Jack Southan, serial adventurer and freelance travel journalist, discusses the pros and cons of working for free, abroad.
People are always looking for the new ways and means of travelling abroad. But as well-trodden routes become increasingly congested with tourists each year, it has become harder to find “authentic” experiences.
That said, with over-travel, comes new thinking. And with a generation of young travellers dedicating much more time to journeying in placement of long-term careers, there arises the fusion of two worlds – work and travel as a lifestyle choice. I’m not talking about “voluntourism”, though, or homestays, or paid-for work placements.
The website workaway.info, founded in 2002, has in recent years seen a boom in global usage. Now with more than 17,000 hosts, and many many more active users worldwide, it is emerging as one of the best new ways to see the world when you’re on a budget.
The programme was set up as a social network of host locations, which exchanged board and lodging for a few hours’ work per day. From childcare in Rome, to farm handling in the US, there is an abundance of opportunity to suit every type of traveller.
I was recently in South Africa working on an eco-project that I found on the Workaway website a few weeks before I flew out. It was set up in the heart of the Drakensberg mountains on the border of Lesotho, on a patch of open bushland about four hours north of Durban by coach.
The project was started by a German-South African couple Andrew and Conny, and had been hosting Workawayers for several years. They had been building eco-lodges for their rustic-luxury resort, Antbear Lodge, and with each new volunteer, the project grew exponentially for very minimal cost.
I spent most of my time in a workshop nestled in the forest to the rear of the grounds, working with wood, building furniture and the odd bit of timber construction. In the evenings I’d get home-cooked meals (although the portions could have been bigger), and on the weekends I’d have free time to go on safari. I even rode an ostrich.
On the whole I enjoyed it, although some of the other volunteers didn’t find the work so rewarding – with this is mind, it is important to find the right project for you.
Certainly this is the case for rural projects, where the location can be quite remote, as the work you do and the place you stay, is everything. But, of course, if you are working in a city, then the benefits of simply having free accommodation and food are vastly increased in relation to the hours you give in return.
Most hosts will ask for five to six hours per day, five days a week, but this can vary, so check carefully and make sure you understand what is being asked of you before you turn up. In my opinion, this is the future of how I will travel in a new country from now on, when I’m on my own and on a budget.
Having a base camp in a new country, with the people who live there, who are not interested in getting money from you, is invaluable. You give your time, and you will find a wealth of local knowledge and space to plan further exploration of a country or city, without the constraints of having to pay for every moment you are there.
You will meet like-minded people and travel companions, and come to find that you take something away from each place, something which can’t often be found on the tourist trail – the genuine experience of local life.
My brother, Ben Southan (pictured below), recently spent almost a year Workawaying for a family in the Australian outback, just north of Melbourne. He hadn’t intended to spend that long there, but month after month he simply found he couldn’t leave.
“Workaway was a new concept to me when my girlfriend signed us up before heading to Australia. We had no contacts there so it seemed like a worthwhile shot. By filtering through the [online] profiles we selected a family in Daylesford who required help building an eco studio on their property” he recalls.
“It was a stab in the dark but the clincher was the fact they were hot air balloon enthusiasts, and that as Workawayers, we would be required to help out by crewing for them. As it happened, we could not have stayed with a nicer, more hospitable family, and we helped them on various projects both in Daylesford and in Melbourne, and lived with them for the best part of eight months,” says Ben.
But as with all things, there will be those who use a good idea to benefit themselves at the expense of others.
Ben says: “I have heard horror stories of people being exploited and overworked, used as free labour, probably because you are a little vulnerable when you’re travelling, money is usually tight and getting around independently is difficult without transport of one’s own.
“This can put you at the mercy of the host, and that can be a bit stressful. However, my first experience of Workaway was positive and enjoyable, and I think with a little research one can find fantastic opportunities, gain valuable experiences, learn languages and meet friends for life,” he says.
The way people live and travel is changing, and the way in which people see travel as a partner to work is taking hold. It is no longer necessary to choose one or the other, rather it is about choosing how to balance them to fit the lifestyle you want.
Workaway provides a platform for travellers to connect with real people abroad. It opens up a whole new avenue for travel that has disappeared in previous years and allows people to use their time and skills for something productive whilst on the road.
As Workaway says, it’s “a few hours’ honest help per day in return for cultural exchange, food and accommodation”. What could be better?
Follow Jack on Twitter @jacksouthan