked together in a shed called me that we go together and look for Craig. So I followed her. She goes on, ‘Kreggg, my tomato is Arthritis!’. Craig again puzzled onto what she was saying turned to me and asked, ‘Is she sick now?’.
Maria struggled and yet never gave up. She was a keen learner. She learned how to drive an automobile despite her petite size. She learned to cook ‘foreign’ food. She adapted and conjured to the new life she was offered. She voluntarily asked for overtime sometimes working during weekends or holidays. She would invite me to accompany her to earn extra dosh. Maria, out of frustration, would shout out, “Hay Dong! Welcome Abroad!” whilst miserably throwing all the tomato leaves into a heap. She cried every time she recalled how childhood in Masbate was. Water had to be collected on plastic containers carried onto shoulders and zigzagging through steep hills and when it rains – it’s a moonwalk dance or accident prone zone. Food was scarce and their house was a wreck. She had to support her other siblings to further their education as she never had the chance. And sacrificed to great lengths she did. But Maria was not alone trying to make a better life for herself and her entire family back in Masbate.
(I confess, after a year I fell in love with Victoria after I traveled down her coastlines and I dreamt of settling down in her greener pastures – to migrate).
Oz offered better opportunities compared to Pinas. An English speaking country, Pinoys don’t struggle in breaking the language barrier. Compared to Europe or Canada, The Land Down Under is only a few hours flight away from Manila or Cebu.
According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, the Filipino population in Australia has increased from 278,000 in 2018 to 294,000 in 2019. New South Wales, with its key city, Sydney, is home to the biggest number – in 2011, with 70,388 Filipinx. Victoria was home to 38,002 in 2011, while 29,462 lived in Queensland, 17,231 in Western Australia, 8,858 in South Australia, 3,587 in the Northern Territory, 1,268 in Canberra, and 1,268 in Tasmania.
Australia is a migrant country. Like the States, it’s a melting pot of Europeans, Asians, and Africans. But unlike America, it is unique as it never had a revolutionary war. Divided into many states, Tasmania seemed farthest away down although Australia still extends her territory downwards near Antarctica.
Tasmania like Palawan had a similar history. Prisoners from Mother England were thrown into Terra Australis Incognito – into the ‘unknown’. The Iwahig Colony and the former Culion Leprosarium of Palawan share the same notoriety as segregation laws were adamantly enforced by the American government in the early 1900s.
When Australia was under British rule, the city of Melbourne was founded. Formerly known as Batmania, the city nowadays is considered one of the best cities in the world. Victorian-inspired manors which can still be found in the suburbs, the Royal Botanical Gardens, the Victorian Market make the city unique. Compared to Sydney, Melbourne has more coastal scenic routes and animal sanctuaries – which I adored visiting.
When the torch landed in Australian soil, the hype was felt all over the continent, as Sydney hosted the 2000 Summer Olympics. I grabbed my chance of a lifetime visiting Sydney as soon as cheap train tickets became available. It was magnifico to observe the iconic Opera House with Darling Harbour on its background. Sydney, I observed, was quite Multi-Kulti with many Asian migrants – the Chinese, Vietnamese, Cambodians, Indonesians, and Pacific Islanders. I even had dinner in an Italian restaurant with Chinese waiting staff.
As my stay in Melbourne was drawing to a close, I got in contact with a family friend who migrated to Adelaide in the 80s and they invited me to visit them. The next adventures were to unfold…this time in South Australia.