WWOOFing Abroad – A Month on a Farm Sanctuary in Puerto Rico

Me planting saplings in the ground

When I began looking for something to do during the summer, I knew I had my share of choices. I could find an internship and complete tasks in an office for three months, I could get a minimum wage job and be bored to death all summer, or even just stay at home and bum around with my friends from high school every afternoon. What I chose to do was something that I discovered to be rather unorthodox in the United States: low-cost international traveling during one’s college years. Young people in the USA are encouraged and pressured to rush through the years of their undergraduate studies, piling on internships and research assistant positions every semester and summer breaks, all so they can lock themselves into a career soon after graduation. Although this seems like it would be worthwhile in the long-run (why wait to start making money?), I found that in many other similarly developed countries, this expedited path into the workforce is much less common. For instance, in Germany, almost all high school graduates take a year or two off before starting at university to do some sort of international travel. The reason I found this interesting was because almost every time I told other students or adults that I would be working on a farm in Puerto Rico and traveling through Panama and Costa Rica for the summer, I was greeted with reactions of shock and disapproval. Many of my peers expressed that they wished they could do something similar but needed to stay at school and do research or hold internships because that is what one does. I will admit that it is too soon to say for sure if my choice to not gain any specific work experience or resumé building activities this summer will serve to harm my future career possibilities, I feel safe saying that on my trip I learned so much about myself, other cultures and ways of life, that traveling internationally isn’t as scary or daunting as it sounds, and much more, the least of all being the farming knowledge I learned at the Luquillo Farm Sanctuary in Puerto Rico.IMG_1054

I learned about WWOOF from fellow student Emma Tran in early 2014. WWOOF stands for World Wide Opportunities for Organic Farmers and is a type of work exchange in which volunteers offer their help on a farm in exchange for a place to stay, food to eat, and the practical experience of working on a farm. We found the Luquillo Farm Sanctuary through WWOOF and chose it as our destination because of the location and low cost of plane tickets to and from Puerto Rico. Although these may seem like shallow reasons to choose one farm over another, but really what other tropical island can you fly to for 100 dollars? As farms like the Luquillo Farm Sanctuary are often dependent on volunteer effort, it was very easy to confirm our time there: all we needed to do was make contact with the owners and ask to volunteer. We spent a month there camping in a tent on the farm property with a few other volunteers. The owners lived about a 25 minute walk from the farm and would bring us meals for breakfast, lunch, and dinner (which was just cold lunch). We worked 5 days a week for 5 hours a day and had afternoons and weekends off to go to the beach or rainforest or city or even the two Puerto Rican satellite islands, Culebra and Vieques.

The June 2014 Luquillo Farm Sanctuary Volunteers and friends at Flamenco Beach in Culebra, Puerto Rico

Thanks to CELT-SI, we were able to more affordably do affordable travel. The grants covered the cost of our plane ticket to and out of Puerto Rico as well as some of ground travel we used during our stay. The rest of the costs (which were not many) I paid for myself using money I earned during the school year by working an on-campus job.

An interesting SISE-esque topic of conversation that was discussed amongst the volunteers was the impending Americanization of Puerto Rico. Although technically a US territory, Puerto Rico does have its own culture which is not present elsewhere in the continental United States. This cultural identity is struggling to stay alive while large corporations such as Walmart and Subway gain more and more prominence throughout the island. We met and spent some time with two Puerto Rican college students who both expressed their disdain towards Walmart and how local businesses were being shut down because they could simply not compete with the convenience offered by Walmart and its counterparts. While I see validity in their concerns, it surprised me when 20 minutes after this conversation one of the girls drove to us to Walmart so she and one of the volunteers could purchase a beach towel and then got sandwiches from the Subway inside Walmart. I then realized how big of a difference there is between acknowledging their is a problem and actually doing something to reduce it.

It is one thing to study the way other people live and the problems they face, but actually traveling for oneself and learning firsthand from the locals is a totally different experience: reading in a textbook how people face a problem but won’t or don’t know how to approach a solution has a different effect than actually witnessing such a dilemma in person. For this reason I strongly encourage other SISE students, or truly anyone for that matter, to take some time away from the busy and fast-paced university experience to see some other part of the world while they still can: before having a career is a reality. I truly believe that what I saw and learned and realized about myself and the world is more valuable than any experience I could have gained at an internship this summer, and I am forever grateful that I am fortunate enough to be able to travel like I did and to receive funding to do it.

Stephen Barkan