I’ve been intending on writing this post for the last week but as I’m sure some of you can relate, my travels have been keeping me busy! I’ve been on the road traveling down the coast from northern to southern France and I hope to share some photos soon! In the meantime, I’ve had a lot of questions about my experience doing Workaway and I hope this answers some of them. I’d love to hear about your own experiences with Workaway or other similar organizations (Help-X, WWOOFing, etc).
1) Do your research
Workaway.info is an organization that allows travelers to spend an average of 25 hours working per week in exchange for free room and board. It is similar to WWOOFing but the work can vary from renovating a house to language exchange. The number of workaways for France alone is over 800, so the most important thing I advise is to do your research! Hosts all over the world set up profiles for volunteers to see what kind of work they will do and what kind of living conditions they can expect. Before agreeing to a Workaway assignment it’s important to ask about things like wifi availability, sleeping arrangements, meals, and the work schedule.
Fourteen of us shared the cottage with only two bathrooms!
I would also ask if there are bicycles available to use to explore nearby towns. The majority of the hosts I’ve looked at are in rural locations with limited public transportation. This can make it difficult to explore the surrounding area unless they are willing to take you on excursions. Some hosts have multiple volunteers at one time so it can be a great chance to meet other travelers.
Even the most menial tasks were fun with these girls!
Other times you will be working alone or independently which may feel isolating in a small country village. If the host has had previous volunteers, read the references! This is an added safety measure for you to make sure you are not agreeing to a bad situation. Ask for the host’s phone number as well so you can arrange drop off/pick up times.
One of the difficulties I’ve had is finding last minute hosts. Summer is high season in France and many Workaways already have all of the volunteers they need until September or October. It’s best to plan at least several months ahead and to start contacting hosts earlier rather than later. This ensures you are doing the kind of work you enjoy and helps you plan a specific direction of travel.
2) Be flexible
My first Workaway experience was helping renovate 17th century French cottages in rural Bretagne.
I worked with a large group of volunteers ranging in age from 18-73 from Europe, Australia, South America, and Canada. Working, eating, and living among such a diverse group of people can be challenging but also very rewarding! When so many strangers come together and spend all of their time in a shared space, conflict and tension are inevitable. Each person has a different way of eating, speaking, and working.
There were times when the stress of our job and being in an isolated place made us irritable and brought out frustrations. Instead of turning on each other and fragmenting into common nationalities and peer groups it was important for us to stick together and support each other. Rather than giving into our frustrations, we poured another glass of wine and tried new recipes. We practiced vocabulary words and played chess. We built a bonfire and went to the beach.
The solidarity and the bonds we formed were priceless when the unexpected happened, which leads me to #3…
3) Always have a back-up plan
The week before I arrived I contacted my Workaway host to confirm dates and travel arrangements. I carefully wrote down his phone number and double checked all of the details. Unfortunately, he didn’t do the same. When I arrived at the train station to be picked up, no one came. I waited for half an hour and tried calling but no one answered. Suddenly I found myself stranded in a strange city with nowhere to go and no other arrangements for the next two weeks. After spending a few hours wandering around at night looking for a place to stay, I finally checked into the most expensive hotel (the only one open) and frantically wished I had made a back-up plan. Thankfully, I was able to get in touch with him the next morning but this was only the first red flag I should’ve paid attention to.
During my two week stay my host was non-communicative and unclear about his expectations for us. The work he asked us to do was tedious- scraping and painting, clearing brush, ripping up old carpet and scrubbing everything clean. It wasn’t so much the work we minded but the disorganization and chaotic way we were expected to perform our tasks. When we had questions about our work he was never around to answer. The promised excursions to the nearby villages never happened. He yelled at his wife in front of us and barked orders without ever saying thank-you. More than that, there was this feeling of uneasiness and fear that permeated the air when he was around. I had the sense of not being able to trust him or his behavior.
The morning we left I realized my gut instinct had been right all along. After finding another volunteer’s clothes in the swimming pool (an innocent prank) he came into the breakfast table and yelled at everyone, singling out one of the girls and swearing at her to get off his property. His anger and overreaction were enough to convince all of us to leave. We had nowhere else to go, but seven of us packed our belongings and promised not to leave each other until we had all made next arrangements. We hadn’t planned on walking away but staying was no longer a safe option. We formed our own community and were able to face the unpredictable and unknown, refusing to be discouraged when something went wrong.
This is what I love about traveling. I love that the best is brought out in people in spite of the worst circumstances. Individually we were vulnerable and alone, together we were capable and strong. The mutual respect we had for each other enabled us to depend on one another even though days ago we had been strangers. I believe we all have this capacity to face adversity collectively, whether we are travelers or not. When we realized we had each other, no amount of abuse or problem seemed insurmountable.
4) Keep trying, keep traveling
It would be easy for me to write this off as a negative experience and to search for other ways to travel- to chalk it up as something I shouldn’t do again. I could stay angry at the injustice of the situation and doubt my ability to travel alone, letting fear cloud my decisions. I could tally all of the bad experiences I’ve had and choose to let them outweigh the good. I could hang my head in defeat and see my vulnerability as an Achilles heel, something to protect and hide away.
Honestly, it’s been a tough road so far. It’s only been four months since I quit my job and started traveling but I’ve felt every extreme of tired, hungry, scared, and alone. I’ve questioned my sanity and shed hot tears of frustration. I’ve gotten so tired of saying the words, “I don’t know” (in multiple languages!) that I’ve avoided people’s questions altogether, letting them pile up until I feel my head will explode. When this journey is over I’m not sure where the scale will rest. But I do know each moment of joy and contentment outweigh the doubts that try to creep in. Each new friendship formed, each new memory created outweighs the moments of loneliness. I have to keep going, I have to keep learning and struggling, questioning and believing. Faith and fear go hand in hand.
*My next Workaway assignment was the exact opposite from my first one. I stayed with a lovely couple just outside of Bordeaux and was spoiled rotten by Francesca’s kindness and good cooking! The work was fair and I felt completely at ease and at home with Philippe and Francesca. We shared many stories of traveling the world and became instant friends. One more reason to forget the bad and cherish the best.
Enjoying homemade milkshakes with Philippe!
How do you stay positive when things go wrong? Is the community around you important in helping you deal with unpredictable situations? Have you ever had a bad experience while volunteering or doing Workaway? I’d love to hear about your experiences!Google+