by Aliyya Swaby:
I had wanted to WWOOF (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms) since I had decided early sophomore year that I was not going to go for a traditional internship or job this summer. With its network of free or cheap hosting options on different farms, WWOOFing seemed like the best way to travel for an urbanite looking for something a little different.
I had a week of unscheduled time during my travels through Ecuador, so I signed up on WWOOF Ecuador’s site and contacted as many host farms as possible. Options ranged from rainforest oases in the east to coastal eco-lodges and reserves, each including gorgeous descriptions that made my heart race in excitement.
But the only farm that gave me a definite response was Finca Vrindavan, a small Vedic orchid farm just outside Baños, a few hours southeast of Quito. “You are very welcome to us whenever you are around,” wrote someone named Madhu mangala das “(or Patrick)” in a cheery e-mail. The farm’s website showed photos of smiling people in the midst of a variety of actions: sitting in hammocks, doing pottery, holding paintbrushes, standing amongst plants, climbing wooden structures, even doing yoga.
I wanted to be one of those smiling people—I was sold. So I hopped on a bus on July 30th and arrived at the farm the next day, catching a camioneta or truck from the nearest town. The premises looked even more beautiful than on the website, with lush mountains visible in the background and a river audible from anywhere on the property. In the building up the road, there were people practicing yoga and two puppies chased each other and yipped happily. Picture perfect.
“Hare Krishna,” a young man greeted me happily at the entrance as I walked up with my giant hiking pack.
“Ummm…hola,” I replied in awe.
“Chocolate?” he asked, still smiling. I nodded speechlessly and he handed me a cup filled with brown liquid. The hot chocolate tasted different, almost earthy, and I could already feel my spirituality increasing.
There was a large tour group from Quito staying for the day and I mingled with them, even going on a relaxing two-hour hike on a trail on the property.
“Sweet!” I thought. “Yoga breaks, hikes along a babbling river, puppies? What more could a gal need?” But then everything went downhill.
The tour group left for Quito on Sunday and I was left with four volunteers — a couple and two men, a younger one named Vida and an older one named Krishna. The first sign of trouble was the fact that the older man kept leering at me. I would take a bite of food or finish petting the puppies and look up to see his eyes fixated on my chest, his tiny mouth grinning behind unruly gray stubble. But it was OK—the others were there, nothing would happen and I was determined to learn how to plant orchids.
But then the couple announced on Monday that they, too, were heading to Quito. Something to do with getting visas sorted out. I was a bit more worried at this point and decided to shorten my trip—to leave on Wednesday instead of Friday as I’d planned. Before leaving, the man in the couple, named Yajña, gave me and Vida an enormous list of tasks, including cutting down some banana trees in the back of the property and weeding the bed of aloe vera.
Soon after they left it started to rain and Vida gave up the idea of working for the day. Instead he told me stories about past volunteers who had come to the farm and hated it, told me that no one in charge really cared about taking care of the farm, and told me that he wouldn’t blame me for leaving early either. And just as I was starting to feel comfortable with this querulous companion, he, too, made a pass at me. (“You’re young and you’re nice. You should have expected us to be attracted to you,” he explained simply when I protested.) I knew my time at the farm was over.
That night, I asked if I could change rooms, to sleep in a different building from the two men. And on Tuesday morning, I packed quickly and announced that I was leaving for Quito within the hour.
Throughout my travels this summer, I’ve prided myself on rarely taking the easy way out. I’ve taken 10-hour bus rides in the dead of night, hiked through the rainforest till my feet burned, stayed in questionable residences when necessary. But I realized that more important than pushing through difficult situations is knowing when to leave a potentially dangerous or even just uncomfortable one. It’s always important to weigh one’s options: in this case, I decided that my desire to not be violated completely overpowered my desire to plant flowers. For me, the choice was easy.