What The WWOOF Did I Get Myself Into?
Last summer, I traveled around Ireland for 5 weeks hopping from one place to the next. I wanted to do things a bit different this time, and was looking for a new kind of adventure.
I’d heard about an organization called WWOOF that connects volunteers with organic farmers and growers. It’s purpose is to promote cultural and educational experiences, while helping to build a sustainable global community.
It’s based on trust…
The WWOOF hosts provide food, accommodation, and the opportunity to learn about organic lifestyles and sustainable living.
In exhange, the volunteers provide help on the farms. Each opportunity is different, but it usually consists of 4-5 hours of work per day, Monday – Friday.
It sounded like an interesting way to see rural Ireland, plus I wanted to learn more about sustainable living. Other travel bloggers had done it, and had good experiences. I figured I’d give it a shot.
I joined WWOOF, and went in search of a host. I picked out 5 that sounded interesting, and sent off my letters.
I heard back from one… Positions tend to fill up fast.
I was accepted for 3 weeks by a family just outside of Gort in County Galway. In addition to accepting volunteers through WWOOF, they run several workshops for families coming from Spain.
Some of what they offer the families includes: English language instruction, eco building, organic agriculture, Irish storytelling, and much more.
I was impressed by their website, and what they offered. It also made me feel more comfortable that they ran a tourism business as well. I had made a 3 week agreement with them, so this is where I’d be staying for my last few weeks in Ireland.
The good, the bad, the ugly…
Upon arrival into Gort, I was picked up by one of the owners, and taken to the property. The area was very rural, peaceful, and pretty.
I was given a quick tour of the property, and then taken to where I’d be staying. We passed several small cabins, finally reaching a meadow with two large tipis. Imagine my shock when I was told that’s where I’d be sleeping. A tipi in Ireland? You’ve got to be kidding?
Entering the tipi, I received another surprise. The overwhelming smell of must & mildew, 3 individual tents set up inside, and wet laundry hanging everywhere. I could almost see the mold spores floating in the air.
I was mortified. I had made a 3 week commitment, and all I wanted to do at that moment was flee. I couldn’t imagine living in such squalor for the next 3 weeks. I felt as if I had entered third world living conditions. I seriously wanted to cry at this point.
I decided to sleep on it overnight, and try to sort it all out in the morning. My first night I slept fully clothed, raincoat and all, with 7 blankets on top of me… I still froze.
In the morning, I awoke to a very wet top blanket… Things were going from bad to worst quickly.
After breakfast, the other volunteers & I were told to clean the cabins, bathrooms, etc as they were preparing for the next group that would be arriving. This is not what I had signed up for, but at this point I was grateful to be inside.
Entering the cabin, I was once again hit with the musty smell & wondered if mold was lurking in here as well. As I stripped the linens off the beds, and pulled off the duvet covers I discovered mold spots on the duvets. I felt sick inside. I struggled with putting a clean duvet cover over a duvet covered in mold, knowing a family, or child would be snuggling up against it later that night.
Then came the rest of the cleaning… A single sponge was used. The same sponge to clean toilets was also used for the dishes… A clear recipe for E Coli.
I quickly realized I was not going to learn a thing about organic farming, or sustainable living. We were being used as the cleaning crew as well as English tutors… It’s one thing if that’s what you’re expecting, quite another when you’ve discover you’re being used.
After 4 days of this, I was now afraid for my health. I was feeling the effects of mold in my throat & having problems breathing at night. I still was sleeping fully clothed with a hat now, had not showered, and was wet the entire time. I never had the chance to dry out.
I had also pulled a tick from my hair, and discovered we had slugs sleeping with us in the tipi.
A couple other WWOOF volunteers & I finally decided to approach the owners to let them know we had to leave. We could not stay here any longer. We had suffered long enough.
They were not happy, but agreed to give us a ride into town the next day. They told us to not tell their guests why we were leaving. They planned on telling them that we decided to travel & see a bit more of Ireland. We agreed because we wanted out.
Once, back in Galway, we discovered all the clothes in our backpacks were wet & beginning to mildew. I also had a very wet camera, which at the moment appears to working, however my laptop took a major hit.
I’ve suffered from the most painful stomach cramping I’ve ever had, as well as fatigue & vertigo for 12 days, all while recovering at a hostel in Galway.
I imagine, it’s just a matter of time before someone else gets really sick. I wouldn’t wish that kind of suffering upon anyone. It’s been absolutely hellish!
I’m concerned for the health of future volunteers. I’m worried about the Spanish families coming over on holiday, not knowing what lurks under the duvet, or that their dishes get washed with the same sponge as the toilet… It’s disgraceful to say the least.
So, I’ve thought long and hard about what I would have or could have done differently… I consulted with the 2 other WWOOF volunteers that left with me. In the end, we concluded we’d done everything we could have. We did our homework… We researched the host, and were communicating via email with any questions we had… We trusted the information that was given to us.
Unfortunately, we were dealing with people who consciously chose to lie, and exploit the WWOOF volunteers. They chose to put us in an unhealthy environment… They knew exactly what they were doing.
I’ve been asked if I would try WWOOFing again. At this point, I would have to say no. I’m sure there are many fantastic WWOOF hosts out there, and these were just the bad apples of the bunch… But, sometimes one is all it takes for you to you lose your faith, and spoil it for the rest.
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