I got to know Mike and Ashley in Utila, Honduras, when I was their scuba instructor. We had previously been in touch via Twitter. Naturally, we’ve kept in touch since they left Honduras, and I’ve enjoyed seeing some of their posts about their adventures in using the interesting volunteering site HelpX. I think it presents a unique travel opportunity, and their experiences so far have supported that. In fact, I think it would be safe to say it’s been life changing. I am very appreciative that they accepted my interview request and that they took the time to answer my questions.
What type of service is HelpX.net? How did you find out about it?
HelpX is a work exchange network where participants work in exchange for food and lodging. Its primary purpose, as stated on its website is as “a cultural exchange for working holiday makers who would like the opportunity during their travels abroad, to stay with local people and gain practical experience.”
We originally found HelpX via a Google search while looking for volunteer opportunities. Originally, we were actually put off of it by the website. It just didn’t seem legit. We are always pretty skeptical about any website that requires a membership fee to access. It wasn’t until we met some other travellers that had used helpX and had some positive experiences with it that we decided to sign up.
Is it the same as WWOOF? If not, what are the differences?
There are two major differences that set HelpX apart from WWOOF. First, HelpX is not limited to only organic farms. You might find people looking for help doing renovations, walking dogs, house sitting, farming non-organically in addition to organic farm orotundities.
The second way that it differs is that there is just one global website. WWOOF in contrast requires that you sign up for each geographic region (and sometimes country) that you would like to find work in. Each at an additional fee.
Why did you choose HelpX over WWOOF?
Because of the above-mentioned differences. A one-time fee good anywhere in the world, and a larger variety of opportunities to consider.
I know you’ve done at least a couple of these type of exchanges. Would you please share with us your experiences and what they were like? Which of your experiences thus far have been your favorite?
You’re right. We’ve done this exactly a couple of times. Once on an organic farm in rural El Salvador, and our current posting in a Bulgarian Village. They’ve both been very dear to us in their own ways.
Let’s start with El Salvador. On the surface, we spent 11 days working on an organic farm. The owners were vegans, so there were no animals, just a large garden and tons of fruit trees. But in reality, there was much more going on there. It was really a cultural exchange program. Children from the village would come to the project and work alongside us. Together we would water the plants, harvest fruits and veggies, cook, plant, and build whatever we could by recycling discarded materials. As you can imagine, working in close quarters like this was an excellent way for us to practice our Spanish, and the local youth to practice their English. It really was something special.
That brings us to where we are today – Bulgaria. We have spent the past 6 weeks helping out 3 expats with odd jobs around the house and garden. We’ve picked grapes and plums for making rakia, painted the exterior of the house, stained gates, weeded until we never wanted to see a weed again, and poured concrete. We have our own house to stay in on the property (we shared it with another HelpXer for three weeks) and access to a jacuzzi, gym, and dojo.
In both cases, the expected workload was 4 hours a day. In El Salvador, this was every day and we paid a donation that went towards the program for the village kids. Meals were a communal learning experience where they taught us how to cook and eat vegan. No alcohol was allowed. In Bulgaria, we have weekends off and primarily make our own meals with the food provided. There’s always a cold beer (or wine, or rakia) waiting for us at the end of the day.
I also know that you guys are really good about tracking your budget. I imagine this type of arrangement has resulted in a savings for you while you travel. Would you share with us how these exchanges have helped your budget? Have you been, or will you be, able to extend your travels because of these types of stays?
In El Salvador, the donations towards the kids’ program meant our daily cost was only slightly lower than what we spent traveling elsewhere in the country. In Bulgaria, however, we have spent virtually nothing for six weeks. As you can imagine, this has had a huge positive impact on our budget. Our average expenditures since we left home have worked out to about $50 a day. Some quick math will tell you just how much we’ve saved. Because we do not have a set return date, every dollar saved is potentially a dollar towards further travels.
I’m sure it isn’t just about saving money, although who would argue with that! What other benefits do you see in doing an exchange of this nature? What cons might there be?
The benefits are many. First of all, you get the opportunity to form a relationship with your hosts – something that can be hard when you’re moving around all the time. This has been immensely helpful for us in Bulgaria, where we have received plenty of help and advice towards our latest endeavour… buying a Bulgarian house.
In El Salvador, we received vegetarian & vegan cooking lessons, yoga lessons, a documentary-based education and discussion group, Spanish lessons, and Spanish practice.
In Bulgaria, there was combat jujitsu training, quality time in a jacuzzi, private accommodation with unlimited internet use, and great conversations.
With both experiences, we had a nearly inexhaustible supply of organic fruit and veggies. Definitely a plus!
As for cons, it has been somewhat difficult to see other parts of the country while volunteering. Both of our hosts have lived in rural, remote areas where public transportation has been available, but limited. While our hosts have been very flexible about days off for travel, we haven’t done too much of it during our stays. It’s also easy to get into the “home” mentality when you stay put and have daily work to complete, which means forcing yourself to get out and go see new things when you have time off.
Are these exchanges typically offered by expats, or is it easy to find situations with native locals? I’ve read many times how homestays are a great way of getting to experience a different culture.
We’ve experienced both. In El Salvador, our host was local and his partner was from Columbia. In Bulgaria, our hosts were expats from Britain and the USA. Because the website is set up entirely in English, it seems the majority of hosts are expats, especially in expat friendly regions like Bulgaria.
On your blog, you wrote a post about doing an exchange in Central America and how it may have changed some of your long-term planning, and possibly your life in a few years. Has that experience stuck with you now that you’re in Europe and have you had an additional interesting experience?
Yes. We became vegetarians in El Salvador and six months later, we are still are. The experience spawned in us a desire to live more naturally and sustainably, which has now led us to purchasing a village house in Bulgaria where we feel that we will one day be able to live out this dream. It’s going to take years of working and saving before we are in a position to move to Bulgaria permanently. Naturally this goal is going to affect our lives daily as every expenditure will have to be offset against it. We’ll need jobs that allow us the freedom to spend summers working on the house/yard. And, when we are not here, our hearts and minds will be.
Just out of curiosity, have you found any exchanges involving scuba? You know, that would be really cool.
Not yet, sorry to disappoint.
Would you recommend HelpX exchanges to others? What types of travelers do you think would get the most out of using a site like HelpX?
I would definitely recommend HelpX exchanges to others. Long-term travelers would likely get the most out of the exchanges because they are more likely to have the time and desire to stay put somewhere for a while – most hosts seem to prefer long-term stays rather than ones for just a few days. Obviously, travelers on tight budgets have a lot to gain from an exchange, but also travelers with a specific life goal in mind. We wanted to learn more about organic agriculture, permaculture, and self-sustainability, so we chose experiences that would teach about those topics.
Do you have any tips on what to include in a profile or when messaging a prospective host?
When creating your profile, be honest about your interests and your skills. Sell your positive assets, but don’t exaggerate… if you don’t like dogs and your hosts have nine large ones, they’re going to find that out right away. When messaging prospective hosts, tell them why they want you there, but also why YOU chose them. And since meals are provided, make sure any special dietary requirements you have will not be a problem.
Any other tips for people who may be considering doing a HelpX or WWOOF exchange?
Find out all the expectations before you arrive… how many hours a day will you be expected to work? Will you have days off? What type of work will you be doing? Are all your meals included? What type of accommodation will there be? Are there any minimum or maximum time commitments? You don’t want any surprises once you get there.
Also, make sure you choose work exchanges that will be mutually beneficial. It is supposed to be an exchange, after all, and it shouldn’t have to feel like a job for you. Try to find a host that offers something you’re interested in besides free food and accommodation, be it yoga, martial arts, language exchange, animals, ecological knowledge, or local travel experiences. That way, you get a much richer experience.