Fake news. Our Embarrassment-in-Chief would have you believe that this is something new, crafted by the media expressly to make him look bad. First of all, he’s doing a fine job of that all by himself, and secondly, fake news has been around as long as news itself. Certainly truth leaks into the equation from time to time, but the media in all of its various forms has long been used as an instrument to tweak the truth in ways that suits a certain agenda. The internet definitely hasn’t slowed that instrument down. In fact, it serves as a massive invitation to everyone on the planet to join the fun and twist the facts whenever it serves their purpose. Of course I’d like to believe that most of us humans are pure of heart and generally doing our best to represent the truth, but still, discernment is a most critical tool in this day and age.
We’re very much finding this to be the case in the realm of Workaway, a web-fueled mechanism for connecting travelers with hosts for work/trade arrangements all over the world. The arrangements vary, but a worker is asked to exchange his/her labor (typically 5 hours per day, 5 days per week) for room and board. As Haruka and I get deeper and deeper into our travels, Workaway is proving to be a crucial tool for extending our travels while simultaneously giving us the opportunity to visit farms and permaculture projects all over the world. Free accommodation and food is obviously helpful, but our main motivation for doing Workaway is to expand our knowledge and skills, while physically engaging our bodies and minds in something productive. Workaway is still a relatively new adventure for us, as we’ve only been to four different spots, and while I’m certain that there are countless amazing hosts out there, false advertising is as much a thing in Workaway as it is in the rest of the world.
Our second week in Slovenia found us in the tiny village of Zerovniča, in the southern part of the country. We chose this little known hamlet for it’s close proximity to three different natural wonders that were beckoning us to do much more than just read about them. Surprisingly, but also much to our delight, this region attracts very few tourists, but consequently has very few accommodation options. We managed to find a small family farm that also doubles as a guesthouse, about 3 km from Krizna Jama (Cross Cave). Veronica, the mother of the farm, is a sweetheart who knew her way around the kitchen, and one evening she served us a farm fresh vegetable soup which may now stand as the tastiest soup I’ve ever had. Besides amazing food, the farmers also provided us with rental bicycles that served as our transportation for a few days while we explored the natural wonders of the region.
The first of those wonders that we visited , and the one that initially drew us to the area was the Krizna Jama. While not the largest, and surely not the most visited cave in this extremely cavern-rich country, this cave system has one of the most dynamic displays of stalactites and stalagmites, and as much diversity of cave animals of any cave in Slovenia. There are 45 different organism species in the cave, including several bat species. One of the truly unique features of this cave is the water that flows through it. Usually rivers are credited for eroding the land they run over, while carving themselves deeper into the earth. The water here is known as ‘flowstone’, and it’s calcium content is so rich that the cave surface under the water actually grows at a rate of 10 cm every 10,000 years due to calcium accumulation. This is also aided by the fact that the river only drops 1 meter over the 2 kilometers that we traveled, so the flow is extremely slow.
After an eleven day splurge in Italy, we found ourselves crossing into the country that we’ve had our travel sights set on since we began planning this adventure over a year ago. Something about Slovenia has been drawing us in like a magnet, and now that we’re here, it’s quickly and unabashedly revealing itself to us. Our first stop, the capital city of Ljubljana is only a few hours drive from Venice, but it bears very little resemblance to that epic port city, and indeed the entire country of Slovenia takes on a completely different feel than it’s neighbor to the west. The first thing I noticed was the air. It’s got a quality to it that is crisp and delicious. And it smells good here. Then there’s the water. Slovenia is renowned for having some of the finest drinking water on the planet, and they know it. The government declared in 2016 that access to pure water is a sovereign right for all citizens and therefore has placed strong protections on maintaining pristine water throughout the nation. It is now written into the Slovenian constitution that water cannot be regarded as a market commodity, and that international corporations cannot exploit Slovenia’s water resources for commercial gain.
As our ongoing, open-ended journey continues, we slipped out of slow-travel mode for a spell to indulge in a quick little 11 day tour of northeastern Italy. For quite a while now, we’ve had our travel sights set on the southeastern region of Europe that lines the eastern shore of the Adriatic Sea, and we plan to explore that area thoroughly over the next 5 months. We were able to score a cheap airfare from Mexico to Milan, so it seemed a shame not to take in some of the splendor of Italy along the way.
After a quick look around Milan in the daze of jet lag, we spent 4 days in the medieval city of Verona, another 4 in the picturesque town of Malcesine on Lake Garda and then two nights in Venice. It took a few days to get over the sticker shock, as we were suddenly spending 3 times more per day than we were in Mexico for the same level of comfort. We probably could’ve scrimped hard and only spent double of what we were used to, but what fun would that be in a country like Italy, gushing with food and fun. Certainly we knew what we were getting into well ahead of our arrival, and we also know that we’re headed for more frugal times in Eastern Europe, so we designated Italy as a splurge destination. After all, if you’re not in it to enjoy, then why even bother to travel?
This past week, since we landed in Italy, has felt like a decompression period, allowing our bodies to recalibrate to the 7 hour time difference and giving our perspectives the space to adjust to cultural differences. Initially, I felt a tad melancholy leaving Mexico behind. Nation of chefs, artists, musicians and lovers. Land of eggs sold individually, free tortillas with every meal and snack vendors on every bus ride. A place where strangers greet strangers with “holas”, people refer to you as amigo whether they know you or not and the typical greeting is a hug (with a peck on the cheek if a woman is involved). Some adjectives that readily come to mind when thinking about the people of Mexico are carefree, tolerant and unobtrusive. Perhaps some foreigners may interpret those same traits as lazy, indifferent and unhelpful, but I would postulate that those folks haven’t taken the time or allowed themselves to slide below the surface a bit and get to know the true Mexican character.
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.
As we wind down our last week in Mexico, I’d like to reflect on some of the incredible street food we experienced over the past 2 1/2 months. This is by no means a comprehensive guide to all street food in Mexico, as it would take years to explore all that this country has to offer. Rather, this is a greatest hits of some of the tasty treasures we discovered on our journey. Many travelers feel that it is risky to eat street food here, but I think it’s as safe or even safer than restaurant food as long as it’s hot and the cooking area is generally clean. On the street you have the advantage of seeing exactly what’s going on, whereas you have no idea what kind of sketchy shit might be happening in a closed restaurant kitchen. And a lot of the time I found that food on the street just tastes better than comparable dishes in a restaurant. Street food is also extremely affordable. For a frame of reference, one dollar was worth between 19 and 20 pesos during our time here.