Ever wondered what it would be like to work on a horse ranch in the States? Maybe you've dreamed of working in a hostel or wanted to try your hand at permaculture or brewing beer. Whatever it is, you can probably find an available opportunity through a volunteer exchange program.
Before we left Australia, we knew we wanted to travel slowly, to really experience the areas we would be visiting. This lead us to researching a number of volunteer work exchange programs before we agreed on trying Workaway (https://www.workaway.info/).
Workaway is a global network bringing hosts and volunteers from around the world together. Hosts have the benefit of filling short term labour requirements and volunteers are rewarded with a bed, sometimes meals, and an opportunity to experience the host's culture firsthand. In general, the work is unpaid and volunteers are expected to work a minimum 5 hours per day, 5 days a week.
Our first experience with Workaway was back in 2014 at a horse ranch in California's south. I wanted to ride horses (but, not pay for it) so, we found ourselves mucking out stalls a few hours a day. In exchange we not only received riding time but, we were fed three times a day and slept in a private trailer. The opportunity also gave us an insight into the life of an American family. We also learnt line dancing and got to spend Independence Day with them.
The work was physically challenging and very dirty but, we had a fabulous time and walked away with new skills and new friends.
Bad reviews on TripAdvisor had encouraged the owner of this hostel to seek assistance. Our job description was fairly loose but, the directive was simple - help improve the online ratings by addressing client complaints. As the biggest issue was cleanliness, we spent our time there scrubbing the bathrooms and bedrooms to remove built-up soap scum and mildew. We also created maintenance lists and helped to reorganise areas for improved operation.
Other volunteers also worked on creating murals and hostel marketing making us a team of 6 plus the local employees. Volunteering at the hostel allowed us to connect with other travellers and spend more time in the beautiful Chiapas region. We stayed in a private room and breakfast was included daily.
Living in Honduras was never high up on our to do list but, when we saw a posting for an English teacher in a small seaside town along the Caribbean coast, we jumped at the chance. Justin became a house husband while I taught classes from 7am-2pm, Monday to Friday. While this exceeded the general terms of the Workaway agreement, we also received a AUD $240 per month stipend to help cover food and living expenses and housing was provided within walking distance of the school.
This post really drew us into the community culture and we were exposed to everyday life that few other travellers have had the pleasure of experiencing. For many, it's a dangerous place that is often overlooked or hastily rushed through enroute to either Guatemala or Nicaragua.
Our fourth opportunity came after the April 2016 earthquake that devastated many small communities throughout Ecuador. While we didn't actually find the listing on Workaway but, instead through the All Hands Volunteers website, many other volunteers came through from the work exchange program. The tasks were varied and often physically challenging and included things like demolition, material preparation and building reconstruction.
We learnt many valuable skills and strengthened others while assisting the locals to get back on their feet. We worked 8 hours per day, 6 days a week and lived in tents on the beach. All meals were provided on workdays and on our days off, we'd share group meals, movie nights, or entertain ourselves with trivia, talent shows, auctions, and even a fake wedding!
**All Hands Volunteers has their own schedule in place for rest and relaxation dependent on how long you stay on the project.
(All Hands Volunteers finished this project at the end of 2016 and since moved into Peru to assist with flood damage. If you are interested in volunteering, check out their website; https://www.hands.org/locations/peru/).
Before leaving South America we volunteered at another hostel. Our duties included cleaning, maintenance, reception, laundry and guest relations. We practised our Spanish and spent days off exploring the lakes and other small villages in the region. We were also super lucky to be accommodated off-site in a private self-contained cabin.
We loved the 'family' atmosphere at this hostel and would regularly share meals with the other volunteers and staff. It was truly like a home away from home.
Workaway provided Justin and I with many different experiences on our travels and allowed us to meet many new friends. We've also learnt new skills or ways to do things that we can take with us into our next adventures.
If you're considering long term travel or just experiencing your next holiday differently (and don't mind putting in a couple of hours work a day), then check out the program for yourself.
How Workaway adds up
Annual membership to the Workaway website is US $29 for singles and US $38 per couple. A dorm bed in Latin America averages around $10 per night so it only takes 3 days of volunteering to make your money back.
Membership gives you access to hosts all over the world and the projects aren't limited to one industry. Other volunteer programs (e.g. WWOOF) charge membership per country and are focused solely towards community farming projects while others (e.g. Worldpackers) charge per position applied for.
The only real comparable site to Workaway is HelpX. Volunteers can join for free however they will be limited in their host access. It is possible to upgrade to a premier membership with a 2 year subscription of €20.
And we'd also recommend discussing the host's expectations before you arrive to ensure you will both receive the best experience and neither of you will be left disappointed.
Travel safe x
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