Workaway

When Things Go Wrong, and I'm Alone

I get asked about this all the time:

What if something terrible happens to you?

Are you ever really scared?

How do you handle weird situations when you’re alone?

Finally I decided to write about it, mainly for those who don’t travel alone and are curious. I’ll tell you now, I’ve heard just about every travel horror story and have been warned many times by friends, family, and acquaintance to ‘be very careful.’ And I am. But I also have faith in myself.

Despite the trials and mishaps, I love exploring alone. 

Despite the trials and mishaps, I love exploring alone. 

I’ve had weird and unnerving experiences abroad, especially traveling alone. Yet every time, I am able to figure my way out of the situation, usually in one piece. Take for example, my arrival in the south of France during my gap year. I took the TGV train from Paris to the south of France and from there I hopped on a local bus. The bus driver helped me figure out where to get off, a tiny town with one small grocery store, a bakery, and a bank. From there I did my best to follow the directions my hosts had provided, thanking my foresight to look up the bed and breakfast on the walkthrough version of Google maps. Still I was confused when I got there. There were two gates onto the property, both of them locked. One was obviously for the bed and breakfast, and the other was down the hill and around the side of the property and looked to be for staff. I couldn’t see anyone and tried calling out to no avail. I checked my last email with my hosts, where I told them when I would arrive. I sat on my suitcase for a while, until a woman passed walking her dog. She knew of the people who owned the B&B, but didn’t have their phone number. I saw a group of people pull up and unlock the front gate, and quickly hurried that way. Chatting with them, they had no clue about the owners and had just been hired for the night. They suggested I go to the other gate. Now, a few hours after being dropped off, I was really wondering what I had  signed myself up for. Finally, as I was trying to figure out where to go for the night, I saw a figure walking down the road toward the back gate. I jumped off my suitcase, waving a little frantically.

It was another volunteer, and he told me that I was expected tomorrow due to an email mixup. He had been heading to the beach for a swim when he saw me. My hosts were visiting Morocco at the time so the B&B was pretty quiet. He helped me get settled in my small, sparse room before showing me around. Throughout that afternoon and laying in bed that night, I was anxious about my choices and situation. I took some basic precautions--I used my doorstop on my room door that night and my family knew where I was going. But I stuck it out, trusting my instincts. As I settled in, I made amazing friends, learned a lot about gardening and running a B&B, and enjoyed living between the beach and the mountains. This first workaway experience was unforgettable and changed my outlook on life. And I wouldn’t have gotten there if I wasn’t willing to take a few risks.

To be okay through almost any situation abroad, here is what you need:

  1. Travel Insurance - I recommend World Nomads, an affordable insurance that varies by length of stay and region of travel but always offers two levels of insurance. They have helped me find reliable emergency clinics in Bangkok when I had a staph infection and then covered the cost of the visit. They also will cover some electronics and personal items, helping me pay for a new iPhone when mine got wet while traveling. A dependable travel insurance that is easy to contact will help you know that you have someone to help if you get sick or your plans are ruined.

  2. Emergency money and medications - It is super important to carry some backup cash (this can be U.S. dollars or any currency) just in case ATMs are not accessible or your cards are not working. I usually keep $50-100 dollars stashed in a few places in my luggage.Also traveling with some basic medications is smart. This means Advil, Imodium, and any prescription medications you use regularly. It’s very possible to get medications abroad, but it’s easiest to carry some with you.

  3. Your instincts - There have been moments where I have switched metro cars or taken a better-lit street even if it was a longer route. Once I was waiting for a bus in Thailand, at a stop next to a police station. A policeman came out of the building and a driver pulled over. They obviously knew each other and chatted for a few moments. Then the policeman came over to me and told me the man in the car could give me a ride back to the city. I declined, saying I would wait. The policeman asked again and told me it was okay to go in the car. Reluctantly, I hopped in. We made light conversation and the driver was very polite. However, the second we got into the city and I knew the area, I thanked him and hopped out. Maybe he was fine, but I prefered to take the reins and control the situation.

  4. The ability to ask for help - I can’t even count the number of times I’ve stopped someone to ask for help. This can be directions, a translation, or to use their phone. At a small restaurant in Bangkok the businessman at the table next to me translated the menu for me and conveyed to the waitress that I was vegetarian. Asking for help is something that comes naturally to me now and I understand that often, people can be trusted. I believe the American viewpoint is often distrustful of others abroad, but so many people have been willing to help me that I now I have a different viewpoint.

  5. The knowledge that you’ll get through it - This may not sound like a lot, but often the simple understanding that I’ll come out on the other side of a situation keeps me calm and allows me to get through it. This stems from my past experiences that have tested my reflexes and emotions, giving me a confidence in myself and my coping abilities.

I hope you found these tips and stories helpful. Also I have a post specifically about safety and the questions I often receive about staying safe abroad.

No More Excuses: Travel Today

When I tell people I took a gap year before college to travel, I get a variety of responses. Many think that the idea of traveling when you’re young is a good thing. However, after someone tells me, “That’s so cool,” it is usually followed by another statement, “but I could have never done it.”  Basically the people my age, and even older people, have four main reasons (or some combination of them) that stop them from taking a gap year or traveling while they’re young. Some are afraid of ‘falling behind,’ some say that they don’t have the money, some lament that their parents would never let them, and others admit they’d be afraid to go alone. Now I’m not saying a gap year or traveling is for everyone; and I know that it is simply not possible for some people to travel. But I wanted a chance to refute some of these claims, as I think many are simply excuses for not pursuing a dream. 

First, I will address the claim that taking off time to explore or work will cause a person to fall behind in academics or in their future career field. As someone who took a year off after high school, I can tell you that this is simply not true. You may lose a very small amount of information: I didn’t remember everything right away from calculus in high school when I took it again in college. But if you’ve actually learned the knowledge it usually comes back with a little prompting. However, the life experience and worldly knowledge that I gained from my 6 months abroad and 6 months at home working, is honestly far more than I’ve learned in (almost) two full semesters of college. The people I have met traveling have taught me so much—about their cultures, about life, about specific pockets of knowledge and expertise. The experiences that I have had traveling made me develop into a much more aware and understanding human being, as well as given me more common sense and street smarts. Lastly, I will point out that those who take off a year before or during education actually perform better in school and have a better sense of what matters to them in life. As Robert Clagett, the former dean of admissions at Middlebury College, explained to the New York Times readers, students who have taken a gap year actually maintain and graduate with a higher GPA than those who went straight to university. In my experience, my gap year has helped me in college and even got me into the Honors College at the University of Maryland—the first time I applied, while still in high school, I got into a good, but less prestigious program. So both the statistics and myself can tell you that you won’t be behind everyone else if you take time off of school, in fact you’ll probably be ahead of others. 

There's even some magic in you, I promise. 

There's even some magic in you, I promise. 

Okay, by far the most common reason that people do not travel when they are students is because of finances. Even beyond college, the most common excuse for not traveling is that it is expensive. To this I have two responses: there is such a thing as inexpensive travel, and travel can be accessible to the majority of people, they simply don’t prioritize it in their spending. Budget travel is possible in today’s world of hostels, homestays, and airline points. I afforded to travel for my gap year by working on the road in exchange for room and board. So through an amazing online site called Workaway, I gardened at a hotel, taught children English, and worked in a cafe, and in return, got to stay (and sometimes eat) for free with locals. But my travel was also financially possible because I saved for it. I worked the summer before I left, and over the winter when I came home, and I put aside the majority of what I made for travel. I knew I wanted to travel and was determined to make it happen, and so I did. There were plenty of times where I wanted to buy a coffee or a cute sundress, but I didn’t so that I would have a few more dollars to add to my travel fund. In the end, my 6-months abroad cost me less than half of what a year of in-state tuition costs—so before you tell me that traveling is expensive, let me tell you that college is expensive. While not everyone has the resources to travel, many people could if they were determined to do so. 

When I hear about a person’s parents not allowing them to travel, I have a hard time not brushing this off. I’m lucky that my parents trust me. Even though I am legally an adult, I also have their support in traveling. This is mostly because I have shown that I am independent. But also I am careful in my travels and try to be as safe as possible. Plan to check in with your parents and communicate often, even if it’s just a ‘hello, I’m safe’ text every day. Also registering with the U.S. embassy (or whatever country you normally reside in) can help to insure that you are safe and everyone back home knows where you are. So my best advice for those who are trying to convince their parents that they should travel, would be to present the benefits of traveling, but also show your parents that you are capable of taking care of yourself abroad. 

If I had let fear stop me, I would have never gazed across the Bangkok skyline as the sun set.

If I had let fear stop me, I would have never gazed across the Bangkok skyline as the sun set.

The last and most difficult to address is the fear of traveling, especially alone. I cannot deny that this is real, the world is a big place and things happen. But for every minute or two alone boarding an airplane, or walking down poorly-lit road, I have had hours and days of happiness and exploration. The fear of being alone and having to rely on yourself is natural, this is what keeps us safe and helps us make the right decisions. So don’t disregard the knot in your stomach when you think about traveling alone, just take a breath and look at what is holding you back. And then look at where you could go and what you could do if you tucked that fear into your pocket. 

As my freshman year of college comes to a close, I think about all of the people I’ve met this year and with whom I shared my travel stories. Many listen attentively and nod energetically, but when I ask them if they’ve traveled by themselves or explore often, I hear “next year,” “after I graduate,” and “one day.” This post is for them, because I want everyone to be able to rifle through and play in the world that I have fallen in love with.

Finding the Perfect Workaway

I've often raved about Workaway and other help exchange programs, about how I met amazing people, integrated myself into local cultures, and saved a ton of money. So I get a lot of questions about how to catch a really great Workaway. I've put together my best advice to land you an awesome experience working abroad and living in a new country.

 

Creating an enticing profile

The first thing you need to do if you want to be a part of a work exchange program is to create a profile on a site. I recommend Workaway.info, just because this is what I have used personally. There is a small annual charge to join, but I find that it pays for itself during your first workaway.

When creating your profile, don't skimp on details. No you don't have to include your resume, but give hosts an idea of your skill set and personality. Good grammar and writing is always important, but here it could help you get a job teaching English or another language, so review what you have written. You want to look realtively put together and organized. You can give your qualifications, if you think they may help you land a host. Include silly photos or something to make you stand out.

 

Picking where to go

Maybe you know where you are headed, or maybe you'll find some awesome workaway and then book your plane ticket there. Either way, when you start looking at workaways you will want to have some grasp of if you want to be in a city or isolated in the mountains or near a beach. You can view workaways on a map, which is super helpful, especially if you are planning to jump from one to another.

You will also want to be aware of what kind of work you are willing to do and how many hours a week. You can use the filtered search on workaway to find certain kinds of jobs, so if you have experience in one area you can do that. However keep in mind many hosts are willing to teach you, so do not be afraid to look at jobs in which you have little or no experience. Rule out what you don't want to do (if you hate children, you will probably not want to do a childcare workaway), and see what pops up with what's left.

Contacting hosts

Now all you have to do is find a host that will take you on as a workawayer. You want to only email hosts whose profiles appeal to you, but you should email multiple hosts. You can't assume the first or second host will accept you. This is particularly true when are first starting and obviously do not have any reviews; you may need to contact quite a few people in the place you are looking to stay.

The ideal time initiate contact is two months to one month ahead of the time you wish to stay. My advice for that first introductory email is simple: read their page. Note the qualities and skills they want and tell them which of these you possess. Check the calendar--if they are busy in July, there's no point in emailing them asking for a job in July. Give them a time frame or date and how long you would like to stay. It can also be nice to mention why you want to come--if you want to explore the area they live in, learn their language, etc. as this shows them what kind of traveler you are.

 

Confirming details and getting there

The main thing I dislike about Workaway is the relaxedness of a booking or agreement. So be sure when emailing your host to get everything you need to know. This includes what to bring, how many meals will you get, how to get to their place (VERY important, especially if they are somewhat remote), and what kind of accommodation. Don't be afraid to follow up a week or a few days before you arrive so they can remember you are coming.

 

There are many different ways of using workaway. I have met people who skip from one place to the next, working their way across countries and hitch-hiking in between. While other use it to find one long, semi-permanent opportunity. I have found that I enjoy staying for three or four weeks in a place, so I can really get to know a place and it's people. Though there have been quite a few times where I felt like I left too early. But I have known people to stay indefinitely in a place--which is amazing if have the visa or passport for something like that! No matter how you use Workaway, it can be a great tool to bring together people and see new places.

Now all you have to do is go!