I step off the bus with an apricot sized lump in my gut. Jason and I are alone in the world again with no guides, no one to translate, and nobody even remotely familiar to make us feel as welcome as we were in Porto.
“It’s just you and me now,” I say.
Jason nods and as if reading my mind and says, “Let’s get some coffee.”
We set our packs down in front of a lonely cafe directly behind the bus stop. We have thirty minutes to kill before our host is due to arrive.
“This is going to be perfect. We’ll have time to write, eat good food, and we won’t need spend any money,” I say optimistically.
“Except when we come into town for coffee,” Jason adds.
“Of course. What’s best of all is we’ll be secure for the next two weeks without feeling like we’re imposing on anyone. I’ve even started to miss working with my hands.”
“Most importantly, we’ll have time to secure a solid plan for Spain.”
After coffee Jason and I walk back to the bus stop to wait for our ride.
“You know what she looks like right?” Jason asks.
“Yeah man, she’ll probably recognize us though.”
“I guess that’s true.”
I fiddle with my stupid cowboy hat that I stupidly bought at a ridiculous western store in Texas. Worst thirty bucks I ever spent. I might as well walk around with a neon sign above my head that reads “Here comes another dumb American”.
I look at my watch, it’s just past four-thirty.
“She’s late,” Jason says.
“Probably because she’s lived in Portugal for so long.”
We wait a few minutes longer before a white van pulls up.
“It’s her?” Jason asks.
“Yeah, let’s go.”
We hop up, grab our bags, and run over to introduce ourselves. She says her name is Sarah and it seems like she’s in a rush to leave, complaining about the heavier presence of cops the last couple of days.
“We noticed there was a bunch of bicyclists,” Jason offers as a possible answer.
“Yes, maybe,” Sarah says.
I try to keep the conversation going as we make the thirty-second drive out of the tiny town. I ask a lot of questions about Sarah, her family, and how long she’s lived in Portugal. She answers directly, using as few words as possible.
We turn onto a dirt road after passing a village on the hill.
“The country out here is beautiful,” Jason says leaning forward in his seat.
His words seem heavier than normal and I can tell that he’s not exactly thrilled with where we’re headed. Farming at this collective of punks was my call. We had a Workaway offer north of Porto, but I had already made the commitment to Sarah. We were just going to have to make the best of it.
We pull off the main road onto a dirt road and after another five minutes Sarah points the van towards a cluster of trees. The outline of a ramshackle civilization comes into view. The first thing I notice are the beer bottles that lay scattered around the landscape. Jason and I step out of the van, open the side door, and grab our packs.
“Can we help you carry anything inside?” I ask as Sarah pulls a few groceries from the vehicle.
The question seems to take her aback.
“No,” she says, “I get the wheel barrel and do it later. Come, I show you around.”
We follow her on a whirlwind tour as she quickly points out the key structures, naming their functions and purposes. Sheet-metal sheds butt up against the stone walls of a graffitied building; a clay oven is hidden behind the main house; trunks of felled trees are lined along the ground, littered with the stripped bark, and waiting to be painted black; caravans serve as domiciles, each with a specific pattern or color that identifies the workers who live there; and a tall tower with mysterious purpose stands over everything like a watchtower. It’s something straight out of the Swiss Family Robinson.
“You will be staying in the blue caravan,” Sarah says, “The last person should have cleaned it.”
It’s filthy inside.
“Ah,” she mutters, “So they did not clean it. Come, I show you the main house now.”
We follow her inside where we meet some of the family. The introductions are brief and hurried as Sarah pushes us through the rest of the house. She explains how work is distributed and I try to keep up with everything. Volunteers work six days a week with one day off. During the day, volunteers take turns doing various jobs around the farm. After the daily work is finished, chores are assigned in the same fashion. One day a person might cook for everyone, the next day they will clean all the dishes, the next will involve cutting and collecting firewood, and so on.
Sarah says, “I let the workers decide who is doing what. I think it is better that way, no? Everyone will decide after dinner, okay? So we see you at eight tomorrow.”
That’s it. The whole tour, meeting the family who owns the farm, the description of the job and what our lives look like for the next two weeks take no more than ten minutes. Jason and I read the other’s expression. We’re both lost and it looks like we’re going to have to figure this out on our own.
“Let’s go talk to the other workers outside,” I suggest.
There’s four other volunteers, all younger than us, sitting around a pile of damp wood trying to start a fire. They look similar to the traveling kids I met back in the States with their bad hair cuts, stick-and-poke tattoos, facial piercings, earth colored clothing, and sun leathered skin pock-marked by hard living. We introduce ourselves and I immediately start asking questions about the farm, what it’s like, and what we can expect. One of the workers, who introduces himself as Derek, licks the end of a joint and says something I won’t commit to memory because I’m focused on something else. There’s a familiar feeling in my stomach, a soft whisper, a familiar hush in my gut that I haven’t heard in years. It’s telling me to get out.
“What’s that you’re making?” Jason asks another one of the other volunteers.
She pauses as though weighing whether or not this is question worth answering, finally mutters, “An anklet.”
We stand around trying to think of something to say that will give us a common ground with these strangers. It feels like we stand in a field of isolation.
“Where’s everyone from?” Jason asks.
Everybody sighs and reluctantly mutters the same answer.
“Where are you from?” Derek says in a way that doesn’t sound like a question.
“We’re both from Texas,” Jason replies.
Nobody seems to care. In fact, nobody seems to care about much of anything. If not for our pestering curiosity, Jason and I might as well be ghosts. We’re a long way from Portuguese hospitality, but that’s not what’s bothering me. It’s Derek, there’s something about him that I can’t quite put my finger on. I look around the area for a second, thinking about the long road we took to get here.
I make eye contact with Jason saying, “We should probably get familiar with the area if we’re going to live here for the next two weeks.”
Jason agrees and we excuse ourselves to survey the property.
When we get far enough away Jason whispers, “What do you think?”
“We need to leave tonight.”
“Really? I’m so glad to hear you say that.”
“I’ve had a bad feeling about this place since we first got here. We play along, get some sleep tonight, and then we sneak out early in the morning.”
“But they wake up early,” Jason says.
“So we get up earlier. We wake up at three and walk out of here.”
Jason sighs, “It’s your call.”
After walking the perimeter, all the while talking loudly about how “cool” the guinea pigs, the graffiti, and the overall layout of the property is, we walk back to the fire pit.
Four more volunteers show up, they’re still trying to get the fire started. Another arrives with a bucket of used toilet paper. Everyone cheers triumphantly as he dumps the bucket on the kindling.
“There we go!” he says, “Now we got a fire.”
Jason and I step back from the smoke and introduce ourselves to the new arrivals. Three more people show up and two young kids no older than four come charging into the mix. How many people are living here, I wonder. I’ve already forgotten everyone’s name so I pull out my notebook and a pen.
“I’m terrible at remembering names. I should probably start writing them down.”
“Why? Are you cops?” Derek asks, staring at me with a sense of contempt.
“Why, because we’re writing?” Jason quips.
That’s when I notice the little conversations around the fire stop. Everyone is looking at Jason and I. It’s the first time anyone seems to be paying any real attention to us. There’s a sense of obligation to explain ourselves, as if the farm isn’t a community but a sort of proving grounds, one in which we arrived overdressed. Jason and I tell our story with conviction and purpose, explaining that we’re documenting our travels and that we want to be better world citizens. It doesn’t seem to be the answer they want.
“Yes, you are Americans,” Derek says sneering at us, “You like to speak quickly.”
The group no longer speaks in English. They use their native tongue in hushed tones,occasionally glancing up to observe what Jason and I are doing. I look over at Jason. There’s obvious lines of concern on his forehead that seem to read, “What on Earth are we doing here?”
When dealing with suspicious characters, I’ve found that it’s best to make them laugh, keep them talking, and never show a trace of unease. I need to find a way to buy their trust and decide to make a peace-offering. I pass around some patches I brought with me from the States. One in specific reads, “Too many cops, not enough justice”. I make sure everyone looks through them and a few of the workers actually start to ask me questions. It isn’t much, but it’s a start.
After I feel that we’ve made some progress in securing a modicum of trust with the group I nudge Jason.
“We should head back to our trailer and set up our beds before it gets too dark.”
Jason understands what I’m actually saying and follows me back to our caravan.
“Maybe it would be better if we just tell Sarah that we can’t stay here,” Jason says, “See how she reacts.”
“I think you’re right.”
Jason whispers even quieter, “I’d rather not tell anyone else in the group though. Let’s just have this be between you, me, and Sarah.”
I nod in agreement and we discuss how we’ll approach the delicate subject of cancelling our commitment.
“In all honesty, I don’t think we could do this job,” I say, “We’d suck at it. We’d make mistakes every day and I doubt anyone would even bother to explain the work to us. Once we started to actually understand how things work around here, it would already be time to leave.”
We spread out our sleeping bags on the two beds in the caravan. The beds are built several feet too high and sit uncomfortably close to the ceiling. They look like they were built by someone who was still learning to use a hammer.
“When do you want to talk to Sarah? We could offer her some Euros for the gas and trouble,” Jason says, pulling a few coins from his pocket, rearranging them in his palm. “She might even offer to drive us back into town tomorrow.”
“Maybe. It would be a long walk.”
We join the others around the campfire. It’s dark now. They offer us lasagna. We decline, mentioning that we’re vegetarian.
“There’s usually a vegetarian option for dinner,” one of the friendlier workers says.
Derek chimes in saying, “Sometimes we kill one of the pigs and everyone eats. That’s the way it is out here.”
We lie and tell them we’re not hungry, that we’ve already eaten despite not having eaten since breakfast. Somebody complains about having to eat lasagna again for the third day in a row.
One of the workers is rubbing his bare foot next to the fire complaining, “The bottom of my foot is itchy. I don’t know what I’m going to do. This girl I knew used to cut the calluses off my feet with a razor blade.”
“You should get a razor blade then,” Jason says, a hint of contempt in his voice.
Workers come and go in a metaphorical ballet of musical chairs in which the orchestra plays nothing but Crass songs. We haven’t seen Sarah in hours and unsure when to act on our plan, we kill time around the fire, drinking gulp after gulp from our water bottles. Our stomachs are growling with hunger. Somebody makes a joke about the bed bugs jumping off the bed and everyone laughs. Jason gives me a look. We both know what the other is thinking. Even if everyone here is as wonderful and kind as the people we met in Porto were, there’s still no way we could live like this. Moving from city to city is hard enough without smelling like dirty feet and campfires. One of the workers who has been here the longest steps out of the main house and joins us by the fire.
He clears his throat announcing, “For tomorrow: Derek and Nathan are stripping bark, Delilah you have kitchen, Ven on garden, Crash and Ben are painting, Hannah and Jason with goats.”
Now that work is assigned, it’s clear that I’m going to have to make a public address. I’m not sure how the group is going to react. We’re in the middle of nowhere, with no safety nets, and no one to come and rescue us if things turn sour. If the group decides to, they could easily over power us to do whatever they like. I nervous swallow the last bit of saliva in my mouth, clench my butt cheeks, and hope for the best.
“Jason and I don’t think that we can stay here. He and I have been debating whether or not we should leave in the morning. This is why we haven’t eaten. We aren’t sure if we intend to stay here and we didn’t want to take anything until we knew for sure that we could give something back.”
I can hear Jason’s stomach drop.
“But you just got here. Stay. You can learn a lot, learn to live off the land,” One of the workers says, rising from his seat.
Jason adds, “When we first got to Europe we didn’t have much of a vision for what this trip would be like, but after everything we’ve seen and done and with what’s going on in Greece right now, we need to stay connected to the outside world.”
“Connected to what?” Derek asks, “The world’s still going to be there. Nothing is going to change.”
“Maybe it won’t, but we couldn’t live with ourselves if we didn’t at least try,” I say.
“You can still stay connected,” another volunteer says, “We go to the little village on the hill after work every day. There’s internet there.”
They continue to make protests. Everyone is suddenly interested and eager that we stay. The rapid shift in behavior is unsettling and I can only guess what their true intentions are. After a long argument, it’s clear that our minds are made up. A few of them are still stubbornly trying to convince us, the others shake their heads and whisper in their native tongues, and Derek just stares at us from behind the flames. Jason and I decide to head inside the main house to inform Sarah. She and the rest of her family are sitting around the television. We get her attention and speaking softly, plead our case with more words than necessary.
“It is better that you tell me now than later,” she says.
Jason offers her a few Euros for a ride into town the next day.
“I am too busy then. So, you go in the morning. Maybe somebody pick you up.”
Outside Jason tells the group that we’ve talked it over with Sarah and we will be leaving in the morning. They say very little. It is hard to see their faces in the darkness.
“We should get some sleep,” Jason says.
We make our way back to the caravan, checking over our shoulders more than once along the way. We test the lock which is nothing more than a small hook clasped around a roofing nail. The door would buckle under a strong a breeze. We inspect every possible point of entry.
“This is disconcerting,” Jason says.
He gives the window above his bed a gentle nudge.
“This window doesn’t close,” sighing he adds, “It looks like we won’t be getting much sleep tonight.”
Neither of us has slept in the past twenty-four hours.
“Maybe we should take turns keeping watch,” I suggest. “Either way, sleep with your knife close at hand.”
We turn off the headlamps and climb into our sleeping bags. My bed is positioned directly in front of the only door.
“We should wake each other up if we need to go outside to pee.”
“That’s not a bad idea,” Jason whispers.
I sniff twice in rapid succession.
“That will be the signal if something is happening.”
Jason repeats the signal to show that he understands.
“Can you hear that?”
“What?” Jason asks, quickly sitting up in his bed.
“My heart… it’s beating so loud,” I whisper, a fragile smile spreading thinly across my face. “It’s been a long time.”
“Falling asleep with a pounding heart and a knife on my chest.”
I nod off for a moment and wake up with a start.
“Do you still have your compass?” I ask.
“I’m going to hang it on the door so we’ll wake up if anyone tries to break in.”
Jason turns on his head lamp, the same one he bet me he’d never use on this trip. I tell him to turn it off. He eventually finds what he’s looking for and hands it to me in the dark.
I drape the compass chain around the lock on the door. I stare out the windows into the black night to try to see what’s going on back at the fire. I can’t see anything. Feeling a bit more secure with alarm system, I climb into bed careful not to touch the mattress and eventually fall asleep.
I wake up to the sound of footsteps and see the lights outside our caravan. I sniff twice and hear Jason’s sleeping bag rustle. I open my blade until the locking mechanism makes a soft, satisfying click. I picture myself stabbing another human being, how I will hold the knife, and where I should thrust the blade first – the stomach then the neck. I’m trying to listen to what’s going on outside but my heart is thumping in my ears and my stomach is groaning too loudly for me to distinguish each sound. Doors pound. People whispering. Someone kicks a rock. They’re right outside our door, but I don’t move. I keep my breathing controlled and heavy. I want them to think I’m fast asleep. My right knee sticks out of an unzipped sleeping bag. It will only take me a second to leap to my feet. I wait for the compass to hit the floor and the door to open. I know Jason is at the ready right behind me. Everything is quiet now. We continue to wait, but nothing. Nothing happens. They may come later, I think, but for now I’ll just close my eyes. My pulse slows and before it reaches a regular pace, I am asleep.
The next morning Jason and I wake up early, earlier than anyone else. It’s raining outside. We’re out of water and decide to risk sneaking inside the main house to fill our bottles. Once filled, we tip-toe past the other caravans, then the watch tower and the felled trees until we reach the dirt road that winds down a hill. We whisper until we’re at least kilometer away from the farm. We navigate our way to a paved road, following that until we come to the little village on the hill we saw just the day before. Civilization, no matter how small, is a welcome sight. Someone calls out to us in English.
“Where are you going?”
Jason answers the name of the town. The man beckons for us to hold on a moment and we wait patiently as he slowly hobbles down the wet sidewalk. I notice that he isn’t wearing shoes. I wonder what could be so important that this stranger would ruin his socks just to talk to us. I’m still on edge and I check the position of the knife on my side.
“Where are you coming from? Are you coming from that farm up there?” The stranger asks, pointing towards the punk commune.
Jason and I are both hesitant to answer, but eventually admit that we are. The man reaches the wire fence that divides us and extends his hand. He’s bearded and wearing a black beanie, a jacket draped over his shoulders, a ragged t-shirt, and animal print tights that are torn off just below the knee. He shivers violently and I notice the fresh wounds along the knuckles of his hand as I shake it sympathetically.
“My name is Peter. What’s yours?”
We introduce ourselves and tell him what country we are from.
“Oh! You are from America? I have two sons there, they live in Nebraska,” Peter says.
He tells us the names of his two sons, their ages, which town in Nebraska they live in, and even the street names where they live. He says it as though we have probably met them. Then something changes inside him. His voice grows low and cautious.
“You must stay away from that farm. Please listen to me, those people…they are no good.”
“That’s the impression we got too,” Jason says hesitantly.
“Please…I know things. I studied psychology…anthropology and those people up there…” Peter pauses, beginning to cry. “I was walking along the road a few days ago when a car stopped with some people inside. There was a young man who said his name is…his name is Derek. He said that I should come with them to the farm. I go with them and…”
He begins to sob heavily. The terror in his eyes, the fear, and the utter loneliness makes my own eyes water.
“Those people they are nazis… they are neo-nazis. Please you must believe me, I know things. I am a Polish Jew…from a communist family”
He continues on, but his speech is muddled by some trauma that he is reliving right in front of us. We assure him that we are not going back. This seems to give him a bit of peace. He eventually gives us directions back into town.
“If you see a black caravan on the right, there is a black German shepherd and a friend of mine, he is Mark, tell him that Peter is coming. Please. Tell him to wait for me.”
“We will tell him,” Jason says.
We move to go as Peter, still shivering uncontrollably, clutches the wire fence. Those few millimeters are all that divide us.
“Do not forget me,” he whimpers.
“We won’t forget you,” Jason says, “We’ll never forget you Peter.”
We continue walking up the road. Peter calls out as if he just remembered something.
“What did he say?” Jason asks.
“He asked if we wanted a cigarette.”
I give one last look back at Peter draped over the fence, still weeping in the rain and think of the infinite loneliness, cruelty, and despair that’s waiting just a little ways down the road. I feel both a sense of relief that we managed to escape and guilt that I could be so lucky. What a tragedy that we will pass through so much and affect so little in this world. The pit in my stomach is still there, but it feels different today – a tiny sprout is starting to bud.