From Workwayer to Workawayer: tips on how to protect yourself and stay safe at a Workaway
So today, after casually failing to renew my WordPress subscription for over a year, I am here to talk about something I believe is not spoken and written about enough in the nomad community: how to protect yourself during your work/trade experiences. All of the articles I came across when I was just starting out as a young traveler were so focused on how to be a good Workawayer to the host, that it seemed negligible if the host returned the favor. So, this isn’t that article. If you’d like to find out how to be the best Workwayer and how to get hosts to notice you here’s a fantastic article. But how to protect yourself from having a bad Workaway experience? Read on to find out.
This could of course also be Woofing, HelpX, or any kind of work in the trade of food and or shelter that is so popular in the backpacker community. I have personally been loyal to the Workaway website ever since signing up for a Workaway back in 2018 at a Buddhist nunnery in the Himalayas. Workaway has gifted me with so many of my core memories, connected me with some core people, and has helped make the travel dreams of a broke girl come true. If you’re new to the work/ trade experience and are looking for some advice, or even if you’re a seasoned Workawayer looking for tips to get even more out of your experience, this is my list that I’ve been keeping throughout the years of all the do’s and don’ts of a Workaway.
1. Always know where the door is (and how to use it)
This is a lesson I learned the hard way. Most of them are actually. I once arranged a Workaway on the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica on a remote permaculture farm with glowing reviews. The hosts picked me up in their truck and we drove for miles into the jungle. I quickly realized that the only way out was by a long trail through the jungle, and if you were lucky, once you popped out of the trail you would hitch-hike on the main road into town. If you weren’t so lucky, you were left to walk for an hour along the main road. This wouldn’t have been so bad if the data and wifi situation hadn’t been so minimal. (Please see list article #5 for more on wifi/ data ). The host would regularly leave us Workawayer’s stranded for days, left to our own devices, without any means of contact. Luckily nothing happened, but there are a myriad of events that could happen in the jungle that one would wish to be rescued from within a reasonable period of time. For example, and this is entirely hypothetical, in the event that an expert mushroom forager leads a group expedition to scavenge mushrooms, and then after a few minutes of contemplative chewing wonders out loud if they are indeed the correct mushrooms or perhaps a closely related poisonous cousin. All was fine in the end and the expert scavenger lived to see another day. However, the point is, you should ALWAYS have access to transportation out of a situation that does NOT rely on the host.
2. Solo travelers (females especially) should take extra precautions
This means plenty of reviews and a decent amount of communication with hosts. Feeling weird about how they’re communicating with you over email or text? That’s most likely not getting any better in person. Do yourself a favor and go somewhere else! Have an uneasy feeling in your stomach/ gut? Absolutely don’t do it no matter how good it sounds. I want to see more solo female travelers trusting their guts, and if that means disappointing people every once in a while, so be it. Also, can men everywhere stop posting on these work/trade websites requesting “females only” to help around the house?? Unbelievable. Gross. So gross. Stop it. If you do end up going to a Workaway that disrespects you in any way, always report it to the Workaway team. There is an option to leave feedback about the hosts that only the Workaway team can see if you wish to be anonymous.
3. 5 days a week, 5 hours a day
If you go to the Workaway website, they will say that 5 hours a day is an estimation and it is up to you to communicate to your hosts about expectations. I know many people that have assumed that 5 hours a day, 5 days a week will be how it is everywhere they go. It’s not the case. Because of this, it is of utmost importance that you be careful to hash out expectations beforehand in the unfortunate event that you do get taken advantage of. If you ask your host what the workload and expectations are like, and they respond nonchalantly that they prefer to not count hours and it’s not “that kind of place”, um, red flag alert! If your host isn’t keeping track of your hours, I highly recommend that you do. It may seem like super chill vibes at first, but sooner or later you may find yourself wondering when you slipped into indentured servitude and wishing you had a record of all your hard-earned hours.
4. Your free time, your business
My boyfriend once did a Workaway in Banos, Ecuador on an organic farm and eco stay. The hosts were super welcoming and generous, they loved sharing stories at dinner and enjoyed lengthy conversations over coffee. At first, this was charming and it’s no secret that my boyfriend loves a chat. He was made to feel very at home very quickly. However, he soon learned that the hosts did not offer more than one day off a week, and expected him to jump up and work for them at their beckoning call, even after he’d completed his hours for the day. There was one time in particular that he and I were on a call after he’d worked a long and labor-intensive day, (I was at home in the states and it was difficult to organize times for a call). One of the hosts came into his room and asked him to help move some furniture. He was made to end our phone call on his downtime and lend a hand then and there. While I’m positive these hosts were well-intentioned, it is imperative for your peace of mind that you get uninterrupted YOU time. Especially if you plan on being somewhere for longer than a couple of weeks. For anyone interested in how this all played out, in the end, my boyfriend organized a mini heist that involved calling a taxi in the middle of the night, sneaking around his new roommate, and sneaking around the dogs (friendly but prone to barking), all without anyone noticing until the morning. While of course, this is definitely not an ideal way to address an uncomfortable situation, he didn’t feel comfortable enough to tell the hosts how he felt without hurting their feelings, and couldn’t stand not having his space respected for a day longer. Yes, the hosts were very disappointed, and no, he has no regrets about leaving as he did.
5. Know the Wi-fi/ data situation.
Please also refer to paragraph 1. If you are consensually going into a zero internet and data zone, this will hopefully be a refreshing and much-needed respite. However, if you are unsuspecting and come unprepared to be without connection to family, friends, or even an online work situation, this can result in quite the opposite of that desired experience. These days, travelers such as myself are heavily reliant on google maps to understand where we are and where to go, and apps such as life360 and even Snapchat help to keep our friends and family in the loop in case of emergencies. I have many a time shown up to my Workaways after promising that I will text my mom to confirm my safety, just to realize that the closest cafe with internet is a treacherous bike ride away. While it is very much up to the host to disclose their internet situation, it is also wise and worth it to do a bit of digging if the situation is unclear. You might notice in the host’s profile under “a little more information” that they can tick internet access or limited internet access. Always follow up about what this means because it means different things to different hosts. At one place I worked at they had ticked both these options and what they meant by it was that there was no reception for miles, and the only internet on the property was in their house. As my accommodation was far from their house, this meant that I couldn’t privately call anyone unless I wanted to stay awake while everyone was asleep and whisper over the phone.
6. Vegan? Celiac? Just plain picky? Let’s talk diet
Most of the time, if you will be working full hours you can expect at least two home-cooked meals a day. It is of course assumed that you pitch in with cooking or cleaning afterward. In some places I’ve been to the hosts will buy all the ingredients and you are free to cook whatever you want. Other places will be very in their routine with planned meal rotations (especially if they are older or experienced hosts). If you have any dietary needs let your hosts know ahead of time so they can prepare. You can enter your dietary requirements in your details section and it will show up when a host views your profile. I strongly recommend double-checking with them that they have this information. If you feel awkward about requesting this because you feel like you’re asking too much and don’t want to be annoying, remember that you are doing them a favor just as much as they are doing you one. This is an exchange, not a handout. If the hosts seem unwilling to accommodate your dietary needs you can go ahead and assume that they will also be unwilling to accommodate any other aspect of your Workaway experience. Also, never expect that the host will feed you unless they have specifically said so.
7. Snakes, crocodiles, spiders…oh my!
Someone told me once that the most dangerous thing to be at any given moment is an uninformed tourist. Grab some popcorn and a blanket kiddos, it’s story time. Three years ago when I didn’t know any better I was backpacking in the Puntarenas province in Costa Rica. I heard there was a beach shaped like a whale’s tail nestled in the Marino Bellena national park where you could sit from the comfort of your beach towel and watch whales. You can imagine my disappointment when I hiked to the entrance with my book and a picnic only to be told by an under-slept looking park ranger that the whole beach was closed due to Covid. So what did I do? I am not proud of this folks, I began bushwacking through the jungle following the google maps blue dot to the beach and hoping for the best. After some time I popped out on a dirt road and was led by the blue dot to a small hut with a man sitting on his front step whacking a coconut with a machete. I waved and he waved back, looking rather alarmed to see a foreign woman this far out in the middle of nowhere on her own. The blue dot lead me past his house and straight back into the jungle where it got exceedingly gnarled and difficult to bushwack. The ground was a muddy sinkhole and my flip-flops were no match. The further in I trekked, the more intense the feeling got that I was being watched. Luckily I listened to that feeling and turned around before too long. When I reemerged from the entanglement of strangler fig and philodendron with mud splattered over the backs of my legs and bits of the jungle in my hair, the man was waiting for me with a concerned look on his face. “You have heard of crocodiles gringo?” He’d said burying his machete into an unsuspecting coconut. He offered me fresh coconut water and chicha, and informed me that I was headed directly into a crocodile haven. He saved my day and turned out to prove a magnificent and hilarious host and I ended up staying until the early hours learning how to salsa, but that is a story for another entry! The moral of the story is, do your damn research gringos. Know your environment, know what snakes and spiders to look out for, and bring mosquito repellent if there is a risk of dengue or yellow fever. Is there a risk of heat stroke? Is the water clean or do you run the risk of parasites such as giardia? I highly recommend packing a first aid kit tailored to your situation and not relying completely on your hosts for your safety.
8. Housing, what’s the sitch?
What’s the story about accommodation? Room in the house? Bungalow? Shared or private? How far away from the main house will you be staying? Will the internet reach? Will there be a mosquito net? A snake machete if need be? Will you feel safe and comfortable? Does the bathroom/waste situation agree with your feminine (or masculine) needs? (I once had to pack a diva cup to an off-grid/ zero-waste farm and learned the hard way diva cups are not for me). It may not seem super important especially if you’re used to roughing it either camping or staying in the cheapest hostels, but remember that you will most likely be working hard hours for this accommodation, make sure you’re getting what you’re worth.
9. Seasons…don’t let them get the better of you
Beware of the wet season in any humid tropical climate, don’t let it take you by surprise! Just because you might be going to a hot sunny place does not mean you will be breaking out the whole summer kit. I showed up to a farm Workaway in San Jose with no long pants, no rain jacket, no gum boots, and nothing that I particularly wanted to get dirty. Luckily the hosts were used to this and were fully equipped with everything I needed. I have a bad habit of never checking the weather before I show up in places, and this has resulted in a lot of disappointment when my fantasies of spending my free time sunbathing by a river don’t pan out.
10. Planning ahead
I would highly recommend that you never commit to a Workaway for more than a month at a time. I personally prefer to only commit for a maximum of two weeks. The reality is that sometimes a place or the people, no matter how genuine or lovely they may be, are just not for you. Maybe you don’t love the only other Workawayer on the property, or maybe you realize the seemingly perfect paradise is a beautiful performative facade covering up the exploitation of young gullible travelers. If you always have a backup plan in case a Workaway doesn’t fan out, you have nothing to worry about. Even if you don’t have a backup plan, in a pinch oftentimes if you go back to the Workaway website and go to the last-minute page, you will most likely find someone willing to take you on board in less than a week.
There’s a whole bunch of whackos out there just waiting for you to fall into their wacky web, so it’s wise to be suspecting! But don’t let the possibility of a whack job keep you from the adventure of a lifetime. I have been lucky enough so far that I haven’t found myself in too serious a situation, and I can thank all of the fantastic advice I’ve received from fellow travelers I’ve met along the way for that. Remember that safe traveling comes down to trusting your gut and communicating with your safety network of fellow travelers or family and friends back at home about your whereabouts. Now that we’ve got safety pretty much covered,
I hope this helps! Also, any and all questions are encouraged as I am attempting to pick up my engagement on this platform, I will answer you I promise! Alright see gressa grow gang, as always thanks for the support and until next time.