You could say things were getting weird on the farm when I found myself cornered by two naked homosexual Quaker men. ‘We’re pretty relaxed about nudity here,’ one said, dwelling on the word ‘pret-ty’ a-la Larry David in Curb Your Enthusiasm.
Here’s some context. I’d been using the Help Exchange – a fantastic website that enables travellers to stay with locals in return for a few hours’ work each day – to get around North America. Having laboured on farms in Tennessee and Colorado, I was looking forward to being a lumberjack for a fortnight in Canada; specifically Argenta, a small mountain community in eastern British Columbia.
‘So, you’re sure you don’t want to join us in the hot tub?’ my Canadian host Philip, 63, asked. He was a tall, thin guy who wore thick-framed glasses and sported an overgrown white beard. Beside him stood his 55-year-old German partner Karl – a stockier man with a salt-and-pepper goatee and a piercing stare. I trembled in the shadows of their naked frames. ‘Think of it as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,’ said Karl, hands on hips. The hot tub, smaller than a normal-sized bath, bubbled away outside.
After dinner, I washed up Philip and Karl’s condom wrappers as part of my household duties, as ‘the scent might attract bears’
I fiddled with the frayed corners of the tablecloth, and remembered that the minibus service that brought me here ran only ran once a week. ‘I’m alright, actually, but thanks for offering,’ I responded. A few moments passed. Then a few more. ‘Positive?’ asked Philip.
While they were out, I reflected on Day One. Earlier, I’d been expected to join in saying a Quaker grace before our evening meal, despite being non-religious. My abortive efforts to converse at the table only mildly disrupted a gloomy silence as we ate. After dinner, I washed up Philip and Karl’s condom wrappers as part of my household duties, as ‘the scent might attract bears’. I slept uneasily that night in my chilly outdoor hut.
Things became even more uncomfortable as time wore on. In between rinsing my ‘piss pot’ in the pond each morning and reluctantly turning off the light before bed, I found that the only thing more stunning than the majesty of nature on offer was what I was putting up with on a daily basis. Karl was prone to mood swings and would regularly fly off the handle in theatrical rages. One morning he announced his arrival at breakfast by roaring: ‘Not good! Not good! I AM SO ANGRY RIGHT NOW!’ Then, after shoving Philip hard in the chest, he fled the house, slamming the front door behind him, and marched off into the dewy wilderness. He didn’t return until dusk.
I became mystified at quite how such an idyllic heaven had surrounded my distressing hell
My scheduled two weeks in Argenta became one – but not through my own choice. One evening, Karl calmly informed me that I ‘drive him crazy’. With fury or desire, it wasn’t made clear. Philip took me aside and explained that Karl was going through something of a crisis and that I should definitely leave.
I still had to wait a couple more days before I had the confidence to record any sentiments of relief in my journal, and only began scribbling away as the minibus began its bumpy two-hour descent down the mountain towards the town of Nelson. As the spectacular landscape of thick forests, dizzying peaks and sparkling lakes presented itself to me once again, I became mystified at quite how such an idyllic heaven had surrounded my distressing hell.
You probably don’t need me to tell you that this is NOT a typical experience when using Help Exchange. In fact, I implore you to give it a go – here’s a more expansive account of my trip around North America.
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