Workaway: Eat, Sleep, Help, for free

Do you crave a total immersion into a new culture, language, food, and a way of living that's both affordable and deeply satisfying? Try Workaway.
Feeding baby buffalo in Laos

a delightful monthly email with tips, tricks and stories on wellness, affordable travel and everything else I get excited about 

Workaway is a non-monetary exchange. You offer 5 hours of work per day in return for food, lodging, and an immersion into local family life. Every posting is unique. You can browse what’s on offer for free until some opportunity catches your eye and you’re ready to apply.

“Wherever you turn, you can find someone who needs you. Even if it is a little thing, do something for which there is no pay but the privilege of doing it.”

– Albert Schweitzer

The Night Bus

I was stretching my legs, waiting for the bus driver to toss my backpack from the cargo hold onto the sidewalk. I was wondering how long of a break do these drivers get to recover after the grueling 26-hour journey between Hanoi, Vietnam, and Luang Prabang, Laos. Do they go back again tomorrow? Or do they sleep for three days as I was planning to do?

Mark and I booked a beautiful room at a lovely guesthouse in Luang Prabang to recover before jumping right into our first Workaway at the Laos Buffalo Dairy (LBD). We had no idea what to expect and we wanted to be rested before starting the 5 weeks we committed ourselves to. The town used to be the royal capital of the Kingdom of Laos. Sitting on the Mekong river and protected as a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its remarkably preserved blend of traditional architecture and French colonial influence, it is a particularly charming place to explore on foot.

Party at the farm

After our 3 day respite, we were picked up by Rachel, an American ex-pat, and co-founder of LBD, and whisked off to the buffalo farm. There we met Susie and Steven, a pair of Australian ex-pats, and the other founders of LBD. Their dream was to provide locals with an income and a new food source, with the know-how to milk and make cheese from their water buffalo. Between the three of them, they have four wonderful, bright-eyed children, who became one of the highlights of our stay.

We were neither taken to the farm to live (we would be offered a beautiful room in town, in Rachel’s house, just next door to Susie & Steven’s), nor to be immediately put to work (as we would soon find out, nobody was working that day). We were, in fact, about to be baptized by fire into the Lao culture, as we had the good fortune to arrive at the beginning of Pi Mai, the week-long New Year’s celebration.

Our Workaway began with a party that the local farmers put together for everyone. A goat was slaughtered and cooked, a long outdoor table was weighed down with all sorts of meats, vegetables, and sweets. We drank liquor traditionally passed around the table in one glass, learned a local dance, and then had water poured down our backs for good luck. We ate congealed blood from the ill-fated goat, followed by even more hooch, thinking, as we often foolishly did in such circumstances, that we’d rather get sick than show any disrespect. And, as is always the case, the next we woke up healthy, happy, and bright.

New Year’s water fight

We spent the first three Workaway days not working at all. During Pi Mai, the city is abuzz with excitement, and our hosts kindly encouraged us to enjoy the spectacle. We only came “home” to eat and sleep, soaked from the water fights that break out all over the city. Kids and adults, tourists, and locals arm themselves with hoses, buckets, bottles, cups, and water pistols and passers-by welcome the refreshing streams of water-based luck in the heat of the South Asian days.

You wander through streets brimming with music, giggles, and color. A parade makes its way through the city, with rows of Buddhist monks garbed in orange robes, dancers in elaborate costumes, musicians playing traditional instruments, children carrying flowers, and a beauty pageant to boot. Then home again, drunk on Lao beer, soaked, giddy with impish delight, and ready to do it all again tomorrow.

So, what exactly is Workaway?

Workaway is a non-monetary exchange. You offer 5 hours of work per day in return for food, lodging, and an immersion into local family life. Every posting is unique. You can browse what’s on offer for free until some opportunity catches your eye and you’re ready to apply. If you sign up through this link, both you and I get an extra month of membership for free. The yearly fee is $49 for one person and $59 for a couple. Hosts can join free of charge. If you need volunteers for your next project or a company of like-minded people, give it a try.

As a Workawayer, you can lead jungle walks in Costa Rica, help nuns in Estonia with bee-keeping, live in Peru in exchange for chatting with the host in English, or help a Greek lady (who loves to cook) sort out an overfilled cellar on Rhodes, Greece. There are over 50,000 listings like these, all over the world. They range in length from a couple of weeks to several months. You can have, for free, an experience that you couldn’t buy even if you wanted to as a tourist.

workaway website screenshot
After you sign up for Workaway, you can contact fellow travelers who have done the assignments you’re interested in

We finally start working

After the festivities were over, our duties consisted of spending time with the kids, teaching English to the workers at the buffalo farm, and working on a fundraising campaign for LBD. Some days our students would break for lunch and catch frogs or snakes and cook them for all to share. Other times we’d sing songs, or simply walk around the farm naming what we saw. They learned English and we’d try to pick up the local terms. Every word they learned filled us with pride, and satisfaction.

The next set of Workawayers arrived a week before our departure. A truly beautiful young couple from New Zealand (Alana) and Chile (Felipe). We became fast friends. They made our last days particularly wonderful as we worked, ate, drank, and wandered Luang Prabang together. We even caught a showing of the locally filmed 1927 classic ‘Chang’ directed by Merian C. Cooper who, only a few years later, would go on to make the legendary ‘King Kong’ (1933) that carried Fay Wray to the top of the Empire State Building.

Visiting a local girl

Then there was Mone, Rachel’s housekeeper, who enriched our every day, and one truly special day in particular. On her day off, all four of us (Workawayers) took a small boat taxi across the Mekong river. Mone invited us to see her village. Her relatives welcomed us into their homes and took us on a tour of the community. We hiked to richly painted caves, temples, and a hidden shrine in the hill. Ending up at Mone’s own home, we settled on the floor. Mone’s small boy sat on my lap. Mone treated us to a sumptuous meal of fried fish and sticky rice.

Workaway is a unique experience

During this Workaway, we shared meals with locals and ex-pats, learning about their extraordinary, separate, yet intertwined worlds. We laughed with our Lao students, learned to make mozzarella, and construct a fund-raising campaign, bottle-fed buffalo babies, ate goat blood and fried frogs, and celebrated New Year’s Lao style. Rachel’s cheese-making tenacity, Susie’s wisdom and insights, Steven’s mad skills and charming wit, and the adaptability of their clever children were awe-inspiring. We were smitten by the gentle and generous nature of all the Lao people we met. The circumstances of their lives may seem tough to a Western eye, yet they are incredibly resilient, smart, and happy.


We noticed this throughout our travels – more wealth doesn’t necessarily mean more happiness.
Not that I wouldn’t be willing to give it a shot 😉

Gallery

A minute-long compilation of New Year’s festivities

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a delightful monthly email with tips, tricks and stories on wellness, affordable travel and everything else I get excited about 

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