You’re young and free and nothing is tying you down. You love travelling and you’re always looking for ways to extend your travels for the least amount of money. Random jobs abroad? You’ve done them all. Working in exchange for accommodation? – Sounds like a plan! Welcome to the concept of Workaway.
Workaway is an online platform that connects hosts and volunteers from all over the world. There are many opportunities, from helping out on farms to getting involved in volunteer projects, au pairing, or even providing a professional or specialised skill. You’re expected to put in a few hours a week whilst a host family offers you a place to stay (and sometimes even food). So whether you have a specialised skill to offer, or just keen to learn and help out there’s something for almost everyone.
How I got involved
After spending a few years abroad and returning to my home country, South Africa, I wasn’t quite ready to get rid of my travelling bug just yet. I decided to give Workaway a try and applied to help out at a few hostels in Cape Town in exchange for accommodation.
I’ve always wanted to live in Cape Town and figured I can start off by entertaining tourists and learning more about the city in the process.
Cape Town is a very popular tourist destination and I quickly realised I wasn’t the only person applying for this kind of thing. Finding a hostel that had openings for volunteers turned out to be quite a difficult task. So difficult in fact, that by the time I had packed my car and drove the 1,450 km down to Cape Town, I had nothing lined up yet.
Expectations vs Reality
I finally found a hostel that needed my services after spending a few days on a friends couch.
Now just to give you a bit of a backstory – my only reference to hostels (or backpackers) were the ones found in South East Asia where every hour of every day is a party. So in my mind, I assumed I would be helping out at a vibrant place, on the beach, filled with young people from all over the world serving cocktails and being merry all day and night.
The hostel I ended up at, however, was more the kind of place where business people looking for cheap accommodation close to the city end up at when everything else has already been fully booked. It wasn’t really in a touristy neighbourhood either. No beaches, no bar and the only view was that of a five-story wall from an adjacent parking lot.
The guests didn’t need much entertainment either. I was strictly needed for reception duties. I also have to confess that in the excitement of applying to this whole new experience, I failed to acknowledge that I’d never been overly fond of answering the phone nor sitting behind a desk all day. Nonetheless, I was in Cape Town and I was living rent-free.
Making new friends
Although the cool young tourists never became a reality, I ended up getting really close with the other staff members.
Rebecca, the manager, was one of the most inspiring people I’ve ever met and the ultimate hustler. She had done everything from selling diamonds to making and distributing her own shampoo. I once found her looking for sponsors to build a shelter for a homeless man whom she didn’t know personally, but passed on the street every day to work.
Sam, the other receptionist, initially came to stay at the hostel as a guest after her husband passed away years before. She had nowhere to go and after being a guest for a few months she eventually ended up working there. Her bright personality made my day, every day.
Then there was Emannuel. Emannuel came by every evening to guard the front door. Late at night, I would find him watching videos on the computer in the foyer and in the mornings I would be sure to make a loud noise when entering the kitchen to wake him up. He was always keen for a conversation and as time went by, I learned all about his family who lived in a neighbouring country.
An unexpected turn of events
A few weeks after my arrival, just as I was getting used to this new lifestyle, the fire marshall paid us a visit.
He informed us that we were not compliant with some (not so) minor regulations and a few days later, we were shut down.
Guests were moved to different locations, future bookings were cancelled and our website read: “Closed for renovations.” The staff remained active to oversee the renovations and to keep public relations. Since I was basically free labour, the owners allowed me to stay on.
I was now living alone in a desolate 14 bedroom building and it was then when I realised I should have been more specific when I wished to live in a mansion on the slopes of Table Mountain when I was younger.
The good thing was that I had a lot of free time. I started writing about my past travels and dreaming about my future endeavours.
Isolation eventually got the better of me and after a total of three months, I left my mansion and moved into a real house. Ironically, the house I moved into, along with my new roommates ended up being more similar to what I expected the hostel to be initially (but that’s a story for another day.)
Even though my Workaway experience ended up being completely different from what I’d expected, I still ended up meeting wonderful people, learned new skills and was able to stay in an expensive city without paying rent for three months.
All in all, it was a great experience and I can highly recommend giving Workaway (or something similar) a try.
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