Okay so this time our digital absence was deliberate, and I'll get to why in a moment. Just know that we are okay now.
So the plan was to take a train and then a bus to Mildura, in the outback, towards the northern end of Victoria. We had been in contact with a woman about a job picking oranges. Compared to other agricultural jobs we had seen, this one seemed competitive. Rent was average, no charge for transportation to the farm each day, and though the pay was by the bushel, it wasn't as low as some of the other ones we had seen. We felt pretty good about it.
Oh no. Oh no no no.
Our first warning sign, in retrospect, was the woman emailing us the night before we left Melbourne, saying by the way you have to pay for two weeks up front ($300). We had already bought our tickets and so we shrugged, mildly irritated, and decided to proceed. Fast forward to the next day, when by 7pm we were met by this woman (girl, really) Emma at the bus station, and she ushered us into a large, unmarked van.
Never get in the van, guys. Never get in the van.
We got in the van. There was about eight people inside, young travelers like us, only sullen and silent. Warning sign number two. The only talker was the driver of the van, who yelled questions back to us and chain smoked as he loaded YouTube videos on his phone while driving. He was portly, tattooed, be-jeweled, with stripes buzzed into his short black hair, except for the curly tuft at the nape of his neck. I instantly disliked him, but not because of any of these things. I could care less if you are tattooed or wear bracelets or a pinky ring. I care if you're an asshole. His questions were too frank and invasive, and his jokes were inappropriate. But Emma was friendly and we had struck up a conversation with a Canadian guy who had also arrived that day. It seemed okay.
He yanked the van into the driveway of a small ranch house on an unremarkable residential street. Everyone clambered out and we started to follow with our packs but he and Emma stopped us. We had to pay, and suddenly it was $400 each. "A hundred dollar deposit," that had never been mentioned. And we had to sign contracts in the dark van, and give him our passports to copy. The passports were expected, the contracts stated we were paying for the job service, that rent was included, and the deposit was a surprise. We fought a bit on the deposit, $400 up front was too much, who is working for whom here? But in the end we reluctantly handed it over and got out of the van. It was dark, late, and we now didn't know where we were in this tiny town in the middle of nowhere. The inner voice was starting to say "I told you so."
There were fifteen people in the house, and we were instructed to just go inside and share a room with an Italian couple. So we had little choice at that point but to drag our stuff into the house and ask who was Italian. Our only stroke of luck in Mildura was the Italians. Federica and Max were sympathetic souls who, like us, holed up in the bunks in our room rather than participate in the loud drinking in the common room. The four of us would later stick together and find safety in numbers.
They said the tattooed man's name was Dom and he would be back with the van at 6am to drive us all to the farm. In the morning nine of us packed into the van with our lunches and several layers on. It took an hour to drive out to the farm, which proved to be a vineyard and not an orange grove. He pulled up to a corner of a field, dumped us, and left. The sun had no even risen yet. There were only five pairs of shears though. With a lack of leadership or instruction, the Italians and three others eventually drifted into the rows to start work, but that left four of us without any tools. So we stood and waited. And waited. And waited. By 9:30 the farmer drove up and asked why we weren't working. A guy spoke up and said Dom's cohort Simon hadn't shown up yet to show us what to do, and besides we didn't have pruning shears. The farmer shouted that this was 'bullshit' and got on his phone, yelling. Simon was there within ten minutes, complete with shiny new shears. These, we were informed, would come out of our pay. The group said we weren't paying for shears, that's ridiculous. What are a bunch of packpackers going to do with hedge clippers? No. But he shrugged us off and unwrapped them anyways. We took them grudgingly--what else were we going to do?--and followed him down a row.
He informed us that we would be rolling grape vines, which is tedious work consisting of trimming the vines and wrapping the stubborn bastards around the wire leads that ran the length of each row. It was a lot of reaching and stretching to grasp the tall vines, which usually slipped out of your gardening gloves and thwacked you in the face or annoyingly whipped over to the other side of your fence. But it wasn't the work I minded. This was farming, we weren't expecting to make daisy chains. It was the new information that they would pay us 30c per tree for vine rolling, and you would only be paid for completed rows. An average person working quickly finishes about a row and a half in a day. About $18. Minus the shears.
This Emma person had said that her boyfriend earned about $500/week at this job. Now I don't know which vines he rolled or which oranges he picked but it was immediately clear that no one was making $500 a week in this town with their clothes on. The bitch lied. Said boyfriend was out in the vineyard with us and he didn't finish any more than anyone else. GIna and I were already panicking. $18 a day before taxes doesn't even cover food here, much less rent (I'm sorry, "job finding fee"). We worked to stay busy but already our brains were tumbling through the possibiliities of how we could get out of this. It was already apparent that we were going to have to take it at a loss.
At 4:30 he came careening down the dirt road, horn blaring. We all begrudingly got back in the van and sat sullenly in rows as he drove like a maniac for the hour back to Mildura. Dom blared Jason Mraz and Eminem and yammered on about a barbecue that weekend but not a single person responded. When he skidded next to the house and came to a stop we rushed out of the van and silently went to our respective rooms. I tried to wash the bark chips out of my hair and talked to Ryan for a bit. We tried to call Mom for advice but wound up just huddled together on my bunk, weighing the pros and cons of various ideas. In the end we decided to email the owner of a hostel that had offered us free accommodation in exchange for three shifts a week, and then we could look for jobs in that town. He wrote back immediately and said we could come asap. Thank God! We had already struck an agreement with him earlier, so luckily Mildura was only supposed to be a temporary thing, and even better, we could leave for the hostel as soon as we needed to, rather than waste our time rolling vine for beans. Before we could look up tickets to Port Macquarie though, the internet cut out and I heard shouting.
I froze. Our room was dark and the Italians were sleeping. I could tell GIna was awake in the bunk above me, but we both lay still as the voices grew louder and louder. Dom was yelling. It was after 11pm and he was in the house, yelling at a French guy who hadn't gone to work that day. Something about YouTube and being spoiled and not knowing what hard work is. Dom screaming that he was disrespectful and ignorant and a piece of shit. The French guy firing back that this was bullshit and he wants his money back. More voices chiming in until the house was full of screaming and I felt like any second it was going to come to blows. I braced myself for the sound of pounding flesh but it never came. The Italians were awake now and we all barely breathed in the darkness as the voices came closer down the hall, Dom shouting for the French guy to get out, the Irish girl rushing to his defense, everyone chiming in about how these jobs are fucking bullshit and they don't want to live in this fucking house and give us our fucking money back. The front door slammed and we heard the van roar down the street.
Emma burst in our room, saying that security was coming and everyone was being kicked out. "Maybe not you guys though. I don't know. You weren't out there so I am not sure."
Everyone was running around, cramming things into their packs and shouting for vengeance. People came in and out of our room, speculating on whether or not we too would be kicked out and giving us bits and pieces of what had transpired out in the common room. Apparently the French guy had googled Dom, aka "the don," and watched a YouTube clip from a few years ago where a news channel had investigated Dom and his "business" and had run with the tales of downtrodden and swindled backpackers. But then Dom had showed up to the house, yelling about disrespect, and ripped the internet router out of the outlet. He was screaming about how it is all slander and then Emma' boyfriend muttered something about "where there is smoke there is fire" and Dom just lost it. We pretty much heard the rest. Especially the Irish girl, who is about three feet tall and full of piss and vinegar. She was all wound up and ready to take the huge Turkish Dom with her bare hands. "I don't understand her when she talk," Max said when we were all finally alone. "All I understand is fuck and shit. That's it. Fuck fuck shit shit that's all she says."
The tension escalated again when the van rolled back up and Dom got out. Luckily he didn't come in the house, calling instead for Callum the English guy to act as go-beween. Callum came back in the house and said no one is kicked out, but if anyone is unhappy they are welcome to leave. There will be no refunds or deposits back.
The news that they would not be cast out into the darkness engergized the others, and they quickly turned to alcohol. It was getting rowdy out in the common room and kitchen as they drank liquid courage and rehashed the whole evening, the Irish fucks and shits blasting all the way down the hallway and into our ears. Gina and I had a powwow with Federica and Max and we agreed that no one was going anywhere tonight, that we might as well try to sleep. Drunk people kept coming in our room though, and it was after the Canadian, formerly so nice and chatty, laid down in the middle of our floor and started taking off his pants that we finally barricaded the door.
Sleep was pretty futile though. My heart was in my throat and I feared every little noise outside was him. Emma had now informed us that she had been contacted by other backpacker hostels in Mildura, warning her of Dom and his scams, naming him as a con artist and liar, even a possible sexual predator. Emma said even the farmer had told her to watch out, that he was "dodgy." I wanted to shake her. Yes, we had fallen for it, but she had lied to us. To the Italians, To the Canadian. She got paid for every person that got in that van and signed that form. And before her, it was someone else. And someone before that. Dom hides behind backpackers he hires to do his bookings, telling them to say whatever they can to get bodies to Mildura, and pays them per head. His own named has been smeared too much for him to do his own dirty work anymore, but still the cycle continues.
I was angry about the money. We worked hard and spent our savings on this trip, and working in Australia is a key part of the whole plan. I was angry at myself for not smelling a rat via email. I was angry that all of us, and so many more before us, had been so successfully trapped by this cologne-soaked charlatan. But I was scared too. I am not used to open conflict. To dealing with people who would con you as soon as look at you, who have a laundry list of lawsuits and formal complaints filed against them. I was hostile. At Emma, for lying to us. At Gina and myself, for falling for it. At the othe hostel, for not getting the information out there sooner or better. At the farmer, for doing business with a man he knows is untrustworthy. And above all at Dom, for his immoral and selfish treatment of travelers and young people. I am not surprised by the lawsuits. I am not sure about the sexual predator allegations. But I am sure of one thing. Come near my sister and I. WILL. FUCKING. CUT. YOU.
It was scary too how vulnerable we were with no internet. We had no phone but Federica and Max had two, but none of us even knew where in town we were. We didn't have long to worry about it in the morning though, as Dom himself was filling our bedroom doorway by 6am. He spouted a bunch of crap for about 45 minutes, about how everyone else was electing to leave, he hadn't kicked anyone out, and the YouTube and news clips were all lies taken out of context, and he was suing. Whatever. He came seven times that day, yammering on like a broken record about how he hasn't done anything wrong and the world is against him and how our money is nothing to him, it's a drop in the bucket of his business expenses.
SO GIVE IT BACK.
Everyone else left very early, shouting expletives over their shoulders as they dragged their stuff down the street. Dom growled that he was going to call immigration and get their visas revoked, as well as every hostel in town so they would have nowhere to stay. But based on the fact that the hostel were the ones warning people against him, I'm guessing they did okay. The house was trashed though, with garbage and forgotten items everywhere and beer spilled all over the floor, red solo cups and boxes of wine coating every flat surface. Gina, Federica, Max and I cleaned it all up in an attempt to win our deposits back, as that was the only scrap of money we had a chance of getting back.
We wouldn't have made it through all of it without them. It was nice to have compatriots who had come to Mildura with the same illusions, and witnessesd the newest crumbling of Dom's empire. He tried to sweet talk us into staying, offering us two weeks "on him" (shudder) but the answer was always no, no, for fuck's sake no. We just wanted out of that stupid town. The scariest part though was the suspicion that he was watching the wifi. He didn't come storming over to the house that night until someone opened that YouTube video, quite the coincidence. We never felt safe there, but feeling like you're being watched online is very very unsettling as well. Hence my blogging absence. And why I am not putting his name here, because I know he follows himself online and I don't want any connection to that man. We didn't tell him where we were going or anything.
Federica and Max took a bus to Sydney and Gina and I flew to Port Macquarie (mah-QWAH-ree), on the east coast, halfway between Sydney and Brisbane. When we finally arrived at Beachside Backpackers, everyone including the owner were laughing and talking, barbecueing together and drinking wine. The polar opposite of the sad ranch house with all of the sullen workers and the arrogant asshole of a big boss. No, here they shouted welome and poured us a glass of wine, making space for us at the patio table and leaning over the huge plates of food saying, "hey, you came from Mildura? Have you heard of this guy out there? The don?"
Oh. More than we ever intended to or care to remember.
For any of you who is curious, here is a link to the best of his worst. Gina and the Italians have looked him up since we left that Big Brother house but I can't bear to yet The sight and sound makes me sick.