Friday, December 4, 2009
Last summer I had the incredible opportunity to travel to Israel and spend two months exploring the country, people, and culture. One great way to stay in Israel without spending any money is to live on a ‘kibbutz’, a socialist community in which you live and eat for free as long as you work and contribute to the greater community. I spent one month living and working at Kibbutz S’de Eliyahu in the Beit Shean Valley, just north of the West Bank and along the border with Jordan.
I had organized my stay beforehand through cousins who lived on that particular kibbutz, but whom I had never met. Most volunteers who only stay for a few months usually work in the kitchen or out in the fields: basic jobs that may be repetitive or don't require a great deal of experience. Given my experience and passion for fish farming, my cousins arranged it so that I would be working in the community’s fish ponds!
I was very excited to get even more hands-on experience with fish farming. However, this opportunity was not without its challenges: firstly, there was quite a large language barrier, as my Hebrew was lacking and most of the guys’ English was even worse. But there were a few kids who lived in the community who came to work with us every day, and because they studied English in school, they quickly became my main conversational conduit into the team.
The work itself was intense: 10 hours of manual labour, in the sun, 6 days a week. However, I soon became something of a celebrity among the other volunteers, as their jobs in the kitchen or at the laundry were nowhere near as exciting as what I was doing. We would eat lunch together in the community dining hall, and as soon as I would sit down they would get quiet and ask me for stories from that morning’s work…I always had SOMETHING good to share from my time there!
The work really WAS exciting! Every morning we showed up at the pondhouse at 5:30 am; we hung out, got coffee, and got suited up for the day’s work. This included putting on a pair of ratty old shorts, a smelly t-shirt (which was quickly removed once the sun fully rose), neoprene boots, and a large hat to escape the sun’s rays. We also filled up massive jogs of water, which came out to the ponds with us: with temperatures as high as 45 degrees Celsius (113 degrees Fahrenheit), it was not uncommon to drink 5 litres of water a day, and STILL feel weak and dehydrated at dinner that night!
We usually left the house for the ponds around 6 am every morning. The ponds were spread out over hundreds of acres that the community owned, and we were responsible for all the fish in them, as well as their maintenance and upkeep. The major fish grown was tilapia, but there were also some mullet and carp mixed in with the tilapia, as well as separate pools for growing hybrid striped bass. Each day we would drain a tilapia pond and harvest the fish: this was anywhere from 500 kilos to 2 metric tons of fish EVERY DAY! We would drag a seine net through the mud and sludge to collect all the adults, which would be netted out and sent off to market. Then a smaller net would be dragged through to capture all the juveniles, which were actually thrown away (explained below). Then, a net with tiny mesh was dragged through to collect all the newborn fry. These were collected and fed a special diet over the next few weeks: this diet contained hormones that artificially changed the sex of the fish to male. Males grew bigger and were more valuable at market, but this transformation could only take place early in the fish’s life cycle: the juveniles caught with the medium-sized net were worthless because they were already too big to have their gender changed (that's why they were thrown out).
When we weren’t harvesting, we were doing maintenance on the equipment in the ponds. We used aerator wheels to keep enough oxygen in the warm water for the fish to survive. If a paddle wheel broke or needed servicing, it was our job to swim out to the wheel in the center of the pond (sometimes as much as 25 metres away from the shore), swim it back to shore, fix it, then swim it back out to its position in the middle of the pond. Sometimes, we opted to float tools on a mattress out to the wheel to service it in the water, but on more than one occasion I dropped a tool into the muddy water, only to have it disappear forever in a trail of tiny dirty bubbles.
The water really was disgusting: an opaque brown that smelled funny and was a little slippery. If you put your hand in the water, you could not even see your own knuckles because the water was so full of suspended solids: fish waste, algae, and excess food. The mud at the bottom of the pond was even worse: sometimes it was so deep that we sank all the way to our hips. Then, treading through this dark and smelly mess, we had to drag weighted nets, all the while making sure that several tons of fish (with spines!) don’t escape.
I have never been dirtier, sweatier, grungier, or smellier in my life. But after a certain point (I think it happened sometime during my second week there), I stopped caring how I looked or smelled. All the other residents and volunteers were equally smelly, and it eventually became something of a badge of honour to be deemed the dirtiest, smelliest person in the dining hall. It meant that you were working hard and being a valuable member of the community, contributing to something larger than yourself. Plus, the community gave the volunteers all linens: clothes, sheets, towels, etc…since it wasn’t our stuff, we didn’t feel bad about working extra hard and getting the clothes extra dirty!
Overall, it was an incredible experience that I will remember forever. Not only did I gain invaluable tilapia culture experience, but I also made a ton of friends and contributed towards something greater than myself.