In the previous column, I talked about people swapping their homes for free lodging on trips.
But for those who don’t yet own a home, and/or are still energetic and adventurous, there are more interesting alternatives: WWOOF, WorkAway, and volunteer programs.
On both websites people who need some help with a farm, business, or home, advertise room and board in exchange for about twenty hours of work per week. The work can range from general farm labor to painting, building a straw bale house, digging foundations, cooking for a large family, or baby and animal care. The workers then have plenty of time to explore the area and see the sites.
Many small farmers use this kind of labor since all they need to supply is food and a decent place to sleep. No money is exchanged, so any foreigner can do this legally. People traveling through a country can settle down for a few days or weeks, practice their language skills, and experience life living with locals.
In fall 2011, I went on a three-month trip in a van that I had outfitted like a tent-on-wheels. I stayed in campgrounds or national parks and with friends who lived along my route. Inside the locked van I felt very safe and secure.
I also signed up with WorkAway and got a farm job in Pennsylvania right before Thanksgiving. I had a small room in the farmhouse, but shared the one bathroom with the owners and a helper who had come to them though the WWOOF website. Keenan was about 25 years old, a WWOOFer who was interested in learning organic husbandry.
Earlier in the summer, the farmers Nitya and Jeff, tried a new technique for planting potatoes. They cut the bottoms out of five-gallon paint and pickle buckets and turned them upside down on the ground in the garden. The buckets were then filled with compost and planted with a few eyes cut from potatoes purchased at a farmer’s market.
Nitya paid no further attention to the crop other than to notice that green vines had come up during the rainy summer. When I arrived, she asked me to tip over the buckets to see if there were any potatoes.
Oh my goodness, were there ever potatoes! I counted over 200 in 20 buckets. They were every kind imaginable: Yukon Gold, Idaho spuds, small red, and tiny purple potatoes from Peru.
Kneeling in the cold damp earth of the small garden surrounded by forest, in that deep quiet that exists far from cities, I could hear leaves hitting the forest floor. It sounded like falling rain. I sat very still, and after a while, was covered in autumn colors.
Later, we washed the potatoes in warm water and let them dry inside the house on flattened cardboard boxes spread over the dining table. That night, Keenan baked the smallest ones in butter, garlic, and fresh crushed rosemary. Accompanied by a roasted goose, homemade bread, and the last of the garden’s green beans, we delighted in an aromatic feast!
Portable hen house on wheels. Photo by Sherry Hardage
Nitya was primarily the farmer as Jeff also had a day job. She designed a hen house on wheels that was moved every week or so to new pastures where the chickens woke up to fresh grass and bugs to eat. They were corralled with plastic netting that was easily moved to enlarge the pasture.
Three giant pigs slept in a Quonset hut made with plastic sheets over a metal frame. It could be picked up and moved by two or three people. The pigs had a nice forested area to roam around in and were kept in line with a single high voltage wire.
Nitya borrowed open pastureland from neighboring farmers who were happy to have her turkeys and chickens camp out on their land. The guano from the birds made lush pasture the following year.
Turkeys were also kept in enclosures made from plastic plumbing pipe and clear plastic sheeting. Moving the pens was accomplished with a dolly. My job was to shoo the turkeys away from the sides so their legs wouldn’t get caught under the pipes as the pens slid along in the thick grass.
In order to transport the turkeys to the butcher, we needed to wait till they fell asleep. In the cold darkness, each helper picked up a turkey and loaded it into a large horse trailer filled with straw. Nitya had a technique for picking them up so they didn’t flap their wings or get excited.
Within an hour about forty turkeys were loaded in the trailer where they promptly went back to sleep. The next morning they would be transformed into someone’s organically grown Thanksgiving dinner.
All travel leads to interesting experiences, but the best ones come from interacting with people. I could have traveled alone in my van across Pennsylvania, camping out and chatting with other customers in coffee shops. Instead, I was able to help people who make their living off the land. In exchange for a few days of work, I had memorable experiences I will treasure for a lifetime.
- http://www.workaway.comhas a comprehensive listing of volunteer activities in the world, including opportunites to save endangered species.
- http://www.wwoof.comis known worldwide as a source for volunteer labor on organic farms. Anyone with a desire to learn organic farming can get hands-on experience by contacting farmers on this website.
- http://www.crossculturalsolutions.orgis a website devoted to providing cross-cultural experiences to young people from around the world in a safe home-away-from-home environment. There may be costs involved with some assignments.
Editor’s note: Sherry Hardage lives in Los Alamos and has been traveling solo in the U.S., Mexico, and Europe since she retired from Honeywell in 2009. She is a photographer, writer, and guide who organizes tours of Chiapas, Mexico through her website: www.mexadventures.com. Hardage welcomes comments via email: email@example.com