My travelling as a Workaway volunteer has been a matter of interest to almost anyone I met along the way. The topic comes up whenever my host of the moment introduces me to friends, neighbours or acquaintances. Obviously, my presence in their home needs explaining.
“So you work here? … For free? … How long are you staying?” they say. Or, “Workaway? What’s that?” – They are eager to learn more. If not for themselves, then for their gap-year teenagers, because what I have to tell them clearly appeals.
These are the questions I am asked most frequently: What is Workaway? Who can do it? How does it work? Are you enjoying it? Would you recommend it? How long will you be doing this?
Herewith I shall answer these questions one by one, taking stock of all I have learnt as a fairly new ‘Workawayer’. So to the first question:
“What is Workaway?”
Workaway.info is a good-looking website, holding a database of over 8200 hosts (at the time of writing) on the one hand and travelling volunteers on the other. Here, registered hosts from almost every nation on earth are looking for registered helpers intending to travel to their country, while travelling volunteers can find hosts in the location of their choice. Workaway aims to promote cultural exchange and understanding, it facilitates an affordable way of exploring the world and helps people to practise their foreign language skills. It is intended as a fair exchange of work/help for bed and board, with a generous slice of culture on the side. You can find more information about them on their website by clicking the link above.
“Who can do it?” – Meaning: “Is Workaway for young backpackers only?”
Ideal Workaway volunteers are friendly, easy-going persons of all ages who seek to explore other parts of the world and improve their knowledge of foreign languages. In return for free accommodation and meals they will work for their hosts five days a week on various tasks, as required. The details of this exchange, as well as the length of their stay, are negotiated by both parties according to individual needs, though the general guideline is understood to be five hours on weekdays, with weekends off to explore the area.
Most Workaway volunteers are indeed young people on gap year travels. Their youthful enthusiasm and keen interest in other cultures are appreciated by their hosts. However, mature volunteers with a wide range of proven skills and life experience are also in demand. Especially popular – from what I have been able to discover by trawling through nearly a hundred host profiles – is the handyman with a good working knowledge of plastering and plumbing, a sound back and ample muscle power, for there are many hosts seeking skilled help with the renovation of buildings. Families are often looking for a woman with childcare experience and a love of cooking to ease the busy life of young working mothers. No special skills are needed for clearing rubble, general cleaning, weeding overgrown gardens, replacing dilapidated fencing, and more of a similar nature. As a Workaway volunteer you often contribute to making the world a tidier place and should get satisfaction from this.
There is also much work with animals on offer. Donkeys, cows, pigs, sheep and ducks need understanding souls to look after them – and muck out after them. Dogs need walking. And then there are, of course, the horses. Among host listings for Germany alone I found a high percentage of idyllic places for horse-loving girls. What a pity I’m not one of them! My speciality is organic gardening. I like to improve the soil with compost and the shape of young fruit trees with judicious pruning. This set of skills is also in high demand, as I have found. And unlike young backpackers who need picking up at airports or stations I arrive in my own car, equipped with favourite secateurs, a handy billhook and first-rate loppers.
Another important aspect of ‘workawaying’ is the learning and practising of language skills. As an English-speaking volunteer abroad, you are usually both a learner and a teacher. Your hosts will be happy to instruct you in their native language, but they will also be keen to improve their English with your help. Personally, I have always found the time spent in language studies rewarding, and a lot of fun as well.
“How does it work? How do I become a Workaway volunteer or host?”
After signing up at workaway.info you create your profile page. (Yes, yes, I know – yet another one). For individual volunteers, this useful service is offered for 22 euros (at the time of writing) and covers a period of two years – 29 euros for couples, or two friends travelling together. This allows its users to avoid high agency fees for often dubious services. You list your nationality and language, your interests, relevant experience and skills. You also reveal your allergies, dietary requirements and other restricting factors. If you are a smoker, admit it. If you need internet access daily, say so. If, like me, you are useless in the kitchen, don’t like dogs and are scared of horses, mention it. Tick the countries you wish to visit and add the dates you are free to travel. If you are raring to go, put yourself on the ‘Last Minute’ list.
Important: your portrait photo! It should show your smiling face (without hats and sunglasses, however stylish) and convey the feeling that you are a person anyone would like to welcome into their home. Once completed, your profile will be approved and go live, and from that moment on you may get invitation emails from potential hosts. Of course it is much more likely that you will find your perfect placement by actively looking for hosts, but your image and profile are now added to the column of teasers that pop up whenever a host visits the Workaway site.
As a registered volunteer, you, on the other hand, will see the teasers of hosts popping into your field of vision. This is my favourite feature. Trawling thus through an immense range of projects on every continent can become seriously addictive and give you the heady feeling that the world is indeed your oyster and that you will never return …
All right, let’s calm down now! – So much for registering as a volunteer.
If, on the other hand, you are snowed under with simple tasks awaiting the day when you will have a few spare hours and heaps of energy – (ha!) – you might consider signing up as a Workaway host. That spare room, that cosy caravan could accommodate just the helper you need to get things moving. You would of course offer meals, share your home, bathroom and internet access, and assist with language-learning and sightseeing in return. As scores of heartwarming testimonials prove, that useful temporary helper may even become a long-term friend.
Registering as a host is entirely free of charge. Once you have signed up, a guideline will help you to create a detailed profile of your home, your family and pets, the work to be done, the landscape to be explored and the attractions to be enjoyed. All of this should induce the right volunteers to send you an application, but of course you will also be searching the profiles of travelling helpers actively for anyone you find compatible.
So, speaking as a volunteer, what am I looking for as I scroll through those long lists of host profiles? Firstly, a heading that identifies the area and gives some idea of the work needed, or the type of host: ‘Help a family with three kids in Ireland’ for example, ‘Work at a hostel in Barcelona’, ‘Teach English near Warsaw’, ‘Work on a ranch in Canada’, ‘Help with my B&B in Brighton’ … etc. You get the idea.
Crucial – but often missing – is a portrait picture of the host(s). That this is not mandatory for all is my only criticism of the Workaway site. Wonderful snapshots of cute pets, a sunset over the hills and the thriving tomato seedlings are all very well, but volunteers are naturally most interested in the people who are going to be their ersatz family and home base for a while. So here’s my plea to all hosts: Hide your camera phobia under a cheerful smile, discard those hats and sunglasses you like to hide behind, have a trusted friend take lots and lots of digital pics, choose the one you can live with and delete the rest, upload it bravely and trust that your face(s) will appeal to those volunteers that are right for you. Please, please do this! I have often clicked past otherwise interesting profiles because they did not feature the people involved, and it is fast becoming a personal rule not to consider any hosts that will not show themselves.
As a registered host you have access to the troops of travelling volunteer workers and will be able to send invitations to the ones whose profile appeals to you. And what will you be looking at, first and foremost? Their smiling faces, that’s right! Would you invite a foreign person into your home whose face you have never seen? Exactly! I trust you see my point.
Initially, all communication happens through the secure Workaway website. You will send invitations and receive enquiries, and it is of importance, as a matter of common courtesy, that you respond reasonably quickly to all of them, even if your answer should be politely negative. The Workaway site rates its members according to the feedback they receive (oh, right, the feedback: a self-explanatory feature, really – but after a good portrait picture it is the most important deciding factor!) and the frequency with which they update and communicate.
On a practical level: Once I had signed up, I found that it does take a while to achieve a match if one has certain places and dates in mind, even if one is using the ‘Last Minute Host List’. It is advisable to make contact with potential hosts or volunteers well in advance, after having checked for free slots on their featured calendar, because some people take a long time to reply.
“Are you enjoying it?”
Oh yes, I am – very much so! After three months on the road and staying with my third Workaway host, I am finding this lifestyle greatly to my taste. At first, I admit, it did take some getting used to. I would wake up in the morning in a strange bed in a foreign country, thinking, “What the hell am I doing here?” And although there was nothing wrong with my first host, it was not one of those placements that leave a warm, happy memory and impel one to write such glowing feedback as can commonly be found on Workaway host profiles.
In such a case, the average time span of two weeks – sometimes set by the host as a trial period – is plenty long enough. However, things soon looked up. I easily made friends with my next hosts, got into the swing of things, found a satisfying sense of purpose in being needed and loved delving into the places and the history of another country, as you can see from my recent blog posts. Workaway certainly took the strain of where-to-stay-and-what-to-spend out of my road trip …
“Would you recommend it?”
Absolutely! If you have energy, a few skills or the willingness to acquire them and the interest to engage with foreign places and people, then Workaway could be for you. You will find it pleasant to have a home base rather than a hotel, and of course it makes long-term travel so much more affordable. The personal contact with local people, the insight into their lives, the long talks and interesting friendships could not otherwise happen so easily, and one might find it much harder to learn about the customs and the stories of the area.
For practising languages it is also excellent, because one is truly immersed in and part of the language environment in a way that the usual travel contact with taxi drivers, bar staff and street vendors cannot match. Young people proudly mention the skills they learnt as travelling volunteers, while mature workawayers – though surely not beyond learning new tricks – get a sense of satisfaction from being able to contribute their expertise in a meaningful way.
“How long will you be doing this?”
That question I cannot answer because I have no idea. Since all my time is all my own these days, I mean to continue as a travelling and writing volunteer for as long as I enjoy being on the road, and likely until I discover something, within or without, that suggests a change of course.
And now, my question to you is: What are you waiting for?
You can just get started and let things develop. There is no need to feel rushed. Sign up and work on that profile even if you don’t mean to set out straight away. In my case, ten months passed between joining Workaway.info and arriving at the door of my first host. But I had saved many favourite profiles in ‘My Host List’ (another great feature) and received lots of invitations.
Begin by reading those mouth-wateringly wonderful project descriptions from all around the world. They may fire your wanderlust like nothing else. And if you have any questions regarding this topic that I have not answered yet, I’d be pleased if you raised them in the ‘comments’ section below.
Happy travels to you all, fellow Workawayers!