Volunteering is a great way to learn new skills, gain experience, practice a language, help others, learn more about a different culture, get out of your comfort zone, learn more about yourself, connect with similar minded people, and a nice option to spend a few weeks at one place. Sometimes far away from civilization like we did for example in Guatapé and Tumianuma.
The first time I volunteered I was 14 years old. I worked on a farm in the mountains in Switzerland for three weeks. It was hard, physical work and most of the time I worked alone in the field. My hosts were grateful and I felt appreciated. Two years later I volunteered for three years as a cashier in a public charity. I learnt a lot. During the same time, I volunteered on another farm with the organisation Caritas for three weeks. The French family I stayed with was very warm and treated me like a family member. Most rewarding has been working with refugees in my hometown. Most of them are incredibly grateful and I could see the direct effect. It is very important to offer the possibility to learn the local language and make them feel at home. The integration goes much faster. For my one-and-a-half-year trip through Central and South America I used a recommended website, Workaway.info. I volunteered in Costa Rica, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Argentina. I worked on permaculture farms, helped to build houses out of Guadua, worked in hostels, in a Hare Krishna temple in Cusco, in ecological communities, painted walls, took pictures, and cooked a lot.
All those places have given me the possibility to observe new lifestyles and have given me many ideas of how to realise my dreams. They give me inspiration and courage that it is possible to live in harmony with nature. I also learnt what I am good at, what I like, and what I do not like.
Even though I grew up with a big garden with vegetables and fruits I had to travel to the end of the world to discover my deep wish to grow my own food. Now I could not imagine not doing it anymore. It was great to see the seeds we planted starting to grow out of the ground. I am excited to help my mum in her garden until I have my own. Sometimes we need a few thousand kilometres of distance from our everyday lives to open our eyes.
How does volunteering with Workaway work?
Volunteering with Workaway is more a work exchange. A few hours working per day in exchange for food and accommodation. My boyfriend and I volunteered between three and six hours a day. I enjoyed to work in the morning and have the rest of the day off. Some of our hosts even spent time with us outside of work. At one place we were able to join our host for a three hour sauna ritual. Weekends were usually off. Only at one place we worked every day. But that was in a beautiful eco-friendly mountain lodge in Isinlivi (Llullu Llama) where our main task was to make sure the guests are happy, well-informed about the area and feel at home. This included check-in/check-out of guest, serving dinner/snacks, breakfast, serving drinks from the bar, helping with administration on excel, and playing appropriate music. In our free time we could even use the spa. It was a wonderful break from travelling and felt like vacation. We stayed for a month.
A few of the volunteer options ask for a certain amount of money per day. It is possible to filter them out in the search. You can sign up as a single person (34 USD) or as a couple / two friends (44 USD). It is also possible to connect two accounts together in case you want to apply together. Accounts are valid for one year enabling you to contact any of the hosts. I think it is good to write a host something about your background, why you are interested and why you think you are suitable for this volunteer position. Registering as a host is free of charge. Once you have signed up you will be searchable as a volunteer by the hosts on the site. Hosts often look for specific skills. Fill in your profile with information about yourself and the skills you can offer.
Many projects ask that volunteers stay for at least a month. It takes time to train volunteers how to do the work. To have different volunteers each week or every few days is not ideal for the host. There is no contract to stay for a month so if it is not working out, it is possible to leave whenever you would like. We left a few projects early and explained why and the hosts had no problem with us leaving. Many even told us that we could come for a week and see if it will work out for us and them. Many hosts accept more than two people. Through that we met some wonderful people.
Workaway is not a way for hosts to substitute paid employees with volunteers. Unfortunately, we felt exploited at a few places. For example, when I had to hand-weed six hours on a rainy day with ants eating me bloody, eating mainly carbohydrates, nobody who was grateful, and having to sleep on a musty mattress in a dirty room that was leaking when it rained. Not the kind of volunteer situation I imagined when I signed up. I really enjoy hand-weeding, but only for about two hours. After I like to do something else and change my posture to protect my back. Something I did not imagine in the beginning of my trip.
One of my favourite places we volunteered was on a biodynamic farm. In a sacred valley 30 minutes walking distance from the closest town, Tumianuma. Walter, our host, cares about the people who help him and he took time to teach us various methods of farming such as biodynamics, permaculture, traditional Ecuadorian techniques, and vertical gardening systems. On the weekends we watched over the farm while Walter and Susan went back to Vilcabamba. In the afternoons and evenings we read a lot, went for walks, took a bath in the river, or observed the thousands of fireflies and the Milky Way in a clear night’s sky.
Accommodation and food
We realised very early that many of those projects do not have a lot of money. Accordingly, was the sleeping- and food situation. I only have experience in Central and South America. So, it might be different in North America and Europe. Some mattresses we slept on were very musty, humid, and dirty. But others were very clean, cosy, and comfortable.
Some people were a bit overwhelmed with our plant-based diet (I agree it can be difficult). Therefore we always carry our own seeds and nuts with us. Unfortunately there is a lack of awareness about a well-balanced nutrition. At one place we got four different kinds of carbohydrates (rice, potatoes, pasta, and oats) for breakfast. Little vitamins, proteins, or healthy fats. But I am glad we had enough food most of the time even though it was very monotonous. Only one place we were very hungry. All we did in our free time was thinking about food and the next supermarket was far away. We both had to suppress a laugh when our skinny host mentioned that they would love to gain some weight but are struggling to do so. At another place we volunteered there was no money for drinking water. The tap water was very salty and contained chlorine. So, we bought our own water. What upset me about this situation was only the volunteers were offered the water to drink, the rest of the community drank filtered water from their houses. To be fair most of the time we were lucky with our hosts and some surprised us positively. At one place we were able to join our host and bought vegetables and fruits. Another place we could make a list of the food we would like to have. Or we could use whatever was in the kitchen. That was great since at some places we did not have a choice in the food that was bought. At one place they even made us extra meals that are vegan and taught us how to make vegan cheese. That was really nice.
The feedback system of Workaway is not the best. Not many people are leaving a feedback. Especially a negative one. The other side can see the feedback right away and write / manipulate their feedback accordingly. So, both sides do not write a feedback when something was uncomfortable because of being afraid of getting a negative feedback. Airbnb and Couchsurfing do have a better system.
Is it easy to volunteer as a vegan?
I am surprised how easy it was to eat vegan during our volunteer time. Rice, beans, and meat are the basic of most meals in Central and South America. Vegetables seem to be less important. It is possible within the search option on Workaway to search by keywords. We searched for the keywords “vegetarian”, “vegan”, and “avocado”. There are some and the amount is growing each year. Most hosts had no problem to leave out the meat, dairy, and eggs if there was some. We had only one bad experience where the mother of our host cooked for all of us. Our host told her about our diet, but we saw his mother preparing bread and a few soups with animal products. This was frustrating because we asked her what was in the food and she said there was none.
Tips for what to bring with you
Clothes that can get dirty, an open-mind, and the ability to be flexible helps dealing with hosts who are revising their plans. Unforeseen circumstances may mean that a host cancels or postpones a visit. Mosquito spray and long-sleeved clothes can be handy. Volunteer options with great ratings in popular areas are often booked out two to four months ahead. Request for an opportunity you like as soon as possible. This has not always been ideal for us since we like to travel spontaneously but if there was a volunteer option that seemed interesting we made our plans accordingly.
If some of my experiences seem frustrating, it is because sometimes they were. But I learnt and grew so much that I would do it again. What does not kill me makes me stronger. I hope this blog entry will not discourage you. I encourage everyone to try for themselves. I have found interesting projects on Workaway in Europe and even in my tiny hometown. I hope to take advantages of these options within the next couple of years.
If you would like to read more about each place I volunteered, please click on the country you intend to volunteer. Maybe one of them fits to you and I can answer further questions you might have. Costa Rica, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Argentina.
Other websites that connect hosts with volunteers: