Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Willing Workers on Organic Farms (WWOOF)

Well, I now officially have less than a month left here, and I have been busy tying up loose ends here and preparing for the next chapter. Which is what? Good question.

I leave the beautiful islands of Tonga, my home for the past two years, November 18th on a plane headed for a slightly bigger, more "advanced" island nation: New Zealand. I fly in on a morning flight, then I will find my way into the main city of Auckland, find a backpackers hostel to put my stuff down in, then find a place to get my haircut (it's been nearly a year since I've had a real haircut). That's about as far as I have gotten in terms of specific planning for the next five months. In general, I will be traveling around New Zealand (maybe with short trips to Samoa and Australia of cheap tickets come up?) WWOOF-ing. WWOOF stands for Willing Workers on Organic Farms and basically you stay at a house/ farm/ eco-lodge for a week (or sometimes much longer) at a time, providing an extra set of hands for labor and learning about sustainable living, organic growing principles. Depending on where you are staying, you could find youself involved in any of the following:

- stone carving
- beekeeping/honey
- freeform earth house construction
- olive, apple, citrus, almond, avocado, persimmion, feijoa growing
- alpaca farming
- winemaking, cheesemaking, preserving
- seafood gathering
- Weeding and more weeding (chemical sprays are not used)

I first heard about WWOOF-ing from travelers coming through Tonga that had just been in New Zealand and done it. Everyone I talked to who had done it had the best things to say about the experience; they met great people, got a real feel for New Zealand culture by living with families, and found it was a cheap way to travel and do something different outside of the "tourist traps" (think Lord of the Rings bus tours). Generally, depending on what you work out with your host, you work 4-5 hours a day, then have the afternoon free to explore, go on a bushwalk, kayak, climb a mountain...again it depends on where you are and what you have worked out with the host. You are usually provided three meals a day and a warm, dry place to sleep. Here are some examples of host sites:

"Mulching, mowing, weeding and planting, woodwork, making a pizza oven, making music, boating, eating! We're developing a small vegetable garden and orchard to feed ourselves. Ben's building a shed and the house is constantly being improved so there's always something to do for tool-handy folk, whether it's mosaic-ing, woodworking, or simply renovation. And when we're done with ALL that, there's kayaks, the ocean and maybe a sail...Ben plays a variety of windy instruments in various styles! We also have a piano" "Our mixed fruit orchard is on the ourskirts of the small town of Renwick, situated in the heart of Marlborough wine country. In the summer work is primarily harvesting blueberries and plums that we sell at the Farmer's Market on the weekend. Other orchard work includes weeding, thinning, and mowing. Accommodation is a self-contained cottage within walking distance of the PO, pubs and shops. There are bicycles for you to use with 20 wineries and the river nearby. We have been biogrow certified organic growers for 22 yrs."


"Planting trees, organic veg garden and orchard, bush tracks. Earth buildings. Small holding farming- Cattle, chickens and goats. We are a family of 4 with two boys 10 and 12 yrs, working towards self sufficiency and guardianship of this wonderful land. We enjoy snorkeling, kayaks, swimming, fishing, bush walks and great food. The guest accommodation is very comfortable with lots of space and own bathroom. It is best if you email or call in advance to book in. This helps us organise materials and projects with woofers."

And another:

"Following organic principles since '91...wood fired bakery (trad. swiss and italian style bread) and pizzeria in log building. Grow various trees, firewood, fruit tress, berries, and lots of topsoil. Creek provides power for the dwelling and solar panels heat the water. Accommodation in a separate hut or teepee. Within biking distance of a forest park, mountains, close to clear swimming holes in the river as well as horse riding."

And then there's this place:

"Developing fruit crops, herbs for health...firewood this is a clothes optional venue, woofers are invited to work 'au natural'..."


I am hoping to see a lot of New Zealand, meet a lot of interesting people, get my hands a bit dirty, and learn a ton. Oh, and take hot showers. Lots and lots of hot showers, many probably solar heated.

So...that's the plan, and I am excited.

I was cruising facebook last week (time well spent...not) and saw one of my friends had posted something about his new Mac Book Pro 15, which got me to thinking that I will be in the market for a new computer when I return, which brought me to the Apple website. Big mistake. Huge. Fifteen minutes later I got up from the computer entirely overwhelmed and confused, my head spinning with the words "FaceTime," "Retina display," "Video Calls," and the phrase, "Multitasking- done the right way." And all that was just about the iPod! I didn't even bother trying to figure out what the hell the iPad was. Somebody, please, enlighten me- I can't tell if the iPhone and the iPod do significantly different things. So, apparently now you can talk with your friends through the iPod, eliminating the need for a phone, and listen to all your music on your iPhone, eliminating the need for an iPod. Am I missing something here? As far as I can tell people are now watching TV, recording video, playing games with people in China, and avoiding legitimate human interactions on both. I resolved to redouble my efforts to learn morse code. Just kidding, but I did decide my first generation Nokia phone is getting unlocked and coming back with me, just in case these space gadgets prove to be impossible to navigate.

I read two really interesting books lately. Actually both took me months to read, but for different reasons.

The first is Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. This book took me many months to read because you have to be in a very particular mood and setting to get through it. It's not a book you can read while sitting in front of the telly and text messaging at the same time. In fact I found it's best read on a secluded white sand beach, with only the sound of whales singing in the background. In lieu of that, a quiet, naturally lit room and comfortable chair will suffice. And you won't track as much sand across the floor that way. Now, a week or so removed from finishing this book, to be honest, I'm still not sure if I liked it. I didn't really get into the book until about halfway through, it is a book that requires a lot of the reader and in some parts I had to force myself to drudge through, but in the end it was worth it. And, as a bit of a spoiler alert, it's not really about motorcycle maintenance, it's about...well, that's hard to answer; I have a feeling I could read this book many different times and come up with a different answer each time. Bottom line: It is tedious, but worth it if you're looking for something a little different to read, it will expand your mind at least a little.

Second book: The Golden Ratio: The Story of PHI, the World's Most Astonishing Number. I will admit that I'm a bit of a nerd, but this book is for everyone. This book took me months to read because I was saving it. Every time I was in a bad mood I would read a few pages and soon find myself laughing out loud in wonder. It can be pretty math-heavy, but it's very accessible (I haven't taken a real math class in 9 years), comprehensive, and most of all it's fun. It can be a very quick read, but I enjoyed dragging it out and reading a few pages at a time. Oh, and it's about the irrational Phi, or 1.6180339887....the history of the number, popular myths, and most interestingly- how, and why, it pops up in unexpected places...

Anyway, I don't normally do book reviews here, but those two were the most interesting books I've read in a while, so let me know what you think if you get a chance to read them!

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

That time of year again

This morning I escorted my class six students to their exams, taken in the main village on the island. They couldn't have come too soon. For the past year these kids (class six) have been preparing for these exams, almost exclusively, and not just during the regular school day. They have been coming backk to school every evening, all year for night school to study for the exams. During school holidays they have been coming to school, they came every morning before school started because "morning class" was being held. The past month has been especially busy for them, taking only a short break in the afternoon to shower and eat. By the way, these kids are ten and eleven years old. The last few weeks I was sure they were going to lose their minds. (last year the exams got pushed back a week at the last minute because of a tsunami, the kids went a little crazy) But we made it to the exams, they are finished today (which also means, for all educational purposes, school is finished today) and we will celebrate their return this afternoon with a village feast.

Why, you might ask, is so much importance placed on these tests? Well, I generally don't advocate "teaching to a test," however these tests carry a lot of weight. They determine not only where, but if a student will attend secondary school next year. In many ways, how well the kids do on this test determines their future. If they do well enough, they have the opportunity to go to school on the main island on a scholarship (and from there potentially university overseas), if they do poorly enough they do not qualify for any secondary school, and that most likely ends their formal education. At eleven years old. (They are reportedly getting rid of the class six exam, or at least making it less high-stakes, but that change-over was supposed to take place my first year here, then this word yet. Tonga time.) So we have been working hard to prepare the kids for these exams, splitting the night classes between the two teachers and I and working over the school holidays. But the kids have been there for every extra session (they are not seen as optional). As I walked them to the test site today their nervous energy was palpable, manifesting itself in outbursts of crazy singing and laughing among the girls and playful aggression among the boys. The kids dressed up in their best, cleanest school uniforms, and brought new pens and whole, unbroken rulers. They looked sharp. I left them with the old, Bob the Builder "Can we do it?" To which they pumped their fists in the air and yelled, "Yes we can!" And they were off. As I walked away, I couldn't help but look back and feel so proud of them for all their hard work; I knew they were as prepared as they would ever be.

Walking back into the village I passed one of the high school girls walking into town and asked her why she wasn't in school. She told me she was making food for the feast later, which evidently takes priority over school.

A few weeks ago the kids all showed up to school on a Thursday not in their school uniforms. I asked my first class of the day, class 3 why, but they couldn't explain it very well, they just kept telling me because there was an earthquake in New Zealand. Finally I met with class six, and they explained that they were doing a fundraiser to help New Zealand after the big earthquake there last month. The kids are required to wear their school uniform to school every day, except for Wednesday when their mothers wash their uniforms. If they don't wear their uniforms on a day they're supposed to, they have to pay the principal (and they usually get a bit of a lashing as well). Well, for the fundraiser they were told to wear whatever clothes they wanted and to pay the fine, which then got donated to New Zealand (no lashings this day). I thought that was not only a pretty cool idea, but also pretty proactive and generous by the village and students, considering not many families are in a position to give away money. The school ended up raising $46 pa'anga for the cause, which I thought that was really special.

Garden Update:

Well, about half of the garden sprouted, I think some of the seeds I was using were old, but what did come up is growing really well. So what came up? Well, that's the strange part. I have three or four huge, beautiful red radishes from the mystery seeds, which I have no idea what to do with. I also have a couple really great sprouts of leafy lettuce. More inexplicably, I have two papaya trees growing that I didn't plant, and three watermelon vines (also which I did not plant) coming up where I planted tomatoes. But, I'm in no position to complain (just be baffled), at this point I'll be happy with whatever grows. Oh, and I also have two vegetables growing that I have no idea what they are because I think the actual vegetable must be growing underground. But the tops of them are beautiful, thick green leaves. So more surprises to come!