The early morning light falls gently on the glistening grass. I cross the field on my toes, my socks already slightly damp through my worn-out gumboots. I greet Buttercup, the round brown cow, who glows amber in the soft sun. Blue the goat and her dozen skittish kids stand at the edge of the paddock beside Red, the oldest goat. A faded pink collar hangs loosely around her bony neck.
This is my second morning volunteering on this tiny farm in New Zealand, and it’s my job to milk the goat.
I shake my pail of treats, trying to invite Red into the small milking shed with me. Of course the possibility of a morning snack attracts the attention of every animal within earshot.
“SQUAAAALK” go the half a dozen clucking chickens, flapping up onto the ledge.
“MMRRROOOO” goes Buttercup, nuzzling her way through the rusty gate I’m trying to close.
“BAAAA” goes Blue and all of her kids, bleating outside, trying to edge their way in.
While I have managed to squeeze into the shed with Red, we’re also sharing the space with half a dozen clucking chickens.
“GET BACK! GET BACK!” I yell, shoving the chickens off the awning.
I shoo a few more chickens away, trying not to frighten poor old Red with too much movement, and place her breakfast distraction right in front of her face so I can start milking.
I’m no expert, having only practiced this once before. The trick is to be gentle but also firm, as any kind of light touch against Red’s sensitive udders will tickle her and might cause her to kick over the pail of milk.
After a few minutes – and my genius idea to distract the chickens by tossing out a handful of feed – I get the rhythm going and a steady stream of pristine white goat’s milk is squirting into my pail.
I proudly carry the milk back into the house just as the children, Willow and Sage, wake up. They both have warm milk on their breakfast cereal. Later in the day their mom Kristy shows me how to make cheese along with one of the best quiches I’ve ever had.
Learning to milk a goat is one of the many skills I’ve acquired while volunteering abroad for the past year and a half. I’ve worked mostly on farms but I’ve also helped out in orchards, bed and breakfasts and youth hostels.
I helped set up and build Native American style tepees for a family in Daylesford, Australia. At the same place I smeared mud on the walls of a straw-bale house, and constructed a spiral herb garden.
For two weeks I volunteered in Tianyar, a tiny village in northern Bali. I worked as an English teacher at an after-school program for teenagers. I spent the mornings snorkeling in the ocean, the afternoons teaching, and the evenings enjoying the spicy local food and dizzying arak, a drink made from fermented palm juice.
I helped paint the outside of a bed and breakfast in Arthur’s Pass, an alpine village in New Zealand, and weeded for hours upon hours in a tiny town called Clinton. It hasn’t all been easy, but I sure have learned a lot.
WWOOFing stands for “Willing Workers on Organic Farms.” In 1971, a London secretary named Sue Coppard started a weekend program to connect city people with a country lifestyle. It evolved into WWOOFing, Today there are thousands of places to WWOOF (www.wwoof.org) in 99 countries all over the world.
In exchange for 4 to 5 hours of work per day, most hosts will provide home-cooked meals and private accommodation. I’ve slept in caravans, tents, and guest rooms. Most hosts expect you to stay for at least a week, although some allow volunteers to live with them for up to a year.
To become a member, you pay $45, which includes insurance plus the WWOOF book. Organized by region, the book includes names, addresses, and descriptions of the hosts and their farms.
A similar program to WWOOFing is called HelpX (www.helpx.net). This is the website I use. Instead of a book, HelpX is conducted entirely online. The $35 membership gives you access to thousands of hosts in dozens of countries. Both hosts and helpers have online profiles with photos and reviews. It’s more up to date than the WWOOF book because hosts can update their profiles daily. However, you do need internet access to plan your next move.
I’ve been traveling for the past year and a half, and I can say without a doubt volunteering has been the highlight of my trip. By volunteering, I learn new skills, give back to the community, and make travel more meaningful. I get to visit places I never would have seen otherwise, tiny towns and farms way off the tourist track. Best of all, I get to meet and interact with the locals, and become involved in their lives.
One of the greatest things about volunteering is that it’s all free! Since hosts provide food and accommodation in exchange for your work, it allows you to travel for longer because you spend less.
I’ve met die-hard WWOOFers like Tim from England who has been doing this around the world for the past 15 years. On the other hand, I’ve worked with people like Regina and Verner, a Swiss couple in their 70’s who volunteered on a peach orchard for a week during their three-week vacation in Australia.
Lots of people use WWOOFing as a way to help them learn a language. At a stone fruit orchard in Australia I met Kyoko, a Japanese girl who was staying there for three months to improve her English.
While every experience I’ve had has been good, you do have to be careful not to get scammed. Some farmers are just doing it to get free labor and do not treat their volunteers well. Luckily this hasn’t happened to me; almost every place I’ve gone has been interesting and educational. Okay, on one farm we were stuck weeding for five hours a day, but we were able to leave a few days later.
Volunteering is a great way to travel cheaply. It’s the best way to get involved with a community, meet locals and bond with other volunteers. It’s easy to do alone or with a buddy, and is also a great way to meet other like-minded travelers!
I’m not done, either. I plan to do more volunteering in Europe, South America, and Asia in the next few years. Who wants to join me?
About the Author:
Amberly Young is a world traveler, writer, and ultimate frisbee enthusiast from Santa Barbara, California. Please don’t hesitate to contact her if you have any more questions about volunteering.
To read more of her stories and see photos of her travels, visit her website: http://whereisamber.com/.