Our First Workaway Experience in the Polish Countryside
Because we often get questions on how to save money while travelling or how to travel for longer periods of time, we thought this would be a good day to share our experience with Workaway. This was our first time volunteering abroad but I really don't think it will be our last. For insights on what it was like to live with a local family in Poland plus tips on how you can travel using Workaway, keep reading!
Despite being home in Canada this summer, we can't help but reminisce on this time last year. We had just arrived to Poland for our first Workaway experience with no idea about the impact this trip would have on us. There was no way we could have imagined that our YouTube channel would blow up in Poland. That our first vlog in Poland would become our most viewed video ever (203,000 views and counting!). That we would develop meaningful friendships with our Polish audience and even get to meet some of them in person. That we would keep adding Polish cities to our list because we didn't want to face the fact that we would have to eventually move on to the next country. But even if we knew then what we know now, I'd like to think we wouldn't change a thing.
SO, WHAT IS WORKAWAY?
Essentially, Workaway is an organization connecting local hosts with volunteers from all over the world. It's a type of cultural exchange program in which you're provided with food and accommodation by a local host in exchange for your time as a volunteer. In most cases, travellers are hosted by a family and expected to work a maximum of 4-5 hours per day, 5 days a week. Some of the most common duties include babysitting, language exchange, gardening, farming and household chores. The range of listings you'll find on Workaway is fairly wide. For instance, you can volunteer at a surf hostel on a tropical island, help care for children in the south of France or learn to live completely off-grid in rural Africa. With hundreds of hosts in dozens of countries across the globe, it can be overwhelming to find a suitable listing but there's bound to be something that piques your interest.
Now, if you're reading this, you're likely one of two types of travellers. The first type may be thinking, "Sweet! How do I sign up for this type of incredibly rewarding experience?" And the other reaction I'll hear is, "So you have to work but don't get paid at all? That makes no sense!" Well, if you're of the mindset that this is an unjust agreement and not the way to see the world, I'm not sure I'll be able to knock some sense into you talk you into this. An experience like Workaway really does require an open mind, a willingness to learn about other cultures and the desire to offer your valuable skills in exchange for a place to stay and delicious local foods to eat. When it comes down to it, the most memorable moments we've had abroad are a result of our interactions with people from all over the world and these connections we've made are priceless. If you're travelling for months at a time, short on funds and living life on your own terms, chances are both you and your host will benefit from this type of experience.
While there are hundreds of honest people using Workaway as a means to connect with like-minded individuals all over the world, there are also people with less than pure intentions. I've read reviews and heard stories where, almost always at hostels, the traveller ends up working way above the suggested daily maximum of 5-6 hours. I've worked in hospitality myself and can attest to the fact that it's a 24/7 business. Guests will check in during the middle of the night, the A/C will stop working when you're at maximum occupancy during the hottest week of summer and there are always the inevitable drunkards. Heck, I was even called in to work on a Sunday when an exterior wall at the hotel I used to work at actually collapsed and we thought we'd have to move our offices to a neighbouring hotel. If a work-life balance is hard to achieve when you're getting paid at a hostel/hotel, I can only imagine the challenges when it comes to volunteering in hospitality. I'm not sure we'd ever volunteer at a hostel for this reason but just throwing it out there! For us, the selling points of Workaway are the chance to live with a local family and learn more about their customs and traditions.
OUR FIRST TIME IN POLAND
Ok, back to our story. The initial plan was to fly into Warsaw because it was the cheapest way to get to Europe from Toronto before making our way to Hungary. The week we had booked our flights was the week we discovered Workaway and we casually started browsing through all of the listings offered in Poland. I can't take credit for anything here because it was actually Wes who found the perfect family for our first Workaway. "This one looks good and they even have horses!" he shared with me while we were deep into one of our let's-plan-our-life-by-booking-flights sessions in Guanajuato, Mexico. It didn't take much convincing before I was messaging the host couple and said we were interested in spending a month at their home in the countryside. After a bit of back and forth, it was settled; we would help teach English at their family-run language school in exchange for room and board at their lovely home near Warsaw.
It's funny now that I think of it. This time last year, Wes and I were basically flying to a country we'd never been to and waiting to be picked up at the airport by a person we'd never met. I remember standing by the baggage collection at Chopin Airport and looking at a photo of our hosts that I had saved to my phone. We scanned the crowd hoping to recognize one of them when I saw a man looking toward us with a huge smile on his face. He signaled proudly to his Canada t-shirt and I couldn't help but return the smile.
DAILY LIFE AT OUR WORKAWAY
We might have been far from family at this point but our hosts certainly made us feel right at home from the very beginning. I think what I enjoyed the most about our Workaway in Poland was that no two days were alike. With a pre-teen daughter and a toddler about to turn 3, the days were often unpredictable. Once we were accustomed to the time difference, Wes and I would wake up at around 8am and make our way to the kitchen after freshening up. Usually we would eat our meals all together as a family. If we were late to the game in the morning, food would often be prepared for us and other times we would gladly make our own eggs courtesy of the chickens in their yard. One of our hosts was Italian so we could count on a nice espresso (or two) each day. Since their in-laws were living in the house next door, we were also spoiled with homemade local specialties like paczki and pierogi.
We never went hungry but one adjustment for us was the different eating patterns in Poland (and in most of the places we've travelled to actually). Much like our neighbours to the south, in Canada we're used to a light breakfast, a moderate midday lunch and a heavier dinner around 7pm. Through one of our language lessons in Poland, I learned a phrase regarding their meals that very loosely translates to "eat your breakfast, share your lunch with a friend and give your dinner away to your enemy." Our breakfast would usually consist of eggs, bread, tomato from the garden and local deli meats and cheeses. Lunch was often later in the afternoon (2pm or so) and usually the biggest of three meals. Dinner was a lot lighter than we're used to and often quite similar to breakfast (with a salad in lieu of the eggs). Either way, eating like the locals is one of my favourite things about travel and I'm already a little too excited to learn more about Polish cuisine on our next visit.
Meals aside, our days went by quickly and the chores varied between Wes and I. While I was often babysitting at home or at the local community centre, he was doing more of the outdoor tasks like painting the stables or chopping firewood. Most evenings, we would have lessons with adults who wanted to practice their English. While we were provided with specific learning materials for some, a lot of these lessons were strictly conversing and correcting. We were always prepared with topics of interest and the conversations went surprisingly smoothly considering we were speaking to strangers with a different native tongue for up to 90 minutes at a time. Of all the things we did during our Workaway, these language lessons felt the least like work to me. Some of the conversations were as casual as going for a walk and talking about the differences between Poland and Canada. Others were at a desk in our hosts' home office with reading material that we would discuss afterwards. Either way, I enjoyed learning about the various traditions and customs in Poland and was also getting valuable advice on things Wes and I would later see and do in the country.
Living away from the city had its challenges but it was really nice to be surrounded by nature and see the stars so clearly each night. We would take turns walking their dog, making sure the cat had food and filling the troughs with hay for the horses. Ripe plums were picked straight from the backyard tree and we would supervise the kids as they swam in the large backyard pond. I realize we lucked out on a great first experience volunteering abroad. I have nothing but fond memories from these weeks with our Polish family and I love being able to see their updates on Facebook now. Had a psychic told me that at some point in this crazy thing called life my duties would include feeding horses at a home in Poland, I'm honestly not sure what my reaction would have been. Now I can't help but wonder sort of daily tasks I might get up to next year.
TIPS FOR A BETTER WORKAWAY EXPERIENCE
Any Workaway involves work (I mean, the name couldn't spell it out any more clearly!). In fact, it's technically unpaid work which can put people off quite a bit. I think it's natural to be skeptical of doing something like this especially when most people think of travel to be more of a holiday and a time to relax. You might not be considering this as an option at all if you prefer spending your vacation at an all-inclusive resort and that's perfectly fine! But maybe you're looking to experience something new the next time you're booking a trip. Our first Workaway experience was more affordable, eye-opening and rewarding than we could have anticipated and that's why we're suggesting it as an option for others.
If you'd like to combine a true holiday with this type of cultural exchange, consider looking at listings in and around places you want to travel to. If you've planned for a vacation in Rome, you might enjoy an extra week helping with the harvest in Tuscany. You could extend your holidays in Sydney by volunteering at a yoga and meditation centre outside of the city afterwards. House-sit in Belize for a bit before checking in to your hotel. Help care for Icelandic horses before starting your Icelandic road trip. The options are endless and it just takes a bit of patience and planning since you do have to wait for confirmation from a host (as opposed to instantly booking).
Also keep in mind that you may be one of umteen applicants and your Workaway profile should set you apart from others. While we were initially reaching out to hosts, it was essentially the same as if we were applying for jobs. We wanted to make sure our profile page accurately described us and our skills while also showcasing a bit of our personality. Just as you may be nervous about spending time in a foreign country, hosts want to make sure you'll be a good fit for their home or farm or eco-lodge.
The last caveat is that Workaway is technically not free. As a volunteer, you have to pay an annual membership that will give you access to all the available listings on their site plus the ability to message hosts and secure your position. As a Workawayer, the annual fee is currently $29 USD for singles and $38 USD for couples. They also have a gifting feature in case anyone were to so graciously gift us with a year's membership since ours has just expired. Kidding! Except also not really joking. 🙃 Anyway, the fee certainly goes a long way if you're using Workaway throughout the year and it's nowhere near as much as some companies charge for volunteer experiences abroad or foraging/harvesting tours.
In summary, here are some Dos and Don'ts to take away before you book a Workaway.
- look for a place best-suited for your skills and interests
- read all listings and reviews very carefully
- keep in contact with your host prior to your visit
- arrive with an open mind and positive attitude
- express yourself clearly and communicate with your host to avoid any misunderstandings
- reach out to Workaway support staff if you need to escalate an issue
- leave an honest review to help future travellers
- think of this as a free place to stay on vacation
- arrive expecting the luxuries and amenities of a resort
- pay out of pocket for expenses that should be covered by your host
- forget about cultural differences and diversity among countries
- give out personal information unless you feel comfortable doing so
- leave prior to your arrangement end date without notifying your host
Hopefully our first Workaway experience has inspired you to consider this option for a true cultural immersion on your travels. Would we do it again? Well, I'd be lying if I said I wasn't just looking at listings in Ireland right now...