The internet seems to be full of it: how to travel on a budget, stories of people who left their job to go travelling, or why work exchange is the best way to travel. I thought I'd shed a light on the other side of it: why do I think hosting volunteers is an awesome way to get things done?
1. It's cheaper than paying somebody to do the work
This is why we got into work exchange in the first place: we had a lot of work to do, we felt like we had so little time, and of course we had a small budget (what homesteader doesn't). When we first put up our profile on Workaway, it almost sounded like a joke: who would want to come and camp in the middle of nowhere, and help us do hard work for no pay? Turns out... quite a few people.
However - in a way, our volunteers do get paid, just not with money. We provide them with accommodation and 3 meals a day, we take them with us to ferias and social gatherings, we drive them to rivers and hiking trails on their days off, and (what many volunteers find most interesting of all) we take them along in our adventure - they get to witness what it is to migrate to Spain, start a permaculture project and live off the grid. Most volunteers leave our place with newly acquired skills: from drywalling to tiling, from pruning almond trees to preserving olives, from building a chicken coop to making a solar shower, from swimming to playing chess.
2. It's a way to travel without leaving your home
In the time we've been doing this, we've hosted people from around the world: from New-Zealand to Canada, from Scandinavia to Malaysia. No African volunteers so far though; feel free to apply if you're reading this!
Most of our volunteers tell us all about where they're from; they can paint a picture of daily life in upstate New York, Singapore or Dominican Republic - sometimes to the point that we really want to go there (see 7). Often, they've already been travelling for a while; we enjoyed hearing all about the adventures of our favourite Malaysian girl on a yak farm in Mongolia, our Scottish Whovian in Madrid, or how a German girl met her big love at a summer camp in Canada.
3. It's a bit like an anthropological study
Most of our volunteers are quite interested in the world and what's happening in it - we can have lengthy conversations about educational systems, politics, ethical challenges, healthy food,... We notice now how some of our ideas and assumptions are very eurocentric - sometimes we're baffled over other people's everyday habits. What's polite in one country is just weird for some; what one considers funny, is just plain rude for others. Communication is key; when asked about an unusual habit, people will gladly tell them wether it's something they learned from their mother, something everything does in their homeland or they just do weird stuff sometimes. So far, all of our guests have proved very willing to adapt to the rules and habits of the house though.
4. It's a great way to learn something (like a language)
Last spring, we had 2 native Spanish speakers staying here - although we'd speak English with them most of the time, we did ask them for help with Spanish grammar, learned a few new expressions and generally benefitted from hearing them speak Spanish all day long.
We hosted helpers whose previous volunteering experiences included teaching children a language (and babysitting them at the same time) - some volunteering websites are basically unofficial au pair sites. One couple told us about a host where their only task was to speak English; the family would cook for them, clean their rooms and show them around the city - all they had to do, was talk with them (in English).
We read many profiles of volunteers who are looking for a new host; many of them list teaching language as one of their skills - one guy even offered to teach us ancient Japanese writing (too bad he couldn't come in the end). There are many other things to learn from our volunteers: from cooking skills and traditional recipes (we often ask our volunteers to cook us their favourite meal) to basic woodworking - most volunteers don't only put a stamp on our finca, they also leave their mark on our skillset.
5. It's all on your own terms
As a host, you get to set the rules of engagement: you decide what kind of work needs to be done, the working hours (some volunteering websites set limits), what kind of accommodation and food your volunteers will get, how much interaction there could be with them. The basic information goes into your profile page and from then on, it's a matter of wait and see if people would like to do what you're asking them to do, in the conditions you're offering.
6. When somebody helps you out with what needs to be done, so you can focus on what's important now
This is the main reason we like hosting volunteers: we're in the middle of finishing our house, setting up a bed & breakfast, starting a permaculture farm and have several projects running at the same time. There are tons of smaller tasks that take up a lot of time: grouting after the tiling (= filling up the joints between the tiles with special product) - mulching, watering and weeding after I have planted vegetables and fruit trees, collect stones so Axel can build walls with them, get manure at the local stables,... While we were preparing for a big party here, one volunteer took it upon herself to keep the household running: she would cook and clean while we were showing our guests around, running errants or setting up the party site. Needless to say, she was a lifesaver.
7. It's useful to prepare your own travels
We decided to settle in Spain for now and have resigned ourselves to care for our farm instead of going on holiday. This doesn't mean we're not planning to travel again, ever. If and when we decide to pack our suitcases again, there are many places we'd like to go to, and many people we could visit on the way. Most of our volunteers have offered to show us around their home town, the baseball stadion they've been working at or the national park they've hiked in so many times. So many destinations, so little time...
Of course there are downsides as well - you do get a total stranger to come and stay with you. Communication is important; the best advice we ever got was to sit down on the first night and talk about rules and expectations.
I've written a post about the pros and cons of hosting volunteers; if you're interested in doing work exchange, you should really check it out.
But most important... if you have decided to host volunteers (or you're already doing it): enjoy. Every single one will leave a stamp on your life / your house / your property / your children (depending on what their task is!) - but you will also be able to touch their lives in so many ways.
This post was first published on May 31st, 2016, on my Mas del Encanto blog. Since then, we've had dozens more volunteers, and learned so much - I am using our experiences (and that of other hosts I know) to write an ebook designed to help current and future hosts make more out of their work exchange experience. Coming soon!
Question for you, dear reader...
Have you ever hosted volunteers? Or have you been a work exchange volunteer yourself? How did that go?