Workaway for Fun and Adventure

logoWorkaway.info is a website for matching up people who need help with projects with volunteers. This is an international marketplace and there are listings for volunteering opportunities throughout the world as well as listings of people from all over who are interested in volunteering.  Their marketing says that they have more than 10,000 volunteer opportunities spread over more than 120 countries.

the crewThere are few hard and fast rules about how a transaction has to work, but from reviewing many opportunities a general norm seems that hosts who accept volunteers indicate that they expect about five hours of the volunteer’s time, five days per week (read the opportunity profile carefully as this can vary). In return, the volunteer receives room and board for seven days provided by the host. There is also the opportunity to get to know the hosts, learn about their project, and hopefully spend free time getting to know the area that the host lives in.

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The profile for an opportunity also includes alot of other information about the type of work and living conditions to expect. It certainly doesn’t tell you everything you may want to know, but more about that later. Pictures, comments, and reviews by volunteers who have worked for the host also appear here. Search and filtering functions work well so you can easily zero in on opportunities you think may be a fit for you. Searching by map also works pretty well and I found it to be the most useful search strategy for me. You can bookmark interesting opportunities to easily find them again later.

tractorA volunteer also creates a profile within their own account that gives the lowdown on who they are, what their life work experiences have been, what their interests are, and where and when they plan to travel. It is a place to put a statement about why you are interested in a workaway experience. There is a small fee to have a profile and search opportunities.  Once you go on a Workaway, any feedback about you posted by your host gets connected here. The volunteer profile is key as it serves as your resume of sorts. If you contact a host about an opportunity, it will provide their first impression about you. Moreover, many hosts will scan these profiles looking for volunteer prospects — you won’t know they have been looking at your profile unless they contact you.

My experience started several months ahead of the time I was planning to travel. I set up a profile to introduce myself and started looking around the opportunities. For me, it was a bit like being a kid in a candy store. So many interesting sounding projects in interesting places. A sidebar that shows snippets about a broad range of opportunities – kind of like teaser ads, is displayed while you are searching and I found it was easy to get distracted into looking at some cool project in South America or Southeast Asia while I was looking for opportunities in Europe for my current trip. I found random browsing of the opportunities a bit addictive. You can “favorite” interesting opportunities to help you find them again later.

estatek-otradodiceAs it ended up, I guess my profile was OK because I never ended up writing to any of the hosts I was considering, I was contacted by one of them, Statek-Otradovice (pictured right) , an organic farm with a guest house in Central Bohemia, without my even inquiring with them. I learned later that my host, Mia Booij regularly trolls volunteer profiles looking for potential matches. We exchanged a couple of messages about schedules and whether it would be a good fit and I accepted a two week assignment. All of the reviews on Mia’s profile by past volunteers were very positive so that was reassuring. This assignment is at a working farm so the kind of tasks that volunteers can expect are pretty much anything that needs to be done on a farm. We didn’t correspond again for several months when the time for my visit started getting near. I did get contacted by one more host in the meantime asking if I would consider a stint at their project in Italy, but I had to turn that down because I only had time for one Workaway assignment on this trip. It also sounded really interesting, so I have my eye on it for the future. Keep in mind that once you commit, your host is probably heavily counting on you, so be clear in your communications about any known uncertainties and be in touch right away if something unexpected comes up.

pigClose to the time of my trip, I reconfirmed with Mia using the Workaway website’s messaging capability. She sent me the address to put into my car’s GPS — it is more typical for volunteers to arrive by bus at the town of Votice near the farm where Mia picks them up. I arrived on a Thursday afternoon as arranged and got a very nice reception. Mia showed me around and introduced my to her husband Ingmar and eight other volunteers who were living and working at the farm at that time. Many of these folks are veterans of multiple Workaway assignments so I was able to talk to them about their experiences at other projects … I’ll share some of what I learned from them later in this article.

My two week stint is nearly complete as I write this. Mia and Ingmar are very hospitable, but no-nonsense hosts and the volunteers’ work time (five hours per day (8-1), five days per week) is always filled with tasks and projects — feeding and caring for animals, gardening, harvesting fruit and vegetables, cutting grass and weeds, making canned preserves of various kinds, and a myriad of other farm tasks. Mia is American and Ingmar is Dutch and both speak english among other languages. All of the volunteers stay in a very nice, modern four bedroom apartment with two shared bathrooms, A shared living room, and a shared kitchen. The farm provides the raw materials needed for meals, and the volunteers take turns preparing dinner for the volunteer group each day. Breakfast and lunch have been self-serve, again with materials and ingredients provided by the farm. There is a store 3 kilometers away where we all buy things like beer, soft drinks, snacks, and other specialty items not provided by the farm. There is a communal meal prepared by everyone on Sundays — we had wood oven pizzas that we created together each of the Sundays I was there and we met Mia and Ingmar’s three kids and Ingmar’s parents during these events.

The volunteer group works out a schedule among itself for days off so that not too many people are off on a given day. The main north-south bus and train lines are just a few kilometers away, so this particular place is well situated to take good advantage of time off. This is an area of big, rolling hills dotted with forests and there are multiple hiking routes that pass by the farm. Statek-Otradovice is an historic farm that is at least two hundred years old.

crewThe volunteer crew comes from a variety of places … USA, England, Northern Ireland, Korea, Sweden, and Spain so far. With the exception of myself, everyone is young. I would guess the age range to be 22-25 and there are three women and five men. Two of the people are a couple. I found the group to be very interesting, hard-working, and generally impressive people. No one gave me a hard time about being an old guy. The group is a mixture of people on two and four week assignments.  There are some serious travelers in this bunch, and alot to be learned from all.

instructionsMia and Ingmar (left – giving instructions) told me they have been using Workaway to find volunteers for over a year, and that 95% of the volunteers they have accepted have worked out well. They previously used a couple other methods to find volunteers (including a web site called wwoofinternational.org) and said that Workaway is the best approach they have found for their purposes so far due to its superior site functionality. One concern Mia expressed is that she has had difficulty updating her opportunity profile, and that has made it hard to have completely accurate information there.  Beyond the benefit of some volunteer help, Mia and Igmar told me that they are jazzed about teaching other people about farm life and organic and sustainable methods, as well as learning things from the volunteers they meet.

As for my compatriots who had previous experience with Workaway, there were several reports that the experience at Statek-Otradovice has been a bit different. This was the biggest volunteer team that any had been a part of, and it sounded like prior experiences had involved closer integration with host families. The hosts had often done the dinner prep and included them in family meals. That said, people uniformly felt that the current experience was an interesting variation and enjoyable — it is just a bit different from what they experienced elsewhere.  Without exception, people reported that every Workaway experience has been different in some way.

When asked what their advice would be to others considering a Workaway, following are some ideas to consider: 1) do correspond in advance with a prospective host in detail to verify your understanding of work conditions and requirements – this will help avoid unpleasant surprises; 2) be prepared to commit yourself to the needs of the host — you are volunteering after all and they need your help to do things they need done — not necessarily things you prefer to do; and 3) have a back-up plan in case you encounter a “switch-and-bait” situation or a sketchy or scary host.

To sum up, I had a great experience, met interesting people, made new friends, and gave some worthy hosts a bit of help in the bargain.  In return for my efforts, I spent a much longer stretch of time than I would have otherwise (because of the small out-of-pocket expense) in an interesting area that was new to me.  I will definitely plan to try it again.

Followng photos with captions above them will give more of an idea of the experience:

Ingmar talking chicken …talking chicken

Animals on the farm …

goatsturkeysheepCaring for the pigs …pigs

Greenhouse …

Weed wacking is a frequent task …weed wacking

Picking blackberries …picking blueberries

Goose drive …goose drive

collecting slugs …collecting slugs

Bee works …bee keeping

Kitchen work … pizza time …kitchen work

kitchen workpizza prep

pizza prep

wood oven

chopped

mincing

Good eating …

Roast goose …goose dinner

Lasagna dinner …lasagna dinner

Buffalo and mole (mo-lay) wings …

wings

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