This essay is part of a series on 5 weeks I spent travelling in South Africa and Europe. The intro post is here; you can also read about my spending, saving and packing.
When it came to budget-friendly ways to extend my trip, a work exchange was at the top of my list. In undergrad I learned there was an organisation linking organic farms all over the world with willing volunteers. The farmers would get labour and the volunteers would get room and board. Sounds good to me! This org, WWOOF, is where I started my search for a way I could have such an experience. I ended up using Workaway instead, and had a great time on a small vineyard in Italy.
Research and Planning
Though I believe WWOOF – WorldWide Opportunities on Organic Farms – was the first site of its kind, there are several options for work exchanges now on the internet. In addition to Workaway, I discovered HelpX and HippoHelp. I think any of these would be preferable to WWOOF at this point, because they list all their country opportunities in one place, and for free (HippoHelp) or a single registration fee (Workaway, HelpX), you can begin your search and communicate with potential hosts. WWOOF isolates opportunities by country, so you have to pay separate (varying) registration fees and visit different websites for each place. This makes things onerous and, if you’re planning a multi-country trip or want to take multiple trips in a year, more expensive.
HelpX was the first alternative to WWOOF that came up in my research. Their website is still stuck in the 20th century, so it wasn’t a great user experience. I found out about Workaway almost immediately after HelpX; for the reasons above and their beautiful website, it was pretty much a no-brainer to use their database. I did briefly check out HippoHelp, which I learned about a little later, but they had less options and I was already deep into my search on Workaway. However, they do seem like a solid alternative.
Although Workaway, HelpX and HippoHelp list work exchanges far beyond farm work – another departure from WWOOF – I still wanted a farm experience. As someone who loves baking and cooking, I feel a responsibility to understand at least a little of what it takes to produce food. Thus, I kept these search parameters, and also looked for places in the south of Italy, knowing the weather would be a bit warmer.
From there things went pretty much as you would imagine. I read through the results, filtered the hosts who would accept me for a week (some prefer longer stays), and messaged the ones whose opportunities seemed most interesting. There were some farms that focused on a single food and others that dabbled in a few things. I wasn’t picky; if the people seemed friendly, and their location pin didn’t seem too far out of the way, I sent a message. With only a week to spare I didn’t want to spend too long travelling to and from the farm; that would cut into my experience and mean I’d have less time to offer the host.
One great thing about Workaway is that both hosts and volunteers leave feedback about one another. It seemed like every place that came up had a 5 star average rating (if it wasn’t a new listing). This is great, because it means hosts are not taking advantage of volunteers, and they are being transparent about the work they are offering.
It’s important to read the reviews and the host’s description of the help they need: they give you an even clearer picture of what your experience will be like. How rural or centrally located is the site? What else did volunteers get to do while they were there? What is the host’s personality like, and how much will you interact with them? Some things people rave about might be things you’re not really game for – like playing with friendly animals or spending a lot of time alone.
A Week in Sicily
I ended up making arrangements with a gentleman who owns a small, hodge-podge-but-mostly-grapes situation in the province of Catania (on the eastern side of Sicily). There wasn’t much of a process of elimination since the other people I messaged weren’t able to host me for one reason or another. Nevertheless, I was confident. People wrote that Angelo was a friendly, knowledgeable person; the produce and herbs on his farm sounded great; and he was very prompt and straightforward in our introductory conversations.
When I got to his place, on the slopes of Mt. Etna, it was dark and cold, so I couldn’t see much of anything. The next morning dawned sunny and clear, and the property was beautiful! Angelo invited me to come with him on his errands at the market and a couple bakeries, and I happily joined him. This became a pattern throughout my stay – whenever he needed to go into Catania or a nearby village I tagged along so I could see more of the outside.
What I Did
My work on the farm was pretty ordinary. There weren’t any grapes, vegetables or herbs for me to harvest, no citrus to help make into marmalade. I learned that Angelo actually runs his place as a bnb; the produce and grapes are for his personal use. The help he needed was to prep his vineyard for planting, so I pruned the trees and did a few days worth of weeding.
Unsurprisingly, the work was labour intensive. My arms and lower back were sore from pulling and bending, but I embraced the change of pace. There was another, older, Workaway volunteer whose time overlapped with mine for a bit. After resigning from her job, Tatiana was at the very end of several months travelling through Europe; we got along super well. I loved her enthusiasm, friendliness and cheeky spirit. They more than made up for my non-existent Russian and her limited English. It was fun having her as company in the vineyard, particularly when we were weeding side by side. We worked mornings, then broke for lunch and were free for the remainder of the day.
How I Ate
Mealtimes with Angelo and Tatiana were amiable and lively. Breakfast was tea with bread or muesli, and possibly fruit, cheese or Angelo’s marmalade. Lunch was typically cooked or salad greens, with leftovers from dinner and Angelo’s wine. Dinner was something one of us prepared and more of Angelo’s wine. We also had sweets from the local bakeries to snack on or have for dessert as we liked. Can I just say how much I loved the butter? It was smooth, light and a little sweet. Whenever I chose bread it was essentially because I wanted more butter.
The three of us got along really well, and that was most evident at dinner, where we sat for hours laughing and learning about one another. The most memorable meals for me were the ‘national’ dishes we shared: scacciata, a Sicilian pie, which we made under Angelo’s direction; a Russian potato-stuffed bread, which Tatiana made after I tried to ask her about Russian dumplings; and pea soup n’ doughboy, which I made as a result of that same conversation. I’m happy to tell all the Bahamians that our pea soup was a hit. 🙂
Tatiana left a couple days before me, and Angelo and I continued to enjoy each other’s company. He gave me the day off on my very last day, suggesting I visit one of the popular towns nearby. I took the bus to Taormina, an ancient and beautiful town. At the end of the day Angelo and I met up in a village near his home and he took me on a little tour. Knowing my enthusiasm for food, we went to a few more bakeries, and walked through yet another village, this one celebrating its saint’s day.
Overall, I couldn’t have asked for a better first experience with Workaway. I learned so much about Italy, and Sicily, from conversations with Angelo, and felt comfortable and welcomed in his home. Hopefully this won’t be my last meeting with him or Tatiana. I never thought much about Russia before meeting her; it’s sparked a surprising new interest. I would definitely Workaway again, and highly recommend it to anyone looking for alternative ways to travel.
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