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life as a migrant worker

Here it is, another week gone by between entries.  Another eventful week!

I left Jasmine's on Thursday, after an incredibly relaxing and warm three days in her company and the company of various other members of her family.  I got to hike “The Mount,” or Mt. Maunganui (Mon-gah-noo-e), which is a curious round, tall dome that sticks out of the Tauranga coastline.  It was a quick, half hour walk up, but it had great views of the surrounding beaches and the rest of the city.  It was hot, though.  The summer is progressing rapidly here, and the sun is incredibly powerful.  When I got back down off the Mount, I decided to do some relaxing and reading on the beach.  I slathered on the Coppertone 45…but I overlooked the fact that lying on the beach is significantly different than working landscaping, and out of habit, neglected to put any on my legs.  Three hours, an ice cream cone, and a swim in the huge waves later: red, painful legs.  Dumb, dumb, dumb, dumb, dumb.  But at least I won't make that mistake again. 

Daniel is Jasmine's youngest child, who lives in an apartment attached to her house.  After looking at my pictures of my last month here and realizing that we share a love for the outdoors (he's currently trying to start up a landscaping company) took me out for an afternoon to McLaren's Falls, a modern art masterpiece of block-like rocks and thick streams of falling water.  We did a short little bushwalk along a stream to another, more delicate waterfall, and then he treated me to a drink at a local cafe.  I cannot adequately express the extent to which this family welcomed me.  It was simply wonderful.  Leaving them was like leaving home all over again.

Next stop – Napier, a five hour drive from Tauranga, on the southeastern coast of the North Island.  My German friends Anne and Katharin hooked me up with a job!  My first paying job in NZ!  We're picking strawberries on a farm outside of the city.  Our accommodation consists of a large wood and metal shed with a shower, outdoor toilets, a fully stocked kitchen, and a few bunkrooms.  Alas, I was taken on somewhat becuse of my friendship with A and K (the farm didn't really need any more workers), so there isn't any space in the bunkrooms.  This means that I get to use my newly purchased tent.  It was the cheapest model at the Warehouse (NZ's equivalent of Wal-Mart, only less well-stocked).  It's camouflage.  This means that when I leave the bunkrooms after dark, I can't see the tent among the trees of the apple orchard I'm living next to.  It's also not waterproof, something I learned the first morning, when the night's dew slipped right through the fabric of the tent and collected on me instead.  Sweet.  I'm thinking I may need to invest in a proper backpacking tent, but for now I'm just learning to be wet in the morning.

We wake up at 5:30 AM, when the sun is still a golden glow behind the bunkhouse, and are done working around ten, though the last two days Ian (the owner of the farm) has had me work for him in his shop for a few hours.  This is a good thing, because shop work is paid with an hourly wage.  Strawberries are done in pieces – meaning that I'm only paid for the amount of berries I pick.  $0.70/kg.  Not exactly a get rich quick sort of job.  I picked 35kg the first day ($24 before taxes), and today only 33kg.  Today was better, though, because it was Sunday, and we got paid double wages ($38 before taxes, I think).  But the good news is that the accommodation is free, so I'm making enough money to buy food and gas for adventures while I'm here, and I'll only be here for a week or two, depending on how long the strawberries go.  The work itself is not difficult – a bit tiring, but as it's only for about three hours, it's completely bearable.  We take two rows at a time.  Straddling one row, we must bend at the waist and sort of waddle back and forth over the plants, holding little white containers in one hand and using the other to search the plants for ripe fruit.  Back and upper leg muscles feel it the worst, but the hardest thing is not being able to eat these huge, red, juicy berries that are just falling off the plants into your hands.  We're allowed to eat them, of course, but Ian can't weigh what is in your stomach, meaning that you don't get paid for it.

I read Steinbeck's “The Grapes of Wrath” a few weeks ago, while I was still with Maureen.  The text has taken on a whole new meaning now, as I find myself in the position of the Joad family – a migrant worker, striving to pick as thoroughly and as quickly as possible.  Each piece of fruit is like gold, and the arm-tiring weight of the containers in my left hand becomes a pleasant pain, because weight is money.  I understood the novel before, but now I can feel it.

There are eleven of us who work: me, two locals on school holiday, A and K, three other backpackers (from England, Australia, and Germany), and three 14-year-old girls (one from Spain, two – twins – from South Africa) whose families have emigrated to the area.  On the first day, one of the twins, Sam, introduced herself and asked me where I was from.  “The United States,” I responded.  Her eyes lit up.  “WOW!  That is SO COOL!” she gushed.  I haven't gotten to ask her why it's SO COOL, yet, but I rather think being from South Africa is pretty darn exciting.  Today I worked next to the Spanish girl, who chattered nonstop about school and exams and music and asked me millions of questions about life in the US.  It's an unending source of amusement for me to hear the different questions that people have about my country.  It's nicer, almost, with these younger girls, because they aren't old enough to have solid political opinions, and are more interested in gossiping about movies and culture than discussing the foreign policy of GW Bush.

I arrived Thursday night.  Picked Friday morning, and then had the whole afternoon and the next day off.  Katharin, Anne and I made the most of our mini-weekend.  Friday night we went downtown to the Port, the hub of Napier nightlife.  We were almost giddy at the chance to put on nice clothes and makeup – it was our very first night OUT in NZ!  The club we chose was very cool – more a bar than a club, but it had a packed dance floor and large video screens that showed the music video for each song that was played.  That was the best thing: the music.  I'm used to either goth clubs with goth music, or gay clubs with the standard mix of hip hop and top 40s and the obligatory “We Are Family” song.  Neither are my favorite, and I don't often recognize the tunes.  This place (The Thirsty Whale) was all about the 70s and 80s, with a few selections from earlier and later decades.  They call these “oldies,” here: “Come on Eileen,” old Madonna, “I Would Walk 500 Miles,” “Blister in the Sun,” selections from “Grease,” “Rock Around the Clock,” The Darkness “I Believe in a Thing Called Love,” “Love Shack,” Joan Jett “I Love Rock n Roll,” “Black Betty,” “Brown Eyed Girl,” AC/DC, Queen, old Will Smith.  And the highlight of the night: THE TIME WARP!  Fantastic.  I think I'm going to invent a new dance, though.  It will be called “The Elbow.”  I really enjoy dancing with the people that I meet at clubs.  Even random people are okay, if they approach me and at least make eye contact to indicate that they would like to dance with me.  What's not okay: standing next to me and gradually wiggling your butt in my direction until it's bumping into me.  Also not okay: not seeing me and continually backing up until I am being squished into the corner.  It is in these situations that The Elbow would be an appropriate dance move.  Just a friendly jabbing reminder that I do, in fact, have personal space – and that space is accessible by invitation only.

We didn't get home until about 3:30 AM, and literally collapsed into bed.  The next day, though, Saturday, the three of us were up at 8:30 AM to walk to Cape Kidnappers.  It's an interesting hike, about 20km round trip.  It runs along the coastline south of Napier, then up the cliffs to the very tip of the cape, where thousands of birds, gannets, make their nests.  Because the beach is the only access, the walk has to be carefully timed to coincide with the period between the end of high tide and the end of low tide, otherwise you may find yourself stranded between the cliffs and the rising sea.  It was a gorgeous walk, and quite easy, since the beach was flat.  I've never hiked anything quite like it, but the constant rhythm and thunder of the ocean was soothing, and as we walked, we fell into a silence that was for me like meditation.  Steady steps, one foot in front of the other, blue sky above, blue sea to the left, yellow cliffs to the right, repeat.  Tiny blue jellyfish had been washed up in spots.  One was still moving, a blue, translucent gob that pointed and oozed helplessly as it dried in the sun.

In three places, the ocean hadn't retreated enough to let us pass on the beach, and we had to climb across piles of fallen rock.  The rock made me think of the film “The Neverending Story,” and the Rock-Monster (or is it rock-eater?) in particular.  The rocks had a consistency like dried clay.  They were slippery to our damp boots, and some were cracked and crumbled under our feet into little bluish-gray crumbs, like the rock-crumbs that fell from the Rock-Monster's mouth in the movie.  Perhaps I was just in a fantasy sort of mood, because the entire excursion felt like some sort of Indiana Jones movie.  There we were, three travelers, searching for the legendary gannet colony, with only a short window of time to find it, steal the cursed treasure, and make it back to safe ground before being crushed between the water and the rocks…

I'm not much of a bird watcher, so I was more interested in the landscape, but the small, white, fluffy babies were pretty cute.  The gannets themselves are white with yellow heads and black tipped wings, and they make noises like a thousand creaky doors being perpetually opened and closed.  It was a long day, and on the walk back, we were all a little tired and not moving quickly or gracefully.  In a couple spots, we had to take our boots off and wade through tidal pools.  I was trying to step between a couple of rocks, holding my camera up away from the splashing waves, when I lost my balance.  I caught it again, by smashing the fourth toe on my right foot against another rock.  YEOUCH.  It hurt, badly, and after I put my hiking boots back on, it took a while to walk the pain off.  Eventually, though, I fell back into the meditation of walking.

The pressure was on, because the tide was coming back in.  A wind had come up, too, strong enough to push us around and keep us off balance.  I almost felt like I was in a suspense film.  They're far from home.  The water is creeping in…each wave a little bit higher, coming a little bit closer to their tired, aching feet…and an ominous wind is at their backs, fortelling…what?  Will they make it?  Can they beat the elements?  It was like we were being herded.  The wind blew us forward, the waves jumped at us so that we coudn't go to the right, and small rocks actually started falling off of the cliffs, reminding us that we couldn't go left.  There was nowhere to go but forward.  We did make it, however, and drove tiredly back to our temporary home.  When I tried walking, after sitting in the car, my toe shouted in protest.  I finally took off the boots again, to find a swollen, angry looking blue, black, and purple toe.  And it hurts.  I'm thinking it's broken.  Awesome.  I come halfway across the world to hike and ski and enjoy the outdoors, and my feet are rebelling against me.  Tonight I'm going to a nearby clinic, though.  This I can't ignore.  So I'll get my toe and my achilles checked out and hopefully fixed.  God, I hope they'll be fixed.  I'll be here in Napier for another week, anyway, living free and picking strawberries to earn my dinners.  And resting my poor right foot.

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