My Workaway on a farm in Sweden, just outside the unheard-of village of Sjuntorp, was quite an interesting experience. Long hours, wonderful scenery and a very eccentric family.
I’m not going to pull any punches on this one. While the experience overall wasn’t that bad, and certainly beautiful, there were a few things that rubbed the wrong way. As a travel blogger I have the responsibility of telling it how it is, and not just giving the best parts of travel, as not all travel is fun and games. Things can get rough, and not everyone you meet is the most pleasant to associate with. However, I do always try to make the best of bad scenarios, and I’ll always be available to you as a friend in bad times of your own travels if you need one.
First of all, Sjuntorp was an amazing part of Sweden. Whereas much of the country is flat and covered with lakes, the region around the farm I worked on is covered with rolling hills criss-crossed with streams. It’s still Sweden, and there are definitely quite a few lakes. There’s a huge one only 5 km away from the farm, which I finally made it out to my last week there. It was raining all week, but we (the other volunteer and I) actually managed to get 5 minutes of sun when we got to the water.
The center of town is about 4 km away, and the farm is actually outside the town limits. There isn’t much in the town. A couple schools, half a dozen daycares (daycare is provided for all Swedish parents, as long as there is vacancy at them!), a fire station, a coop, a gas station and a couple pizza parlors. Correction, a couple kebabs that serve pizza, since that’s the only place you can get a pizza in Sweden. In other words, it’s a quaint village with just the basics. Trollhättan, the closest city, is half an hour away, where you can find just about anything else you could need, and Gothenburg is an hour in the other direction for the rest.
By far the best part of working on the farm was the scenery. The countryside was just stunning, and I loved taking walks around the hills and talking with the neighbors. The day I arrived was the last of the snow in the season, and the rest of the five weeks it became gradually more green, although it was still winter landscape when I left. Someday I’ll have to see what it looks like in the summer, although Google Earth gives me a good idea. And the sunsets were epic, as always in Sweden.
The horses were great fun to work with. Unfortunately, my favorite horse Maddie belonged to the other volunteer, and she ended up giving her away a couple weeks before I left so she could travel the world. The other two horses were being trained by my host, who is a two-star Parelli Natural Horsemanship instructor. They were far calmer than when she first got them last year, but still not tame enough to ride, and not always the easiest to work with. Then there was Felina, the Shetland pony (crossbred with an Icelandic horse), always docile and ready for little Kajsa to ride. I liked her.
The horse chores were quite easy. The base chores took about an hour. These included filling up the bags of hay for meals (1 for breakfast and lunch and 4-5 for overnight), preparing the mineral supplements for the horses and feeding them (not the easiest to keep them under control), mucking out their stalls and the stable yard, and general cleaning. The other two big horse tasks were cleaning up the horse dropping that had been buried in/under the snow all winter in the yards and on the paths, and repairing the fences.
The 12-hectare property is divided up into 12 fields and paddocks for the horses. One of them is for training, three are summer fields and the rest are year-round. All the fields had electric fences with four levels of Electrobraid® rope. I removed the bottom rope completely off all the fences that still had it, and then replaced the second to bottom rope with a metal wire. It must have been at least a couple kilometers of wire and not easy to work with, especially with the 400 kW wires overhead electrifying the wires and ropes.
Those high-voltage wires running through the property were a good reason why the farm was so cheap. They the first thing you saw out of my bedroom window. Supposedly no harm comes from living beneath them, but that’s hard to believe, especially since the fences themselves were electrified by them and you could see the blue discharge at night when it was wet. Per a neighbor, they were are the longest high-voltage cables, running from Gothenburg all the way to Lapland
The tap water was also suspect. Supposedly it wasn’t toxic, but it was certainly unpleasant to smell, and it was still yellow even after passing through a Brita water filter. Brushing my teeth with it always left a bad taste in my mouth, no matter how much toothpaste I used. The last couple weeks I just bought half a dozen cartons of juice to drink instead. Not the healthiest, but probably better than the water.
The toughest part was working with the family. As little as I’ve ever made any negative remarks in my blog, I feel this needs to be said to paint the correct picture of my experience. Jan, the father, was usually quite nice, but often would insert a little barb into the conversation which brings you down just a little each time. Anne, the mother, was more direct in her disapproving comments. She was critical of other members of her family, previous volunteers, the neighbors, etc. Unfortunately I saw the other volunteer giving their child the most admiration, and it was almost unsurprising that Kajsa went into screaming tantrums on a daily basis. At first I thought it was something from school, but then I got a better idea of the family scene. The biggest shock was when Anne told the other volunteer something alarming about her relationship, which I have no inclination to repeat, but it was the final piece of the puzzle about what kind of family I was living with.
While there were many small instances of negative quips and comments, one situation stands out in memory. Halfway through my stay, they purchased a new wooden bed for their bedroom. Jan asked me to sand down the bed and paint it white. Before I started the painting, I discussed with them that I would need a high-quality paint that would be resistant to wear and suitable for furniture. What I got was abysmal. After a few seconds (maybe 20), the paint would become sticky (not dry) and any further attempt to smooth it out would pull it right off the surface, requiring me to wait for it to fully dry, sand it down and retry. Additionally, if I tried to paint anything vertical, the paint would sag! That was new! I let them know what was going on several times, and Jan found similar troubles on a forum. I started using just a roller (with the same problem of stickiness, making me have to work fast) and it improved, but I was still having trouble with the original layer of paint, since it gave a different texture as the wood grain. When I was finally done Anne inspected it, after all the times I told them of the difficulties, and said she didn’t like the feel of the texture. Grrr.
On Workaway, it’s expected that you work a max of 25 hours a week. It turns out that I was Anne’s first volunteer, and she missed that part of Workaway. I started off working closer to 50 hours a week, all 7 days, and it only lowered when I made a comment on the weekend that I was going to catch up on my blog, since I didn’t have enough time during the week. That was another time when I experienced Anne’s displeasure, as she was upset I would dare to suggest it was too many hours. The funny part was that I was fine working the extra time, since I loved working with the horses and the volunteer was off so I was covering her shifts.
I’m a believer that physical health is connected to your stress level, and that’s a direct index of invalidation you’re receiving in life. So it wasn’t surprising that I felt under the weather twice while in Sjuntorp. I hardly ever get sick, and it was a red flag for me that it happened so soon after my arrival. Of course, I also found out that everyone had the flu just before I arrived, and the whole family, plus the other volunteer, were under the weather several times as well while I was there. But then again, maybe it was the water. Or the power lines. But maybe not.
Overall, I did like my time in Sweden. Sjuntorp was a great village to visit, the scenery was beautiful and I really did like working with the horses and the other projects that I completed. It just brings up the question of whether it’s worth it to work for employers who are detrimental to your well-being. If it was a paid job, would it be worth the money? I’ll have to write that post next.