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Dispatch from Hastings, Part I

"I'm telling you, I love corn - just not this corn."

My plan, so much as I actually had a plan, was to find seasonal work picking fruit when I began to worry about running short on money. I never had much money to begin with, since I ended up in New Zealand pretty much on a whim, and in two short months of easy living with a net income of zero I figured this was as good of time as any.

I caught a ride to Hawkes Bay with Brendan and Urs. They were actually from Wellington but were going home via Hastings, my ultimate destination. Hastings is a lovely little town, charming in that way that most small towns that die after 5pm tend to be. There are a lot of Spanish mission style and art deco architecture, as in Napier just up the road but here to a lesser degree, because a large earthquake devastated the region in 1931. Since the styles were popular at the time of rebuilding we now have what is likely the country's largest architectural anomaly, and it is lovely. It's spawned an annual festival here in Hastings called Deco Days, complete with vaudeville shows, Marx Brothers films, and tractor pulls. Tractor pulls? A boy can dream, can't he?

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Typical architecture in central Hastings

The earthquake was pretty massive. It registered 7.8 on the richter scale, leveled most of central Hastings and Napier, raised low-lying land upwards of 2.7 meters, and killed 256 people when it was all said and done. In Napier much of the downtown area was destroyed by fire, unstoppable because the water mains had broken, and a number of people burned to death. But the legacy of the quake is a beautiful one, indeed.

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Damage to the Hastings post office after the quake

This region lovingly refers to itself as the fruit bowl of New Zealand, simply because the climate is ideal for growing, and grow they do. Apple season was to begin about a week after I arrived so I figured I would stay at a hostel with cheap weekly rates and wait for work, but the work found me. My second day in town the owner of the hostel told me about seasonal work packing corn for a multinational frozen food company called McCain's, best known for their french fries, apparently. I took it, figuring immediate work would help me earn enough to get out of here in a month or so, but quit after a couple of weeks for a number of reasons, namely safety, poor communication and overwhelming isolation. I'd like to point out that the hostel where I'm staying is called A1 Backpackers. I have to give them credit for actually choosing to name their hostel A1 for the sole purpose of being the first to be listed in the phonebook. It's a bold business decision.

Now, what exactly did I do at McCain's? I'm glad you asked. The short answer is that I did nothing of significance. In fact, what I did will most likely make you feel better about what you do. Essentially I would stand over any number of conveyor belts and either turn good ears of corn to ensure they get cut properly, or throw out bad ears of corn to ensure they wouldn't make it to the market. Bad corn is loosely defined as corn that people wouldn't want to eat. Hard to pin down what exactly that means but I have an idea that the swine who buy ears of corn that have been husked, cut in half and frozen probably don't want to eat it if it doesn't look perfect, as corn ought to. So this is the standard we were ordered to go by, what people want to eat. In the end McCain's waste an astronomical amount of food, as expected.

At McCain's I would wear a white jumper with a large reflective green stripe around the middle, rubber gumboots, rubber gloves (conveniently designed to fill with sweat), safety goggles (watch out for projectile corn!), and noise dampening headphones. Because it's so loud in the shop workers are, thankfully, required to wear the headphones, which cut off about 20 dB. Unfortunately this means you can't communicate with anybody, which had to be the most difficult aspect of the job for me. You stand next to somebody for eight hours a day, on average six days a week and you only talk to them for a few minutes on your break? What else? I had two immediate supervisors - one was a jerk, a born supervisor, and the other was a real asshole when he wanted to be. Naturally I took it upon myself to help him become a better person, a more respectful person, one who could recognize it's the workers who make the business a success. Non-violent communication? Well, the best course of action, I figured, was to spray him with a hose and, needless to say, hilarity ensued. He thought it was the other supervisor who was spraying down another machine nearby and oh, the look on his face! He acted like he'd been assaulted, couldn't figure out why this was happening to him. He is, after all, the boss… So maybe in the end I didn't convince him to change but it made me feel good and, damnit, that counts for something.

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The fruits of my labor, about 1% of the contents of these bags is human sweat… literally.

I just started picking blueberries where I can work for as many hours as I want, as often as I want. Turns out I really enjoy picking blueberries - I'm outside, it's quiet, not too warm, I can talk to people or listen to music or sing songs as I wish, free blueberries, etc - and ten hour days are easy. The worst bit of this job is that the pay isn't very good and it's tough to pick enough to really save much money. So we'll see what happens.

At A1 I have met a lot of amazing kids and carried on the greatest conversations into the early hours of the morning. For example, today I was asked to explain the difference between being cute, being pretty, and being hot to a Japanese girl, a Chinese girl, and a Frenchman - truly deep. Everybody here has something in common - we all left behind what we had, to some degree, and are traveling around a foreign country. I've also started a spanish language conversation group here in Hastings with a local girl who recently came back from South America and wanted to keep up her language skills. I'm not quite back to the level I was at five years ago in Guatemala but I'm working on it. Good, meaningful work, the best work I've done in Hastings.

The rough plan from here is to finish up a month or more of work and hitchhike to Wellington or over to a west coast surf town called Raglan and meet up with a friend who invited me to visit. But, of course, these plans are subject to change. As all plans should be. Best not stick to an idea for too long or you may end up following through at the expense of spontaneity.

Posted by axcordion 22:43 Archived in New Zealand Tagged new corn zealand nz hastings mccains

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