From corporate to Wwoofer – campfire reflections

How would it feel to swap your cozy corporate environment for a full-time Wwoof [1] experience? What do you think when your financial income is replaced by room and board? We can, after three months of Wwoofing, tell you a little more about it. It has changed our view on identity, work and freedom. So yeah, this will not be your typical travel story about hard kilometers in soaking rain. But since when did you expect a normal story from TNT on a Trip? Never! So for now, take a seat and join us for the ride.

Desires in life never come like you expect them to be. So when we realized we couldn’t leave for our trip (due to Corona), we had to answer one question: how can we travel without actually traveling? The solution turned out to be simple, and close to home. It was Wwoof. Wwoof, in short, is a fair exchange between organic farm labor and room and board. This sounded amazing and was exactly what we needed! So we created an account, applied to various opportunities and within one week we were working on the beautiful vineyard Domein Holset [2] (Holset, Netherlands). After three weeks we moved to Casa Foresta [3] (Ressen, Netherlands), an inspiring garden specialized in fine herbs, eatable flowers and vegetables delivered to the best restaurants in the Netherlands. At Casa Foresta we stayed for five weeks, after which we left for Hof Gnandstein, a small village to the south of Leipzig. At Gnandstein we are rebuilding a farm from 1737, and creating a vegetable and herb garden based on our experiences of the previous months.

Now, close your eyes and imagine you spend one day with us as a Wwoofer. Here we go!

  • 06:00 - Wake up and get dressed
  • 06:30 - Have breakfast together
  • 07:00 - Discuss the day activities
  • 07:30 - Choose your weapons (wheelbarrow, shovel, prong, hoe, gloves)
  • 08:00 - Start your work (some examples):
    - weed out nettles at the stem of 10.000 grape plants (oh my!)
    - remove with your nail double flower buds at the branches of 10.000 grape plants (around eight per branch…dude…)
    - sow seeds, repot, water and fertilize crops (Tessa her specialty)
    - remove weeds
    - remove weeds
    - remove… ok, you got the idea
    - paint a shed
    - dig a hole, close the hole (it was the wrong location)
    - create your own vegetable garden (cool!)
    - build a house (or watch people building it)  
    - harvest herbs within severe time pressure to keep its freshness
  • 10:30 - Coffee break
  • 10:45 - Work
  • 13:00 - Have lunch together
  • 13:45 - Work
  • 16:00 - Can we stop? (sometimes yes, sometimes no)
  • 18:00 - Ok, I’m exhausted! Let’s call it a day
  • 19:00 - Diner
  • 20:00 - Read a book, drink a beer, watch a movie, light a bonfire, discuss Russian literature (didn’t happen yet), etc…

This work, its rhythm and daily activities are a difference of night and day compared to our previous occupation. It also taught us various things; things which were hidden in our previous life – what a cliché! One of them we noticed fairly quickly: our privileged position. Our being, study background, (starting) career, savings and people to fall back on, provided us a safe and solid basis. This gave us the freedom to do what we currently are doing – or, flipped around, what we are not doing, working for money, for example.

"Thinking about who you are is rather simple"

It has been three months since we moved out of our apartment and said goodbye to our former colleagues. We sealed our business suits and safely stowed our handmade English shoes in soft suede bags. So how does that feel, you might wonder, leaving that all behind? Let’s use a little existentialism [4] to answer this. The last five years we both worked full-time, for a big corporate firm and a university. Busy days at the office, with extensive commuting. Thinking about who you are is rather simple. You are a guy in a suit going to work, carrying a fancy laptop and phone with unlimited internet and minutes, all paid by your boss. At parties you are a guy on sneakers, who normally is a guy in a suit, carrying a fancy laptop and phone with unlimited internet and minutes, all paid by your boss. But if your work, house and income disappears, what is it that remains, of you, and your identity? Who are you now?

If we would ask Jean-Paul Sartre he would say something like ‘I am nothing, therefore I am free’, as a parody on the famous quote by Descartes [5]. With this, Sartre implies that we have the mandatory task to choose who we want to be – which is not a given, like with animals. Each day, and every single moment, we choose who we are. Often it's less obvious and decisions are naturally taken (e.g. biological food or not; jazz or rock music). But when fundamental things in life change it becomes more pressing. It's like standing on an empty theatre stage with the curtains pulled open. Suddenly you are alone and butt naked. You ask yourself: who am I if I don’t decide who I am? Let's get back to this in a minute.

"We consumed tubes of sunblock like grease wrestlers are using oil"

The Wwoof work itself is outside and physical. Being and working outside in the sun, rain, heat or cold has a severe impact on your body. In the first few weeks we consumed tubes of sunblock like grease wrestlers are using oil. It looked very impressive. Only after two months we were able to reduce the amount of lotion as our skins hardened. Also our muscles were battling with mother nature. Although we were pretty fit and used to hit the gym multiple times per week (ok, maybe not Tessa), a full day of physical labor on the field is really a different ballgame. After one week I suffered from tendonitis in my left arm since my hands were in a permanent WOD [6]. This improved, although not completely yet. Now, after getting more used to it, we are in the fittest condition we have ever been!

"We took back control of our agenda"

Besides the physical aspects, the biggest impact we both experience is mental calmness. No hundred plus emails per day, meetings and calls, deadlines and targets. Time is ours again. We took back control of our agenda. But it also became more fluent, shaking off its strict rigidness like a lizard loses its old skin. We no longer have to check how many leave days we have left for this year, and if we count the hours of commuting we did, it feels we could fill a year calendar.

So, after the work is done you expect your paycheck to arrive. Money, digital or cash, in euros, dollars, RMB’s or BTC’s. But nothing of that happens. Instead, you receive room and board in cool places, a great relationship with your host (as far as we had), and a truly amazing and learning full experience. How refreshing is that!

So what does this tell about the reward for work? It seems that money is not the main cause of delivering work, and especially good work. The main cause is quality. Quality is at the heart of the work delivered by the hosts, and hopefully by us. The people we have met so far are committed, reject finger-pointing and work in close groups with strong relationships. Their craftsmanship makes them responsible for their actions. They are part of a network where decisions lead back to them, determining who they are. Linear turns to circular. They are, in short, refusing cynicism.

There was another thing we noticed, which we only realized when we were doing it: working together. How many couples leave for their work to re-join at the dining table, discussing work, but never actually work together? Quite interesting once you start thinking about it. In the beginning we had to get used to this strange thing, but after a while it became natural and felt really good.

"Now you may think: can you Wwoof forever?"

Now you may think: can you Wwoof forever? This we doubt. But it does raise the question of how we view work. To not work for a financial income brings something exciting with a flair of adventure. You might start doing the things you always wanted to do – but did not do it, or knew what that was, due to your dependency on your income. It seems that freedom, by having an income, can be turned around. It’s like the ancient Greek Cynics [7] would say: no income provides more freedom!

Now, let’s wrap this up by returning to the question “who am I if I don’t decide who I am?”. The answer lays in your own hands. It is about creating the story you want to live and then start to live it. Think about the actions you take, and especially about the actions which make you proud. You decide who you want to be, not what you want to be. There is no right way and we definitely haven’t figured out which story we want to live. But we did start creating our story, and riding it so far, truly feels amazing.

References

[1] WorldWide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF), is a worldwide movement linking volunteers with organic farmers and growers to promote cultural and educational experiences based on trust and non-monetary exchange, thereby helping to build a sustainable, global community. https://wwoof.net/

[2] https://www.domeinholset.nl/

[3] https://www.casaforesta.nl/  

[4] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Existentialism

[5] At the Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails with Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Albert Camus, Martin Heidegger,Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Others (2016), Sarah Bakewell, p. 153

[6] Work Out of the Day (WOD), as used in CrossFit

[7] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cynicism_(philosophy)