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Help Exchange on Magnetic Island

  • Submitted by: Matt Adams, United Kingdom
  • Submission Date: 09th Aug 2005

Spending 10 months travelling in Australia was proving to be more expensive than we had first imagined and good long term jobs were hard to come by. So my girlfriend and I had spent several weeks staying on farms as part of the Help Exchange programme available throughout Australia.
On the first few occasions that we did this everything had gone to plan, we did some work in the morning, got the rest of the day to ourselves and had very friendly hosts. Then came Hoyt.
Hoyt lived on Magnetic Island, just 8 km off the coast from Townsville in North Queensland, itself situated 350km south of Cairns. With a resident population of 2,500, very little traffic and on average 320 days of sunshine a year, the island has plenty going for it, even if the beaches aren't quite the clear white sand of further south.

After the short ferry crossing from Townsville our instructions were to get on the local island bus which would take us near to where Hoyt lived. When the bus arrived all the other passengers were school children who had just returned from the mainland, and the driver took one look at us and our backpacks, and said 'ah, you're going to stay with the crazy old guy aren't you?'
Now admittedly the island is small and the chances are that people would get to know one another. But we weren't particularly encouraged that Hoyt was a notorious character, and even less so that he was being described as 'crazy.'
The driver dropped us at the end of his road, and there was Hoyt, out in his front garden waving frantically at us until we got there.
At first Hoyt seemed friendly, if a little fond of talking about himself. He was about 50, had been born in the United States but had been living first in New Zealand, and then Australia, for a number of years now. After a short walk to the nearby beach and back, he proudly showed off his home.

The first thing that struck me was the bottles of water - hundreds of them – lined up going in circles all around the house. It was to ensure that all the chlorine evaporated from the water, and the system was almost like a conveyer belt. By the time a bottle got to the front of the queue, it would have been waiting for several weeks and so would be healthy to drink, according to Hoyt anyway. We were asked to sign a guest book, which it turned out was written in by anyone who so much as set foot in the house. Not too impressed by the way he immediately read what we had written (which amounted to not much more than ‘we’ve just arrived’) while we were still sitting there.
He was very proud of his 'ecological' lifestyle, as he made sure any visitor to the house was aware. The problem was that to us this seemed to exist to enable Hoyt to do as little as possible, and make things as hard as possible for his guests. So on the first night, sitting in complete darkness save for one tiny lamp we ate food leftover from two days ago, to save energy from not having to cook again, of course. We washed our plates with cold water kept in a bucket using a hard brush. But the best was yet to come. If either of us wanted a shower, then the other one had to stand outside by the drainpipe with a bucket, collect all the soapy water and quickly pour it over some plants at the front of the house before rushing back with the empty bucket to catch the water. Hoyt explained that this was to protect the coral around the island. Honourable enough intentions, but what little coral there was here died a long time ago and it seemed that the only reason he really did this was to be able to tell people how ‘green’ he was.

For the first couple of days on the island we got up early and did some gardening before breakfast, then some more work for the rest of the morning. The idea of the help exchange programme is that we would then have the rest of the day to ourselves, but this wasn’t possible. Firstly because Hoyt took an age to eat lunch, even though it was only ever leftovers from the previous days food, a kind of sludgy type of rice with vegetables and dry brown bread. Hoyt claimed he wanted to save energy by not cooking, but after eating leftovers for the fourth meal in a row it becomes hard to believe that it wasn’t purely to stop him from having to actually do anything. He insisted on showing us around the island, which wouldn’t have been so bad except that this always revolved around a trip to the second hand shop. Also we always had to hitch a lift there, and everywhere else for that matter. While Hoyt complained about cars and their damage to the environment, he was quite happy to pinch lifts off people every day.
On one day he and I actually shared a birthday. Hoyt missed no opportunity to tell everyone we came across that it was our birthday, and kept saying ‘it’s a joint birthday, except we don’t have any joints.’ That night we got a nice dinner from the island market and met a somewhat strange young woman. She was worried that she had bought herself a toe ring that could apparently only be bought by a woman’s husband. “If it helps, I could give it to you,” leered Hoyt as I tried not to be sick.

The most bizarre day of the week came on the Sunday. We had spent the morning cleaning Hoyt's windows using old newspaper dipped in vinegar when the girl from the market phoned to invite us all over for lunch. Despite Hoyt proclaiming himself to be the most perfect gentleman, he wouldn't even consider changing his plans for anybody. So instead of leaving right away, we had to finish the windows, and then have more slush for lunch. After two more phone calls asking where we were, he finally took the hint and we set off walking in extremely hot weather to a house miles away on the other side of the island. For once Hoyt's belief that everybody was desperate to give him a lift was misguided as countless cars drove past ignoring his manic attempts to flag them down. We were resigned to our fate until finally somebody took pity and stopped. Again, it was a woman who recognised Hoyt as 'the old guy who always walks around waving at cars.' Anyway, when we got there it turned out that everybody had been waiting for us before eating, something for which Hoyt again refused to apologise for. The afternoon then proceeded to be the most surreal few hours of my life. The girl sat down lost in a trance and chanted prayers, stopping only to offer us food that had been 'sacrificed to Krishna.' She then showed us drawings which were also 'in honour' to Krishna, and then started crying because she decided that she was offending everybody (presumably Krishna included) by revealing these pictures. Added to the mix was an extremely pompous old English professor who couldn't comprehend that people went to universities not in their home cities. Accompanying him was his trophy wife, half his age who was drinking, chain smoking and running round trying to stop their two small children from eating the fruit before it had been offered as a sacrifice. Hoyt was predictably everybody that he was the ‘most environmental person on the island.’ But in the midst of them all, there was a ray of sanity. Steve, a perfectly normal man, was on holiday from Perth, but unfortunately for him, had met the crazy girl at church that morning and been invited for lunch. Steve certainly didn't know what he had let himself in for, and we watched as his expression became more and more confused by the minute. What was he thinking? Was there any way out? Did he think hat we too were crazy? After lunch the professor and his wife, went home, leaving the rest of us to take their child to the beach. Once there, Hoyt declared that it was in fact a nudist beach (I really should have guessed) and I turned round to see crazy girl striding into the water, completely naked. Right behind her was a rather shrivelled, leering Hoyt. 'Come in and join us' they shouted. 'Erm, perhaps not' I replied, as Steve appeared more bewildered even than before. He must have feared that he'd stumbled into a community resembling that of Summerisle in the film 'The Wicker Man.'

For some unknown reason, probably out of fear, Steve came back to Hoyt's house, where he was of course forced to write in his little book. Finally, with darkness beginning to fall, Steve decided enough was enough, and asked when the next bus was that would go back his hotel. 'Oh there isn't another bus for hours,' declared Hoyt. 'You'll have to stay for dinner at least.'
Steve rummaged in his bag and pulled out a timetable. 'It says here there's a bus leaving in five minutes.' Before Hoyt could dig himself out of that one, Steve was on his way, running down the road toward the bus stop, and travelling back to a more sane existence.
His ego no doubt bruised, Hoyt declared that he had a migraine and would be going to bed early, and that, since he wasn't going to use the internet, we couldn't either. Not for Hoyt though the idea of a nice comfy bed. Instead he lay down on a little fold up bed and covered himself in a towel.

The following day Hoyt announced that he had made plans to meet up with Steve later in the afternoon to go for a walk. This was news to us, and presumably to Steve too, so we decided to make our own way to The Forts Walk. Here we finally got to appreciate more of what Magnetic Island had to offer. A nice walk through woods was made memorable by the sight of several Koalas, dozing in trees by the side of the path. It was wonderful to see them up so close in their natural environment, and one of them jumped out of its tree to the ground, before scurrying across the path right in front of us and climbing another tree. We carried on along the walk, eventually arriving at the forts which offered a great view both of the island, and across to the mainland.
Almost as entertaining as the koalas was the fact that we then bumped into Steve. He had, of course, made no arrangements with Hoyt whatsoever. Back at Hoyt's later that evening, we told him about meeting Steve. Apparently he had been busy and so had not gone to meet him, but seemed surprised that Steve had managed to go on a walk on his own. Yes Hoyt, he managed just fine without you.

And so the last couple of days passed by, we had given up getting up at the crack of dawn just to sit watching Hoyt take hours over his breakfast, so got up pretty much when we liked and did a few odd jobs around the house until lunch. Each night Hoyt invited a neighbour over for dinner, and we sat in total darkness as Hoyt went on about what a generous man he was. Whenever the conversation didn’t include Hoyt, he would get jealous and turn whatever we were talking about into something revolving around himself.
On our last day we were busy dragging tree branches and weeds from Hoyt's garden across to a truck that was collecting wood on the other side of the street. The truck started to drive off, so Hoyt ran frantically after it, trailing branches all over the road, until eventually the truck stopped. To say thank you Hoyt invited the men over for a beer. They turned out to be two of the most typically old fashioned Australian blokes you could ever wish to meet. The younger one was in his fifties and his father looked absolutely ancient and both had lived their entire lives on Magnetic Island.
Hoyt tried to get them to sign 'the book' but at first they weren't having any of it. 'What do you want to know me address for you bloody weirdo' said the son, and they both burst into laughter.
Hoyt tried to cover himself by saying that it was so he could tell people to call them if they wanted any work done, and that they could do the same for him.
At this point I should mention Hoyt's profession. He 'teaches breathing relaxation.' Somehow I didn't think the two fair dinkum Aussies would be too into it. In fact, I wasn't sure that anybody would be interested so asked Hoyt if there was much call for his profession on Magnetic Island. No. Ever had a customer here Hoyt? No.
The truth was that Hoyt, for all his criticisms of 'fat cats' and 'the man' was wealthy due to an inheritance from his parents, yet another example of his grossly hypocritical attitude. But perhaps I shouldn’t be too hard on him. One evening he told us that as a child, whenever he did something wrong his parents would lock him up in a chicken pen. It certainly explained a lot.

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