In the spring of 2013, I moved out of my post-college shoebox apartment in NYC and had somehow saved enough money to take a short break from corporate life and computer screens.
The plan-slash-fantasy: spend two months stumbling around Europe by myself, going to the cities I’d always wanted to visit, and generally feeling freeeeeee like a protagonist in a Tom Petty song.
I had a few friends who participated in WWOOF (Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms) in Italy the year before, and they told me what a great cheap-ish travel option it can be. By signing up with WWOOF, travelers get access to a directory of organic farms who need some kind of help (ranging from cooking, to gardening, to more heavy-duty agricultural labor) in exchange for free room, board and health insurance while working.
I decided to spend my first three weeks WWOOFing in Tuscany so that I could soak up tons of fresh air and hopefully stress less about money during the backpacking portion of my trip.
I wrote to a handful of farms, and my first choice responded right away. It was a meditation center with a small, self-sufficient farming operation. I’d been hearing about the benefits of meditating for a while — particularly that it can strengthen the neural pathways that manage anxiety — and I’d always wanted to try to get into it.
Plus, the description said my days would be filled with pretty low-key tasks — some work in their olive yard, vegan cooking — in addition to the daily silent meditations. Basically, the whole thing sounded like something Gwyneth Paltrow would write about on GOOP if it weren’t free.
One of the owners, Sabera, who I pictured as a lithe female yoga instructor, insisted they’d be happy to have me and gave me instructions to take a bus to a small town near the farm. I checked out their website, and it seemed like a legit, beautiful place. Their listing also came off as a lot less sketchy than some of the other farms (e.g., “Come live in a remote mountaintop cabin with me!”). I booked my flight.
As soon as I arrived in the town where I was supposed to catch the bus to the farm, something felt off. I tried to communicate with the man at the station window by scrawling down the bus times Sabera had given me, and he shook his head. I tried calling the meditation center. No answer. I kept calling.
Finally, a small voice answered the phone. It was Daya, Sabera’s partner. She asked why I hadn’t taken the bus, and I told her there was no bus at that time. She was clearly annoyed, but told me she’d come pick me up. (I found out later that they were using a bus schedule that had expired over a year before.)
An hour later, a tiny, ancient-looking woman careened toward me, muumuu billowing behind her.
“Are you Kara? Come, come! I hate driving,” she said in a Swiss accent. She rarely left the farm, she explained, as she swerved down narrow dirt roads.
When we arrived, I realized that Sabera was actually an extremely serious, Santa-esque, polo-shirt-wearing German man. Daya showed me around the farm, and I met Claire, the other WWOOFer from the US. I sat down to dinner, and Claire and I chatted about home. She seemed incredibly cool and genuine, and was about to go to school to study naturopathy.
Then Sabera turned to me and asked, “What do you do, who are you?” I gave him a quick rundown of where I was from, my travel plans, my life in New York and that I was excited to be there. Then he looked straight at me and said, "You're just a nice girl. You have no idea who you are."
Every part of my insides immediately started screaming “WHAT THE HELL HOW DARE YOU.” But I didn’t know how to react without coming off as rude or ungrateful. So I sat there silently and waited until dinner was over so I could go back to my “hut” (a small shed in the woods) to quietly freak the fuck out. Should I leave? Were they crazy? Was I crazy for being there in the first place?
Then I heard a knock. It was Claire. She explained that things on the farm were pretty weird, but that I could definitely handle it. She said I should stick it out and give it a chance.
Weird thing number one: In every meditation room there was a giant photo of Osho, the Indian guru whose teachings and techniques the center was based on. Daya and Sabera were their “Osho names” — names he had given them when they lived at Rajneeshpuram, a society for Osho followers that existed in the 1980s in Oregon.
They showed us old VHS tapes of the commune, and described it with the same wistfulness as kids talking about summer camp. It was the best! Free love! Everyone’s minds were constantly being blown by Osho’s insane wisdom! Oh yeah, and everyone wore red.
According to Osho, they said, pleasantries and overall politeness are bullshit. The farm followed a strict NO DISHONESTY policy, which meant that you always had to express exactly how you felt — no euphemisms or lies allowed. No good-mornings, pleases, or thank-yous. No how-are-yous either, unless you REALLY want to know how I feel in the depths of my soul.
Unfortunately, as someone raised by a preschool teacher in the Midwest, this felt impossible. I didn’t feel comfortable telling my hosts “Hey, you’re being a real asshole right now” because I was in their space and eating their food. But each time I said any of the "forbidden phrases," I saw disdain rise on their faces. That kind of language had been ingrained in me by society, they explained, and society was just a messed-up oppression machine, which is why Sabera sometimes pooped with the bathroom door open. Fuck social structures!
Part of me really liked the work; I was outside, I was cooking with vegetables I picked myself, I learned about herbs and was really enjoying each meditation session. I had a legitimate reason to wear Crocs.
But, per the honesty rule, Daya and Sabera didn’t hold back when they thought something I did was silly or wrong. Imagine living in an alternate universe where people cackle at you for admitting that you don’t know how to make jam.
The way Claire and I hung the laundry was stupid. The pile of manure I had been shoveling wasn’t straight enough. The fruit bowls we prepared for lunch WERE SO BIG, WHO IN THEIR RIGHT MIND WOULD MAKE A FRUIT BOWL THAT BIG? YOU’RE SO AMERICAN.
The best example was when Sabera took us around the woodsy part of the farm, pointing to around 30 random trees that needed watering. Every one looked exactly the same, and he’d mock us if we watered the wrong ones.
Claire was better at snapping back than I was, and they respected her for it. It was the ultimate mindfuck: being nice or apologetic was bad, babyish. My “oh, okay,” “gotcha,” “I’ll do it differently next time” responses just frustrated them.
Meanwhile, Sabera gave us lectures about the dangers of WiFi — he and Daya ran out of the building whenever it was turned on. Every week, a hot 30-something Osho devotee/maid came over to clean and embrace Sabera in half-hour “energy exchanges." MORE LIKE BONER EXCHANGES, Claire and I joked.
My tasks got harder, and I found myself getting increasingly grumpy and passive aggressive. I ended up raking leaves while more leaves were falling, or combing through a mosquito-infested forest for firewood, coming out covered in bites. But they said I didn’t get enough wood, or my sweeping skills sucked.
Then, one morning at breakfast, Sabera was being more critical and condescending than usual (“You really don’t know yourself, you’re entitled like all Americans, you are so entrenched in ~society~”) and I finally flipped my shit. I told him he was being a jerk, that I’d been trying my best and doing a good job, and that he needed to stop telling me what my relationship with myself was like, because he had no idea.
And then he got really quiet and started crying big tears out of his crinkly eyes. And then, as if it were an automatic reflex, I stared back and cried big, quiet tears. And then everyone else at the table started crying.
After a few minutes, he said that this is what he’d wanted all along — for me to defend myself and tell him to shut the hell up. To stand up for myself and stop trying to please people that were being assholes to me.
I still don’t understand what was really happening in that moment, but I remember experiencing it in three distinct ways: first being extremely aware of how spooky and "Martha Marcy May Marlene" things had become, us all sitting around and crying together at 7 a.m., talking about how I needed to “start speaking my truth.” Second, feeling weirdly touched (“Aw, you cared enough about me to be mean to me for weeks in order to teach me this messed-up life lesson”). Third, feeling creeped out that I felt touched.
For the rest of my time on the farm, Daya and Sabera were uncharacteristically kind. They offered me wine and laughed with me. They stopped giving me tedious, impossible tasks. I felt like a completed pet project (“Fix Kara: check”). When I left, they taught me a special, creepy hug where you put your feet in between the other person’s for maximum front-body contact.
It wasn’t until I got home that I actually got to research Osho on my own. A friend from Oregon sent me the PBS documentary about Rajneeshpuram. There were a lot of cool things about Osho’s teachings, but also a lot of things that Daya and Sabera left out. Like, that Osho called homosexuals “non-humans.” Or that Rajneeshpuram eventually collapsed because members poisoned local salad bars(!) in order to try to stop residents from voting in county elections — it’s still the biggest bioterror attack ever to occur in the US.
But the most bizarre part is that, though I definitely felt manipulated, I still think about my time there in a positive way — as a wacky series of WTF moments that made me think really hard about my habits and tendency to avoid conflict.
I love niceness. I want to be surrounded by rad, compassionate, thoughtful people, and I want to be one. But I also know that sometimes, for me, the line between “being nice” and “taking shit” can get blurry. Maybe this is the Kool-Aid talking, but, by purposely being nonstop jerks, Daya and Sabera did make me more conscious of the moments that I don’t speak up for myself.
It was definitely fucked up. But on some level, it was also kind of nice.