Sunday, June 26, 2011

Viven en la Pack House

Close your eyes. Imagine standing in a large warehouse with conveyor belts whirring and fork lifts lightly beeping and honking in the background. The radio is playing softly, but is barely audible over the squeaking of the belts, which at times sound more like crickets than something man-made.

You watch a machine: filling, cycling, returning. 100 kiwifruit drop in a box and it moves toward you. You grab the box, shake it roughly to balance the fruit in the box, settling the fruit in place with your fingers and checking to see if any fruit have bad spots and need to be thrown out and replaced. You pull the packaging up over the fruit, wrapping it like a present, and press the cardboard flaps down over the cardboard notches.

Imagine doing this once every 10 seconds for 11 hours. Or perhaps, three or four times every 10 seconds if another employee called in sick or never showed up for work.

I worked in the Seeka Oakside kiwifruit pack house in the Bay of Plenty for four weeks, and despite the mundane, physical demands it was the job I wanted. I needed to save money, and the pack house employees work 11 hour days six days per week. Unfortunately, standing for 11 hours per day, six days per week is no easy feat. And that is without considering the mental test employees must endure that degree of mindless repetition.

Surviving the boredom and physical exhaustion of the pack house makes me feel that I can do anything. The experience also made me determined to educate myself for an in-demand job in the future, so I never have to work on an assembly line ever again. As with most terrible jobs, the people I worked with saved me from depression or insanity. And in hard times or unappealing jobs, people really bind together to become close. So, the pack house became a kind of family to me, and they made that one month livable and even enjoyable.

Many of my friends at the pack house were Spanish speakers from Argentina or Chile, and making friends with them made it worth it for me to go to work every day. We all agreed that when we came to New Zealand, we did not expect to be working on an assembly line. "New Zealand te sorprendo," they would always say to me, rolling their eyes.

I learned a lot of Spanish phrases living and working with them, and I must say, I did not expect to work in a factory either, but I also did not expect to learn to speak Spanish. Living as a temporary resident of New Zealand has presented a lot of challenges and a lot of funny little stories to complain about. I certainly hope I do not have to work as a fruit packer ever again. But some of the surprises here have been great. Because I never traveled to another country to work, I was not sure what to expect, and a lot of things that I did expect turned out to be wrong.

I do not know how to surf, I have spent very few hours on a beach, and I have no swam in the ocean at all even though I am living on an island. But I have met amazing people who create interests in me that I never thought I would have. I lived next to a glacier in a rainforest speaking Spanish and learning to build fires to heat my home. My expectations were wrong, but I think the reality of my trip in New Zealand is even better.

Abe would sometimes help me on slow days at the pack house, even though his position was stacking. He was too tall to be a packer like me.

Some of the Line 2 family

Two of my favorite Argentinians and language partners: Daniela and Mariana. Miss you girls!

Another photo of my Oskat Farm family. Our dinner table talks helped me survive pack house life.