Volunteer Vacations: An Interview with Jen M.

The search for authentic travel experiences has taken Jen M. to an organic tea farm in Tasmania, a dog sanctuary in Nepal, a dairy farm in Germany and about a dozen other locations. She swaps a few hours a day for the opportunity to work alongside locals as they go about their daily lives. The payoff? Food, lodging and a deeper insight into the culture, people and places she visits.

We caught up with Jen on a truffle-hunting excursion in Italy and joined her a few days later in a kitchen just outside Rome where we made traditional Italian desserts. She shared some of her work-stay experiences with us in this interview.

How do you find out about volunteer vacation opportunities?

I originally signed up for Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF), where you agree to do volunteer labor in exchange for a place to stay and meals. WWOOF links visitors with organic farmers and their goal is to promote cultural and educational exchange while building awareness of ecological farming and sustainability practices.

Then I found out about Workaway, which doesn’t limit the opportunities to just farm work. Workaway is primarily for cultural exchange or learning new skills and a way of making new friends. Some of the experiences I had through Workaway include volunteering to teach English in the Czech Republic and helping at a restaurant in Israel that “rescues” food that would otherwise go to waste; patrons pay what they want for the meal.

How many hours do you have to work and for how long?

You can look online for free at the opportunities but to participate, there’s usually a small annual membership fee. This gives you access to contact hosts directly. There are listings for pretty much every country. Each host is different, but will specify in the description what’s expected. I would say most want a commitment of at least a week. There are month-long opportunities for bigger projects. It’s not usually more than 20 hours a week and in exchange, you get food and accommodation.

Do you need specialized skills to do a work stay?

There’s something for everyone! I like nature so I look for more farming-type gigs, but there are a lot of hosts looking for babysitters or someone to teach English to their children.

What was your favorite volunteer vacation and why?

Hmmm, I’d say this past fall in Chianti, Italy on a cashmere goat farm. It was an amazing place with no one around. Just me, the goats, and some wine. It was so relaxing. I had my own room and most the time I was sorting the fibers, removing the dirt and particles before it got sent off to be spun into yarn.

Are there other work-stayers there or are you usually by yourself?

It depends on how many the host can take at a time. I had an experience working in a hostel in Budapest, Hungary and there were about five of us. On the farm in Chianti, I stayed with a family and it was just me. Every experience is different.

Did you have a work stay that didn’t turn out as well as you had hoped?

Yes, my auntie was with me on a work stay in the Wadi Rum desert in Jordan. We were supposed to help the hosts with tourists but somehow ended up in the family’s house in the middle of the desert with nothing to do. I’m not sure what happened with this one; maybe it was just bad timing. I’d recommend making sure you read the reviews when researching hosts so you know what to expect. 

What advice do you have for travelers who might be interested in a work stay trip?

Definitely do it, especially if there’s something you’re interested in. It’s a great way to learn a new skill. Most hosts are willing to teach you if you stay long enough to learn. It’s a great way to travel on a budget! Also, plan in advance. It may take some time to get a response from a host.

What’s your next work stay adventure?

I want to work in a vineyard, maybe in South America. I wanted to do that in Italy, but I missed the season. Or, some kind of nature reserve, like a turtle sanctuary in Costa Rica.

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