Experiencing Corsica Like a Local through Help Exchange
When I first heard of Corsica, it was from a friend who had just returned from a “work” trip, which was assisting a high-profile fashion photographer with a shoot on the island. Cliff-side towns overlooking gorgeous Mediterranean beaches, cuisine inspired by Italy, France, and the sea, local wine and cheese, models, swimming pools, sun and sand mixed with lush mountains; his trip sounded incredibly exotic.
I was green with envy and sure I would never be able to travel so extravagantly. Yet here I am, in Corsica, France, and the only thing I’ve paid for in two weeks is a crêpe that I bought while wandering around the cliff-side, haute village of Bonifacio just yesterday. No, I did not become a fashion photographer, and the only person around posing for pictures is the Corsican neighbor’s adorable little 2 year old baby, Theo, but I found a way to make it happen.
I am using a program called Help Exchange, and for the past week and a half I’ve been staying on a strawberry farm just east of Ajaccio.
Similar to WWOOF
The first program like this I heard about was a program called WWOOF (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms), which evolved out of England in the 70s as a way to learn about farming just outside the cities. It has since become global, and while it maintains the farm aspect, it is now more defined as an exchange of work done by the guest for room and board from the host.
An Internet search led me to a similar program called HelpX or Help Exchange, which I decided was perfect for me.
The website is a bit more user friendly than WWOOF’s, and it includes reviews of the hosts and locations written by previous visitors, lending an extra measure of security. It also has other work options, like babysitting or building, for those less interested in farming.
When I contacted my host, I was well prepared with lots of questions after reading as much as I could about the program. Each situation is as different as it is based on individuals, not a company, so it is important to learn what is expected as a guest and what to expect in return. My host informed me that work was about 20 hours a week, but that “no one will be counting hours.” I’m almost positive that I hit the jackpot of HelpX on my first try, as my host family provides me with all fresh, delicious food I can eat, a cabin of my own, and unbelievable warmth and hospitality.
Of course the work is hard, but it is enjoyable and rewarding, and getting in shape and a little tan are side effects no one would complain about. The farm is filled with characters I’ve quickly come to adore.
The host himself, Mark, with a subtle and incredibly witty sense of humor and his hyperactive dog named Benji, and Mark’s sister and mother live just next door. There is another HelpXer, from England, living on a bus he drove from Spain, and a lively Corsican named Paul that has a garden on the land and who speaks French so fast my head spins.
Paul tells me about his cows in the mountains and that I should learn Corsican, not French as he pinches my cheeks and tells me I’m looking more “alive” than when I first arrived. I think he’s talking about my tan, but I can’t process quick enough to be sure.
After a few hours spent weeding, cutting salads, strawberries, and herbs for market, washing windows, or pruning tomatoes, the afternoons are mine to explore the area. I take a hike by the river, take the bike 10 km to the beach, or to the top of a mountain to watch the sunset over Ajaccio and the bay. At dinner, the neighbors often come over with their kids and we chat and sip rose until long after the sun goes down.
In the village of Ocana, further into the mountains, the family owns a restaurant that I’ve been to visit a few times. Everything down to the olive oil and the strawberry ice cream is grown and made by the owner specifically for the restaurant. I’ve been to tea with my host’s mother and attended a family birthday party. A truly insider experience, when tour buses drive past the farm, I can’t help but feel a little smug as I wonder, “How much are they really seeing of Corsica?”
This morning, as I stood in the path beside the garden playing fetch with Benji, I looked across the strawberry fields to the mountains in the distant haze and felt pure contentment. Looking back down to the dirt in front of me I exclaimed with a child-like enthusiasm, “The carrots have grown!” Mark looked at me and smiled broadly at my naive excitement, but to me the difference was a pretty big deal, having been a part of the process of planting and weeding.
Dangers for a Young Woman?
I had a grand misconception about the expense and difficulty of traveling, especially with something as exotic as a stay in the Mediterranean for three weeks. I thought it would be nearly impossible for me, a young, recent college grad with little money and no savings to visit a place like Corsica. I was also a little concerned that it would be dangerous to travel alone as a 28-year-old girl to a foreign country to stay with strangers.
Just this once, I’m proud to say, “I was wrong.” I find myself amazed at the thought that I am eating fresher food than the richest hotel could offer, riding a bike to the beach for exercise and leisure, and at the same time learning practical skills. My experience shows that for the adventurous, it is the visitor who gains the most from the exchange.
Bring Your Appetite for New Experiences!
As the Internet continues to make global connections easier, more programs like the one I used are becoming available for the more money conscious and flexible traveler.
Bring an appetite for new experiences (and for lots of fresh food), and leave behind preconceived ideas and traditional tourism.
Jamille Wallick graduated with a Bachelor’s in Anthropology from Appalachian State University in 2008, and has spent the last three years exploring the US and the globe, stopping only long enough to make some more money to travel. She is currently on a farm in Corsica and after that will be backpacking in Slovenia. Read her blog at www.jandewheretheybe.wordpress.com
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