So.. I quit my job, and have found myself travelling for over a year, read more in Part A: The travelling privileged.
This experience has led me to re-evaluate a lot about my life. But a major reoccurring question has been; what is the value I place on my time? and in turn, what is the value I place on myself?
‘Value’ first came into question for us, when wwoofing on a farm in Slovenia. This stands for World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms, and basically in exchange for work on the farm, you receive food and board. At this stage of our trip, our main motivation was for a new cultural experience, whilst saving some money was an added bonus.
For more on work exchange see here for our experiences so far; here and here for other reflections on the rewards and challenges of work exchange.
The WWOOF website sets guidelines of 5 hours per day as being fair exchange for food and board. We’d read about Wwoofer’s not always getting what they expected, so before arriving I asked Lucy what she thought our time was worth. We eventually concluded our ‘value’ at around £5 GBP an hour, so 3-4 hours work a day would be about right, as surely it wouldn’t cost more than £15-£20 a night to put us up and feed us?
Well.. when it comes to farm work (it turns out) this was pretty inflated value!
We arrive around 4pm, and are warmly greeted by the Matriarch of the household, and a fellow Wwoofer. After being shown our room, given the materials we need to give it a quick clean, we are invited to a dinner of pancakes, fried beetroot and sour cherry jam. (YES, I said fried beetroot! This is one of the yummiest things ever, and healthiest of course… ) At dinner we meet the Dad and the adult son, who is our contact from the Wwoofing website.
The next morning, we are told we can help ourselves to breakfast; freshly baked bread and more cherry jam- yum! I then attempt to ask the son what hours we will be working. He is vague to say the least. He attempts to communicate that we are part of the family, and that this is a lifestyle, not work. It takes me a few days to really understand this answer. That day we work 8am until 5pm. It’s the first time me and Lucy have done any real farm work. It is hot. The day is long.
We do, however, stop for the most amazing lunch, a starter of fresh noodle soup (made by Mum), the tastiest salad I have ever eaten (pumpkin oil; you will not regret trying this!), and a hearty pork chop dish cooked by Dad. There is also plenty of Dad’s homemade boar (wine) at the table. The lunch is a true event, and lasts at least two hours! We are treated to wondrous fresh delights each day we are there. We are in food heaven.
But, after lunch we are back to the hot, hard, sticky work. The parents speak very basic English; we use a lot of sign language, google translate and laughter to communicate. This language barrier results in, little or no positive feedback, and on occasions we are told “not good” or “work faster girls,” and we do a hell of a lot of guessing!
The next day we start work at 7.30am and finish at gone 8pm, of course there is the delicious lunch in-between, but we are so not used to working this hard, for so long! In addition, the unclear expectations affect our ability to pace ourselves, which impacts us both physically and mentally.
Me and Lucy know we can leave if we want to; we have money, transport, our tent, and we don’t need to stay. The work is harder than we could have ever expected, but we don’t want to leave; we are gaining something of value. Even though we are giving more of our time than we initially planned, on a ‘feeling’ level we are getting back enough.
Our work included; weeding by hand and with special farm tools, breaking up the dry earth, raking, sorting chamomile, and the hardest task of all.. cleaning lettuces of slugs by drowning them in a bucket of bleach. (I would never do this now, but at the beginning of our trip my Guiding Compass was not so strong… #Bekind)
Towards the end of our stay, we learn the son has recently quit his graduate job to help at the farm, on the condition the farm is organic and implements Permaculture principles. This explained some of the contrast between his attitude and his Mother’s, and we talked a lot about us all having our own journeys.
Us woofers and the son had a moment of recognition as he suddenly says, “shit, we have all quit our jobs!!” (to much laughter from us all around the table!). This leveller gave us the opportunity to give some honest feedback to the son, regarding the hours and expectations of the work exchange. We were leaving the next day, but this honest conversation led to our fellow Woofer having her first day off, the very next day.
Back to the question of value; reflecting on mine and Lucy’s conversation around what monetary worth we thought we had, we asked the son, what they paid the casual workers on the farm. We were not expecting the answer: 2 euros per hour! Consider that these women were stronger than us, more skilled than us, and worked faster than us. We were gobsmacked!
So OK.. in our little world in England, me and Lucy took for granted thinking our worth was at least £10 an hour. But, we were slower, clumsier, weaker and needed more instruction and supervision than these women earning £1.69 an hour! This was a huge lesson for us!
So perhaps it was fair exchange that we worked 8 hours or more for our food and board anyways. But even so, we were also gaining so much more than just food and board:
- learning about organic farming, living from the land
- being treated so warmly and as part of the family. I guess families are allowed to tell each other to “work faster!”
- eating the freshest organic food, picked straight from the garden.
- experiencing traditional Hungarian food (mmmm langoush)
- we even got given leaving gifts; freshly picked cherries, home-made jam and boar
and let’s not forget…. the lesson we learnt about value!
The idea of work exchange has really changed the way we think. Before, I thought of salary as value, without even knowing I did. As I increasingly worked in jobs, with little feedback, I increasingly saw my salary as my worth. Whilst I didn’t need more money, a bigger salary was attractive, as feedback for my value.
But a salary is still work exchange, it’s just work exchanged for money. Right now I am work exchanging for a clean, comfy place to sleep, food and experiences I could not gain from anywhere else. 9 out of our 10 work exchanges so far, have been experiences of such warmth. Not only have we had invaluable cultural exchange, and learnt new skills, but we have been made to feel welcome in the world, just for being us! Three of our hosts in NZ even lent us their cars, a level of trust rarely experienced in our old lives.
On our travels we have met (at least!) two inspiring people, who have lived lives doing long term work exchanges for a period of at least 2 years. One, who had the courage to leave his monastery, knowing he could survive by doing work exchange around Australia, after having given up his worldly possessions to become a Buddhist monk. Another, who work exchanged around New Zealand, living in a converted school bus, with her two children under 5. She learnt everything she knows about the land from these experiences, and went on to build the most beautiful cob house, in the Northland, with work-exchangers helping her to do so.
As I prepare to head to my little Island of origin, I know I need some money. I want to be able go for drinks with friends, celebrate loved one’s birthdays, and I am at that age of weddings…. And for these reasons, I’m happy to exchange some of my time, some of my energy and effort, some of my creativity and a lot of my friendliness for money.
I’m even happier to exchange these things working on projects that are loved by their owners, in exchange for food and accommodation and time with inspiring people!
But I am not happy to exchange my work for these things. My work is mine; the activities that I choose to apply effort to, when I am feeling I have the right energy. It is my creation; it is something that gives back to me. Sometimes my work is private, and sometimes it tells the world something about me. Me and my work have value just as they are. A salary or job title is not the symbol of my worth. And it’s great to know, through work-exchange I can have the things I need (food, somewhere to sleep, and being part of a community), and still have the time and energy for my own work.
Part C- Redefining work, a movement? is on it’s way.