Work Exchange at Mount of Oaks

Mount of Oaks, Portugal

Mount of Oaks is a small community of five (two couples and a smiley two-year-old) near Castelo Novo in the Fundao district tucked away in some beautiful nature. I had a chance to visit them last September while I was volunteering over at Keela Yoga Farm. Keela was hosting a natural building course taught by Barbara, a resident of Mount of Oaks, and we were all invited to come for lunch and then to tour around their place to see some natural buildings in all of their muddy glory.

I’m really interested in natural building and I loved all of the structures that have popped up on their property over the years. I was also really interested in knowing more about living as a part of a small community so I decided that I’d visit them when I returned this year… and I did!

I signed up for 3.5 weeks of work exchanging (though here it’s not a pure exchange, you contribute a weekly fee towards food) and, since I already knew them a bit, I was especially excited to get here. I had an amazingly warm welcome and I felt like a part of the family during my entire stay here. It was really wonderful to feel like they were excited to have me back and it was even better to feel like I left as a good friend. I had an amazing experience here and I’ll for sure be back in the near future to stop in to say hello.

New Things I Did

  • Used a mutha f*ckin’ chainsaw, ya’ll! Only on little wimpy logs but it’s a start. It’s sort of scary but I’m looking forward to learning more and maybe taking a course eventually on how to safely fell trees (do not be alarmed at the lack of safety gear in the above photo… I’m only posing – fraud!)
  • Worked behind the bar at the Mount of Oaks opening day. I’ve never worked a day of food or drink service in my life and I well and truly sucked at it but I had fun trying!
  • Helped build a chicken palace (coop) for some lucky ladies using some natural building techniques like earth bag and wattle and daub. I also got to help install a wavy concrete roof type thing, put on a lime wash, erect roundwood posts, forage for trees in the woods, strip bark, drill screws, hang a door, and lots of other little things that I forget.
  • Helped make a staircase out of logs on a hill that we’d previously been struggling up and down to build the chicken coop. It’s always great to learn something new but it’s even better to build something that actually helps you do your current job and is immediately appreciated by everyone else as well.
  • Learned about fermentation both as part of a course at Mount of Oaks but also as part of day-to-day life being around Emma and Marcia who are really into it. Kombucha, ginger bugs, scobies… all the fun stuff! But please note that scobies are creepy.
  • Attempted to speak and listen to a good amount of Portuguese when I had a chance. Occasionally I’d attempt to contribute some sentence made up of words and concepts I’d learned that day. ‘I need to drink wine now’ was a particular favourite. Michel Thomas, I’m a fan!

Things I Want to Copy

  • I think I want to go the composting toilet route, at least at first, and the idea of emptying poop buckets every few days does not excite me. Mount of Oaks have designed some great toilet buildings on the edge of their terraces so that the poo and pee disappears into a hole-of-mystery. Once it’s filled up, you seal the sucker off for two years for it to turn into compost-y goodness and you make a different place to crap. Or you can put two toilets in the same building leading to different chambers. You cover your daily deposits with saw dust and it doesn’t smell at all. Genius!
  • I’m not sure if I want to host volunteers or not, but if I do I really like some of the systems Mount of Oaks have in place. I especially like their morning routine of silence before work starts. It’s not strict and there’s no need to mime when in search of the coffee or anything like that, but it’s a nice way to have a morning free from chatter and questions. I’ve used this time to learn Portuguese and I really loved this part of my day here.
  • I got to sample all sorts of amazing fermented things during my time here. I confirmed that I’m not a massive fan of either kimchi or sauerkraut but I did discover lots of other wonderful recipes like orange chilli sauce, ginger beer, fermented babaganoush, and lime pickle. I’m excited to get some things fermenting away once I actually have a place to live.

Highlights

  • I met the Mount of Oaks residents in 2017 and I was very happy to see these friendly familiar faces. It was really nice to get to know them all a bit better and I consider them friends and I hope they feel the same!
  • I learned so much with Barbara who is a natural building teacher. I was lucky to be the only volunteer (at first I was a little disappointed but it worked out better than I could have expected) and so we worked together on a building project and she was an amazing teacher and very patient with my questions. I got to pick her brain about all of the things, work alongside her, and gain lots of great building knowledge along with loads of hands-on practical experience.
  • I really felt like a part of the community here and as an extension I got to meet lots of other wonderful people living in the area. Mount of Oaks are great at bringing people together and encouraging community and I was lucky to be there for their spring opening event which was so much more than a party – it was an exchange of talent, information, talks about how to get interesting projects off the ground, and loads more. It opened my eyes to what community can really be and made me excited about this region as a possible place for me.
  • I met lots of wonderful people during my time at Mount of Oaks – both folks living in the area and volunteers and friends passing through. The foreigners I met were all interesting in some new way and open to chatting with me about their experience of moving to Portugal which had the effect of confirming I’ve made the right decision to come here.
  • Last year I spent around six weeks at Keela Yoga Farm which is around 45 minutes drive away. They invited us over for a pizza night at it turned into an awesome late-night kitchen dance party. I always love going to Keela and I’m really looking forward to my volunteering stint with them again in July.
  • I loved the food at Mount of Oaks and eating mostly vegetarian, healthy meals every day was great. I also really liked that we ate each meal family-style and enjoyed the company and conversation and some funny evenings.
  • Being in nature and around their animals was really wonderful. I love waking up to the birds and going to sleep to the bugs (as long as they were outside my tent… one night I swear I was going to get eaten by some giant flying thing) and I loved snuggling with their cats. Related: I think I want to get a cat.

Challenges

  • Living in a tent sort of sucks. Maybe a big tent where I could stand up and fit some shelves or something to help organise my life would be ok. But a smallish tent where you have to crouch to get in and out is tough. My stuff somehow exploded all over the place almost immediately and I had a bit of a hard time staying organised. It was totally ok for my time at Mount of Oaks and they had a cushy air mattress and as many blankets as I wanted to help with the cold, but I’m 95% sure I won’t be able to cut it in a tent for long on my land and will want to invest in something a bit more substantial.
  • Trying to keep on top of my online work was tricky since the only place to charge my computer was a short walk through the woods in a weird power box type thing. This meant that I was quite intentional and focused whenever I had power on my computer, but it was a bit frustrating at times because the cold weather seemed to sap my battery to zero and I could never count on having a charge. I had a programmer doing work for me at the time so that all went slowly but it worked out ok. Happily, Mount of Oaks got a sweet new solar power system installed while I was there and charging became a whole lot easier.
  • I know, I know. I seem to complain constantly about the chilly weather here in Portugal but it has been a bit of a challenge for me. The good news is that the cold April days were mostly great when the sun shined, but evenings were tough. A few extra blankets and a hot water bottle did the trick but due to my extreme levels of wimpy-ness, I’ll want to plan better for the winter with warmer clothes and be sure to have somewhere to live that allows heating of some sort.

Mount of Oaks really is a special place and I’m very fortunate to have found this place and to have founds friends here, also. I know that I’m welcome here any time and that they’re all rooting for me to choose a piece of land nearby. This probably sounds super cheesy but it’s really great to arrive at a place as a volunteer and leave as a friend. You never know how things are going to go when you join in on other people lives and I really couldn’t have felt more welcome here.

Community is one of the most important things for me as I consider where, oh where, I want to live in Portugal. Mount of Oaks is a fantastic example of an eco community that works but, more importantly, they’ve given me an amazingly warm welcome and showed me more about the community as a whole in this area. I’ve met lots of other people through them and I’m excited by the things that are happening in this area and the general vibe.

I’ve loved my time here at Mount of Oaks and I feel like I’ll be spending a lot of time here in the future!

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