12 Places I’ve HelpX’d At

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!

Getting up close and personal.

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.

To conclude:

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.

My role at school: friend, teacher, or in-between?

After lunch, I go to the staff room and see my fellow teachers peering out the window, chuckling as they watch students throw snowballs at each other. But I don’t want to stand there and watch the fun from afar.

So I slip into my rubber boots and enter the chaos. I make a snowball, and decide that the baseball captain is my first target. He looks shocked, but retaliates; luckily, I dodge it.

This is where the snowball fight occurred.


Now that I’m in, there’s no going back. I lob snowballs at the giggling packs of girls and chase after the troublemakers. Even the shyest students who barely speak to me are creating attack formations. Before I know it, I’m laughing and running from students who are pelting snowballs at me.

So what is my role at this school? Am I a teacher, a friend, or somewhere in-between? While I aim to be respected, I don’t want to be an unapproachable authority. Sometimes I want to jump in the action and feel like I’m one of them. Ideally, students will be comfortable around me, even if they don’t like English.

When I first came to Japan, I met a Japanese teacher at the Fukui City Summer Camp who had been teaching for over 40 years and worked with more than 20 ALTs (Assistant Language Teacher). So I asked her a question I have repeated over and over, to any teacher willing to answer:

What makes a great ALT?”

She said, “Great ALTs play with the students.”

What a simple answer! Yet so profound.

Later, at a JET conference I was told the secret to being a great ALT was to arrive more than 10 minutes early. I was not satisfied with this answer. To me, it showed that fitting into the culture is more important than any skills or creativity. I was annoyed because I don’t always equate myself with fitting in. I think of myself as free spirited and unique, and I hope to spread my unorthodox ideas to students and open their minds with my weirdness. Do any other teachers at my school have snowball fights, or dance the macerena in the hallways? Is it okay if I wear colorful mismatched socks?

Maybe I worry that I’m not being professional, but I have to remember that I’m a different breed of teacher: one closer to their age, and their mindset. Even though I’m 25, I pride myself in my immaturity. I want to be like a child, free of judgment and unafraid of what other people think of me.

But at the same time, I find myself wondering if it is professional to play catch in the classroom with an eraser. I did this with one boy from the baseball team who seems to hate English. At the time, I was happy that we were interacting, because he usually associates me solely with English and only scowls at me. After the fact, I couldn’t help but question myself. As a teacher, was I supposed to chastise him for throwing an eraser in class? Instead, I followed my gut and just started playing.

Even though I’m still not sure if my behavior is appropriate, I’m beginning to realize that my time outside of the classroom is where I can build my strongest relationships with students. So I’ve been going to after-school clubs and sports, joining PE classes, and wandering the halls during free time and after lunch.

A few months ago I was beginning to feel depressed at work. There was a big test coming up, so most teachers were too busy to acknowledge me. I had no classes scheduled for a few days, and I felt ignored and isolated. I would walk the halls between classes, trying to engage with students, but besides that I had nothing to do all day. I told my supervisor this, and he told me: ‘Don’t feel isolated! We like you. But we’re busy!’

Unfortunately this didn’t solve the problem. So I had to take action.

I needed to create something to look forward to, so I decided to ask the PE teacher if I could join his class. To my surprise, he checked the schedule and instantly aid yes! I often worry that I might inconvenience people, but the PE teacher welcomed me.

So I joined a kendo class later that day. I took off my shoes, and sat on the ground next to the students, and pretended to be able to understand what he was saying. He loaned me a bamboo sword. I floundered about, not sure what to do, but students rose to the challenge and stepped up to give me instructions in English. Suddenly, there was an instant role-reversal: they were the experts, and I was clueless. I hope that they felt empowered by teaching me.

Later, I joined a first-year PE class where students were doing gymnastics. The PE teacher seemed thrilled to learn the English word for ‘handstand’, and I was able to show off my cartwheeling skills. Most importantly, I had fun cheering and high-fiving students after they performed their acrobatics.

Whenever I join a sport, my aim is to boost student’s egos. So far I’ve tried basketball, volleyball, table tennis, track and field, soccer and badminton. Playing sports with them forces them to connect with me, even if they are the type who typically avoid eye contact in class.

At basketball practice, the captain took me aside and gave me some pointers on shooting technique. This student doesn’t particularly like English, but because I showed interest in his sport, he wanted to share his skills with me. I felt lucky that he gave me his unsolicited one-on-one attention!

I was worried that the track and field team would leave me in the dust,  but I was happy to find that they were cheering me on. They even invited me to practice with them again.

So should I throw erasers in classrooms? Should I join the snowball fight? Should I showcase my weirdness? Until I hear someone tell me not to, I’m going to keep doing it. It makes my job more fun, and deepens my connections with my students. I’m here to be involved, so I might as well take action.



I can’t post photos of my students, but I hope you enjoy my snow photography!


Tokyo Speech Contest: Journey to the Finals

Every time I take a weekend excursion, I feel like I am in full-flung travel mode again. Flashback to my 28 months on the road. It’s just me and my backpack, and I’m free to go anywhere.

With my job as English teacher in rural Japan, I can have this sensation every weekend, if I want.

This is the moat around the Emperor’s Palace in Tokyo.

But what made this trip unique was its purpose: I was traveling to Tokyo for one of my students. My student Yuta* had miraculously made it to the finals of the 67th All Japan Inter-Middle School English Oratorical Contest.

Our journey began when I arrived at my new workplace in early August. On my desk was a speech, which Yuta had written in Japanese and the previous ALT had translated into English. However, my supervisor suggested that we give it an overhaul. My supervisor, a creative and spontaneous English teacher, has a knack for speeches. In his 20 years of teaching he has brought 9 students to the finals in Tokyo. So the two of us – me, as a creative writing major, and he as an experienced teacher – made a great team for helping Yuta reach his potential.

Yuta has been going to private English lessons after school for many years. Unlike most students, he looks you in the eye when he’s talking to you. Even though he’s a little small for his age, his loud voice and strong opinions often make him the center of attention. I’ve seen him in his classes; he’s not your typical shy Japanese kid.

Yuta and I started practicing after school, for an hour or more. At the beginning, it was mostly talking about his ideas, and trying to find the right words to express them. Google translate helped a lot. After about 10 revisions, we had settled on the final draft. He must have learned dozens of new words in the process.

Soon, it was time for the local contest. About 60 students from local junior high schools gathered at a community center to give their 5 minute speeches to a room filled with at least a hundred teachers, parents, and fellow students. For most of the day, I practiced with Yuta outside. When it was his turn, he spoke in a big, passionate voice. Unlike the previous speaker, who forgot her speech half-way through, Yuta’s natural confidence and enthusiastic personality made him truly shine. I couldn’t help but cry as I watched him. I felt so proud to know him.

He won second place in the local contest that day, and the top three students were invited to the national competition in Tokyo! The first place winner from our local bracket was a Brazilian girl who spoke about her multifaceted relationship with her mother.

Soon it was time to prepare for Tokyo. Yuta asked me if I wanted to practice three times a day: before school, after lunch, and after school. I felt honored that a student wanted to spend so much time with me. At our practices, I always asked him, ‘What do you want to do today?’ This simple question is an example of something I learned while working at the SBCC Writing Center. Letting a student direct the interaction makes them feel more connected with the lesson.  Yuta seemed to appreciate the power to decide what to do.

He would usually ask for help with his pronunciation. He used to say ‘muzzer’ instead of ‘mother,’ and any word with an L or R is often challenging for Japanese people. So we practiced words like ‘recently’ ‘learn’ and ‘school’ many, many times.

It was fun for me to experiment with different teaching methods. For example, when he said, ‘We are not afraid to say what we think,’ I told him to put equal weight on the ‘what we think’, clapping to illustrate the rhythm of the phrase.

When I was helping him, I thought of comparing words to music.

Five Days in Tokyo: A Hiatus from Reality

I was the only ALT from Fukui to accompany a student to Tokyo, and only because I fought for it. I had a feeling that this might be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, so I told my supervisor I really, really wanted to go, and he listened. Sure, I had to take time off and pay my own way, but I still feel incredibly grateful.

The night before I was supposed to leave, I was so excited I couldn’t sleep. I met my JTE (Japanese Teacher of English) Mr. Yamada*  on the train. We opted for the fast train – called the shinkansen – which travels at an average of 170 miles per hour. We were in Tokyo in 3 hours. (It’s a 6 hour drive!)

Yuta and his family had driven to Tokyo the night before. Once we found them, we practiced in his hotel room for a bit, and parted ways. Yuta was in a hotel payed for by the speech contest – he got to share a room with other participants. I know he made a lot of new friends! I spent the night at a friend’s house to save money.

The next morning it was Yuta’s turn to give his speech at the semifinals. I took detailed notes about the other speakers and made predictions. As I watched them, I couldn’t help but think that he had a chance to move forward. As his turn approached, my stomach started doing somersaults. I think I was more nervous than he was! When it was his turn to speak, again I couldn’t help but cry. Tears rolled down my face as I watched him shine, confident and pure-hearted, unafraid.

And miraculously, he made it! Out of the 33 students from the Northern Japan Region, he was in the top 7, earning him a coveted spot in the finals the following day.

Held at a fancier location in a bigger auditorium, the atmosphere at the finals was thick with nerves. These were the most talented junior high school English speakers in Japan, all in one room!

I was astounded by the inspiring topics and impeccable delivery from these kids. They spoke about important real world issues, such as Japan’s relationship with Korea and the 70th anniversary of World War II.  Several shared  captivating anecdotes about overcoming bullying and bigotry. One of the finalists had a German father, and spoke about her dual identity as both Japanese and German.

Most of the participants were from private schools; only 8 students out of the 30 finalists were from public schools. (Yuta was one of them!) Many of them spoke with a British accent, and some truly sounded like native speakers.

During the breaks, I conversed with several of the contestants, and was impressed by how comfortable they were talking with me.

This is the banquet hall where we had a reception for the speech contest. There must have been a thousand students, teachers, and parents here!

The Results

Unfortunately, Yuta didn’t make it in the top 7. And yes, I cried again when he gave his speech. I’m incredibly proud of him. After all, he was one of the best 30 speakers in all of Japan.

After the contest, I paid a ridiculous sum to attend the closing banquet, where I got to see a Japanese princess speak with a British accent, congratulate all the students and present the final award. The first-place speaker was a girl from Okinawa who urged listeners to turn off their smartphones and pay attention to the world.

When I was back at school, my supervisor asked me to do a write-up about my impressions about the speech contest. You can read my conclusions here:

What makes a great speech? After watching my student participate in the finals of the 67th All Japan Inter-Middle School English Oratorical Contest speech contest, I have drawn some conclusions. The speeches were judged based on three categories: Content, English and Delivery. Therefore, the winners must have an interesting topic, be easy to understand, and connect with the audience.

 First and foremost, a great speech must have unique and captivating content. In the finals, no two speeches had the same topic, although some of them had overlapping themes. The winning speech was about how smartphones are changing society. The second place winner spoke about the importance of names. Yuta’s speech, titled ‘Children are our Teachers,’ was about learning from children. He urged listeners to retain childlike qualities like enthusiasm, bravery and innocence even as we grow up.

 Secondly, every speech in the finals was easy to understand. The finalists all spoke clearly and I could comprehend every word of their speeches. Many of the speakers, such as the first place winner, sounded like native speakers. However, students with a noticeable accent – like Yuta– were still successful in conveying their message.

Lastly, the speakers in the finals all had the ability to connect with the audience because of their confidence and humor. Like Yuta’s speech, the top winners all made the audience laugh. A speaker must have a strong personality, and have the confidence to speak loudly on stage in front of hundreds of people.

All in all, I am extremely grateful for the experience of working with my students and fellow English teachers during this speech contest, especially Yuta. Both he and I learned a lot from each other. I hope that next year I can take another student from Midori* Junior High School to the finals in Tokyo!

*I changed the name of my student, the teacher I was working with, and my school to protect their privacy.

Unfortunately I can’t post pictures of my students on the blog. So here are some random photos from my trip. The speech contest was only one part of my 5 days in Tokyo. In addition, I visited a fish market, played ultimate frisbee, met up with a few old friends, and experienced Tokyo nightlife. Yay for adventures!