“#3. You’ll learn something new: You are guaranteed to pick up a new skill with each new place you volunteer.”
1. Accommodation is going to be cheaper for you.
Now, I’ve only used Workaway and HelpX as a source for my work exchanges. (Something about the different website layouts for each country’s WWOOF page is displeasing to my eye, and I don’t really care for children.) But each host only expected me to work an average of five hours a day, five days a week. In exchange, I’d get a bed to sleep in and at least breakfast, sometimes lunch or dinner. Not a bad deal, right?
I can’t imagine the amount of money I saved by working for my bed. Last year, I worked for two weeks at a bed and breakfast on Santa Marianita beach outside of Manta in Ecuador, a location I already wanted to visit for its sick kite surfing culture. If I had stayed in the dorm rooms for $15 per night, I’d have spent $210, not to mention the cost of ordering off their delicious breakfast menu every morning. Instead, I saved an average of $300, which I spent on kite surfing lessons, and got to feast on breakfast burritos and stuffed french toast every morning, prepared by the hotel’s charming Ecuadorean cook, Martiza.
2. It’s the easiest way to immerse yourself in the local culture.
Most hosts ask their volunteers to stay and work for an average of one month, sometimes more and sometimes less. In this time, you’re not merely stopping in a city for a weekend, seeing the touristy sites, and going on your merry way. You can truly embrace “slow travel” because you have the time and the resources to really get to know the place and the people who live in it full time.
I did my first work exchange at a hostel in Catania, Sicily. I stayed for two months, which was a little more than I needed at the time, but there were other volunteers who had been there for nearly a year. One British girl, George, in particular was practically Sicilian by the time she left, complete with big hand gestures, homemade pasta and recommending horse meat as a delicacy.
By staying in Catania for an extended period of time and not just passing through, I felt that I was able to assimilate a little more into the Sicilian culture, and therefore, adopt a little of that culture into myself. In general, I learned to slow my roll a little bit. I’d wake up in the morning and stroll to the bakery for some fresh bread to put on the table for the guests. The baker would help me practice my Italian by asking me if I’d like a little something sweet for myself, to which I’d demurely refuse until she asked if I was sure, and then I’d say, forse solo uno.
After the bakery, I’d stop at the fruit stand on the street, buy whatever the young man working there recommended, refuse his marriage proposals and head back up to the kitchen to lay out my purchases and make espressos for the guests.
I even spent enough time there that the manager, Rosario, had his mother come in and teach me how to make pasta a la Norma and a traditional tomato sauce, with just a touch of heat. I’d spend my days buying the freshest tomatoes and seafood from the outdoor market, stirring a simmering pot of sauce or soup that I’d serve to the guests for dinner, and putting laundry out on the line to dry, all the while staring off into the sea and listening to the hostel’s neighbor practice his cello for the Catania orchestra.
3. You’ll learn something new.
You are guaranteed to pick up a new skill with each new place you volunteer. Whether it’s learning everything there is about horse maintenance on a Midwestern ranch or excavating an archaeological monument in Siberia, you will walk away with more than what you arrived with.
If you’re like me, and basically the entire American millennial population, you’re not quite sure what career path you should be on. And that’s fine, work exchanges are a great way to try out different jobs and explore your interests.
It’s always been a far off dream of mine to open my own hostel, so that’s why I gravitate toward hostel work. As I write this, I’m volunteering at my third hostel, ITH Mountain Adventure Lodge in Big Bear, California. Due to my past experience working in hostels coupled with my general hospitality expertise, the managers here trust me to basically run the place while they’re away. I understand the flow of this industry, and now I’m learning how to use different booking software. Not to mention they have me splitting wood and teaching guests archery. I had no idea how to do either of those things until I got here. And I got to learn all these rugged and useful skills for free.
Last year, I volunteered with a family in the jungle in Peru. The other volunteers and I tended to their land, planting crops, feeding chickens and contributing to the compost pile. But mainly, we spent a ton of time digging an irrigation ditch that would hopefully redirect the heavy rainfall that completely flooded their house the year before. I learned a lot about the struggles of the residents of the Peruvian Amazon and got to contribute to the family’s well being. Not to mention how cool it was to have monkeys for neighbors, the Tambopata River as my personal bath, and fresh papaya to pick off the trees for breakfast.
4. Even though it is work, you can really just take a break.
If you’ve been moving non-stop around the world, living out of your backpack and in a new hostel every third night, you’ll definitely enjoy a chance to stop and rest for a while. It will feel good to have a purpose again other than just going and going, not to mention the wonderful feeling of being able to unpack without knowing that you’ll immediately have to roll and stuff everything into your bag again and hoist it on your shoulders within a few days.
As I travel, I always know that work exchanges are an option for when I’m just too tired to go on. Here at my current Workaway, a nice Swiss boy has just arrived. He’s been traveling around the States for a little over two months and hasn’t stayed in one city for more than five days. For the first two days of his arrival here, he couldn’t stop exclaiming how happy he is to get back to a routine that includes a normal work, exercise and eating schedule. He now has the responsibility of splitting wood and he says he couldn’t be happier.
And guess what, you can leave again whenever you want.
5. Work exchanges are also a really good way to start your trip.
Maybe you’ve never traveled solo before, or maybe you haven’t been to this particular part of the world before. Doing a quick work exchange will help you acclimate to being in a new environment.
When I graduated university two years ago and decided that I wanted to travel, I wasn’t quite sure how to go about it. So I checked out Workaway’s website to see what opportunities different countries had to offer. I had been to Italy before, but only for ten days. If you’ve been to Italy, you’ll know that ten days isn’t nearly enough time. I could spend my life in that gorgeous country getting fat off pasta. So when I saw a post about a unique hostel where volunteers live with the guests and contribute to the running of the place, I thought it would be a great way to start my travels. I would know exactly where I was going and have a support system while away from home.
6. There’s going to be people from all over the world working alongside you.
Even if you’re the only volunteer at a farm in Nowheresville, Albania, you’ll still meet new people who will contribute to your sense of self. At hostels, obviously, the amount of people you meet is much more varied. I have so enjoyed comparing small traditions with people I’ve met from other countries, sharing stories about our different holiday experiences or hearing about what they eat for meals in their own countries. It never gets old when my German friend, Lara, complains about the amount of meat we eat in America and that we don’t know how to make bread.
Also, the people you meet can provide unique and valuable information for your future travels. They can recommend a great hostel or restaurant where they just were in Vietnam, or give you detailed notes about what you must see while you’re traveling the Rhine Valley, photos and all.
7. You can learn a new language, or practice a second or third language.
Many work exchange programs are specific to language exchange. If you search the Au Pair websites, you’ll see that many European families want to host native English speakers to speak to their children in English. At the same time, you’ll definitely get a chance to practice your French.
I loved volunteering in South America because I am passionate about becoming fluent in Spanish. The language is so beautiful and so useful to know. Speaking Spanish has helped me both abroad and back home. In fact, one of the reasons my work exchange in Ecuador hired me was because they desperately needed a translator. I’m not fluent, but dealing with vendors and guests forced me to practice my Spanish and even learn some new words, rather than just getting by on smiles and hand gestures.
8. You can use your host as a home base while you work on other important things.
Every morning, one of my fellow volunteers in California, Kaja, from Poland, wakes up to Skype with clients from home. She has her own marketing business which funds her travels, and she can keep up with her workload online.
That’s the great thing about these work exchanges, or at least the ones I have engaged in. Your free time is your free time. After my shift is up, or when I have a day off, I take time to write or edit photos and videos. I am currently enrolled in a few online classes that I feel I can dedicate more time to here than if I were back home, chasing money and keeping up with my social life. I feel as though I am living in some world that is separate from the real world, a world where I have the time and the freedom to explore any interest and dedicate time to it.