03 Apr Guide to HelpX: Volunteering & Free Accommodation
This is a guest post by fellow Intentional Traveler, Lianne Bronzo. She describes herself as a Korean-American adoptee who returned “home” to teach, travel, and discover who she is. She and her boyfriend, Adam, are avid budget travelers. They are currently in Australia.
Adam and I have been exploring alternative methods of travel such as CouchSurfing and housesitting. Perhaps my favorite program is HelpX, or help exchange, where we work in exchange for accommodation. Here is a quick guide about HelpX, some examples of work we have done, and how you can get involved.
What is HelpX?
HelpX.net, or Help Exchange, is a website connecting hosts and travelers. Hosts provide accommodation, and food (most of the time), to travelers in exchange for a few hours of work per day. Hosts can be found all around the globe. Not surprisingly, the kind of work and accommodation greatly vary.
Benefits of Help Exchange
Learn new skills – Hosts are usually willing to teach you a thing or two about their trade.
Use your skills to help locals – Keep your tools sharpened by using them on the road! For creatives, this is a good chance to build your portfolio.
Explore new areas – Hosts are most likely located in areas that are not listed in guidebooks, so you get to dive deeper into the country and see what most travelers don’t.
Get a local’s perspective – As they say, locals know best! Your hosts are usually more than willing to share with you the best spots to visit. Sometimes, hosts even take us on tours.
Save money – Obviously, HelpX is a great way to travel for longer time periods without spending money. Your accommodation and – most of the time – food, are covered, so you don’t really have many expenses.
Examples of HelpX Work
I prefer HelpX over WWOOF (only organic farming) because of there is a variety of work that you can do other than on farms. Common work includes gardening, general household tasks, building/renovating, painting, caring for children, etc. The following are some examples of some work we’ve done in the past.
Floral Arrangement in the Daintree Rainforest, Queensland, Australia
Wynne runs a small floral business out of her open air home at the foot of the oldest rainforest in the world.
- Mulching flower beds
- Helping prepare chili sauce (with peppers right from garden)
- Floral prepping: Fetched flowers and leaves from garden, nearby farms, and flower wholesaler, removed rose thorns, cleaned and cut stems
- Floral arrangement: created fig leaf chandeliers, garlands, bouquets, etc.
- Event setup: Delivered bouquets & buttonholes, arranged flowers in vases and displayed at reception tables, attached roses to garlands
- Vacation home decorating: Rode along with Wynne to decorate fancy vacation homes with native flowers
Accommodation: To reach Wynne and Bruce’s place, one must drive a few kilometers down dirt roads, far past most signs of civilization. Their home is a simple open air tin home, so we lived amongst all of the elements: spiders, frogs, snakes, native birds, and other creatures. We slept well each night in the comfy bed, sometimes to the sounds of comforting rain and other times to crickets and frogs.
Explore the property: They own a large chunk of land, so we took lots of walks admiring their garden and private creek
Dinner parties: Wynne and Bruce brought us to a few of their neighbors’ homes for dinner parties including make-your-own pizza, a surplus of wine, and decadent cakes. Even though their homes seems isolated, they are anything but lonely because the neighbors must rely on each other.
Explore the Daintree Region: We drove through the lush forest and stopped a few times to do walking trails through the dense forest, picnic at Cow Bay, and have ice cream made from local fruits. Luck was on our side when we spotted a gigantic and rare bird, the cassowary.
The general area is unique in Australia and we are grateful to have such knowledgeable hosts who showed us around and taught us about the region.
Organic Farming in Northern Thailand
We lived with a Thai family in the mountains, three hours from Chiang Mai. They are on the brink of self-sufficiency from growing nearly all of their food. The family consists of Pinaan Jim – a former Buddhist monk, his partner Pinaan Tea, and their 9-year-old son, Pinaan Tung. Pinaan means “human” and they address others this way.
- Farm Work: Clearing fields for planting potatoes, chopping wood for cooking, fetching grass for cows, feeding chickens
- Gathering food: Picked fresh fruits, navigated a plethora of leaves to identify and pick morning glory, caught fish in nearby pond, searched for free range eggs without luck
- Cooking: I helped Pinaan Tea prepare most meals, which were always varied, abundant, and phenomenal. I got to learn some Thai cooking skills such as preparing chili paste and banana flower.
- Peeling coffee beans: The family grows their own coffee beans. After they have been soaked and dried, each individual bean needs to be ridded of their shell before roasting.
- Cleaning up: We helped with general upkeep such was washing dishes and sweeping.
- Website building: Pinaan Jim took us to the nearest “town” via motorbike to use the WiFi as Adam built their website, Happy Healing Home.
Accommodation: Previous helpers built a handful of basic bamboo huts with a mattress and mosquito net. Showers consisted of cold bucket showers and toilets were of the typical Asian squat variety, but no lights in the night!
Living the slow life: Since we were off the grid and barely had electricity, off time consisted of meditating, stretching, enjoying the scenery, reading in a hammock, and fishing with Tung. It was the first time I enjoyed such a slow pace of life and as a result, I gained patience, mindfulness, and gratitude.
Trekking: The family also took us on an excursion to a mountain. There was no set track, but we trusted our hosts because they have an intimate relationship with the land. The hike was rewarded with eating freshly caught fish at the river below, drinking tea (grabbed right from the bushes) out of bamboo cups (cut and made right there). We learned a host of survival skills in addition to general life philosophy during our time at Happy Healing Home.
Home Renovations in Sydney
Margot is a spunky and strong 70-years-young woman with a head full of knowledge in chemistry, film-making, history, design, and building. She regularly hosts on HelpX as she always has a list of ongoing projects around the house that she’s transformed over the years.
- Renovating an outdoor bathroom: This was the main task for the week. Adam’s building skills shined while I learned a bit along the way. A few tasks include taking measurements, cutting fiber cement walls, fitting them into the bathroom, filling gaps in brick with cement
- Organizing toolshed
- General household upkeep: Margot didn’t expect us to do much work that she couldn’t do herself, but we pitched in with general cleaning.
- Accommodation: Margot resided in an alternative and hip neighborhood close to public transportation, nightlife, cafes, and parks. We had a private bedroom in her 19th century home.
Free Time: We had already been in Sydney for three months by then and weren’t up for going out to explore, so we spent a good amount of time in discussion with Margot and her housemate, Annie, learning about Australian history, politics, and the women’s labor movement. Since Margot was not much of a cook, I took the duties to prepare meals which we often shared together.
Backpacker Hostel in Koh Lanta Island, Thailand
However, this one is probably the lowest on the list of HelpX experiences, but I wouldn’t say it was a bad experience. The host was disorganized, there were too many helpers and not enough work, and we lacked guidance. But we did enjoy meeting other volunteers and having a different kind of experience.
- Art: I created art on bunk beds and decorated signs to advertise hostel events.
- Reception: Check-in and check-out, room reservations
- Cleaning: Preparing rooms for new guests
- Website consulting: Adam’s main task was to clean up the website, Clayzy House.
Accommodation: The hostel consists of basic huts, each adorned with gigantic pieces of art. We stayed in perhaps the coolest room, “The Penthouse,” which was on the third floor of a sketchy bamboo hut that we navigated with ladders. Inside was a mattress, mosquito net, and fan.
Free Time: We were just a few steps away from the Long Beach, so we often went with fellow volunteers to catch the sunset, take a yoga class, and do some hula hooping and poi! On our day off, we rented a motorbike to explore Koh Lanta island.
How to get started with HelpX
- Sign up for a membership at HelpX.net. It costs 20 Euros (~21 USD as of 02/2017) for two years of a membership. A free membership will allow you to peruse the website, but you cannot get contact information without paying the fee.
- Create a profile. Include clear, recent photos of yourself as well as a brief bio and what skills you have to offer.
- Search for hosts in your region of choice. I love the map feature, versus the list, so you can choose based on location. I tend to narrow down the map by clicking hosts who have logged in within the past 90 days. A problem with contacting hosts is that they may not return your e-mail more than half of the time.
- Message the host. After thoroughly reading the host’s profile and reviews, send them a message offering your assistance. Be sure to:
- Make it personal. Do not copy/paste generic requests as it is obvious. Why should the host choose you over other helpers?
- Briefly introduce yourself. Don’t go on and write a book, but a little about you – where you’re from, why you’re traveling through so and so, why you want to help them, etc.
- Offer what you can do to help them. Again, read the profile thoroughly and list skills that may be of use to them. If they don’t have children, don’t bother offering childcare services!
- Provide dates. Hosts appreciate knowing the dates of your intended stay. It would be good to remain flexible with their schedule as well.
Map of host locations on HelpX in Victoria, Australia
Play the waiting game! I would recommend applying to a few jobs that you find interesting because a majority will not respond and only a few will say they cannot host. If you get a host that says yes, respond immediately, thank them, and work out further details.
I recommend getting their personal e-mail address/phone number so you can communicate there instead of the HelpX interface, which is clunky and inconvenient to use on a mobile device. Stay in close contact and maintain good communication throughout the time leading up to the agreed date so that you’re on the same page.
Unfortunately, cancellations and people backing out do happen on both sides, so do have somewhat of a backup plan if it falls through.
While you’re on the assignment, enjoy it! It is a good idea to agree upon the expectations in advance. Is food included? Am I expected to cook for myself or for everyone? Do we eat together? What time do I start work? When can I have a day off?
Enjoy your time together with your host, learn as much as you can, and make lasting memories!
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