4: Meet Saraya – My First Workaway [Goa, India]

Days 6 & 7 – Monday Sept 16th & Tuesday Sept 17th

The morning after I went through this huge ordeal helping Steven get back on his feet after being mugged (which was likely just a scam), I am woken up by my friend at Saraya who definitely did get beaten up really badly the night before. He walked into our shared dorm and woke me up, and his eyes were all black and swollen. He went out that night, and ended up getting punched in the face a few times, and the rest he didn’t remember. He just woke up after passing out on the streets, and made his way back home.

Ironically, I heard that Goa was far safer than most other parts of India, and after being here for less than 24 hours I meet 2 people who at least claim to have been mugged. Wow! Quite a way to start my 2-week long stay in a relaxed, eco-friendly, peaceful environment at Saraya.

I found Saraya Ecostay online through a website called Workaway, where one is typically provided with a place to stay and 3 meals per day in exchange for 5 hours of work, 5 days a week. At Saraya, the general schedule is 4 hours of work, 6 days a week – Wednesday being our day off.

There are plenty of different types of jobs to do at Saraya, and though I mostly prefer outdoor/gardening work, I was interested in trying out serving at the cafe as well. I told this to Deeksha, the owner, and she was very accommodating. So Monday morning, another volunteer named Shirban and I started to “clean the jungle” back from growing into our driveway. Both Shirban and I agreed that it looked nice how it was, but I knew it wouldn’t take long for the jungle to start to overtake the driveway again. It’s still Monsoon season here, and so all around it’s super green and humid. Great conditions for many plants to keep on growing.

Most plants were unknown, exotic, and interesting to me, but I did manage to find an old friend: Stinging Nettle! Ah how happy I was to see it growing in a different shape & pattern, but still with the distinctive serrated edges. I showed Shirban how to eat it raw, and he told me that they harvest this and put it on their pizza (Saraya is well-known for their organic, wood-fired pizza made with locally-sourced ingredients).

After trimming back the jungle, we started to prepare those greens for the compost pile by chopping it up finely, so that when it mixes with the food waste it decomposes more quickly. Then, to finish up our last hour of work, we moved on to carrying stones from an old, ruined building to the far border of our property where we’re building a wall. These stones were incredibly heavy – we made a few rounds back and forth in the pouring rain and were so exhausted by the time our 4 hours was done. Speaking with Deeksha shortly afterwards, we find out that those rocks were a perfect habitat for the poisonous scorpions that live here. Luckily none of us were rushed to the hospital for an anti-venom, and didn’t start to fall sick from working in the rain either.

However, we all started to feel a bit sick the next day…

I woke up that Tuesday with a sore throat, runny nose, and other cold symptoms. Not sure exactly why – perhaps my immune system was just struggling to adapt to an entirely new environment. After a cup of Chai and a delicious rice & veg breakfast, I was feeling a little bit better. So, we resumed our outdoor work. This time, it was cleaning the whole eco-stay, most importantly, the pond. It was only about a foot deep, but filled with muck, coconuts, other rotten fruits, leaves, and all the fecal matter from the frogs and other creatures who lived in it. Still, someone had to do it, so I was the first to volunteer to get in there.

Shirban and another new volunteer named Monia followed shortly after, and we had a very memorable time getting super muddy trying to shovel out the pond muck and decomposing organic matter. It was a long, tiresome process, but it felt really great when we finished. Then we started to clean the rest of the Ecostay by sweeping with brooms made out of a tied bunch of the central veins of coconut leaves, but not for long. Shirban, who I thought would be more well-adapted to the conditions being that he’s from India, started to feel really sick and tired, and my tiredness returned, so we powered through to finish up work for the day before going back to rest a little bit (Oddly I felt all better a few days afterwards while he was bed-ridden and barely able to speak the next few days. Perhaps my dumpster diving back in the states prepared my immune system and paid off!).

After lunch I went with two other volunteers – Monia and Shweta – on a walk to the supermarket and for a cup of tea. As soon as we leave, four of the dogs who live at Saraya came out to walk with us! They run right in front of cars and bikes, sniffing all sorts of smells along the way, lagging behind and then running ahead, always in our vicinity to protect us if we need it. Their names were Fluffy, Sushi, Batman, and Dina. What sweet bodyguards! They waited outside the supermarket as we bought some toilet paper, soap for washing clothes, and some “Guava cheese” as well (there was no cheese in it, but there was ghee instead).

The dogs followed us into the cafe where we got some tea, and soon walked back with it to Saraya so I could catch a ride with Deeksha into town where I could find a travel agent to help book a train ticket to my next destination. I’d never think about using a travel agent back in the states, since it’s generally easy and reliable online to book transportation, but India is far different. I searched on so many different websites for a train to Delhi about 2 weeks in advance, and they were apparently all sold out. But, once I got to the travel agent, I got a ticket on the day that I wanted fairly easily. Thankfully I’ll have a sleeping bunk for the 28 hour-long traverse through roughly 2,000 km (1,200 mi) all the way to Delhi. And it was only ($12) 830 Rupees! Whoopee!

Meanwhile, Deeksha had some errands to do, so I followed her to the different markets where she’d buy fruits and other ingredients for the cafe. Since they know her (and her preferences) at her usual stops, they’d tell her after she asks for this, that, and that if something isn’t local. It was especially useful for her to have these local connections, because although she’s Indian, her skin is very fair, and her grayish hair almost looks blonde, so most merchants would try to charge her the foreigner price, which is typically at least twice the amount that locals pay.

By Tuesday night I had gotten to know all of the volunteers at Saraya at least on a base level. There’s a fellow from Britain who I would enjoy staying up with and exchanging slang and music from our respective countries while drinking rum & water. There’s Shirban from South India, who although we come from opposite sides of the world, we have quite a bit in common as far as family life goes, as well as ideas about people’s energies and karma. There’s Monia from Belgium, who speaks fluent Dutch, French, Spanish, and English! She is super sweet, taught me how to make some amazing Spanish-style coffee, and is not afraid to get dirty. There’s Rebecca from Australia, who offered me some Ayurvedic healing herbal blend when I was feeling sick, and mostly works on making art out of old fabric and reusing it to make jellyfish lanterns!

The youngest volunteer here (18) is named Emily, from New Zealand, but she doesn’t lack in expertise. She makes amazing cheeses, sourdough bread, and other goodies for the cafe and the volunteers. Our oldest volunteer (44) is Raul, from Mexico, and is incredibly friendly and caring. He worked as a school psychologist for a long time in Mexico, and we share many similar opinions on how to deal with difficult children. Then, there’s Joy, from France, who is just a joy to be around. She always wears a beautiful cloth wrapped in a south-African style around her head, and has given me great recommendations of where to go in Thailand and Vietnam for when I travel through there in a few months. And last but not least, there’s Annie, my neighbor from Ohio! She taught me the ways of the kitchen as soon as I arrived and helped me settle in and feel at home. She’s been away from the US for over 6 months and said she hasn’t met someone who comes from so close to where she’s from the whole time.

So, that’s it for the volunteers. It’s a decent size group, and there’s about the same amount of staff who work here full-time as well. First, there’s Deeksha, or simply “D.” She is so amazing, she started this place about 5 years ago, and has overseen construction of many treehouses and mud houses, using the natural materials that are available in Goa. The dorm where I stay is all built out of bamboo and another type of decorative wood for the “walls” (sticks criss-crossing each other widely with mosquito nets lining the inside. No insulation necessary in Goa – it typically doesn’t ever get below 70 degrees!). D always eats breakfast with us in the morning and covers the plan for the day – a usual job assignment would be 2-3 people for the evening cafe, 1 for afternoon cafe, 1-3 people in the kitchen, 1-2 making artwork, and anywhere from 1-4 people working outside with plants or cleaning up in some way.

D has 2 younger sons – one who lives here and another close by. The younger son, Siddhu, is really passionate about music and has a little studio set up in the main building at Saraya. We’ve had good chats about music theory and he let me play his guitar yesterday. Her older son, Zora, is a big activist for climate change action, and was the main person alongside his friend Isha who organized the first Goa climate strike when there protests happening all around the world at the same time. Both are really kind-hearted people, and I appreciate the strong family bonds that are quite common in India. Neither of them work here, but I see them so often that it’s easy to mistakenly think that they do.

In the kitchen we have Mira – she’s the main cook and always makes such delicious food! – Especially a sweet pudding like thing for breakfast, and the lunchtime dal & cooked vegetables. Helping her are Raj and Batel – still teenagers who take great pride in their work, often taking pictures for Instagram of the fancy-looking dishes they prepare for the cafe. The manager of Saraya is also named Raj – he spends most of his time on his computer doing the business side of things, and still enjoys joking around with everyone here. The resident lady in charge of cleaning is named Vasha, she doesn’t speak much English but is always helpful in pointing me in the right direction when looking for a broom or some tools.

Then there’s maybe 4 people who work on construction of the mud houses (which have used glass bottles dispersed evenly throughout the walls, helping light find its way in while creating a beautiful design). Sadly I don’t know their names, since I barely interact with them, and they pretty much only speak Hindi. Two people who help with construction are also in charge of making all the pizzas for the cafe, which can get quite busy at times.

I’ve really loved spending time with all of these people – the volunteers and staff – for the past approximately 2 weeks. They all contribute to a welcoming, kind, easy-going energy that flows through Saraya. Though I enjoy meeting new people and seeing new faces, it’s really nice to see the same faces day after day to feel more settled in and at-home here. It is going to be really hard for future Workaway experiences to live up to this one – the social & natural environments are so suitable for me (other than the fact that the days can get really hot & humid) – the people here all have a least a hint of hippie in their blood, and I’m in a green haven of tall fruit trees and plants, with the Arabian Sea (India’s west coast) nearby and plenty of mega-sized familiar creatures – frogs bigger than my fist, earthworms as long and wide as snakes, and so many large, bright-colored dragonflies & butterflies. All in all, Goa, India is one of my favorite places I’ve ever visited, and though I am looking forward to traveling up to the Himalayas in north India, it will be really bittersweet to kiss this place goodbye.



By Hans Tepel

Field Guide in Wilderness Therapy; Life blogger; Nature enthusiast; Philosopher; Writer; Amphibian.

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