If you’ve never heard of “WWOOFing”, you may be part of a rapidly shrinking minority. World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms, or WWOOF, is a global network that links potential volunteers with organic farms around the world. A typical stay at an organic farm as a “WWOOFer” can last anywhere from a couple of weeks to several months. But some people never leave. Meals, accommodation and deceptively rigorous labor in a foreign country can make anyone reevaluate returning home. Plus, you’re able to squeeze in much more than simply working on a farm.
I, like many people, was on the fence about signing up until a particularly spontaneous and outdoorsy colleague of mine told me all about it. He encouraged me to go out and explore the world, learn new skills, practice sustainability, and engage in a unique cultural exchange with other volunteers from across the globe. And possibly the best thing of all – after getting a plan ticket, it’s free! Hooked on the idea, I decided to volunteer on a farm in a small village in Carrapateira on the Southwestern Coast of Portugal – one of the many surf-friendly WWOOFing destinations around the world. I quickly learned that the only inhabitants of Carrapateira were farmers, surfers, and those who serve alcohol to those farmers and surfers.
As I walked through town, I remember thinking that I had never seen so many rusty Volkswagen T2s in one place. Complete with hideous window curtains, questionable two-tone paint jobs, and, of course, a crapload of surfboards strapped to the roofs. Carrapateira is undeniably a surf town, but a surf town with no crowds and no traces of commercialism – just farmland, limestone cliffs, sand dunes, consistent surf, and some of the most welcoming people on the entire planet.
I was one of 14 volunteers at the time. We ate all of our meals together, which was a nice community building activity. After a heaping bowl of porridge and some fresh fruit in the morning, my 9-4 workday, with a 1-hour lunch break, began. Each volunteer was assigned a different task for the day and these tasks often changed day to day. Some worked in the kitchen to help with lunch prep and others engaged in traditional weeding, planting, picking, and tending to the animals. I, on the other hand, was sentenced to mud house duty. Given my distaste for crouching over in the weeding position for hours at a time, I warmly welcomed this task.
The rest of the mud house crew consisted of a college-aged, marijuana-friendly couple from the Czech Republic, a seasoned WWOOFer/farm boy from Kentucky, a craft beer and British Premier League enthusiast from Manchester, and two girls who were once boarding school buddies in the UK. It was an eclectic group, as was the entire group of WWOOFers, and I grew to love them. Other volunteers were from Portugal, Holland, Poland, Spain, and New Zealand, to name a few.
Each day, I climbed into the driver’s seat of a 20-year-old, battle-tested Peugeot hatchback with no brakes and chauffeured the gang off to the mud house via a rollercoaster-like stretch of narrow, dirt road. Our job was to help a local couple build a house on top of a hill using whatever resources were available – primarily clay and bamboo. The couple had WWOOFed in Carrapateira a few years prior and never left. They acted as the project managers while also helping us out with the grunt work, such as harvesting bamboo, stripping it, hauling it up the hill, cutting it, shoveling rocks, sifting them, and mixing and applying the clay.
It was hard work in the hot sun, but expectations were reasonable and you’d be hard-pressed to find a more upbeat and positive work environment. I began to flourish in my role as the designated heavy lifter. While my real-world identity was important in other contexts, it didn’t really matter so much here, and I liked that. I was immersed in a new and unfamiliar way of living – a simple, yet vastly rewarding way of life that many others across the world are well accustomed to and many Americans (in my generation in particular) will never appreciate. I treasured this. The number of degrees you had and the previous opportunities afforded to you in life were completely irrelevant. All that mattered to anyone was the attitude and commitment with which you approached each day and moment. I vowed to never lose sight of this philosophy.
After the workday, I would make the trek over to the beach, lugging a borrowed 9-foot longboard over my head. From the farm I could hear the waves crashing up against the cliffs as clear as day, but it still took about 20 minutes to successfully navigate the thick vegetation followed by the deep, sprawling sand dunes. My legs were shaking underneath me. Fatigued from carrying those damn buckets of sand up and down the hill at the mud house, thorny bushes clung to my exposed feet through my sandals. The mosquitos seemed to have some sort of magnetic attraction to me. But the reward was soon to come.
The beach was pristine. There was barely a soul there. Just a few surfers, a family or two, and an older gentlemen airing out his genitals on top of one the dunes. The conditions were a bit choppy, but it didn’t matter. I had completed the daily voyage through the wilderness. While my body was completely drained just half an hour earlier from the day’s work, I instantly felt reinvigorated. Time stopped. I was doing what I loved to do, and I had earned it. As I peered over the cliffs at the ocean each day, it was as if I had arrived at the beach not from the farm, but from Boston, where I was working at the time.
Everyone says that your 20s are the years when you need to get out there, travel, and see the world, as you may never have the freedom to fully do so ever again. Prior to discovering the wonders of WWOOFing, I would have said, “Screw you. Do you think I’m made of money?” If you’re on a budget, willing to try new things, and have the energy for it, WWOOFing could be the ideal surfing platform for you. So get out there. Meet people from around the world. Learn from them. Get dirty. And rinse off while surfing some of the most wave-rich destinations on the planet.
For more information on World Wild Opportunities on Organic Farms, visit WWOOF.net.