Hard work in Rural Russia, World Wide opportunities on Organic Farms
As a student of Binghamton University, I went to Russia only once, in June of 2010 for a month. I did not go with any specific program through a university but instead arranged my stay through a program called World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF). This is essentially an online database where hosts from around the world can advertise their farms and anybody interested in that kind of work can browse what is offered. Arrangements between hosts and volunteers are conducted entirely by them and are often a direct exchange of labor for boarding and food.
Through the WWOOF program, I found a host with a small farm about two and a half hours from Moscow and arranged a stay. My hostess lived alone in a small ten by ten foot house. Her farm in that location was less than two years old and accordingly undeveloped. She sustained herself on her single cow (named Zvyozdochka, or little star), which she milked twice a day. She sold the milk to neighbors and quenched our appetites with it as well. I lived in a comfy tent next to her house, which skirted a beautiful but mosquito-ridden birch forest.
My work consisted of basic chores such as bringing grass to the animals (my hostess had an old horse as well, which did little more than eat her grass and look stoic), cutting and stacking firewood (a much needed commodity for surviving winter in the Russian countryside), etc. She also gave me more interesting tasks like building a chicken pen for new born chicks and renovating her horse-drawn wagon. She often overestimated my skill sets in this regard but the work got done in good time and quality and I learned more than I realized from it.
My experience with this life was far from easy. It pushed me to grapple with a life that was very foreign in a world with few of the comforts I was used to. I say these things not to brag but to give fair warning to those who wish to embark on similar excursions. It will be the time of your life, but such things cannot be without a fair bit of struggle. My Russian improved by leaps and bounds when I was forced to rely on it alone to communicate. I also achieved incredible insights into the Russian people, from their history to their cultural values. Many of these things remain on my mind to this day as I try to understand them within their own context. I look back on that month as a brief reflection on the kind of life I wish to lead and how unprepared for that life I was. It has inspired me to look deeper into the human experience in order to conquer the fears within me that lie dormant at home. I eagerly await a return to Russia in September of 2012 with all the enthusiasm and passion for life that a twenty-one-year-old can muster.
Another prudent warning to those interested in programs like WWOOF, don't expect interpersonal relationships to go smoothly. My dear hostess ended up conflicting with me and after two and a half weeks she threw me out. I was doing what I thought was best and she was doing the same. Somewhere in there was a cultural, linguistic void that was not broached and we had a falling out. I ended up spending the rest of my time with a wonderfully generous Russian family nearby, with whom I still keep in contact. This story illustrates how the WWOOF system is a less secure way of traveling abroad in that there is no umbrella structure to protect the traveler from unexpected events. This is a higher risk route, but such challenges often garner the highest rewards.I highly recommend it.
Peter Ward, '12