If you ask me about my favorite way to travel abroad these days, I’d definitely say ‘Workaway.’
Volunteering through this website has given me the chance to discover cultures at a whole different level.
Whether this was harvesting rice on a farm in Japan, selling home-made sweets at a local market, making my first friends and connections when moving to Montreal by volunteering at a hostel, or spending a month and a half at a hippie community hidden in Northern Patagonia. All these opportunities have given me unique insights into other peoples’ lifestyles.
Many times, my own values and habits were questioned. I lived vegan for 1 ½ month without craving anything (except for chocolate, let’s be real), I stayed with families who had dinner at 10pm (almost my bedtime) and I lived in a place without electricity, refrigerator, or gas and made food by making fire. I stayed at places where the toilet wouldn’t have a door but a bed-sheet hanging in front of it … My accommodation varied from a bunk bed in an old shed, a tent-like structure, a fancy modern room in a guesthouse to my own little ‘hut’ made of recyclable material.
My tasks have varied from stacking wood to taking care of chickens, hours or weeding gardens, turning beds, planting new seedlings, cooking, babysitting, teaching English, cleaning hostel bathrooms and many more.
So how does this whole idea work?
Quick explanation: You are ‘working’/helping’ at a place for a few hours a day and usually receive food and accommodation (hostels often only provide housing and sometimes breakfast).
Why would you want to work without getting paid?
Let me stress that it is mostly not ‘work’ in the traditional sense you’re thinking of. Yes, you are working, but it’s almost comparable to an internship or a work experience. In most places, you are not expected to have any specific skills. Instead, you will help wherever possible and acquire new skills.
And a question that I always asked myself: would I take away another person’s job with this?!
When you’re reading on the Workaway website, you’ll see that in many countries, you might actually need a work visa to work and even volunteer. This is something you have to figure out for yourself before you go.
Also, I believe that there are many places where you are also helping to foster cultural exchange. For example, when helping at an English school, you are often more of an ambassador of your country and culture than an actual working ‘teacher.’
It’s also basically the same as answering the question of: am I taking another person’s job by being an unpaid/low-paid intern?!
How do you find a host?
By using the website, you can browse different host profiles in different countries with various ‘work activities.’ You can select what kind of work you’d like to do or leave it open. Sometimes hosts are looking for people with specific skills, but often, you can jump right into whatever they are working on. Hosts are either locals or foreigners, that are trying to set up a life in the respective country.
Once you find a host that sounds interesting to you, you can then contact them by sending them a message through the website, introducing yourself, asking for availability on the dates you’re thinking of volunteering. Some hosts have a minimum or a maximum period for a stay, others are flexible. I used to stay around 1-2 weeks but have started to prefer longer stays as you’re starting to really understand how a place ‘works’ once you feel a little more settled, which can always take some time. I also made the experience that if a place asks you to stay at least a month, they usually have a reason for that. It might take you some times to get used to some work, maybe you’re working with animals, and they have to get used to you… these periods of your stay are also often negotiable and depend on your communication with your future host. Simply make sure you communicate well.
Another option is to actually get ‘found’ by the host. When you start using the website, you will create a profile with information about yourself, something between Facebook and LinkedIn. You can then specify the dates you’re planning to travel to and which countries you’d like to visit. When you fill out this information, prospective hosts can find you when they are looking for volunteers from their side. I have been contacted and had great experiences in places I might not have looked at when browsing the hosts’ profiles (as there are often hundreds per country and they take a while to go through).
So basically, it is all about matching you and your ‘volunteer profile’ with the profile of a prospective host. All the communication will be between you and the host, workaway doesn’t play a mediator, they only provide the platform. You and your host are able to leave a review after your stay. This review will be in the form of a text which will evaluate whether it was a positive experience and whether you’d stay with this host again. I like to go to hosts that have some positive reviews, but of course, every host has to start somewhere. If you’re one of the first workawayers, you might have the chance to help them set up a ‘structure’ for future workawayers, etc.
Is it safe?
I have heard people ask me whether I think it is safe to stay with people I don’t know. Again, this is something you have to figure out with yourself. Personally, I’ve mostly had positive experiences and even the rather ‘negative’ ones were ones that I could solve by talking to the host about the issue and figure out a solution accordingly. I also learned how sometimes when a situation doesn’t feel perfect, it means that you went into it with different expectations or didn’t clarify some points accordingly prior to agreeing to stay with the host (I am going to publish a post about that soon). I believe that it is all about what you make of the situation and which attitude to have about it.
Let’s say, if you don’t like the work, you can evaluate whether that is because of your attitude towards a task that simply needs to be done (bathrooms don’t clean themselves, and even though I wouldn’t say that it’s my favorite task, someone has to do it) or whether there are other points that make it worth staying, such as an awesome group of volunteers or the place you’re staying. If you don’t like the food, you can take the initiative and add to what is provided for you by buying some of your preferred food. If you are asked to work enough, then you can remind your host, that you should only work between 4-6 hours, accordingly to what was agreed upon before. I really found it a great experience to work on myself, my attitude and helped me to stay humble and not feel ‘too good to do any tasks.’
Does it cost anything?
I do want to mention that this is a paid service. You can access the profiles of the hosts for free, but you will have to pay once you’re requesting to stay with a host. The fee is yearly and you will be asked every year whether you’d like to renew it. You are also able to create a couples account when traveling with a partner, which will come at a lower rate per person and create one profile for both of you.
Lastly, I want to mention that there are other similar websites out there. Personally, I experienced WWOOFING about a decade ago when the internet wasn’t up and going. You got an actual paperback book with the hosts’ profiles and a phone number to contact. That should have changed by now, I am assuming 😉
There are also websites, called HelpX and Worldpackers, which I haven’t experienced but heard other travelers using. They work pretty much the same way, so it’s up to you to find the website that works best for you.
I hope that some of you got a new idea of how to travel. I am so grateful for the friend who introduced me to workaway some years ago and I hope to experience many more countries and cultures through it.
I’ll be back soon with another post on what to look for in a host’s description and which questions to clarify with a prospective host.