Bananas in Bermuda


As a child, I was genuinely concerned about bananas, or more so, slipping on one. It seemed to be a fairly large problem out there in the world, much like drowning in quicksand or disappearing in the Bermuda Triangle. As I grew older, I slowly started to realise these dangers were actually far less problematic than popular media would have us believe. However, in 2016, and much to my delight, I found myself in some situations where these fears would finally come back to haunt me.


Every year thousands of young people from all over the world flock to Australia on working holiday visas, I have no idea why, I assume it’s to enjoy sunburn and spoonfuls of Vegemite. For some reason many of these youngsters feel they haven't had enough torture after just one year and apply for an extension. To be eligible for this sacred honor, the government has decided they must work in a rural area for three months (because few others will). This is not at all how I found myself on a banana farm in north Queensland. But is it how I found myself time after time in the same conversation: "Here getting ya visa extension are ya?" "No, I'm Australian." "Oh...why the hell are ya here then?" 


I never really had a good answer for this question, but it did mean I was the first non-local Australian to ever work on this particular farm. This status gave me an overwhelming sense of accomplishment, or maybe self loathing, I could never quite put my finger on it. 


It was hard, hot and dangerous work. Each day we were shuttled out to the farm, a beautiful place in the middle of nowhere, situated within undulating hills covered in endless rows of banana trees as far as the eye could see. Surrounded by lush green mountains that couldn’t be passed, it was a lot like a prison in a way, or nightmare you can’t escape.    


Once in the rows, I’d find myself standing behind a young Japanese man, Keisuke. Dripping with sweat I’d watch him swing a long triangular machete, twice, into the trunk of a banana tree, dodging his chaotic, unpredictable back swing each time. Above me was a bunch of bananas weighing anything from 20 to 90 kilos. The bigger the tree, the bigger the bunch, the larger the fall. There were a lot of large trees around, possibly due to all the steroids regularly pumped into them. 


Immediately after the cuts, bananas would fall unceremoniously onto my head and shoulders. Other things that might fall included rat piss, rats, bats, spiders, spider webs, birds, and snakes, everyone's favourite. Just as all this would land, Keisuke would swing his machete once more—inches above my head—freeing the bunch from the tree, but hopefully not my head from my body. It was a refreshing feeling each time I felt the breeze of the blade go by, it was the only breeze available once inside the rows and provided a momentary relief from the intense heat. 


Brain still firing, I'd 'hump' the bunch over to the awaiting tractor trailer. Alternatively, I'd fall flat on my face after slipping on a literal banana peel. Once a bunch was dropped, there it would remain, too damaged to keep, too heavy to pick back up, thus continuing the perpetual cycle of rotten bananas all over the field and banana peel mines awaiting my demise at every step. If you thought more humpers have fallen victim to the blade than the banana you’d be wrong, far more careers have ended via combined banana peel slippage and ‘banana communication’ - the act of gaining someone’s attention by throwing a rotten banana at the back of their head. Everyone in the field was rendered deaf due to the constant drone of the tractor. Even so, no one could explain why such an effective method of communication was banned. 


Much like a banana to the back of the head, the sudden realisation that your time is up, happens without warning. It was time to leave, which was excellent timing, as in the following weeks the whole farm died. Turns out for a weed, (which a banana tree technically is) they are quite a fickle bunch. The farm caught panama disease, a banana fungus, and sadly closed down forever. That was the end of my career in bananas, I still enjoy eating, throwing and slipping on bananas to this day. 


While on the subject of random awful jobs, when I was 16 years old I worked, unpaid, on a trawler boat for a week. It was one of the worst experiences of my life. I was horribly sea sick the entire time. I spent much of my time foraging in my own vomit for half digested sea sickness pills I could ‘reuse’ and fantasising about jumping into the ocean to end it all, hence the happy little phrase ‘Stuck between the devil and the deep blue sea’ Not until 17 years later, when attending superyacht school in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, did I finally learn the true meaning of this phrase. Why was I attending a school to work on yachts after such a horrible previous ocean experience? Good question.     


I’d heard tales of travelling the Caribbean for free and sailing around like a pirate. Or more accurately, a pirate slave, responsible for scrubbing decks, polishing windows and if lucky, climbing down into the bilge to clean out the scum and oil. Apparently, to be eligible for such a notable position, I would need two weeks of schooling. I decided needed a bit more tropical paradise in my life and I didn’t care where, so after a few hours of research to find the least expensive school in the world, I gave them a call. Right away I was informed I didn’t need a student visa to study there. This sat well with me, I liked their nonchalant and possibly illegal attitude, I signed up on the spot. What could go wrong. 


I learnt a lot in two weeks. Navigation of the high seas, Rib Mastering, fire fighting, your almost non-existence chance of being saved if you fall overboard, how much trash yachts and other vessels can legally dump right into the ocean while in different regions (they even had a little chart for this one) It was eye opening stuff. I also picked up some valuable information on the Bermuda triangle; In 21 incidents from 1945 through 2015 more than 900 people have vanished in the Bermuda Triangle. Aside from the obvious alien abduction tales, perhaps the most plausible theory is seabed methane vents releasing huge methane bubbles up to the surface. A ship caught in the updraft loses all buoyancy and before anyone knows it, they are sinking to the bottom. Later on the boat might float back to the surface, minus all the people, amazing. This all sounded like a truly fantastic time! Now I just needed a job so I could get out there.    


Just as millionaires hide their wealth in off-shore havens to avoid taxation, they also register their yachts there. The Cayman Islands and a hand full of other island nations scattered throughout the Carribean all make fantastic options. They also provide an international loophole for foreigners to work onboard without American working rights. Just don’t get caught looking for a job shoreside, or tell customs about it on your way in; you’ll get kicked out for 10 years. I acquired a bunch of various jobs over the next 5 months, working on both smaller and larger yachts. It was good times working in the sun with good people. All basically ghost ships however, and not because they’d drifted up from the bottom. Turns out yacht owners are busy people. I don’t know what billionaires do, but I do know it generally doesn't involve living on board their yachts for extended periods. As a result, most yachts don’t really move around that much; they just sit at ports awaiting orders. 


Because there's not much else to do, year-round crews keep them sparkling clean, ready to bob from one port to the next at the whim of the owner, or people rich enough to afford the mindblowing $200,000 weekly fee. This still doesn’t come close to covering the owners expenses though, and raised another question neither I nor anyone else had a good answer for: "Why would anyone ever buy one of these things?" Opulence is a helluva drug though, and living on board a floating palace all expenses paid, was a most enjoyable experience, I must admit. It was also quite strange, many crew members took great obsessive pride in cleaning what was already immaculately clean, much like, I imagine, caring for a prize winning (or losing) show dog. Owners endlessly groom their beloved pup in the hope other pup owners will take note of their superior grooming prowess. Meanwhile, no one living outside this elite microcosm gives a toss. I certainly didn’t care, but the best way to look busy is to actually be busy, and although it’s far less enjoyable than sitting in the topdeck hottub all day, sipping on cocktails and smoking cigars, it’s also a far less fireable offence. There was plenty of downtime for all that anyway, and with no owner in sight it was basically like having our own floating palace. I was slowly forming a grand vision on how I would leave the industry.       


It all seemed a bit pointless however, I was no closer to drowning in the Bermuda triangle and it was starting to bother me. Just as I thought I was going to land a full time gig on board a charter yacht for the season, the captain decided to instead thank me for all my hard work and send me packing, but not without underpaying me what I’d been promised, apparently the billionaire owner couldn’t afford a couple hundred more Rubles. They did however have the Rubles to spend on a whole new interior, everything that was new two years ago was to be trashed. This seemed to be a common occurrence in the yachting industry, high end consumption just for the hell of it. They hadn’t found anyone to charter the yacht anyway, so I was happy to head off. 


I was starting to believe the triangle wasn’t doing such a great job. As we can infer from the lackluster statistics stated earlier, people disappear not nearly enough for the credit it receives, one incident every three years is a bit of a joke. As a result of this poor performance and possibly my own inability to get a full time job aboard a charter yacht, I wasn’t fortunate enough to experience death via Bermuda triangle, a very elite club indeed. I like to think I came a little closer than most however, and the opportunity is still lurking in the back of my mind, it’s not too late. On a more  positive note, I didn’t spend any of my time time foraging through my own vomit and I’d gained back an old time respect for what we should never forget in the first place; the power of the sea and mother nature. 


So once again, like my childhood self, I live in constant fear of banana peels, they can appear anywhere, anytime. Unfortunately I can’t vanish in the Bermuda Triangle AND drown in quicksand simultaneously. But it doesn’t mean I can’t give it a shot, I’m a positive person. And although I haven’t done any research into where the highest concentration of quicksand is located, I’m hoping the trifecta of my childhood fears will naturally present itself one day.


Mark Elwin