Blood, sweat and weeds: a day in the life on the Stardust Sanctuary Farm

I ignore the blisters on my rugged hands as I tear a vine with a seemingly never-ending root from the soil. Yes, those hands that are routinely darting over the keyboard and performing other delicate tasks. After all, we become writers because we’re afraid of hard physical work, the heavy lifting and the spine-breaking labour in construction or on the field. I twist out yet another turf of grass, toss it on the ever-growing pile and decapitate a thorny weed with a hoe. I won’t make the mistake again of pulling it until my hands bleed. The dark clay stains my fingers, stains I’ll not manage to get off of my hands with even the most generous helping of soap.

My feet are marinating in my gummy boots, creating little ponds of sweat. I don’t remember that a human can produce such vast amounts of sweat. Please don’t blame me for my amnesia: I’ve lived in Estonia for most of the past two years. Estonia, where sweating means that you’ve turned the heating too far up. Or, of course, that you’re sitting in the sauna. But now we’re in the tropics again. In Belize, temperatures rise steadily all through the morning, until they reach a point, around ten, when it’s so hot that you can’t do anything else but retreat into pools or fanned rooms.

However, it’s not ten yet. Leaning on my hoe like a pro, I contemplate the work done. The patch of jungle slowly starts to resemble a pineapple field again. I’ve manfully rescued many pineapple plants from being overgrown by evil weeds, even though a month has thought me one thing: these weeds will be back – tomorrow. It’s truly a struggle of Man Vs. Nature. When I move to another pineapple and grab for the next weed in auto mode, I feel a sting, and another one, and a third one. It’s too late for second thoughts: I’ve planted my hand straight into an ant nest. The ants climb up on my boots until they find the flesh in which to bite.

Bug picking

Pauline dashes onto the field. A radiant smile instructs us: “Guys, grab a bottle and a pair of gloves. It’s time for bug picking.” Manually plucking squash bugs from kale, lettuce and other vegetables, I reflect and wonder how my cushioned life has taken such a curious turn.

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The explanation is Workaway. Our American hostess Pauline is the owner of the Stardust Sanctuary Farm, a farm in the Belizean Maya Mountains that applies permaculture and edible forest garden methods. The plan is to change the poor, depleted land, worn-out by generations of slash-and-burn and other malpractices, into a flourishing heaven that will bear enough fruits to feed the humans and animals living on it. It’s as if we’re performing CPR on the land. It’s a noble cause, but that doesn’t make the fight against nature any easier.

The end is nigh

Luckily, we have a good team on our side. I’ve already mentioned Pauline. Tired of high taxes and stringent regulations in New York – no, you can not have chickens in your garden in the Big Apple! – she threw all her belongings in a Toyota Tundra and a big ass Airstream caravan. She even took her sink. Pauline drove through a dozen American states and the whole of Mexico to land on this tiny piece of paradise. She is the brain behind the whole operation. “Here’s the difference between permaculture and ordinary farming-”, Pauline keeps saying, “permaculture is lots of work in the beginning, and then it gets easier, and the land takes care of itself. Ordinary farming is always lots of work.” I hope it’s true, if only to ease the task of future Workawayers.

If Pauline is the brain, then Lily, Miguel and Victor are surely the hands. If there would be a world championship of chopping grass with a machete, Victor (nicknamed El Máquina) would undoubtedly win the gold medal. And Lily might sometimes wish she could spray the whole field with pesticides, she sure knows how to work a hoe, a shovel and a rake.

There are other residents on the Stardust Sanctuary Farm. Guy McPherson is a biologist and climate scientist who believes the end is nigh for humans on this planet. Mechele gave up a promising career as a belly dancer in Indianapolis’ Mediterranean restaurants to come and live on the farm with her husband Rob. She also makes a mean omelette. Almost-namesake Michelle is a Workawayer from Dublin and likes Guinness so much that she has a pint tattooed on her body. Andrew is from California and has been catching snakes and other critters ever since he was a little boy. His grandmother wouldn’t let him leave the house without anti-venom, just in case.

All in all, it’s a parade of characters so colourful that even a toddler with ADD, given a colouring book and the full gamut of crayons, couldn’t come up with it.

T-Rex growls in the jungle

With a crew like that, there’s no work without play. The truth is that life on the Stardust Sanctuary Farm has been a charm. We’re usually leaving the field around 10 o’clock, drenched in sweat and ready to dive into the swimming pool, between mango trees and with hummingbirds fluttering around. There’s nothing more rewarding. Afterwards, depending on energy levels, we’ll walk, cycle or hitchhike the two miles into San Antonio. All we need is internet from the internet café, beers from the South Side Cool Spot bar – where the old owner turns on his Bob Marley Greatest Hits every time we enter – and panades or beans and rice from the nameless restaurant with the bamboo roof. Or, if we’re lucky enough that there’s any in store, delicious pieces of lemon pie from Marleny’s.

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It’s a simple life, but a rewarding one. We’re hungry every time we eat and tired every time we lay our heads down. In the evening, the jungle sings us to sleep. Or, (if you’re more cynical) the jungle sounds like having tinnitus. Night-time insects buzz and zoom at volumes that make you wonder if you’ll ever fall asleep. And I’m not even talking about the howler monkeys and their T-Rex growls. But you do fall asleep, early, because you’re tired. In fact, as Anete put it: when the cicadas raise it up, it’s like a car honk that marks the end of the day on the Stardust Sanctuary Farm. Onto the next.