Arabella McIntyre-Brown samples a world of willing travellers
This is a golden age for travel; people of all ages and backgrounds can see the world for amazingly little cost, thanks to websites like HitchWiki, Bla-Bla Car, Couchsurfing, and many others. Cheap or free transport and free places to stay are widely available if you know where to look.
Working in Exchange
A growing trend is to work for food and accommodation, which cuts costs dramatically, and gives all involved the bonus of good company and experiences you couldn’t buy. The idea of a working holiday is far from new, but what the internet has done is to make it easy for travellers and hosts to find each other. There are several sites offering a meeting point online, including Workaway, WWOOF (Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms) and the one I use, HelpX (Help Exchange). They all provide listings of travellers offering skills, and hosts of varying kinds, from farms to hostels, earthships to yachts.
HelpX was launched in April 2001 by Englishman Rob Prince, a seasoned traveller who realised that the best way for helpers to find hosts would be through a website: today, the site has thousands of hosts in Europe, with the top countries being France, Britain, Spain, and Ireland; USA and Canada are coming on stream, and Australia/NZ have a stonking 13,731 hosts seeking volunteers. Romania has 89 hosts, including me, looking for help with anything from housekeeping to major eco-construction projects. When I first joined there were only 24 hosts and I had only a couple of helpers; in 2016, when travel guide Lonely Planet declared Transylvania the world’s top region to visit, I was inundated with people itching to explore the region – and Romania as a whole – via HelpX.
The sites are for those who want low-cost travel and a cultural exchange away from the usual tourist traps. The average is half the day working, half the day to themselves, but hosts and helpers make their own deals.
Helpers can stay for a few days or many months; some hosts offer lots of fringe benefits, a few meanies offer stuff-all. Food is important: judging by their reviews, my cooking is a prime advantage; my first volunteer – Canadian Daniel Akselrod – said that before he came to my place, he was picking courgettes (zucchini) on a farm and the gang got a sack of courgettes per day as their scant reward. Poor exchanges get bad reviews, even quiet complaints to the site admin. One or two young solo travellers have told me that they’d fetched up with creepy hosts and had fled from possible nastiness, but that’s rare.
I love HelpX: I get enthusiastic help with house and garden tasks I am too feeble or too lazy to tackle on my own, I get great stories and all kinds of global perspectives on everything from food to politics. A Mexican’s view of Trump, and a Seoul resident’s view of North Korea, for instance. Now and then I have ad hoc international teams: South Korean and Israeli; German, Ukrainian and US; Lithuanian and Australian. A pair of couples coincided one autumn, and teamed up to build a garden wall and fireplace from tons of limestone boulders they’d first dug out of the earth, then piled back into place, by hand and eye. An excellent team who had never met before but have stayed friends since.
the wall gang
Low Cost, High Value
HelpX reduces the world to a village. The Lithuanian/Australian couple met in West Sussex, working a stone’s throw away from my first school; the chap had come to see the daughter of my oldest friend (they’d met in India), in the house where I spent much of my childhood. A Malay woman, who cooked a magnificent curry dinner for me and her host near Braşov, was living in Montrose and knew my cousins. Glorious coincidences.
Not everyone is a success. An American woman hid behind her Californian smile and was nicknamed Mrs Awesome; she and I just about tolerated each other but were happy to part. A Millennial couple were the worst: he was a thoughtless Brit lost in his screen; she was a pretty American sociopath who lied and was bone idle. Some work harder than others, some are more fun, others more focused. the youngest was 18, the oldest 64, most in their late 20s and 30s. Some travelled as a way of life, others are snatching a quick break.
If you – or your children – want to travel, volunteering is low-cost and high value. If you want help of any kind, needing muscle or intellect, this is a great way to get it. All my volunteers have adored Romania, and been overwhelmed by my mountain village. Thousands of people from every continent have found Romania through HelpX and similar sites: the world comes to our door and pays us with hard work and good company. Magic.
Glenn from Australia – 52 and seeing snow for the first time.
Marie and Hugues adored being here; office workers in Paris, it was hard to get them to stop at the end of the day. At 6pm when I tried to get them inside to relax after a long midsummer day’s work, Hugues begged to be allowed to keep going because he loved the physical effort so much. Their legacy is this flight of steps, and memories of a delightful couple.
Maria Conklé, Mexico: “So far through HelpX, I’ve been to Germany, Austria, Thailand, Cambodia, India, Egypt, Sweden, France, Italy, Switzerland, Romania, and Bosnia – to teach, cook, clean, build, make art, clean up rivers – at farms, monasteries, retreats… One of my favourites was by the Adriatic Sea in Italy where I helped a family to build their mud and stone house. The host was an artist; I was helping him and he took me around to exhibit at fairs in towns 1000-1500 years old where original buildings were still in use. The ocean views were incredible. I also got to know many more famous artists from Italy. These trips are the most amazing experiences in my life, exploring other cultures, people with different minds, ways of living and traditions. These are my most memorable treasures.”
Kate Westcoast (right, with friend Suzie Fox) from British Columbia has helped hosts in New Zealand, Romania, Albania and Bulgaria: “When Suzie told me about HelpX, I spent afternoons online daydreaming about all the possibilities: it was like a red carpet to the entire world with all the beautiful people and the experiences and knowledge they could offer.”
New-met friends Soyeon, from Seoul, and Israeli couple Shahar and Shani who had cooked lunch for us all.
Naomi May (right, with girlfriend Isobel and local friend Greg Helm) from Devon, UK: “My favourite gig was staying with a man on a Croatian island called Solta; he owned a small piece of land with his own bay. We helped him build a road to the village and made renovations on his ‘shack’ made from recycled materials we liberated from the local tip. We woke up to crystal clear waters every morning, no tourists or noise, just the cicadas. I’ve gained skills in carpentry and cooking, cobbing and permaculture, and a load of great friends.”
Sean Comerford, from Buffalo, NY, pitched in with the neighbours to help make hay, but struggled with the long scythes after using very different scythes in Norway, and was almost floored by his Romanian colleagues’ frequent refuelling with ţuică.
Jaap Nanninga, from Groeningen, Netherlands: “It was a good way to develop myself as a person. I’ve always been academically inclined, with almost no experience of manual labour or rural life. I wanted to avoid becoming too one-dimensional, so I used HelpX not only to pick up some practical skills, but also explore different ways of living and working.”
Australian Dave saw Zeus born to dam Carina just over my fence.
Siberian superbrain Anastasia, sucking up the Spring sunshine after work.
Arabella McIntyre-Brown moved to Măgura, a village 1,000 metres up in the Carpathians, eight years ago. She has published three books in Romania.