I have recently been finding my post-summer small talk a little bit uncomfortable. “What did you do over the summer” answered with “I worked on a farm in Normandy” tends to create a lot of judgment. I am very acutely aware of the acquaintance’s tendency to draw upon hipster imagery, the immediate visual of a rich kid blowing all her parents’ money in a foreign country, the pondering of whether or not I actually bathed. My answer is misleading, because I found the farm through Workaway, and if I was lucky I did get to bathe twice a week.
Workaway.info is a website created for the penniless yet hopeful traveler. Hosts from mostly Europe post a photograph of their home as well as a description of what they are looking for. To give some perspective, I contacted several horse farms in France as well as a dog shelter in Portugal and an English tutor in Germany. The workers create profiles that feel like something between a Facebook profile and a Match.com ad, attempting to sell themselves as reliable helpers and clean houseguests. There are no contracts but in order to contact others on the site, you must pay a small fee to join. In exchange for what is usually five hours of work a day, five days a week you are given residence and three meals a day, though the details may vary from place to place.
A friend and I made the decision to go to the same farm. He arrived two weeks before me and ended up not getting on well with the family we had chosen, but was able to quickly transfer to a different farm that was also part of Workaway. As I had carefully sent him ahead of me to scout the place out, I didn’t run into much trouble with the new family that we stayed with. This new farm was only a half hour drive away from the original place, owned by a British single mother and her two boys, aged fourteen and twelve.
The farm had 48 horses, 3 sheep, 6 cats, 6 dogs, 1 rabbit, 3 chickens, 2 miniature pigs, and 4 goats. I was up from 7am every day to muck out the stables before breakfast, after which I would do a full cleaning of the house. The woman who owned the property hosted a French student each week from Paris to live in the house and learn English. A lot of my work involved fixing up the house by repainting or deep cleaning as well as helping her organize business files and such. By the end of the month, I became very close with the mother as well as her kids, and I started to become more of an au pair than a field hand. I can safely say that I covered a huge range of tasks, from cutting down weeds to taking care of a newly born foal to entertaining the families of the Parisian students. It was what my dad would probably call a character building experience, and I’m grateful for it. I was able to meet loads of people and see a new part of the world for only the cost of the plane ticket.
I still would not recommend Workaway to everyone. If I have access to a nice bathroom, a big bed, a hair dryer, etc. then I will undoubtedly take advantage of it all. I can pretty easily switch into being much more low maintenance though, and at the end of the day I’m just happy for a place to sleep. On the farm I lived in a caravan that developed a mouse problem towards the end, so I had to lock myself in the mobile home with two or three of the cats and hope that they were on their game. I’m allergic to cats, so this was a give and take type situation, but my bed was on the floor and I decided that bloodshot eyes were worth it. There was no running water in the caravan, and I had to take cold showers in the beginning until I earned the trust of the family, in order to access the main house regularly and use their bathroom.
Internet access was very limited, but that became almost freeing. The first days without email, Skype, news or Facebook can be unsettling. But after accepting a certain level of isolation from the outside world, it can become refreshing. You do become much more present, you discover time to do things that you might not get to with technological distractions, and it was a great thing to do before the start of Honours.
Would I recommend Workaway? It’s for someone who wants to travel and isn’t very anxious about things not going according to plan. A lot of people start at one place and transfer to another because it doesn’t work out, but the transfer tends to be easy to facilitate. I would definitely urge a potential traveler to partner up with a friend – most places can hold multiple people, and it’s good to have someone to look around with during down time. Find out as much as you can about the host and what they are looking for, there are helper reviews for most hosts which should definitely be taken into account. The couple from the farm that I was originally intended to go to has been banned from the agency for overworking their helpers, so sticky situations do happen.
Image credit: Claire Nelson