Volunteering in the Azores: Adventure, Magic and Reality Checks (part 2)
This is the second instalment of the summer I spent exploring alternative ways of living in the magical islands of the Azores, where my dream of living a sustainable life in harmony with nature first started.
We begin where we left off in part 1, at the moment of crisis at Quinta da Canada, the young permaculture project on the island of Sao Miguel, where I had been volunteering for the previous few weeks.
(If you haven’t yet read part 1, do so below!)
The wind had shifted and the future of the project hung in the balance. Kyle and Maggie (the two in charge of the project) had just returned from their crisis talk and me and the rest of the crew were about to discover what conclusions they had come to…
Would this spell the end of the new tribe of like-minded people that I had only just found? And if so, what would I do with the rest of my time in Azores?
Kyle came in first and delivered the bad news:
“We can’t continue with the volunteering as it is now. We don’t have enough money to feed everyone. Instead, we are going to organise one workday a week and, on those days, we will provide the food. You are free to continue camping here, but you will have to sort yourselves out food-wise”.
Oh dear. My one month volunteer experience was being cut abruptly short.
You might think that it wasn’t so bad and that it was good of them to let us keep camping there as a base, but I had travelled far and planned my trip around certain agreements, so I couldn’t help feeling disappointed.
Somehow, this new set up didn’t feel quite right to me. After so many good times together, it felt almost like a breakup. I couldn’t imagine us all cooking our own meals after living so communally for two weeks.
Plus, the atmosphere was terrible; The tension and disappointment were palpable.
There was no way that I could stay on like this.
So I did what any self-respecting traveller would do.
I made a new plan.
I had heard that there was a music festival happening on one of the other islands, and I had already been thinking of going for a weekend before all this happened.
The problem was that there was only one bus that went to the main town and if I was going to go, I had to leave almost right away if I was going to catch it in time.
It was an uncomfortable decision but ultimately it was my only chance.
We had one last meal together and then I packed my things and, together with my fellow travel companion Eliot, said my goodbyes.
I felt bad leaving so abruptly but I preferred adventure over walking on eggshells. Time was precious, and I didn’t want to hang around with the vain hope of it all working out.
Sometimes change is gradual, and other times instantaneous. In this case, the plaster needed to come off in one swift yank: painfully rapid but a lot less messy.
It also felt painful because we had all become so invested in bringing Kyle and Maggie’s dream to life and it pained me to know that it wasn’t working out for them.
But, sometimes you have to do what you have to do. So, Eliot and I cut our losses and within just a few hours of hearing the news, we were already on the way to our next destination.
Except we didn’t have a destination to go to!
We arrived at the capital Ponte Delgada, where we began to organise a plan. Eliot would make his way back to Lisbon and I would make a solo jaunt to the music festival.
However, very soon we encountered a problem: we couldn’t find anywhere affordable to spend the night. There was still no hostels in the town, and we didn’t want to pay for a hotel. But we weren’t to be put off and came up with a creative solution:
Why go to a hotel when we have our tents with us?
So, we searched the town for an out of the way place to camp for the night, which was easier said than done. After a few hours of searching, we found a place in an overgrown, grassy area in front of some old, grotty blocks of flats. A bit of a weird place to sleep but it did the job!
My British sense of needing to be a good, obedient citizen came up, and I half-expected the police to arrive and move us on. But, no one seemed to bat an eyelid at the two scruffy-looking travellers, setting up camp in front of their building and we got a good night sleep no problem!
The next day Eliot and I said our goodbyes, and he waved me off as I got on the ferry. We had become good friends, and after such a sociable time I was sad to be setting off on my own again.
But, as all lone travellers may know, there is no time to feel sorry for yourself once you set off on your path, lest you miss your next cue for your next serendipitous encounter.
Whilst I did have some reservations about going to a music festival alone, in the end, I met lots of new people and had a great time. Turns out those Azoreans know how to party!
One thing that really struck me at the festival was how everyone camped wherever they could. There was no designated area like I would expect in the UK. People even camped in people’s front gardens and on the streets. It felt so freeing!
As it turned out, there were free campsites all over the islands, complete with chopped firewood for barbecues and in some places, solar-powered hot showers!
Having now lived in Spain for seven years, where wild camping is illegal, and all campsites are more like small cities of caravans, complete with all the luxuries of a four-star hotel, I appreciate the freedom I experienced there even more.
I realised that the best way for me to contribute to a more sustainable society was to return to the simple life with my family and start my own farm-based projectJoana- Quinta do Bom Despacho
Volunteering- Second time lucky!
After the music festival had finished, I had another question to face: now what?
My flight back to Lisbon was still a few weeks away, and I wasn’t sure how far my humble funds would get me. So, I came up with a solution: maybe I could try out the other project, Quinta do Bom Despacho, the one that some of my volunteer friends had been to. See for myself what it was like.
After sending a few messages and emails, I had it all sorted out. Joana, who ran this project, was generous enough to take me on at short notice and gave me directions to the place. So I hopped back on a ferry and made my way there.
When I arrived it was clear that this was nothing like what I had experienced at Quinta da Canada. This was a big, renovated house with a lot of land and gardens; the house sitting proudly in the middle of it all.
Quinta do Bom Despacho was run as a homestead guest house. With sustainability at the heart of its design, it’s aim was to be a leader in eco-tourism. All the food served was grown on the grounds (or locally sourced and organic) and visitors were encouraged to participate and learn about the renewable energy systems and strategies in place.
There was a natural swimming pond that was filtered and cleaned by the plant life surrounding it- something I had never seen before. There were also orange groves (where I pitched my tent) and many places to sit and relax in the gardens.
There were many volunteers helping out, all of whom slept in the guest house itself. Some of the volunteers were through Workaway or WWOOFing, but there were also other young volunteers that were working there through some kind of government volunteer scheme for young people.
At the time, the homestead was run by a family from the island, Joana and her partner with their two young boys and a few other family members.
My plan was to get stuck in and make the most of this new experience. Since the project was already underway and fairly established, there was a lot that I could learn – or so I thought.
The Right Woman for the Job
Joana was certainly extremely knowledgeable. She had studied Organic Agriculture in the UK and also had a master’s degree in Natural Resources Management and International Development, as well as also having previously set up her own organic gardening company. Not only that, but she had also worked on many environmental and social projects in places like Madagascar and Borneo, so she was more than prepared to manage and lead such a project.
I felt quite in awe of her and her knowledge. She was the embodiment of the archetypal matriarch. Always up at dawn and working in the office, she clearly had a strong work ethic which served as the motor for the whole project.
In comparison to the bohemian, laidback vibe of Maggie and Kyle, she had the aura of a businesswoman who knew what she wanted and wasn’t afraid to go and get it.
One day I asked her what the inspiration had been for Quinta do Bom Despacho. She told me that through her previous experiences, overtime she had begun to realise that the green sustainability industry wasn’t as green as it was made out to be and she had become disillusioned. She felt that the impact she could make within its existing structures was a lot less than she had first thought.
I remember that she told me, “I realised that the best way for me to contribute to a more sustainable society was to return to a simple life with my family and start my own farm-based project”.
And that’s exactly what they did.
Quinta do Bom Despacho: Open for Business
When I arrived they had been open only for a few weeks, after a huge amount of work. Joana told me how the team and the volunteers had worked for the last 6 months in order to get the guest house ready for the summer. They had dug up the fields to get rid of the stones, pulled up ferns and levelled it all out ready to plant the veggies.
Joana told me how people had told her: “You will never do this in 6 months. A year maybe, but there is no way you will be ready to have guests in the summer”. However, she was determined to prove them wrong, and with the help of numerous volunteers, they had managed to open that summer to receive their first guests.
I arrived around the same time as they did; a new family of Israeli and English people joined through marriage, who had travelled from opposite sides of the world to get to know one another on this special family trip.
Being the first guests, the pressure was on, and everyone was eager for them to have a great time.
A Different Kind of Volunteer Experience
This pressure created a different atmosphere compared to my previous volunteer experience at Quinta da Canada. There was more at stake for Joana and her family. They couldn’t risk any problems with the volunteers negatively influencing the experience of the guests. Consequently, the volunteers were closely supervised. We were given our tasks and told when we could take a break, just as you would expect at your average nine-to-five job.
Given the entirely different setup of their project, this is understandable. Most of the volunteers were fresh out of college and didn’t have any work experience, so you could see why this kind of structure was necessary. However, me being a little bit older, it wasn’t the kind of volunteer experience I was after.
There was no shared vision or dream as there had been at Quinta da Canada. It felt more like we were only there to work rather than collaborate and co-create.
Having said that, I did enjoy the company of the other volunteers. There was a mixture of nationalities, and it was fun to do meals swaps and make food from our different cultures for everyone to try. It was lovely to be able to swim in the natural swimming pool in the evening and Joana also took us to one of the nearby beaches for a day trip too, which was great.
However, I missed the magic of the group at Quinta da Canada. I also missed the excitement that comes when a project is just beginning, when inspiration to dream is all around and seems to bring with it its own sort of magic.
A Working Holiday
The tasks we had to do as volunteers were more related to general maintenance, such as pulling out weeds from the gravel paths and weeding the gardens. With such a big project, you can understand why extra hands were needed to help out with these kinds of tasks. They are boring but necessary- I guess we can’t expect to make compost toilets or hugel mounds every day!
Yet, I began to feel disillusioned once again. I didn’t like having the volunteer supervisor clock watching and telling us when I could stop for a break. I also wanted more guidance whilst working in the garden. I got the impression that we were all bumbling around without knowing what we were pulling out; was that a weed or an endangered indigenous plant species?
I remember that at one point I decided that I’d had enough of not knowing. I seemed ridiculous that a group of people with zero knowledge of botany were let loose in a garden for autochthonous plants without supervision. I was keeping up my end of the bargain, but where was the exchange of knowledge in return? So far, I had learnt very little.
So, I found Joana, who was busy working in her office, and asked her if she would help us by showing us what was what. Fortunately, she obliged and came out to help us in the garden.
But more trouble was on its way, as it turned out that I wasn’t the only disgruntled volunteer. What’s more, there seemed to be a bit of tension between some of the staff.
A Fishy Tale
One particular evening stands out as being particularly strained. The guests had been out fishing during the day and were barbecueing their catch on the fire for dinner. When everyone came down to the patio to eat, the guests were keen to share their bounty with everyone.
However, Joana seemed concerned about the guests not eating enough of what they had caught. She insisted that the volunteers had had enough and we were consequently served last.
One of the guests, a British man who I had struck up a friendship with, seemed to feel a little bit uncomfortable with this. It was clear that he was happy to share his catch; he wanted to, in fact. Being from the same culture, I could recognise his British awkwardness a mile off. But, like a good polite Brit, he didn’t rock the boat. (However, he did check that I had some fish when the coast was clear!).
And so, the volunteers were served last and were to keep ourselves to ourselves. Which, when you think about it, is probably the right way to do things when you have paying guests. Maybe it was the incident with the fish that clouded my perception, but a sense of being treated as a lowly volunteer started to creep in.
A Rude Awakening
This was an interesting and new experience. I suddenly realised that this is the feeling that the less privileged of our society must have throughout their lives. I had always been on the other side, with those having fun and being waited on. Now the boot was on the other foot and, I have to admit, it was a shock.
Scenes passed through my mind of maids, cleaners, and farmworkers past and present, being ignored completely whilst those that they work for, go about their lives as if they are invisible; all those that work in service of the rich, under-appreciated and undervalued.
Obviously, I am not saying that my experience was the same as these things, or that I was hard done by. It was nothing but a flash of insight, a moment when I could suddenly see from a different viewpoint and perspective, thanks to a dynamic that I hadn’t experienced before. Or, perhaps it was just because my nature is to socialise and mingle with new people, and I felt like my wings had been clipped.
But this wasn’t a hostel for budget-travellers; it was an up-market eco-guest house for people on holiday – two very different things and I guess I just wasn’t used to that.
Either way, after a week of volunteering there I decided that it was time to move on again.
But that wasn’t until things finally came to a head.
It seemed that my intuition of underlying tensions was right because soon after the fish incident, Joana called a meeting for all the volunteers.
We all sat around a large circular wooden table and had to go around one by one and voiced any concerns we had about our volunteer experience. Everyone got what they wanted to say off their chests and Joana took the time to lay down the hows and whys of the project.
The meeting proved useful for clearing the air and learning more about the background of the project. But a few days after this meeting, I decided that it was time to get back on the road.
I packed my bags and set off again on my travels. Once again, it was destination unknown- just the way I like it!
In hindsight, there were many important lessons that I learnt from my experience at Quinta do Bom Despacho. Perhaps I couldn’t see them then when I was too busy being enamoured with the bohemian fun I’d had with Kyle and Maggie and lusting after more discoveries of permaculture, bio-dynamic farming and ancestral adventures in the wilderness, but they were there never-the-less.
Firstly, the importance of discipline, dedication, and careful planning. As much as my experience with Kyle and Maggie at Quinta da Canada was more fun and adventurous in many ways, it is clear that they lacked the necessary project management skills to bring their beautiful vision to life. Joana on the other hand had these skills in abundance, which in the end, made the difference between success and failure
Now I can see that there seems to be a kind of sweet spot necessary for such a project, which sits in the overlapping space between laidback bohemian visionary and the organised, committed and disciplined business person.
Whilst the latter may not so appealing to some trying to escape this very thing, I would say neither is landing on your arse when the project fails due to lack of careful planning and design.
The important thing is the balance between the two – too much go with the flow and you never accomplish anything (as happened with Maggie and Kyle. Those hugal mounds never got finished), whereas too much of the opposite and you end up controlling it so much that you squeeze the magic out of it.
Secondly, the value of hard work, commitment and will-power. Going against the nay-sayers and doing it anyway, as Joana did, takes great courage and self-belief. In this way, Quinta do Bom Despacho stands as a testament to what can be achieved when you believe in your dreams and you have the necessary stamina to make them happen.
Follow the Dream
These are some of the qualities that I am going to try and employ and embody as I continue on my journey creating my own sustainable life in the countryside. At times the road seems steep and with many unsurmountable obstacles and the dream can seem nothing more than wishful thinking.
But in my heart I know my path and I take these valuable experiences in the Azores as markers, reminding me of my way.
Joana’s outlook and energy inspire me to keep going, keep dreaming, keep believing in what is possible. But she also inspires me to keep studying, keep learning and keep preparing myself. When the time comes to take the leap, I will be ready.
Character Updates and Final Reflections
Thanks to Joana and her families hard work (and no doubt that of countless volunteers), I am pleased to say that Quinta do Bom Despacho is still going strong! You can find more information about the project on their website.
As for Kyle and Maggie at Quinta da Canada, unfortunately, they never brought their dream of an abundant permaculture project to share with others to fruition. Continued friction, lack of funds and poor project management skills meant that they eventually separated and returned to Ireland.
It just goes to show that things are always what they seem. Magic can turn into a nightmare at the drop of a hat if not cared for correctly.
As so often happens in life, things turn out so much differently than we ever imagined possible. And this is true of what happened in the third and final chapter of my trip.
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Edited by Deborah Blye.