As I looked at the dark, dirty basement room that would be my sleeping quarters for two weeks on a WWOOF-ing stay in Perth, Ontario, I began to feel a wee bit worried.
Combine the fact that there was no window or ventilation with the presence of layers of filth and cobwebs and I was concerned.
Then there was the creaky, wooden staircase leading up to the main house that made me feel as if I was stuck in a scene from a horror movie.
Did this make me run a mile straight away? Amazingly, leaving at this point did not even cross my mind.
However, fast forward three days and I was escaping on a bus to Toronto.
For those unfamiliar with WWOOF-ing, this is an exchange of labour on farms in return for food and accommodation. WWOOF stands for the organisation Worldwide Opportunities On Organic Farms.
Typically, you are required to complete anything from three to six hours of work per day
My first WWOOF-ing experience at a blueberry farm in Qualicum Beach, Vancouver Island, in May was fun and enriching.
But the second stint was awful for a number of reasons.
It started with a niggling feeling, which I guess was my instincts kicking in and telling me something was not right.
As I have explained, a major issue was the questionable accommodation.
I am not fussy, but require a basic level of cleanliness and air quality in order to feel okay.
I knew this would be an issue, but was initially determined to stay for the full two weeks.
My hosts, a couple in their 60s who I will, for storytelling’s sake, call Daisy and Don both seemed very nice and welcoming.
As we sat down to dinner on the first evening, I was feeling quite comfortable. But then I got an inclination that Daisy and Don were not getting on too well.
The tension gradually built up amidst snappiness and snide remarks and culminated later on with a “go f*ck yourself” comment from Don.
At this point, I began to feel slightly uneasy.
While I understood couples argue, I did not like the idea of being a lone WWOOF-er stuck in between an on-going domestic…for two weeks.
I went to bed and awoke in the early hours of the morning with a clogged up chest and headache.
There was a film of moisture on my sheets and the air felt heavy and stale.
Getting up in the morning, I felt hazy and unwell, but decided to put a positive face on and get on with it.
I was required to work six hours a day, six days a week.
The first day involved harvesting and weighing bags of lettuce for a series of restaurant orders. It was easy and I enjoyed working outdoors.
Daisy had shown me what to do, but had to leave suddenly for a meeting she had forgotten about.
So I was left to do the work alone, which was fine.
The six hours went ridiculously fast and then I had the whole afternoon to myself.
Daisy returned that afternoon with a load of tourist leaflets for activities in the area.
I thought this was incredibly sweet and appreciated her making this effort.
There was not much to do around the actual farm, but I went on a short hike and took the four (yes four) dogs for a walk around some nearby fields.
That evening I still was not feeling quite right and I ended up tactfully mentioning to them that I was feeling uneasy sleeping in the basement due to the poor ventilation and dampness.
I was polite in my approach and Daisy said that she understood why I was mentioning it. But Don was more defensive and made a comment similar to “I thought you would have been used to dampness coming from England.”
This remark did not impress me.
According to them, no other WWOOF-ers had ever mentioned having any issues sleeping down there.
I began to doubt myself, wondering if I was being over-the-top.
They presented a solution by providing a dehumidifier and left a door leading to a more airy conservatory-like room open.
I still felt claustrophobic down there, but slept much more soundly.
The following day of work was brilliant. I spent the six-hours out in the sunny fields, harvesting beautiful beans.
I felt better and that sinking feeling diminished and was replaced with a resurgence of hopefulness.
At least that was until the evening.
Flies and filth…
Something that quickly became apparent was that Daisy and Don loved to spend a long time preparing and cooking delicious meals.
However, they were not so good at keeping things clean.
The kitchen was disgustingly dirty and when I was doing the dishes, this fact became more obvious.
There were flies buzzing around everywhere and they were all over the floor.
I realised that this was because there were crumbs and pieces of food all over it. The floor was dirty and sticky.
I went and asked Don if there was a mop anywhere, but it was not in the location he said it was in.
Daisy appeared a short while later and I asked her about the mop and she explained how it was difficult to mop the floor because they had a septic tank and could not use certain cleaning products.
I was tempted to just get some boiling hot water and start scrubbing the floor, but after meeting this resistance, decided to abandon the idea.
That evening, Daisy and Don had settled down to watch a film and I was down in the basement, feeling like frigging Cinderella, when I noticed that my sheets were covered in dog hairs and were not clean.
The dogs sleep inside overnight and I had heard them scratching on my door a few times in the night.
Then it clicked, the dogs had probably been sleeping on this bed.
Later that evening, I spotted one of the dogs sleeping across my pillow.
It was really dirty and I had to ask for clean sheets. They appeared to be a bit put out by this request, despite me being polite about it.
The last straw…
The following morning, I began the day arranging bundles of carrots.
Daisy kept on snapping at me for no reason
She apologized and said it was not me. Something was clearly bothering her.
I felt upset and agitated at her mood and eventually said I did not think this was working out and I thought it was best if I just left.
Not wanting to explain ALL of the reasons why I was uncomfortable staying here, I just said the accommodation was the main issue, because I need ventilation when the weather is so warm.
I also said I was feeling generally unsettled.
She went on the defensive insinuating that I was a city girl expecting luxurious accommodation.
“I expect basic, clean accommodation. I don’t think this is an unreasonable expectation,” I said.
I told her how at the last WWOOF placement, the room was basic and clean on arrival and then we would be expected to keep it clean for the rest of the stay.
This is the way it should be.
She then went all nice, saying it was good to get feedback as she did not know what it was like down there.
Yeah, I bet you don’t, I thought.
She also began explaining how she never has time to clean the house as she is shattered after finishing the farm work.
“If I could go back, I wouldn’t have taken on the farm. Maybe at 20, but not at 60,” she explained.
I did sympathise with how hard it was running a farm and understood that cleaning had been neglected due to a lack of time and energy.
This is why I was trying to help out as much as I could.
But I had to go.
That afternoon, Daisy dropped me off at the Greyhound bus stop. It was all very amicable, as it is not my style to be argumentative, no matter how annoyed I am.
I got chatting to a guy behind the counter as I waited for my bus and ended up blurting out everything that had happened.
“There have been a few girls in here lately in the same position,” he told me.
“What? Seriously,” I said, feeling relieved that it was not just me that had felt inclined to run away from a dodgy WWOOF-ing stay.
“There was a French girl in here the other week who had left a farm early because she said the conditions were unlivable,” he added.
“Apparently there was no running water.”
I knew at this point that this was not the farm I was at.
But it just went to show that there are some farms out there that are not fit to facilitate WWOOF-ers.
It was a big relief getting on that bus to Toronto and the more I reflect on the situation and discuss it with others, the more I know my instincts were right and that this was not a sound situation to be in.
I do not want this to reflect badly on the WWOOF-ing experience, because it can be fantastic and there are so many great hosts out there. Just make sure you ask lots of questions about the accommodation and working arrangements.
What is acceptable to one person might not be to another, so you need to ensure you find a good match.
Have you ever had a bad WWOOF-ing experience?