The Workaway page advertised an organic coffee farm in the mountains of Quindio, the heart of Colombia’s coffee production. Turns out I would be working in a coffee shop in a small town called Pijao that no one has ever heard of except people who grew up there, most of which still live in Pijao.
I had a funny feeling about the place the moment I stepped off the bus. The town square was small and simple, framed by a solitary clock tower and green hills in the distance. The buildings were characterized by traditionally painted, brightly colored doors and windows. I snorted out loud in a burst of laughter when the first sign I noticed read, “Almacen Jerusalem: Bueno, Bunito, y Barato.” That’s embarrassing. Spanish isn’t even my first language and I know how to spell “Bonito”.
As I wandered through the square with my backpack, I heard someone call my name: Victor, the guy I would be working for. He’s a short man in his 50s with round glasses, white hair and an awkward demeanor. His mouth reminds me of the bad guy in the first Spiderman movie, the way it makes a thin line on his face and curls up at the ends.
Victor introduced me to a whirlwind of people, steering me from one group to the next and talking for me as if I couldn’t present myself on my own. “This is Amanda, from Oregon in the United States. She has come here to learn about the farm, growing and preparing coffee and our culture. We connected through a website called Workaway. She is a vegetarian and a singer and she likes to write…”
Victor’s friends studied me as he talked, then asked him questions about me perhaps assuming that I didn’t speak Spanish because I hadn’t gotten a word in edgewise. I suddenly felt like an odd species of animal on display at a zoo.
This became a pattern throughout my two-week stay at Pijao, each introduction speech exactly the same but with added details about Victor’s new pet (“She plays the flute! She does yoga! She can teach us English!”) as he learned more about my habits and interests. And no, it didn’t get any less annoying.
The first person Victor introduced me to was Ana Maria. “Mi novia,” he added, and I’m glad he specified she’s his girlfriend because I assumed she was his daughter; she looks like she could be 13.
My first night we spent talking at the café, Victor appeared overwhelmingly delighted at everything I told him about myself. (“You don’t eat chicken? That’s incredible!” “You like instrumental music? Wow, me too!” “You want to learn stuff? That’s awesome!”) “I’m so happy you’re here,” he said over and over again, staring into my eyes. I just thanked him awkwardly, feeling more and more uncomfortable.
“Where am I staying?” I asked finally, since night had descended and that hadn’t yet been addressed.
“Oh, well I don’t have any room in my house but there is a nice hotel nearby,” he said. “Do you want to take your stuff over now?” …
I volunteer while travelling for three reasons. One: to learn new things. Two: to experience the local life that I wouldn’t experience at a hostel, and Three: to save money. The point of Workaway is that my accommodation and food are provided for in exchange for my labor. So needless to say, I was a little put off and a bit perturbed when I arrived at a private hotel room whose only price tag was a laugh and off-hand assurance, “Don’t worry; it’s reasonable.”
When I finally got the bill, it was not cheap by my standards. Later, Victor was presenting me to another new person and they asked where I was staying. I said I was at the hotel but I planned on moving because it was too expensive.
“Why didn’t you negotiate the price?” Victor asked me.
“Because I had already slept one night there. I can’t negotiate after already staying; that’s something you do beforehand,” I said. Victor laughed like an adult does at the cute antics of a child.
“Isn’t it great?” he said to the other person with us. “They’re so particular that way.” ‘They’ I guess referring to those of my particular and peculiar species.
To be continued…
Pijao: False Advertising
The Workaway page advertised an organic coffee farm in the mountains of Quindio, the heart of Colombia’s coffee production.