Workaway: The pros and cons of cultural exchange

For many travellers, including myself, exploring the world has to be done on a tight budget. At times, it can be hard enough to even afford a plane ticket, let alone anything else. Thankfully, there’s plenty of options to plan your adventures cheaply, and give you a realistic insight into life behind the scenes of the standard tourist trail.

One of these options is Workaway, a cultural exchange website that allows volunteers to take on small jobs from hosts, and in return receive free accommodation, and meals depending upon the host in question. There are thousands of hosts from all over the world, whether it be an individual, family or business, based in over 135 countries so far. Jobs can range from babysitting, carpentry, farm work or cooking, but it’s not particularly intense: the premise is that you work around 4-5 hours a day, usually 5 days a week, which leaves plenty of time for you to explore. While you do need to pay just under £24 to register, this will set up your active account for two years, and allow you to contact hosts directly.

The key advantage of Workaway is that it gives you the opportunity to live like a local at relatively low cost. You have the chance to meet new people, as well as learn a language in a short space of time. However, a few things to bear in mind- though it might seem fairly obvious to state, be aware that your Workaway experience doesn’t function as a holiday. As a Workawayer, you’re a volunteer, a helper, and essentially a part of the family and community. While you’ve certainly got time to please yourself, you’re there to provide a service, and your hosts will be depending upon you.

I’d generally advice that you stick with a form of volunteering that you know you’ll enjoy, in a location that will be worthwhile to you. Many hosts don’t tend to live in cities, so make sure you familiarise yourself with transport links, or check if your host will be able to collect you from an agreed location. I once made the mistake of agreeing to volunteer with a host, only to realise a few days before arrival that I wouldn’t be able to make it due to transport issues. Don’t make the same error as I did!

It’s also important to be aware that your accommodation may not always be the most luxurious; sometimes you may be sleeping in a dorm, an outhouse, or even a tent during your stay. The reality of a Workaway exchange can be very different from your initial expectations, and it’s entirely possible that you may be asked to do something that may not have initially agreed. Of course, your hosts can’t force you to do anything you’re not comfortable with, but make sure to explain yourself and be aware of the reasons why your host may be asking for help. Exchanges can be a little bit daunting at first, so I recommend asking your host as many questions as possible to gain a clear idea of what will be expected before you arrive. You’ll need to be adaptable, pro-active, and aware that some hosts can have their quirks, or just be a little bit bonkers.

This however is part of the fun- I met so many great characters during my travels, and it’s given me the confidence to push myself further with my travel ambitions.  I was incredibly nervous before my first Workaway experience; I’d be staying with a self-sufficient family in Switzerland, in the tiny village of Reigoldswil. This was also the first time I would be travelling solo, so I was a bit of a wreck by the time I touched down into Basel Airport. However, all that worrying was completely unnecessary, as my hosts Ursula and Remo were simply wonderful. Not only picking me up from the airport late at night, they immediately set me at ease, and were more than happy to welcome me into their family.

Usually, your day will be structured with an early rise, with afternoons free for exploration. An advantage if you have many of interesting opportunities on your doorstep, but if you’re in a more isolated location it can be a bit disappointing if you don’t have enough time in the day to visit more far flung attractions. However, some host can be very accommodating, and can reschedule your working hours- my own hosts were happy to do this for me so I could visit Zurich. Be open and honest with your hosts, as it really does go a long way.

Of course, things can go wrong. Whilst researching Workaway, I’d read so many horror stories about clashes between hosts and guests, or volunteers failing to get a single day off during their stay. Ultimately, there’s only so much you can do to prepare for situations like this, so always act on your instincts and choose your hosts wisely. Like Airbnb, each host has a rating system, so be sure to read about the experiences of other travellers. If you do find that you’re unhappy with your stay, move on. While you may get a bad review from your host, it’s not worth sacrificing your time and happiness.

Reassuringly, most Workaway exchanges work out to be positive, memorable

experiences. I’ve been incredibly lucky in finding such great hosts, and continue to stay in touch with my wonderful Swiss family. It can be tedious at times when you’re trawling through hosts to contact, and it can be quite disconcerting when you send out a tonne of emails and fail to receive a single response. Stick with it though; sometimes you just need to find the right fit. My advice would be to go with your gut feeling when looking for a host; there’s plenty of opportunities available, and you’re bound to find one that suits you perfectly.

During my stay, my duties ranged from preparing meals for the family, cleaning, and gardening, as well as keeping four lively kids entertained. Afternoons allowed me to amuse myself, so I usually spent my time hiking through the surrounding forests, taking cable cars up the mountains, or else pottering around the beautiful neighbouring town of Liestal. Evenings would be spent curled up with the kids on the sofa, or else enjoying a glass of wine with Ursula and Remo. A slow pace of life for some, but for me it was perfect. I had space to think, and reacquaint myself with what I wanted from life rather than what life wanted from me.

And that’s essentially what Workaway is all about. It allows you the opportunity to strive towards something else; to embrace the new, to pursue those things you never thought you had the confidence to do. Workaway allows you to test yourself in new ways, discover places you didn’t even know existed till you landed on your host’s doorstep. Don’t get me wrong, it can be hard at times, but if you find the right host, it can be a truly enriching experience that will stay with you forever.

 

 

To find out more about Workaway opportunities, visit https://www.workaway.info/

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