Things I hate about Workaway

A lot has been written about the amazing possibilities and upsides of workaway: you get to see the world almost without spending any money, can learn a lot of new skills, share your knowledge and meet the locals and their culture. But there are a lot of things about workaway that most travellers, blogs and of course workaway itself fail to mention. After I left my last workaway host early following a very mixed experience I decided to write about exactly these downsides. The things I hate about workaway. After five hosts in four countries I might not be the most experienced workawayer, but I think I have seen enough to speak my mind about a few things.

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A lovely workaway place in Bolivia where I had lots of fun – but did’t find the community I was looking for

Firstly the profiles rarely draw an accurate picture of the place, people and work that await you. I was told I would work and live in a hostel with a restaurant when really neither my accommodation nor work were in that hostel. An eco-community turned out to only have one member and the eco farm I was expecting was neither eco, nor a real farm. A lot of these inaccuracies came down to outdated profiles and of course it is always difficult to describe a place you are attached to, but it is annoying to find out that something you particularly liked about a profile is not true. For example I picked one of my hosts because I was looking to experience communal living. In another occasion I was hoping to learn more about sustainable farming in Namibia and ended up with hosts that not only worked in a lodge, not a farm, but thought it was fine to pour old paint into the nature where noone could see it.

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Playing soccer in front of the restaurant (not hostel) where I volunteered in Peru

Not seldom the basic premises of workaway are violated, sometimes without any mention on the profile or in the e-mails before arrival. So free food and board for 25h of volunteering per week is not always guaranteed with workaway. Two of my hosts told me beforehand that they could not provide food and as both of them were beautiful non-profit community projects I was fine with that – but when my last hosts told me upon arrival  that they really expected me to work a 50h week and had many rules they didn’t mention in several e-mails we exchanged beforehand I was very disappointed to say the least. I would have liked to know this before my arrival to make a decision if it was ok for me. In the end it was not the work or the amount of hours that made me leave, but the aggressive communication and stressful environment, but it lead to an unfortunate first impression.

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Painting a roof in the hot sun at my first Namibian workaway

It is especially important to know the details of each workaway agreement, because spontaneously leaving is not always easy. Depending on many circumstances you might be very dependent on your host. If your host lives very rural you might rely on them to get to the next village, bus stop, or even road. In a country like Namibia many farmers  own thousands of hectares of land far away from main roads – so hitchhiking is not an option everywhere. In cheap countries with lots of hosts it might be easy to come up with a plan B and I am lucky to travel with enough savings so I can leave everywhere if I feel I am being  mistreated – but I have met at least a handful of travellers who could’t afford to leave before they found a new host and this is not a situation I wish upon anyone.

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I found my host in the Bolivian Amazon by just asking around – and a boat was the only way to reach the amazing jungle camp

Of course some people will argue that you can avoid bad experiences simply by reading the feedback other travellers have left, but the truth is that workaways feedback system is very flawed. It has been written about before, but I am not sure most people realise that in the rare case that feedback has been left, it could have been left by anyone. There are no reminders or double-blind system in place and even worse, negative feedback won’t be posted by workaway. Yes you have read right – if you have an experience you’d like to tell future volunteers about don’t select the negative smiley because it will be posted without your written feedback. Not only does this system actively withhold important information from other workawayers, it also makes every host look good.

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Painting stones at a childrens summercamp – my second Namibian workaway

So will I stop using workaway and advise others to do the same? Definitely not! A lot of hosts are amazing and there is a reason travellers rave about this page, but there are a few measures I will be taking from now on, even if I am looking for a host last minute and I would advise others to do the same. Firstly and most importantly ask many questions before your arrival (even if the profile seems to answer them) and also get across what is important to you! If there is feedback which raises questions there is sometimes the possibility to contact former volunteers who left that feedback and I think it’s great chance to get more information. It also helps to get information on the exact location of your host and the surroundings like nearby hostels and alternative hosts, just in case. And lastly I would personally never do workaway without the funds to at least pay for transport and a few nights of cheap accommodation. I really don’t want to scare anyone away from volunteering or travelling and think it is great to arrive everywhere with a an open heart and mind,  but it doesn’t hurt to be prepared…

Just in case anyone was wondering: I have never used helpx or other similar sites and this is the only reason this post focusses on workaway. I have no clue is the other pages work better, worse or the same and therefore they are not mentioned. 

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Why am I doing this to myself? Digging a hole into the solid dust, suncream stings my eyes and sweat is running down my body, mixing with the dirt into an uneven fake-tan. Even insane amounts of babywhipes and camping-showers can only offer the illusion of being clean for about five minutes. The heat is intense and unless there is a dusty breeze, sleeping past 9am is not even an option outside of tents and domes. I am tired, dirty, sweaty and at times even emotionally strained and still – I keep coming back. Why?

Most people who know me well will have realised by now just how important Nowhere and the burner community have become to me in what feels much longer than two years. In fact the first week of july is one of the most anticipated of my year and as with most fun things, over the time I tend to remember the great moments and ups much more than the inevitable downs. Our brains are amazing and mine conveniently lets me underestimate year and year again just how hot Spain gets in summer. Of course every year is different and I don’t just mean the weather! Looking back at my three Nowheres there seem to be underlying themes for me that change each year.

My first year was about adventures and the exploration of new things. I talked to so many interesting people, pushed my own boundaries and learned about things I hardly knew existed before. I was drawn into the crazy world of burns and wandered around the playa in amazement. What stuck with me the most was the feeling of total freedom and unlimited acceptance of who I was without any judgement. But I also know that I felt detached at times, especially at night, like a bystander. Though I felt accepted, I did not feel like a part of the community at all times. Not because anyone treated me bad, but because I was overwhelmed and everything and everyone was new to me. Being part of a 150 people barrio also didn’t help with this. But still my first year was amazing and a new world opened up to me. If I had to summ up what I took away from that year I’d say freedom and the courage to explore new things without fear.

The second year was very different. I didn’t go to many new workshops and felt like I’d melt at incredible 53 degrees, but I found my family. Being part of Sssh! from the built made me connect with people in a way I never have before in such a short amount of time. Total strangers became good friends in mere days and we formed an amazing group. Though my connection was different with each and every person of my new Sssh! family, we clicked together as one (and I don’t mean in a touch & play way 😉 ). I spent a lot of time in the barrio or wandering around at night with this group of incredible people and it felt like we’d been friends for years. I did explore new worlds on friday, but really this year for me was more about friendships than anything else. As a whole this might have been my best year so far, and it is not surprising because human connections are probably the most important to me or else I would not have become a psychologist.

This year is still a bit difficult to figure out for me. It felt like coming home. I had amazing times, but also the occasional “is that it?” moment and time went by far too quickly to spend time with everyone I would have liked to spend time with. I loved helping with an art piece for the first time ever, introduced a friend to the world of burns and even stayed for strike. I reconnected with people who are important to me and got to know great new burners. I tried some new things, but also felt like everything was familiar to me. Expectations were high because I had come back from Peru mostly for this – and it was worth it! I might still need time to decompress for a bit until I can look back at this year more clearly. But one thing I definitely realised this time was how much people see me and remind me of things about myself I fail to acknowledge sometimes. Compliments and observations even of people who have only just met me can go very deep and mostly hit the right spot. I also allow myself to be very honest and actually tell people how much I appreciate them – something I sometimes forget to do in the default world. I think this also helps me to be more honest with myself and my feelings. I cried a lot this year (mostly tears of joy), saw other people overwhelmed by emotions and it felt good, honest and right. Holding each other and not trying to hide our feelings. So maybe this year was about honest appreciations and real emotions. Or maybe about coming home and really being myself which makes people see me as who I am. Maybe both.

The one thing I know is that I feel loved, accepted and free in this community and that makes me come back again and again. There will always be moments when I feel sad or exhausted, be it at a burn or elsewhere. But now when I speak of Nowhere I say “we” instead it “it” or (worse) “they”. Yes, in retrospect I idealise the hard work, pain and stress that can come with a burn and maybe Nowhere is losing a bit of its wow-effect as it becomes more familiar to me. But I think I need this. We need this! And how could I miss out on the chance to see so many people I love in a utopian place we are creating for ourselves?

[Never heared about Nowhere? Check out the official homepage or this video if you are lazy to get a first impression of what I am talking about.]