Today is my 76th day of travel (105th for Ethan), and I’ve been working for roughly half of it – 14 days in Nagano, 6 days in Osaka, 13 days in Kuma Kougen, and 4 days in Guangzhou (soon to be 5). For those who don’t know, part of the way Ethan and I have been keeping costs down on our trip has been through the Workaway program. Workaway connects international volunteers with community-oriented businesses, promising cultural exchange and a way for travelers to stay in areas that might be expensive or difficult to find. Businesses post about themselves on the site, and talk about what kind of work volunteers will do as well as what they offer in return – accommodation, food, activities, etc. We volunteers then email these places and apply to work for them, usually for a minimum of two weeks. Workaway puts in place an hourly maximum (no more than 5 hours a day, maximum 5 days per week) and allows volunteers to review the businesses and vice versa.
When I first heard about this program, it sounded too good to be true. Free food and lodging for hanging out at a hostel a few hours a day? (Childcare, farm/garden work, and English teaching are among the other popular opportunities). I agreed with Ethan, that this program could help us travel for a longer period of time, and help us explore these towns that we might never see otherwise. So, we decided to base our trip through East and Southeast Asia around the Workaway opportunities we could get.
37 work days later, my opinion on Workaway has changed a bit. Here’s a breakdown of my perspective on the pro’s and con’s of the program:
- People: Through Workaway opportunities, I’ve met dozens of travelers and become friends with them; in countries where I can’t speak the requisite language(s), this has been a godsend. Because we’re eating, living, and working together, we can form friendships quickly based on common ground. I’ve heard stories from their home countries and their travels, gone out drinking, karaoke-ing, and sightseeing with new friends, and made connections for further travels (looking at you, Europe and Australia). Being homesick for my friends and family has been made so much easier with these new connections and new friends.
- New Skills: While the opportunities we’ve chosen have mostly centered around cleaning and gardening, I can definitely say that I’ve learned new ways of getting things done. I can now thoroughly clean a bathroom in under 5 minutes, shuck freshly-chopped bamboo for use in meals, and make a bed in at least 4 different ways. I’m now much less grossed-out by tasks that previously annoyed me – washing dishes, scrubbing toilets, and ignoring large bugs (much harder than it sounds). If nothing else, I’ll be able to return to the US and complain less about emptying the dishwasher (this is for you, Mom).
- Saving Money: Whether or not meals are provided with the Workaway opportunity (about half the time), staying at a Workaway location means saving money. There’s not having to worry about hostel/AirBnB fees, avoiding transportation costs, getting meals and/or drinks covered by the business (or at least discounted), and spending a few days working instead of going out and spending cash on museum visits, souvenirs, etc. For people I’ve met who are staying at a Workaway for two months or more, this is a crucial part of their budget.
- Workaway Profile vs. Real Experience: As would be expected, many businesses play up their amenities and play down the work itself in order to attract volunteers. However, in 2/4 of the places we’ve been, the work has just not been accurately advertised – one place said that gardening and painting cabins were the main projects, but when we showed up, the work was cleaning cabins and bathrooms daily. Our current location advertises itself as an “Eco-Village,” and said teaching dance and music and gardening would be our primary focus, but the last three days have been spent hacking a trail through the nearby forest in 90 degree heat. Honestly, I wouldn’t mind a week cleaning a hostel if they were clear about it on the website (and I’m really efficient at it now), but promising one thing and delivering another feels like a trick.
- Difficult Managers: Having left my favorite boss ever at my last job in CA (miss you, Linda <3), I might have some high expectations. Two managers through Workaway have been particularly amazing (Maya!!! and Kate!!!) and wrangled dozens of wacky millennial volunteers with grace and fairness. But at the other locations, management has been… disorganized to say the least. In some instances, the volunteer managers can’t speak enough English to explain the tasks, the daily schedule, etc., and since the default language for most international travelers is English, it’s been rough. In other cases, they’ve been uncommunicative for other reasons, asked more work than was originally requested, or shown a lack of respect to the workers. One issue we’ve run into a few times is what a fellow traveler called “being a petting zoo”: Workaway staff are “shown off” to guests as exotic foreigners (while we’re working, and we’ve even been asked to show up to locations just so the locals can see us), but we’re discouraged from actually speaking to guests and practicing the language.
- Fatigue: With a maximum of 4-5 hours work per day, I was anticipating a lot of free time to explore the cities or get some writing done. But a lot of the work has been exhausting, to the point where I’m too tired to leave the Workaway or even read/write effectively. Maybe I was naive to think that I could do helpful work in four-hour shifts that wouldn’t make me want to lay down and sleep for the rest of the day. But combining work with the stress of being in a brand-new location with a new language, having your body get used to new foods/living environments/time zones, and doing the necessary upkeep for personal and mental health (socializing, hobbies, exercise, etc) is a lot. I suppose there’s a reason many people separate travel and work!
To counteract the negatives, Ethan and I have been alternating Workaway weeks with strictly travel/sightseeing weeks. This allows us to feel like we’re doing more of what we want and still saving money. We’ve also started including “work/relax” days in our plans, without any attractions/excursions, to help us catch up on much-needed mental and physical rest. As we identify possible Workaways to visit in the future, we’re more careful to get clear instructions from businesses on what they’re looking for and how they’re managed.
Ultimately, I still think that Workaway is a great option for people who want to travel, save money, and live like a local for a bit. It definitely helps if you have energy and a sense of humor! But if you’re looking for a way to travel for a long period of time without A) being rich or B) working… keep looking. And tell me how when you figure it out!