Four months have passed since my evacuation from Senegal and the end of my Peace Corps service, but it might as well be four years. My life in Senegal is but a distant memory at this point, yet I know my experiences there have changed me for the better. My girlfriend Amanda and I were eager to reunite after our service. With no jobs and a global pandemic afoot, we struggled to find a way to do something meaningful with our time. While we were still in Senegal we discussed moving to Hawaii. Amanda had been to the islands many times and always dreamed of living there. While I’ve never been, Hawaii seems like perfect place for me. Amazing beaches and weather, check. World-class SCUBA diving, check. OK sign me up. Convincing me to move to Hawaii is like convincing a dog to go on a walk, easy.
Moving to Hawaii would require a lot of pieces to fall into place, the most important being a job. Finding a job after coming home from Senegal was a daunting task. I had planned on being in Africa until November and here I was sitting on my couch in March. We sent out applications, but never heard back and quickly became demoralized. Clearly it would take a while longer before we could justify a move to Hawaii. In the meantime, we wanted to spend time together and do something besides sitting around the house. This predicament led us to WWOOF, an organization that allows people to connect with organic farm owners and volunteer at their properties. It turned out there were many farms using WWOOF in Massachusetts. We paid a small membership fee to WWOOF and started applying. Almost immediately we heard back from a farm in Western Massachusetts, about a 2-hour drive from my house. The owner, Lilian, was very sweet and said that we seemed like a good fit for the farm. After chatting on the phone a few times, we agreed to come for a few days to try it out and stay longer if both parties thought it was a good fit.
We packed the car with camping gear, groceries, golf clubs, fishing poles, and anything else we thought we might need. We both were chuckling, saying that at least this would be more comfortable than living in a hut in West Africa. We drove out to the farm and were blown away. This place, Wilder Hill Gardens, was amazing! Our host Lilian was an expert horticulturist and had turned her 11-acre property into a paradise.
We stayed in a small cabin on the back of the property. It was rustic but comfortable. There is a compost toilet filled with pine shavings that actually worked extremely well. In exchange for room and board (Lilian reimbursed us for groceries plus we got food from the farm), we worked 6 hours a day 6 days a week. The rest of the time we spent exploring the area, hiking, fishing, and golfing! Wilder Hill Gardens is a plant nursery and pick-your-own blueberry operation. Lilian is also an accomplished landscape designer. We worked on a variety of projects: weeding, planting, mulching, harvesting, and repotting nursery plants. We arrived at a great time; the blueberry bushes were just ripening up. Lilian has a net system to keep the birds off the precious fruit, but occasionally one would find its way in and Amanda and I would shoo it out.
We became great friends with both Lilian and her two dogs, Jackson and Viola. Jackson is a bit of a troublemaker, but quickly wormed his way into our hearts with his exuberant personality. Viola is a rescue from the Dominican Republic and one of the sweetest dogs I have met.
While on the farm I got an email about a position in Hawaii I had applied for back in April. They wanted to interview me! Lilian graciously allowed me to video call from one of her upstairs bedrooms. The position was an internship with the State of Hawaii Department of Forestry and Wildlife. With my agro-forestry experience in Senegal I felt qualified, and thought the interview went quite well. It was not a high paying job by any means, but it was in Hawaii, which was all I cared about at the time.
I anxiously awaited the results of my interview and got back to work on the farm. With only a few days left, Lilian wanted us to pursue a project that we were interested in. She had shown Amanda her printing press in the shop, and we both took an interest in learning how to print. I had never seen nor used a printing press before, this would be fun.
We would be printing by using special tools to carve a plate of linoleum, roll on ink, cover with paper, and roll through the press. We marked our plates first with pencil, then with permanent market before starting to carve. What we carved out would show up white on the paper as there would be no ink in that space, a bit of a mind-twister when we tried to picture the final print. Nevertheless, we came up with our designs and got to work. I am in the arduous process of writing a book about my 18 months in the Peace Corps and decided this would be the perfect time to design the cover! I had been struggling to think of what to do for the cover. It needed to attract the eye of the reader and I did not want to use just pictures I had taken. The best book covers have cool art on them in my opinion.
One of my most memorable experiences in Senegal was catching a massive Tigerfish in the Gambia river and bringing it back to my host family. I had already decided I was going to title the book Rice and River Fish, so I figured the Tiger fish would make an interesting cover. With the help of Lilian and Amanda, two people far more gifted at drawing than myself, I designed the cover and drew it on my plate.
On our last day at the farm we broke out the ink and the nice paper. We used a roller to apply ink to the plates. We carefully laid a sheet of paper over the plate before rolling it under the massive cylinder of the printing press. There were a lot of variable involved. Too much ink or too much pressure from the press could be disastrous. With Lillian’s help we fine tuned the press and sent our plates through. First, we used blue ink to get a proof copy of our plate on newsprint.
After the proof we carved any areas that we thought needed it, then were ready for the final printing. We used multiple color inks and printing techniques to achieve an array of prints with our plates. I think Amanda and I were both excited with how they came out! We both cannot thank Lillian enough for the generosity of helping us use the press and supplying all the materials. If your in the area I highly recommend visiting. She has her own website for you to check out at wilderhillgardens.com
After staying for three weeks at Wilder Hill Gardens it was time to say goodbye. I really cannot recommend WWOOF enough. It was a truly transformative experience staying in our little cabin. Lilian was a fountain of information. Amanda and I tried to absorb as much as we could. It was hard to say good-bye, especially to the dogs, but I hope we will be back some day. Coming back and sleeping in my bed was a treat, the air conditioning especially. Even better, I landed the job in Hawaii! If all goes well Amanda and I will be moving to Honolulu in September. I will be sure to write about our experience, as it is looking like we will have to quarantine in a hotel room for two weeks. Assuming we do not kill each other during that time we’ll get an apartment and I’ll start working at the beginning of October.
Writing a book has been a harder proposition than I originally anticipated. The progress certainly is seeda seeda (slowly slowly). How do I capture the feelings I experienced in Senegal with words? Plenty of former volunteers have attempted memoirs. Hopefully, mine will be a fresh take. After all, there has never been a global Peace Corps evacuation before. At the very least my cover will be amazing thanks to Lilian and Amanda! Soon I’ll be blogging more about moving to Hawaii, finishing the book, and starting my new gig in forestry. Jam Tan, peace only.