"I hoe I hoe, it's off to work I go..."
And when you "hoeheartedly" enjoy what you're doing and it earns you free room and board in some of the world's most exotic locations, how bad can work be?
Okay, enough of the bad puns... If you like spending time in the garden, love to eat healthy, organic food, and enjoy traveling, there's a way to combine these passions. Best of all, you can do all this for free.
WWOOF -- an acronym for Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms -- offers you a way to travel the world for next to nothing. (Normally, you pay only to get there.) At the organization's website, you can search the database of organic farms around the world to see who's looking for someone to help out.
WWOOF hosts are those with farms or gardens that need tending or other types of work. They don't pay volunteer workers, known as Wwoofers. Instead, they typically offer free meals and accommodation, which can range from rustic to luxurious. Wwoofers needn't have any serious experience. But a willingness to take on agreed-upon tasks is a must.
Besides planting, tending, or harvesting organic gardens, Wwoofers may be asked to milk goats, build chicken coops, or in the case of small hotels, help with cooking, cleaning, or with guests.
Bordering Belize's lush Spanish Creek Rainforest Reserve, for instance, a family farm grows a variety of fruit tree crops and has a large organic garden and subsistence food plantation. They also raise chickens and horses and need help building additional guest palapas from jungle materials and thatch. Wwoofers will stay in an onsite guesthouse with free Wi-Fi Internet and all meals included.
WWOOF requires that hosts and volunteers agree in advance on the details: time commitment, type of work to be done, accommodation, etc. You pay a minimal fee to join one of the 50 WWOOF independent country organizations and gain access to databases. For example, a Costa Rica membership costs just $16/year. A joint membership that gives you access to opportunities in Mexico, Costa Rica, Guatemala and Belize costs just $33/year.
According to Emily Navar, owner of boutique Hotel Macan Che in Izamal, Mexico, WWOOFing is a "win/win situation."
"Our locale is a bit unique in that we're a hotel with a small organic garden rather than a farm," she says. "We've had couples and singles -- mostly women on their own although a single guy arrives this week. They've been mostly from the U.S. and Europe but from as far away as New Zealand. The last couple traveled by bus all the way from Denver. They've all been hard workers, respectful and low maintenance. Most are looking for a way to be in Mexico and not spend much money."
As Emily explains, some Wwoofers have experience in farming and others don't... and it takes a bit of a proactive spirit on both sides. "We give them tasks and let them work out how to accomplish those on their own.
"They agree to work five hours a day, and we provide free room with private bathroom and hot shower and two meals a day... breakfast and dinner. They eat really well here."
Emily's husband, Alfred Rordame, is a world-class chef. And Hotel Macan Che -- an hour from Merida, the capital of Mexico's Yucatan state -- is an oasis in the jungle. With lush, green foliage and brilliant tropical flowers everywhere and a cenote-style swimming pool in which to take refreshing dips, working here would be like working in the Garden of Eden. Not tough duty at all. (Izamal itself is a charming village, with mystical Mayan ruins adjacent to historical colonial buildings.)
A quick search of the Wwoof.org database turns up similar volunteer opportunities in North America, Latin America, Europe, the Middle East, Africa and the Asia Pacific -- more than 95 countries in all.
You can volunteer at an organic farm next to the Podacarpus National Park in Vilcabamba, Ecuador, or on an apple orchard and organic bakery in Mendoza, Argentina. You can help make goat cheese on an Irish farm near Ballyconry, Ballyvaughan. You can learn about wine-making on a vineyard in Italy's Piemonte district while staying in a village house with a view of the Alps. You can help run a surfing school at Curio Bay in Southland, New Zealand or help renovate a 100-year-old timber house with a view of the Pacific on the Fiji island of Ovalau.
Reading the overall positive feedback on individual WWOOF country websites, it seems the biggest benefit of Wwoofing -- for both hosts and volunteers -- isn't just the opportunity to help out and learn from one another. It's more about creating lifelong friendships. Not a traditional travel experience, Wwoofing is a true immersion in local customs and daily life -- victories and challenges alike. A priceless experience at any cost, but even better when it's free.