As a poor college student at the University of Hawaii, I supplemented my income with part-time tourist related jobs in different forums. Life on the island was grand… and expensive.  I attended classes three days a week and worked a variety of jobs as a cocktail waitress at the Hilton Hotel and when our local table photographer was sick, I would fill in taking pictures of tourists draped in their Hawaiian shirts sporting umbrella drinks.  I taxied people from the airport to the hotel, welcoming them at the gate wearing a Hawaiian skirt and a flower in my hair while placing a fresh lei over their head, compliments of the hotel.  We all lived off tips.  People who vacation in Hawaii are loose with their money.  Tips were the way to go, and it was easy, like picking low-hanging fruit.  As an added bonus, I would take my customers off the beaten path and show them local Hawaii.  Winding between plantations and waterfalls, mountains and ocean,  they marvelled at their first look at the island.  I would be sure to tell them this was not part of the hotel tour, but I knew they’d never see these particular things on their tour agenda, so I thought I’d share something no one else would see.  As icing on the cake I would stop so they could take pictures, knowing all the while they would line my pockets with gratitude in the form of cash.   I made sure to take the windy back roads to confuse them and when I dropped them off I would give them my card and tell them they could request me to drive them back to the airport when their vacations were over.  Just to be sure the big tippers requested me as their return driver, I would check the hotel roster to see when they were checking out and send them a note the night before saying I was available early the next day if they wanted to get some last-minute sight-seeing in.  It was always profitable and I always showed up with little Hawaiian trinkets that I picked up at the local flea market for about .25 cents each.  They loved it and paid me well as we hugged goodbye like old friends at the airport. 

As a Business/Journalism major I took a required Communications class.  My teacher was a local, born and raised on the island.  He was wonderful.  He knew all the students were making a killing off the tourists, much like the entire span of the Hawaiian islands.  He was about to give us a dose of real Hawaii, and grade us on it.  Our assignment was to write about a local business that did not directly cater to tourism.  He wanted hands-on writing, which meant we were to actually volunteer our time for as long as it took us to write a paper on the experience.  That was the entire class assignment.  We were to reconvene in six weeks.  No tests, no classes, no check-ins, just the paper, we would be graded entirely on the paper alone.   How hard could that be?

I decided, since I needed extra money and wanted to get an A for the paper and for the class, I would use this assignment to find a local job that would last longer than the paper, and write about it.  Easy enough… first day of searching the local classified, I apply for a part-time job as an egg packer.  What exactly is an egg packer?  Hell, I don’t know, but it must have something to do with eggs.  I call and get an interview appointment for the next day.  Sweet!  Feeling victorious and like this is in the bag, I go to the beach for the rest of the day.  Easy peezy!

Most people assumed I was a local girl until I would open my mouth and expose my New England accent.  Being of Greek and Italian heritage I had a deep bronze tan.  My long dark wavy hair had hints of sun streaks randomly throughout.  I was rocking a fit body, fake nails, minimal make up and high quality thread clothing.  Where everything else was expensive on the island, silk, linen and cotton were not.  Trading was huge at the local flea markets and being a sewer, I always traded for beautiful fabrics and would sew cool clothes on a sewing machine in the home economics class after school.  I was learning all the short cuts on how to survive on an expensive island.

Next day… get up, eat, workout and get ready for my interview.  Donning a beautiful off-white linen suit that I traded for at the flea market (I didn’t make it) that enhanced my deep tan and dark, sun-streaked locks, I head out to the other side of the island to find the farm.  I know approximately where the area is, but strain as I look for the exact location.  As I drive down a dirt road in the middle of a pineapple plantation, I’m worried that my nice suit will be soiled with the clay-like dirt spewing up from the road as cars pass me.  It suddenly occurs to me I should have worn something else of a different color and fabric.  Too late, I trudge on.  Seeming like forever, I finally come to a run down sign at the end of another dirt road with an arrow pointing in the direction of the farm.  This has to be it.  I turn in and am immediately greeted by little Filipino kids with big smiles and few clothes waving me up to the barn.  I passed a few cows and goats roaming free, dark brown farmers tilling the land and lots and lots of chickens, everywhere you look.  Suddenly, I feel over dressed and glance in the back seat of my car to see if I had anything stuffed back there to change into.  A pair of shorts, moo-moo, sundress, anything.  Nothing.  I pull my hair back in a ponytail to look a little more casual.  Right.  I’m greeted by another handful of little kids, giggling and playing around my beat up car.  All I can think of is the dust bowl they are creating in their excitement.  They must not get a lot of company up here.  Just outside of the erupting mushroom cloud of dust, a small, friendly Filipino man emerges in filthy clothes, boots and gloves and greets me in broken english, a nod and a smile.  He begins to walk inside the barn and motions for me to follow.  I throw my notepad in the car, deciding I’m not going to need it, and I prayed he wouldn’t extend his hand for a shake.  He sized me up and gave me a warm smile and a slight chuckle.  I almost felt like he was hiding a secret behind that smile.  I had no idea what was to come… but I was about to find out.

He asked me what I knew about chicken eggs.  I told him they were useful for cooking and baking and could be used as an occassional prank on campus.  No response, so I mentioned that I grew up in a family that consumed them regularly.  He asked me if I’d ever been to a chicken farm before.  I said no.  He told me this farm had been in his family for generations and they were the number one chicken supplier for local markets on the island.  Impressive.  It wasn’t that big of a farm, or so I thought.  Before we get to the eggs, he wanted me to see the entire farm.  His thinking was if he trained all his employees to do all the jobs, then he wouldn’t be stuck if someone didn’t show up for work and they had a deadline to meet.  It made sense to me and I agreed.  It’s also important to say at this time that because of his broken english, it was easier to agree with what he was saying as he seemed to walk and talk at the same time.  I just nodded and followed as my car became a distant spec behind me and my off-white linen suit was turning dirt brown.  We pass through massive chicken coops on either side of us.  The gates on each side are open and chickens are crossing from one side to the other and seem to part ways as we walk through them.  Is this how Moses felt when he parted the red sea?  Doubtful.  Noisy, smelly, big and small, there were feathers everywhere as the chickens made their way to and from each side.  There is nothing cute or cuddly about a chicken, but I have to say, these chickens had plenty of room to run around and seemed content with their surroundings.  They seemed to have an agenda all their own.   None of them seemed to be dead, dying or injured and I noticed some of them stayed closer to each other than others.  Were they families?  They seemed like they were playing and talking to each other.  I just kept looking down to keep from stepping in chicken poo.  We finally enter a huge barn with chickens tightly crammed in smaller coops and seemingly nervous.  I see a conveyor belt that leads from the coop upwards towards the ceiling.  Hanging from the ceiling  on a rotating rack are metal funnel like things, wide side up.  What’s going on I ask?  All of the workers are standing still, smirking, waiting for his command.  He gives a nod and a switch is flicked.  My heart sinks as the conveyor belt lifts chicken after chicken trying to escape their doom.  One by one they are dumped into the metal funnels which are now rotating under the conveyor belt waiting to catch the falling chickens when the belt goes around.   As their tiny heads fall through the narrow end of the funnel, they are instantly met with three tiny razors protruding from the funnel at neck level, killing them slowly as a trough type of basin catches the dripping blood below. For all the noise they made outside, they were silent as they thrashed around trying to get out of the funnels.  I felt so bad and had to turn my head.  Now I understand the smirks, the secret behind the smile.  I feel sick and he walks me into  the next room where the chickens are transported by another conveyor belt and dumped into gigantic barrels.  To my horror, they are stunned and paralyzed, but not dead.  One either side of a line of tables are workers chattering away in their native tongue.  The first person on either side takes a chicken out of the barrel and in one quick swipe, cuts its head off.  He throws the head in a barrel next to him and the next person in line takes the headless body (which is still moving mind you) and cuts off the legs.  The legs go into their own barrel and down the line the chicken goes with each person cutting something off and throwing it into a barrel next to them.  I look at the barrels full of body parts and am horrified and stunned at how casually these acts are performed.  I notice all the workers looking at me and I met their gazes with fear as tears run down my face.  Filipino men and women of all ages, covered in bloodstain smocks, just look away quickly knowing I wouldn’t be working with them.  They were all very efficient at their respective jobs.  They looked at me with preconceived prejudice, knowing that I could not relate to what I was witnessing.  I didn’t feel superior, rather inferior, knowing I was the only person in the room that felt for the chickens.  I suddenly felt proud that I had never been a meat-eater, knowing that the reason had nothing to do with the killings, but the fact that I never liked the texture of meat in my mouth even as a child.  I was however, an egg user. 

Knowing that I needed a minute to process, the farmer just waited for me as I looked around in disbelief.  He must have known the moment I pulled up that I’d have a hard time with this.  He was right.  He gently touched my elbow as he guided me into the next room.  I suddenly realized this farm was so much bigger than it appeared when I pulled up.  Every room had a purpose and the rooms seemed endless.  I remember the sun streaming in from dirty windows above huge hanging ceiling fans.  We were now in the room with all the separate body part barrels.  In the middle was a huge steaming type of pit where all the feathers were steamed off.  The pieces parts that didn’t go to market were collected, mixed with the blood in the trough and fed to the cows I saw when I drove in.  Nothing was wasted.  The last room we entered was the packaging room.  This is where the chickens get ready to go to market.  I’d been assaulted long enough by the smell of this whole operation and was happy when he finally took me outside and I could breathe fresh air again.  Suddenly the dust clouds didn’t seem so offensive and I could have cared less about my linen suit getting dirty at this point.  I was humbled as he escorted me to the last stop of my journey.  This is where the eggs were laid.  My job would be to retrieve the eggs from the nests.  In my mind, I’m thinking of eggs that you buy in the market.  I was thinking my eyes would finally get a break and this part wouldn’t be so bad.  I took a deep breath and followed him into the hen-house.  I didn’t see any nests.  Instead I saw rows and rows of chickens sitting on hay covered with chicken poo.  No individual nests, all perfectly formed with sunlight streaming through more dirty windows as chickens sat on their eggs. I should have known.  At this point I wasn’t shocked or even surprised.  The farmer reached into a pile of chicken poo under a chicken, and pulled out an egg.  It was covered, dripping even, in chicken poo.  He brought it over to a large basin sink lined with rubber and showed me how to clean it and where to place it to dry before packing them in container cartons to go to market.

My head was whirling as we left that building.  I looked up towards a bunk house with a lot of cheering noises coming from it.  The door was open and I could see the dark inside smoke-filled room with what looked like a miniature boxing ring in the middle of the dirt floor.  Men of all ages surrounded the man-made ring with money clipped to the side ropes of the ring.  The farmer saw my curiosity perk up with the noise and led me over.  We didn’t actually go in the bunk house, I think it was for men only, but I got a good look from outside.  They were cock-fighting in there.  The roosters were actually fighting to the death and the men were betting on them.  This is what they did for fun on their breaks, day off, nights and weekends.  Just as I suspected, the stench of bootleg wine, hard stuff, sweat, cigarettes and pakalolo spilled outside of the open door. 

Without saying a word, he looked at me and held my stare.  No words were necessary.  He was waiting for me to say what he’d been thinking all along.  We both knew I couldn’t do this job.  It was the first time I actually stared at his face.  The hard deep lines on his face and around his eyes from years of working and squinting in the hot sun were outlined by his blue-black hair and watery, almost bleeding, eyes. His body reeked of alcohol and cigarettes.  I had a lot of local friends, I knew the signs well.  Work hard all day, eat and party all night until you pass out.  Get up and do it all over again the next day.  It’s a hard life, but they all did it.   I remember thinking he looked older than he probably was.  He’d been working that farm his whole life and it showed.  His eyes were warm and wise and I respected him for making me come to this decision myself instead of just ousting me from the moment he saw me.  I respected him as a man and a farmer, even if I didn’t understand his livelihood.  I thanked him and left.  I cried the whole way home as I sped down the dirt road.  I couldn’t get out of there fast enough.  I felt dirty and wanted to get out of this god forsaken suit.  I knew I’d experienced the other side of Hawaii.  My teacher was brilliant.  Now I had to pen it, which meant I had to relive it all over again.  My teacher knew this experience would never leave me.  He was so right.

I sent a thank you note to the farmer expressing my gratitude for the lesson and the patience he displayed at my inexperience.  I told him I respected the way he conducted the hands-on interview and that I would never forget him, the farm or the chickens.  I signed it Respectfully With Warm Regards, and I meant it.  The memory is still vivid, as is the pungent smell.

It was days before I could even think about writing my first draft of the paper.  I kept blocking the images out of my mind, but they kept coming back.  I was piecing the story together  in my head.  I was finally ready to write my paper but every time I sat down to put words on paper, I’d get lost in the memory of it all.  I did that for over a week.  I just wasn’t ready to write about it.  I had time on my side as I started the assignment early, but I didn’t want to wait too long.  The sooner I wrote about it, the sooner I could forget it.  It would take me three weeks to write my paper and turn it in.  I was wrong about erasing it from my mind. It’s as vivid today as it was 30 years ago.

The class reconvened at the end of the six-week term.  There were a few students who didn’t turn anything in, failing the class.  There were a few who procrastinated so long that they did a half ass job at putting a paper together, taking the passing grade of D; and then there were a few of us who did the assignment as it was intended.  The teacher pointed us out and said we received A’s for our paper.  He then went on to say that one paper stood out of the crowd.  He looked right at me and without mentioning my name he said “Only one student experienced the meaning of this assignment.  You can read her paper in the University Newsletter.  She will be the only student that remembers this class and all the intentions behind it.”

I still don’t eat any meat, for the same reasons.  I just don’t like it.  I still don’t eat eggs as, or with, a meal for myself; but I still do use them for cooking and baking.

I’ve been back to Hawaii three additional times since my college days.  Looking down at the islands from the window seat on the plane, I am reminded of my days in Hawaii involving tourists, beaches, jobs, school, men and yes, The Farmer.

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