Travels

The Dalai Lama

[ Posted April 12, 2011 ]

"I could have reached over and pinched him on the cheek. He probably would have smiled and thanked me. He's a very gracious man."

While I was there in August 2009, the Dalai Lama visited Leh, Ladakh (this is in the eastern part of Jammu & Kashmir, the northernmost province of India, a rather turbulent and contentious region which is surrounded on three sides by Pakistan, China and Tibet).  Everyone knew his automobile would be passing through town.  There were banners and the streets had been swept the night before.

I got up early and headed into central Leh, where I spotted a number of the local women heading for a temple tucked back off of one of the main streets.  I waited for about two hours there as a small crowd gradually gathered, and we were all rewarded with very close proximity to this amazing man.  For once in my life, I was speechless.

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WWOOFing

[ Posted March 15, 2011 ]

Hospitality Club and Couchsurfing

For me and for most of the long term travelers I have met, money is an issue.  It’s one thing to blow several thousand dollars over two weeks, then return home and start paying down the credit card you put your vacation on.  It’s an entirely different game to make that same several thousand dollars last over six months or a year.

Obviously the major non-negotiable expenses incurred in extended travel are food and lodging.  Taking that trek to the summit of Kilimanjaro, bungee jumping in Ticino, Switzerland, or spending the $109 to go to the top of the Burj Dubai ___ the world’s tallest building ___ are optional.  Eating properly and sleeping somewhere where wild dogs and muggers can’t ravage you are not.  So traveling long and hard on limited funds depends on keeping the numbers down on what is spent on these two necessities.

Two very popular internet travel sites are couchsurfing.org and hospitalityclub.org because they both directly address this very issue.  There are others ___ globalfreeloaders.com, stay4free.com, belodged.com ___ but Couchsurfing and Hospitality Club are the two big ones.  They are set up similar to dating services, only your date is a bed and a place at the dinner table.  Couchsurfing has hosts in 233 countries and territories, Hospitality Club hosts in 226.

When you join one or both, you fill out a personal profile.  You are requested to upload a photo, then tell about yourself, your education, hobbies, philosophy of life, etc.  This is used by prospective hosts to determine if they want to let you invade the sanctity and privacy of their homes.  Likewise, the hosts have a profile so that you can evaluate them and see if they offer the type of place you would like to crash.  It’s all a guessing game, naturally, since everyone (except maybe full-tilt psychos) will portray themselves in the most flattering light.  Who is going to put down that they can’t control their bowels or they love child porn?  Consequently, it is awe-inspiring how much simple trust is involved and how well it seems to work.  There have been no reports of anyone staying at these guest homes and being taken hostage or vice-versa.

All of these accommodations sites provide free lodging.  You are then expected at some point in the future to reciprocate, by opening up your home to travelers seeking hospitality wherever it is you live.  This certainly wasn’t going to happen in the foreseeable future on my end, since once I left America, I had no permanent address.  But the concept is great, predicated on the best of human dispositions, built on trust, generosity and good faith.  Couchsurfer’s motto is ‘Creating a better world, one couch at a time.’

When I first decided to fly the coop, I signed up for Hospitality Club, and for reasons which escape me now, started looking for cities and homes to accommodate me in Morocco.  I think someone told me that sitting on a balcony and looking at the Mediterranean Sea was a pleasant and effective way to sort out one’s life.

But then I discovered WWOOFing.

How Does WWOOF Work?

WWOOFing started in 1971 by the organization which became WWOOF Independents and has grown and spread throughout the world.

WWOOF stands for World Wide Opportunities in Organic Farming, though some WWOOFers jokingly claim it stands for “weed whackers on organic farms” or “willing weeders on organic farms”, since it seems that in many situations pulling weeds constitutes 90% of the work.

Organic farming, of course, uses no chemicals.  This means it is a labor intensive methodology.  Things like preventing pest infestation and crops being overwhelmed by unwanted plants are accomplished naturally.  Often that means, getting out in the field and doing what needs to be done by hand.  The purest organic farms use no mechanization, correctly believing that hydrocarbon-fueled farm machinery adds pollution both to the air and the soil, compromising the purity of whatever is being grown.  This means tilling and preparing the soil, planting the seeds or seedlings, removing weeds and other crop predators, and finally harvesting, all by hand ___ very labor intensive!  Which is where the WWOOF volunteer comes in.

Basically the volunteer provides 20 to 30 hours of labor in exchange for room and board, a basic education in organic farming, and the culturally enriching experience of living and working in a foreign country.  At least this is how it works in theory.

The WWOOF concept has been instrumental in increasing the awareness of the organic alternative to corporate farming ___ which has an undesirable impact both on the health of human beings and the health of national economies ___ providing first hand experience to volunteers in what is effectively age-old, time-tested techniques for growing food.  Many progressive agriculturalists believe that organic farming, as the only healthful, sustainable method for growing food, will ultimately completely replace chemical-based, mass production of crops and be the salvation of the world.

As a “movement” or at least a phenomenon, it is continuous flux.  When I joined in 2006, for example, there were very few countries which had their own WWOOF organization.  And I seem to recall that WWOOF Independents had well over a hundred countries.  Now they are down to about fifty.

Here is the current listing for WWOOF Independents England (http://www.wwoof.org) out of England, which I used to find opportunities in Spain, Uganda, Kenya and South Africa.  The number beside the country name is the number of participating farms which they list . . .

Bahamas  (2 hosts)                                                Lebanon  (1 host)

Barbuda  (1 host)                                                   Luxembourg  (1 host)

Belgium  (22 hosts)                                                Malaysia  (4 hosts)

Bolivia  (11 hosts)                                                   Mongolia  (1 host)

British Virgin Islands  (1 host)                               Morocco  (2 hosts)

Burkina Faso  (1 host)                                            Mozambique  (1 host)

Cambodia  (2 hosts)                                               Namibia  (1 host)

Colombia  (5 hosts)                                                Nicaragua  (5 hosts)

Commonwealth of Dominica  (1 host)                  Nigeria  (1 host)

Cook Islands  (1 host)                                             Norway  (39 hosts)

Croatia  (4 hosts)                                                    Palestine  (1 host)

Dominican Republic  (2 hosts)                               Panama  (4 hosts)

Ethiopia  (1 host)                                                     Peru  (5 hosts)

Finland  (18 hosts)                                                   Russia  (2 hosts)

French Polynesia  (1 host)                                       Senegal  (6 hosts)

Gambia  (1 host)                                                      Serbia  (2 hosts)

Georgia  (2 hosts)                                                    Slovenia  (5 hosts)

Greece  (39 hosts)                                                    South Africa  (33 hosts)

Guatemala  (5 hosts)                                               Sri Lanka  (3 hosts)

Holland  (17 hosts)                                                   Tanzania  (2 hosts)

Iceland  (5 hosts)                                                      Thailand  (14 hosts)

Indonesia  (6 hosts)                                                  Tonga  (5 hosts)

Jamaica  (1 host)                                                      Uruguay  (3 hosts)

Jordan  (3 hosts)                                                       Venezuela  (2 hosts)

Kenya  (41 hosts)                                                      Zambia  (4 hosts)

Laos  (1 host)

There is another “independents” organization out of Australia which is either called WWOOF International, WWOOF Independents (ASN) or WWOOF Association ___ the website is not very clear about what it’s officially named ___ at http://www.wwoofinternational.org/independents/ and has a very similar listing to the UK organization, but is organized by region . . .

AMERICAS Region (North, Central and South America):

Bahamas  (2 hosts)                                                     Nicaragua  (4 hosts)

Bolivia  (3 hosts)                                                         Panama  (3 hosts)

British Virgin Islands  (1 host)                                   Peru  (3 hosts)

Commonwealth of Dominica  (1 host)                      Venezuela  (1 host)

Guatemala  (4 hosts)                                                  West Indies  (1 host)

Honduras  (1 host)

AFRICA Region:

Algeria  (1 host)                                                          Morocco  (1 host)

Benin  (2 hosts)                                                          Nigeria  (3 hosts)

Egypt  (1 host)                                                            Senegal  (2 hosts)

Ethiopia  (1 host)                                                        South Africa  (19 hosts)

Gambia  (1 host)                                                        Tanzania  (2 hosts)

Guinea, West Africa  (1 host)                                    Togo  (2 hosts)

Kenya  (24 hosts)                                                       Zambia  (2 hosts)

Liberia  (1 host)

EUROPE Region:

Belgium  (10 hosts)                                                    Latvia  (1 host)

Croatia  (2 hosts)                                                        Moldova  (1 host)

Finland  (11 hosts)                                                      Norway  (23 hosts)

Georgia  (2 hosts)                                                       Poland  (6 hosts)

Greece  (30 hosts)                                                      Russia  (2 hosts)

Holland  (14 hosts)                                                    Serbia  (1 host)

Hungary  (7 hosts)                                                     Slovenia  (3 hosts)

Iceland  (3 hosts)

ASIA PACIFIC Region:

French Polynesia  (1 host)                                         Malaysia  (5 hosts)

Indonesia  (1 host)                                                     Pakistan  (3 hosts)

Jordan  (1 host)                                                          Singapore  (1 host)

Lebanon  (1 host)                                                       Thailand  (15 hosts)

It obviously all depends on where you want to go.

The UK site is slightly bigger.  At the time of this writing, they show 341 host farms as opposed to the Australian site’s 234 host farms.  Even when they list the same country ___ the two sites have 35 countries in common ___ in the majority of cases the UK site offers more opportunities than the Australia site.  For example, both have host farms in Norway but the UK site lists 39 and the Australia site 23.

It is worth still valuable checking both sites because each lists countries the other doesn’t.  WWOOF Independents (UK) has 16 nations that Australia doesn’t, and WWOOF Independents (Australia) has 14 that the UK site is lacking.

The membership for each of these WWOOF Independents organizations is 15 GBP or about $25.

§

This brings us to the second path by which one tracks down WWOOFing opportunities.

If the country you are interested in visiting does not appear on either of the independent sites, then you must join the specific individual country WWOOF organization.  Each national organization likewise has a membership fee, which is usually affordable but obviously the fees add up if you join multiple listing sites.

Countries which have their own WWOOF organizations are as follows . . .

Argentina  -  www.wwoofargentina.com

Australia  -  www.wwoof.com.au

Austria  -  www.wwoof.at

Belize  -  www.wwoofbelize.com

Brazil  -  www.wwoofbrazil.com

Bulgaria  -  www.wwoofbulgaria.org

Cameroon  -  wwoofcameroon.org@gmail.com

Canada  -  www.wwoof.ca

Chile  -  www.wwoofchile.cl

China  -  www.wwoofchina.org

Costa Rica  -  www.wwoofcostarica.com

Czech Republic  -  www.wwoof.cz

Denmark  -  www.wwoof.dk

Ecuador  -  www.wwoofecuador.com

Estonia  -  www.wwoof.ee

France  -  www.wwoof.fr

Germany  -  www.wwoof.de

Ghana  -  kingzeeh@yahoo.co.uk

Hawaii  -  www.wwoofhawaii.org

Hungary  -  www.wwoof.hu

India  -  www.wwoofindia.org

Ireland  -  www.wwoof.ie

Israel  -  www.wwoof.org.il

Italy  -  www.wwoof.it

Japan  -  www.wwoofjapan.com

Kazakhstan  -  www.kazakhstanwwoof.narod.ru

Korea  -  www.wwoofkorea.co.kr

Lithuania  -  www.wwoof.lt

Mexico  -  www.wwoofmexico.com

Moldova  -  www.wwoofmoldova.org

Nepal  -  www.wwoofnepal.org

New Zealand  -  www.wwoof.co.nz

Philippines  -  www.wwoof.ph

Poland  – http://wwoofpoland.wall.fm/

Portugal  -  www.wwoof.pt

Romania  -  www.wwoof.ro

Sierra Leone  -  www.wwoofsl.org

Slovenia  -  www.wwoof.org/slovenia/

South Korea  -  www.wwoofkorea.co.kr

Spain  -  www.wwoof.es

Sri Lanka  -  www.wwoof.org/wwoofLK/

Sweden  -  www.wwoof.se

Switzerland  -  http://zapfig.com/wwoof/

Taiwan  -  www.wwooftaiwan.com

Turkey  -  www.bugday.org/tatuta/?lang=EN

Uganda  -  bob_kasule@yahoo.com

United Kingdom  -  www.wwoof.org.uk

U. S. A.  -  www.wwoofusa.org

Venezuela  -  www.wwoofvenezuela.com

§

No matter how you dice it, the WWOOF movement has opened up a unique avenue for traveling the world inexpensively, experiencing first-hand the varied and rich cultures of other countries, and finally learning about and making a personal contribution to what is touted to be a technologically, economically, socially, and nutritionally valuable approach to food production.  113 countries on every continent except for Antarctica extend their welcoming arms to volunteers from all over the planet, in a big group hug that promoters of the WWOOF concept hope will change the world for the better.

Having said that, as I found out, all is not rainbows and butterflies out there.

WWOOFing . . . Fact and Fiction

I have for at least two decades been concerned about the quality of food in my diet.  I have tried to significantly reduce the amount of processed and fast food I eat, steer clear of preservatives, particularly avoid anything laced with herbicides and insecticides, hormones and antibiotics, and more recently keep at bay any genetically modified food products.  This purist approach to eating resulted from reading during the 80s Choose To Live ___ a book which I cannot even confirm existed since Google returns nothing resembling the publication I remember ___ then in the 90s Spontaneous Healing by Dr. Andrew Weil, and finally more recently Seeds of Deception by Jeffrey M. Smith.  The widespread problems in America with cancer, high blood pressure, diabetes, and obesity pretty much tell the story, from what I can tell.

However, I am a city boy and had not ever spent any time doing anything remotely related to agriculture.  I planted a few flowers in my garden, but frankly got dirt under my nails far more often working on my car and wiring my recording studio, than communing with the Earth.

With silly, naive ideas about the joys that must be inherent in working the soil and beholding the miracle of Mother Nature, as fruits and vegetables sprang up all around me in a Garden of Paradise which I had helped to create, I saw my traveling around the world with a straw in the corner of my mouth and thumbs looped in the shoulder straps of a pair of overalls, as a darn good way to break with the old routines and give myself a much needed shot of change.  Farmer John!  Yes.  I figured I could live like that for a while.

Off I went!

Among my better qualities is that on the rare occasions I catch a cold, I heal up pretty quick.  Fortunately, the same goes for stupidity.  On the not so rare occasions that I am hopelessly dumb or misinformed, I usually bounce back pretty quickly.  So it didn’t take long for me to take off the blinders, shuck my coat of naiveté and delusion, and see the realities of volunteerism and the WWOOF concept in operation.

§

First of all, no functioning farm upon which someone is dependent for a living is a singsong romp down a flower-lined path to Utopia.  Organic or otherwise, farms are businesses which have to make money.  On one hand, organic farmers save a bundle by not using insecticide, herbicides, chemical fertilizers, and certainly not designer seeds from the big agri-chemical companies, all of which cost a fortune.  Many have no petrol-powered vehicles, so they have no outlays for fuel.  The flip side of this is that people-power substitutes for chemical and petroleum power, which has the potential to be even more expensive.  Getting volunteers to do a substantial part of the grunt work saves on these labor costs, improving the bottom line.  That’s just good business sense, and is completely separate from the loudly proclaimed and real ethical commitment to save the planet or add to the world’s organic flock of the faithful, intrinsic in adopting the organic approach to agriculture.

Second, for every starry-eyed idealist who is determined to make the world a better place, there is someone more than willing to put all those positive energies, good vibrations and blissful intentions to his own selfish use.  Let’s face it, anytime anything is free, there is the potential for abuse.  Only one to a customer please! And sure enough there’s always some fat sugar-freak pig man who rounds up his whole family and every one in the neighbors with a free twenty minutes, and then heads down to the supermarket so he can gorge himself on 34 free Nestles Crunch Ice Cream Bars.

Free labor in the idealistic context of WWOOFing is no exception.  I saw this first hand.

For example, I encountered three “farms” where no crops, organic or otherwise, were growing at all, and I worked on two farms where there were small organic gardens, which at best might feed a family of five for only a few days.

In those situations, I did other things.  In a few instances, those other things turned out to be other quite beneficial and worthy activities.  In a couple, I was just a cheap farm hand, making improvements in the property or the bottom line of the owner, but doing nothing to foster organics or personally learn about sustainable agricultural.  One farm grew organic marijuana purely for the consumption of the very stoned occupants.  Certainly meritorious from the perspective of the owners, but hardly a huge leap forward for the green movement.

The upshot of this is that while many organic farmers share the values of the utopian volunteers who come their way, and make a conscious choice to be part of the organic movement out of respect for the planet and its inhabitants, there are a significant number who are just looking for relatively free labor ___ muscle power they do not have to lay out cash for.

Having said that, I must add that even the situations which were not organic farms provided me with very interesting experiences, both personal and “professional”.  I met some fascinating people and for a short while was a member of the community, not just some tourist.

§

What do my experiences say about WWOOFing itself?  What does anything I saw in almost a year of volunteering as a WWOOFer in seven countries portend for the future of organic farming in general?

Honestly, I don’t have the answers.  I wish I could say it all added up to some sort of huge positive message, but for me it didn’t.  Volunteering is interesting, rewarding on some level, certainly a far cry from the pressures of competing in the marketplace and all that being a fully participating member of the economic system entails.  But did I, one of over 6 billion people in the world, make a difference?  Of course not.

As far as the “movement” towards local, sustainable, non-toxic agriculture goes, the one thing I walked away with was a sobering appreciation of how powerful the agri-chemical companies are and how ruthlessly they will oppose anything which will compromise the bottom line.  In Uganda, for example, big corporations are spending enormous sums to take the country backward.  It has always grown pure healthful food, utilizing techniques perfected over centuries, which are perfectly tuned to the local growing conditions and soil.  Now Monsanto and the other agricultural corporations are coming in, telling the farmers that their methodologies are antiquated, then selling them all sorts of carcinogenic chemicals and genetically modified seeds.  It was very discouraging to see the traditional farmers get sucked into a system which ultimately would not improve their crops, and enslave them to the Western corporate agricultural model.

So the future of organic farming and the future of the planet is at this point anyone’s guess.  Certainly, in important ways, they are integrally linked.

As for WWOOFing, it has been around for almost 40 years and steadily growing, so there is every reason to believe it will probably be around for quite some time to come.

Will it be a major agent for change?  A vehicle for planetary salvation?

Probably not in the foreseeable future.

As valuable and noble as it is, right now it is a tiny blip on the giant screen which comprises the entirety of agriculture throughout the world.  WWOOFing may not even be a blip.  More of a pixel.

Which is not to say that it is not of value.  On the contrary, what it represents in the grand scheme of things is much greater than the microcosmic slice it occupies in the global economy would imply.  What it lacks in punching power, it more than makes up for as a symbol of hope, optimism and good will.  It represents the best in human nature in a world too often disheartened by the darkest impulses of human behavior ___ violence, war, racism, greed.  It offers a positive and real mechanism for doing something ___ anything! ___ to make the world a better place.

Volunteerism itself is a highly subversive, hence potentially history altering thing.  The idea that a person finds some cause so worthy and important that they are willing to jump off the consumerist treadmill and effectively give away their time and energy, as opposed to selling it to the highest bidder on the job market, is revolutionary.  It completely flanks the commonly accepted notion that an individual’s worth is solely their economic worth ___ their earning power.  There are thousands of ways out there to volunteer.  You could do a lot worse than WWOOFing.

For another, as the global corporate model attempts to subsume everything ___ corporations are trying to even control and sell the entire supply of drinking water in many countries, and would probably do the same with breathable air if they could ___ it is crucial to have community-based alternatives, for the day when the too-big-to-fail corporate Godzillas finally fail and collapse of their own weight and rapacity.  Local farming, local crafts, local economies, even local barter currencies, all contribute to an independence from the monolithic corporatization of our lives.  Small, local farms ___ organic or not, staffed by WWOOFers or not ___ are critical to creating a food supply system that is sustainable and serves the nutritional preferences and needs of people, not the bottom lines of corporations.  WWOOF farms are small, local, and in theory, dedicated to sustainable food production ___ committed to feed people and not just profit.

Finally and most importantly, many scientists now believe that the whole agri-chemical-GMO corporate food production model is on a short fuse, that ultimately all of the science will either implode, the global food supply chain itself will become unwieldy and unworkable, or the environmental damage wrought by high-tech farming will bring to a screeching halt current farming methodologies.  What will we do then?  That’s simple.  We’ll go back to the basics, the age-old, time-tested techniques which fed people long before big science and big money got into the game.  With some common-sense twists and eco-friendly improvements, much of what is done on organic farms is at core traditional farming.  And since we may all eventually be forced to rely on this approach, the more people know about it and the more farms that adopt it, the better are prospects for the future.

In spite of what I said about the “abusers”, there are hundreds of WWOOF farms out there that are doing very solid and reputable work.  The more the better.  Frankly, until organic farming reaches some critical mass so that it can compete with the corporate behemoths in the marketplace, it is going to depend on a lot of hard work and sheer muscle power to keep it going.  WWOOFing on a legitimate farm which is using certified organic methodologies like Permaculture and Biodynamics, does make an important contribution to putting and keeping in place traditional and sustainable agricultural techniques, protecting the integrity and variegation of seed lines, fostering innovations in non-chemical farming, and promoting the growth of independent local infrastructures and community-based economies.

I guess what I am saying is that WWOOFing is about hope.  It is about dreaming and keeping the dream alive.  It is a whispered prayer in the yelling match with corporations and globalization.

  • http://twitter.com/ckuhn55 Chuck Kuhn

    Remarkable writer, fantastic and perfect timing for myself,u00a0 more laternThanks

  • jens

    Extremely well written article providing a very balanced view of the WWOOF experience. It is something I have been considering myself and it was refreshing to read your realistic, informative and overall positive opinion of it! Thank you

    • http://jdrachel.com John Rachel

      Thanks for the kind words. The WWOOFing experience for me was in many ways a life-changing one, despite the mixed reviews I ultimately gave the individual hosting farms. This aspect of my travel adventure will be prominently featured in my forthcoming book, “Leaving On A Jet Plane”, which is about my last five-and-a-half years as a literary vagabond.