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.

Teaching English in Southern Spain

From Japan to Spain

I remember huddling for warmth under a mountain of blankets in my frigid apartment during the winter of Japan, wondering how I was going to escape the cold. It was my second year in Fukui, Japan teaching English at a junior high school with the JET Program, which is a government-run initiative that employs native English speakers in public schools all over Japan.

At first, getting up early to scrape the snow off my car was exciting for me as a southern California girl who had never really experienced weather. But soon I was eager to go somewhere warmer and try out a different culture, so I started doing some research on where to go next.

Thanks to a suggestion from a friend of a friend on Facebook, I found a similar program called “North American Language and Culture Assistants in Spain,” which places native English speakers in public schools. Unlike Japan, however, where they pay for your flight and help you organize your life when you arrive, participants in the Spanish program are responsible for finding their own housing, getting a bank account and phone, and organizing their own transportation. The JET Program is a full-time job with a yearly salary. In Spain, most participants make 700 euros a month for working just 12 hours a week, which gave me plenty of free time in the afternoon and on 3-day weekends to teach private classes for extra money, pursue my hobbies, and travel.  

I cherished this free time, and I noticed that most of my friends with full time jobs don’t have as much time to pursue other interests. During my 2 years in Spain, my hobbies – sports, music, Spanish – were equally as important as my work at the school, and I developed my skills and abilities.

At times I felt desperately lonely. I would ask myself, “What am I doing here away from all my friends and family?” I felt this intense burden that I was alone, and I couldn’t make friends easily. But the feeling passed, and I continued to learn and flourish. I would force myself to go salsa dancing alone and meet new people. Even though it was terrifying at first I never regretted those times I forced myself to do something alone.

My first year I lived in Almendralejo, a town in the autonomous community of Extremadura which borders Portugal, famous for wine and jamón (ham). With a population of 30,000, Almendralejo is not at all a tourist destination. To escape the flat and dry landscape I would often visit Seville on weekends – they had an ultimate frisbee team who I practiced with – which was only an hour and a half away by bus.

I taught at two high schools and one elementary school in Villafranca de los Barres and Hornachos, which were even smaller towns. I bummed rides from my Spanish coworkers to get from Almendralejo to my workplaces, and the 30 minute journey was a good chance to practice my Spanish. At first I was shy and sometimes sat in the car without saying anything. 

Even though I consider myself an extremely extraverted person, somehow the language barrier diminished my outgoingness. A challenge I faced throughout my 3 years in Spain was how to overcome shyness and fear of speaking Spanish with locals. I had a few rare interactions where Spaniards made fun of me for a mistake I made, and I took it personally when I should have just laughed it off.

Almendralejo was small and oftentimes I found myself excruciatingly bored (no ultimate frisbee or salsa dancing there!) I was forced to find ways to fill up my copious free time. I memorized all the streets and walked all around that dry little town. To combat boredom I learned how to juggle, lifted weights at a local gym, went to a dance studio for zumba classes, and studied Spanish.

Luckily I became close friends with the 10 other English teachers living there, which was detrimental for my Spanish acquisition but good for my spirits. I lived with Margrit, a vegetarian yogi from New York who regularly practiced meditation, and Fede, a Spanish university student. You can read more about my first year in Spain here

After a solo Christmas vacation to Andalucía, I decided I wanted to live in Málaga. When I reapplied to the program in February I requested my application to be transferred to Málaga. Thankfully everything went smoothly, and I moved there the next summer!

Sunsets in Málaga were spectacular.

My Life in Málaga

In Málaga, I worked at an elementary school near the beach. I opted to have only Spanish roommates to increase my opportunities for speaking Spanish. My first year I lived a 40 minute walk or bus ride from my school with two Spanish women in a neighborhood called Capuchinos. I still felt shy and self-conscious about my Spanish – especially my accent – and signed myself up for group Spanish classes twice a week. After a few months they hired me as an  English tutor in exchange for my Spanish classes.

My second year I moved to Huelin, a neighborhood closer to my school. My housemate was a friendly Spanish man named Alfredo. We shared a spacious apartment next to a park and a 5-minute walk to the beach. I paid 300 euros per month for my own room.

I played on a co-ed ultimate frisbee team called Camaleones  (Chameleons) that practiced twice a week. We traveled together to tournaments all around Spain, and I spent a lot of time with them laughing and practicing my Spanish. Being part of the team was a huge part of my experience in Spain and I hope to go back someday and play with them again.

It was so much fun being part of an ultimate frisbee team!

Looking back, I learned a lot and had so much fun living in Spain, and I will always cherish these years of my life. I am sad that I had to leave abruptly and early due to the COVID virus, which caused all schools to shut down in early March and the country went into a strict lockdown. When I left, citizens could only leave their houses for the grocery store or pharmacy. I opted to fly home to California two months early to be closer to friends and family.

Becoming the Healthy Habits Teacher

My first year teaching at the elementary school in Málaga, I realized that I prefered working with younger kids to teenagers (I worked with junior high school students in Japan, aged 11 to 14).With my ukulele and activity sheets with blanks for missing lyrics that they had to listen and write in, I taught the entire school a few songs with my ukulele:  “You’ve Got a Friend in Me,” “We Are the World,” and “Count on Me.” It was so gratifying and beautiful to hear the whole school singing these songs at the end of the year assembly, even if the 6th graders purposefully howled the “ooh ooh”s at the end of Count on Me and sounded like a pack of wolves.

At the start of my second year, my school in Málaga decided to give me an entire subject just for myself, which made me feel proud and like I had proven myself.

Since all schools were required to teach “healthy habits” for at least 30 minutes a week, my school assigned it to me. It was such a fun challenge! I was grateful for the opportunity to be creative and make my own lesson plans and curriculum. 

I worked with about 200 third to sixth graders between the ages of 8 and 12 and visited each of their classes for 30 minutes once a week. There were about 25 students in each class. To begin, I asked each of my students to make a mini-book and decorate the cover. The purpose of the mini-book was to take notes during my classes which would help them retain the information I was sharing. Whenever I walked into the room, all the kids would say, “Amber’s Mini-Book!” and pull out their books

To start my Healthy Habits curriculum, I compiled a list of healthy habits and discussed them with my classes, and asked them to copy it in their mini-books.

Healthy Habits:

1. Eat fruit and vegetables

2. Do sports

3. Practice good hygiene

4. Have good posture

5. Sleep for 8 or more hours

In my following classes I delved into the list in more detail: I asked them what fruits and vegetables they knew in English, what sports they practiced, and how long they typically sleep. I made a separate “What’s on my plate” class that explained how half your plate should be filled with fruits and vegetables and the other part with protein and carbs.

I found a song on youtube that I used in all my classes called “Healthy Food Vs. Junk Food Song”. The students pasted the lyrics in their books, and after a few weeks of practice I could just strum the first few chords on my ukulele and the whole class would immediately start singing.

My original Healthy Habits list and the song gave me enough teaching material for about a month. Then I decided I wanted to teach meditation, yoga, and self-confidence in my classes, so I added number 6 and 7:

6. Calm your mind

7. Believe in yourself

During the “Calm Your Mind”class, I asked students to sit quietly and breathe deeply in silence for 3 minutes. Some troublemaking students would look around the room and make faces at everyone while their classmate’s eyes were closed, but after practicing, it became easier for everyone to get into a meditative zone.. Then I tried to teach yoga. I realized with some trial and error that if I had them stand up, they would become too excited and the yoga would devolve into pushing each other. So instead I began to teach chair yoga, which was simpler and easier to manage.

For my “Believe in Yourself”class, I wrote a song for them about being confident. I created a worksheet of the lyrics with some blanks, and they had to listen for the missing words.

Here is the chorus:

I am powerful, I am strong

I am smart, I am fun

I work hard, I can do anything

I am me, and I am great!

Teaching Private Classes After School

In addition to the work I did at the school in Málaga, which was typically in the morning from 9 to 2 PM from Monday to Thursday (although I only worked 12 hours a week, so some days I started later and other days I ended a bit earlier) I taught private classes in the afternoon.

To find students, I put up flyers around my neighborhood. While the flyers were effective, even more so were the word-of-mouth recommendations from my student’s parents. Most of my private students attended the public school where I worked. I went to their apartments, which gave me some insight into their family lives. Many families had legs of jamón in their kitchens, which as a vegan I found shocking (but I kept my opinions to myself!)

I noticed that many of the Spanish families in Málaga didn’t have a car, or if they had one, they didn’t use it very often. Instead they would walk with their kids to school, to soccer practice, or take the bus with them to other activities. To me it seemed like they had more family time than American families, since the school day finishes at 2 and they gather together at home to eat lunch. 

From reading books to creating stories to playing games, I tried to make my one-on-one classes engaging and fun. I enjoyed getting to know each student and finding a way to teach that suited their learning styles. I had picture flashcards with animals that I used to make guessing games. I taught two 8 year old girls who were such good friends they practically taught themselves. We usually read a book out loud and then played the categories game. I set a timer for 2 or 3 minutes and we tried to brainstorm words in a certain category, such as ocean animals, things you find at the beach, modes of transportation. After 3 minutes we share what we thought of. This game only works if the two students have about the same level, otherwise the lower level student might feel sad.

A challenging class I taught was with two brothers. The older brother usually tried to make fun of or poke the younger brother, who would laugh it off and not seem too bothered, but I found that making them sit on opposite ends of the table helped their concentration. It was difficult to find activities to engage both of them because of their different levels. We played a lot of jenga and uno.

Unfortunately I left Spain abruptly and I didn’t get a chance to say goodbye to my private students. I will record them video messages since I don’t plan on going back to Spain anytime soon.

Observing Reactions to the Corona Virus

I wrote this one week before they shut down schools and everyone was forced to stay home.

I hope that when we look back on this phase of history, we will have learned something and improved as a society. It’s a scary time to be anywhere, but in Málaga people seem to be calmer than in other parts of Spain, and stores are still well-stocked.

Schools in Madrid were closed but in Malaga they are still open. I’m happy to report that my school finally provides soap and hand sanitizer to their students, something that wasn’t available before the outbreak.

Several times a day the students get a glob of soap in their hands from their teacher and go to the bathroom in groups of 4 (each bathroom has 4 sinks). It’s appalling to me that they didn’t teach good hygiene at the school before the outbreak.

As I felt it was timely and important, I created a presentation about Healthy Hygiene with step-by-step instructions on how to properly wash their hands. I included this graphic from google images. If you devote 5 seconds to each part of the image, it takes 25 seconds to properly wash your hands. My own technique has improved after having taught this!

I made this video about how to wash your hands for my students. Click here to watch it!

Although it was a hard and last-minute decision, I decided to leave Spain in late March to be with my family. I packed up all my stuff and left the rest of my food with my good friend and downstairs neighbor. I’ll miss my friends, students, and frisbee teammates there, but I’m also excited to be starting graduate school at UCSB next year. I will get a teaching credential and Masters in Education that will allow me to teach elementary school in California.

Málaga will always be my favorite city in Spain, with its half-finished cathedral and closeness to the beach. I know I’ll be back someday to say hello to my old students and coworkers. I learned so much while I was there.

I learned how to be alone, how to feel lonely but still function, and how to fill the void of loneliness with music and sports.

There’s a great hat ultimate frisbee tournament in November every year called Chiripones. I went twice and I hope that I’ll go someday!

My Spanish improved a lot, although I’m still fighting fear of sounding ridiculous when speaking. It seems to be a never ending challenge for me. I find that most adults judge and compare themselves when they speak, which is why children learn so much faster. My journey with learning Spanish is just beginning. I still want to do a Spanish immersion course in Mexico and travel in Latin America.

All in all, I would highly recommend teaching English in a foreign country. My experiences in both Japan and Spain were so educational and powerful. I might do it again someday! I hear good things about Taiwan. Are there any other countries that would be good for me to live in as an English teacher? Let me know!