Disclaimer: This is a personal travel piece relaying my experiences through the Workaway programme. Some names of people have been changed.
We sat in a beat up, rusty trailer tugged by a shiny Wolkswagen. The driver was just-turned-sixteen year old Connor; a local boy. We were slowly inching towards the hay fields to help stack the bales and move them to their winter shelter; they would feed Diurmud’s cows when the weather became too cold for them to trawl his fields. It was late afternoon and we were enjoying the rare Irish sun on our skin, cheeks reddened by a combination of the day’s labour and the warm summer day. I had never done farm work before; this was one of many firsts on my month long Workaway experience to rural Ireland.
Workaway.info is an on-line platform which allows travellers to stay with a host in a destination of their choice; in exchange for a few hours of work everyday, they are provided with room and board. I had decided I would travel to Ireland this summer, and signed up for the service back in January. By February, I had secured a month long experience in a small village in the Dingle Peninsula. In June, I would help out at a traditional Bed and Breakfast, stay in an old farmhouse, and explore the area by foot and bicycle in my spare time. I am halfway through my Workaway experience now and I wanted to share my impressions of this way of travelling.
With Workaway, you are no longer a tourist in the traditional sense of the word. Tourists visiting a place, especially one as popular as the Dingle Peninsula, exist in a sort of bubble. There are sights they must see in the short time they have, things they must experience. And, of course, most people have to be satisfied with this; most people only get so much time every year to travel. But for those who have decided to venture on a longer adventure, Workaway is a way to experience the community of your choice as a local, learning about daily life and customs, making friends along the way. At the same time, you are still a tourist, exploring the popular (and less popular) sights in your time off.
Beyond the practicalities of getting there and marking some points of interest in the area, I didn’t think too much about the implications of my commitment prior to arriving. I did not consider for a second how rapidly my life would change and how far outside of my comfort zone I would need to venture in order to adjust to my new surroundings. It’s worth noting that prior to this, I never had any experience working in the service industry or living in a rural area. When I woke up on June 1st, 2018, I woke up living a brand new life.
Working at a Bed and Breakfast
I woke to the sound of cows Moo-ing at around 6AM. Mid-slumber, I thought it was my phone’s alarm, so I fumbled around the duvet trying to locate it before realising it came from outside and it sounded nothing like my phone. Later that morning, I made my way to the Bed and Breakfast which was situated right across the farmhouse where I was staying. I was sharing with two other Workaway girls as well as Nan, Denise’s 92 year old mother in law.
I was there at 7.30 awaiting instructions from Denise. I made some coffee – it was the filter type we’d had at the office I worked before we upgraded to the drinkable type. At approximately 7.40, she came down and pandaemonium ensued. We had twenty minutes, and the jam and butter had to be served, multiple trips to the outside shed to retrieve various items had to be taken, scones had to be prepared from scratch, drink and breakfast orders had to be made. I had to learn whilst doing, and I had to learn quickly! I did alright for the most part, but definitely had to work on my pace. Mid-scrubbing a particularly greasy pan, Denise shouted over the Irish music blasting on the radio:
“Our 8.00 o’clock is here, go and give them our breakfast menus and ask them if they’d like tea or coffee, please.”
I threw the pan in the sink, entered the dining room (pictured below) and handed out the breakfast Menus to the old couple from New Zealand. Before I could ask about tea and coffee, the man looked at me and said:
“We already know what we want. I’ll have the granola with the soy milk and the poached eggs on toast, and my wife will have the porridge with the traditional Irish but no pudding. I’ll have coffee and my wife will have tea.”
I nodded and ran to the kitchen.
“Denise, they’ve given me their order. They’ll have -“
I realised I had immediately forgotten their order. This was my first waitressing experience and I didn’t expect to be taking their order without a pen, a notepad, or context (I’d never even looked at the breakfast menu, I’d only arrived a few hours ago!). I had to run back twice to confirm what they want exactly and Denise suggested I write it down. She probably thought I was slow, but I was honestly just panicking.
The remainder of the morning was spent trying to do dishes at record pace, serving breakfast and clearing tables, making coffee and tea (you need to make sure to scorch the pot!) and just generally trying not to spill anything hot on the guests. I think that last bit was my biggest fear. By the time it was over, I’d had the most stressful, fast-paced morning in a while and I could not imagine doing this for a month!
What followed was the relatively stress-free cleaning of the rooms. We change all sheets and towels after every guest and clean the bathrooms and dust. We also lay out chocolates and water for the new arrivals. This has to be done quickly, although I have to admit, I spent way too long battling with the King sized duvet those first few days. All of these tasks got easier as time went on, and I felt a sense of satisfaction as I realised the previously stressful routine was becoming more natural.
My work varied day by day, and aside from my Bed and Breakfast duties, I got to experience a bit of Dirumud’s (Denise’s husband) world when I helped with the bales and met his cows. Every day here is a new challenge that needs to be conquered, and every day I gain a new appreciation for life and work in rural Ireland.
The first solo hike: Sheep are not mountain goats
One of the benefits of Workawaying is that your local hosts can give you recommendations on places off the beaten track. One sunny afternoon, Denise suggested I hike up to some tower ruins and take the scenic route around the cliffs. I said why not, packed a backpack and headed off.
I felt empowered. This was a solo hike, and here I was, making my own way at my own pace, with a clear destination in sight. I was yearning for the sense of satisfaction of getting to those ruins up on the hill, but I was enjoying the journey too, with views that I had never experienced prior. Full solitude was an added bonus, as this was not a widely known spot, and there was no one in sight on this particular afternoon.
The trouble began when I almost bumped into a bunch of sheep. I don’t know why but I decided they were Mountain Goats. No, indeed I do know why. Rationally speaking I know goats and sheep are separate animals. But in my warped, tired mind, I decided that goats were really just shaved sheep. And let’s face it, from a distance, Mountain Goats kind of resemble sheep. Maybe it’s just me though.
Anyway, this presented a challenge although the hike up was pleasant and easy. I kept hearing the sheep and feeling very anxious (Mountain Goats are known to be aggressive).
I didn’t stick around as long as I would have under ordinary circumstances. My solitude became less attractive all of a sudden, as I looked around and saw no one. The sunny afternoon started turning chilly and when I looked at my phone, I realised it was nearing 6:30. I decided to start the descent and try to avoid the Mountain Goats (sheep). I saw one poking around near the ruins and off I went, just in a general downward direction, wading in high grass. I hoped there were no snakes but decided not to think about it too much, as that would be yet another thing to worry about. It was all fine, until I realised that only a few meters from me, a few Mountain Goats were grazing. I turned around and walked in the opposite direction and saw more! Where did they come from? I had seen barely any on my way up, and all of a sudden, they were everywhere. I did not want to get too close, but there was no way to avoid them all of a sudden.
I am embarrassed to admit this, but I called Denise. Of course, the call went to voice mail, and I realised she must be busy prepping dinner for the guests. Right, I was on my own. Googling “how to fight Mountain Goats” wasn’t helpful. They said to run, not that you could outrun a Mountain Goat. They then suggested, as a last resort, grab it by its horns, not that you could fight it off but maybe someone might come to your aid if you were to hold if off long enough. I was not confident in my odds, and when I looked at the Mountain Goats grazing nearby, I was positive they were staring at me, sizing me up.
Denise called me back, and I picked up and spoke in a slightly shaky voice, “Denise, these goats here on the hill, are they…aggressive?”
“Are you sure they are goats?” She said slowly.
Oh. “Um, no. I just assumed – ”
“No, they are sheep. They will run away if you approach them.”
“Oh, are you sure… they aren’t penned in or anything.”
“No, that’s just how they are here.”
I hung up feeling immensely stupid. Of course they were sheep! Sheep went ‘Baa’, you learned that in pre-school! Feeling emboldened by the phone call, I made it down the hill, and noticed that indeed, the sheep tended to keep to themselves and not pay any attention to me. At least now I know the difference between goats and sheep. Also, I will be going up that tower again, sheep or no sheep.
This was yet another adventure where I ventured outside my comfort zone and grew as a result. I made it to my destination all by myself, and despite the mild hurdle, I made it back safely. I’d never hiked alone before so I’m calling this a success. Or at least a good story to laugh over in a few years.