La ducha está afuera con la manguera. No puedes utilizar el inodoro a dentro porque hay problemas con la tubería. El inodoro está afuera también. Deciphering sentences such as these, I quickly wondered what I had gotten myself into. She lived in a quaint, partially remodeled house with solar panels on the roof. Plants and trees of various kinds were scattered around the small fenced-in farm, seemingly with no order. Small greenhouses and huts, clearly constructed with whatever materials Maria could find, were strategically distributed around the two acres. When I saw them I simultaneously marveled at the architectural ingenuity and predicted the date of their collapse. During my three-month stay I consistently discovered new plants, new uses for apparently useless things, and the simple fact that Maria used everything she had, that there was a plan for each plant and object on her humble farm.
On our first morning she told me her expectations for me and what obligations we each had. With gesticulations and the aid of pen and paper, she was moderately successful at getting her point across. I was to work six days a week, about 5 hours a day. It was my responsibility to keep track of my hours. I could split them up however I wanted. I could do them all at once or two in the morning and three late at night, por ejemplo. She showed me the outhouse and shower. She mimed that I could pee anywhere on the farm, though not on the plants, logically. (‘To pee’ is not in many textbook vocabulary lists.) She handed me a pair of gloves and asked with a smile, “¿Tienes preguntas?” I said in flawless Spanish, “No.” Then I set out on my first day as a Willing Worker.
When I tell this story or describe the farm, people often ask how I coped. Honestly, the outhouse, the freezing water in la ducha, and the lack of wifi were only a small inconvenience. But perhaps this is only in comparison to what truly made those three months the most challenging of my life: the language. I spoke English about once every week and a half in the form of a brief Skype call to my parents. From the moment I opened my eyes in the morning to the moment I went to sleep, I had to be in ‘translate mode’. If you have a talent for language (something I painfully lack), maybe it is no problem for you. Here is how I describe it:
When speaking your native language, there is no gap between hearing and comprehending. If you heard the audible sounds, then you understood the words. And when you speak, words flow organically. We are all familiar with the ‘just talking’ sensation. Now take all of that away. When listening to a foreign language, there is something (a very frustrating something) in between hearing and comprehending. It is a very fast application of vocabulary, grammatical principles, and context. And since spoken language flows, usually without gaps in between words and sentences, you have to translate very quickly in order to keep up. But in order to respond (remember, you are having a conversation here), because you don’t speak the language natively, you must do what I call ‘double translation’. You form a response in English but, since your English is far better than your Spanish, you probably cannot directly translate the one into the other. So you translate what you would normally say in English into a simpler English sentence that you can then translate into Spanish: double translation. To me, it is not only mentally exhausting, but physically exhausting también. So doing this in two-hour chunks during the day makes a cold outside shower seem tranquil.
I soon developed a routine. I would wake up and eat breakfast with Maria, usually corn flakes with honey and some tea. She would then show me some tasks and off I’d go. The tasks varied widely. Sometimes I would plant, water, weed, pick the ripe fruits and vegetables, fix broken things, or prepare a patch of land to be planted. Regardless, it was never terribly strenuous, despite the fact that there were no machines or pesticides. I’d stop after about three hours and go into my room. At around 11:30 the light would shine on the desk and I could read and study. Each day I would do a chapter from a Spanish textbook, complete with exercises, read from a Spanish novel (The Giver by Lois Lowry, or El Dador, was my first), and work through vocabulary flash cards. After a couple hours it was lunchtime. Maria was an excellent cook. Everything was fresh and healthful. Looking back, I don’t think I’ve ever been healthier and stronger than I was during those three months. Sometimes people would visit for lunch. I made friends with Maria’s son (whom I could never really understand, even after three months; I say it was because of his tone of voice), and particularly with a woman named Cristina. We would always eat outside and talk for an hour or so after the meal. When it was over and the dishes were cleaned, I would complete my remaining two hours.
Our lunch table and Maria’s solar cooker
In the afternoons I did various things. Sometimes I would take the shoddy bike into the pueblo and read in the park. In the last month I made friends with a man named Francisco whom I saw there often. He was patient with my Spanish and would kindly explain my mistakes. I’m sure there were plenty that he didn’t mention. Sometimes I would take a walk in the country. I often played a classical guitar Maria owned that was missing a string, which gave me some time to sing some English.
Occasionally Maria would take me places. Once we loaded her car with jugs and collected drinking water from a mountain stream. We picked leftover tomatoes from a recently harvested field. On my days off she would take me to Ciudad Real. While she worked at the local hospital I would explore and relax.
This makes my three months sound flawless and pleasurable, but it was also immensely challenging. I always struggled to understand what Maria wanted around the farm, since I knew far less farm vocabulary than common conversational Spanish. Often the instructions did not make sense to me and, since I didn’t understand her objective, I would make mistakes. She would have to explain again and, as I’m sure you can understand, we would both get frustrated. However, she was very patient and gracious. On our last night she complimented my hard work and said she would be glad to have me back. She also marveled at how my Spanish progressed, which was true. Though there was never a moment when I made a drastic jump, I could see steady improvement. I even had the requisite nervous breakdown.
To end, I wholly endorse WWOOFing and, of course, language learning. The two are worthwhile in themselves. But as I’ve said, language learning is best done through total immersion, which is known to break the bank. WWOOF presents an unforgettable way to experience another culture from the inside and to expose yourself to the language as it is truly spoken. It is also a way to contribute to a culture that is ethical and sustainable, one that should be far more pervasive than it is. I am a better person for my experience and it is one I would recommend to absolutely anyone. Just know that you might have to shower outside with a hose.
Cristina, Maria, and me after lunch
Cristina, me, and Lucia at a picnic in Ciudad Real
My last night at the farm, with Maria, her son Juan, and his girlfriend Mayte
For Part One.