DAY FOUR of volunteering on a farm outside Jaipur.
Today I am left alone. There were six of us WWOOFers when I arrived. This being the 10th day, the German man and French woman are leaving. They seem content to have been here. Both are fairly introverted, most likely not a fan of whiny Americans, and did not share too much during conversations. And then everyone else leaves too. The slightly older, American man with farm experience wants out of his final three days, and the two American teenagers want out after their first three days. All three Americans are very crabby, as this farm was not meeting their expectations. It’s not meeting mine either, but I’m not throwing in the towel… yet.
American Man heard that if you don’t stay the suggested minimum of 10 days, the farm will charge you 300 rupees per night, about US$6. Nowhere does it state this in the emails, and it pissed everyone off. So he left at 5:30am, under the cover of darkness, to elude any farmers and walked to the road to catch a bus. German Man leaves after breakfast, shaking all the farmers’ hands as he goes. The two American teenagers wait until 10 am to leave with the French woman.
Mr. Ali, the driver I was to have on day one, comes to pick her up. They all begin stuffing their packs into the small auto-rickshaw. When Suirez the cook sees this, he starts yelling about money, saying in Hindi that they need to pay and dialing Lel’s number on his phone. Mr. Ali translates without taking sides, saying that the couple needs to pay money for leaving early. An argument ensues and eventually the couple decides to walk off the farm and catch a bus. No money was ever paid. With everyone gone, I walk back to the amla trees to weed and wonder: with the English-speaking farm manager on holiday and no other WWOOFers around, what will my days be like?
Weeding alone, in blistering heat, gives my thoughts time to fester. I think often about my back and blisters hurting. I think about my day off, when Ken will join me to tour Jaipur. Taking a break from weeding, I watch the birds. Today is special, as a White Throated Kingfisher, with his brilliant blue wings and red beak, watches me watching him. I listen to all the sounds of the farm: birds singing, tractors clanging, music thumping, kids crying, adults shouting, the train horn blowing on and on.
I have decided it is time to get off this farm. Get up at 6:30am, after swatting at mosquitos all night. The dog slept under my bed, which made for a fitful sleep, due to her licking, barking and constant movement. Go to work at 7am, so I could finish all my work in the morning when it’s slightly cooler. The temps really get cooking around 10am.
While on a break, I talk with Ratan’s kids, aged 3, 7, and 12. Their English is pretty good, learning a little in school and picking up more from WWOOFers. Today is Sunday and there is no school, so we talk for awhile and they bring me a cup of chai. It is a welcome offering, and I thank them. Interestingly, gratitude is not an important part of Indian culture. Day-to-day business does not require a “thank you”. The concept of telling someone they did a good job is foreign. For me, it’s hard to volunteer in this environment. Perhaps we Westerners are taught to give and expect continual praise too much. Which works better? My overheated brain would prefer a thanks now and then.
The saddest time on this farm happens this afternoon. As I walk back from the field to get cleaned up for lunch, I see a woman being shown around by two farmers who can barely speak English. Noticing me, she asks me if I can answer her questions about Saharia. I ask her if I could have a moment to wash up. Soaping my grimy hands, I panic about what I am going to say to her. “Well, three people left 24 hours ago in a complete huff.” I decide to be kind about the farm, pointing out the good things. This bubbly, young woman is Junee, from Korea, and she has spent 7 months managing a farm and all the WWOOFers there. She had read about Saharia and thought it was a perfect place to volunteer. Wanting to see it first before she made any commitment, she arrived to the farm with her Indian friend via motorbike. The Indian friend was denied entry into the gated farm.
We talk and Junee is surprised to learn that there no are lessons about organic practices, that the farm next door is non-organic and that the farmers are not singing and dancing every night, as the website describes. As we talk, Lel, the farm manager appears on his motorbike. Isn’t he supposed to be on holiday, I thought. He shows no interest in our conversation and quickly ducks into the WWOOFers kitchen. I tell Junee that he is the farm manager and would be best to answer any remaining questions. As we walk over to him, he hides himself further in an empty bedroom. I try to make an introduction, yet he refuses to talk to her. “I am tired,” he says. Junee does not press him further, and I can tell that she has decided not volunteer at Saharia. We say our goodbyes and while eating my lunch, watching Lel drive away, all I can think was, “Nice farm PR you got there, jackass.”
Dozing under the huge shade tree a couple hours later, I hear an auto-rickshaw drive up the lane, kicking up dust and dropping off two new WWOOFers. Two 20-something Americans are greeted by the farmers and shown to their room. The farmers quickly leave and Suirez lazes about. I ask if he is going to show them around. “No, you do it,” he says. So the rest is up to me: basic instructions, a small tour around, explaining who is who. I get them up to speed on all the happenings of the past 5 days and tell them they need to make up their minds about the farm and its people.
Another two hours later, Lel returns. Supposedly on holiday, yet always returning. He is in a much better mood and is even chatty with all of us. We talk more about life on the farm. He has been working here for five years and when asked, replies that most of the WWOOFers are from the US. He offers that he does not like Western culture at all. Well, that explains a lot, I think to myself. We talk about the young American couple who left early, and Lel says they did not pay their registration fee of 150 rupees each- that was the money Suirez wanted from them. When pressed further about their actions, he seems unfazed by the whole thing, acting like it is a regular occurrence. We chat the rest of the afternoon away.
As evening approaches and the sun begins to set, Lel asks for our help and we all pitch in on a quick job, loading wood onto a tractor. It is a nice surprise when I overhear Lel thanking the male volunteer. Darkness falls and we eat dinner: hard, overly wheaty chapatis, of course! Lel departs without saying goodbye, supposedly leaving on his two week holiday. I wonder how I am going to stay here for 10 days. I start to formulate an escape plan.
Rise early again to start work in the cooler morning. Begin at 6:50 am. Same painful weeding work. The new volunteers learn how hard it is. We work an hour until breakfast. Cream of wheat, fruit and chai. Back to the fields. While working, we take a cue from the other farmers and take many breaks. We talk with one family, including an adorable 3 year-old daughter named Pinky. Yes, it’s supposedly a common Indian name. Child care on the farm means taking the kids to the fields, with babies hanging from the trees in slings. Another diversion from weeding is spotting a wild deer-cow that has sprinted onto the farm. It’s really called a nilgai, and they can be quite a menace, eating farm crops. We all work to chase it off the farm. Then back to weeding and once again I hit my ankle with the oddly angled, Indian hoe. The bottoms of my feet are beginning to hurt, my hands are raw with blisters and any exposed skin on my limbs are all scratched up from the weeds. I don’t think I should keep beating my body up like this. Tomorrow is my day off in Jaipur with Ken. I’ll talk to him about not returning for my final 3 days.
After lunch we WWOOFers rest a bit and take a walk to look for the puppies on the road. The puppies are gone and the dead brother has been eaten. All that remains are his fur and bones, even the jaw with teeth. That’s life in the desert.
It is blisteringly hot. As we walk, farmers keep up their work in the heat. We see a group of men moving a flock of scrawny sheep, then a group of women in colorful saris, picking in the fields. The saris are so bright against the green field, each woman wearing a different color. A young man in the group says, “Hello, come, come.” We talk a little and are offered handfuls of peas- fresh snap peas, yum! It was a very nice exchange.
Walking back to the farm, we meet up with Ratan’s kids. They are eating immature channa or chickpeas, their afternoon snack, picked right from the field. We offer them peas too. Ratan appears and invites us into his home for chai and we talk about many interesting things. Ratan tells us that the farm has too many managers. Some say work harder, others say, it’s okay, relax, no problem. “Problem, problem,” Ratan says. He says having three kids is enough, because he always hears Papa, Papa, never a break from Papa. His wife Tara is very sweet. They have been married for 14 years, meaning that Tara would have been only 14 years old when they married. The family has been on the farm 10 years. Binod, the owner, asked him to come to Jaipur to work and Ratan’s family agreed.
He misses his home in Assam, because it has cooler temperatures and is greener. Here in Rajasthan the extremes between hot and cold are too much. From 48-50 C in summer to 0 C in winter (32 to 120 Fahrenheit). Ratan’s home has three rooms; one has no ceiling and it rains right into his house. His only furniture is two beds. He tells us that each farmer’s family earns 3300 rupees a month, or US$66. He can buy things like clothes, school items, some meat, yet the wage is not enough to save for the future. He does get free milk, rice and tea, the food grown on the farm, a free home and electricity. We ask Ratan if this is enough for him or if his life is a struggle. He says that life is 50/50. Sometimes good, sometimes not so good. No problem, he adds. We notice that he has a bad wound on his finger, and Tara has terribly split heels from lack of any humidity. We offer soap, antibiotic spray and lotion. Not wanting to leave the kids out, I give them some markers I have in my backpack.
Us WWOOFers head back to our outdoor lounge area under the big shade tree to rest. Down the dusty farm lane, we see a group of about 25 men heading our way. What now?! The older man in the group approaches us and begins talking to us in English. We tell him about volunteering here. As he tells the other men about us, they circle around our three chairs. Here we go, the Indian stare. Hovering close, they all stare, make comments and giggle. Someone whips out a cell phone for a photo. Then everyone wants their photo with the white people. It’s hilarious, as they all want to be near us Westerners and shake our hands. We oblige, spending about 30 minutes with the group. Suirez, the cook, sits back and watches everything with a scowl on his face. As quickly as they came, the men disappear down the dirt path.
This could be the my last night on the farm. In case I don’t return, I make sure to enjoy the setting sun, the swooping owls and Indian dinner… except those damn chapatis!