I split firewood with an axe, tore down a wire fence, ripped potatoes from their homes and fed pigs as they squealed. Working meant eating plums, apples, strawberries, blackberries and oysters right off the land. I learned how to make marmalade and awoke to the rooster’s crow.
My two weeks at Al Norte del Sur was my first WOOFing experience and a head-first introduction into farming and sustainable living—a way of life I had only been exposed to sporadically on family member’s farms in Indiana, never on a daily basis nor working on one. I found ‘la granja’ via a couple’s travel blog who volunteered a few years prior and raved about their time on the 15-hectare farm. Instead of going through the WOOFing site (and paying the fee), I did a Google search and found an email address which I contacted immediately in hopes of finding another short-term gig in my fifth country. It was a long shot since I would arrive in the area in a short week but after a few emails, I was set to arrive for a two-week stay on Chile’s second-largest island. I honestly didn’t know what I was getting into, but I knew some basics: it was a farm, I’d be doing some hard labor, I wouldn’t have Internet and I’d be living with a Spanish-speaking family. My expectations were exceeded… and then some.
Despite my unfortunate inability to seriously converse and contribute during group conversations or meals, I immediately felt like part of the family. There were the grandparents, Iris and Beto, alongside their three kids, Gisella, Andrea and Alexis, and two grandkids, Clemente and Juaquina. Some other family members came and went—as did many other visitors at their leisure—which meant the house was always full and happy.
I shared my experience with two other volunteers: Rafael, 45 from Santiago, and Michael, 24 from New York. Rafa was returning to his home country of Chile after 30 years of living abroad and was in his fourth month of scoping out places on Chiloe to settle down. Mike was WOOFing his way around Chile for six months after teaching English for a year and a half in Santiago. Both were much more experienced in the volunteering-on-a-farm arena and (to my delight) spent more afternoons chopping wood while I was in the kitchen. The two shared the refugio at the top of the hill built for volunteers while I slept in a room within the family’s house/hospedaje, but we spent our fair share of time getting to know each other among wild blackberry bushes and on long walks to wild beaches after work.
The Chilotean family rented out a few rooms to passer-bys, contracted workers or tourists and ran a restaurant featuring many of their homegrown products which was host to approximately one small group a day. The house ran off a wood-fire kitchen stove, which required constant tree whacking and caused a constant back-and-forth with kindling or logs throughout the day. You could always see drying clothes waving in the wind whether hanging off clotheslines, bushes or fences and dogs, cats, pigs, chickens, a turkey, cows, goats and sheep called the place home. If you wanted a snack, you could easily find yourself a plum, apple or blackberry tree or hop a fence into the strawberry patch to pick a bright red, juicy treat hiding under the green leaves. It was a different kind of paradise than I grew accustomed to wanting, but I found an extreme appreciation and longing for such a life after undistracted time in the weeds and on the land.
The six-day work week (off on Sundays) followed the schedule below.
- 8:00 a.m. wake up
- 8:30 a.m. breakfast
- 9:30 a.m. start work
- 1:30 p.m. eat lunch
- 2:00 – 3:00 p.m. break
- 3:00 p.m. start afternoon work
- 6:00 – 6:30 p.m. end work, time for ‘onces’
- Rest, free time
Every day consisted of something different, and we never knew what was happening until we were about to do it. Some days I spent sitting in the kitchen and others I ended the day exhausted and sore. Given my negative amount of experience working in such an environment with constant physical exertion, I’m proud of how this partial city girl handled such down-and-dirty tasks. A few examples:
- Morning: Pick apples and plums off the ground, help feed the pigs and chickens and chop and store firewood. Afternoon: Pick, clean and cut strawberries and assist in making marmalade.
- Morning: Pick apples and plums from the farm’s trees (nearly a daily activity to collect the ‘baddies’ for the pigs), harvest potatoes. Afternoon: Peel skin off plums and scoop, shake and shovel compost into bags.
- Be attacked, pricked and pained by wild blackberries for three hours in the morning, and two and a half more in the afternoon.
One of my favorite experiences was actually on a family member’s property. One evening after work, Andrea took us on a 10-minute walk to see a bit of her aunt and uncle’s lifestyle on the gulf. (The farm is located on the Pacific side of the island, a short 30-minute walk to beaches and nearly 10 to the closest waters of inlets and gulfs.) Manuel and Orfa live off the water by wading out to collect algae (that is dried, sold and used in shampoos), rowing to cast nets to catch fish and slopping through low-tide waters to grab shellfish. While there, Rafa asked if we could help/participate in their next fishing venture, and all three of us wandered over the next evening to partake. The chivalrous men allowed me to go first, since the boat could only handle one other passenger, so I shucked on Rafa’s boots and helped Manuel straighten out and haphazardly stack the net into the tiny wooden handmade rowboat. Dusk was upon us as we (meaning he) rowed out to a spot where I cast out the 100 meter long and three foot wide net into the water. I couldn’t quite understand the directions being given during the action, but when all was said and done I got a ‘muy bien’ for my work. It was both peaceful to be on the water and exhilarating to partake in such a raw, unfamiliar, cultural activity. Manuel and I returned to his compact house to find the two guys and Orfa enjoying tea, bread and a massive plate of hot, fresh mussels. (A Chilean custom: Whether unexpected or expected, having guests requires the offering and ultimate setting out of nibbles and hot water for tea, coffee or mate. The guests then eats some out of curtesy, regardless of hunger level.) I will forever remember the feeling of being so immersed in the culture, listening to free-flowing Spanish with the smell of the sea at my fingertips. We enjoyed food and company for the next two hours until Michael rowed back out with Manuel with headlamps at 10 p.m. to collect the goods that we enjoyed for lunch the next day.
A few days later we went back as volunteers instead of interested travelers. We were switching gears ‘a mariscar,’ or to search for more seafood. Rising with the sun, we set out at 7:45 a.m. and walked toward the water with a bright orange ball blinding our eyes. This was something worth getting up (and freezing) for. It was truly a magical sight as mist hazed surrounding fields and the gulf became as still and reflective as a mirror. But we didn’t come to see the sunrise; we were on a mission. Only once a month can you find the various type of shellfish that live under the muddy surface. A new moon brings a low tide, which gives access to commonly flooded areas where the little guys reside. Many island inhabitants make their living, or a few extra bucks, waking at the crack of dawn to venture out for a few hours to collect buckets-full.
We slopped through the muddy terrain until reaching water nearly an inch high to begin the search. Andrea taught us to pull up our sleeves, find an air hole, dig in said hole, find a retreating shell that’s long, slender and siting vertically and gently twist upward until you have him. There’s just something about reaching into a hole, digging into the muddied, unknown seabed to look for a living creature, but I wasn’t about to back out. Turns out the prized possessions are tongue-like, so once it feels your threat, it starts digging itself deeper and ends up using the ‘tongue’ to stick to its surroundings to prevent extraction. Pull too hard and you can break its shell, but catch him at the right time before twisting upward and you have him in the bag. While Michael and I were busy wrestling with the mud, Rafa and Andrea were whacking off a number of other species from distant rock masses. There they used machetes to find oysters and an unfamiliar large red squishy guy under the algae—a supposed aphrodisiac that everyone had a little taste of on the spot. I may have found the majority of clams in my first-time shellfish search, but right before leaving I removed some seaweed to encounter a mid-sized oyster with my name on it. It was only three hours out on the water before the tide started to rise and we had to return to shore. The next night we ended up feasting on our delicacies after they low-boiled all day by shucking open the shells (much harder than I thought), adding a few squirts of lemon and throwing one after the other in our mouths.
Needless to say that the few pounds I lost while hiking was rapidly gained while living with this family. Fruit-made products came straight from the farm, including rhubarb, strawberry, blackberry and plum marmalade, as did the honey, cheese and occasional milk or eggs. This was also my first true experience in Chile (Patagonian Chile was a completely different world in my book) which meant my first taste at food. One thing is for certain: there is no shortage of bread here. The homemade loaves were served at every single meal—no exceptions unless we were rarely out—alongside any substance you can slather on the product. Just in case you needed more carbs, the region is a huge breeding ground for potatoes, which were always served either within or in addition to the dish. Maria, the family’s right-hand woman, concocted our daily lunches which ranged from seafood soups to lentil stews to fried fish from our catch-of-the-day-prior. I ended up taking a jar of marmalade and preservatives with me when I left; I was willing to sacrifice the added weight for the deliciousness.
As with other places in South America, I left a piece of my heart on the magical land of Al Norte del Sur and Chiloe Island. It roped me in with its natural beauty, gave me yet another group of warm, loving people to call a new family and opened my eyes to a new way of life.