A few years ago, whilst living in Andalucia, I decided we should get out, meet new people and do something useful with our lives! I duly scoured the internet for voluntary groups, but volunteering didn’t really seem to be a “thing”, in Spain at that time. Eventually my search led to the Workaway site, which quickly piqued my interest.
Workaway is a worldwide community committed to sustainable travel and seeks to promote the fair exchange of work for accommodation and board. Cultural exchange is also an important part of the concept. The work can be anything from helping care for children, teaching English, working on a farm to support with marketing and social media. Really, there will be a type of work to suit everyone.
For an annual membership fee, you will have access to 1000s of hosts’ profiles from around the world. Sometimes people spend months/years travelling the globe, going from one placement to another. (On one placement we met a family who had been “workawaying” around Europe for 4 years!)
The idea of Workaway appeals to me on many levels, but like everyone I have mentioned it to subsequently, I was unsure how this would work in practise. So, I set about locating a host close to where we were living at the time. The plan being to call over and meet them, before committing to a placement.
Fortunately, we soon came across Femke, a Dutch hotelier with a hotel close to Ronda (only 45 minutes drive from Arcos). On arrival at the fabulous rural hostal, Las Errizas, it was clear that the photos did not do the place justice. The grounds and the views from the terrace were incredible. On meeting Femke, we also knew immediately that we would get on like a house on fire. Another major plus was when she showed us our accommodation, a lovely ensuite room in the hotel.
So, we returned the following weekend for a 3 day placement. The work mainly consisted of painting and reorganising the hotel reception. We were required to work 4/5 hours per day and the rest of our time was our own to do as we chose. This largely meant swimming in the Olympic size swimming pool, playing tennis or visiting the bars and cafes in the local town. Meals were communal, but completely optional.
Such was Femke’s hospitality and bonhomie, we soon became firm friends, returning many times over the following couple of years. Sometimes we stayed for longer periods, depending on the particular project in hand. On one occasion we “hotel sat” whilst Femke returned to the Netherlands for a few days. On another occasion, we were drafted in for the weekend to cater for a coachload of Dutch tourists who were staying at the hotel. (Boy, was it hot in the kitchen that summer!)
Another of our favourite assignments was in Orgiva, in the Alpujarras mountains. We were hosted by a lovely British couple Chris and Sarah, in a lovely rural finca (farmhouse). We were there for a week (5 days working 4/5 hours per day, 2 days off) and learnt some excellent new skills such as “chumba” pruning and “launa” roofing. We also learnt a lot about the ancient irrigation system in the Alpujarras (famed for the purity of its water) which was how the finca survived and thrived.
Our hosts were charming and hospitable, cooking us a welcome meal and putting us up in our own stone-built cottage, with log burner and swimming pool! We got to explore this beautiful mountainous region as well as visiting the coast at Almunecar.
Most recently, we spent 5 days with Helen and Francis at their fabulous rural retreat Mas Sant Nicolau, near Figueres, in Catalonia. The woodland setting was fabulous, with the snow-capped Pyrenees in the distance. With an ancient church in the grounds, a pool, tennis court, outdoor pizza oven, it’s hard to imagine what more you could wish for….
Again, our hosts were super welcoming. They had set us a fire in our stone cottage and orientated us in terms of the local village, shop, bar, etc. As Francis and Helen were pretty occupied that week with the lead up to their busy season, we were happy to be left with a list of jobs to get stuck into. The expectation was very reasonable and largely consisted of grounds maintenance (suits our skillset!).
The surrounding area with the artistic legacy of Salvador Dali, the fabulous coast and Cap de Creus national park, famed for walking, was so varied and a joy to visit. We would happily return here time and time again.
So, these were our favourite placements. We have only had one that didn’t work so well. Looking back, I can now understand why. There had been too little communication between ourselves and the hosts prior to arrival (in particular, no face to face conversation). We hadn’t asked enough questions about roles and responsibilities, resulting in a gap between the hosts’ expectations and our own.
So, I’ve compiled a short list of tips/advice to follow when considering a placement;
- Read all the reviews carefully – look for common themes.
- Have face to face conversations over Skype/Messenger/WhatsApp – advisable because you may not be communicating in your (or their) first language and subtle nuances can be mistranslated or sometimes lost completely.
- Ask questions about the nature of the work, the number of hours expected. Also, what time of day you will be expected to work (eg. Mornings, afternoons, evenings)
- Ask what other activities are available in and around the area (as you will have a fair amount of downtime)
- If you don’t have transport, find out about local transport links. Ask whether your host can give you lifts.
- Ask to see photos of the accommodation.
- Ask about the cooking/eating set up.
- Keep in touch with hosts. If your plans change, let them know asap.
- Be realistic about your own expectations eg. Don’t apply for placements with communal dining/dwelling, if you like to keep yourself to yourself.
- Go with an open mind. Be prepared to get involved. Be flexible and willing to try new things and meet new people from all over the world.
We have several exciting placements lined up in Catalonia; so we fully expect to be versed in the fitting of solar panels and the art of building stone walls, in the very near future. Watch this space for our updated CV!