Saturday, 2 March 2013

I Stayed For The Cats

Finally, after my whirlwind tour through eastern Europe and Turkey, I was ready for my second working stint, after teaching English in Moscow, and the first farmstay of my travels.
The beautiful Peloponnese in southern Greece
For those not familiar with the concept, a farmstay entails working on a farm for accommodation and food. It has been popularized by the online network – World Wide Opportunities for Organic Farming, which connects farmers to eager helpers. “WWOOFing” is actually quite popular for many reasons. For myself, it allows a born and raised urbanite with zero relationship with earth and the fields which produce what goes on my fork, to get some real hands-on experience with farming, and witness first-hand the 100% natural and chemical-free circle of life. And enjoy its spoils, such as real olive oil, that which cannot be obtained in Canada.

My latest opportunity took me to Elea, in the rolling gray mountains of the Peloponnese, near the southern tip of Greece. This farmstay, like my teaching stint, was available on, which connects helpers to help exchanges beyond just organic farming. However, I was initially recommended it by my friend Chris who met me in Istanbul after his farmstay here. The welcoming and warm family, Roberto, Barbara and their daughter Lorena are helpX veterans, having hosted many helpers in the past. I joined them and another helper, Leslie from France.
Non-stop olive picking for about 2 weeks
My main job was to help pick olives in a large orchard, rows upon rows of olive trees, as part of a five-person crew. The task involved a lot of cutting branches with saws, and ripping olives off of those branches with oversized mechanical toothbrushes. Although the physical labour was tiring at times, I was able to work at my own pace and the hours were never excessive. And here's the kicker - I got to be outdoors all day, surrounded by trees, mountains and sky, and not cubicle walls, prison-like in their oppression.

In fact, there was nothing oppressing about this life.
A cloudless morning for clear mountain viewing
For over two weeks I woke up to an amazing view of the Mediterranean Sea, surrounded by flat blue-gray mountains with white icing on top. Cats and dogs greeted me on the front porch. Also on the farm were horses, goats, chickens and rabbits. A natural soundtrack accompanied the morning show, played by roosters and songbirds, with no car engines to drown them out. It is a place that reminds you that, quoting the movie Water World, if you sit still, you can hear the sound of the world. It was a truly ideal natural escape. Cars weren’t the only modern amenity absent. With wood powered stoves for indoor heating and solar powered water heating, I had to adapt to a little less comfort in the home.

However, my connection to the innocent and entirely natural setting of the farm could have been severed by the presence of another overpowering technological connection  - the internet. Thankfully, the family once had it but was now rid of it, due to conflicts with their provider. Without it I was unshackled from the worst of soul-sucking distractions, and free to enjoy what was directly in front of me – blissful nature.
One half of the cats on the farm on a windowsill
Aside from working I did a lot of reading, some yoga, and hung out with the animals, particularly the cats. The family took us on some day trips to historic ruin sites in the Peloponnese. Oh, and they kept me very well fed! They cooked lots, I even cooked some. Best of all, everything was organic, and most of it was from our own backyard. Oranges and almonds may taste good anywhere, but there’s an added authenticity about picking it fresh off the tree.

I could really go on and on about what I learned and did in two weeks… alas, there is only time for the moral of my story…
Day trip to Monemvasia, with stunning views of Greece
Roberto and Barbara’s farm provided the perfect tonic for my travels, a much needed change of pace, and a foray into organic farming, developing a stronger connection with the earth. The main header of my Calgary blog says “finding tranquility.” I found lots of it here, however, like enlightenment and other perfect things, pure tranquility is hard to find. In my search I ventured from one side of the lifestyle balance to the other – urbanite to ruralite. But I gained an appreciation and a realization that I still crave certain aspects of urban life. Now my challenge is to strike a meaningful balance of both.

If you have always wondered where your food comes from beyond the freezers and aisles in your local supermarket, sought an escape from urban life or, conversely, a stronger connection with animals and the earth (or simply need a free place to stay and are willing to work), I highly suggest doing a farmstay (even purebred urbanophiles will benefit, I think, gaining an appreciation for the concrete and steel habitats in which they are adapted).

Farmstays are available all over the world, some are probably even a short drive from your home, and vary in stay lengths, from weeks to just a weekent. The recommended websites WWOOF, helpX and Workaway are not free, but do not cost much to use, especially compared to the money saved doing a farmstay. It’s an enriching and potentially life changing experience. I definitely recommend it!

A valley of olives and oranges
Flickr photos:
Cats are king
Cat album:

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