Milking Donkeys

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After all my au pair adventures I just knew that it was time for another experience. I wanted to work with my hands and I wanted to be exhausted at the end of the day. My friend introduced me to a website called workaway.info and I decided to register. It is based on the idea of exchanging a few hours per day of your help in return for both food and accommodation. After a long search I finally made a decision and got in touch with a host in the south west of France. Their advert sounded really nice and ideal as the job description included milking donkeys and making soap. I was lucky as they weren’t booked out and so I made my way to France.

I was picked up by the host Manu and his kids from the train station. Once we arrived at the farm I was welcomed by two other workawayers from Germany and the other host Cécile. I really enjoyed being there with others as having the company of other like minded people made the work much more fun. The Germans soon left and were replaced by two lovely girls from Minnesota. We shared a room with two bunk beds.

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There were about 40 donkeys in total spread out on 42 hectares of beautiful land. Only 10 of them got milked though. Their milk was mainly used for soap. They also had lavender fields and a beautiful vegetable garden plus orchard. I quickly realized that I am in for a lot of work.

A beautiful Boutique with all their products was attached to the house. One could buy soap, essential oils, floral water, body scrub, balm, candles, bags of lavender and much more – all hand made of course. The work was very diverse and there was always much to do.

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Milking the donkeys was a lot of fun, but very exhausting. The whole process, which included feeding the animals, pasteurizing the milk and cleaning up could take 2 people up to around 2 and a half hours to complete.

We basically started off with putting bridles on the donkeys and herding them into the barn. Then we prepared the grain for the donkeys to eat after the milking. After gathering the supplies needed, we cleaned the teats of each donkey. Once clean, we started up the machine and began milking. You wanted to be as efficient as possible because the longer the donkeys were in the barn, the more poop one had to clean up afterwards.

After all the donkeys were milked, we let them out and then the long clean up began. One person took the milk to the lab and started pasteurizing while the other person cleaned the milking machine and the barn. You have no idea how long it takes to clean a milking machine properly. Inside the lab one carefully measured the milk into small freezer bags, pasteurized it, labeled the bags and placed them into a special freezer. After two hours of hard work we were sweaty and hungry.

During my stay we made a lot of soap and I feel very lucky that I had the chance to be a part of this process. Before that I had no idea how soap was made. Once all the ingredients were measured and put together in the right order, you fill the liquid soap in molds and let it dry for 2 days before you cut it and let it dry for another 2 months. Then the soap gets ‚cleaned‘, that means that you cut off the sharp edges and make it look nice. After that you stamp the soap boxes and put the soap in there. Et voilà!

I filled essential oils in bottles, labeled them, I got orders ready and sold products in the Boutique (quite a challenge when you only speak a little French). We also watered the vegetables and orchards as it’s quite dry in this part of France.

As a social person I really enjoyed our meals together as one, big family. Do I even have to mention how good and tasty French food is? I feel like I could write a whole article dedicated to the french food culture.

The farm was located in the middle of nowhere. There was basically nothing besides beautiful rolling fields around us. One could feel pretty isolated, but I didn’t care as work kept me busy and my new family entertained me. We did get their car twice though and had the chance to visit a local market and have a nice dinner in a little town nearby.

The best part were the donkey cuddles. I just loved the baby donkeys. They were the cutest. Sometimes I would just go out to get my dose of donkey love. I really didn’t expect donkeys to be so smart, friendly and trusting. Of course they can be stubborn too, but I immediately felt a soft spot for them.

Also listening to our hosts about their own story and how they traveled the world was just amazing. They didn’t and still don’t care about money or materialistic things. They didn’t/don’t care about society and how one should live their life. They did and still do what they love and what they feel passionate about. They work very hard every single day, as one can’t create a small business like this without a loan.

Cécile became an inspiring female role model for me. She is a strong woman with a great history. It was truly inspiring hearing how she quit her job in the media industry, sold all her belongings and moved to Fiji island. There she worked in a little surf shop where she in the end met Manu. She was happy and enjoyed life without much money or materialistic goods.

I grew up in an environment that taught me, that you have to get a well payed (full-time) job at some point, get married and have kids at a certain age and save up for a rainy day and the future in general. At some point in my life I became frustrated as I asked myself if I need to have all these things? After all my abroad experiences I realized that societies ‘plan of a perfect life’ isn’t necessarily the recipe to happiness. Happiness has to come from within and has nothing to do with money, materialistic things or a partner. So being with this couple that built their own business out of nothing, that doesn’t work in a ‘regular job’, that doesn’t care about the concept of marriage, that doesn’t care about what others think about their life etc. etc. helped me a lot to understand that it’s so important to listen to your gut and to do what makes you happy and feels right to you.

I feel lucky that I stayed at this place for a whole month and even though I worked every single day somehow it didn’t seem to matter. When you like the work, time flies and it did.

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Even though I didn’t get any money, it was one of the coolest experiences in my life and I guess I would always do it again. It feels like I became a part of the family’s business. Products you make with your own hands become somehow‚ yours‘ and whenever you sell something, there is a sense of pride.

Leaving them was really hard and a part of me would love to go back immediately, but knowing that I can return whenever I want feels even better.

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