Wednesday, 2 January 2019

A chapter from the book "Full Circle-a journey of toilets I have known" by Audrey Sharp the Host at Caretaker Farm in NZ

Building a vegetable garden from waste 2018

The WWOOFing/HelpX Host/Helper Experience at Caretaker Farm.
Dinner time in summer 

Since August 1990 me and my family (my mother Dorothy and children Tamarah and Thomas while living with me), have hosted well over 1,000 people (aged between 14 years to 82 years) from all over the world, including  a few New Zealanders, as workers and helpers in exchange for accommodation and food at Caretaker Farm in Whangateau, New Zealand.

It has not always been easy for us or for them.

For 16 years of this time I was also teaching Taxation Law at the University of Auckland, part-time studying for a Master of Legal Studies, working as a tax consultant for 7 of those years at Inland Revenue, running a small shop in Warkworth for 11 of those same years and being a mother and a daughter on the farm. I also, as a by choice single parent, had the responsibility of paying all the bills including food for the volunteers as well as cooking countless meals sometimes for as many as 18 people when all the extended family were living on the farm.

Consequently at times I was definitely impatient and clearly a     "grumpy bitch" who did not always make theWWOOFing/HelpX     experience pleasant on every day for those "willing workers".

However on the other hand, some of those volunteers were not always "willing workers" who "cared" about what they were doing on land that they had been welcomed onto, evidenced by a variety of behaviors.

Too often I have found tools left lying to rust and rot by these"willing workers".
Working on the Community Earth Oven Project
I have also seen some of them do very little in exchange for the good food and accommodation they received and when things were broken by them so often I was not told of this only to discover later when I went to use the item that it was no longer usable.

Such breakages were as small as plates and cups, gardening tools and as large as vacuum cleaners and a wood chipper and a washing machine.

On only four of these frequent occasions did a wwoofer/helper admit their mistake and either offer to or in fact did replace the broken item knowing that I was not "wealthy" enough to easily do this myself.
making the concrete pathway
Unfortunately sometimes such an item was so sentimental that replacement was no an option and always for me at these times I was made to confront my own attachment to what is actually just a "bullshit material thing".

But do not think after saying this that the host experience for the family has been only a negative happening-far from it. Some of those who have come to the farm as part of this "exchange experience"  were such amazing people with not only great skills to share but truly "giving and sharing" of themselves. Many of them have also become "Facebook" friends for the longer term, still interested in the happenings at Caretaker Farm many years since they visited and worked there and very happy to meet me personally again and even to share their home with me when I have passed through their home place on my own travels even as an older backpacker.

Christmas time dinner

Then there are the relationships that have resulted from this "exchange experience".

In my own family for example my nephew met his Japanese partner; my daughter met her German partner; I met my Frenchman Fabrice and fell in love at 56 years old because his cousin and my nephew were friends and there was the possibility of a place to build a community earth oven.

Further many of those staying at the farm from various parts of the world have made life-long friendships; love relationships and even conceived while staying at Caretaker Farm.

A wwoofer drawing
The learning for me in this "exchange experience" is that all those who have stayed on Caretaker Farm since 1990 from all over the globe have different qualities and my continuing relationship or not with them differs depending on them and also how they remember their own experience with me personally and the time spent at the farm with our family and the other volunteers.

For example there are those special people from all over the world who give not only of themselves but expect nothing back.

Market Day helpers
The Kowhai Festival day in Warkworth

These special volunteers truly understand and reflect in their behavior the meaning of "cultural exchange" which is part of the WWOOF/HelpX philosophy.  These people are like "pearls or diamonds",  rare in the finding,  but precious when found. Such people remain true friends and are not just part-time Facebook followers,  no mater the age difference between me the host and themselves and they will always be open to  real"heart exchange"  where ever they live.

Often their Caretaker Farm experience, both good and bad, touched or opened or resounded in them in such a fashion that they hold that feeling in their heart for ever or perhaps it is more a reflection of their own special character which is so precious.

Then there are those who are just "passing through"  and who give somewhat while they are there but once they have left the place no longer give/remember or are even open to the heart exchange that can be between different cultures, ages and backgrounds in their own land.
Big Eric the bus has a new mural face
Beautiful painted mural
And finally then there are those who when they come to Caretaker Farm just take, giving only the minimum required and nothing really of themselves unless it is done conditionally. Then these individuals will continue that way all through their life whether at home or elsewhere,  holding only a memory of the travel itself rather than the volunteer "exchange" they experienced doing WWOOF or HelpX

Some of the same experience is true also for me as a host of these many people who have come to stay and exchange work at Caretaker Farm in the past 28 years.

There are those I will never forget:

the ones who have helped me so much through difficult times; who have touched my heart with their honesty and sharing; whose astrology charts I have mapped and therefore who I know a little more intimately as a result; those who are just incredible people with amazing gifts and/or skills; those who have left a little of themselves through either the Art they have created on the farm, the gardens they have built or the many other things they have done to contribute to the growing of this farm which in the end will hopefully benefit the wider community through education and cultural exchange.

Also in the group of unforgettable
volunteers are those individuals
(around 10-15%) who have either
completely "pissed" me off by
being lazy, negative, not listening and hence appearing stupid and slow, being city people who are completely out of their comfort zone or demonstrating an unwillingness to truly participate in the farm life, either spending their whole free time on a screen, or not talking or exchanging anything of themselves. Some of the very few (about 30 in 28 years) have not stayed for very long to know anything and have written very negative reviews of their experience at the farm or of me personally even if their time on the place was less than 3 hours, just one day or one week.

Unfortunately the human brain reflects longer on the negatives of life rather than the positives. I was once told by a "Marketing Expert" that when we experience something good we tell 5 people and when we experience something bad we tell 11 people.  At times my personal reflection and reaction and at times ridiculous obsession  on those few negative experience I have had with some of the WWOOFing/HelpX people who have stayed at Caretaker Farm in the past 28 years shows the element of truth behind that marketing expert's words.

In actuality the WWOOFing/HelpX movement for me as a host has been amazing. I love travel and through this experience at Caretaker Farm I have been able to travel all over the world without moving. There have been amazing exchanges that have taken place with various people who have stayed at the farm from playing music together, discussing world affairs, learning new recipes, getting certain projects completed on the farm which I would never have been able to achieve on my own without the physical help, particular skills, enthusiasm and encouragement I have received from these helpers.

The shop in Warkworth which operated for 11 years relied
solely on these volunteer helpers if we were to be open 7 days a week.
The Old Bakehouse Market Shop

Many of those volunteers who came to stay with us
did so not just for the cultural exchange on the working farm
but to improve their English and working in the shop
was a great help for that. Some found they learned more
conversational English during their stay with us than they did
in the 6 weeks paid English Language school they had been to
in Auckland city.

As a host I have learnt things from some of those  volunteers that have stayed  at the farm that will be with me for my life. A recent example was learning to make Healing Herbal Balms using plants grown on the farm from a young woman who demonstrated how easy it was to do when you have the available plants. I now market these balms which work very well under the label "Green Wicca"

Cutting wood at Vendee HelpX
 Today,  in early 2019 when writing this chapter,  I am now the helper rather than the host. I have left the farm for 5 months to travel both in Japan and in France and have been doing HelpX as a way of travelling and experiencing the life of the people for the past few weeks.

Although I am one of the older "willing helpers" at aged 62 I can hold my own according to the last host who had me collecting, loading and stacking Oak firewood 6 hours a day for most of the HelpX stay. It has been interesting to be on the other side of the experience and be the stranger in another person's home, to witness a little of their life and to be part of a cultural work exchange.
Some of the cut wood at the French HelpX
Just from this one HelpX so far, I can see that actually
those who came to Caretaker Farm were given a lot of trust,
freedom and the opportunity to offer their own particular skills
and talents to various farm projects or goals.

 Also the work hours were less and the opportunity to exchange between host and other helpers much greater.
 The same kind of family dynamics seem to operate however in all host households and any helper is able, if sensitive, to feel any emotional happenings in the household just as some of those who have been to Caretaker Farm will have felt ours.

My own sad days and happy days will have been as apparent to the various helpers who have lived with our family just as I as a helper was able  to feel some emotional issues at the host farm I just recently left.

Unfortunately the numbers of people doing volunteer exchange work through organisations such as HelpX and WWOOFing seems to be decreasing world wide as various governments tighten up their visa requirements for such volunteers. In New Zealand for example volunteers wanting to participate in such exchange must hold work visas and according to my French HelpX host this kind of participation is seen by the French government as illegal.

Further,  some hosts within movements such as WWOOF and HelpX have used this exchange system to "exploit' foreign workers and others that operate as true "commercial businesses" have used these workers as a way of avoiding actually paying for staff and/or paying employee taxes.

This kind of exploitation and tax avoidance operation however is not the norm, and so what has been a great opportunity for true cultural exchange as well as the sharing and or gaining of skills between host and volunteer, especially on small farm holdings, is under threat by "narrow rule-based" thinking by bureaucrats who have no real knowledge about a system of cultural exchange that offers far more than it sucks from the economy of a nation.

I offer up this chapter of words and images to explain a little to those interested my own experience at Caretaker Farm and beyond over the past 28 years. It is my first draft and will be added to as the book I am writing comes together as I am now determined to finish "Full Circle-a journey of toilets I have known".