What I Learned From My 1st WorkAway Experience
I have not been traveling to many places recently, but I knew it was time to share a cultural experience with y’all. So I’m gonna take you back to my first WorkAway experience this past summer! After I was finished backpacking with my best friend and her fiancé (not as weird as you’d think – maybe I’ll write a post about that soon 😉 ), I had a period of time I had to kill before spending 2/3 weeks with my cousins in Germany. When planning out my travels, months before, I had no idea what I was going to do for this amount of time, so I googled all I could. I came across multiple organizations that help with finding cultural exchange. The one I had the most luck with was workaway.info .
Thankfully, I had a wonderful, funny, and caring host family. I worked on a horse farm for two women in the far rural countryside of Marburg, Germany. It was nestled in the hills on a long gravel road, with neighbors who were 1/4 mile away. It was beautiful, calm, green, and soothing. If you know me, you know that anything farm, horses, countryside, hills or mountains is my jam!
The work wasn’t really beautiful, calm, green or soothing. It was quite the opposite: dirty, wet (because it rained quite a lot), a little crazy, brown, and physically demanding. The work really wasn’t as daunting as I just made it seem, but the scenery definitely made up for the hard work I put in. Every day I would wake up, make breakfast (which they provided the groceries for), and begin my work at 8am sharp. To start off the morning I would feed the chickens (the moment I opened the pen door I was whacked in the face with flying wings and crazed birds), bunnies, goats, sheep, and turtles. Then it was time to get down in dirty with the horses, mucking out horse poo from the stalls. On some mornings that one of the hosts did not have to go to her other job, she would help me. After all the animals were taken care of, I would do any side work they needed to be taken care of, gardening, helping saddle the horses, brush out the barn, etc. Lunch was around 1pm and then there was a 3-4 hour break. After the break, all that needed to be done was re-muck out the stalls and make sure the animals all had water. Usually no later than 5:30, I had the rest of the day to myself. This meant bike rides in the countryside, reading, journaling, and early nights. On the weekend I was there, one of the women dropped me off in the main city of Marburg to explore for 9 hours while she was at her shift in the hospital.
I enjoyed my first WorkAway experience. There was dirty work, a beautiful countryside, loving hosts, a chance to explore the main city, volunteering with a couple from Italy, and participating in cultural exchange. But there were things that I learned being such a newb in this exchange program.
- Finding the “right one” is hard. It is hard determining which WorkAway experience is going to be a right fit for you through the internet. You’re literally going in blind. Do you really know what kind of work you are looking for? What should you expect? What is going to be offered? How do I do know they are the ones? All I can really say is to do your research!! Don’t just free-willy your mouse over the first WorkAway host that catches your eye and only message them for a chance to volunteer. Look at all of your options. I go a little crazy when it comes to searching through all of my options. No matter the cultural exchange website I am using, I will have about 26 tabs open of all of my possibilities or host families that spark my interest. I’ll go through all of those and narrow it down to those that fit me best. I cannot stress it enough how important it is to read their FULL PROFILES. Understand the work you will be doing, for how long, transportation requirements, etc. Once you have TWO handfuls of options, reach out to all of them! Also, don’t forget to read the references people leave. Unfortunately, WorkAway does not allow people to leave negative reviews (which I strongly disagree with and will probably talk about another time), but keep in mind those who have a solid amount of good reviews and what they are saying about the host family.
- Stay open-minded. You are more than likely doing WorkAway to experience a lifestyle you’re not used to or do on the daily. With that in mind, you can be doing very tedious work, odd jobs, dirty jobs, and could not be used to the cultural differences. I don’t spend my normal days cleaning up horse shit, gardening, or feeding crazy chickens and farm animals, but that is the life of my host family. Walking on a mound of poo 2x a day was not fun (especially when you forgot to pack rain boots the first day and have horse shit stuck in between your toes…), but it is important to stay respectful when you find a job dirty, tedious, or odd. Focusing on the social aspect, when you are spending all of your time with people of different cultures, disagreements and tension occur. The household I stayed in consisted of 2 German women (our host family), 2 Italians (an couple volunteering), and 1 American (her, that’s me!). Every person has a different way of communicating, cooking, and getting the job done. Just remember to be patient and understandable.
- Time is money. We have all heard this saying. A little trip down memory lane, the very first time I heard this I was 13 and heard it from a 7yr old girl. Apparently I was getting ready to slow for a New Years Eve party my family was going to and one of my mom’s students rushed into my room, tapped her wrist and forcefully told me “time is money and I don’t have all day.” I’m just as shocked now, as I was then. Clearly, I was moving to slow for her. We can all be a little impatient, especially when it comes to making plans. We always want to know the when, where, what, and how immediately. Unfortunately, this is not how the response rate works with WorkAway. Remember in #1 I told you to email TWO handfuls of hosts? That’s because getting a response can be difficult. I probably reached out to 15 hosts and got an average of 7 responses back. Start messaging hosts in long in advance because many do not respond for days or even weeks! Be patient and prepared for the wait.
- Know your facts!! Just like buying a car, signing a lease, or planning a vacation, you need to know your facts about WorkAway. You don’t want to jump in head first to find out the water is actually an ice block. I’ll give ya the basics, but read the full agreements to volunteering and what is expected of both you and the hosts. (1) It is all about cultural exchange! You get to live the life of another person’s culture, learn a foreign language, and find opportunities to travel. (2) You have to be 18 years old to be a solo WorkAwayer. Sorry kiddos – unless you are accompanying your parents on the trip. (3) You are supposed to work an average of 25 hours a week (about 5 hours a day). (4) In exchange for volunteering you should get free room and board. (5) Get to know your hosts before making a commitment! Ask what is expected from you, what amenities they provide, if there is wifi, do you need to cook all meals for yourself, etc.
Let’s say that you did all your research, committed to a host, and when you get there you realize that you’re not being treated properly, what do you do? YOU DO HAVE THE RIGHT TO LEAVE at anytime. On that note, where the heck are you supposed to go?
- Create a Plan B. Being the newb I was, I did not create a backup plan. Thankfully, I did not need to come to that conclusion with my host family and if I did at least I had some family, not too far away. There are people who face those problems and should have a plan B. Look into the closest town next to you if you are in a rural city and see what it has to offer. Are there any nearby hostels? Hotels? Couchsurfers? Other WorkAway hosts? Be fully aware of all of your options, in case ANYTHING goes wrong. You never know. You definitely don’t want to be homeless for the night in an unknown town!
I would love to hear about your WorkAway experiences, any troubles you may have faced, how you overcame them, what you enjoyed the most, or ideas you have regarding cultural exchange!