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The International Writers Magazine: Adventures of A Workaway in Portugal

Workawaying in Portugal: Adventurous Language Learning
• Joseph Oberwinzer
My first thought was “I must flee at once.”


“Bem-vindo” greeted me a smiley gray-haired woman followed by a shabby serious man. They both kissed and hugged me as if I were the prodigal son.

During the fifteen minutes drive out of town he didn't say a word and she didn't stop talking to me. She sketched up the history of her family, then she gave me a detailed briefing on what I was expected to do the following three or four weeks.

We stopped in the middle of nowhere, in front of a rickety gate which interrupted a seemingly never-ending wire fence. Rui got out, opened the tricky gate, closed it behind us, got in the car and off we took like a rocket on some barely distinguishable tracks. We passed by a lake, drove up a gentle slope and suddenly the whole Alentejo plateau unfolded before us.

Just as suddenly the car stopped between two gray sheds. They were high enough to make me jump a bit in case I wanted to touch their respective roofs. Several other similar structures were scattered around, at some distance. I was wondering where the house was, when Anna grabbed my suitcase and invited me to follow her to what I have taken for a workshop.

We passed through the whole house to my room. I immediately remarked two differences between it and the rest of the dwelling:
1. shelves stuffed with old toys and moldy crime novels hid almost entirely the walls from the floor to the ceiling
2. it was large enough to accommodate an armchair, an improvised bed made out of three EUR-pallets topped by a mattress, my own person and my luggage. And a similitude: it was just as dirty as the rest of the place.

In other respects, everything else successfully mimicked normality. My first thought was “I must flee at once.” My second thought was like “that's part of the adventure you've been looking for, so stay here!”

Actually, nothing was more foreign to my initial intentions than adventure. I just wanted to learn Portuguese and to see from the inside how people deal with everyday life at this end of Europe. Consequently, I got a job in Portugal. After eight months of living and working in Lisbon, my goals were largely untouched. I was working on a daily basis in three languages and none of them was Portuguese. Most of my colleagues were expats like me. Of course I had Portuguese colleagues, but almost all of them have lived or grown up abroad and some of them were newer to Lisbon then I was. So in my free time I ended up hanging out with people who spoke anything else but the language I went there for.

I was looking for some other tactical move when a new acquaintance told me about a website gathering some fifteen thousand hosts worldwide (more than half of which in Europe) and tens of thousands of volunteers, all in the name of cultural exchange. I didn't think much about it, but a few days later I googled Workaway. I have stumbled upon a mesmerizing variety of host profiles: bourgeois families who looked for someone to speak English with their kids, neo-hippie communities which didn't want corporate people (like me), organic farmers who just needed a hand, artists eager to make new friends, people trying to build or renovate by themselves the home of their dreams, yoga instructors and wellness professionals ready to heal you through spiritual, vegan & raw food, small hotels which found it easier to work with volunteers than with employees and the like.

The idea of living for a few months as a workawayer started to sprout in my mind. The advantages were quite clear for somebody wanting to improve his language skills: about 5 hours of work a day for bed and board, constant contact with native speakers of the languages I wanted to enhance, plenty of time to exercise by myself and no schooling costs. Besides, it seemed to be the perfect occasion to see how local people lived like. I could hear new stories, try to do things I've never done before and eventually learn some new food recipes. A month later I finally grasped the nettle: I got a Workaway account for a 23 euros fee, I gave up my office work (that was the easiest part) and after a few more weeks I left Lisbon (that was really hard, for there are but too few cities in Europe with which I fell in love so helplessly as with the Portuguese capital).

And here I was, close to the Spanish border, yet miles away from the nearest human settlement; half scared by this new environment, yet glad that I've found a host. For strange as it may seem, it wasn't simple at all to find the kind of host I looked for. Let me be more explicit: there are more than four hundred Workaway hosts in Portugal. So far, so good. However, at least 70% of them are Dutch and Germans and British and other northerners who moved to sweet, cheap and sunny Portugal to live up their warmest dreams. Many of them hardly speak a word in Portuguese, so they couldn't be an option for me.

Most of the remaining ones were either international families, communities and associations (Portuguese + whatever else you might think of = the Babel I was already used to) or they were genuine Portuguese who specifically looked for someone to practice their English with. For my part, I needed nothing else but people who spoke only Portuguese at home and were willing to share their language with me. In the end, it turned out I had only a handful of potential hosts I could choose from.

Alas! Before long I realized I couldn't choose at all: by the end of March I started sending messages to the ones I liked most, asking if they needed my help for one to four weeks in May and June. They replied one after another saying my request came too late. Some of them encouraged me to write back in August and see if there was an opportunity for October. I should have known I am not the only one who likes cozy beaches not yet invaded by hordes of tourists! Thus I was more than happy when Anna and Rui wrote me they needed someone to help them add a room to their house.

As soon as I left my luggage in my new room, Anna and Rui decided it was time to show me around. They have moved on this fifty-something acres “organic farm” five years before, after having lived most of their lives in Lisbon. By the time I met them, they had four horses which grazed freely around the house, some fifteen dogs they picked up from the streets, about thirty ex-stray cats turned domain guardians, two hens and nothing else. Not even onions and carrots. I mean they had all the conditions to become self-sufficient (a large property, plenty of water and all the time they needed to change their world), yet they did nothing in order to have at least fresh vegetables. Their farm was just an enclosed wild field. All organic, no doubt.

Damgaged Ceiling The following day, Rui and I started to repair the house which suffered some damage in winter. We refitted the chimneys, changed some of the roof's PVC sheets and painted them, reconditioned part of the under-roof insulation and replaced the broken ceiling. It wasn't really hard work and it took us only four days at about five hours of work a day. I started to get used to my new life rhythm. The thing I liked best was that all my afternoons were free, so I could dive with a dictionary into my host's crime novels and occasionally into my thick Portuguese grammar book.

Then we started the main project. Digging a trench for the new room's foundation wasn't big deal. Carrying loads of cement and sand, mixing up mortar and laying out bricks under the already hot Portuguese May sun proved much trickier.
By that I don't mean the learning of the métier: for most people it won't take more than a couple of days to acquire the basics of the masonry skills. However, getting used to clouds of dust which obstinately enter your eyes, nose, ears and stubbornly stick to all your perspiring surfaces, learning to endure the constant smarting pain induced by the cement which opens a thousand of larger or smaller cracks in your hands' skin as well as getting along with blistered palms and ceaseless back pains is a whole other matter.
New Room At the beginning of my fourth week at Anna's and Rui's, the new room was almost ready and my help was no longer indispensable. For the first time since the beginning of this adventure I was really satisfied –my progress in Portuguese mastery was obvious, my hosts were grinning with happiness and a smile popped on my face whenever I looked at this sound construction partly raised with my own hands from greenfield up to the top terrace.

My recent satisfaction made me head wholeheartedly to my second host in Portugal. On his Workaway account, Fernando boasted he offers a medieval-like experience. That is infallibly right. First, imagine the scenery: a forgotten and isolated valley in Serra da Malcata Mountains where, since medieval times till after the Second World War, flourished sixteen water mills. By the early '80s, all of them were abandoned. And here comes the young Fernando at the beginning of the 21st century to bring the valley back to life.

Fernandos Farm Not to modern life, though. As a matter of fact, the only modern objects at Fernando's ex-mill turned farm are his old Fiat cars, an old tractor mostly unused, a few solar panels and a Wi-Fi router. If you want to wash your cloths, you wash them in the nearby river. If you wanna take a bath, either you splash into the ice-cold stream, or you heat your water over a wood fire. By the way, you light the fire directly on the floor in a room which has all the amenities of a 12th century kitchen combined with a 14th century rural dining-room.
As far as the nearby common dorm is concerned, I would place it somewhere in a 13th century country inn.

I passed my first evening at Fernando's by the fire, with two other volunteers: a French guy and a Canadian girl. In almost three weeks they haven't seen a single car pass by (and, as they left the farm soon after that evening, they couldn't see the two 4x4 off-road SUVs with French wilderness lovers I saw there during my two-weeks long stay). But they were so contagiously happy with living such a simple and wild life!
Fernando's Kitchen

*Goats visible just above roof

Fernando's Goats The following morning at 7am I started my working day. First we helped Fernando milk his goats and feed the kids. Then, accompanied by a Portuguese volunteer who always got to bed early, I took the 150 goats herd to browse in the mountains. My more experienced colleague kindly initiated me into the secrets of this new profession: hike in the mountains, lay in the shadows, read as much as you want, get back to the farm to have lunch after 1pm, enjoy the seclusion, meditate, swim in the river, sunbathe, listen to the woods and from time to time lose the goats.

It was only at about 7pm, when the goats brought us back home, that I realized how incredibly short the day was. How could anyone get bored with such a job?

Fernando's working system is peculiar: for every two days of goat induced reclusion, volunteers have a day free. If there are more than three volunteers at the farm (sometimes there are more than ten), you can alternate the above mentioned hermitic pleasures with working in the vegetable garden or with restoring the other abandoned mills. Whoever does anything else than shepherding, is expected to work five hours per day.

Goat Trails

During my last week at Fernando's, there were only Portuguese speaking volunteers around. It was then that I realized my mission was partly completed. When I gave up my job, I understood Portuguese, but I could scarcely weave together more than a few sentences in this language. By now, though I still made some grammar errors and couldn't always find the right word, I participated without significant difficulties in the general conversation. That's right: in six weeks as a workawayer, living 24 hours a day with native speakers and studying alone for at least four hours a day, my apprenticeship of the language boosted much more than in over nine months of working in a very international environment in Lisbon.

Nevertheless, I could hardly say the Workaway experience helped me know more about everyday life and local culture in Portugal. What I can say is that Portuguese people in general are definitely not like the two hosts I had there (and I'm persuaded these two hosts are not like most Workaway hosts to be found in Portugal). I also have the wild feeling that, before leaving Portugal for Germany (which is another workaway story), I learned a bit more about the mysteries of the human being.

© Josef Oberwinzer August 2015

Back in Transylvania
Josef Oberwinzer

“I hope it will be totally crazy” was my new German friend's mantra ever since we agreed to drive to Transylvania together.

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