WWOOFing It in Pirénopolis, Brazil - Part I

I spent eight days working on an organic farm through WWOOF International (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms) at Chácara Canto Guardian just a couple kilometers outside of the charming town of Pirenópolis in Goiás state in central Brazil. This was something I’ve wanted to do for some time.

It was a superb experience – the host Julia greeted me each morning with a smile and hug, fed me healthy and hearty organic meals, gave me a list of manageable tasks that I willingly did each day, and offered me a comfortable cottage where I could relax in private.

Canto Guardian isn’t a typical WWOOF property since it’s not really a full-fledged working organic farm. While Julia does have a couple of vegetable gardens, banana and coconut trees, and a bounty of medicinal herbs, she is a full-time professor and has only part-time help so her farming operations are limited. And since I arrived in the dry season and the irrigation system is just being built, there was little hands-on gardening during my stay.

But each WWOOF experience is unique and I found magic while walking the nature trails, observing the birds and butterflies and bugs, marveling at each sunrise and sunset, and chatting with Julia while swinging in a hammock. What follows is the diary of my WWOOFing days.

See Part Two for the second-half of my experience. Also check out my recommendations to anyone interested in giving WWOOF a try.

Monday, July 15

Buzy bee outside my room at the WWOOF farm Canto Guardian

I wake up late to sunshine. It’s a welcome change from the cloudy skies and rain of interior Bahia state. Before heading to breakfast, I sit and admire the surrounding green hills and the bees busily working the bright yellow blossoms outside my door.

I notice the following posted near my terrace. It pretty much sums up the tone of this place:

Bem vindo!
Você está no Canto Guardian.
Silencie seus pensamentos e busque entrar em contacto com seu Eu interior.
É importante estar presente.Você faz parte de um todo, descubra seu valor e contribua com o colectivo.
Convidamos todos a desenvolvero senso de presença através da observação.

Welcome!
You are at Guardian Song
Silence your thoughts and seek to contact your interior You.
It is important to be present. You are part of a total, discover your value and contribute to the collective.
We invite everyone to develop a sense of presence through observation.

Julia, my host, is sweet and welcoming. She has a childlike laugh and broad smile and takes time to introduce me to the property. There is a main house, open and airy with a basic kitchen and a large living room fitted with a yoga mat where she does tai chi and meditation. A spacious veranda wraps around the main house where we spend most of our time – there are hammocks, comfortable chairs, a large table for meals, and some of Julia’s small art objects comprised of stones, seeds, feathers, plants and other natural effects gathered nearby.

My wonderful WWOOF host Julia at the main gate of Canto Guardian

I learn that currently there are no active gardens which changes my WWOOFing expectations. Julia is a professor at the Federal University of Goiás and only maintains an organic farm during the wetter summer months when irrigation is less toiling and she is less consumed by her teaching duties.

So the tasks during my stay will be essentially property maintenance: clearing out drainage canals, thinning the thickets and gathering firewood for the stove, painting, repairing furniture, maintaining the trail system and restoring the placards indicating the many tree types found on the property (sucupira, vinhático, aroeira, carvoreiro… none of these are in my dictionary). I’m not exactly working with exotic tropical fruits or harvesting cacao or coffee beans but fine to me all the same. It’s a beautiful setting with a wonderful host and I have a comfortable and private suite all to myself – it really is ideal.

So off to work! I started by repairing a table that was in desperate need of glue and new screws for support, added new signage to the guest cabins, moved mattresses and cleaned up the guest areas for the soon-to-arrive Chileans. It’s light-ish work but it feels good. Julia lets me work very independently and is very helpful when I have questions.

Colonial Pirenópolis: A serene place during the week

In the evening I stroll through Pirenópolis, a gem of a gold-rush town with cobbled streets, an appealing mix of colonial and Art Deco buildings, and with a slight hippy bend. It’s pretty quiet during the week – Pirenópolis is devoid of visitors save for the roving groups of escoteiros, adolescent scouts from larger Brazilian cities now on winter break. The number of tourist-oriented shops and restaurants, however, indicates that this place gets filled on weekends.

Off to bed early… I was awfully tired from the all-night bus journey on Saturday followed by a full day of sightseeing in Brasília and the night drive to Pirenópolis with Julia, we didn’t arrive until 3 AM this morning!

Tuesday, July 16

Buenos día, Chile! A bus with Chilean musicians arrives at Canto Guardian

Today the Chileans arrived! Seven musicians from Santiago plus two helping hands and a smiling two-year-old named Violeta. They are friends of Julia, here for a concert tomorrow night and some workshops in town. Artistic and friendly, they instantly include me in their posse. They sing, play accordions and guitars, tell jokes, eat massive quantities of watermelon, do yoga and meditate, gather odds and ends to create art – they are wonderful and captivating.

After breakfast we walk with Julia on the trails. We pass trees, sunny glades and burbling streams. We stop at a shady spot alongside the Córrego Vagafogo brook and make music with the water, stirring with sticks, dribbling from our hands, tapping rhythmically with leaves. Julia starts to vocalize an impromptu melody and the rest join in natural harmony. Violeta giggles in delight.

Lunch is a hearty tortilla, an egg dish packed with spinach, chard, onion, carrot and potato. The salad is crisp greens, steamed manioc root, radish and grated ginger topped with sea salt, vinegar and olive oil. I provide the desert, a one-pound chunk of dulce de leche flavored with chocolate and licuti, a crunchy nut from an equatorial coconut palm. I brought this Bahian specialty from a village in the Chapada Diamantina region and it disappeared fast!

My work for the day consisted of moving felled timber from one side of the property to another. I also cleaned out an irrigation canal that runs from the upper reaches of the farm, past the main house through a series of attractive pools and flower beds, and down to the veggie gardens. Too bad it’s the dry season – I can imagine how lush this is when the rains pour down in summertime.

Wednesday, July 17

Today was certainly an atypical WWOOFing day – I accompanied Julia to the state capital of Goiânia where she teaches. It’s a long 2.5 hour trip each way and she was really glad I offered to drive since she had classes and meetings all day.

We left early at about 6:30 AM after drinking a vitamina (fresh-juice shake with soy milk), stopping in Anápolis to refuel with álcool, or Brazilian ethanol made from sugarcane that is eight time more efficient than that derived from corn and provides 40% of Brazil’s fuel. Julia’s Volkswagen has a “flex fuel” engine that allows it to run on either gasoline or ethanol but Julia explained she only uses gasoline in the small starter tank used during ignition. Álcool works really well despite being a bit sluggish up hills. It’s a 100%-renewable energy source and Brazil is leading the word in this important technology.

Crazy for coconut in Goiânia's Bosque dos Buritis park

I spent a few hours in downtown Goiânia, a planned city like Brasília but predating the nation’s capital by thirty years. I enjoyed a tasty lunch at a por quilo restaurant, the ubiquitous buffets that serve up extensive salad offerings and meaty mains. Plates are piled high with desired eats, which are weighed to determine the price (normally USD $4-5/pound). While Brazilian cuisine is heavy on meats, I always find a healthy and filling vegetarian meal at the por quilo restaurants by sticking to the salad bar.

A por-quilo restaurant in Goiâna... a place to fill up on greens!

This restaurant in Goiânia had wifi so I was able to check email and phone Paul, which was a real treat since the farm does not have internet. It’s always great to hear his voice and check in. After a leisurely stroll through the relaxing Bosque dos Buritis park in the city center, I headed back to the university to wait for Julia. As I sat in the outdoor café studying my Portuguese, I was (happily) distracted by snooping monkeys in the trees overhead and by the music students’ guitar playing.

Scenes from the Federal University in Goiânia: student graffiti, monkeys, and a shady café to study Portuguese

It was a pleasant drive back to Pirenópolis. Julia is very easy to talk to. She is comfortable speaking English and Spanish but she always talks to me in Portuguese which is great practice for me. As we were driving through the bucolic countryside of central Brasil’s cerrado (savannah), the skies darkened and soon it rained, freshening the air and dampening the dusty fields. Julia was overjoyed; it has been many weeks without rain and the growing things are thirsty. Just as the sun was setting a glorious double rainbow appeared.

We rolled into town with just enough time to grab a cheese pamonha, a stuffed & steamed cornmeal patty wrapped in corn husks, identical to a Mexican tamale or a Bolivian huminta. Our hunger sated, we entered the Teatro de Pirenópolis to enjoy the talented Chileans perform Pan-American music as part of their Grupo Merkén.

The Chilean folk band Merkén performing at the Teatro de Pirenópolis

Thursday, July 18

A great night of sleep! I awoke to clouds… the cheery sun of days past was not beating upon my metal door which warms the chilly night air in my room. For breakfast I cleaned a large bowl of ripe strawberries for the Chileans and munched on bananas and oranges.

WWOOF Woodworking 101: Repairing a bench at Canto Guardian farm

My major task for the day was repairing a wooden bench. I struggled with the poor quality of tools and materials – I managed to find a rusty but serviceable saw and rummaged through a stack of soiled wood reclaimed from some previous structure. After hours of shooing ants and writhing with the impaired implements I managed to deliver a vastly improved piece of furniture!

I am proud of my resourcefulness in such an challenging environment. It’s satisfying to be productive in sustainable and creative ways: reusing wood and nails, handling manual tools, restoring a “throwaway” household good while avoiding plastic parts, extension cords, and trips to Home Depot.

I’m impressed at how simply yet deliciously food is served up here at Canto Guardian. A weighty watermelon is happily gobbled up in minutes by the laughing Chileans. Julia piles sauteed chard, sweet potato, ginger, carrot and beans onto brown rice. Tart and sumptuous jabuticaba evergreen berries are blended with fresh mint and soy milk for a refreshing and light smoothie. Zesty arugula-like greens are topped with roasted red peppers and rosy strawberries to make a sweet and tangy salad.

Nothing is pulled from the freezer, emptied from cans or thrown in the microwave. The only bottled items in the kitchen are oils, salts and vinegars. Julia eats mostly organic, gluten-free and vegetarian… and all of it simple, inventive, tasty, nutritious and garden-fresh – this is a great way to live!

Sunset is shopping time at Pirenópolis' twice-weekly farmers' market

In the late afternoon I walked to the farmers’ market in town to listen to Julia sing with a couple of the Chilean musicians. Sunset was in full glory as the more earth-conscious townsfolk greeted and gathered organic greens to be eaten in coming days.

Before bedtime, I read Julia’s recently-published memoir of her experiences living with an indigenous tribe in the Amazon’s Rondônia state during the 1980’s – an otherworldly read before falling into a dreamy sleep.

Continued in Part Two…

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