After working over a decade in San Francisco, I had to get away from the hustle and bustle lifestyle of the city so I spent two weeks volunteering to paint a mural at an organic farm in Hawaiian Acres. This was my experience as a Willing Workers on Organic Farms (WWOOF).
As a volunteer, I pay $127 for my two weeks stay at Eco Hostel Hawaii. You get a private tent under a Hale (pronounced HAH-leh is Hawaiian for house but is really just a tarp cover) which you share with with one other tent. Basic bedding includes sleeping pad, sheets, and a pillow. The hales are fairly spread out so there’s a decent amount of privacy as I slept to the sound of the croaky frogs in the rainforest.
In the communal kitchen and dinning area, there are two refrigerators and an individual bin for storing your food. There’s a few communal things but expect to buy, borrow, or barter most essentials like cooking oil and seasoning. Sharing can be problematic when there are a lot of guests, and expect to be sharing with the bugs and birds whether you want to or not. You are supposed to clean up promptly after yourself but, like with most rules here, I find they seem to be ignored because there is always a sink full of dirty dishes.
You are allowed to pick from whatever is growing in the garden but there really isn’t much ready to harvest. What was available during my stay were bananas, kale, lettuce, and ghost peppers. For those who aren’t familiar, ghost peppers once held the record for being the hottest pepper and it is the stuff used in pepper spray so beware.
There is one bathroom but the men will sometimes just water the garden regardless whether the bathroom is occupied. Adjacent to the bathroom is an outdoor shower with hot water as long as there is sufficient propane. The shower was on a rocky surface and loosely enclosed with bamboo which I didn’t find particularly comfortable or private but they were working on rebuilding it so hopefully it will get better. A washer and dryer is available but only one should be used at a time from 11am to 3pm during the sun’s peak hours since they are solar powered. It tends to be used quite often and you have to provide your own detergent which sucks because stores don’t really sell travel size detergents.
Wifi is available but with daily data limit which usually slows to a crawl by the evening. In addition, wifi as well as cell phone receptions turns to shit every time it rain which is everyday in a rainforest. Hilo is the third wettest city in the United States. This is really a regional issue, word is the towers aren’t very high in that area and rainclouds obstruct the reception.
The hostel is located in Hawaiian Acres and transportation is provided from the Hilo Airport. There will be a stop at a grocery store on the way so you can pick up a few things which is essential because the hostel is in a rather remote location along a dirt road. By car it is about 30 minutes from the airport and 15 minutes from the nearest market in Pahoa. If you’re not hanging out with the group though, your primary means of transportation will probably be hitchhiking. Nearest bus stop is 4 miles away and neither bus nor taxis come by often. I called the two closest Enterprise Car Rental and no, they will not pick you up.
Fortunately, hitchhiking is very common and easy. The key thing is to make sure you wait somewhere that is easy for drivers to pull over like an intersection where they need to stop anyway. In my two weeks, I travel 137 miles this way without being kidnapped or killed in the supposedly not-so-friendly area. Instead, I found everyone was super friendly and some folks went out of their way to drop me off to where I needed to go; one even invited me to a party. Nonetheless, hitchhiking is still a dreadful task. Expect to take twice as long to get anywhere and to hitch 2-4 rides to get to where you’re going. The worst is when you have to squat in the bed of a wet pick up truck.
Volunteers work Monday to Friday from 9am to noon. My primary task there was to paint a mural so I can’t say if my WWOOFing experience is representative of other organic farms. I did spent my first day with the group harvesting bamboos and some free time clearing weeds with a machete. In general, I think the staff is really laid back and the work is fairly light. They’re flexible so if you want to put in some extra hours one day and take another day off, they’re cool with that.
As for my mural, they provided the supplies and I just worked on my own. They suggested a forest theme but left me with total creative freedom to paint whatever I wanted. In general, I feel this place is whatever you make of it.
Hawaiian Acres is where the pot farms are and this place is no exception. It is a total hippie stoner hangout. Expect drum circles and getting lit. They occasionally have yoga in the morning and a resident offered impromptu Salsa dancing lessons. More likely though, the usually activities are playing cards or board games. Or they’ll watch movies or play the Nintendo 64 on the projector at night. There is no TV though.
Like most Hawaiians, the thing to do is to go to the beach. The ones they frequent are the black sand beach at Kehena and warm pond at Ahalanui Park. Aside from the beaches, they also frequent the nearby Maku’u Farmers Market on Sundays and the Uncle Robert’s Wednesday Night Market. The Maaku Market have a decent food court and the Night Market had live music but if you want to shop they’re both kinda shitshows compared to the Hilo Farmer’s Market on Wednesdays and Saturdays.
Nearby places I hitchhiked to were Volcanoes National Park and the Kapoho Tide Pools. Both worth checking out if you’re in that side of the Island.
Time moves slower when surrounded by a rainforest. This is great for nature lover or stoner types who like to sit and chill all day but it can be quite maddening if you’re the get-up-and-go type. On my last day I rented a car to explore the rest of the Island and I felt like I did more in that one day than I did in the previous two weeks (minus the mural). I wrote about more of the food and activities on the rest of the island in Part II of my Island Hopping Series. In the end, I am glad I did it because I got out of my comfort zone and experience things I never would have try otherwise.