Before I begin, I need to tell you something about myself: I'm someone who spends their spare time – all their time, really – applying to scholarships... and getting rejected for the most part. That's okay, though; I take it in stride because I genuinely think this acceptance and rejection thing is a matter of luck. But since this isn't my first rodeo, I've imparted my wisdom (through both success and failure) into a student's guide to travel scholarships and volunteering abroad –it'll help clear up the convoluted application processes a bit.
Anyway, one day I got an email from a fully-funded press conference that I'd applied for six months prior – a program by the British Institute in Scotland called FNW2018, in Edinburgh. I'd never heard of this 'Edinburgh' before and I was shocked to find out it was the capital of Scotland – although, where the hell is this 'Scotland' place, anyway? It's in the United Kingdom, which means that bitch of a UK visa application. *cue the world's smallest violin playing the world's saddest song*. Plus, the conference is only three days long and I'd have to head back to Egypt without getting a chance to see anything or meet anyone or explore.
What does this conference have to do with being on a farm? Blame Kundera and Souad Hosny
You know the movie El Ra3i Wal Nesa2? That's my favorite movie. It takes place on a ranch where Souad Hosny, Ahmed Zaki, Yousra and Merna Walid live completely isolated from the outside world with only nature as their company. This movie sat nestled somewhere in my romantic subconscience, if you will – right next to the book The Unbearable Lightness of Being. I always wondered when I'd have a chance to go work on a farm beyond the confines of my imagination – running away from the weight of the responsibilities I wasn't even sure I believed in. I'm serious! I knew it was a very unconventional idea and that I'd have to convince my parents of this seemingly surreal undertaking and would need to find a way to even reach these people working on a farm – but the fact that it was driven by a movie remained my own little secret until I wrote it on this page.
I did some preliminary Googling about working on a ranch and found WWOOF, the website I eventually applied through. The whole thing is extensive and complicated; each country has its own landing page and layout, so the website for Italy, for example, wasn't very useful so I ended up contacting them through Facebook. The one for England was pretty good, though, and has all the information you might need before traveling.
I spent a year and a half looking at ranches – learning what people do there, and how agricultural life is different from one village to the next – but I knew the idea was still farfetched. Once I eventually started telling my friends about the idea and about WWOOF, they'd get really excited but not enough for me to turn the idea into an actual adventure.
But come on, put yourself in my shoes – I have a six-month visa in my hands and I'm supposed to come back to Egypt after just three days? That feels almost insulting. So I started digging through WWOOF in search of farms in the UK.
HOW I APPLIED
First, I had to pay a $20 subscription fee for the website so I can have access to the farms in the UK – not the whole world, just the UK. That was the most important step – the plunge into overcoming my fear with no turning back.
For every farm you get to see where it's located on the map, what type of farm it is (animal farm, agricultural farm, etc.), what type of accommodation you get (room, caravan, tent, etc.), what the food options are, the members of your host family, what type of animals they raise, and what type of work you'll be doing while you're there. When it comes to details, there's no need to worry at all – they even tell if you if they'll be providing you with farming gear and attire.
You can get in touch with any of the hosts via email and ask about whatever details you want; you can actually contact as many as you want – I emailed 60 and only got responses from 20 – then decide which farm you want, and the duration of time that suits your trip.
MY JOURNEY TO THE FARM
This journey was written against the backdrop of the El Ra3i Wal Nesa2 soundtrack by the brilliant Rageh Daoud.
After the conference wrapped up, I took my bag and went straight to Phantassie Farm (and fantasy it was) in the small village of East Linton, Edinburgh to begin my journey as a farmer.
I spent three weeks living in a wooden portable where literally everything was made of wood. There was a sign that said not to use any cosmetics or perfumes or pesticides with any odor so as to help "maintain the scent of the wood." I obviously ignored all of this, because who gives a shit about the smell of the wood? I sprayed myself senseless... then I discovered why the sign was there. The wood absorbed and retained all the scents, and the room ended up smelling so pungent that I couldn't even spend the night there. And that was when I decided to surrender to everything on the farm – surrender to the fact that the bathroom is an hour walk away; surrender to the fact that I can't wash my hair with shampoo or any chemicals but have to use water, lemon, and herbs ground from the farm; surrender to the absence of any mirrors to see myself in; surrender to the fact that there was no chicken or meat on the farm and that I'd have to live off pumpkin soup and the potatoes I peeled – which I hated; and surrender to the fact that I had a rabbit living in my portable and eating my food – he was cute and chubby, though.
At first the whole thing felt nearly impossible; my body ached and I understood that, while nature is beautiful, it's not comfortable and is difficult to adapt to. The farm had other volunteers – two guys and two girls from France who had met while on the farm. We'd get up at 7 AM, walk to the bathroom, then come back and bake scones for breakfast before heading out to tend to the crops and harvest the berries – which were different than the berries we have back home. We'd finish work at 5 PM and my body would be completely destroyed, yet I'd feel happy and content at the same time.
There wasn't much to do for entertainment in the countryside; we'd go for a swim in the sea or watch a game at a small local pub, or try to find a place that served anything other than fish and chips – their trademark meal. There were old abandoned castles across the countryside that no one would visit, so we'd go exploring those on our own.
After the first week I got used to not seeing myself in the mirror, and that my last chance to go to the bathroom was at 8 PM. I also grew to accept bugs and that they aren't particularly harmful – and that they're much more tolerable than bees. I grew to like berries, although gathering them from among the thorns was painful – but after a while my hands got used to the feeling and stopped hurting. I grew fond of pumpkin soup, and I would sleep at 9 PM, which isn't exactly nighttime in Scotland because the sun sets there at 10 PM. I was just like the hardworking Egyptian fellah (farmer).
There are plenty of websites for volunteering abroad, but Arabs don't really use them. Actually, I was the first Arab female volunteer on an English farm in 22 years – that's basically as old as WWOOF itself. People came from other farms in the area to meet me and know my story, and find out how I managed to persuade my parents to let me do this. I felt like a very cool Arab.
Travelling requires a certain taste for adventure, and not everything has to be planned out and organized – if it were, where would the fun and adventure be? My story is just one of something I wanted to do for a long time and finally managed to go through with it. Share with us your dreams and the adventures you’d like to experience. I honestly wish you well on making those dreams come true, and I hope you do all that goes on in that mind of your, even if it’s changing the color of your phone cover.