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Ducks, bad-tempered parrots and mad scientists: Natasha Were shovels, builds and chauffeurs her way through Spain with Workaway.

With icy rain trickling down the back of my neck and my hands practically frozen solid to the garden fork I was holding, I did have a moment of doubt. Was shovelling great piles of sodden straw matted together with duck shit so smelly it made my eyes water really so much better than the dull-but-dry office job I had left behind?

It was my first day as a Workaway volunteer (workaway.info) – one of a number of web-based exchange schemes that connect willing volunteers around the world with hosts who need an extra pair of hands – and I was already wondering if I had made a catastrophically bad decision.

My host, a no-nonsense Yorkshire woman who had spent the past 15 years living alone on a remote smallholding in north-eastern Spain clearly had no time for soft city types. And so, the duck shit having been relocated to the compost pile, she wasted no time in sending me down a disused well with a bucket on a string. For the rest of the day I repeatedly filled said bucket with broken glass, plastic bottles, old plates and the odd semi-decomposed sock that had been tossed into the bowels of the earth over the years, for her to haul up and dump in a wheel barrow. 

Having spent the wettest winter on record squelching around England, I’d decided it was time to wave goodbye to computer screens for a while, and head off to sunny Spain. My aim was twofold: to experience the country beyond the sand and sangria, and to learn more about the world of organic gardening and sustainable living. 

Similar to programmes like WOOFing, ‘workawayers’ receive board and lodging in return for four to five hours’ work per day, five days a week. Unlike WOOFing, however, hosts on the Workaway site are not necessarily farmers, and may be looking for individuals or couples to help with anything from childcare and language exchange to gardening, building or hospitality work. 

My first placement wasn’t all bad, and having apparently passed the initiation test, I was re-allocated to more enjoyable jobs, such as feeding the poultry and collecting eggs, walking the dogs, weeding, and planting crops for the coming season. I came to look forward to my daily visit to the ducks, who never failed to make me smile as they waddled about on their splayed orange feet, quacking away happily, and enthusiastically attempting to swim in two inches of filthy water. 

On days off, my host took me with her to local farmers’ markets in quaint medieval villages, and to the picturesque Costa Brava, where steep pine-clad hillsides plunged down into sandy coves, which, at that time of year, were devoid of people. 

One Saturday afternoon in March, I found myself standing at a long table with a bib tied around my neck, readying myself for my first calçotada. A seasonal gastronomic celebration particular to the Cataluña region, calçotadas are noisy, messy affairs that involve the grilling of dozens of bundles of large spring onion-like vegetables, which are then stripped of their charred outer leaves, dipped into a rich red sauce and dangled overhead, before being dropped into open maws. It’s all helped down with plenty of steak, sausages, and lashings of red wine poured straight from glass jugs into open mouths. It’s neither elegant nor ladylike, but it is definitely good fun.

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