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.

 

 

 

 

The Savior Complex

“A voice cannot carry the tongue and the lips that gave it wings. Alone it must seek the ether.” –Khalil Gibran

 

If I had my way, I would be a bird. I would fly from place to place and peep in on other people’s realities, never getting too attached or involved. I would skim the surface of life, laughing at my reflection in oceans and dancing on telephone wires. As a traveler, all I have truly ever wanted is to sit in tiny rooms with friends and drink in laughter between paper thin walls, sweet, steamy chai wafting through our noses and thick, melodious languages dripping from our tongues. But I’m not a bird, and I’m not a wallflower. I exist; people notice me.

I hate that people notice me. Sometimes I wish I could just keep the inspirational experiences in my heart and leave the embarrassing ones behind. I wish I could help people when I want to help rescue them and not when I feel obligated to do so. There comes a point when one can feel so emptied that we cannot seem to be filled. Perhaps this is because “help” has turned into “rescue.”

The world doesn’t give us a break. We can’t decide when people need our help, and we can’t really decide when we need another’s help. But not asking for help when we are drowning doesn’t make sense. Yet how do we move on from a rescue?

No man is an island. But for those of us who have grown up privileged, it’s easy to think that we have some God-given power to help others because of our circumstances, because we’ve been told to go out into the world and make it better. But change isn’t a power, it’s a responsibility, and a very precarious one. If you’re not aware of your own impact, you can do more harm then good.

Reflecting on my time in Thailand, I think I felt a lot of pressure to live up this image of a rescuer that, at the time, I was not aware I had. Being part of a faith community, learning about the plight of refugees, I became very involved with the idea of saving others. I didn’t see it as anything problematic, but I wasn’t just a witness. I was an actor and people noticed me and started assuming things about me that I wasn’t aware of because I was not fully present. I was in my own head. 

I grew up in my head. I dreamed away my reality with visions of waterfalls, open fields, and a sense of life with a purpose. I am learning how to live a life with purpose, but a lot of this has been painful. I think that’s the point. The hardest part about wanting to rescue someone is needing to save them from pain. Sometimes this is absolutely vital; sometimes it isn’t. I don’t know where that line is and I never want to make that decision but I know that I will. Life is tough like that. I have a tendency to remember only the good things and forget the times I failed. But at the same time, failure can be life’s greatest teacher, even if it means giving up and moving home. A friend of mine asked me, “What do you want to learn from this?” I think that’s a great start.

I’ve failed a lot in my life, which is how I know I’m not a savior. I believe there is only one Savior. But even if you don’t, as travelers, teachers, explorers, we have to start acknowledging our own impact. We are not wallflowers and we are not birds. We might be called on to rescue someone, but we need to examine our motivations as well as our plans. Does this person need help? If so, what does that need to look like?

Never stop asking questions.

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Inle Lake, Myanmar: 2015

Addicted to the Yea-Sayers

Maybe I thought moving to Thailand would be “hard,” but that is nothing compared with the internal metamorphosis of the post-college existence.

**Warning: Existential Crisis Below**

As my dear friend Calen reminded me the other day, “don’t trick yourself into thinking that if you were in the United States, you wouldn’t be feeling these things, because you would. They would just be different.”

Ok, she was right. And life after college is hard.

Is it hard in the material sense? Ok, no. No, in that sense, I am very blessed. But for me–and this might be different for you–material things are really pretty meaningless. I mean, I like having a house and a roof and shelter and clothing and food–and I recognize that many people do not have these things. But I don’t derive much meaning or sense of purpose in my life from owning things. I’ve always been someone who likes doing things. I get my sense of purpose from trying other things and from making other people happy. Ok, maybe this is not wise.

In my life, I was always surrounded by people who loved me and who often knew me better than I knew myself. I felt safe with these people; I could let my guard down, just be myself, and not have to think about how my behavior was affecting them. I never felt like I was standing on ceremony in my own home.

In college, I worked, but I always stuck to things I was good at, making it easier for me to feel successful at what I wanted to do. I have always shied away from difficult things, because I hate feeling like a failure. I hate messing up.

Ok..but what now? What am I supposed to do with these feelings? Suddenly, I’m no longer surrounded by people who know me better than I know myself. When I came here, literally no one knew me and I knew no one. That means starting completely from scratch. Maybe that’s exciting if you have a lot of baggage, but for me, I left everything I knew behind. And I left everything that was easy behind.

Perhaps I seriously took for granted just how wonderful my previous employers, coworkers, classmates, teachers and friends have been. But more and more I run into blank walls with no instructions, no past experience to draw from, and no one explaining to me how to tackle this. It’s just me. 

Ok, and maybe one day when all is said and done and I have a lot of cats and sweaters I will look back at this point in my life and laugh, thinking, “How naive I was. Everything was so easy then!” But at this moment in my life, things are difficult in a way that surrounds and sometimes consumes me, because I can’t walk away from it. I can’t choose not to live, because I don’t like feeling like a failure. I can’t choose not to do this job because I don’t like doing things that are hard and not easy. I suppose I could. But I’m not going to.

I’d really like to know–how have some of you transitioned from a cozy, predictable environment, to a life that’s habitually difficult? How do you deal with the walls?

One Month In: A Short Picture Book and Musings on Language Learning

This is my life right now…

Every morning I wake up at seven thirty to go to work. But it’s okay, because I wake up to this…

I teach outside of the city, but it’s okay because I like the quiet. When I’m anxious for culture, I can go here

 
 
Or see this.
 
 
 
I get lost amid statues,
 

 
 
pay respects on the way,
 
 
have lunch on a boat dock
 
 
or buy jars made from clay.
 
 
If I need a reminder of why I came so far away from home, I find it in God’s simple pleasures, like a mooncake, a coconut, or a trip to Silom.
 

 

 
Of course life isn’t like this every day. This pictures were taken almost a month ago. I’m going on week four of teaching, and that is an adventure in itself! But I needed a reminder this morning of just how magnificent Thai culture really is. You can never boil it down to little quips and phrases, and I refuse to do so. To try to understand Thai culture from the perspective of a foreigner, a “farang,” is like trying to guess the color of a fruit flesh’s without peeling the skin. It’s impossible to know.  Thailand has a huge tourism industry; everywhere I go I see tourists, mostly Westerners. Bangkok has a massive ex-pat retiree community and many more sex tourists. (For more information on the sex trade in Thailand, go here.) One of the biggest complaints I hear is that Thai people don’t understand Westerners. For English teachers like me, it can be frustrating trying to communicate in a language that many people don’t understand or seem motivated to learn. Indeed, Thailand is ranked near the bottom of Southeast Asian countries for English speaking ability. Many are concerned about the effects this will have on Thailand and its economy with the launch of the Asean Economic Community (AEC) incentive in 2015. After all, the official language of Asean will be English–not so much to communicate with the Western world, but to communicate with each other. Isn’t it curious that English is becoming the common language of the Asian world?
 
I could go on and on about the sociocultural implications of a world gone mad with English fever. For a wonderful Ted talk on the subject, click here. But the fact still remains that millions of Thais speak little to no English in an economy increasingly reliant on foreign (mostly English-speaking) tourism.
 
So should they learn?
 
Many of my students are here because they want to take over a family business, work in tourism or work with foreigners, and they know English will allow them to get there. But my students–university students in general–area small percentage of the population, most of which exists in the rural provinces of the country.  I know nothing about the schooling system in Thailand, except that it is compulsory. I do not know the level of English language teaching in the school system. But classes are obviously conducted in Thai–the native language to so many.
 
Which leads me back to the question: should Thai people learn English to communicate with foreigners or for international business? For the latter, perhaps, but I’ll skip that debate for now. How about the former: foreigners? Tourists? Visiting English professors?
 
Or should we learn Thai? Wouldn’t that be more helpful?
 
Or maybe a little of both?
 
So much upset in one’s daily life–regardless of location–comes from miscommunications that get blown out of proportion. It seems to me that this can be easily remedied through language learning, not just Thai speakers learning English, but English speakers learning Thai (like myself). I feel frustrated when I can’t connect more deeply with someone because of a language barrier. This is something I want to change. But I think there needs to be more emphasis on language learning, as opposed to just English language learning. If language learning is one-sided, there can be no cultural exchange, only cultural domination. This is not what the world needs.
 
My goal for this year, before I arrived, was to learn how to be a teacher. I am learning, but I’m realizing that building relationships with my students–and anyone else from Thailand, for that matter–requires more work on my part, because I have to find ways to put myself in their shoes…and their sandals 🙂
 
I think learning language is a beautiful way to do that.