I poked my head into the dark warehouse squinting my eyes for any movement.
“Ni hao, you ren zai zhe ma?”
(“Hello, is anyone here?”)
A small but stoutly lady in a pink puffer vest comes out from the depths with a big smile. She’s been expecting us since 3pm, but due to the large feast we had for lunch on our way here, we were half an hour late.
Her name is Yi Hsing and she and her robust husband, A Deng are our supervisors for the next week.
Fast forward my life in Taiwan, and I’m now in the middle of Hsinchu (新竹縣) somewhere with my mate Guang-Hui, offering labouring services in exchange for board and the chance to practice our Chinese. We’ll be here for a week, learning everything they do and helping where we can.
It’s not the first time I’ve volunteered whilst travelling, but it is my first time WWOOFING …and I’m hoping the city life of Taipei hasn’t made me too unfit for farm work.
Yi Hsing didn’t seem to mind that we weren’t on time. We settled our sleeping spots quickly and she gave us a thorough rundown of what it is they do here. Arden Rice (農糧小舖) isn’t unfamiliar to having cultural exchanges, and we aren’t the first foreign helpers either. Based in Zhudong Township (竹東鎮), they do everything from growing to harvesting rice and vegetables to raising pigs, ducks and even quails. Yi Hsing and A Deng are more than happy to share their daily agricultural lives with anyone who cared to learn.
After getting acquainted with the friendly resident cats, we went to work. Yes, there’s no dilly-dallying here even if the sun was preparing to set. A Deng gave us each a sickle and a pair of gloves, and we went weed-hacking amongst the sweet potato vines. I say hack because the size of these things could be root vegetables themselves. We realised using brute force worked better than anything though…so we threw away the sickles and pulled the weed trees by hand as the sky tinged gold and pink.
There’s something about labouring in the fields that is extremely satisfying. Of course I know I’m seeing everything through rose-coloured glasses as someone who is first day on the job and has never laboured on a farm before. But yanking plants, shaking the earth and smelling that soil made me feel…well, healthy. I’m with nature and I’m exerting actual physical effort. I much prefer this than sitting in an office all the live long day.
We cleaned up about a third of the field just before the sun fully set. Nothing quite like standing back and seeing how even just 40 minutes of toiling could do. And with a gorgeous backdrop to boot. I was seeing progress shaped by my own hands, and I’m excited to finish the job.
We walked back to the warehouse and helped A Deng pile some rice bags into the cool room. Giving them a helping hand doesn’t mean that they get to sit back and relax. He’s been busy with the mill and it was time to store them before they get packaged.
Yi Hsing told us to rest, and though I didn’t feel tired, I fell asleep quickly after plonking myself on the mattress on the floor. It’s a modest farmhouse and our room is a shed-like room held upstairs from the machinery and work tools they use. It gets cold, and you hear the wind, but it was nonetheless quite a comfortable abode to call home for the next week. With piping hot showers and a warm, soft bed, I consider this rather luxurious compared to the cement and cardboard boxes we’ve slept on in previous adventures together.
Guang-Hui woke me from my brief slumber to let me know we’ve been invited to eat dinner at a hotpot restaurant with their friends.
Surrounding a steaming pot of duck, meatballs, and all the mushrooms you could imagine, we sat down amongst the newly-acquainted friends and joined them for dinner. They are a hearty, open and laidback crew, who, after a few drinks got rowdier and more entertaining to watch. Along with the steamboat, we scoffed down three fish dishes, vegetables and the spiciest fried rice I’ve encountered by a long mile… and downed a couple of glasses of Taiwan Beer with it too. Using our broken Chinese, we talked mainly about Taiwanese cabbage (they’re rather expensive nowadays due to a bad season), giant Aussie spiders (that viral video of one carrying a mouse), and what roadkill in Australia was like (red kangaroos can be lethal!).