It’s 7am and I am already up. While sitting at the kitchen table with my hosts, I share a word, the theme for the daily meditation. But wait a minute: I am not in my home or my country. I am at a farm/community centre, 100km away from Daegu, the nearest “big” town in the middle of South Korea. And how did a Brazilian girl, whose Korean vocabulary is 5 word maximum end up there?
Well, let me explain…
While travelling around Asia on a budget is the source of the greatest joy in my life, after a while I started feeling that all the amazing experiences I have had with the locals could have lasted longer and been even more meaningful. I thought that maybe all those quick and amazing encounters that happen so often when you travel (the nice guy at the bus stop, the old lady at the train station, the clerk that smiles at you everyday) could be, why not, the main event of my staying at a certain place.
Although I am travelling often, I decided that I could spend all my 90-day visa (or almost all of it), traveling around the country and meeting people. While trying to figure it out how to do it without spending all my money in South Korea, I came up with the idea of volunteering.
Now, if you have been to Asia or read about travelling around here, you probably have seen some volunteer work being advertised. Teaching english at school villages, taking care of animals, helping building schools – there are plenty of options. While I was doing my research, I came across WWOOF – World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms.
The idea is quite simple: WWOOF is a big network that makes it possible for farmers and volunteers to get in touch, meet and work together. It is an organisation that has communities almost everywhere in the world, but even if it is not that organised in the country you want to go, sometimes you can find independent farmers willing to welcome you.
WWOOF have some rules for the farms to participate: they must be completely organic, even if it’s a little family farm or an industrial one. It must also have a room for the volunteer and provide the meals – this is what you get in exchange for your work. At the farm profile in the WWOOF website, they must specify what kind of work they expect from the volunteers and how many hours you will work. But everything becomes clear when you get in touch with the farmers to schedule your visit, and when you get there, you must get together to make everything clear as possible.
And how do you get in touch with them? You sign up and pay a fee that allows you to work for the farmers for a whole year. You can stay a single day or up to a few months; it’s just something that each farmer decides independently, while also considering what is convenient for the volunteer. But remember: For each country you will need to pay a fee. So if you want to work in three different countries, you must pay three different fees.
Now, a surprise: Not all farmers speak english, so if you are like me and don’t mind being a little lost in translation and rely on an app or translation website, you will be fine!
I had the opportunity to work in three different farms in South Korea. The first one, and biggest, was a rice farm close to Seoul. I stayed there for 30 days and shared the work with 4 other volunteers (each one staying for a different period of time).
The second one was a farm/community centre close to Daejeon, right in the centre of the country. I stayed there for 25 days, alone, and worked more as an english teacher for the children and elderly than doing real farm work.
And the last one was a blueberry farm close to Daegu, where me – the lonely volunteer – helped to pick and pack the blueberries for a week.
Every place was a total different experience. Not only because the work was different but because the whole concept of family and family work was different too. You must remember that you will spend almost your whole day with the farm family but you will also meet the employees of the farm, the local community and visitors that come and go – and sometimes they come to meet you!
In the first farm the work was hard. We would start at 8am to have breakfast together, while the farmers were already working, starting at 5am. The tasks were simple but busy: Giving water and food to the chickens and rabbits, weeding the main path and the potato field, watering the chilli trees that were outside the greenhouses to be sold, weeding and picking chilli tree leaves inside the 8 greenhouses (during summer – hot chilli and really hot volunteers), and last but not least taking the rice trails out of the several greenhouses where they were being grown and transport and plant them (gladly with the help of a planting machine) in all the 70 rice paddies they have.
We would stop for lunch and have free time during the afternoon and then return to work around 4pm to finish it around 8pm. Although the farmers could not speak english they were very patient and always in a good mood for jokes. We would make it all fun and funny, so the days passed quickly and the goodbye was a little teary – especially for me.
When I moved on to the next farm I was ready to work hard or even harder, but I had a big surprise. The farmer was a former high school teacher and after retiring he transformed his house into this big community centre, complete with a library, art room, musical instruments, cafe, two kitchens, auditorium and a big house with ten rooms to accommodate guests (and WWOOF volunteers).
The farm work was simple: feed the chickens and rabbits, weed the property and help him around in the flower garden. My main tasks were from Monday to Friday – teach english to 5 kids that live nearby and teach english twice a week to the group of 10 elderly people who came to practice Korean drums. Did I mention the former teacher is also a skilled musician? While spending the morning and afternoon in the weekdays with him, the early breakfast and weekends was all to his wife, a school principle.
During breakfast we would discuss important words and situations, so we would have new things to think about everyday, and on the weekends I joined her for long walks in the nearest temple, climbed a 800m mountain and kept her company in two different Korean weddings. They also talked about me to their friends, and at least 4 times a week we had visitors who wanted to meet me and show me around.
When they found out I worked as an art educator in Brazil, they took me to the new exhibition at the art museum in Daejeon, showed me music and Korean poetry and took me out for dinner. The farmer’s wife was also an english teacher, so the communication was perfect.
The last farm, which I only spent 7 days, was my first time working in a real farm business. I did everything: helped the “grandmothers” to pick the blueberries; weighed and separated the fruits to be sold at the farmer’s market and to distributors who would come to pick the packages up, cleaned the market and made jam and blueberry smoothies in the afternoon (I loved this part).
The family was Christian so on my only Sunday there we went to the church where I found out that the farmer was also a musician and choir singer. Although I spent only a week there I could see the work of real powerful and strong women, from the farmer’s wife, a skilled business woman who is responsible for the family and the farm and the old ladies who pick the blueberries underneath the almighty sun during the Korean summer heat – crazy hot, no joke (and I am Brazilian, I know hot weather).
At the end of these experiences, leaving South Korea behind was the hardest task. I keep remembering the good and the bad, but the outcome was more positive than I ever could have imagined. The amazing people I met became, even for a just a little while, my family and the people I could rely on. The most important thing for me was to meet new people all the time. I could see the cultural differences in situations that the common traveller doesn’t always have the time for: the business and family relations, work and religion.
I learned so many things, all of them completely out of my comfort zone. A new language (ok, 20 or 30 new Korean words), new farming skills which includes putting together a brand new greenhouse, planting, picking and harvesting different vegetables. The time and commitment that I saw in each family, spent all on the farm work so they could fulfil their dreams – sending the kids to college, traveling and retiring with comfort – this all made me focused on how important it is to really appreciate the everyday life, being that whatever it is.
I could also see how I was important while helping around, even if is was only the dishes after the meals or even driving the family truck to the next town to pick more rice – without their supervision – all of this was my responsibility and a help to their daily lives. There are many ways to travel and to discover a new place, and I found that volunteering opened the gates of people homes and minds for me.