WWOOF – World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms

In my freshman year at Hope I had the opportunity to participate in an immersion trip that went and did some volunteer work in Jamaica over spring break. The trip had been advertised to me by a friend as an opportunity to experience all the benefits of a vacation while also doing some good for others. As I started planning a trip for this spring, I couldn’t help but recall that trip and the lasting impact it has had on my life. I still see a lot of value in simply traveling to new places and participating in touristy activities, but I knew that I wanted to do something a little different (at least for part of my break). So, I created a WWOOF account.

WWOOF (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms) is a volunteer organization that connects willing volunteers with farms and smallholdings. In exchange for accommodation and food, volunteers work for about 4 hours each day. I saw this as an opportunity to travel around and do some good at the same time, with the added bonus of saving money and seeing parts of the UK that you would not ordinarily see as a normal tourist.

I searched the WWOOF website for farms and smallholdings with good reviews and characteristics that matched the type of site I wanted to stay at, and I contacted the WWOOF hosts at these locations. After lots of research and communication with these hosts, my girlfriend, Gabbi, and I packed our bags and headed off to a farm in Ayrshire, Scotland, where we spent a few days before picking up again and moving to a farm in southern Wales. In between, we were able to stop for a night in Manchester and a night in Liverpool. I could talk about my experiences at each farm and in each city for hours on end, but I will only touch on each because the break was filled with so many activities.

At the first farm, I spent most of my working hours raking leaves, cleaning a polytunnel, cleaning a chicken coup, and potting plants. I also held a chicken. So that was cool.

Then, in the afternoons, the host would drive Gabbi and me to the nearest bus station and we’d travel to whichever cities in the area sounded the most interesting. For the first two days we were there, this resulted in us exploring the cities of Irvine and Kilmarnock.

On the third day, our host insisted that we take the day off and take the ferry across to the Isle of Arran. The Isle of Arran, sometimes called “miniature Scotland”, is an island west of mainland Scotland. From the farm we were volunteering at, you could see the peak of its highest mountain, “Goat Fell”, across a small strip of the Atlantic Ocean. Instead of working on this day, we woke up early and took the ferry across to the Isle of Arran where we managed to spend almost all of our time hiking up the majority of Goat Fell.

View of Goat Fell from the first farm
A panorama of me partway up Goat Fell

After returning each evening from our miniature adventures, I could always count on playing fetch with the host’s puppy until my arm was so sore I could no longer throw her ball.

Asha, the puppy from the first farm

As I said, after leaving the first farm, Gabbi and I made our way to Manchester for one night: the night of the Manchester City versus Manchester United game. For anyone who doesn’t watch much soccer, these are two of the best teams in the world and are also huge rivals. We stopped into a restaurant that was playing the game and got to experience some of the rivalry first hand. It was incredible. It was crazy. These people take their soccer very seriously.

The next day we were in Liverpool, which is a beautiful city with an interesting history (which I got to learn all about at the Museum of Liverpool). After waking up early the next morning for a run on Albert Dock (where we’d watched the sun set the night before), we headed off to the second farm.

The Royal Liver Building in Liverpool
Sunset from Albert Dock
Beatles statue on Albert Dock

At the second farm, we split and stacked firewood and helped put a new cover on the host’s polytunnel which had torn over the winter. There was less accessibility to public transportation on this farm, so we spent most afternoons playing board games with our hosts or walking through the rolling hills of Wales. One evening, I even learned the basics of knitting!

Polytunnel from the second farm with its new cover

On our way to London to begin the second half of our break, we stopped in Burry Port (where a nice lady in a family-run market gave us free Welsh cakes!) and Swansea. The entire, crazy experience of hopping from city to city and helping with odd jobs on farms was one which I will always remember.

Me eating a free Welsh cake in Burry Port

Emprendiendo Viajes: Starting Journeys

Español:

Hoy llevo ya unos días aquí en Madrid. La verdad es que se me ha hecho mucho que procesar porque solo hace un par de días estaba en la ciudad de México y hace unos cuantos más en Austin, Tejas. Voy un poco atrasado en lo que he querido escribir sobre todo desde antes que llegara a Madrid pero ya que estoy un poco mejor situado en la ciudad quisiera darles una probadita de lo que ma ha sucedido estas últimas semanas. Si quieres seguir leyendo quiero que sepas que este blog se tratará sobre mis experiencias mientras estudio en el extranjero y mis reacciones a diferentes experiencias, sean buenas o malas. Has quedado advertido. Sea como sea, espero que sí te guste lo que escriba y quizás se te haga hasta placentero leer mis blogs. 

Dejando Michigan: 

Como muchos de ustedes sabrán, yo estudio en Holland, Michigan, en una escuela privada llamada Hope College, o sea Colegio de Esperanza, un nombre muy poético, yo creo. Si no la sabías ahora los sabes.

He estudiado allí por un poco más de año ya. La verdad es que me ha gustado vivir en un pueblo que es bastante diferente a la ciudad de donde provengo porque me ha permitido ver el estilo de vida Americano desde otro punto de vista. La verdad es que el patrimonio Americano se vive más profundamente en el pueblo que en la ciudad. En los Estados Unidos los puntos de vista del gobierno son muy prominentes en el carácter de uno. Lo que pasa es que en los EEUU hay dos partidos que predominan el país. Esto causa una situación que no se vive en muchos otros países. Por decir, en México históricamente el PRI ha dominado la mayor parte del gobierno de la república. Lo mismo sucede en muchos países. Por eso la gente se ha acostumbrado a tener el mismo punto de vista de la política en estos países, un punto de vista que suele ser uno de cero importancia hacia la política. Mucha gente en estos países consideran a su gobierno corrupto y sin escrúpulos en todo caso. Esta es la realidad en muchos países. Por lo tanto yo muchas veces pienso que es una bendición que en los EEUU tan siquiera tenemos la posibilidad de elegir entre dos partidos que tienen el mismo nivel de importancia. Pero bueno a final de cuentas solo menciono esto porque lo veo como una gran diferencia entre mi vida en Austin a lo que he vivido este año y medio en Holland. También es un tema que quiero explorar en España. 

Quise tomarme una ultima foto antes de salir del ártico de Michigan. I wanted to take one last picture in the Michigan arctic.

Volviendo a Austin:

Bueno, me desvié un poco. Pero si acabé mi último examen en Michigan el 15 de diciembre y me fui con un amigo que vive en Detroit para quedarme la noche porque mi vuelo salía por la madrugada a Austin al siguiente día. 

Alrededor del medio día, tiempo de Austin, llegué a los brazos de mi mamá tan querida. Nos abrazamos y le dí un beso en su mejilla como vengo haciendo desde chiquito. Llegué a ver a mis hermanos que llevaba tanto tiempo sin ver y sí me dio mucha alegría ver a mi familia que tanto había echado de menos mientras estaba en la universidad.

La navidad se celebró como es típico en mi familia, todos mis tíos y nosotros reunidos en la casa de mi tío en noche buena. Tomamos muchos ponche y comimos chivo y pasamos un buen rato. 

Mis hermanitos tan hermosos. My beautiful brothers.

Al igual el año nuevo se paso muy bien entre familia en nuestra casa como se hace todos los años. Todo fue muy bueno al regresar a Austin, pero lo mejor fue estar de regreso con mi familia que tanto amo y que ya extrañaba tanto de no ver en Holland. 

English: 

I have now spent a few days here in Madrid. The truth is that it has been so much to process, because a few days ago I was in Mexico and a few days before that I was in Austin. I’m a little behind on what I wanted to write about even before traveling to Madrid, but now that I am a little more situated in the city I wanted to give y’all a little taste of what has happened to me over the past few weeks. If you want to keep reading this blog it will be over my experiences while I study abroad and my reaction to different experiences whether they are good or bad. You have been warned. Either way I hope that you like reading what I write and perhaps it may even be pleasant.

Leaving Michigan: 

Like a lot of y’all know I study in Holland, Michigan, at a private school called Hope College, a name that I believe to be pretty poetic. If you didn’t know, now you know.

I have studied there for more than a year now. The truth is that I have liked living in a small town that is so different from the city I am from because it has allowed me to view the American lifestyle in another way. The truth is that American patriotism is much more prevalent in a small town than in the city. In America your political views are very prominent in your personality. In the U.S. there are two parties that dominate the country. This is a situation that is not as common in other countries. For example, in Mexico historically the PRI (a Mexican political party) has dominated most of the country’s government. The same happens in several countries. That is why many people in other countries have the same political stance, they really don’t care about politics. Most people in these countries consider their government as just corrupt and without morals. This is the reality for many countries. For this reason I think sometimes, although the political system isn’t perfect in the states, it’s a blessing to have at least two options. The only reason I bring this up is because I see this as a big difference between life in Austin and what I have experienced over a year and a half in Holland. It is also a topic that I want to explore while I am in Spain.

 

Returning to Austin:

Well, I got a bit off topic. Anyway I finished my final exam in Michigan on the 15th of December and I left with a buddy who lives in Detroit to stay the night, because my flight left very early the next morning.

Around noon Austin time I arrived to my beloved mom’s arms. We hugged it out and I kissed her on the cheek like I have done since the time I was very little. I arrived to see my brothers that I hadn’t seen in so long, and I was so happy to see the family that I had missed so much while I had been in college.

Christmas was celebrated with family like we typically do, all my uncles and us congregated at my uncle’s house on Christmas Eve. We drank a lot of ponche (Mexican drink), ate goat’s meat and had a very good time.

Todo mundo viendo a diferentes lados, como es costumbre en mi familia. Everyone looking in a different direction, as is typical with my family.

Likewise, New Year’s was spent in an awesome fashion with my family at our house like we have done for years. Everything was great upon returning to Austin, but the best part was that I was back with my family, that I love and missed so much while I was in Holland.

Hostels for the Holidays

This past Thanksgiving was the first time I have spent a major holiday away from my family. Chileans may be familiar with “el día de la acción de gracias,” but it is certainly not celebrated here. Seriously, I couldn’t even find a box of stuffing or a butter ball turkey on the shelf of the local supermarket. It was definitely strange to be away from home on such a significant holiday.

All semester I have pushed myself to learn and adapt to Chilean customs and traditions. This is something I really enjoy doing and is a large part of the study abroad experience, but it can be exhausting being out of your comfort zone for so long. Sometimes you just want someone who understands, who you don’t have to explain things to, and who relates to the feeling of misplacement and homesickness on a day like Thanksgiving.

Throughout Thanksgiving day,  I  yearned to be with my own family on one of my favorite holidays of the year. I even felt guilt for not being home– who else was going to make the sweet potato casserole, or set the table, or take care of all those leftovers in the fridge? I can’t even bear to think of how lonely the dessert table must have felt without its most loyal visitor.

Despite my wishes, I had set very low expectations for my Thanksgiving in Chile. It was supposed to be a travel day from Puerto Natales, Chile to Calafate, Argentina. However, we ended up not being able to get seats on any of the buses, so we learned mid-day that we would be stuck in Puerto Natales for another night. After scrambling for space in a hostel, we finally found a couple spots in a dorm and made our way over.

We set our things in our room, met our American roommates, and I hopped on Instagram and began scrolling through stories of food spreads, full plates, and family games. It was practically taunting, but was the dose of FOMO I needed to realize I didn’t have to miss out on one of my favorite holidays just because I wasn’t in the US.

We went to the grocery store, bought chicken, instant mashed potatoes, and ingredients for pebre, a Chilean salsa served at nearly every lunch (so maybe our meal wasn’t exactly “traditional,” but it worked for us!). After preparing everything in the hostel’s shared kitchen, we took our plates into the living area and joined the other guests snacking on salami, peanuts, and other trail snacks as they prepared for their Torres del Paine treks. Realizing we were all Americans, everyone raised a glass in the air and exchanged a “Happy Thanksgiving!”

It sure wasn’t my normal celebration, but I certainly was thankful.

Es una Broooma

I’m anticipating that when I get home, people will ask me what my favorite thing about Chile was. My answer for them will be this: the sound that Chileans make as they’re waiting for you to get their joke. It’s a very specific “aaaaah,” and it’s shared by basically everyone I’ve met! I love this particularity of their culture, and I appreciate that I’ve gotten to experience it on the daily.

Chileans have a remarkable sense of humor. They are always making jokes and teasing one another lightheartedly. My house, the church, and even my classes are absolutely full of laughter.

My two-year old brother loves to play pranks and poke fun at the rest of our family. He has a catch-phrase that he says all the time: “es una broma,” which means, “it’s a joke.” Or, with his cute baby-talk, it generally comes out more like “es una brooooooma.” I think it’s the cutest thing ever! Here’s a quick video:

The sense of humor is also present in their language. Chileans have added many words and phrases to the Spanish that I learned, which makes it their own unique dialect. As we say in my phonetics class, they speak chileno, not español.

Many of the “chilenismos” have to do with animals, which is pretty fun. For example, young men are called cabros (goats) and hacer una vaca (cow) is to raise money. Another one of my favorites is echarse el burro, which means to lose motivation to do something.

One thing Chileans do is call each other names. A lot are endearing nicknames–there’s the classic mi’jita (mi  hijita), cariño, or amor that even people in the grocery store will call you. There’s also modifications of your given name– I’ve gotten Moni, Mo, and Moquita. My friends are Isa Pizza and Juan Papa (to incorporate food). And also Chileans often use adjectives ironically, like feo (ugly) or gordito (fat). When I first heard my friend Rodrigo talking about his daughter, la gordita, I remember being shocked. But it’s actually a term of endearment, some light teasing. A reminder not to take everything people say completely seriously.

I tend to be an over-thinker and I value pondering deep life questions. But simply being in another culture has brought a lot of that to mind. So I’m thankful that I get the chance every day to laugh it off, take joy in relationships, and watch Camilo’s face light up when we fall for another one of his pranks.

Despedirse

In Spanish class we learned that the way to say goodbye is “Adios!” At least in Chile, though, that’s not how you do it. Everyone says “Chao!” as goodbye, and it’s accompanied by a kiss on the cheek, maybe a hug, cuídate, nos vemos!

Despedirse is something you do every time you leave a social gathering. And it’s required for everyone there. You have to go around the room and say goodbye to all the people you’re with before it’s okay to leave.

At the beginning of my time in Chile, this was really uncomfortable for me, because I wasn’t sure how to insert myself in someone’s conversation to say goodbye. I always felt like I was interrupting something. Or that I was holding up my family from leaving. The truth is, though, that they’re never in a hurry, and the cultural value of acknowledging others trumps the extra inconvenience.

For me, this shift in cultural values requires extra effort, and to be honest I’m still not the best at the practice of despedirse, but that’s something I want to keep working on until I have to leave.

The end of my study abroad program is coming up just on the horizon. We have a month and a week before we all part ways. I’m anticipating that this goodbye will be very difficult.

In my time here I have made a lot of wonderful friends. Both my amigos gringos and amigos chilenos have made a remarkable impact on me. I have been greeted with such kindness, invited into a new family, and accepted for who I am. I can share my heart and soul with the people I have met here, and for that I am so grateful.

I’m not ready to say goodbye.

Here I am with some friends from my program on a trip to Mendoza, Argentina. I love that the other gringas are always up to travel and share cultural experiences!
My community of jóvenes from my church in Chile. Here we are at a weekend retreat. My host dad Séba is the one taking the selfie.
These are my host family’s relatives. From aunts and uncles to abuelos y nietos, everyone came together for fiestas patrias and they’ve done an incredible job of including me in their family.
Some of my chilean church friends and I at a despedida (farewell party) for Gabriel (not pictured) who’s leaving to learn English in the US for a couple months. This was the first of many goodbyes for me and it got me feeling super sentimental.

Living Among the Dinosaurs

On Saturday I found myself eating tiny coconuts and sipping water from tiny shoe-shaped flowers. It was like a miniature tea party!

In fact, one of my favorite memories from childhood was the tiny tea-set that my sister and I shared. Even for 10-year-old fingers, it was teensy. And we would always drink tap water and eat baby goldfish. At that point in my life, real tea was a very grown-up concept.

Now, thanks to my roommate Sav, who introduced me to this drink and the constant presence of tea at our evening meals in Chile, I’m addicted. And a warm cup of tea was exactly what I was craving after Saturday’s adventures.

Let me back up.

On Saturday, my study abroad program took an excursion to La Campana National Park. It’s a magical place just a bus ride away from Valparaiso, where the ecosystem changes suddenly to remind me of Jurassic times.

Doesn’t it seem like dinosaurs would live here? I kept expecting a pterodactyl to come swooping by. This mix of vegetation has been here for hundreds of thousands of years, and the palm trees, or palmeras, are a species unique to Chile. Their presence here has to do with the microclimate in the national park, which receives a lot of rain.

I learned all these things from our tour guides, who were an incredible source of knowledge about the national park. They pointed out tons of wildlife, patiently answering all my questions about rocks and woodpecker species.

The part about the rain, though, I picked up on pretty fast. It was raining all day, starting just after we unloaded the bus in the parking lot. By the time we got back, about 5 hours later, we were slipping and sliding down the muddy hills.

On the plus side, the rain made the waterfall that we went to see absolutely gorgeous! Our guides noted that there was more water rushing down it than they had ever seen.

The rain also allowed us to see some more secretive birds, a tarantula, and flowers that would have closed up otherwise. These adorable bell-shaped yellow flowers generally last about a day, but with the rain, they were filled up to the brim. And they were the perfect shape to take a little sip out of!

The tiny coconuts that made up the other half of my tea party were from the Chilean palmera. They’re about the size of a quarter. Our tour guide found one on the ground and split it open with a rock. They don’t have water inside, but the fleshy white part tastes just like any other coconut!

Overall, I had a wonderful time in the land of the dinosaurs! Despite the rain and the cold, it was an amazing place to visit. And on the way back, we stopped at an authentic Chilean restaurant to warm up with a cazuela (a typical brothy soup) and, of course, some tea.

School is different here

The view out my window on the train. You could see the cordillera of the Andes the whole way there.

School is different here. For example, my art class today was a field trip to the south of Chile. We spent about 9 hours in train, and 3 in bus so we could appreciate a mural painted in the small town of Chillán.

We weren’t allowed to take photos of the mural we went to visit, but here’s one from outside the library where it was located.

This smaller mural was painted by a Mexican artist and says “Gobernar es educar” (to govern is to educate).

I went with my 5-person class, made up of students from 4 different countries. Funnily enough, none of them are Chilean. Apparently the exchange students are more interested in learning about Chilean art than they are.

Regardless, the topic of education came up while we were waiting for the train. I was very curious; “como es la educación en tu país?” (What is school like in your country?)

I learned that in Ireland, computer science students learn at a slower pace than their Chilean counterparts. In Colombia, few scholarships are available, and most majors last 5 years. In Mexico, community service and internships are required for all degrees.

One thing we all agreed on is that school is different here. For me, one of the biggest changes to get used to has been their grading system. In Chile, they use a scale from 1-7, with a 4 being a passing grade. Most students strive for 4’s, rather than 7’s, which are rarely handed out.

This is not the same as our inflated grading system in the United States. A 4.0 GPA is the ideal back home, and was achieved by at least 15% of my high school class. The GPA is also an important measure in terms of deciding a student’s future. However, here, the important thing is that you get a degree. Employers don’t care much about the grades you get in school, just that you pass.

This leads to highly different cultural attitudes about school. At Hope, which is admittedly more academically rigorous, there’s a fixation on the exact number you are given and a competition to out-perform other students. In Chile, though, there’s a relaxed nature about school, and much less of a student’s identity is wrapped up in their performance.

This is also likely related to the fact that most Chilean university students still live at home. They participate a lot in family life. Though they are less independent, they often have responsibilities that have nothing to do with their schoolwork. My classmates have to run errands to buy things for their parents or pay the bills. This is something I never have encountered with American classmates, but I think it helps create a balance in life where school isn’t all-consuming.

There are other differences, like the way professors communicate, the structure (and sometimes lack of structure) of classes, and the frequency with which my classes meet. Now that I’m about half-way through my semester, I think I’m adjusted to this Chilean version of school. And I like it a lot.

I’ve had fun opportunities to travel; I’m working in groups with Chilean students; we visited the aquarium for marine biology; I crushed my first big exam; I got a compliment on my Spanish after a nerve-wracking presentation. All these things and more are what make studying abroad totally worth it!

Here are my notes and study materials from my first marine biology exam.

 

The final slide of a presentation I gave.
Las estrellas del mar, or starfish, in a tidepool at the aquarium. We even had the chance to touch them, which was really cool!