After 5 grueling days of bending over cutting grapes, I was ready for a change. I'd been thinking about the work of the porters, and it didn't seem so bad to me. Sure it was probably pretty heavy, but I've done my share of backpacking, and I knew that my leg strength is built for those kinds of things. I also felt like getting a little bit of real exercise. Cutting is hard on your back muscles, but not much else. And it never makes your heart start beating. I had seen the porters covered in sweat on hot sunny afternoons, and I was starting to get a bit jealous.
So I waited for the right opportunity. One of the porters didn't want to do it anymore, so he switched out to cutting. Unfortuntately, next on deck was a tall skinny guy. Apparently they like to use tall guys because they figure they'll be able to handle it, and it's easier for them to get heat over the bins, making the dumping easier. I continued cutting, grumbling the whole time and wincing every time I had to bend over.
But after lunch, the new porter revealed that he had a giant bruise right above his butt. Apparently the plastic yellow bucket had been banging there the whole morning without him realizing it. He wanted to step down, so I grabbed the opportunity and said I would do it.
The thing I noticed right away after the first couple buckets got flung into my pack, was the inferior contruction of the "pack." Those of you who've backpacked before are aware that a really good back has a belt that tightens around your hips. They're designed to shift the weight of the pack from your shoulders to your hips. The belt can cinch really tight and is nice and puffy so it distributes the weight really well. The effect of this is that your legs do pretty much all the work. Now, these primitive yellow buckets have pretty much zero in common with a nice ergonomic backpack. There is no belt. The straps are made of sharp, rubby nylon. They attempted to cushion the straps a bit by wrapping squishy rubber stuff around them and then taping the rubber to the straps. But after about 5 minutes of work, the tape was already starting to come off. And even with the rubber, the weight of what I'd say was about 40-50 pounds, placed squarely on your shoulders was just way too much. After an afternoon of carrying this "pack," I had some really nice bruises going on both shoulders.
On the second day of wearing the pack, I asked my fellow porter Yann, how his shouders were doing. He'd been doing the porter job for the whole 6 days already, so I figured he must have massive bruising. But he said his shoulders were fine. I decided to study his methods. If you look here, you can see that he's using his hands to pull some of the weight of the pack.
I tried this, but that is a lot of weight to hold up with your hands. In the end I decided to use a combination of this, while also holding the straps a little lower down over my shoulder muscles, which seemed to be able to cushion the blow a little better.
If you look at that picture above, you might notice that Yann doesn't look super chipper right there. That's probably because at this point, the pickers have made there way pretty far down the line, and are far from the bins where the porters have to dump their loads. If you look closely on Yann's right side way behind him, you can just make out two red boxes. That's where he has to go dump the grapes. As the pickers get further away from the tractor, the porters' jobs get harder and harder, because you have to make it all the way back to the bins with the grapes. Because it takes you longer, when you get back to someone, their buckets are fuller, so you have to carry more grapes. Don't think you have a second to take a breather either, because if you delay, someone is going to be calling for you, unable to pick anymore due to their overflowing bucket.
When you get back to the bins, you have to climb a pretty steep ladder. This means you have to use your hands to hold the railings. You can see what the ladder looks like in this picture. With no hands bracing the straps, there's pretty much no choice but to let all 50 pounds of grapes cut their way right into your shoulders. When you get to the top of the ladder, there's a particular technique for getting the grapes out of your pack. Assuming you're right footed, you leave your right foot on the last step of the ladder, and put your right hand down on a bar that runs across the bin. Then you bend over as far as you can, and lift your left leg as high into the air as you can. Having just one hand on the bar makes your body twist to the side while your left leg rises, and this action sends the grapes shooting out of your basket into the bin over your right shoulder. Sounds acrobatic right? It does look a bit like ballet actually. Unfortunately I was unable to get any photos of this technique. The first few times it's a little scary, but you get used to it eventually.
The last day of work, Yann and I had a little competition. We would each take 10 pickers, and start at the same time. The objective was simple-first porter to empty all 10 people's grapes into the bin first would win. We counted down to three and then we were off. What complicated the race was that the pickers didn't know one was happening. I smartly had asked Yann how to say race before we started though, so as I sprinted down the line, I yelled, "on fait la course!" at the top of my lungs, to let the pickers know to get their buckets ready to be emptied. The race was incredibly even. Yann is a lot taller than me with long legs, but fans of track and field know that usually shorter runners are faster (except Usain Bolt). Yann made great big strides but I think my speed down the vines was faster. I got held up on the very last bucket by a charming young french boy that always liked to affectionately mess with me by tossing the grapes as hard as he could into my basket. But it was pretty much neck and neck coming down to the finish. The trouble was that there was only one ladder, and Yann just barely beat me to it. I struggled in vain to climb the ladder at the same time as him. There was no getting up there though. Yann descended the ladder victorious. If only the trickster young Frenchie hadn't held me up, I probably would have won! But then, what's this, a last minute reprieve? It turned out in his haste Yann had forgotten one entire person's bucket full of grapes! Claim one victory for the Americans there.