Time on the Farm

One of the aspects of travelling around that can get a bit wearing after a while is the lack of routine. It’s very liberating at first, being able to do whatever you feel like whenever you want, but after a while I start craving structure, responsibility and routine. This was certainly true as my time in Perth came to an end and I got the train south to the small rural town of Waroona, for two weeks of volunteer farm work.

I found Hamel Homegrown, run by organic farmers Fiona and Anton, on WorkAway, the same website that I used to find my volunteering placement at Yellow House in Kuala Lumpur. The deal on the farm was the same, and similar to most WWOOFing and farm work projects; working five hours per day, five days a week, in return for food and accommodation, and the rest of the time free to relax and explore.

Fiona and Anton started the farm just over twenty years ago, after spending much of their twenties travelling around the country ‘doing the hippy thing’. On the twelve acre plot they have a small orchard and a chicken coop as well as rows of crops, and they grow small to medium quantities of all kinds of fruit and veg, which they sell to organic wholesalers, at a farmer’s market, and from a honesty-box stall on the driveway. They’ve worked hard – in Fiona’s words “it took a long time and a lot of work to become profitable” – and have amassed a huge amount of experience and knowledge of their trade.

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The farm

Working hours were 8:00am to 1:00pm, and I quickly got into the routine of early mornings and freezing cold starts. Along with the part-time staff, almost exclusively members of the extended family, and Francis, another volunteer from Uganda, I moved through a wide variety of jobs from picking and cleaning beetroot, packing lettuces and picking citrus fruit and pumpkins to cleaning up garlic, mulching and weeding and planting onion seedlings. We had a mid-morning tea break together on the veranda, during which I heard the local gossip and got to know everyone better.

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The veranda

It was surprisingly satisfying spending so much time outside and getting my hands dirty doing such physical work. After the first day my body ached from all the bending and lifting, but I had more energy as well, and the more I did the more I was able to see what organic farming is all about. More than just not using chemicals it seemed to me to be about not fighting against nature but working with it; a huge amount of effort was put into improving the soil through mulching and making compost, and instead of waging war against weeds and pests, they were pretty much accepted as inevitable, although some beds were covered in black matting with holes cut for the plants to poke through, in order to prevent weeds in the more delicate crops.

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Me and Francis

The afternoons were my own and after a shower and some lunch I spent most of them reading and relaxing, or walking around the local countryside with Francis. The landscape was not too different to the UK really with lots of green and woods and farmland, and the Western Australian winter was much like the English spring or summer, so it was very pleasant to walk around. A few times I walked to the town along the railway line, and one afternoon Fiona lent me their old ute and we went for a drive and a look around the nearby Lake Moyanup. The truck was ancient but worked well enough once I’d figured out how to take the handbrake off – instead of a horizontal handle is was a thin lever below the steering wheel that you twist and push in – extremely retro!

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Lake Moyanup

In the evenings Francis and I would cook, using the wonderful fresh fruit, vegetables and eggs at our disposal, and watch television with Fiona and Anton. They were very welcoming and over the course of two weeks I met most of their extended family; children, grandchildren, nieces and all, and they took me to their Pentecostal church and introduced me to everyone in the town.

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Walking along the train track

Two weeks flew by and I would have been happy to stay longer. Given my inherent laziness I hadn’t been sure how I’d get along with such physical work, but I found it incredibly satisfying and relaxing being outdoors all the time and getting my hands dirty, and Fiona and Anton’s outlook on life and on growing things was brilliant. I felt quite calm as I returned to Perth, resolving to find a community garden back in Brighton and promising Fiona and Anton to keep them updated with my progress.

After a few more days in Perth, this time in the slightly more interesting suburb of North Bridge, I took an overnight flight back to Melbourne, to see my friends there and prepare for the impending journey homewards.

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WorkAwaying at Yellow House

I’ve been aware of WorkAway for a few years, but my two weeks in Kuala Lumpur was the first time I had used it to find a volunteer project. WorkAway is a membership-based online noticeboard where families, businesses and charities advertise for volunteers, usually on the basis of around 5 hours work per day, 5 days per week, in exchange for meals and accommodation.

The work in question at Yellow House was a combination of household chores and community volunteer projects, which for me meant helping out at a school for people with special needs, teaching at a school for refugees, running a free clothing stall for homeless people, and taking part in the Street Salon, also for homeless people.

The students at the special school had a range of conditions, including Down’s Syndrome, Autism and Global Development Delay, and range in age from five to thirty-nine. This kind of environment was completely new to me and I found my first morning helping the oldest and lowest functioning students very difficult; I didn’t know each person’s different abilities and skills, and as they had little to no linguistic ability I found it difficult to engage. But, as I got to know the students better and began to understand their responses, I became much more comfortable. I also had the chance to go swimming with a group of the students at a local pool, which was great fun. It is useful as aquatherapy, for skills development, left-right brain alignment and co-ordination, as well as being good exercise, and I was impressed how calm the students were in the water, and how well they swam.

The refugee school is attended by refugees primarily from Afghanistan between the ages of about six and seventeen, and on my first day I helped out in an English class. Most of them were about ten and just like my group in Thailand, the lesson was Parts of the Body, and they too knew the universal classic that is ‘Heads, Shoulders, Knees and Toes’. The teacher, also from Afghanistan, was quite traditional in method but he had a good relationship with the class and kept them in line. In contrast, the next day the teacher was off and another volunteer and I were asked to take the class on our own. That morning will stay with me as an important reminder of why I could never teach in a primary school for the sake of my sanity; name calling, fist fights, tears, screaming, me telling them off, them telling me off, and very little learning. It makes me want to have a lie down just thinking about it.

The clothes stall, called the Dignity Store, and the Street Salon are held once a week in conjunction with a food programme run by a Muslim charity in the centre of KL. Usually when clothes are offered to homeless people they are in a bag for them to rummage through, and are often broken or dirty. Special effort is made with the Dignity Store to provide clean, unripped clothes, and to display them on hangers for the homeless people to browse through, and take one or two items that they like. It’s all about treating these people with respect and, as the name says, dignity. Similarly, the Street Salon, in which we cut and washed homeless people’s hair, is as much about treating them as human beings and spoiling them a little as it is about hygiene. I was on shampooing duty, another first for me, and I enjoyed chatting to everyone and feeling like I was doing something practical and helpful.

All of the projects were quite humbling for me, and I was reminded constantly how normal all the people I met were, and how unlike the stereotypes. None of the homeless people were wild-eyed and rambling, the Afghan girls gave as good as they got and weren’t at all meek. It’s not that this surprised me exactly, but, as I lead a pretty sheltered life without much contact with society’s marginalised groups, it was good for me to be reminded that people are just people.

As someone who once felt like she was losing her marbles after living alone for a week, I was surprised how difficult I found it to adjust to living in close quarters with other people again. For the previous month I’d been staying either in hotels, with the room to myself, or in hostel dormitories which had tended to be spacious and largely empty, and I’d grown used to having a great deal of personal space. My dormitory at Yellow House, on the other hand, was small, only just big enough for the three bunk beds barely any space for storage. The communal area was more spacious and, although a little rough around the edges, was perfectly comfortable and bright, with murals and photographs on the walls and three dogs and a cat wandering around. The other volunteers, who were from all over the place, from Texas to Leicester to China, were all very friendly and we all did chores and upkeep around the house, although I managed to avoid imposing my lack of cooking skills on anyone. Although people came and went, there was a nice camaraderie amongst most of the volunteers, and by the time of our leaving barbecue on my final night, I was quite sad to say goodbye, but equally keen to be off on my own again.

For more about Yellow House, see here.