ONE YEAR AGO TODAY, I was probably sitting in the dirt, plucking weeds somewhere on a large property in a tiny town on the edge of Sweden and Norway. My boyfriend and I had just embarked on our big adventure and we were volunteering with our first HelpX hosts, Hans and Birgitta. In the following ten months, we volunteered with eight more hosts across Europe, and one in Hawaii.
Now that we’re back home, people keep asking us how the trip was, and one answer just doesn’t suffice. So here are 10.
Patience is calmly attempting to explain to a screaming Angelino, the two-year-old son of our Italian hosts, why he shouldn’t play with knives and forks at the dinner table. In English. Even though Angelino really only understands Italian. (I do not understand Italian.)
Adaptability is not running away after realizing that our new Bulgarian host’s definition of “basic accommodations” does not include a running toilet. Just a hole in the ground. I learned that if I’m patient enough, I can adapt to any situation. It’s best to roll with the punches.
I don’t draw. I have terrible hand-eye coordination. So even the simplest doodle will differ wildly from the picture in my mind’s eye. It’s a stressful experience that I tend to avoid. But when Matthew, our host in Scotland, invited us to join him during his favorite Tuesday night activity — a live figure drawing class at a bar in central Glasgow — I really couldn’t think of a good reason to say no.
Although at first I was overwhelmed, by the end of the evening I was able to produce a few not-awful sketches. I actually found the whole experience to be a bit meditative and quite enjoyable. Now I’m looking for something similar in my area.
In the words of one potential volunteer host, “Do not plan too tightly. It will not work. That is why we travel, to improvise. Who knows what will be tomorrow?”
This was the best travel advice I just couldn’t accept, until it hit me like a panic attack when our host for July cancelled at the last minute due to a serious injury. Since we (luckily) hadn’t booked any tickets or made arrangements to reach her farm, our itinerary was still flexible. And, drawn to the delicacies of Belgium (beer, chocolate, and frites) we ended up scrapping our entire plan for Germany. Instead of one month on a German farm, we spent two amusing weeks volunteering at a circus day camp outside Brussels and one wonderfully gluttonous week eating and drinking our way around the rest of the country.
Slow travel allows for new plans to percolate as you receive destination advice from other travelers, and it ensures there’s minimal scrambling when plans don’t work out.
When our host at the hostel in Albania asked us to cook up a dinner for 15 paying guests, I almost went into a blind panic. (That’s a lot of pressure for a non-cook.) But then I remembered this lentil dahl recipe. It’s so easy and so tasty and (the best part) I know it by heart. Every traveler should be armed with at least one recipe like this.
Almost each and every host expected us to cook at one time or another. They wanted us to cook for them, for ourselves, for other volunteers, or even for a potluck dinner party. It was an unexpected challenge at first, but it taught me what a powerful tool food can be. Simply sharing a meal together is a gateway to deep and memorable conversations. And it really didn’t matter that I wasn’t a chef, everyone was grateful for nourishment.
So on our night off at the hostel, when some of the other volunteers served up a not-quite-baked potato that was still hard in some areas, I ate it happily and expressed my genuine gratitude. (Although we did share a good laugh over their pretty limited cooking skills.)
Halfway through our stay with a host in Belgium, we were told we weren’t doing enough cleaning around the house. This declaration from our host came as a complete shock to us, since we thought we were doing fine. As it turned out, there was a small difference in expectations and a gap in communication.
Our host had asked us to clean around the house every day, and we cleaned as if it were our home. We didn’t know that her list of daily housekeeping chores included sweeping and mopping, so we didn’t bother. We made an assumption and didn’t even think to clarify specific expectations with our host. This minor assumption on our part translated to perceived ingratitude and laziness in the mind of our host. I’m glad she said something, because we were able to rectify our blunder and learn a valuable lesson in communication.
Every host has different work styles, communication methods, and expectations. It’s better to ask questions and get clarification than to assume and make a mistake. Simply put: You don’t know what you don’t know, so you just have to ask a lot of questions.
Since spring never arrived and summer was weeks late, the weeds were deep and the debris was bountiful when we arrived at Norra Mon in Sweden. In two weeks, I was only able to weed a small chunk of Hans’s and Birgitta’s substantial piece of land. And although I may not have been impressed with my own progress, it was a small chunk of land they didn’t have to spend time huddled over, and for that they were incredibly grateful. What felt like a drop in the bucket to me was a big help to our hosts.
Profound, I know, but it’s true. And it was actually a simultaneously liberating and bitter epiphany for me when it arrived partway through a particularly stressful host situation. I realized that although some days felt insufferably long, one day soon I would be walking away from this chaotic place with its screaming children and their runny noses. But it also means that I can never go back and relive any of those long, lovely evenings spent chatting with our hosts in Bulgaria or playing pool with the group of seven new friends we met while volunteering at a hostel.
In travel, just as in life, there is only forward motion. You have to soak up as much as possible along the way.
What was the best thing I ate while traveling? It was an organic tomato, dried in the Italian summer sun for three months. It was also the freshly picked lettuce that tasted like sunshine and dirt. And it was some sirene goat cheese made by our Bulgarian hosts’ 83-year-old neighbor, using milk from her goats. You probably get the picture now — the meals that tasted the best were the ones that traveled the shortest distance from the earth to my mouth.
The moment I realized I was in Sarajevo discussing the virtues of Walter White with a young man who’d spent some of his childhood years living in a city under siege, I thought, This is nuts. But the moment right before that moment wasn’t a particularly special one. It was just a few friends chatting about the series finale of Breaking Bad over some tea.
Volunteering like we did was a crazy awesome cultural experience. Many hosts invited us into their homes like new friends and family members. And for a few weeks at a time, I had the distinct privilege of living a life that wasn’t anything like mine back home. I’m not trying to be a philosopher here or anything, but I think I learned a lot about people and the human condition. I found that people are strange and complicated, but we generally desire the same things.
People want to share a connection. They want to talk and find something in common. And once you have a conversation — even a short, insignificant conversation — all of the differences that once felt divisive sort of lose their weight as they fade into the background.
We propelled ourselves through Europe via volunteer exchange opportunities for nine months. Our volunteer stays ranged from a period of 10 days to four weeks. Although our stays may have been a bit lengthy, we did meet some fellow travelers who couldn’t spare as much time for volunteering. A young Kiwi couple volunteered with us on a farm in Turkey for less than a week. And an Aussie fellow volunteered at the hostel in Albania with us for just three days.
Not all hosts require a long-term commitment. Not to mention, many hosts are looking for a range of skill sets. While we did a fair amount of manual labor, from home renovation to gardening, we also got to use some of our other skills. My boyfriend redesigned some flyers for a couple of small businesses. And I got to use my office skills when we ran a small hostel in Skopje while the host took a little vacation during the off-season.
Volunteer exchange programs like HelpX and Workaway present great opportunities for travelers to get off the beaten path and gain an insider’s experience of the place they’re visiting. It may be worth considering on your next trip.