Last woofing in Bolivia… What a sad situation! July 2010

This is it! I went to my last woofing site in Bolivia. Strange enough, this is not even any longer a member of the WOOF Independents. I did not know that until I arrived there. The owner, who I contacted for the fourth time by email a few days before reaching his place, did not tell me that he was no longer a WOOFER. He only said that he welcomed my visit and that he had a lot of work to be done.

I took a shared taxi early in the morning for 30 bolivianos to get to his farm following the instructions that I had given me. It was almost a 2 hours drive from Santa Cruz. I reached the farm by 10 AM. When I arrived, the veranda was full of people, maybe 7 or 10. The owners were dealing with one of the volunteers, a woman from the US, and they have about 800 bolivianos on the table. I heard them talk more about money and a few more items that had been forgotten. I got a bad flavor in my being right away.

When they finished their business, the owner – a 35 to 40 years-old man who had been there for 11 years with his wife and children – started to explain me that the volunteers had to pay for a 7 days evaluation period. He had mentioned this on his first email and had also offered me to skip the 7 days period, because of my experience, and limit it to just one day. I looked at him straight in his eyes, and with a smile I said: “You and I had an agreement by email and I came based on this. I am expecting you to honor it.” “Oh yes, I remember” he said and we stopped talking about money.

I felt right away that I was not comfortable emotionally around them. I was just feeling strong negative vibrations and a lot of anger from them, not against me personally, by life itself. I reminded them that I was a vegan and that I would be happy to help in the kitchen if that was needed. His wife said that she was in charge of the food and although she was mainly cooking vegetarian food, she said that she was also using a lot of butter and cheese and that it was not convenient for her to make something apart just for me. She also said that she jugged my eating diet as been “extreme”. I did not feel very positive about any of that. Then, instead of showing where I would sleep and the living accommodations, they sent me straight to work. It was a Sunday morning, I was a bit surprised of that, but did not argued.

I worked until 13h30 cutting elephant grass with a machete to feed their three horses that they rent to the tourists for short rides around. Then I returned to the main house and peeled some dry beans while the lunch was getting ready to be served. In the afternoon, I worked in the garden with the lady of the house. She has a beautiful large veggie garden, the first real one I see since I am woofing on these lands. She was not very friendly, even quite cold, but I helped her with all my capacity and did whatever she needed: redirect the water to reach the plants, clean a water channel and remove the weeds of a section of the garden. I worked until 17h30 and stopped: “It’s getting too dark. I can’t see what I am doing. I would rather continue tomorrow morning at 6h30 a.m.” I told her. She agreed but did not say much.

We returned to the house and I asked her to show me where I would stay. They decided to move me to the “volunteers” house, which is indeed the older son’s wooden cabin – a 14 years old boy – about 8 minutes walk from the main house. The boy was not willing to walk me there. “We’ll go later” he said. “I would prefer to go now, before it gets really to dark, so I can see where I am staying.” But it was too late, the night was coming. After 30 minutes, I finally got someone to show me where I was going to sleep. They put me into a basic wooden house with two bedrooms without a door. The boy was using one. I was using the other. No toilet. One could wee outside but had to return to the main house where they had a dry toilet without a door. I don’t mind the missing door, but some visitors, especially ladies, might not feel very comfortable without it!

The living conditions were basic, but at least I had my private bedroom, although without electricity. The owner made an annoyed gesture when I asked him to let me borrow a flashlight. At times, I would prefer not to be so sensitive and not to see these details, but the body never lies!

On the following day, I woke up with the sun and went straight to the garden. I kept removing the weeds from the area where I started the day before and by 8h30 returned to the house because I was getting seriously bitten by flies and mosquitoes. I wanted to get my bug repellent. I stopped by my house, got it and since it was soon to be breakfast, I went to the main house where I kept peeling dry beans. It was a large bag and it would take a few hours to get it done. After breakfast, I returned to the garden to finish my task and continued removing the weeds – about 30 square meters – under a light rain. The owner came as I was taking a break and chatting with one of the guests, at the guesthouse, not far from the garden. It was raining harder and I just could not continue my work. The rain calmed down soon and I returned to my task. The owner walked with me but I could see as I was chatting with him that he was not paying any attention to me. I was been positive and cheerful, congratulating him of his efforts; he was a million miles away. He did not comment on my work, only asked me to join him at the main house when I would be done. It took me another hour to complete my task. The soil was very wet and muddy and I was getting pretty wet myself. When done, I returned to the main house: “I am going to get my raincoat”, I said to him. “When you return, you need to move these pieces of wood” he replied. I worked until lunch time, around 14h00.

The work schedule was from 9h30 (after breakfast) to 14h00 and from 16h00 to 18h00. The problem is that it gets dark just after 17h00! After lunch, I decided to go to the nearest village to get some cigarettes – and take a break. It was about 2 kms away. On my return, I stopped to chat with a French guest and time passed. By 16h30, I realized that I was supposed to return to work. I had done already more than the 6 hours required by the owner for a day, but I didn’t want to interfere with his schedule. I was planning to talk to him later about it. So far, we had not found the opportunity to be alone and talk about a few details. The owner was annoyed when he saw me arriving late. It was raining. “What would you like me to do?” I asked, after apologizing for my delay. “You need to go to the elephant grass field and cut as much as possible to feed the horses.” I looked at him and then at a British guest who had just arrived. Then I said: “I’d love to do that, but not under the rain. It is very dangerous to use a machete when it is so wet, especially to cut these thick grasses”. The British guy confirmed it: “Yes, it is dangerous. It gets very slippery.” The owner reacted annoyed. “Oh yeah?” he said. “Yes, I replied. In 8 years, I never have seen anyone working with a machete under the rain. What else should I do? I’ll cut the grass in the morning if it doesn’t rain.” He sent me to collect coffee beans with the British guess. We got the ladder and two buckets and got under the coffee trees. It was slightly raining. The trees were soaked and it was getting dark. After 30 minutes, the British guy said that he could not really see anything anymore. I agreed with him. “This is ridiculous. We can’t see what we are doing. Let’s do it in the morning.” We returned to the main house. “What do you mean you can’t see anything” asked the owner annoyed. “Exactly that” I replied. “I am soaked and cold. I am going to change cloths!” I told him getting a bit annoyed myself of all that negative behavior. His wife, who was next to us, did not argue with me but send the British back to the coffee beans collection. I could not believe it!

I went to change cloth and when I returned I asked the owner for a short private talk.

– I understand and respect your schedule. But since I can’t see well after 5, I prefer to work early in the morning, 2 hours before breakfast and then have the afternoon free so that I can do a few things and socialize with the other visitors. (I did not say that this is quite common with Woofing and that it is mentioned in the few rules that define the program.)
– Well, this is not very convenient to us. I need to be up to tell you what to do and then…
– You could give me a list of tasks and I would take care of it, as I’ve done in other places.
– Well, I’ll have to discuss this with my wife.
– Fine, I replied. I also want you to know that, as you have me under evaluation for a few days, I too am evaluating the situation. In a day or two, I’ll see how I feel and decided if I wish to stay for the full 3 weeks or not.

He obviously did not react very kindly to this last comment. He did not dare saying anything rude, but all his body and soul was getting very annoyed. “I’ll have a talk with my wife and we’ll talk again you and I tomorrow.” I knew by then that I would be leaving soon.

I took the rest of the day to chat individually to 3 of the 5 guests, a French man, a US citizen and a Belgian girl. They all confirmed my feelings. None of them was feeling very comfortable: “I’ve got some mixed feeling about this place” said the American. “A lot of negative vibes!” The French man said pretty much the same and so did the girl. Two of them spent 2 or 3 days digging a huge hole where they planned to put some fishes, “built with very cheap labor from foreign” said the French man! All their comments confirmed my own perception. I was definitely getting out of there soon. On that second evening, the owner announced that this was the “Opera Night”. He had composed an “opera” with a friend and they were going to play and sing for us tonight as a rehearsal session. The music was really good but the lyrics quite immature and full of clichés. It was supposed to be directed to adolescents and young adults: “We want to present it to various types of schools and get the young ones aware of the destruction of the planet.” In the first act, they sung about a young man who was not showing respect to his mother and who became a bad guy, greedy and violent. Then they started the second act narrating a trip to Europe that the main singer had made. He was blaming the Europeans to produce too much trash and contaminate the air that he is breathing now with all the gases from the trucks that collect the trash. I felt once again uncomfortable. Bolivia is not a clean place and I noticed earlier a huge amount of trash at the entrance of the village, just next to the farm. Even the local cemetery was part of the trash deposit! I felt that instead of blaming Europeans, he should sing about cleaning Bolivia. He was also presenting us as the “bad guys”, which is not necessarily very kind to his visitors or proper when educating young people. The third and final act was on the same line. I could see where his anger was rooting in part. I could feel that he was angry about many other things, but decided not to look any further. I knew that his arrogance would not allow us to talk from the heart. At the end of the show, I congratulated them for a very beautiful music, especially his friend who played the flute. “Have you considered the option of writing about another theme, maybe more positive, enlightening, perhaps with more love messages that would also go very well with the music?” “No, he replied. This is the theme which inspired us to write the opera. Nothing else.”

It was late. I went to bed without dinner since they did not offer us any food. In the morning, it was very cold. I hesitated between getting my wet working cloths, or simply my daily cloth and leave. I decided to give them another chance. So I prepared myself for work. As I arrived to the main house, the owner had his talk with me. “I know that you are looking for an exchange on a volunteering base, but we don´t do that anymore. So if you wish to stay, you will have to pay.” “So I’ll leave today. I am a woofer and you are not. I’ll just go and keep following my path” I replied. “I just wish you would have mentioned this on your last email a few days ago, so I would have saved the trip.” I told him that I would leave after breakfast. “I’ll pay for it” I added seeing his reaction. By then, I guess that he realized that I could read him as an open book.

I decided to leave my backpack at the guesthouse, which is on the way out, and return to the main house for breakfast. The other guests looked at me surprised. “You are leaving already?” “Yeah. I just don’t like the vibes. I had a brief talk with the owner and he wants to charge me on top of working. No way! I am leaving”. I could see by their reaction that most of them were also considering leaving in the next day or two.

I left after breakfast and found a ride back to Santa Cruz after just a few minutes after reaching the road. The shared taxi charged me only 15 bolivianos, half of what I paid to get there following the owner’s recommendations. I was done with woofing in Bolivia!

It’s best not to expect anything from the WOOF hosts. I learned this. It’s also best not to feel personally guilty of anything with them. And it’s also best to get out of a place when you don’t feel 100% happy about the situation. This last experience was quite sad. I did not feel bothered by the fact that the owner nor his wife did not comment on my work. It seems to be quite a common attitude in this part of the world. I had experienced the same in all the farms where I stayed. But I got annoyed but the way that they were treating their foreign guests with a lot of arrogance and criticism and also the way they seem to love money more than life. Most of the guests were maybe too young or did not understand well enough the Spanish language to realize how negative and judgmental these people were with us. But they all could feel the negative vibes!
After this farm and the one in the tropic of Cochabamba (see previous blog entry), I feel that it’s time for me to explore other lands!
I’ll conclude with a mention to the organic vineyard that I visited near Tarija. There, I did meet nice and generous people who did appreciate my work and help. But it’s important to add that the owner was quite wealthy and did not need to suck the money out of his volunteers to run his business. He is also a very creative and ingenious man. And he was very humble too! I want to conclude saying that I do appreciate his invitation and will always keep a warm place for him in my heart.

Next, returning to Brazil and experiencing once again Woofing in Brazil! But first, a short visit de Paraguay!

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