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Sabbatical in Portugal

I just returned from a three-month sabbatical in Portugal and it’s one of the best decisions I have made in years! That’s why my blog has a huge time gap, but here’s a summary of the highlights.

My boyfriend and I volunteered at several small-scale farms (or quintas) in central Portugal, which we found through friends, WWOOF and HelpX, though there are dozens of websites connecting volunteers to hosts. We decided to take this step for several reasons: one, we’ve been interested in exploring Portugal for years; and two, we needed to clear our minds of the hazy funk of routine and search for personal inspiration.

It took a lot of planning and months of rearranging our lives, but it was worth it.

For those unfamiliar with Portugal, it’s one of the EU’s poorest countries. Poverty, decay, and high unemployment are common, and falling birthrates coupled with mass emigration abroad for work have led to a steadily declining population. Portugal’s interior has fared much worse, as villages are quickly being abandoned and only the elderly remain. To counter this, the government has actively encouraged immigration and it's working—in 2019 alone, half a million foreigners relocated to Portugal.

We were interested in visiting those who lived in the countryside, on off-grid, sustainable farms. Being off-grid means getting back to basics: growing your own food, tending the land, recycling waste, getting electricity from solar panels, and working in tune with the demands of the seasons. Needless to say, hot showers were few and WiFi was extremely limited, if non-existent—and thankfully so. Although I wanted to experience this, I struggled at first with going digital cold turkey. How was I going to blog about my journey? I quickly discovered that taking a break from the constant input of being online to be fully immersed in the NOW was more precious than adding to the noise.

This was new for me. As a writer who typically fills travel diaries with thousands of details about magical characters, uplifting conversations and the sublime beauty of foreign landscapes, I barely wrote two pages in three months. The first time I sat down to write, I was interrupted by a cherubic looking young South African girl. The second time, a Danish pig farmer, also a volunteer, invited me to share a glass of wine. Being a volunteer keeps you extremely busy: working, participating, asking questions over long meals, and actively engaging with people. Normally, I am an observer who likes to stand back and analyze the bigger picture, only this time I was fully in it.

Being off grid also helped me rediscover slowness and simplicity. Nature shows us that everything evolves organically, ripening after a lengthy process. Trees don’t grow overnight, so why pull at their roots? There is only so much that can happen in one day, leaving the rest for contemplation or rest.

Taking a sabbatical helped me gain perspective by stepping into the unknown and ultimately, doing less. Of course, everyone chooses one for different, highly personal reasons. I have read tales about hiking in the Himalayas, traveling extensively, and outlining a future business plan. What these stories share is a deep need to rekindle or explore a passion that doesn't fit into daily working life. For me, being in nature and getting dirt lodged under my fingernails gave me the freedom to notice the small things again, both around me, and inside myself.

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