Volunteering in The Azores: Adventure, Magic and Reality Checks (part 1).
This is the story of my first encounter with the wonderful world of wwoofing, permaculture, off-grid living and the back to the land movement. It is a story of inspiration, vision, dreams, magic, romance and synchronicity…
However, it is also the story of harsh realities, disappointments and disillusions.
This is where I first glimpsed the possibilities of alternative ways of life and first connected with like-minded people who shared the same vision and ideas.
Now 5 years later, I look back on these 2 months that I spent volunteering and exploring the Azores as having been a fundamental stepping stone in my journey, almost a prelude to what was to come later down the line.
It was as if the seeds of my destiny were planted during those two magical months roaming around those mysterious islands.
To share it here now feels very special, like reminiscing about a past love affair (which it also was!).
It was such a rich experience and so in order not to cut any of it out or write a ridiculously long post, I’ve split the story into two parts. It seemed a shame to leave out certain parts of the trip that were so valuable to me, and therefore also may be valuable to someone else.
So I hope you enjoy part 1 of this tale.
May you get lost in the magic and the wonder as you read this story, as I did during that summer of 2015.
Note: All events, people and places in this story are real, but some names have been changed. Poor image quality should be blamed on the half-broken secondhand iPhone I used during my trip when blogging was not something that I ever thought I would be doing!
A Laid Back Affair
Summer 2015, the end of my first academic year in Madrid and 3 months off. No commitments, no plans, and not much money.
But that suited me just fine- why else would I have resisted the pressure of getting a ‘proper’ job, if not to have long chunks of time off to explore the world and have more adventures?
At this point in my life, aged 27, travel was still high on my list of priorities.
And as all seasoned budget travellers know, there is always a way to make travel a reality. And mine came in the form of a young couple who were starting a permaculture project on the island of San Miguel, the biggest of the group of Portuguese islands that make up the Azores.
In typical Olivia fashion, I had left any organisation of my summer plans until the last minute and found this couple on the ‘last-minute’ listing on the WorkAway website. Luckily for me, this was the first year that flights were available from Lisbon to San Miguel and what’s more, they were only 30 euros!
A few emails later and I had my summer sorted. The plan was to spend a month volunteering with them and then…who knew? I would see where the wind took me.
At this point maybe I should have been a little concerned about the laid back attitude of the couple who I was going to be staying with. There was no skype call, no asking for references, no in-depth discussion of expectations.
If they were really serious about their project, would they not want to carry out a few more checks before they let a stranger into their house?
But I’m a laid back kind of person so if anything, this lackadaisical approach only made them go up in my estimations. How cool and open they were! We were sure to get on great. They were totally going to be my kind of people.
And indeed they were.
Originally from Ireland, they had landed in the Azores after 2 years travelling around Europe in their camper van. Their initial idea was to rent some land and live on it in a large tent, grow food, practice permaculture and generally live lightly on the Earth.
The Earth must have approved of their plans because not long after they arrived, a local man, Eduardo, got wind of their search and made them an exceptionally generous offer:
“Come and create your project on my land, do as you will, create the project of your dreams. I only ask in return that you help to renovate the house and contribute to its upkeep”.
But this was not any old house. This old house was perched on top of a hill, overlooking the village and the ocean, with a pathway directly down to the beach below. Not just that, but it had ample land all around it, and easy access to a beautiful coastal path that connected lots of beautiful wild beaches.
It was literally a paradise.
I had never been anywhere like it and couldn’t believe their good fortune.
You have to go in search of your dreams and maybe they will come and meet you halfway.
Quinta da Canada
And so began what should have been one month of volunteering at Quinta da Canada.
Kyle and Maggie were exactly what I expected- open, laid-back; dreamers and visionaries.
It was really eye-opening for me at the time to meet people living so far off the beaten track! They had been to so many places and I really admired their gumption for getting out there having these wild adventures.
They told of how they used to have to search out places to have showers, often making use of local leisure centres and sports facilities. For some people, this might sound like a hell of a lot of work but for them, it was all just part of the adventure.
However, so much adventure can be dangerous to one’s perspective of ‘normal’ life. Once you leave on a trip like that, there is really no going back to life as it was before, as Maggie and Kyle found out.
After having lived a lifestyle whereby they had to go on a hunt for all their basic needs, coming back to the normal world felt like a real crash into monotony.
Consequently, Maggie told me that upon returning to Ireland, she began to feel quite depressed.
She felt that modern life was made to be so comfortable and easy that there was no interest, no adventure, no unknown; no life in it. It all felt so predictable. She was scared of getting trapped in the comfort bubble where you take all of the conveniences of modern life for granted, and suddenly life becomes more about comfort than adventure.
This is partly what had inspired them to set out on this journey to the Azores.
Being the furthest point away from Europe, these off the beaten track islands were the epitome of adventure and seemed like a great place for them to develop their interest in permaculture and have the way of life that they had been dreaming of whilst they roam Europe in their camper van.
However Kyle and Maggie weren’t the only interesting characters I met during my stay.
There were also other volunteers there when I arrived. The crew was made up Elena from Russia, David from Germany, and Eliot from France. Later on more people arrived from another nearby project, including the larger than life character Maureen and Sam from the US.
Elena and David, having been there longer, slept in the house in their own rooms whereas and Eliot and I camped outside in the garden.
Not that I complained- I woke up each morning to the views of the sea and it was just a short walk down the hill to the beach for an early morning swim before the others woke up.
The house itself was very run down, with no running drinking water and in one room (David’s bedroom!), the floor had huge holes in it revealing the room below.
We got drinking water every day from the nearby spring and the shower just about worked, so we could at least get clean after a hard day’s work.
It felt almost like we were all squatting together. We only had the basics and the house was far from habitable but somehow, it was more than enough for all of us.
And to be honest, after coming from a life of comfort and privilege, I welcomed the feeling of roughing it. Getting water from the spring every day seemed wholesome and even a luxury- I’d been drinking treated tap water all my life and now I was drinking pure spring water, the kind that people buy in bottles. What could be better than that?
The basic nature of our living situation somehow made me feel more alive, an antidote to the comfort of modern life that can so often leave you feeling numb and uninspired.
I remember taking a walk along the coast at the beginning of my stay and feeling a deep sense of joy and peace. I was exactly where I needed to be and doing exactly what I needed to be doing.
I had been dreaming about doing some wwoofing the whole year and I was finally doing it. I’d made it happen.
Like any deep desire or dream, when we fulfil it there is a sense of having finally arrived. And that is the feeling that I had when I looked out over the sea and observed the red flowers growing along the path and the rocky cliffs that edged the coast.
It felt like a sense of rightness and deep satisfaction as if I was in full alignment with who I really am.
This was my path, I was sure of it.
An Introduction to Permaculture
For the next two weeks we all had a real blast.
We woke up in the morning and had breakfast together (toast with jam and honey and black loose leaf tea from the island’s tea plantations) and then started work.
We were going to create spiral herb gardens, hugel mounds, amazing compost toilets, fire pits and many more weird and wonderful ideas. This was the first time I had heard of some these things and I was enchanted.
The methods that they were using seemed so novel and creative. The hugel mounds for example seemed like a genius idea.
We collected rotten logs and created the form of a spiral, followed by other layers of organic material. Kyle explained to me how the logs maintain the water and slowly decompose creating a rich, nutrient-filled soil.
Somehow I knew that I was to bookmark this information for a later date. I didn’t know when it was going to be useful but for some reason I knew that it would.
Looking back now, it seems like beautiful, cyclical synchronicity that my second experience of wwoofing-style volunteering with Max and Nick this summer also involved creating hugel mounds. And this time I was able to show a bit more knowledge and say “oh hugel mounds, yeh, I know what they are!”.
This was when my interest in permaculture really began. It all seemed so mysterious and magical having come from industrial North West England. And even more so when Kyle began to explain to me how the cycles of the moon can affect your crops.
“Wow, you can really plant in accordance with the moon?” I asked when Kyle told me a little bit about what I now know to be biodynamic gardening.
Back then, the moon had never really been part of my day to day life and now here was this guy telling me how planting in accordance with the moon affected how well the plants grow!
This was either crazy or magical. I didn’t know which at the time but upon hearing this it was as if my soul was infused with a deep sense of nostalgia- the remembrance of ancient knowledge long forgotten and a sacred dream that was yet to fully reveal itself.
I remember that I was hungry for more information and kept asking more and more questions.
“You can get all this information in a book”, Kyle told me, as if trying to shake me off a little bit. Less chat, let’s get back to work he seemed to be saying.
But the seed was planted. I didn’t know when it was going to germinate but I subconsciously knew that that small conversation was somehow an important clue for things that were going to come to me further down the line.
The Honeymoon Period
With that, the philosophical farming talk ended and back to work we went.
We began to dig up the overrun ferns to make space for the veggies, cleared out the house and began to paint what was to be the volunteer’s kitchen.
Later we broke for lunch and ate together outside in the garden, overlooking the ocean and the village below. Always delicious and vegetarian, it felt wholesome to sit and eat together, sharing food and stories from our travels, cultures and normal lives.
Later we got back to work for a bit before we hung up our work clothes for the day and ate together again, surrounded by candles and the odd lamp as our only light. Then we would put on some uplifting music and Kyle would get out his guitar and we would spend the rest of the evening dancing around on the creaky floor, excited about the possibilities of the project that was yet to be born.
It was such a beautiful time.
I can honestly say that it was one of the happiest working experiences of my life. It really felt like we were a real team, all working together towards the same goal and sharing ideas, skills and dreams.
The project was not even off the ground yet but we all shared the same vision and what’s more, fully believed in it. We dreamt about how it was going to be, how much fun we were going to have there in the future and what kinds of workshops they were going to hold there once the project got going.
With the rugged sea, the rocky beaches and wild cliffs as our companions, anything seemed possible.
I think the beautiful thing about it was the sense of really being part of something bigger than ourselves. We were participants in each other’s dreams and with that as your motivation, nothing seems like hard work. And with so many people dreaming together, nothing seemed impossible.
Coming from the individualistic Western world, some ancient part of me was nourished in this experience.
After so much lone travel throughout my 20’s, so many hellos and goodbyes with the like-minded folk I had met on my path, so much searching for meaning and mutual understanding, this communal living experience was the closest I had ever got to what felt like my tribe.
And it wasn’t just the work on the project that was inspiring.
The whole island was like something out of a fairy tale.
Maggie and Kyle were very generous driving us around in their clapped out 4×4, showing us waterfalls, hot springs, villages and Kyle even took us surfing. Eduardo was also very happy to show us around his island and one day we even got to do a boat trip to spot the whales and dolphins. We even got to swim in the sea with them!
This was a traveller’s paradise. And all in exchange for doing work that I really enjoyed- who says you need money to travel? Up to this point, I had barely spent a dime.
Another cool part of island life was the fact that it was really easy to hitchhike around. For the locals, it was quite normal to pick people up and give them a lift, and since the island was quite new to tourism, people had a lot of success doing it.
One Spanish couple that I met had just brought a tent with them and spent their week holiday hitchhiking around- cheap as chips!
Following their lead, myself and some of my fellow volunteers, Elena and Eliot, set out for a weekend of explorations with our tents, my trusty camping pot and enough noodles to last us a few days.
We headed out to the main road and hitched a lift to the ‘Lagoa do Fogo‘, the lake of fire. A beautiful lake that sits in the crater of an extinct volcano, it is a top tourist destination.
However, we didn’t plan to go as a typical tourist but as explorers and adventures. When all the rest of the families were packing up their stuff and making their way back home, we set about looking for a hidden spot to make our camp for the night.
And so we set up our tents on a flat spot near the lake, made a fire and boiled up tea and noodles.
This experience has to have been one of the most primal of all my travel experiences. I had never been wild camping before- and this really did feel wild! As night fell, we were in complete darkness. With no one else around, alone in this wild natural park, it really felt like we had gone back a few thousand years.
This is how our ancestors must have felt, I thought.
So small and insignificant in the face of wild nature. The real world, untamed by the domesticated hand of man.
I felt so exposed and vulnerable when I looked out into the pitch blackness. It was an uneasy feeling, one that may have had me scurrying back to Quinta da Canada if it hadn’t been so far away.
However, it also invoked so much awe and made me feel so alive.
At one point the huge flock of seagulls took off in a huge squawking chatter. We could hear the woosh of their wings as they all took flight.
“AHH, why have they moved? What’s going on?!” I said, a little bit scared. Maybe there was something there?!
But no, they were just changing position.
Wow, I am really jumpy, I thought. Maybe I am better in the city after all!
Soon after we went to bed. I felt a kind of tense excitement mixed with the fear of being in such a wild place.
I’m quite out of my comfort here, I thought.
The sign of a true adventure!
Taking a look out of my tent before I went to sleep, I saw the night sky, so full of stars. This was the same sky that humans had been looking out upon since time immemorial.
Here it felt purer, more immense and expansive than in the city. More real, more magical, more humbling, more vibrant, more alive.
I felt more alive. More human almost.
I was beginning to realise the extent of my own domestication.
The next day we woke up early, the fear of the night before vanished in the light of the dawn.
We spent the rest of the day hiking around the lake, sometimes walking with our backpacks above our heads and waist-deep in water. Other times, we had to dodge huge seagulls as they swooped down and aimed for our heads.
“Whoa, watch out!”, Eliot said as one came in close. “We must be close to their nest. Let’s move on”.
It really felt like we were in Jurassic park! There was no one else around and the huge fern trees seemed to be from another age.
Eventually, we made our way back to the place we had started, climbed the steep hill and managed to catch a ride back to civilization.
“Where to?”, the driver asked.
“To the hot springs!”, we replied.
And so we spent the rest of the day swimming and bathing in the volcanic hot springs amid the jungly ferns and tourists, a hybrid of old and new.
Finally, we hitched a ride back to Quinta da Canada, full of energy and excited to tell the rest of the group about our adventure.
Over dinner and a few beers, we regaled our tales. It was as if we had returned to the nest, the family home. Everyone was happy to see us and hear about what we had got up to.
And so past the first two weeks of my trip. Having fun, meeting new people, learning new things and getting to know the local culture.
Even people volunteering on another project got wind of how much fun Quinta da Canada was, and they jumped ships and came to volunteer with us. It felt great to be amid all these interesting people doing interesting things.
Trouble in Paradise
However trouble was a-foot.
The first signs appeared over dinner one day. Kyle was talking about some new volunteers that were going to come and some others that had written to him about coming too.
“But how are we going to feed these people?”, Maggie said, with a note of worry in her voice.
“We need the help. We’ve got a lot of work to do. And this guy will be able to help us with the online stuff, get that moving”, Kyle replied.
“Yes but how will we feed them? We already have a lot of people here”, Maggie insisted.
“Uhhh we’ll find a way”, Kyle said, shirking off her question.
Uh oh, I thought. I didn’t like the sound of this.
The atmosphere in the house seemed to get a little tense. I noticed that Kyle and Maggie would bicker and I was pretty sure that they were arguing in private quite a lot.
Kyle would lose his patience with us and we became frustrated that we weren’t being given clear instructions and the work wasn’t being properly organised.
Then one day, I woke up in a bit of a grumpy mood for no particular reason. And it didn’t seem like it was only me. Everyone seemed a bit off. The energy seemed to have shifted. There was a strange atmosphere in the air.
Where were Kyle and Maggie?
“They are in the cafe in the village”, Elena said.
That’s strange I thought. They always have breakfast at home.
Then we got wind that they were having a crisis talk.
They didn’t have enough money to host volunteers anymore.
…And just like that, everything changed.
—End of Part 1—
Part two coming soon!
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A big thank you firstly to Eduardo for generously hosting us in his family home and allowing us all to have such an enriching experience. Also thank you for taking the time to show us around the island!
Secondly, thank you to Maggie and Kyle, who without their courage and vision, this project would never have existed.
Finally, a big shout out to my fellow travelling compaions Eliot, Maureen, Sam, Elena David! Thank you all for being such great company! I hope our paths cross again at some point 🙂
Note to the reader: If you fancy experiencing The Azores yourself then Eduardo is a Couchsurfing host (he has hosted almost 300 people!) and can be found on the Couchsurfing website under Eduardo JB Almeida in Ponte Delgada, the island of Sao Miguel.