I am at a big farm, 20 kilometers away from Filadelfia, the capital of the Chaco, a province far from where the action of Paraguay is. In this town I met Marilyn previous year in the supermarket where she asked me whether I wanted to stay at her house. I wanted that, and we have kept contact. Now, when I am tired of cycling, in need for some good rest, I can work on a Work Away basis for as long as I want, on her farm. ‘Let’s start working!’ is every’s Mennonite motto, this means no rest whatsoever. I start working the day after I arrive.
I am used to getting spoiled, as a mythical being with the blue unicorn; me and the bicycle upon which I move through the world. People invite me, I may sometimes stay as long as I like, I can eat all I want and there is nothing I have to do in return, other than being social and somewhat normal.
Being a Work Away person, the magic unicorn has no more effect than being brave and crazy. I am not getting spoiled and I have to work for my daily bread, which I may have kneaded myself. Gone is the princess alike attention, the admiration and feelings of a special female knight.
Five hours a day, 5 days a week on a 600 hectares farm cum hotel where work never ceases. I feel one of the very few who has a strong sense of duty. It surprises me after 5 years of mostly continuous cycling that I am still punctual, to the point of exact minutes. I still feel responsible and I can not handle the fact that others don’t have a strong sense of duty. It dawns on me that living in a community might not extract the best from me.
Another exercise of minding my own business, and not comparing myself to those who work a lot less. I still haven’t learned to be flexible if it comes to work, rather strict. It troubles me that the woman of the house, Elvira, works tremendously lot, and others sit and watch. It actually disturbs me that there is so much work to do, because one of my dreams was a self sustainable lifestyle, and that doesn’t come easy.
For long I believed I wanted a little farm, I am not that sure anymore. The animal’s existence is purely for human benefit, meat is served in large quantities, useless animals are not desirable and live production must flow, forever and abundant. Though one hardly see the 400 meat cows on the estancia, their grazing pastures are immense.
At the farm, the feeling of Paraguay has mostly gone and instead it has become a universal joint. The couple running the farm is a very kind German Russian woman married to an equally kind German man, who both have converted to Jewish faith, and I try to figure out what that exactly is? Their adopted child is Paraguayan, and the owners of the farm Mennonites with German Canadian background born in Paraguay, who turn out not to be exactly Mennonite, I hear months later. Mennonites, just as with all religions, have more than just one stream.
My neighbors are indigenous Indians who always keep to themselves and the Work Away guests are Germans, French and Dutch. I don’t leave the farm-ground, instead take goat Emma out for walks. I bask in silence, except for the sounds of an insect called cicada, exceptionally loud and ongoing shrieks.
My precious rest and continuity has been disturbed heavily. Where nine o’clock would be bed time, it has become dinner time. Where the tent-cloth gave me coolness, the powerful industrial fan does that job now. I have to learn to listen to chit-chat, small talk and backpackers advice & stories without giving my own opinion. Though I think small talk is a waste of time, I quickly learn that my experiences are not those of the average backpacker blend anymore.
Things like: ‘You can not travel from East Nigeria to Cameroon, it is too dangerous,’ says a guest who works for UNHRC. Or: ‘We think you are not thoughtful and irresponsible too’, says Gerd, the owner of the farm, who has a hard time understanding my cycling lifestyle.
The way the converted Jewish are is pleasant, non interrupting and calm. On Saturday is Sabbath. I don’t exactly know what that is, but learn it quickly, that is, if the never-ceasing talkative 21-year-old German Work Away guest her newly learned knowledge is true. We, the Work Away people take care of the guests in the hotel, including 5 o’clock breakfasts, mountains of dishes, feeding the lambs and serving the food made the day before for Elvira, Andreas and Alan, who are firmly against any work on a Sabbath and so they do not touch any work related thing. And all that under circumstances where communication is absent: when lunch is ready to be served for the guests, it suddenly ceases to exist and becomes dinner instead. Again, flexibility comes in handy.
I have to laugh at myself, as I am serving the German guests their dinner. Dressed in my cycling outfit, clean from a jump in the green water-pool, not superficially taken care for, speaking Dutch in a twisted German manner, I serve the guests food we have prepared: to collect empty plates as if they were licked clean.
Rural and small town tourism in South America can be unprofessional, done by immature-certificated owners, volunteers or people like us. And I think that has its charm. Though I do not think so when a paying guest suddenly shares my little house!
Where I am the one who cleans like a true Cinderella, the other may ride horses, partly as her 5 hour work-task. Another works all day, as if he’s still the contractor he was. A Frenchman stands in the kitchen mainly to watch (except on the photo above, a mistake of me to make him work in Elvira’s kitchen where men are not welcome), he is a person who loves lounging, smoking, drinking coffee and sitting in his room. I remind myself it is my problem I am so dutiful and stiff-necked, not being able to handle idleness when mountains of work surround me.
The morning sounds around the little house I occupy are marvelous, somehow more abundant than when camping. Big black birds knock the only glass window there is. Half wild cats, foxes and Chaco rabbits move around. There are no sounds of unnatural occurrences, apart from a tractor or scooter now and then, when the indigenous Abelino and the owner Gerd are going to check the fences of the estancia.
My dreams at night while I sleep are of a different kind now I am among youngish backpackers. In those dreams I am forced to socialize while the mornings are festival parties where things get so rough I can not handle them and start sobbing frustratingly while I try to find things in fridges so deep I can stick my head in, after which I quickly try to fled to my safe heaven.
Being among young backpackers and many people in general with whom I have to socialize is different from being in a hostel where I pay and thus can go to my room any time I want. None of the Work Away persons would be my self chosen friend, yet I have to cooperate and be nice. It dawns on me I have not become more flexible in those years sitting on a saddle. I think of Elvira and Andreas who have 4 very different kind of people in their house, one of them (a certain Frenchman) not remembering why he is here?
For me it is an interesting process where I watch my thoughts, notice my disturbances and simply accept them, or explain them, or let them pass.
Part 2 follows…