As Ned and I washed the goat shit off in a cold mountain stream, I wondered what all the 18-35ers on that Contiki tour were up to. I bet they weren’t heading to sleep in a mouse-infested caravan using a valance as a bed sheet. They weren’t WWOOFing.
Even at the start of planning our quarter-life-crisis solution (Round the World trip) my boyfriend and I were keen to spend some decent chunks of time in each country we chose to visit. Both of us have done that kind of trip before i.e. rush to Europe, rush around Europe, and ending up feeling like we did nothing but take silly photos in front of [insert icon here]. “But it looks pretty small on the map” said the Australian, meekly.
This time around we have time and wanted to a) see how people really live outside of a ticket-seller’s booth and b) pick up a different kind of story or two. I had been working a desk job and wanted to get out from under the computer and air conditioning. Imagine having decisions that are no more taxing than whether to have a beer or a shandy over lunch?! Plus we (I) don’t have much (any) money and we (I) suck at budgeting. With these points in mind, a chat with travel-y friends and a clickity-click of the mouse led us to www.wwoof.org. Why, hello there Willing Workers On Organic Farms! You want us to work for 5-6 hours a day, 6 days a week in exchange for food and accommodation? To put the savings account on hold and providing a cracking story to tell at the next youth hostel? No worries, so where’s the dotted line?
WTF is WWOOF?
WWOOF has been exchanging sustainable living ideas since 1971. They started in the UK, but now there are hosts in something like 99 countries. Basically, it’s a web forum where farmers needing help can connect with volunteers who want to travel, spread the love or simply learn a new skill. From scraping up chook poo, to making wine, to selling fruit at a local farmer’s market to shearing alpacas; I’m sure your agricultural (or just cultural?) dream can be fulfilled through WWOOF!
For Ned and I, the process went like this: we paid 20 euro to join WWOOF Portugal and wrote ourselves a profile. We then gained access to the list of potential hosts and emailed any that sounded good with questions like: can we can stay, for how long, how much do we have to work, etc. Work and living conditions vary greatly from farm to farm, as one can imagine. You may be asked to work back-breakingly hard for a couple of hours a day, or it might be fairly cruisy. Some hosts say that they prefer longer stays, but most are up for negotiation. In retrospect, we felt that between 2-3 weeks was a good amount of time for us, but whatever floats your boat. On our last place, there was a guy from the Netherlands who had been there for five months after spending three years on a farm in Greece!
Fun Acronyms: “O” is for Organic
Now, I like to think of myself as pretty green – I sort my rubbish into appropriate bins, I take my reusable shopping bags wherever I go, I use that scratchy-yet-satisfying loo paper. What I’m not keen on that side of green that whispers “I’m macrobiotic, you evil meat-eater” and “I preach at you while you try not to gag on the smell of my dirty hair”. I actually like steak and believe my backpack’s “luxury item” of Moroccan Hair Oil is the best 100mls I’ve ever pinched off Mum.
Thankfully, you can find a WWOOFing host to suit you, whatever you’re up for. So don’t panic about fitting some stereotype of hippy or hardcore farmer! Whilst cruising the WWOOF forum, and knowing what we’re like, Ned and I tended to shy away from any properties with names such as “Riverdance Moonsong Farm” or mentioned ukuleles and group trust activities. The program is about getting in and having a go, and if you choose your hosts wisely as well as keeping an open mind, your experience should be a positive one.
Lindsey and Ned Get Dirty
First up we spent four weeks on a banana/mango/other tropical goodies farm and eco-tourism business on the island of Madeira, Portugal. All the superficial things were there – the property was stunning; a narrow stretch of land bordered by the sea and 300m high cliffs, only accessible by an elevator. Our private accommodation was lush, with cable t.v. and all the blogging time one could wish for. We had lunch, coffee, beer at the onsite restaurant and food bought for us to cook of an evening. We even got a lend of the car for an explore around the island. But our “hosts” earn themselves speech marks as they were only on the property on Saturday afternoons. We spent most of our time with the hired workers. They didn’t ask to babysit a couple of seemingly dim WWOOFers and seemed to think that SHOUTING was the only way to encourage our Portuguese-learning. We could put two and two together to work things out like there being hundreds of bananas yet to weed around. But there was still that glimmer of insecurity when Salete, our main overseer/language coach, took us up to the back paddock with nothing but a grunt and a machete.
Our second farm, in central (a.k.a. nowhere) Portugal was a completely different farmstay. Our aforementioned caravan was a bit scummy and there was no electricity, but our British/Dutch combo family were so warm and welcoming and the work so varied and considered, that our overall experience was completely fulfilling. We sowed corn, planted trees, milked goats and made cheese from their milk. We ate with the family, balancing our plates on our laps while pushing the dog’s noses away. Every question was answered with gusto, all suggestions taken on board. We discovered what the WWOOF carry-on is about and now I’m hooked!
I recommend WWOOF to anyone looking for a personal challenge and a travel tale with a difference. Now put the “24 Countries in 30 Days” bus tour brochure down and back slowly away…
P.S. Check out the short film,“Because There are Goats” for a taste of a WWOOFing in Europe.