The Farmer Fantasy

Workaway: Croatia, August 2015

When Matt and I shared news we would soon be working for a week on an organic farm in Croatia in exchange for room and board, questions began to flood our inboxes.

Do you know anything about farming? Are there horses involved? What do you know about horses? Will you be living in the same house with the family? Are there kids? Have you ever spent time out in the country? Does this mean you will need to wake up early? How early? Is there cell service? WiFi?

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An visual echo of the view in every direction.

Friends, family, and acquaintances – everyone, it seemed – had things they wanted to know. Inquires ran the gamut from curiosity about working in a different country to wondering if we could hack the manual labor. And, everyone seemed, not concerned, really…let’s say, amused that we might be leaping too far out of our comfort zone. Not that we disagreed, we admit feeling flutters as a few equally amused butterflies roamed our insides in the lead up.

The sudden interest – more interest than almost any other aspect of our travels, both past and present – makes me wonder if we all harbor a secret desire to get back to the land, grow our own food, have wide open space where animals roam, and commune with nature.

Do we all have a “farmer fantasy?”

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Our introduction to the farm’s colorful residents.

Maybe. Matt and I certainly can’t deny dreams of growing a bounty of veggies and living more sustainably. However, since that would require staying in one place for longer than a minute, it doesn’t seem in the cards for us right now. But beyond a little garden…personal dreams of managing big land, nurturing flocks and stocks of animal (or human) dependents, those fantasies have never really existed.

And that is part of the beauty and appeal of Workaway, you can try on a new life for a week, month, or longer; test yourself and stretch your limits; all while helping someone else pursue their personal dream.

The idea of this kind of exchange is great, but what’s the reality?

Well here goes, the answers to your questions. We thought this would be the best way to share the details of our farmer-fantasy-come-true with you.

(I also have an article coming out soon for Paste Travel about the experience. When it’s up, I’ll share the link here.)

How did you find this job? Is it a job?

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Tomatoes inside, tomatoes outside, tomatoes everywhere!

Workaway is a website designed to connect travelers willing to lend a helping hand with hosts offering free room and board in exchange for the work. Hosts and volunteers are located all over the world and projects range from farming and building to language instruction and artistic endeavors. Hosts usually list a range of tasks that might need tackling, but much of it depends on time of year and weather.

The platform reminds me of Airbnb in that everything hinges on the profile both the hosts and volunteers create and reviews left for each other. Where it differs from sites like Airbnb is no money is exchanged, this operates strictly by the barter system.

We chose this particular project for our first foray because the location was near where we planned to be in August and the host had many positive reviews from other volunteers. (As a funny aside, if a volunteer or host has a not-so glowing experience, they tend not to comment, they simply leave :-(. That little symbol serves as a signal to others to think twice before taking on this project or accepting this worker. If only more things in life were that well coded.)

As with my Airbnb philosophy, I’m not interested in “being the first.” I want to see that others have worked on the project or with the family and recommend it without hesitation. In other words, no frowny face icons. I’m adventurous, for sure, maybe even intrepid, but not senseless.

Why in the world are you doing this?
Originally the reason was simple: to stay on budget. When you travel long term, anything that saves in the money-sucking areas of room and board is appealing, especially when you project being in the red for a month. Indulging in high transportation costs to roam around Italy, then make the jump to Croatia, meant we needed to reel it in.

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Marija Gorica, just one cornfield away.

At home, housing and food expenses account for 45-50% of income for the average American. When traveling that figure tends to rise due to the higher expense of short term housing. Living for a week, rent-free, even if that meant working five to six hours a day (the Workaway average,) seemed irresistible.

What moved us from talking about it theoretically to taking the leap; however, runs deeper. The opportunity for cultural immersion, living and working with a local family, was immensely appealing.

Last year in Portugal while on a walking tour, we meet a fellow traveler just off a Workaway project in one of Porto’s hostels. She entertained us with stories of the people she came across and crazy situations encountered.

As she talked, we heard a door slowly opening to the under surface of the city. Historical tours and castle visits are great, but we always find ourselves aching to get deeper in understanding a place’s essence. That’s not always easy as a tourist. Sometimes we leave a city feeling we know a good deal about the history (which is no doubt important,) yet so little about the present.

Before parting ways that day with our new friend, I sent a reminder with the Workaway info to myself, filing the email under “future travel.”

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Dunja and Matilda working the crops.

Where exactly will you be? And, how will you get there?
For our first project, we chose a small family farm, in the village of Marija Gorica, in northern Croatia near the border with Slovenia. It’s not as remote as it sounds. We took a train from Croatia’s capital, Zagreb, and for the short 30-minute hop enjoyed views of rolling green pastures to arrive at a teabox-sized station where a guy about our age, Renato, was waiting with welcoming smile and shy three-year-old in tow.

As we would soon learn, Renato and his wife Dunja have been working and plotting for years to create a sustainable lifestyle for their kids, the girls Josipa and Matilda and the slowly-coming-around-to-us, Simum. The family also includes a gaggle of horses, pigs, chickens, dogs, cats, goldfish, and a turtle we never saw but hope is still among the living, all existing in relative harmony on about five to six acres. They discovered Workaway through Dunja’s sister who had once participated in a work project and for the last year have been opening their home and lives to a steady stream of strangers traveling through.

Within walking distance, we had a tiny market, pizzeria, and enormous old-school restaurant/banquet hall. The restaurant’s owner, also resident wine-maker, didn’t mind selling a liter of white from his stash (for about $2,) and pouring it in a recycled coca-cola bottle for take away.

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Thanks for the delicious vino! I only taste a small hint of coca-cola.

For more local color, there was the known-as-crazy neighbor who hurled stones and words at me, in a language I don’t understand, for no better reason than my dogs (aka our hosts’ dogs) barked at his dog during a walk.

There was also the neighbor who liked to stop and stare, always while puffing on a cigarette, as I did yoga or worked in the garden. He talked and talked and seemed little concerned that I couldn’t understand or properly respond. Maybe he just liked the new company.

With a steady flow of Workaways taking up short-term residence, we are pretty sure this farm is a regular source of entertainment for the village.

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Strolling down our street to the local market.

What will you do every day?
We humans are more adaptable than we often give ourselves credit.

It’s no secret, Matt and I are not morning people. We don’t know the first thing about kids. Nor horses, chickens, or pigs. City life is our comfort zone. Dirt makes me nervous.

And, yet it was amazingly easy to fall into the rhythms of the place.

We woke to the sound of Matlida crying or laughing (sometimes both, within an astonishingly short time frame,) and Simun playing with his impressive miniature race car collection. After the first morning, our thoughts of waking with the sun melted. Turns out, when you aren’t concerned with beating the day’s heat, you can sleep later. A lifetime of living in Alabama made us more than willing to work into the full afternoon sun.

At 7:30 – 8 a.m., as we would begin to stir, Dunja and Renato’s day was already in full swing. During the week, they get the kids ready to spend the day with Dunja’s mom then head off to work in the family’s computer store in a neighboring village. (fyi, When your host works in computers, there’s a good chance their home has the fastest WiFi you’ve seen in a long, long time. Score!)

We always took a few minutes in the morning to ease into the day, stretch, set intentions, and check email and messages. Our room, a cozy nook in an enclosed garage area, came with a bonus – a private bathroom. The room was fairly new so it was not mentioned in the profile. We had anticipated sharing a bathroom with the whole family.

Soon we would join life busily in progress at the kitchen table for a jolt of Renato’s dark Turkish coffee and yogurt blended with local honey, so sweet it made my eyes pop at each first taste.

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Farmer Matt and his new piggy friend.

After breakfast, Matt and Renato would head to the stalls for the manly morning task of shoveling horse shit. Then, Matt would move on to grass cutting, weeding, or pruning. Some days wood-chopping was the name of the game.

Most mornings, I strolled down to the garden, dogs and cat as constant companions, greeting the free roaming pigs and horses along the way. My task was weeding and staking a row of soon-to-be-ripe tomato plants and a burly row of zucchini, that produced pods so large, they looked like spaceship. The rows were long and weeds were mighty with deeply embedded roots. As my grandmother would say, “we went to battle with those weeds.” I have a few scars, but in the end, victory was mine.

Most afternoons, we had free time and would go cycling (Matt,) or running (me,) along winding country roads running along the border with Slovenia. It’s a lush green area dotted by farms in every direction. Some days, we hung around the house, doing yoga and reading, talking and singing to the animals (surely they miss that ritual.)

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Everyone seems interested in yoga these days.

When everyone arrived home around six or seven in the evening, Matt and I would prepare dinner, simple dishes of pastas and stir fry, always with veggies and herbs from the garden. Then, over the weekend, we were treated to a traditional Croatian feast when Dunja took control of the kitchen to teach me how to make beloved local dishes like bucina and mlinici. (More about that experience, coming soon!)

Weekends and evenings were spent laughing and talking around the table or outside on the patio. Sharing a beer or two, we talked politics, war, immigration, marriage, love, and children. This is when the beauty of the Workaway experience shined most brightly, when we were sharing stories about our lives and backgrounds, marveling at the differences, and happily acknowledging the similarities.

Was it what you expected?
Yes and no. And I mean both of those answers in the best way. Going in, we truly had no idea what to expect. I guess I did think I would get tired of pulling weeds. I did expect at times to feel crowded in a house with so many others. I did expect to be out of my element around small children.

And, I was all of those things, but never to a great extent. For both of us, we stretched and grew during the week. And, it was grand.

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How can I ever shop in the grocery store again?

A week has passed since leaving and while our backs feel almost normal again and blisters and cuts almost healed, the lessons learned grow more vivid each day.

We gained a deeper understanding of life in Croatia today, its challenges and its potential. We gained a greater appreciation for the mindset of many Croatians after years of war and the ever-present shadow of Communism.

We learned how challenging it is to manage day-to-day operations on a farm and expansive garden. We learned that fresh cucumbers make the best afternoon snacks, tomatoes can be prepared in more ways than ever imagined, and buying grocery store produce will forever be depressing.

We gained two amazing new friends. We carry with us now big hopes for their success. We love it that since leaving, they check in with us as often as we check in with them.

We feel certain we’ll meet again, most likely back on the farm. Matt and I have thought of a few projects we’d like to take on for them in the future, if they are willing. We have also wondered how “our” tomatoes are doing and if the turtle has appeared.

Who would have guessed? There may be some farmer fantasy still left in us.

Did you save money?
We couldn’t resist the market’s daily call and would walk down to purchase random “luxury” items: new toothbrushes, water, beer, chips (I mean, I do love cucumbers, but…)

In total, we spend about $35 while living there for eight days. And, we closed out August in the black.

“Hooray,” says the prince of budgeting, Matt.

How can I do this?
You don’t have to be a long-term traveler to give Workaway a try. I realize for many people – myself included for many years – that when you do get vacation time you want to spend it relaxing on a beach or hiking in the mountains. And, there’s nothing in the world wrong with that scenario.

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The beautiful Opus, ruler of the farm.

But if you ever find yourself yearning to connect more meaningfully with a culture, do consider a volunteer project. And, it’s not just for the kidless. We met a couple (blog post about them coming soon,) who actually take their three kids along for Workaway projects and say the experience has been invaluable for their family.

My suggestion for your first time is to revisit a place you love.

Let’s say: Mexico. You’ve been there before, appreciate the culture, and like the people. Finding a Workway, or other volunteer project, for a week will allow you to give back to this amazing place in ways both large and small. As a reward, follow up with a few days of beach time. Laying in the sun will surely never feel so fine.

Here are a few more pics from the week:

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Future horse riding champion Matilda.

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Renato and Matt getting wood ready for winter.

Farmer Jess ready to cook up some veggie goodness.

Farmer Jess ready to cook up some veggie goodness.

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Dunja and Simun with pittypat squash.

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Heading to the garden to pick dinner’s fixings.

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My favorite farm animal.

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Tomislav during a training session.

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Marija Gorica’s church.

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Weeding and staking.

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Shoveling.

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From the field looking toward the neighbors.

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The beautiful and bountiful garden. Weeds, be warned, we’re on the job.

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No wimps allowed here.

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For some reason, I loved running to the border stop with Slovenia. Probably because we aren’t allowed in.

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A week of beets, zucchini, tomatoes, and cucumbers!