We’re perched on the back of a pickup truck, gazing with pride at the newly finished chicken coop we built (from foundations up), eating walnuts picked straight from the tree beside us. To my right is a field full of horses – I spot Indio, the one I’ve been riding the past few days – and behind them, on the horizon, the Andes.
I could live like this, I think. Quite easily.
I write to you from the wintery temperament of San Rafael, Mendoza Province, on the western border of Argentina; otherwise known as Argentina’s ‘wine country’. I’m here by way of a volunteer work exchange, working on the farm (finca) and vineyard (bodega) of my hosts Julie and Christophe – a French couple who moved out here three years ago. In return I get free accomodation and food, three meals a day, seven days a week. (Oh, also, Chris is a professional chef, so…)
Before I started travelling I’d never considered doing something like this. In fact, it’s fair to say I don’t think I even knew these opportunities existed. If I remember correctly it wasn’t until I landed in Seoul that power-travel-couple Patrick & Emily turned me on to this website WorkAway (Proud Sponsors of The Bearded Bard Blog… LOLjk. I wish. Somebody plz give me some money).
Workaway is a global online community for travellers and hosts. Essentially, in my case for example, I first searched for jobs in Argentina (of course there’re a billion), so I narrowed it to Mendoza Province (then just a million), and eventually down to farm work – something I’d been close to most of my life, but never really taken part in. After a few lazy Korean days of sifting through weird Christian agricultural communes and hosts with worryingly strict “if-we-catch-you-with-tobacco-we-will-ask-you-to-leave” policies (srsly), I stumbled upon Julie & Chris.
They’d never taken anyone on before, so there were no reviews to be found, but they offered gardening, construction, and farm work, as well as the potential to ride out their horses, look after their dogs, and – most importantly for me – get out of the mania of city-life and into the peace of el campo (the countryside).
I sent them an overly lengthy and gushy email, and a couple months later here I am: drinking coffee by the fireplace, music on the speakers, watching the dogs on a rare relaxed morning whilst my surrogate parents and Léa (the orher workawayer here (also Frenh), who arrived the same day as me) are in town doing a groceries run.
Life here, as you might have gathered from the title, is pretty fucking sweet. So too is it a well needed break from the relentlessness of backpacking from city hostel to shitty hostel (#wordplay). Having been here almost a week and a half, with five more days to go, for the first time in 19 weeks I feel like I have a home; and not one that’s made of tarmac and gravel.
We work six days a week and take Sundays off (though with these ridiculously active Frenchies, no day off is really a day off). Typically our working days start around nine, after guzzling some toast and coffee strong enough to knock the sleep from your eyes. We’ll work till maybe 1 or 2, before taking a break for lunch, which is always tasty as hell, and thrown together by Chris with inspiring ease. Sometimes it’ll be a simple plate of salad, bread, cheeses and saucisson; other times it might be a roast chicken and veg; others, leftovers turned into a whole new dish. It’s always different, and it’s always good.
After lunch, unless we’re skipping work in the afternoon to go horseback riding (more on that shortly), we’ll take a siesta, because ¿por que no? My siestas are a chance, whilst the others sleep, to catch up on my reading (at the moment it’s David Mitchell’s The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, and it’s fucking fantastic), write poetry, or work on my blog. Usually we’ll reconvene around 3 or 4 to head back out to work, finishing just as the sun’s going down (or occasionally long after it’s sunk) and we’ve worked up our appetites again.
Unlike our hasty breakfasts and lunches, dinner is an occasion. It’s a time for shared effort (though of course the reins are always firmly in the chef’s hands), and a time to take our time. We always, without fail, start with vino – straight from the vineyard, of course. A personal favourite is a chilled glass of their crisp rosé whilst sat by the fire with my book and a ciggy. Typically we’ll drink, chat (or at least the French trio will chat and I’ll wait for Léa to translate, or just relax in the homely atmosphere), and/or play card and dice games till around 9 – waiting to eat nice and late because when in Rome and all.
I could talk for hours about the dinners Chris makes, but one sticks out in particular. Second night here, we’re hosting a dinner party for four of J&C’s pals (there’s a crazy expansive French expats community out in the sticks of San Raf; I guess where there’s good wine…), and we’re having burgers and fries.
But not just any old burger and fries. No. Chris has made everything from scratch. Homemade patties, homemade sesame seed buns, homemade chips, homemade mayo, homemade béarnaise sauce, homegrown tomatoes, salad, home-pickled gerkins, with homemade cheese grill-melted atop each patty. Then for desert there’s homemade ice-cream and sorbet. To accompany the whole meal too, of course, we’re drinking home-brewed red wine. I shit you not, those were the best burgers I’ve ever had, and it was just stupid insane the effort Chris had went to with every little ingredient. Mad respect.
Mum, you need to step up your game.
Just kidding, ily.
The work itself I love. As I’ve said already, some days we might work just three or four hours, others we might notch up eight or more, but it’s always fulfilling, and – framed as the work is with good wine, food and company – the often hard physical labour leaves you feeling content. The work too is always varied. Given that it’s winter time here, there’s no crop to be harvested, nor planted. Still, there’s no shortage of projects to keep our idle hands busy.
The first project we undertook was the construction of a new coop (or perhaps ‘mansion’ is a more fitting description) for Julie’s six chickens. Since, as you may can tell from Chris’s approach to cooking, nothing here is done the easy, half-arsed way, we built the coop from scratch.
Léa and I spent a day and a half digging deep trenches for the foundations. Next, whilst the girls worked in the garden, Chris and I took to cementing in gateposts, cutting to size (got to use a chainsaw for the first time ever, thankfully without losing any limbs or digits) planks of wood to form the walls of the main, roofed section. Afterwards soldering together a door for the coop.
The next day the whole gang got back together to put the finishing touches to la casa nueva del pollos. With a wee break for coffee and biscuits mid-morning, we roofed the coop, put in an area for the chicks to perch, laid chicken-wire round the perimeter of the open-air part, and made a wee play area for poultry recreational activities.
Hands calloused, back aching, beard specked with wood shavings, jeans stiff with mud, it was an awesome feeling to stand back and take in the product of all our hard work. I’ve worked a bunch of jobs in my life, kitchen-hand, cashier, warehouse part-timer, barista, publishing intern, bookseller; but never have I worked a properly manual construction job where your day can finish with the completion of a structure that completely didn’t exist before you started on it. It’s a good feeling.
Side note: working with Chris is hugely entertaining in its own right. Chris doesn’t speak any english; and I don’t speak any french; our mutual language, therefore, is spanish – in which I’m yet to be… proficient. Ultimately our working days together are spent mostly in silence, filled with the grunts and groans of shifting concrete or bricks or hammering in nails or digging ditches. The few phrases we do exchange are the directions he attempts to give me (which mostly come down to hand actions), or a broken-spanish sarky comment or two to which sometimes we can both share a laugh. Moreover, I love working with Chris just to be inspired by his resourcefulness. Soldering iron wire sheers in half? Take it apart with knifes and hammers and fix that shit. Pregnant horse rolls into and gets stuck in a ditch? Fashion makeshift winches with bits of old rope and get her back onto her feet. Lecky gets cut throughout the house whilst he’s cooking a whole meal for a dinner party? Shrug it off and change menus, just like that, to accommodate the lack of electricity. Nae bor. And he does all this without ever showing any signs of frustration or upset. The same can be said for Julie. The pair have a wonderful c’est la vie attitude, conquering every adversity that comes a-calling with a smile on their faces. Just being around them you feed off their vibes – it makes for a very comfortable living and working atmosphere.
The work is not all construction though. As I said, there’re a multitude of jobs to be done. One day Léa and I might be clearing the garden of leaves, the next we might be commandeering the pickup to take hedge-trimmings out to la pampa (the outback) for dumping. (And btw, driving a pickup is hella fun. I want one).
Then one day, yesterday, for example, you might find yourself doing something you’d never imagined yourself doing before. Like, oh I don’t know, digging out a 7ft, 23 ton wild cactus growing in the outback, yanking out that mothertrucker’s concrete roots with the pickup, and breaking your back rugby-style rucking it into the boot of the truck. OH AYE, and it’s covered in fucking black widow spiders.
Like, mad deadly.
Obviously though we were all fine. We rolled down our sleeves, flicked the spiders away with a knife when they crawled out their hiding spots, and got on with the job.
We dug up the cactus so we can plant it (later today actually, I think) at the plot of land on which Chris and Julie plan to build their new restaurant – they ran a restaurant back in France, and have been hoping to open one here using produce from their farm/vineyard ever since they moved to Argentina. All in all it probably took us two to three hours of work to get the cactus out of the ground and into the truck. I was fucking dead by the time we were done, with some nice new cuts all up my arms, but again, felt fulfilled, and spent the night eating good food and drinking cognac at the house of Julie’s friends.
Have I covered everything? I think I have… AW WAIT A SEC, that’s right, I get to gallop horses through the sunlit brush and vineyards of Argentinian countryside: Andean mountains, silver rivers and circling hawks my backdrop. I nearly forgot.
Until coming to San Rafael, I hadn’t rode a horse for, shit, 13+ years? Being a Teri and all, from the age of maybe five till ten I went to riding lessons every week. I remember I enjoyed riding, especially when we got to go out on hacks into the country (despite the occasional fall), but at some point, and probably because I protested (just as I stupidly did with guitar lessons) my mum’s regime (for lack of a better word), I just stopped riding. Since then I hadn’t even considered riding as something I wanted to do. For a while in fact I was scared to get too close to the big muscly beasts romping through my village each year for Hawick’s annual equestrian festival.
But being out here, in a country with one of the richest cowboy histories around – perhaps to rival even Asian horseriding – with the enthusiasm of my host Julie to bolster the confidence I’ve accrued along my travels, it felt like time to, quite literally, get back on the horse.
And so I did, and so we have, and so we do, regularly. Whenever we’ve got nice weather (50/50 – it’s pishing doon the day), and an afternoon free, Julie, Léa and I will take three of the six horses out for a hack into la pampa. Julie won’t have us riding like tourists either; we tack up and have total control ourselves over our respective horses. In a sense, we ride as equals. Though of course, being the much much more experienced rider, Julie is more than happy to dispense advise – like when we galloped and I lost my stirrups and asked how to sit more stable in the saddle – plus she’s always keeping a wee eye out to make sure we’re grand.
For starters (and ever since, ’cause I’ve fallen in love) I was given Indio to ride. He’s a touch lazy and so needs a lot of encouragement to get up into 5th gear, but he’s super comfortable and easy to handle. Unlike La Madre, who Julie tried me out with after a couple rides on Indio (because La Madre is a ‘bomb’ on the racetrack and I like to go fast), I feel 100% in control when riding Indio. La Madre is a lovely horse, but she has a mind of her own, and fucking hell she really does go fast. For someone with as little fresh experience and training as me, Indio was the more comfortable choice. So Indio remains my go-to lad whenever we take the horses out.
La Madre, the Porsche 911 to my Ford Ka
Sometimes, if Julie and Chris are heading into town, or out to a pals, Léa and I get to ride out on our own too, in whichever direction we please.
The freedom of San Raf’s countryside is boundless. Whenever I’m out there, sun on my neck, winter chill purpling my knuckles, stiff muscles suppling up again around the flanks of Indio, wind stinging my eyes as we gallop down a path heavy with Autumn golds and oranges and sunlight dappling our shadows, I feel like a true Gaucho; a true cowboy of the West. There are points on each ride, usually when we gallop, but so too sometimes just as we plod through the brush – maybe Julie stops to pick a flower from a particular plant, or the shadows stretch our massive horseback forms out across the sandy hues – when I understand perfectly why people form such deep attachments to horses, why the history of humans and horses is so interchangable, one so synonymous with the other, when I forget about everything else usualy rattling about my brain; and it’s just me, Indio, the ground beneath his hooves, and the endless endless sky.
Life here then, is not so bad. I have the house’s second floor all to myself, with a cosy wee double-bed bedroom. I’m eating well and exercising through work every day, and I have superb company. It feels a lot like a temporary family. We four get on very easily, and look out for each other in whatever we do. My nights by the fire with wine and games are moments of semi-drunken perfection. I mean, we don’t even watch TV or Netflix or shit, we actually just do stuff.
I will admit, however, that for the first week, the language barrier was somewhat a steady irk (the only one though, to be fair). Chris doesn’t speak english, and whilst Julie’s is enough for stilted conversations, she’s not particularly confident with it so doesn’t use it much. My saviour, then, is Léa, who – having been to school in China and then Canada – is fluent.
Léa, much to my eternal gratitude (and at first, my embarrassment) acts as my interpreter. Nevertheless, a conversation is not a conversation if one of three involved keeps stopping to update the monolingual berk in the corner. Thus most of the time I’m at a complete loss. If I concentrate I can pick up on the general topic – my mum and dad’s french, and family trips to the continent must have osmosised into my brain to a small degree – but usually I ain’t got a clue.
As I say, for a while I found this kinda tough. I didn’t feel able to form as warm a relationship with Julie and Chris as I can see Léa has, plus when we upped to head out somewhere, I’d be left hanging as to what was going on. It could be pretty frustrating. However, now I kinda like it. I’m used to not understanding the conversation, and have learned therefore to relish my talks with Léa and the english-speaking friends of my hosts who we visit: I appreciate conversation all the more. Plus, my silence and inability to comprehend the language becomes a sort of meditation – like the hippy fuckers doing silence courses at Buddhist monasteries in Asia. Now that I’m used to it, being around a white noise of friendly chatter keeps me calm, helps me to appreciate the value of language. I’ve learned, I hope, to find the good in the bad.
Overall then, I’ll be very sad to leave this house, this farm, these people and their horses to return once more to the madness of Buenos Aires. And yet, taking the good from the bad, I’ll leave having had a wonderful experience. Having learned how to use a chainsaw and a metalsaw and a soldering iron, how to mix concrete and lay a strong wall, how to drive a pickup, and relearned how to ride a horse. I’ll have rested my weary backpacker bones and be refreshed by all of the above, ready to take on what is essentially the second half of my world trip. Plus, I’ll be returning to Bueno Aires not to travel alone again, but this time with my boii – Luke Gram.
You may remember the Canadian firework kid from the Great Wall of China? That’s Luke, and in four or five days he flies out to BA to meet me, so we can travel South America together. I’m super stoked to get a change of pace and travel with a pal, and even more stoked to make a bunch of new stories for y’all as we trek through Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador & Colombia.
And so till next time, with all my love to todos mis Gauchos. With a wee special mention for my boy Chris Day (that’s D-A-Y), who just popped the question and got the answer everyone hopes for. Kick on son.