My first WWOOF Experience

If you’ve ever thought that spending time in nature sounded nice, have you checked out WWOOF?

WWOOF stands for World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms, and is exactly what the name says. It is an international network of organic farmers, who serve as hosts for eager travelers. It’s a chance to explore a different region/country/continent, practice some language, learn a skill, and develop amazing relationships you’d never expect.

I spent the last two weeks of my spring Eurotrip WWOOFing (yes, it’s a verb) in Basse-Normandy, France.

 

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A map of my route, for reference!

How did I choose a tiny town in Basse-Normandie? Simple. On the WWOOF website (you pay 20 Euro be a member for a year and then you have access to the catalogue of host farms in the country you choose) there is a list of filters including type of activity (IE permaculture, orchard, dairy, eco projects) and length of stay (one week, two weeks, 1 month). I had two weeks to farm; I was interested in orchards and eco projects. So I found La Fermette du Bellefontaine.

 

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A rainy day on La Fermette

La fermette means “little farm,” and that’s exactly what it was: a small scale organic farm owned and operated by a few friends. Each had his and her own plot of land and primary source of income: one is a vegetable gardener, one a seamstress, and my host, the master baker.

 

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For most French people, bread is life. It’s fresh, it’s inexpensive and it’s eaten three times a day. And why wouldn’t you eat it when the grain was grown and harvested three miles away?

As for eco projects, these included a composting toilet (of which I sadly did not take a picture, but I’ll leave that to you to research), an organic sewage system that uses water-loving plants to clean used water, and newspaper insulation. All created by my host out of his desire to “be as autonomous as possible.”

It’s amazing what you can learn when you least expect it, when you enter into a new situation with zero expectations. I left a lot more informed about steps I can take as an individual to reduce my impact and respect our planet. And I had the best cheese of my life.

 

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View of the town from a hilltop! Not pictured: the medieval fortress I climbed to take this photo.

 

 

 

 

How To Convince Your Overprotective Parents That Travelling is Tremendously Useful for Life

In response to my last post, I’ve been reflecting on some of the incredible benefits of travelling and some arguments I would make to someone who was not an avid nomad or had maybe watched too much CNN. Here are five ways to convince your overprotective parents (or friends) that travelling is not at all like The Hangover:

  1. Travelling makes you self-sufficient. Unless you sign up for a tour, nothing happens abroad unless you make it happen–booking hotels, finding bus tickets, converting money, deciding to drink the water (or not)…it’s your impetus that helps you get places and stay safe.
  2. Travelling makes you brave. You never know how capable you are until you’re watching the last bus pull away from the station and you have to run after it, screaming and waving your hands like a chicken with its head cut off. You run into all sorts of unfamiliar and uncomfortable situations when in a new place, and you have no choice but to cope.
  3. Travelling helps you be more social. You become far more dependent on the kindness of strangers to get around. Slovakian Grandmothers, Vietnamese construction workers, and Israeli soldiers have become some of my best friends in times of navigational uncertainty (I get lost easily). When you don’t know where you are, you have to stop and ask someone, or in my case, five or six people. I’ve been delighted at the many times I’ve had a genuine conversation (in English, Hebrew, or with drawings in the sand) with a complete stranger. The desire to help people is palpable, and when someone takes time out of his or her day to stop and help you–a stranger–the world seems a little smaller and brighter.
  4. Travelling makes you more culturally sensitive. Visiting religious sites, eating the local food, and observing local customs are all ways that the traveler can develop a keen sense of cultural sensitivity. It also makes you more aware of your own way of doing things by virtue of comparison.
  5. Travelling makes you a better citizen. Less then 10 percent of Americans own a passport, and yet there is so much world outside the coasts. When you travel, you see how the rest of the world lives. You realize how much of an impact Americanism has on the world, how much of American culture is exported and mass produced and interpreted differently. Talking to locals about this helps you form your own opinions about the United States and its place in the world. Being informed is a cornerstone of democracy.

So you see, there is so much more to travelling then Bengal tigers and giant skyscrapers. Going in curious, confident and with a sense of humor can yield tremendous personal growth and a heck of a lot of great stories (to share with those family and friends back home…or not). You don’t need a tour or an itinerary to do it; you just need a good pair of shoes.

An Ode to My Tevas

One of the weird subjects you end up discussing when backpacking are your own feet. Specifically, you talk a lot about footwear. For example, I figured out many years ago that I hate flipflops and would rather go barefoot than wear uncomfortable shoes (which I have done many times). Nothing ruins a trip faster than blistered feet.

The best travel investment I ever made, hands down, was my pair of Teva Women’s Tirra Athletic Sandals (which I have conveniently linked here for you in hopes of getting a kickback from Amazon. Just kidding.) I actually didn’t buy them at Amazon but at a local store in Princeton. I’m sure you can find them at boutique shoe stores and most outdoor stores, too.

The same pair of shoes lasted me through all my hiking in Israel, my fall break in Europe, my walks to class in the US, and all over Southeast Asia until the very last trip I took, to Myanmar, where they finally said “enough.” The stitching between the sole and the ankle strap on the right shoe had unraveled. Even so, I managed to wear them for the remainder of my trip by just velcro-ing the ankle strap around itself. But I decided to leave them at my hostel in Shwan State in order to save room in my backpack. I still think of them there, stuffed in the trash can. It was a very poor ending for a very noble pair of footwear.

I really can’t recommend these shoes highly enough. Many people over the years have asked about them, and I always say how much I love them. We’ve been through a lot together. They are currently in five of my facebook profile pictures. Clearly, I’m obsessed.

So here is one final eulogy to the most comfortable, durable, reliable shoes I’ve ever had. Rest in peace, Tevas.

Dancing with my Tevas in the Golan Heights.

I found you in style, inside a new store
Where brown paper shoe linings littered the floor.
You cost me much more than I then could afford
Yet you tempted me, won me
With cushy, soft soles.

Your velcro and criss-crosses gave me a tan
That’s stayed on my feet through summer and winter,
tatooed shadows reminding me
of hot afternoon climbs.

With socks, you warmed me
in Autumn in Prague.
In water, you carried me
through rocks and through fog.

Up mountains, down valleys,
down cobblestone alleys,
Your grip made me sure
I’d not slip nor unravel.

We spent four long years
foot by side,
we saw ten fine countries,
and a lot of goodbyes.

Till one fine day in May,
your crevices caked with clay,
your velcro delayed
and—riip

Farewell, dear friends,
my trusted travel companions.
I’ll miss your reliability,
your light-weight portability,
your eternal tan-lines.

I hope you enjoy retirement in Myanmar.

With love,
Melanie

PS-Sorry for the stinky feet.

A Trip To Chiang Mai

This trip happened over a month ago, and yet I was in denial about its brevity, so I neglected to write about it until now. But I think I’m finally processing it all!

Over student midterms, for a much needed break from teaching and from city living, I took a trip up north with two friends and fellow teachers. We hopped on an overnight bus to the northern city of Chiang Mai, also known as Thailand’s “second city.” Think Chicago to USA’s New York City, except zero skyscrapers and with an ancient, Asian city wall.

One of the entrances to the Old City.

 

I love these trees. They’re all over Thailand. They remind me of the jungle.

Chiang Mai is a beautiful mix of ancient history, artistic tradition and modern innovation. If you’re familiar with the term “hipster,” it can almost be used to describe Chiang Mai, except instead of fourteen year olds skateboarding in flannel shirts you see sixty year old Greek and Italian ex-pats smoking rolled cigarettes and playing music in bars. But the feel is basically the same–laid back, adorably ironic and boldly unique.

The night markets were my favorite thing about the city. Sure they were crowded, but here you really see the heart of Thailand’s artisanal craft making scene. Everything from hand woven scarves to purses to jewelry to wooden carvings, paintings, sketchings and etchings were for sale along the streets. And the best part was that you got to witness these crafts in progress. One market, referred to simply as “the night bazaar” features a lower level indoors where brilliant visual artists draw and paint on massive canvases for the entertainment and prowess of curious tourists, all while displaying the capacity of their artistic genius . Of course, in true artistic fashion, you can’t take pictures of the work, so I leave it up to you to imagine wall to wall paintings of children, old men, Buddhist monks walking to temples in the rain, elephants, rice fields, wolves, Cherokee people and the like, all in the most beautiful colors and black-and-white charcoal depictions I’ve ever seen.

For me, the biggest treats of the trip were actually outside of the city. The first was a Thai cooking class at a special, homegrown farm in the mountains:

Our group enjoying our delicious creations.

But the second was far more edifying and less simplified. My two friends and I elected to go on a three day, two night “trekking tour” in one of Chiang Mai’s beautiful mountain terrains.  The morning of the first day, we were driven to an elephant camp that, unfortunately, did not treat the elephants humanely. I will refrain from posting pictures here. Needless to say, I learned a lot about the benefits and complications of the Thai tourism industry on that day.

Yet our journey grew increasingly authentic and unpredictable after that. We drove to our beginning pathway and hiked to a beautiful waterfall for lunch. After a quick dip, we continued on, our quick footed guide (nicknamed “Louis” but pronounced like the French) always stopping to point out tasty snacks like fire ants (I’m not kidding) and various kinds of mushrooms.

That evening we arrive at a small village belonging to the local Keren people. The Keren originally migrated from Tibet, settling first in Burma and now in northern Thailand. They speak their own language, though their alphabet is similar to Thai script. Our guide, Louis, belonged to a neighboring village but was treated as one of their own, and they extended the same warm hospitality to us.

Our guide Louis…jokingly feeding me a bottle of water.
Inside the cooking room.

After a luxurious sleep on straw mats, listening to the rain patter on the bamboo rooftops, I slid my way up the dirt path to rejoin my group for breakfast and our second day of hiking. Day two proved to be very, err, wet, as we encountered a serious downpour about an hour into our hike with no shelter in sight. Nevertheless, we soldiered on, and thank God for Louis, who was able to guide us through steep paths that had quickly turned into raging rivers. We made it to our second camp for lunch.

Before we left the Keren village, we passed through the local school, where we peeked in on children learning Thai language songs. I had forgotten what it felt like to be around children (having spent the majority of my time with college students), and I wanted to cry seeing the sheer joy on their faces. I’m including a facebook link to the video that my friend, Emi, took, because seeing them was such a beautiful reminder of what all people share in common. We may all have different words for “head, shoulders, knees, in toes” but those precious body parts are what we all have and need to protect.

I’m eternally grateful for the trip to Chiang Mai, and most especially to the Keren people for letting me into their homes for a little while. Being there was a great reminder of why I came to Thailand in the first place. Yes, I love English, and I really like teaching, and I have my beliefs. But what I have to give pales in comparison to what I have to learn just by meeting people. Sure, it can be uncomfortable–like walking through the pouring rain–but on the other side, always, always the sun comes out and dries up all my insecurities.

It’s been four months since I arrived. My first semester of classes are coming to a swift and jarring end. There are days when I feel completely, inexplicably ordinary, when I forget that I’m in Thailand all together, and it feels like just another day. I think these days are important to keep my sanity at a healthy level. But far more important to me are those days–precious few they may be at the moment–that take me outside of the ordinary and into some of the ancient and secret worlds of God’s creation. I pray that He will give me the courage to pursue these extraordinary moments with as much vigor as I try to pursue the ordinary.

With love,
Mel