I imagine that if you’re at all interested in international travel, you’ve heard of Couch Surfing and WWOOFing. Both steadily increasing in popularity, they are housing options for the thrifty among us – and are using the Internet to connect people traveling throughout the globe in some very interesting ways.
Couchsurfing is kind of like a cross between Craigslist and Ebay and Hotels.com – but completely free. And it does exactly what it sounds like it does. Travelers sign up for an account, offering up their own couch for free to travelers passing through their fine city or town. In return, they can find a couch of their own when they themselves travel.
In order to keep some sense of, well, order, guests take to the Couchsurfing website to rate their stay. They report when a host is truly awesome, or when a host was less than hospitable.
So what on Earth does couch surfing have to do with work abroad? While most of the guests are looking for a place to crash for a few days, it is possible to set up a slightly longer stay – like just long enough for a short-term volunteer project for 4-6 weeks in the country of your choice. Not only will Couchsurfing give you a free place to stay, but you will be able to hook-up with some locals (who are typically young and somewhat social) so that you have the inside scoop on what to do and where to see from the moment you arrive.
Every Couchsurfing experience is different, but most of the hosts I know take people out on the town during their stay, and are pretty generous with their homes. Many hosts (and guests) really want to earn a good rating on the website, and genuinely enjoy having a steady stream of visitors coming in and out of their lives. Of course, you’re taking a risk whenever you use the site – just like you are on eBay or Craigslist. But the social nature of the site and the rating system makes it much easier to make an informed, safe decision.
WWOOFing is similar, but has the volunteer component built-in. WWOOF stands for World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms. Small organic farms around the world request volunteer help, and in return for the work they offer food, lodging and the opportunity to learn more about organic farming.
WWOOF.org is the international site that connects volunteers to organic farms, and they also maintain a list of country-specific WWOOF sites. There is a fee associated with access to these more in-depth lists, but the pay-off is pretty great if you can WWOOF your way through Chile or Argentina or Australia for free!
So what’s a typical day like for a WWOOFer? Like most things in the work/volunteer abroad world, it varies. Generally the biggest variation is the number of hours – each organic farm will have different needs. They are of different sizes, and some will have more regular help than others. There are also peak seasons for WWOOFers to travel, and that will affect the number of hours that each volunteer has to put in at the farm.
As a volunteer, you should make sure that your hours (and scope of work) are agreed upon before you arrive – most volunteers won’t have to work a full (8 hour) day. While you probably won’t get a day-to-day breakdown of tasks for the entirety of your visit, you can at least find out what kind of produce you will be working with (or animals for that matter) and what the typical tasks are associated with the work. You could be fertilizing soil, picking vegetables, cleaning barns – it will really depend on the needs of the farm. And as a WWOOFer, you should be open to trying pretty much anything!
Another thing that will vary from farm to farm is length of stay. Some places will have a minimum of a week or a few weeks (after all, they will have to train you even a little bit to work on their farm, so it’s worth it for them to get something out of the initial investment). But a longer required stay could actually be great if you are looking to work or volunteer outside of the farm as well. Some WWOOFers manage to find opportunities with other local businesses so that they can have two volunteer experiences in one – all without having to pay for housing!
You’ve gotta love the Internet – who would have thought that ultimately the global online community would help you find a free place to stay while volunteering and working abroad?