WWOOFING On a Farm in Patagonia — Nutcracking in the Boonies of Argentina
By George Nelson
15 hours from Buenos Aires and the slightest of furrows interrupted the seemingly endless monotony of the Pampa. The drivers of the deluxe double decker bus switched and it wasn’t long before Pedro, he wore a nametag, was carving through Patagonia’s jagged landscape like a bat out of hell, energized after a powernap on the back seats.
All the while a balding Argentine on his way to El Bolson – I never caught his name – with a ponytail repeatedly performed the “my back is stiff so I need to stretch and ogle the girl behind me” routine every five minutes a few seats down. Luckily for the girl – travelling to Bariloche – she was fast asleep, or perhaps whatever was in the mate he offered her earlier had taken effect.
Either way her eventual awakening seemed to ease the pain in Casanova’s back, but not much. Nine hours later I was the sole passenger sitting up top as the now exhausted Pedro signalled the end of the line and the beginning of my WWOOF (World Wide Opportunities On Organic Farms) week in an unidentified remote township. [Ed Note: due to the somewhat trying circumstances this WWOOFer encountered, we are not revealing the host’s identity}
WWOOFING the World
WWOOFing works like this: farm owners offer food and board in return for a few hours work each day. The idea is to learn about organic agriculture and how to live off the land. I had signed up and was looking forward to a break from the city but a touch of trepidation had crept into my thoughts. Travelling to a far-flung farm I found on the WWOOFing website seemed like a fine idea when I was back in Buenos Aires, and it still did, but I was now truly in the sticks with no plan B.
The fact that I had only exchanged a couple of brief emails with the farm owners was also playing on my mind. I had envisaged my days would be spent rounding up sheep on horseback and ploughing the turf behind a coupe of oxen, but the rain and darkness were doing a good job of stifling my previous imaginings.
The farmer, who I shall call “S” was waiting for me in the rain sporting a weathered pair of leather boots and a ruddy complexion. His southern drawl was about as incomprehensible as an inebriated Dorset sheep farmer but he carried a certain rusticated charm. I soon learned that he preferred to be called El Toro.
Pack of Dogs
The front seat of his aged Fiat was a far cry from the bus’ reclining thrones although the journey from the town to the farm was short.
No more than nine dogs greeted us at the gates, four of which were feral and snarling from behind an enclosure.
The quartet of hounds remained hostile night and day. Remarkably the two bites I received during my stay were delivered by a timid black Labrador named Sol, a faint memory of a rabies jab some time ago offered little comfort.
I also inadvertently made enemies with a belligerent turkey stag who took me for a love rival after catching me red handed showering his dames with corn the following day.
Parked up and wearing unsuitable footwear I trudged through the mud to the quincho with an open fire and table – but this was not to be my home. Photos on the wall showed dancing farmhands and lavish banquets drenched in sunlight, the backend of winter would not offer such revelries.
I dropped my bags and made my way to the farmhouse on the other side of the yard. El Zorro’s wife, Paula, stood out front and ushered me into the kitchen where two girls were kneading dough. Something was cooking on the hob while the television blared the rural news channel.
Cats sprawled about the place in various states of repose and a frail lamb occasionally bleated for its mother from a straw lined chest next to the hearth. Paula dominated the kitchen with her presence but she was friendly and there were few formalities.
Only one rule was enforced while inside the house: nothing but Castellano the language spoken in Castille, Spain. The shorter of the girls, Catherine (21), turned out to be a devout Catholic from Washington state, the other, Melanie (24), a liberal Australian from the east coast. We were told a Canadian was on his way to join us in the next couple of days although he never showed.
Two Shifts a Day
Expectations were outlined from the off: two shifts of graft a day, the first 10am to 1pm followed by 5 to 8pm. Lunch was served at 1:30pm and supper at 10pm. The rest of the time was ours to do as we pleased. Fair enough I thought and after a dram of ale I was told to collect my bag and led into the darkness towards a gushing river.
Heavy rains channeled from the mountains had been hampering progress on the land and the ground was sodden. A rickety makeshift platform a meter wide bridged the gap and with the help of El Zorro’s lamp we made it across onto an equally saturated field.
Silence engulfed the area but looming shadows stirred on the horizon and even though the enormity of the landscape could not be seen, it was felt. Bigote and Conan scanned the hedgerows before disappearing into the night but the mongrels were waiting for us patiently next to the barefaced terracotta walls of an unfinished building functioning both as stables and my lodgings.
El Toro climbed up through a frameless ground floor window, I followed and scrambled over a pile of old timber causing the steeds to shuffle and snort nervously in the obscurity.
Steps led to a padlocked trap door. The farmer reached behind a beam and pulled out a key, opened the door, and hoisted himself into the loft before offering a big rustic hand. Inside the air was warm and smoky.
A dim light came on to reveal a wood burner crackling in the corner, a couple of chairs, and a bed. On paper it may sound charming but the concave mattress looked like it might have been stuffed with goat’s hair back in the dark ages and had certainly done the rounds.
El Toro grinned wildly and departed leaving me to contemplate solitude for the first time in a long time, and how to avoid skin contact with the mattress before sleep.
Mornings on the Farm
Mornings on the farm were spectacular. Clouds licked the rambling mountains before rolling away to reveal snow-capped peaks. Chile’s rugged border could be seen in the distance. Breakfast consisted of homemade bread and jam and was served in the quincho alongside any number of dogs lying prostrate across the beginnings of a fire.
It usually wasn’t long before the wife of El Toro walked in, tapped her watch and cracked the whip; there was work to be done. The rain was an issue, especially for a Somerset lad such as myself who wanted nothing more than to roll up my sleeves and incite the gratifying aches of hard labour.
Granted, during dry spells I was working the land outdoors but when the heavens opened we were ordered inside where shelling duties awaited – the farm hosted many walnut trees, with the nuts being sold at market. We formed a production line, one cracking walnuts with a hammer while the other two separated casings from innards.
Possibly the worst place to suffer the effects of a walnut allergy was here and the Yankee girl, Catherine, (I was called “El Gringo” by El Toro) was continuously flirting with swollen cheeks, weeping eyes, and inflamed nasal passages. Her battling spirit was admirable, if not painful to watch, especially when disagreeing with Melanie’s free-spirited outlook, but observing piety and atheism locking horns within the confines of a small shed in the Patagonian countryside was a welcome distraction from the onset of repetitive strain syndrome.
The walnuts took me by surprise – there were bags and bags stored up from previous seasons. Santiago mentioned something about them being sold at market but during my time on the farm there was no evidence that any of the produce grown was being prepared for the fairs at El Bolson. The wood of the walnut tree was used extensively, not just on El Zorro, but throughout Lago Puelo. The dense wood was used for just about anything from work surfaces to garden furniture.
A Vegetarian Challenge
If combatting the adverse effects of hypersensitivity wasn’t enough the rigors of mealtimes were all too obvious for Catherine, who turned out to be a vegetarian. She had no palette for hearty winter fare but this was no fault of El Toro’s wife who rustled up meat-free options for both lunch and supper.
The grub was typically Argentine with home-baked pizza, pasta garnished with the obligatory fried eggs, empanadas, stew and milanesas prepared throughout the week. Nearly all ingredients were sourced from the fat of the land. My only complaint being the distinct lack of fruit and vegetables but the season was to blame and the local grocery was only two kilometres away.
Although El Toro was no conversationalist he occasionally lit up and the mention of Syria roused strong feeling igniting a passionate monologue proclaiming the glory of Argentina and brilliance of neutrality.
We also learned that he drank nothing other than beer and wine, not even water (his ruddiness explained), among other eccentricities. His name, though, remained a mystery and he was none the wiser as to why he had been coined “El Toro” I can only imagine he was something of a ladies man way back when.
Fireworks on the third day as the wife of El Toro unloaded a few lungful’s of air on Melanie for rocking up late –- she was staying in the hostel across the road after taking a disliking to the lodgings, prompting a walkout.
Relations had soured between the two as the continual rain had forced extended nut peeling sessions. Having myself taken a comical dive in the mud post tepid shower that same evening, the bastard turkey was my only witness, I placed my tail firmly between my legs and jumped ship to the hostel across the road.
The lure of my own bathrA river crossing. oom (a swollen river and three acres of muddy pandemonium guarded the washroom on the farm) and internet connection (theoretically I was still holding down a job) proved too much so I bailed.
However, my work on the smallholding endured, so too my relationship with El Toro and his wife. Their opinion of me may have taken a beating but I was enjoying the open-air toil in the fields, especially as the weather cheered during the second half of the week.
Downtime was a joy. Endless forests, soaring waterfalls, and the stunning turquoise waters of Lago Puelo – the town’s namesake- offered endless opportunities to explore. The views from the mountain behind the farm, located only 700 meters from Lago Puelo National Park, were breath taking and the Rio Azul flowed freely within the farm’s grounds before spilling into the lake.
Evenings were quiet but with the larger El Bolsón only a 40-minute bus ride away there were a number of bars and restaurants, all selling incredibly expensive craft beers. Again, the season dictated the events schedule but Rino Rafanelli & La Rimanblu were in town on Saturday night causing quite a stir, at least among fans of eighties rock, and there are many in Chubut it seems.
Haunted by Walnuts
The turn of the week signalled the end of my time on El Zorro and while the sight of walnuts will forever haunt me it was refreshing to witness an organic and almost completely self-sufficient smallholding in action. Kitchen waste was fed to the pig, building materials sourced from the immediate area, and nearly all food cooked from scratch.
After living in Buenos Aires, where recycling habits leave much to be desired, the countryside provided some respite from the relentless activity of the city. El Zorro and his wife were welcoming yet it soon became clear that WWOOFing was designed for the spring and summer months when adverse weather conditions might not curb outdoor work.
And even though I jumped overboard to warmer climes when the going got tough, guilt still prevails, I look back with a sense of achievement that is not too great, nor too trivial. As I said my goodbyes it was touching to see both the turkey and the undomesticated pack of hounds rush out with such enthusiasm to bid me farewell, escorting me from the premises amid a barrage of gobbles and barks.
Find out more about WWOOFing at the WWOOF Argentina website.
George Nelson is a 26-year-old freelance journalist from the West Country England. He currently lives in Santiago, Chile. He has written for publications all over the world and has worked for newspapers in the UK, South America, and the US. Apart from writing on travel he enjoys reporting on sports – football and cricket – and environmental and social issues.