When it rains, it pours. In Australia, in late January, that phrase began to ring all too true. After months of blistering drought and nightmare bushfires, the wet stuff arrived. Sometimes it draped everything in a soggy mist that would make you swear you were in Ireland. Other days it dialed up and down, hours of monotonous patter followed by a crash of thunder and lightning as black storm clouds muscled in. Then there were the all-day, all-night drenchings. Aussies measure their rain in millimeters—100mm in southeast Queensland, 150mm in the north—and even when converted to 4-6 inches, that’s a powerful amount. Almost daily the radio reported a flash flood somewhere and a story of someone being trapped in a tree or rescued from their swamped car. Not that Oz doesn’t need the rain and not that we weren’t warned. The hard-hit farmers we met on our road trips cautioned that when the wet season did begin, it might well come with a roar.
What no one mentioned was the mosquitoes, aka mozzies. In the fields around Bundaberg, the pools of standing water have provided the perfect breeding ground for the bloodthirsty horde. Drawn by the light in the marina restrooms, they lurk to attack us in the shower. They flock to the Friday night barbeques, dive-bombing those foolhardy enough to attempt to eat outdoors. If we don’t close Corroboree up tight before sunset, they swarm in through the hatches and portholes. One night we did so too late, and there we were trying to cook dinner, swatting madly with our hands and the spatula, wiping the bloody corpses off the ceiling and walls, and plucking them from the stir-fry. It was like a scene out of Hitchcock, and the cursing was spectacular.
On top of which, February is the hottest month in Oz, with temperatures in our area hitting the high 90s. So on days when the sun did blaze forth, we sweltered and dripped. We made excuses to go to the grocery store just to stand in the air conditioning. Why not set sail for someplace more amenable? Because it’s cyclone season, and the next leg of our voyage, heading north along the Great Barrier Reef, is not advisable for another month or so. Until then, cooped up on a boat, beset by heat, rain and voracious insects, what do cruisers do—aside from drinking rum and crossing off boat projects—to avoid going stir crazy?
For us, the answer is to volunteer. It’s a goal we set before we left Florida as a way to say thank you to the countries we visit. But finding volunteer gigs hasn’t been as easy as we hoped. In most places our stay was too short to be useful and/or there was no organization in need within walking or bus distance of the anchorage. Nevertheless, we cleared trails at a nature preserve in the Bahamas, supervised afterschool programs at the library in Grenada, and pitched in at an animal shelter in New Zealand. Here in Bundaberg, with our own transportation, we’ve found our longest-lasting gig. Since December, we’ve been volunteering at a Lifeline thrift store and having a ball.
Lifeline is a national charity that provides 24-hour crisis support and suicide prevention services. Their store in Bundaberg is huge! Our first job when we arrive is to bring in any donations that have been left in the locker. Thanks to the generosity of the public, it’s usually loaded with bags of clothes, toys, books, kitchenware, bric-a-brac and bedding, while larger items–everything from furniture to a telescope to golf bags and skis–gets piled up outside the locker door. We wheel the lot into the workshop using dollies and two old hospital gurneys. One Sunday morning it took six heaping gurney-loads.
Then we set to sorting. Clothes are the largest single category, and these go into hefty plastic storage bags to be sent to the Lifeline warehouse for further sorting and pricing. Given the volume of donations, it’s impractical to wash the clothes before they go out on the racks; it would take a laundromat running full tilt 24/7 to keep up with the job. Kitchenware can be washed, if necessary, in the workshop and priced there. A designated team of volunteers handles the books, categorizing and alphabetizing them on the shelves. Anything electrical, from computers to lamps to battery-operated toys, goes to another area for testing, which can be done only by certified technicians. Another designated volunteer prices the jewelry, glasses and cosmetics. While we’re sorting, we’re also tossing some items straight into the garbage bin. Cracked vases, stained placemats, and whatever made you think someone was dying to buy your paint-splattered work clothes?
We’re also playing Sherlock Holmes. A carton of cut glass or dusty brac-a-bric is a pretty sure sign that grandma has passed on or moved into a nursing home. A hodgepodge of well-loved toys signifies a child has grown up. An Imelda Marcos collection of ridiculous stiletto heels means someone has either had an attack of common sense or been ordered by a podiatrist to stop torturing her own feet. Which leads to handbags and wallets—never donate any item in which you might have left cash or valuables without checking all the compartments. Coins are common, but one designer handbag recently yielded $150 and the all-time record, we’re told, is $700. When a large amount is found, the store sets it aside in case anyone comes to claim it; if not, the money becomes a donation.
The day’s sorting complete, Eric and I head to other jobs, restocking the shelves with the new, price-tagged wares and straightening the floor displays. It’s an ongoing challenge to keep them attractive and organized. Thank you to all thrift shoppers who browse through merchandise without violently disarranging it. Curses on those who carry a pair of sneakers halfway across the store, then change their mind and abandon them on an armchair. If you drop a dish or a picture frame, for heaven’s sake, please tell us instead of leaving the broken glass behind to injure some unsuspecting customer. We’ll clean it up right away, and you won’t be charged for it.
Eric gets particularly upset when anyone jumbles up the backpacks, as one of his self-appointed tasks is to monitor that area. Ditto the men’s ties, which seem to slither mysteriously off their racks whenever his back is turned. One of my early assignments was to tackle the picture frames and artwork, which were in a deplorable mess. Over the weeks, with Eric adding his efforts to mine and with the full encouragement of the management, we have transformed that area from junky bins containing random shapes and styles of frames to a decent semblance of order. Moreover, we have been given the authority to price all the incoming frames and art and to trash whatever we deem unsellable. Since no one’s dropped off a Matisse yet, nothing gets tagged at much over $30. Meanwhile, we’re developing a discerning eye, and it surely it won’t be long before we’re invited to become art appraisers on Antiques Roadshow.
We initially worked two half days a week, now three, and most of it is nonstop on our feet. Thus, in addition to getting us off the boat, it’s good exercise. The air-conditioning and the ice pops in the staff refrigerator are another bonus. Then there’s the staff and other volunteers, who crack jokes, teach us the ropes, and enlighten us on their political issues and the correct pronunciation of Australian words. We just found out, to our chagrin, that “Aussie,” despite the initial “au,” is pronounced “Ozzie” as in Oz. Oh, the perils of mastering a foreign language! We’re going to miss Lifeline when we go.
And lest you think Eric and I are doing something special by volunteering as we sail—not so. Aside from being ever ready to assist each other, some of the cruisers we’ve met have tutored children, helped build schools, started community gardens and organized beach cleanups in countries they visited. They’ve used their vessels to deliver vital supplies to islands hit by hurricanes and provided extra labor and raised funds to help stricken communities rebuild. Best of all, as you doubtless already know from your own experience, when you volunteer you almost always get more than you give.
It can even keep you from going stir crazy in Oz in February.
P.S. – New boat joke: You may have heard sailors dealing with expensive boat repairs lament that B.O.A.T. stands for Bring Out Another (Ten) Thousand. Here’s the definition of what cruising is really like: Y.A.C.H.T stands for Yet Another Calamity Handled Today.