(8 minute read)
Volunteering while traveling is something I’ve always wanted to do. A chance to get off the tourist trail and not just experience the local scene, but contribute to it. However it can be pretty expensive, taking away the ‘nice and fuzzies’ and making it unreachable to those (like Stu and I) who have time to give, but not a lot of cash.
I was pumped to discover Give a Day Global who connects travellers with one day volunteer experiences all over the world. Even better, they had a program with a family-run organic farm in Cuba.
The day we organised to visit also happened to be my birthday, and without sounding cliche, it was probably my most favourite birthday yet! Or maybe I’m just getting old and forgetful. It was a day full of veggies and dirt, not cake and glitter. But Stu did make me wear a happy birthday badge, all day. It also ended with ice-cream from the locally famous Coppelia. Pretty tops to me!
It’s my party but I’ll farm if I want to!
Located about 30 minutes from Havana, Finca Tungasuk farm is run by Annabelle and Alfredo who moved to Cuba from Nicaragua. In just a few years they’ve worked to revive the rundown farm house and land, promoting indigenous methods of farming and the importance of plant based foods to a heavy meat eating audience.
After a cup of cuban coffee I’d come to know and love, we headed to a thatched hot-house where Alfredo showed us how he grows a highly demanded mushroom rumoured to make you live for a hundred years. Insert sceptical yet intrigued face. We masked up to avoid any foreign spores entering the bags and layered mushroom seeds on a homemade banana leaf mulch. We were smooth sailing until someone (aka Stu…) spilt the alcohol disinfectant. I was left to rescue my gardening gloves and clean ink off my arm. Note huge blue tattoo in photo below.
We also helped pick lima beans! Exclamation mark fully deserved. I was so excited as I’ve come to really love legumes living in London as we bulked out meals on the cheap. The hot tip on how you tell they’re ready to pick is the pod feels fatter than non-ripe ones. If you hold it up to the sun you can see the beans inside are fully separated into three or four cute little beans. Ta-da!
It was a hearty lunch with hearty conversation
Annabelle put on an absolute spread for lunch, serving hearty salads using ingredients we’d picked that day with some pork and chicken from the neighbour. But what made it a meal to remember was the conversation.
We learned more about the way of life for Cubans, and while I’m not going to pretend I know everything or even anything about communism or Cuban history, I left the table wondering if we would be better off taking inspiration from this so called ‘third world’ country vs blindly continuing to follow consumption-capital USA.
A few topics I thought was interesting to reflect on and share:
Working to own:
Alfredo and Annabelle told us of how they acquired the farm from the government who allocates land to people as long as they work it and care for it. The government takes around 80-90% of the yield. But the rest is for the farmer to keep or sell for their own profit. Farmers also have very low electricity and water costs. $4 each a year if I heard correctly! I thought this arrangement was interesting, making land ownership mutually beneficial by putting it in good hands to provide for the community vs sitting under utilised or misused.
Stu and I dream of owning a small farm one day. However the whole thing is pretty daunting. How do you decide what to grow? Do you decide, or does the land tell you? Or is it more about growing for a market? I have ALL of the questions…
Alfredo’s advice was to start small. Grow for your own needs first. Learn about your soil and test what crops and techniques work best before expanding out. They started with a few fruit trees that would take longer to establish and a small field beside the house.
Since Obama relaxed the ban on travelling to Cuba in 2014, Americans have flooded in along with everyone else trying to see this ‘country stuck in time’ before it changes. However as positive as tourism is for building a more tolerant world, there are downsides as visitors bring with them expectations built on home comforts.
Take clean drinking water for example. Not many of us are thinking about the environmental impact of plastic water bottles as we hydrate in the most convenient way to avoid travel diarrhoea. But here’s some quick stats. I reckon Stu and I drank about 1.5 litres a day (buying water unfortunately meant drinking less) over our 14 day trip. So that’s at least 21 bottles we left locals to recycle or dispose of. Multiply that by the 4 million tourists who visited last year and that’s 84 million plastic bottles. And as a CKE (Conservative Kylie Estimate) I’m going to bet the official figure is much higher.
We turn up, party, pollute and piss off. Responsible tourism probably deserves a post of it’s own. Instead I’d like to reflect here on the resourcefulness of the locals I observed.
In local restaurants, street stalls and carts passing by I saw plastic bottles being reused for storage, especially coffee beans and lentils. Spotting some refilled bottles at the farm prompted me to ask Annabelle about it. She told us of how plastic is expensive and difficult to obtain so Cubans reuse it many times until completely worn out.
Finding organic alternatives:
On a similar point, Alfredo told us how pesticides are also difficult to access and so it’s easier to farm organically. He relies on what’s available from the farm or nearby including a natural pesticide made from tobacco. We’ve done a little reading around Permaculture, agriculture methods modelled on natural ecosystems. Seeing Alfredo in action has made us excited to learn more.
Bartering goods and services with neighbours:
“I don’t need money. I can’t buy anything with it anyway.”
This comment from Alfredo, or to a similar point, stuck with me most that day.
Alfredo told us of how he trades his veggies with other farmers for services or foods they don’t grow. Workers on the farm are also paid in fresh food to enjoy with their families. I loved how Annabelle and Alfredo were creating and supporting a local community, choosing to provide locally vs sell for a higher price in Havana.
I saw these partnerships among Cubans beyond the farm too as they worked together to share resources to get what they both need. One example was when we caught a taxi from Vinales to Trinidad and we were ‘swapped’ half way into another vehicle. At the time it felt so dodgy, but later (once we safely arrived) I realised how efficient it is for these drivers to be working together.
Go see them!
Finca Tungasuk was such a great intro to organic farming and the first of many farms and sustainable living projects to come in our adventure ahead.
I’d really recommend visiting to other travellers. Get in touch with Annabelle and find out what donations they’re in need of. We bought along some sustainable farming books which hopefully have been useful.
Gracias y adios, Annabelle and Alfredo!