Long time ago an amazingly brave woman from Australia, that I had met through CouchSurfing who by the way crossed Iran and Turkey by hitchhiking before reaching me in Greece, introduced me to workaway.org. In case you don’t know, workaway is a site that provides an endless list of potential volunteering positions around the globe. It sounded like the perfect solution for really cheap traveling, since you got the opportunity to find a part time volunteer job even in the most far flung corner of the world. Most hosts expect you to work for 5 hours a day, 5 days a week and provide free accommodation and meals.
So, the adventurous part of me wanted to try it. I started browsing the site and I was really excited, I mean if time wasn’t an issue (let’s say you’ve just quit your job).. why wouldn’t you volunteer in a hostel and stay there for as long as 3 months, practically for free. In theory you just have to pay for your flight and your booze. There’s a variety of different available projects: From helping in a hostel, working in farms or ranches to baby sitting, teaching or being a part of a community project. Some projects are really interesting. For example once I found a position in Puerto Rico where you had to work on the beach and help a local community to protect the nests of sea turtles. That was a very popular project, so unfortunately there weren’t any free spots available for me. Another one was to live in a remote village in the middle of the Amazon jungle and help people with building, gardening or even teaching English. But I wasn’t brave enough to apply for that. The list is endless, there’s even a position in a clothing optional hostel if you have the guts. Amazing stuff right? Especially if you are down for an adventure and time is not an issue. Most hosts promise cultural, skills or knowledge exchange. That means that you can practice a new language or even acquire new skills for example by taking care of horses in a farm. Well while most good ideas seem flawless in theory, there’s usually a catch.
if time wasn’t an issue (let’s say you’ve just quit your job).. why wouldn’t you become a volunteer in a hostel and stay there for up to 3 months, practically for free.
I always wanted to become a member of a hostel and have the opportunity to meet new people every day. But not all hostels have the same atmosphere and good vibes. However, I had been talking to the guy that owns the hostel since last January, let’s call him Ronaldo. Back then I hadn’t nailed my teaching position in Colombia, so my initial plan was to become a full time workawayer and go from place to place pursuing new experiences. So, Ronaldo kept sending me messages every once and a while, asking me how my travels go and if I plan going to Mexico soon. So, how you know if a host is trustworthy? Well, workaway has a reference system similar to CouchSurfing, however the negative references are not visible to other users. They are sent to the workaway team for review and potential ban of the host or volunteer who’s responsible for the bad experience. Since I had never tried it before, I had no references and that meant I struggled finding a host. I had a couple of negative answers, while the majority of my messages went unanswered. Nevertheless, I was fascinated by the Mexican cuisine, tequila and huge sombreros so I decided to become a hostel guy in Merida in south east Mexico. Some of the requirements to work at the hostel were to be a male, be able to speak Spanish and NOT to be a vegetarian. As a meat eater and a fully grown man the only thing that worried me was the Spanish part. When we were speaking in messenger, I told him twice that my Spanish is pretty basic and I can’t really maintain a conversation. He told me that my Spanish is good enough for him and I believed him. More on that later.
Ronaldo has received dozens of volunteers and he has fairy good references. But all of them were pretty old. Furthermore, I knew that the last few months he had received volunteers but they haven’t left him any reference. That made me suspicious. My role at the hostel would be helping him to prepare the breakfast in the morning, receptionist duties and cleaning both the kitchen rooms . I wasn’t asked to mingle with the guests to “entertain” them or anything like that. Of course, my goal was to meet people so I did it anyways. All in all, 5 hours a day, 5 days a week and 2 days free to explore. I was given a warm welcome and a big hug when I arrived at the hostel. There were not so many people, the hostel was rather small and as I arrived late in the afternoon I was able to sleep till the next morning without any volunteering.
The next morning we started preparing the breakfast and that’s when the problems began. Let’s start with the fact that Ronaldo, who’s English is pretty poor, was speaking to me the same way he would speak to his Mexican friends. That means, fast and using a lot of slang (to learn how to speak like a Mexican he said). That led to several misunderstandings and me standing there asking him to repeat because I had no idea what he had just said. You would expect Ronaldo to repeat himself slower or even try using simpler vocabulary but he was annoyed and repeated the same phrase again using the same fuckin’ words as if I was magically going to understand this time.
So Ronaldo was living his life in the hostel without a partner (business or life), without any employees, without a cleaning lady whatsoever.
Furthermore, the guy was a control freak. He wanted everything his way and he didn’t have the patience to show me how to do it. That’s not so bad you would say, it’s his hostel after all. One morning, he was observing me preparing the tortillas. So I was slicing the ham and cheese and putting it into them . That’s when his favorite word came “No”!! I wondered what have I possible done wrong. Then the guy leaned forward and changed the orientation of the ham in the tortilla by 30 degrees to be in some sort of symmetry with the rest of the tortillas in the plate. Come on dude, It’s a tortilla not a painting. But anyway, I had never worked in the kitchen, the food’s appearance matters and he had years of experience so he should know better. I didn’t like the tone of his voice and the way he said it, but I swallowed it and started making tortillas with precision that even Leonardo Da Vinci would envy. Later the same morning, Ronaldo was out shopping and I was at the reception playing music on YouTube using the hostel’s desktop computer. A few minutes later, he came back, and tells me in Spanish “Why did you change the volume of the computer using the on screen switch? You should change the volume from the speakers only” …and then I knew the guy was nuts. I mean what’s the fucking difference? To make things worse, another day I was alone at the reception and I found an old guitar lying in the corner. So, I picked it up and as the hostel was empty, I tuned it and started playing. When he came back, he found me playing his guitar and he goes:
– Esta es mi guitara personal- that’s my personal guitar.
– Dude I’m playing it, I’m not smashing it to the walls.
It was the first time in my whole I life I had ever heard a human being saying: Don’t touch my guitar, It’s mine! I would understand it if it was a 3.000 Euro handmade guitar, but that thing was a wreck, the chords were rusty and so out of tune that he shouldn’t had touched it for ages.
The truth is I felt sorry for the guy. He has been running the hostel by himself for 7 years, without a business partner. He said that one time he had a partner, they ended up fighting and broke apart, I wonder why… So Ronaldo was living his life in the hostel without a partner, without any employees, without a cleaning lady whatsoever. He relies on volunteers only and as a result the place is a mess and his backyard full of garbage. He doesn’t even have a private room, for himself. He sleeps in a hammock at the reception. When he has no volunteer, his only way out of the hostel is his father, who seemed really sweet and comes to help for a couple of hours once or twice a week so he can go shopping and pay the bills. This is a terrible lifestyle and I feel sorry for poor Ronaldo, but everyone is free to make choices, right?
If you are staying in a hostel you really like, just ask. Don’t be surprised if they let you in.
However, when I wasn’t working, the experience in the hostel was great as I met a dozen of interesting people, we went out partying etc. One night I was talking to a couple of French guys who were staying with us for a week and they asked me why didn’t I come here as I guest and then decide to stay or not. That was a revelation, that’s exactly what I should have done. If I had come here as I guest and felt the vibes of the guy, I would have never had stayed as a volunteer.
So my advice is: don’t apply to a hostel through workaway. Find it using the site, go there as a guest for a couple of days to feel the vibes and then decide if you are staying or not. Or even better, skip the site. If you are staying in a hostel you really like, just ask. Don’t be surprised if they let you in.
I must say that I tried workaway not because I needed to save money. Of course it’s nice to save some money, but I did it for the experience and the experience wasn’t that bad, especially after a couple of days when I had learned how things work in the hostel and I started to ignore the guy and just have the job done.
Furthermore, I had so much fun in Merida. It’s a great city with many cultural activities, it is one of the safest places to be in Mexico, there are numerous Mayan ruins nearby and the beach is 40 minutes away. I met so many nice people, especially Liliana from CouchSurfing. We visited some amazing Mayan ruins and a couple of Cenotes. Cenotes is the highlight of Yucatan. They are underground caves full of fresh water. Usually there’s a whole on the top of the cave, letting a few sun rays in. If you add the fact that the temperature is 10-15 degrees lower in the caves, then you have the perfect solution to battle the heat. Furthermore, Most of the Cenotes are connected as there’s a vast network of underground caves. Scuba-diving in the caves is a common sport in Yucatan.
Back to the hostel, I must say that Ronaldo isn’t a bad guy, just a bit hard to handle. He was very honest about my working hours, he cooked some delicious meals and he had absolutely no problem about me leaving a day earlier than scheduled. In fact, he proved that he has a gentle soul from the way he handled the situation of an Argentinian guest. That guy from Argentina, let’s call him José, was in Merida with his German girlfriend and later that month they were about to travel to Germany to live together. Sadly, 5 minutes after they checked out and right before their mutual departure for Germany his girlfriend abandoned him and left for Germany alone. Of course I don’t know the backstory of those lovebirds but it’s incredible how cold blooded was the German girl. José was devastated and not knowing what to do, he came back to the hostel trembling and in tears. Ronaldo stood by him, provided a place to stay and psychological support. Basically he was father figure for poor José who kept saying how much did he helped him.
So I decided to stay for the full time I initially promised. Did our communication get any better? Not really. Nevertheless, on the 4th-5th day when I knew what I was supposed to do, I was just getting the job done with minimal communication with tio Ronaldo. Less communication led to less conflict and the truth that I’m not an easy man to handle either. When I sense human stupidity, I deploy the ultimate weapon against it. I get super duper sarcastic to the point of driving the other guy crazy. Well you provoked it, now deal with it 😉
In conclusion, my first experience as a workawayer left me with mixed feelings. That doesn’t mean I wouldn’t try it again though. We all get better at things through time and experience. Do you remember the first time you had sex? Were you good at it? Well I wasn’t 😀