WWOOF: World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms. The most annoyingly-acronymed organisation I can think of. I don’t like writing it, and I hate trying to say it, but it’s a lovely idea and Caroline and I did it for the first time in Thailand at a permaculture center.
The idea of WWOOFing is to work on a farm (or orchard, or home stay, or any small business) and get paid in food and accommodation. Some people hear this idea and point out that it resembles slavery. Possibly so. But it’s also a nice way for a traveler to save some cash and give something back to the world, as well as spend a decent amount of time exploring an interesting section of a foreign country off the beaten track. It’s a great concept, but it has mixed reviews online. Pleasant experiences are recorded about 70 percent of the time (I just made that figure up).
Permaculture, to be extremely brief, is a way of growing food sustainably and naturally through enriching soils and the planting complimentary crops. This is opposed to a monoculture crop, like, say, a field of corn. It involves a lot of planning for water flow and placement of plants and animals, and everything must be beneficial to everything else.
The owner of the permaculture center we WWOOFed at shall remain anonymous – herein referred to as Ted.
14 years ago, Ted, an architect by trade, traveled from his home in the USA to explore Thailand. Now he lives there permanently. He is 82 years old and is married to a young Thai woman. Being an expat, he isn’t allowed to own property in Thailand, so he paid for a condo (in her name), a few acres of rubber tree plantation (in her name), and a house for her brother (presumably in the brother’s name).
Ted cut down a lot of the old rubber trees for mulch and planted hundreds of fruit trees and vegetables. He set up a rainwater harvesting system, a workshop, a car port, and had designed a house for the property. He had several ponds and kept ducks.
Ted was a self-styled Buddha of some kind. According to himself, he had reached enlightenment and was currently residing in what he called the fifth dimension. When I asked what the fourth dimension was, he simply answered, “It’s a way to transition from the third to the fifth.”
Despite claiming to be riding the Oracle of Delphi’s train to the future on plains of higher existence, Ted appeared to be fighting against his real personality. Buried loosely under the shallow surface of an enlightened exterior, was a normal, slightly grumpy old man.
We arrived at the Ted’s farm expecting a fully functioning permaculture centre (like the one alluded to on his WWOOFing profile) but the plot of land revealed that the dream of sustainability was still just that – a dream. A dream in its very early stages. The fruit trees were not yet fruiting, the vegetable garden was practically dead, the farmhouse was just a drawing on a computer screen, and the livestock was seven ducks. There was no accommodation (as promised), and so Ted asked us where the universe would like us to stay.
“We’ve got a tent.” I offered. Luckily we had decided to buy one in Malaysia.
“Great!” laughed Ted, relieved. “The universe always says yes.”
We met Chloe, a 24-year-old South African who had arrived the night before we did. She was given a bed in Ted’s workshop that was unwashed and unmade, and she told us that she probably wouldn’t stick around for long. “It’s not really what I was expecting,” she confided quietly.
We met Ulf (full name Ulfar Inn Svarti Þorrison), a 31-year-old Northern Californian who had been WWOOFing> at Ted’s place for three months already. He had earned a room in a nearby block of flats which Ted paid for, and was paid a weekly stipend for food (500 baht). He was happy, bursting with enthusiasm and as patient as a saint. And he had seen the best and worst of Ted.
“I’m going to Tesco. Do you need anything?” Ted asked Ulf.
“We need some more of those blue gloves,” Ulf replied. “The 50 baht ones.”
“Where are they exactly?” demanded Ted. It took about five minutes of careful explanation and he eventually said, “Well, whatever. If I find them, I find them.”
An hour later, he returned.
“I couldn’t find your 50 baht gloves, I could only get these 49 baht ones,” he said.
“Yep, they’re the ones.”
“What? But these were 49. You said 50.”
“Well, 49. 50. You know. That’s them.”
Ted turned dark. “No, you said 49!” his voice was raised. “Have you ever seen a 49 story building and a 50 story building? That’s a big difference!”
“It’s not that big a difference.”
“It took me an extra five minutes of looking to find gloves that weren’t there!”
Eventually, Ted threw up his arms and as if remembering himself, said, “Well whatever. At least you have gloves now.”
That night in the tent, I got bitten by something worse than mosquitoes, possibly fleas, and had a mild allergic reaction with swelling. I showed Ted in the morning.
“Mosquitoes go for your acupuncture points. They’re actually helping your immune system. But I can pray to the mosquito gods so you don’t get bitten so much,” he said.
The kitchen area was filthy. Really filthy. Ted cooked up old bits of chicken with rice for his dog twice a day and left hunks of meat and burnt husks of rice everywhere. Ants and flies and beetles were a permanent fixture, and everything got caught up with crumbs in the microfibre towels Ted inexplicably insisted on covering the benches with. I asked if he could get some more dish soap as the small bottle we had was running out.
“I don’t use soap, because I don’t believe in the germ theory.”
The germ theory?
“I don’t believe that you can get sick from other people. Germs are a lie created by the pharmaceutical companies to sell their products.”
Ted loved to joke.
“You guys know what ‘necking’ is in the States?” he asked
“Yeah… like what? Kissing? Nuzzling?”
“What’s cookin’?” said Ted with a wry smile, motioning towards the chicken he was boiling. “Chicken! Wanna neck?”
Unfortunately, a lot of Ted’s jokes fell flat, and our unenthusiastic, polite chuckling usually ended with him getting a bit sulky and saying, “Well, you know. Whatever.”
Ted wanted nothing more than to be a great teacher of the permaculture way of life, and he planned on giving hour-long classes every morning. “There are no stupid questions, only stupid people who don’t ask questions,” he grinned on the first day. But our questions were usually answered with, “Well, I’m not sure. Check on Wikipedia and let me know.” Luckily we managed to escape all but two of these morning lessons, where Ted would stand at a whiteboard and scratch out semi-literate offerings, constantly losing his train of thought.
During our time at the permaculture centre (eight days, eight nights), we spent our days in ‘The Pit’ – an enormous hole which was being cemented to hold water. The work involved several basic things; connecting rolls of chicken wire to a thicker wire and laying it around the walls of The Pit; mixing batches of cement by hand with hoes in two large buckets (1 bag of cement to 24 shovelfuls of sand – add water); and plastering the mixture up on the walls using precariously placed ladders. It was tough work, but with four of us going at it (Chloe decided to stay on as long as us) we got a considerable amount done. Now that we have left, the strong and dependable Ulf will be back to doing the whole job by himself unless another WWOOFer comes along.
During our pit work, Ted would potter about his newly planted empire, tending to trees and pouring his home-made ‘compost tea’ onto everything. He would feed the ducks and the fish and have conversations with the saplings. He called this his Walkabout – misguidedly named after the Aboriginal rite of passage.
Work was five hours a day, every day. In return we got a patch of land to put our tent and were supplied with food (from Tesco – not grown on the farm, because there was no edible food grown on the farm) to cook ourselves in the grotty kitchen. If not for Ulf, the rock, we probably would have left after a couple of days – just as many other WWOOFers had apparently done before us.
Despite the hot, difficult work and our peculiar host, it felt nice to once again have a bit of a working routine – even if it was just for eight days. Constantly moving about from one town to the next with no particular purpose is a wonderful way to live, but the body thanks you when you give it some familiarity.