A different way to live

“You don’t know anything!”

My mom always says this describing her childhood memories growing up on a small Minnesota farm. She had to walk a mile to see the nearest neighbor. She made do with what she had. She has tougher feet from never wearing shoes. In essence, farm life is different. It’s different and I’ve always been curious about what that entails.

Over the last few years, I’ve had a growing interest to get off the grid while working on an organic farm, if only for a few weeks. To me, there’s something inherently satisfying about the idea of sustainable living and positively impacting the environment. The idea that everything being consumed is grown, built, or powered naturally by the earth.

Traveling to rural Spain

Sustainable volunteering
The itch to take the leap wasn’t going away so I booked a flight, took three different buses, and after trekking a few miles, found myself officially alone in Spain. I remember walking to the farm and looking back up at the nearest small village as it kept getting smaller and smaller upon the hill. This was it!

Walking through the woods and brush to the farm, I had a period of reckoning. These are the always pleasant irrational thoughts of self doubt and feeling of “what have I gotten myself into”. I’m a seasoned traveler but still wrestle with this each time I travel somewhere new or challenging. The combination of being thrown out of your routine, being separated from everyone you know, and being in an unfamiliar environment can shake up even the bravest soul. This feeling always leaves in a few days as you acclimate to your new world, but I still find it fascinating that it continues to come on so strongly. Thankfully, I didn’t have much time to dwell as it was time to work! I had arrived and was greeted by the farmer, Quique, along with two other volunteers from Argentina, just in time to plant my first field of squash from start to finish.

Figuring it out on your own (it’s okay to be terrible at things)

Sustainable volunteering
At some point, I’m not sure what age, it stops being okay to be bad at things. As kids, we are encouraged to draw and it’s okay to be awful. We keep at it anyway. Eventually, once we realize  at a certain age we aren’t any good, we stop drawing. We do this with all things and eventually settle into a routine, forgetting what it’s like to be challenged in daily life.

For me, it was a shock to attempt something I knew absolutely nothing about for the first time in what feels like ages. I had grown so accustomed to life not throwing anything new at me. At the field, Quique dug a hole with his hoe, put in 4-5 seeds, covered it back up, spread some manure, and then watered the area.

Turning around and looking at me he said, “Now do that about 200 more times to fill up the land”. I was dumbfounded… how deep should I make the hole? How many seeds? How much manure? How many seconds should I water the seeds? My mind started racing with questions.

I started with his last action. I asked, “how long should I water the seeds?”

“I don’t know” Quique responded with a smile as he walked away to let me work.

One of the other volunteers explained to me how life functioned on Quique’s farm. She explained that there was no best way to do things. Each person was free to complete a task in the way they saw fit. It was that simple — the seeds would find a way to grow.

I accepted her response but still felt the discomfort of not knowing my method wasn’t backed by an exact science. That and the not wanting to screw up on my first day. Quique’s livelihood, his crops, were in my hands. He was giving me so much in this opportunity and I wanted to pay him back twofold. Determined, I took the hoe and struck the ground for the first time. It hit the ground, once, twice, and then, with a thud, the head of the hoe popped off. Looking down first in shock and then in nervousness, I laughed at how crazy this all was. Had I just destroyed the one and only hoe on the farm? I had just broken the single hoe with my first swing. Or so I’d thought. To my relief there were 20 more in the shed next door as they tended to break quite often.

Over the next hour I went through the field, slowly learning the best way to do each activity based on what I had seen Quique do earlier. He returned a few hours later and so arrived the moment of truth. He looked at a finished hole and brushed some soil with his foot while thinking. Through the corner of my eye I watched him, waiting for approval or the dread of having to re-do one hundred plants. I glanced up as he walked over to me, grabbed some fresh seeds, and threw them into the hole I had just dug.

We finished the field together, high-fived, and called it a day.

The small stuff

Sustainable volunteering
Throughout the trip I became amazed in small differences between our ways of living. Without a fridge, food and leftovers would sit out for days. When a backpack ripped, over a half hour was spent sewing it back together. Meals were never eaten alone. Solar powered lights were always turned off if no one was in the room.

I had many instances where I would catch myself complaining only to realize I was in fact wrong. One day, we were working in the olive fields to build fences around young trees. Using chicken wire salvaged from an old project, we would measure, lay out supports, tie them on, then erect the fence. At about 20 minutes per fence I started complaining in my head. Why didn’t we just buy 100 cheap prefab fences and just be done with it?

Sustainable volunteering
This action, although normal for us, would defeat the purpose of sustainable living. Everything we were doing was in the effort to minimize our footprint, regardless of the time or work it took to complete the task. Things don’t have to look good or be done perfectly, they just have to work.

Traveling exposes the differences in how people think differently than you. Through traveling, you’re instantly hyper-aware of the little things you take for granted in your normal life, sometimes painfully so. These are the things to reflect on and remember when you are back home. It’s possible to practice and remember being grateful in our busy lives, if only for a moment, and realize how much we have. It’s easy to forget, especially when normal life commences after the trip, but traveling truly does provide the clearest reminder.

My final thoughts

This trip provided me with all the classic key takeaways you’d hope for: experiencing a different way of life, a new culture, making new friends, helping others, learning new skills, etc.

These experiences all center around one keyword — growth. Taking the chance at challenging yourself with a new trip is all that matters. If you enjoy the trip or realize it wasn’t something you’d partake in again, you will still finish it and gain valuable insights. Learning about yourself and continuing to increase your own self-awareness is priceless.

About the Author
Skip Johnson caught the travel bug in college during Alternative Break trips to Ghana and Guatemala. Since then he has studied in China, solo backpacked through Central America, and worked in Spain. He is Build Abroad’s newest hire and comes excited to join the Chicago team!