Why Workaway? Why volunteer? There are a lot of reasons, a big one being free food and lodging. As a volunteer in Iceland, I got to have a lot of really amazing experiences that a tourist never would. I had time to do a ton of reading instead of always running around to see new things and managed to knock out eight novels that were on my reading list. I learned new skills, like how to drive a manual car. I saw places tourists don’t hear about, like Paradise Cave, Thorsteinslunder, and some remote canyons.
Let me explain how Workaway works, for those of you who don’t know. Using the website (for a fee of $29 a year), hosts and volunteers from over a hundred different countries can find each other, communicate, and make agreements for work exchange. Typically, hosts ask for five hours of work, five days a week, in exchange for a place to sleep (which can range from your own cabin to a tent on their land) and food (or sometimes a food allowance). The work can be greatly varied depending on the country and the specific host, but a lot of it is childcare, building or renovating, or helping with daily chores around a house or farm.
My host in Iceland lives on an unused farm and runs a guesthouse in the basement. Because of rather new laws here, volunteers are not allowed to do any work that results in revenue for the host – in other words, I was not supposed to help out with the guesthouse at all because that is a source of income for the family. However, I was free to help with any normal housework, like watching the kids, renovating the playroom, cleaning the house, and gardening. I did a lot of cooking, dishes, hanging laundry, mowing, and digging. Painting was always my favorite job (I find it very relaxing), and I got to be a little creative by painting a new sign for the guesthouse. I planted flowers, did so many dishes, picked up the kids from kindergarten, swept and vacuumed a lifetime of dirt, organized sheds and closets, and built a loft for the volunteer room.
But it’s not all about the work! Here are some other fun things I got to experience because of my position as a volunteer:
-Attend the grand opening party of a new café on the Ring Road
-Take part in an Olympic-funded charity run for women
-Celebrate Icelandic National Day, small town style
-Meet fellow Workaway volunteers and have adventures together
-Play with puppies and make friends with Buddy, the most wonderful dog I have ever met
-Go horseback riding for real – no slow trail ride crap – in the beautiful Icelandic countryside
To be honest, this hasn’t been the greatest host for me. It was far more of a challenge then an enjoyment, which, though a shame, provided me with a lot of experience in what I should look for in future hosts as well as what I can do to improve an unfavorable situation. I’m grateful to everyone who listened to me rant my frustrations over the last two months – you guys kept me sane. However, just because this particular host home wasn’t a good fit for me, I’m still glad I came to Iceland, glad I used Workaway, and excited for the next volunteer experience in Brora, Scotland. One thing you can count on with this program is every host being different, always a mix of challenges and exciting opportunities.
I think this is the pivotal point of traveling as a volunteer : more than saving money, extending your stay in any one place, or learning about actual life in foreign countries, using Workaway forces you out of your comfort zone. And yeah, the place it lands you may not be your favorite place in the world, but you will leave there with new skills and memories and information about yourself. And a couple thousand pictures of the scenery. I think there will always be that one thing that makes any frustration worth it, which for me was getting to gallop across the fields on horseback for the first time in my life. If you are considering volunteering abroad and are worried that you may not like your host or your situation, do it anyway. There will always be a reason that it’s all worth it.