When I first read about WWOOFing - Willing Workers On Organic Farms, I thought it sounded like a fun way to volunteer
When I read that the program was operating in Nepal, I was hooked. Dale, my daughter, was joining me on my travels and she loved getting her hands into the earth and I'd peel a few vegetables... or so I thought. The farm we chose was near Lion's Choke, not far from Chitwan National Park.
Our host farmer, Barun, greeted us at the bus stop. Before he started using WWOOFers his children had to skip school to help him plant and harvest.
I could see he was disconcerted
He sized us up. Dale, young and lithe, passed at first muster, but he wasn’t at all sure about me. I wondered if I should snort, stamp my foot or maybe show my teeth?
Eventually he said it, “You are very old. I have never had anyone as old as you.”
Barun walked us out through the village. We talked on the way and he confided that the farm was organic simply because he couldn’t afford pesticides - Barun was knee-deep in debt.
The pressure was etched on his face as he spoke, but when we turned into a grove of bamboo, Barun’s daughters burst through the greenery, dancing with excitement and he broke into a wide grin. In the small clearing was their mud house. A lean-to where we would sleep had a bed of wooden slats resting on an earth floor.
I find a friend
Barun’s wife greeted us. Mama was sturdy and cheerful, the perfect foil for Barun, the thinker and worrier. But for me, the warmest welcome came unexpectedly.
I could see that Grandma was surprised when she saw me. Her eyes lit up. She was tiny; all superfluous flesh had vanished leaving sinew and features, big eyes, big nose and mouth and one solitary big tooth. She wore gold earrings, but had lost her gold nose-ring working in the fields. She kept the hole open with a splinter of bamboo in the hope that one day she’d find it.
An early start
It was chilly and just light enough to see how thick the mist was when we turned out the next morning. Through the gloom loomed Barun’s oxen trailing a wooden plough. Barun halted the great beasts to drill us in bean-planting 101. With a sack under one arm, we were to scoop handfuls of slippery beans and drop them one-by-one into the fresh furrows. Too close and we would run out of beans, too far and we’d have beans left over. Each bean was precious and the bloody things bounced.
By lunchtime, Dale and I were beat and we passed out briefly in our stifling lean-to before Barun roused us to get back to work.
Dale was infuriatingly proficient and I was not
The afternoon shift was worse; the heat made me dizzy and I wanted to throttle Barun who tailed me, muttering as he remedied my irregular spacing, hunting my errant bouncing beans.
Planting needed a lop-sided sway which made my body ache; even my ankles balked from walking barefoot on uneven ground. Dale fared much better; up ahead she sashayed, a gilded nymph sowing to the beat of an ancient rhythm, her beans perfectly spaced.
When school finished, Barun’s daughters joined us, giggling with infectious good-humour, joining Dale in making the job look effortless. At last, every bean was bedded.
Relief at the day's end followed by magic...
We left Barun to finish painstaking watering row-by-row and joined the village women walking a humpy narrow path between the fields. An ancient stone cistern, fed by a gurgling stream, was a place to bathe. The soft water soothed our tired muscles in the day’s warm afterglow.
As we strolled back, Dale stopped and grabbed my arm, “Look Mum,” and I turned to see in the distance the snow-capped massif of the Annapurnas tinged with molten gold. “It was all worth today just for this moment,” she whispered.
It got easier
Over the next week, we spread smelly chicken shit on the fields, cleared old crops and planted out vegetable seedlings. The work got easier as we fell into a rhythm with the family.
At the end of each day, we'd eat curry and rice for supper, sometimes followed by honeyed pancakes and a jug of warm buffalo milk brought straight in from the byre. We sat together on the earthen floor and ate from a communal bowl with our fingers.
Afterwards, we’d pull chairs into the little clearing in front of the house and relax. Everyone had daily tasks, but once done, each one stopped. So while it bothered me when one of them was still working and the others relaxing, I realised that while their lives were hard labour, yet down-time was well demarcated too.
Laughter rang out easily, transcending the lack of material possessions and Barun’s anxiety.
Time out ...
And then there was Grandma...
The first time I went to fetch water from the outside stand-pipe the handle was so stiff I could scarcely move it. I put the bucket down and tried two hands and my body weight - then to my chagrin, out flew grandma who whacked it with one hand, water flooding out in a torrent along with her laughter.
Grandma talked to me non-stop. It mattered not that I didn’t understand a word. She showed me her herb patch, her room and her shrine. She tried to teach me how to separate husks from beans; tilting and pitching her round wicker tray with the skill of a juggler, the speckled ovals gathering together at her command.
We learned so much and admired so much
Barun had excellent English and he explained the beans were first harvested with their stalks and sun-dried before being spread on the ground so his buffalo could trample them bursting open the thick, hard pods. Any pods that had not opened were collected by Grandma and she opened them by hand. Once separated, the husks were kept for kindling - nothing was wasted.
The family was almost self-sufficient; only flour and sugar were missing. They couldn’t grow wheat because it attracted rampaging rhino from the National Park. Near the house they planted mustard-seed, turmeric, ginger, chili and basil for seasoning, marigolds for festivals and neem to make insect repellent. In the monsoon they grew enough rice for themselves.
At the end of the week...
Barun said if Dale and I finished everything, we’d have a day off at the end of our week. He kept his word. Dale rode his son’s bike and I perched on the pannier rack of Barun’s, bouncing over the ruts, through grassland and thick bamboo.
When Dale shouted for joy, Barun joined in and I hung on for dear life.
He showed us his bee-hives - he was the first in the district to sell honey - and we walked through woods alive with butterflies.
But when we reached the river, Barun was suddenly sombre and pointed to an island. Some years before, his sister had gone across to cut bales of long grass for fodder, but wading back she’d stumbled under the heavy load and been swept away. “Drownings happen every year like that,” he said.
Dale took these pictures when we were making our way up river to Lion's Choke - so we knew immediately how Barun's sister had died.
We watched the sunset over the river that turned all to gold before we cycled home in the dark.
And too soon... it was time to go
We had a grand send-off the next evening: Grandma wrapped us in saris, Mama marked our foreheads with red tikkas and the girls garlanded us with lais of marigold. Barun performed a traditional Nepalese stick dance, leaping high while twirling stout bamboo poles.
Dale said it was collective amazement when I took the poles from Barun, crossed them on the ground, and did a Scottish sword dance – once my father’s forte.
I don’t know if I still hold the record for being Barun’s oldest WWOOFer, but I do know Grandma was sad to see me go. She was ten years my senior yet had eclipsed me in every task – except perhaps, the Highland Fling!
And Barun? “Goodbye big sister. Goodbye daughter Dale. Safe journey home to Australia. I want you both to come again.”