A few summers ago I'd just finished my second year of University. Instead of working in my hometown all summer I decided to do something a little different. Universities in England have long holidays of about three months, which is the perfect duration for a short adventure.
I chose to start my adventure in the small touristic town of Le-Puy-En-Velay, France.
The reasons for venturing into this little town in the middle of France was because I was able to stay there for free. Yep! Completely free! This was perfect for a skint student like me. All I needed to do was find £50 for the flight from England to France, and the rest of the costs would be taken care of.
But there was a catch… I had to work for it!
These programs allowed me to connect with people overseas that were looking for help on their farms. You work 4 to 5 hours a day in exchange for accommodation and food. Not bad.
For my WWOOF experience, I was only going to France, but I left England with butterflies. This experience was the first bit of proper traveling I'd done on my own.
I arrived outside the local train station for my lift to the farm. I waited 45 minutes and began to worry. What if they'd forgotten? I had no way to contact them, and I was a long way from home. As many of these unnecessary worries raced around my head, a car flew around the corner shouting my name while honking the horn.
A borderline handbrake turn bought the car to an abrupt stop, and the door flung open.
“Michel!! Jump in!”
What did I get in exchange for volunteering?
A short car journey finished with any worries disappearing. We pulled up to my accommodation for the next two weeks, and I couldn't believe my luck.
It was a beautiful château that had belonged to the family for generations. The outside was nice, but my room inside the house was even nicer.
This accommodation – plus home-cooked meals – would cost me nothing apart from a few hours each day helping out on the farm. As soon as I met my hosts, they treated me as part of the family, and the work felt like nothing more than helping out some good friends.
WWOOF sounds great! Let's have a day in the life.
8 am – 10 am. During my time there, I was in charge of herding sheep from one field to another. Something I'd never before so was quite a challenge when I first started. However, with anything, if you practice it enough you get good at it. Other duties included driving vans, helping a goat give birth to triplets and capturing an escaped ram!
By the end of my two weeks, I was far from the standard of my hosts, but I was just about able to get the flock to do what I wanted. Much better than at the start of my experience which resulted in me chasing after strays more than anything else!
10 am – 12 pm. General odd jobs. This time was often filled with whatever needed doing that day. Duties included some light gardening, moving stuff, and fixing broken things.
12 pm – 1 pm. Finish work for the day and stop for a huge feast of wine and cheese. And that was it!
After lunch, I was free to do as I pleased. I often had long chats with my host, or the other volunteers and I would go into town. Le Puy-En-Velay is part of the famous Camino de Santiago, so there are lots of nice cafes and touristy activities for people to do.
Reflections on experiences like these
This initial experience was for a total of two weeks. Not much in the grand scheme of things, but it was important because it gave me confidence in my ability to travel. I loved volunteering so much that I went on to help restore an old château further south in France, work on a farm in Italy, as well as three other experiences that summer.
If you have even a slight idea about travel and work exchange, you should go for it. You'll save a bunch of money, but more importantly than that, it enables you to delve deeper under the surface of an area, and meet real people that live there.
Long-term travel can occasionally give the feeling of a lack of direction. There are only so many temples you can see before the amazing starts to become a little mundane and perspectives start to warp slightly. Being able to productively contribute to small communities helps to connect on a personal level and gives a sense of accomplishment.
Helping local people in exchange for nothing more than your basic needs gives you that warm fuzzy feeling inside, and changes the way we look at the world. At the risk of sounding a little cliché, that's what real travel is all about. At least to me.