Monday, February 21, 2011

Apples, Apples, and More Apples.

Monday, 21st February, 2011
Napier, Hawke’s Bay

As of today, we have worked a full week at the packhouse (which Matt and I are now referring to as The Gulag). Well, a full week, and then some. When we were hired, we were told that we would be required to work occasional Sundays. On Saturday, we were told that this meant every Sunday for the next month, i.e. no weekends whatsoever. Sunday hours are a bit shorter, 8 AM-4:30 PM. So we have worked every day- the only perk to working on Sunday was that the bosses ordered in a massive supply of fish and chips for all of us at lunchtime. Other than that, there’s very little on the bright side besides the fact that we are making money. Matt’s hands are blistered all over, we’re both bruised all over our forearms and thighs, my fingertips are incredibly tender from handling apples ten hours a day, we ingest enormous amounts of food and water, sweat buckets, and sleep like the dead. We go to bed before 10 PM, rise before daylight, drive the 10 minutes to the edge of town in a bit of stupor, and are on our feet 10 hours per day. We spend our short breaks in the shade of the apple trees out behind the packhouse, and eat an apple at every break- the box of rejects is always available to us. I don’t actually mind the work so much- the methodicalness of it is something I can appreciate; it’s the long hours and the physical pain the work causes that make it so miserable. The people, with a few glaring exceptions, are pretty cool. Most of the packers I work with are also residents of Aqua Lodge, mostly Asian girls who are constantly cooking up amazing dishes in our kitchen. About 60 of the employees at the packhouse live here at the backpackers, so there’s quite a bit of camaraderie, even through language barriers. Matt is having a good time speaking Japanese with the Japanese guys on the stacking team, and I was told by a Kiwi girl on the packing line that she thought my accent was the prettiest she’d ever heard! (And I’ll tell you, as an American, I don’t get that very often). But pretty much, it’s ugly work, it’s hard, and we’re only going to stick with it for a few more days, at which point we’ll have enough funds to get back to Fun Times With Liz and Matt, so we’ll quit!

Philosophically speaking, this is the kind of work that everyone should probably do at some point in their life, just to appreciate how our food and other products come to market, and to experience the reality of the millions of people out there who make their living on minimum wage, doing the back-breaking labor that gets your apples and pretty much everything else to the supermarket for you to buy. When I think about how utterly knackered I am every night, and how we can barely stay awake to shower and make dinner before falling into bed, I feel so much for those people who do this work and have families at home, who they only see when they are exhausted, and only for a few hours each night, with no weekends to speak of. Appreciate that, people.

Personally speaking, it sucks. We work for almost 3 hours every morning before having a break, and it’s hot, loud, and stressful. It requires you to stay engaged but is repetitive enough that it’s not particularly interesting, and if you’re not on the ball, you create a situation that sends everyone scrambling to keep dozens of apples from rolling off the conveyors onto the floor. The management usually runs the machines at the fastest possible rate that we can keep up with, which means everyone is working flat out all day long, pulling, pushing, running, lifting, bending, to get the apples packed in the boxes and onto the box conveyor as fast as possible. Theoretically, we’re supposed to be inspecting the fruit as we put it into the trays, but usually there are too many apples coming through for that to be remotely possible. The only thing that helps is the engineer/overseer/deejay’s random, and often intentionally ironic music choices, when he decides to blast out some tunes on the loudspeaker. Some of his selections have included “Working Class Hero,” “Help!” and, with a pointed look down the line at me, “Born in the USA.” We wear ugly, heavy denim smocks and the requisite hairnets (Matt and the other packers get away without the smocks), and when I asked Matt on the first day how I looked in my uniform, his response was, “Like a lunch lady.”

Today wasn’t as bad as most, because the conveyor machine on the side where I work kept breaking down, so we got lots of short breaks from the lifting and packing. Unfortunately there’s a really stupid rule that says if the machines break down and we stand idle for 15 minutes or more, we don’t get paid for that time. Luckily, the line boss is really cool about it and tries to find other things for us to do when the machines are being fixed, so we still get paid. Today’s scintillating task was to go through a pallet’s worth of boxes of apples that had gotten the wrong sticker (thus the wrong PLU/SKU#), pull off all the stickers, and put the correct ones on. At least it gave our backs a break. Matt rarely gets a break, heaving big boxes up onto stacks and strapping them onto pallets. He and the other stackers do the most brutal work in the place, but he’s holding up well. It’s the hardest work either of us have ever done (for this amount of hours per day), it can be pretty miserable, but by now we’ve become accustomed to it, and we’ve never dreaded it. There’s a kind of comfort in knowing that we got through 7 days already, so we can definitely get through a few more.

With that tirade out of the way, I’ll tell you a bit more about our accommodations, as that is the only other aspect of our life right now-we have literally not been anywhere besides the packhouse, the hostel, the local dairy (superette) and Pak’n’Save since last Monday. We only got one day to explore the city before we started work, but we’ll do some more of that after we finish, so that will come later. Aqua Lodge is pretty cool, but not ideal. It’s a huge sprawling place, taking up three houses, and home to nearly a hundred people, most of whom are long-termers, working like we are, packing or picking. There’s not enough amenities though, only five showers in the whole place and the kitchens are very crowded- we couldn’t find any room in a fridge so keep our food in our chilly bin. The whole place is woven together by a network of courtyards, patios, and clotheslines, and has several comfortable lounge areas that we definitely appreciate. We’re only a few blocks from the city center and a couple more to the ocean, but we never have the time or energy to get out to either of those places. We are staying in the tent city in the back yard:

We're the second door on the left.

Our cheap little tent came with the van, and is pretty minimal, but serves our purposes fine. After we set it up, we dragged the mattress out of the van and into the tent, so we sleep incredibly well on a very comfy bed! It makes a nice change to sleep somewhere where we can actually sit up in bed, unlike in the van. We jury-rigged an “attic” into the top of the tent using duct tape, leftover mosquito netting, and safety pins, and have room on both sides of the mattress, so have a decent amount of storage space inside. The whole place stays pretty quiet, since everyone has to be up early and is working so hard they go to bed before too late.

In other news, Lucy’s Jankety Factor went up a few more notches this week, thanks to yours truly. Our parking spot here has a rather inconvenient tree growing diagonally out into it, which is covered in ivy and thus, if you’ve just worked a long hard day, looks like a plant that will give way easily if you drive up against it, but is, in fact, solid wood. As I pulled in (at about 2 miles per hour) after work a few days ago, I parked straight into it, and a nasty crunching sound emanated from the region of the windscreen wipers. We decided not to deal with it at the time, but as I pulled out into the street on the way to work the next morning, the passenger side wiper fell off rather dramatically and flopped down onto the hood (bonnet), hanging by only the wiper fluid cable. With no time to tie it back up or fix it in the moment, Matt yanked it off and it is living inside the van until such time as we decide to get it fixed (which I, of course, will be footing the bill for). In the meantime, we still have the driver’s side one, which is the important thing, right? :)
Matt with Georgia, the resident kitten, who provides our therapy after a hard day. 

In summary, that’s pretty much our life at the moment. You probably won’t hear from me again until we’ve quit the gulag, but trust me, you’re not missing much! With that, it’s time to hit the hay and take on another day of apples.

No comments: