July 21, 2014
I wipe the sweat from my brow with my forearm since my hands are dirty and immediately realize I just wiped a bunch of dirt on my face. I look down and notice for the first time that not only my hands and arms but my whole body is covered in dirt. My eyes follow one of the fellow worker’s feet as they walk toward me and I see dust cloud up from each footstep, floating almost invisibly in the confined dark workspace. I look up in time to catch the bag of soil about two-thirds my own weight he awkwardly passes to me. I turn around and toss it into the stack of a few hundred we’ve done this last hour.
We are still in the very beginning of the work day and I can already tell that its going to be one of the toughest days of manual labor I’ve ever done. I focus on efficient movements and getting in a mental zone to handle the upcoming pain. We just started working as a team by making a chain and things are flowing well. We have to load three semi-truck trailers with thousands of bags of organic soil and the faster we work the sooner we finish.
My mental concentration is broken by the word “descanso”, (break), first said by one of the older workers, then approvingly repeated by the rest. This is the third group descanso already, not including some other’s individual descansos on the side. We’ve only loaded a quarter of one truck and we’ve lost our momentum once again.
I feel frustrated at the slow pace of the team but I’m just volunteering for one day so there is no point in speaking up. I feel energized and resting is just going to put me in a mindset of wanting to keep resting so I hop down from the tall trailer and take a walk around the property.
Things seem mismatched and unorganized in a visually appealing but unusual way, a typical aesthetic I’ve come to find here in Mexico. There are some random people walking to and fro through overgrown gardens and in between broken-down machinery that has been out of commission for years. Piles of wood, dirt, rocks scattered in different areas, an abandoned children’s playground, a few cows standing under an awning. I snap a few photos then return, imagining that everyone is ready to work again by now.
When I return, there is nobody to be found so I begin to walk around the maze of dirt roads, gardens and warehouses to find them. I meet someone walking down the road and he tells me they’ve begun loading new trucks in another area. I feel guilty to not be helping out even though I came here as just a volunteer today and they are payed employees. I hurry over to them to see the group sitting around without having begun yet and am relieved but surprised they are still resting.
In a couple of minutes, we’re back to work again and get a good flow going. We develop a good system of a human chain that lasts for about 15 minutes. One by one, little breaks begin to happen, breaking the chain and it becomes an each-for-themselves type of work environment. I pretend to not notice and just keep working.
. . .
When I was younger, every weekend my brothers and I had to do chores around the house. It was never perfectly fair and some tasks were a bit harder than others. We used to complain to our mom about how the other brother is not doing a good enough job or that their amount of work was less than ours. I realized after a while that we were putting more effort into inspecting the work of each other than concentrating on our own.
Although it was easier said than done, to refrain from complaints in the face of injustice, I slowly began to develop this attitude of being concerned with my own work and taking pride in it for my own sake. I’m thankful for developing this attitude, especially when I started to work a real job. So often, I worked with certain employees who were so slow or lazy that I would work doubly as hard for the same pay. I learned to just deal with it and take on the challenge of adapting to tough situations.
The benefits of this mentality far exceeded just making my work day easier by not complaining. This mentality carried over into other areas of life. Adapting to situations that felt unfair, or that shouldn’t be happening to me became easier. Relationships at work were better after resisting indulging in frustrating thoughts of comparison that would always inevitably led to holding personal grudges. And of course, employers recognized the hard work even if not for some months into the job.
I love the german word for “complain” because it accurately describes the personal effects of it. “Sich beschweren”, which literally translates to “weighing oneself down”, which is really the only service a complaint provides.
. . .
A couple of guys that were loading a different truck come over to lend us a hand, having noticed the slowing down of our pace. Within a few minutes it is just us three loading while the other five members of my team are sitting down. Eventually one of the guys resting comes over and tells me to be “tranquilo”. Maybe it is sort of rude of me to keep on working while everyone is resting. Perhaps I’m not sensitive to the culture here and trying to be an overachiever is not cool.
I haven’t worked in a few months now as I’ve been on the road and I realize how much I miss it, as difficult as it is. There is something about using muscles and breaking a sweat to accomplish a task that needs to be done. Something changes inside me when I work with my hands, its like I feel more connected to the earth, especially lugging around bags of earth. I think that my human body is happiest when it exerts itself in work. Thousands of generations of my ancestors spent their days hunting, working in fields or lugging around stones and I think my body craves that pain. It’s a pain that is probably associated deep down with survival; work=food=life. It makes me feel alive and maybe since I haven’t done it in a while, I’m getting carried away.
We finally get back to the grind once more and the flow seems to improve with the new influence of more experienced workers on site. It becomes clear that there were really just a couple of weak links in our six man team that threw the flow off. One is an older guy who really seems to be trying hard but is just not physically capable and who has been influencing everyone else to take breaks. The other is a guy close to my age who manages to skip turns in the rotations and slip out of sight every now and then. I can see the “weighing down of oneself” look written on his face.
I spoke with him earlier on the car ride over here and learned he is studying to become a doctor. He is a friend of the family whose business we are working for and he just needed some extra money so he came to help out. I get the impression that he thinks he is above this kind of manual labor after speaking with him and observing his attitude. I get his reasoning but also he is not accepting of his current situation and I’m sure the medical world will have plenty of curveballs to throw him. In the case of some natural disaster or any difficult situation I would not want his attitude to be operating on me.
I look over to the other truck beside ours and there is another team of guys that look like they do this kind of work every day. They are working efficiently as a team and all I can hear is laughs from them joking around with each other. The part of me that has grown up in a society where education and wealth is valued so much wants to feel bad for these workers who break their backs out here each day. Then I look over on the scowl of the doctor-to-be’s face and wonder who is living a happier life.
Will he have a much better attitude when he finally does the work (and earns the money) he studied for? I really don’t think that situations or environments ultimately determine our happiness but our reactions to them do. Maybe in a hundred years people will look back on humans of today and feel bad for us for actually having to exert ourselves with walking, instead of floating around or for having to read instead of uploading data to their brains. Are zoo animals happier because they don’t have to worry about hunting their food or dealing with droughts or predators? I just think the best choice I have is to be thankful to live in whatever age or society I live in and adapt…