Carnies add foreign flavour
EDMONTON - Adrian Beelders adds a little drama to the Polar Express ride at the Capital Ex with classic DJ smooth-talking, asking riders, "Do you wanna go faster?" before he sends the ride to a higher speed.
EDMONTON - Adrian Beelders adds a little drama to the Polar Express ride at the Capital Ex with classic DJ smooth-talking, asking riders, "Do you wanna go faster?" before he sends the ride to a higher speed. If you listen closely, you can hear his South African accent. The 25-year-old hails from Cape Town and has been operating the Polar Express for three years. Beelders is one of 250 carnies hired by North American Midway Entertainment to run rides during the Capital Ex. Increasingly, foreign workers make up a significant percentage of travelling fair workers. "Our industry relies on foreign workers, because in the markets we entertain the economy is so strong. Which makes it extremely difficult to hire part-time and/or full-time employees," the company's director of communications and media relations, Amber Swedgan, said in an e-mail. She said it's particularly difficult to find people "willing and able to travel nine consecutive months out of the year." The North American Midway circuit that hits Canadian cities hires about 60 per cent of its workers from Mexico and South Africa, said Swedgan. It's a trend across the industry, she said. A far cry from the common perception of carnies as unsavory types, today's fair workers are often young foreign adventurers in it for the travel and cash. Lifelong friends from Cape Town, Tatum Lary, 25, and Zhonay Konstabel, 24, both joined the fair to see new places and capitalize on Canadian wages. "I like it, just that you get to see the difference (in cities) -- even Edmonton to Calgary," said Konstabel. Nine months of the year they live in trailers outfitted with bunks and share a shower with co-workers. Newly hired workers get paid between $500 to $700 per week, said Swedgan. Over a nine-month tour, that turns into about $18,000. North American Midway Entertainment picks up the tab for foreign workers' airfares and visas, and supplies transportation and accommodation for all employees. South Africans multiply their salaries by seven when they return home thanks to the exchange rate of the South African rand. But Ashlyn Hendricks, 25, said the cost of living in South Africa is high and the money doesn't stretch as far as one might think. Working in the games tents is fun for the Cape Town native, who has been travelling with the fair for two years. But she said it's hardly a career. Although some travelling employees say fair co-workers are like a family. The contingent of South Africans makes Lary feel like she's not even a foreign worker. The fair becomes like a mini travelling South Africa, she said. For Capital Ex goers, the stench of deep fried doughnuts, screech of rides, blaring of music and squeals of riders is a yearly experience. For fair employees, it's the backdrop to their lives. The job becomes routine, like any other, said Hendricks. The Funky Chicken song blares from the Dutch house ride behind her, but Hendricks doesn't hear it. "You get used to the noise," she said. "When it's all switched off and it's quiet, then it's weird. The midway is dead. At night when we're done and we're walking home, it's kind of creepy." Glancing around the Capital Ex midway, it's easy to see the majority of workers are in their 20s. The job is best suited for younger people, said Konstabel. Some people do make a career out of the fair, she said. But like her friend Lary, Konstabel plans on leaving the fair next year to settle down, have a family and live in one place. Other midway workers paint a less-than-rosy picture of carnie life with the increase of foreign workers. Corey Nameth, 26, said he's heard rumblings from longtime carnies over the rising number of foreign workers competing for jobs. Nameth, from Kelowna, B.C., works the bottle-smasher game and compared his job to being a teddy bear salesman. "I just do it for ridiculous prices," he said. In his first year working for the fair, he called the experience "all right." Like his foreign counterparts, money was Nameth's main draw. He hasn't found the same "family" described by many South Africans and doesn't plan on coming back. Not every carnie in a North American Midway uniform actually works for the company. Contractors own and run all the game booths and most of the food booths, said Swedgan. email@example.com TODAY AT THE EX - Tom Jackson graces the Kiyanaw showcase at 6:30 p.m. and 8:30 p.m. at the Penn West Energy Trust stage. - The final night of Ed Fest features Metric and Bedouin Soundclash with guest Dragonette at 8:30 p.m. - Catch the Miss Teen Edmonton competition at 5:30 p.m. in the AgriCom Theatre. - The final Ride with Rosie review reaches new heights today with a spin on the Giant Wheel. Visit www.edmontonjournal.com.