HelpX, or Help exchange, is a way to travel for free by volunteering in exchange for food and accommodation. There are other similar models like Workaway and WWOOFing, but the one I use is helpx.net. I volunteered my way across New Zealand and Australia from 2011-2013, and later found places to volunteer in Bali and Japan. Typically, I would volunteer from 4 to 6 hours a day and then have the rest of the day free to do whatever I wanted. After doing this podcast with my author and travel friend Rollie Peterkin where he asked about some of my favorite volunteering experiences, he recommended that I write them all down. So here they are, in chronological order!
1. Cleaned a youth hostel in Kerikeri, New Zealand
Traveling with my friend James, we lived at Kerikeri Central Hostel for about 3 weeks, cleaning for 2-3 hours a day in exchange for free accommodation. We cleaned the kitchen, bathrooms, and changed the sheets of other visitors. I met a French family, the Bourdains, playing ultimate frisbee in a nearby park, and they invited us for dinner at their self-sustaining farm. I wrote about the experience on my old blog.
After a week cleaning at the hostel, someone from a nearby kiwi packing factory came by to ask if any women wanted a job. Men were not eligible because their stronger hands tended to squish the kiwifruit. I worked at the kiwi packhouse for about a week – it paid $13.50/hour, and was excruciatingly repetitive – before we decided to move on.
2. Trained pears and thinned apples at Fraser Farm in Motueka, New Zealand
The ferry between the North Island and the South Island was gorgeous, and after spending the night at a youth hostel in Picton, we hitchhiked to our first farm opportunity outside of Motueka, New Zealand. We lived in a small house with about 8 other volunteers from Germany, France, and the USA, and spent the mornings thinning apple trees and training pear trees. The pear tree branches had to be trained onto horizontal wires, so volunteers were trained and equipped with a tool belt to twist and attach the branches with different clips and ties. During the weekend, we took a road trip with some other volunteers up to Farewell Spit and Whariki Beach, and later did a 5-day hike called the Heaphy Track. More pictures here.
3. Painted the outside of a bed and breakfast in Arthur’s Pass, New Zealand
Arthurs Pass Village, population 30. Nestled in the mountains, 2 hours away from the nearest city. The town consists of a single cafe, one hotel, and one backpackers. Sound boring to you? I stayed there for 10 days and would have loved to stay longer!
After a hearty group breakfast with friendly owners Geoff and Renee and the other volunteers, we would work on the outside of their house, sanding or peeling off old paint or painting for a few hours. At “smoko” or break time, Renee made us a hot drink from her expresso machine. In the afternoons I went for epic hikes around the local mountains with my new friend Marian from Chile. In the evenings, Geoff and Renee cooked beautiful meals for us like pasta from scratch. See my old blog post to read more about my stay there.
4. Milked cows on a dairy farm in Edendale, New Zealand for 2 weeks
After a four-day crash course on how to run a milking shed, the dairy farm owners Debra and Grahm went on vacation, leaving James and I to watch all the cows. Luckily, everything went fine: we milked the cows, drove the clunky truck to collect pea-straw from town, and had a great time pretending to be farmers for the week in our overalls and gumboots. Original blog post with more details and pictures here.
5. Weeded on an organic vegetable farm for 6 days in Clinton, New Zealand
Known as “the three horse town”, Clinton is in the center of the South Island with one small store, one gas station, one bar, and a taxidermist. Along with 13 other foreigners, we helped weed an organic vegetable farm from 9am to 1pm every day. We stayed in a funny house-truck that we shared with three other people. We went mushroom foraging and made pizza with the mushrooms we found. At night we took turns cooking epic feasts with produce from the farm. And all food waste went to Bacon the friendly pig! More pictures here.
6. Milked goat, chopped firewood, and looked after children in Riverton, New Zealand
We were hitchhiking when Jessie picked us up in his truck. We asked him to drop us off at the campground, but when he missed the turnoff, he invited us to camp at his house. We spend the next 2 weeks volunteering on his sustainable family farm with his two adorable kids, Sage and Willow, and his wife Kristy. They goal is to grow all of their own food and trade with their neighbors for whatever else they need.
At their farm, James and I helped them with daily tasks like milking the goat, chopping firewood, weeding the garden, building a new chicken coop, and babysitting the adorable (but exhausting!) 1 and 3 year old kids. Jessie is training to be a builder, and we also helped him install insulation in the ceiling of their dining room to keep his house warmer during winter.
7. Picked stone fruit at Taralee Orchard near Port Pirie in Southern Australia
Being at the orchard in the middle of summer when all the fruit was ripe was definitely good timing. Volunteering with five other travelers from around the world, we began our day picking plums from 7 to 9 AM. Then we had a group breakfast and gathered in a shed for our next job: slicing fruit for the solar dryer. We laughed and told stories, and it was fun to get to know people from Japan, Spain, and Germany. Once our four hours of volunteering were over, we convened with the farmers and shared a communal lunch. The rest of the afternoon was free to explore the property and look for wild koalas.
8. Yardwork and cooking at the sivananda Mangrove yoga ashram
For a blissful week of relaxation and delicious food, we volunteered at a yoga ashram outside of Sydney. After a few weeks of traveling and sleeping on couches, it felt great to follow a rigid schedule: 5:30 yoga, 7:00 breakfast, 7:45 chanting, 8:00 karma yoga, 9:30 volunteering, 11:00 morning tea, 12:30 lunch, 1:30 volunteering, 2:30 yoga nidra (lying down yoga where you focus on different body parts), 3:00 afternoon tea, 5:15 yoga, 6:00 dinner, 7:15 kirtan (like a song-circle), 8:15 mouna (silent time).
The volunteer projects varied from working in the garden doing bush regeneration to cooking or cleaning in the kitchen. As there were more than 50 people living here – at least a dozen monks! – the meals required lots of preparation. In our free time we went for walks around the property, looking for wild kangaroos and koalas.
9. Built teepees and mud houses at a glamp-ground in Daylesford, Australia
Sue and Don called their project Gentle Earth Walking. They built custom-made teepees, ranging from 15 to 25 feet wide. It’s a long and loving process. We went with them to chop down trees that would become the poles for the teepees from a nearby forest, which they had a permit for. Next, we would strip, sand, and polish the poles and Sue would sew the canvas cover. Some people would custom order these, and we got to go with them to deliver one and set it up. Their other big project was called Timber Benders – Don makes benches, awnings, and other structures in his enormous workshop.
Wild kangaroos and koalas lived on their property, as well as some elusive platypus. Their house was made out of mud and straw bales, and we got to smear mud on another dwelling on their property. Since they didn’t have electricity besides solar panels, if you wanted to take a hot shower, you had to light a fire under the hot water heater.
10. Teaching English in Tianyar, Bali
During a 1-month tour of Bali, we were cruising around the island in a rental motor scooter ($4/day!) when I received an email from Aaron of East Bali Cashews, who was looking for volunteers. He was just starting his non-profit with the help of his wife Lindsey, and they wanted Americans to come teach English in their after school program. Aaron and Lindsey were starting a cashew factory to give jobs to the locals in Tianyar, Bali, a small town on the northern coast. (Their business has really taken off, and now they ship internationally!)
East Bali Cashews provides healthcare to the locals, and even have started a preschool. They are also researching and implementing energy-efficient and sustainable farming practices. I taught English to teenagers in their after-school program, most of whom wanted to work on cruise ships someday. In our free time, we went snorkeling in the nearby beach and explored the forests nearby. We also got a tour of the factory -it was fascinating to learn all about cashews and how they are processed!
11. Oyster farm in Kumihama Bay, Japan
Perhaps my most unique volunteer experience was volunteering on an oyster farm in Kumihama Bay, Japan. During one of my 2-week winter vacations while I was teaching English in Fukui, I hopped in my k-car and drove 4 hours to the farm. I soon met Atsushi, a friendly and passionate man who had inherited the family business. I spent the next two weeks packing oysters into boxes, and going out on the boat to pull up the oysters, which grow on ropes that are dangled into the bay from wooden piers.
I’ll never forget something that Atsushi said to me: “Living in another country expanded my mind 100 times.” He really made the effort to spend time with and get to know his volunteers, which I really appreciated! There was another volunteer there from Poland named Gosia, and we became good friends, and she came back with me to Fukui and couchsurfed at my apartment for a week. To read more about this adventure read my other blog post about it!
12. Hostel cleaning and dog walking in Quentar, Spain
During a 2 week winter vacation while I was teaching English in Almendralejo, Spain, I did a quick solo tour of Andalucia, stopping in Sevilla, Granada, Nerja, and Malaga. In Granada, I stayed at Fundalucia youth hostel to volunteer for a week. I cleaned the hostel for 3 hours in the morning in exchange for free accommodation and lunch, and walked the two dachshunds in the afternoon. In Granada, I met a friendly street performer who gave me guitar lessons. Read more on this blog post.
Even though there are some moments when you may be dirty, smelly, or uncomfortable, I would wholeheartedly recommend volunteering as a means to travel! I learned so much and met so many interesting people during my time volunteering abroad. And I use what I learned about food production when I teach my students here in the USA. My network of interesting people visits me occasionally, and vice versa. Not only is it free and fun, you get to learn about a community, meet locals, and make a positive contribution to the place you are visiting. Look at the website helpx.net to get started, and you will see there are thousands of opportunities in so many different countries.