After nearly 3 months of staying in Airbnbs and guesthouses, we shifted gears into the realm of Workaway. Workaway is a global network that connects hosts with workers through its website. Each host has their own set of guidelines and expectations for how their arrangements are set up, but the generally accepted parameters for a Workaway stint are that the worker puts in 5 hours of labor per day, 5 days a week in exchange for accommodations and food during their stay with the host, with no money exchanged. Workaway is similar to its predecessor, WWOOF, but where WWOOF is primarily focused on placing workers on organic farms and other sustainable agriculture projects, Workaway is much broader in it’s scope. A Workaway host may request a wide variety of tasks to be performed, from farming to construction to language teaching to child care to helping out in a hostel, and any number of other odd jobs.
This was our first Workaway experience of many to come. We have 3 lined up in Slovenia this summer, and we’re working on setting up a few more in Croatia and Montenegro. Besides being an ideal vehicle for sharing our skills and also picking up new skill sets, it’s an excellent way to extend our travels, as virtually all of our basic expenses are covered. And after 3 months of not working at all, it feels good to get our hands dirty again, not to mention the satisfaction of getting something productive done. A 25 hour work week with 2 days off gives us plenty of time to explore the area, which is why we choose Workaways in regions that are beautiful, interesting and ripe with exploration opportunities. And certainly Valle De Bravo fits that description perfectly.
Valle De Bravo sits on a gorgeous reservoir surrounded by mountains and pine forests, less than 2 hours west of Mexico City by bus. The town itself is a major weekend/holiday destination for wealthy Mexicans, and it’s loaded with big, luxurious vacation homes and plenty of boutiques, galleries and high-end restaurants to cater to that crowd. During our two separate stays in Valle, we occasionally ventured into the town itself, as we were doing our workaway at El Encinal, which is situated on a bluff above the lake and town. El Encinal is the brainchild of Victor Klassen, a cleverly eccentric, Canadian artist extraordinaire who has built a flowing, glowing guesthouse that is as much an art piece as it is an inn. To be in this this place is truly like being inside a little bubble of comfort that’s really not much like Mexico, Canada or anywhere else I’ve been, and we often refer to it as “Victor World”.
This was our first workaway experience, but from what I’ve read online and heard from other workawayers, this is a very unique set-up that is not at all the typical workaway experience, and Haruka and I feel so blessed to have landed here. Victor is super mellow about the whole work thing, and is not much of a whip-cracker, but he always has a few projects in mind that need some attention, so he gently guides you into the project and then let’s you decide how to make it work. We were thankful for the freedom to be creative and relaxed while still getting stuff done, so we made sure to put our 5 hours in each day, but our schedule was totally up to us. During our first 10 day stay at El Encinal, we focused on getting his vegetable garden into good shape and ready for the upcoming rainy season, as well as harvesting compost from and organizing the many compost piles around the property. It was truly wonderful to get our fingers in the dirt again and harvest glorious vegetables from the garden! We also did a lot of cooking and cleaning around the place, and one day I even helped Victor’s right-hand man and constructor-of-all-things, Tomas, build a cistern out of concrete.
And what was the payoff for our hard work? To be able to luxuriate in “Victor World” 24/7. This little magical land is like a tiny sovereign nation unto itself in which the only laws seem to be: Be kind, conscientious, and above all, enjoy life to the fullest. El Encinal functions as a meditation retreat center for those who want to pursue that, and Victor is an experienced meditation instructor who is happy to give guidance to those who seek it, but there are no expectations for guests or workawayers to adhere to any specific regimen. Victor is also a Tai Chi master, so we would often start our mornings off with a Tai Chi session on the patio, followed by a nice walk in the nearby forest. Physically and visually, the place is stunning. The complex of colorful, concrete structures and rooms is accentuated by Victor’s unique, high-level woodwork and other pieces of art from his over 30 years of creating this clifftop paradise. During our stay we bounced around to 5 different rooms and each one was completely unique and full of wonder. Many of the rooms are equipped with composting toilets and there is a huge emphasis on rainwater collection and daylighting, so the place has been constructed with a strong sense of environmental responsibility.
The other big reward for doing our various tasks was the assurance that we’d be fed, and fed very well! During our first five days, Haruka did most of the cooking around the place, which meant that she, I and Victor were treated to her brand of wonderful Japanese fusion cooking. Guests are responsible for their own meals, so we just had to make sure that we kept Victor and ourselves fed, and Victor made sure that the kitchen was always fully stocked.
On our 5th day, El Encinal recieved 3 new residents, but they were not guests of the inn nor workawayers. Yolima and her 2 dogs are refugees from Venezuela, which is literally falling apart politically, socially, economically and in every other way that makes a country comfortable to live in. Victor is giving Yolima (a friend of Victor’s friend who is now a good friend of all 3 of us), refuge in hopes that she will be able to get permanent residency in Mexico. While Yolima’s and her country’s plight is devastating and heartbreaking, it has been a joy for us to get know her. She is a sweet, loving and open-hearted woman and she also happens to be a very skilled ex-restaurant chef, so when she arrived, we were suddenly being treated to a very high level of cuisine for every meal! This worked out really well for Haruka, as she effectively became Yolima’s sous chef, which basically meant that she got free cooking lessons, which in turn works out really well for me!
After our initial 10 day stay, we took an 8 day hiatus away from “Victor World” in Tepoztlan and Mexico City to be tourists again. We returned for our final week in Mexico to help Yolima hold down the fort while Victor was back home in Canada. It certainly wasn’t the same in “Victor World” without Victor, but it was great to get to know Yolima better and eat more of her amazing food! And since she is taking up residency at El Encinal, and being given free reign from Victor to fix the place up however she sees fit, she’s going for it with full passion! Most of the property is maintained by Tomas and his wife, Gao, so it’s in good shape, but the kitchen was a bit, uh… messy. And now, after the force of nature known as Yolima, it’s the polar opposite of messy. Haruka and I spent most of our week repainting the entire interior of the kitchen, while Yolima worked hard on cleaning, organizing and equipping the kitchen into what is now a spotless, professional-level kitchen/dining room. It’s like “Yolima Land” in the middle of “Victor World”, and we were happy to be a part of that transformation, and also to see the renewed hope that Yolima now has for the better life that she deserves in Mexico.
Luckily, Victor returned from Canada a few days before scheduled, and we were able to spend our last evening at El Encinal with him and Yolima, and enjoy another of her spectacular feasts. And it was amazing to see Victor’s expression of surprise and joy at the transformation that had taken place without him knowing what was going on while he was away! We’d like to thank Victor for inviting us into his world and allowing us to learn and grow and live life to the fullest in that magical little land. We’d also like to extend our deepest gratitude to Yolima for showing us the best of the human spirit, even in the face of adversity, and we wish her a smooth journey through life from here on out…