“A Memoir (of sorts)”

My good friend Jacob Hilton wrote this a little ways back about his experience using workaway.info (i’ll have a link at the bottom) to plan his world travels and as i would refer to it, a “mini-retirement”. My girlfriend and i have also used workaway.info to help plan our travels within southeast asia, and it was incredible.
Jacob’s experience is a bit different from mine as he stayed at the same workaway for an extended period of time, whereas my girlfriend and i only stayed at each of our many workaways a few weeks at a time. The relationships he formed and the experiences he was subjected to have shaped him greatly, to the point that no accurate description of him could leave out his workaway experiences.
If you have any interest in meaningful travel i highly recommend you consider workaway.info or related services like helpx or wwoofing.

A Memoir (of sorts)

It was two years ago today that I first looked into Workaway, signed up and created an account.  I only know this because I received an e-mail today informing me that my two-year subscription will expire tomorrow, and they of course asked me to renew my membership. I don’t think I will, at least not now.  Despite that fact, or maybe because of it, I felt a wave of feelings wash over me as I remembered it all.  Signing up, creating an account, contacting my first host who would later become my host, traveling to Iceland, everything that happened during my first three months there and all that has happened since.  I decided to log in one more time before they deactivate my account to look at my profile, to scroll through the host list and to read again the messages between me and a stranger whose kindness, generosity, trust and hospitality profoundly affected my life.  As I sat there looking at our messages from two years ago, I experienced a kind of mystery as to where I would be now and what my life would be like today had we never met, and at the same time, a deep happiness and reassuring gratefulness that we had.

For anybody who doesn’t already know, Workaway is an international cultural exchange organization that brings together host families and travelers abroad — host families seeking help in a variety of domestic, commercial or industrial settings, and travelers abroad seeking room and board.  The agreements between host and traveler are private and consensual, and the details of each agreement may vary from place to place and between parties.  In general though, the host provides a minimum of three meals a day and a place to sleep in exchange for five hours of work per day, five days a week.

Workaway currently allows hosts to create an account for free and charges travelers (workawayers) €23 (about $30) for a two-year membership.  The price has risen slightly since I signed up in August 2012 from €18 (about $24), but it’s still cheap and well worth the fee.  For what is essentially the same price as a three-month subscription to Netflix, travelers have access to literally thousands of hosts from all around the world who need help right now in their garden, on their farm, in their home, on their boat, in their shop, at their cafe, etc. and are eager to accommodate almost anybody who is willing, ready and able to work.  This is beginning to sound like a sales pitch, but it really is incredible to me just how accessible this sort of thing is; and what that sort of thing is, is altogether fascinating in and of itself.

Workaway and other organizations like it (WWOOF, Global Help Swap, Help X and Growfood) are all cultivating a new kind of experience of what it is to travel, to learn another language, to encounter the “other”and to witness and partake in a lifeway that is radically different from one’s own.  Anthropologists might call this kind of experience, “going native”, but it has hardly been available to any of us non-anthropologists until recently.  Traveling abroad has for a long time been reserved for important business and academic affairs or it has been limited to vacations – often the rapid and intense consumption of the goods and services offered by another people during a very brief period of time.  With the low-cost availability and success of Workaway and similar organizations, the idea of vacationing is bound to change and give rise to a new kind of cultural tourism, and perhaps even a new word to denote this kind of travel – a kind that is more meaningful not only to the traveler but to the host as well.

I can’t help but wonder how these organizations are directly and indirectly transforming or reinforcing current political institutions, market spaces, social organizations, belief systems, personal values, languages, and the like.  In other words, I can’t help but wonder how they are reinventing and reinforcing cultures around the world.  Current and future discourses in anthropology and among the social sciences in general will no doubt have to accommodate a place for these organizations to be discussed in areas concerning identity construction, economic development, power relations and so forth.  As with most social, political and economic change, the process is slow and nearly imperceptible to those who live through it.  But to those who look back, the boundaries of such change become distinct with a beginning, a middle and an end.  As we have only witnessed the beginning of Workaway and similar organizations, it’s hard to appreciate now just how important they are or how important they may become.

Consider for a moment the internet – a global technological development that has utterly transformed the world.  Now remember what life was like before the internet (or in my case, the time before the internet became widely available enough to become a common household commodity).  If you needed to know something, you consulted your library.  If you wanted to write somebody, you went to the post office.  If you wanted to rent a movie, you went to a Blockbuster.  If you wanted to look at old photographs, you thumbed through a photo album.  These things seem so anachronistic to me now, and it wasn’t but 17 years ago that I sat in front of a typewriter to do my homework with no computer or internet in sight.   Now fast-forward to the present, and take a look around you at what the internet has done.  When you need to know something, you consult Wikipedia.  When you want to write somebody, you log in to Gmail. When you want to watch a movie, you log in to Netflix.  When you want to look at old photographs, you sign in to Facebook. Of course the details may differ, but the pattern prevails.

Before the internet, Workaway didn’t exist, nor did any of the other organizations like it, or at least not like they do now.  To be fair, WWOOF (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms) was started in England in 1971, but it was far more limited in scope then and much less accessible than it is today.  Because of the internet, WWOOF has become a global success with farmers on every continent seeking volunteers.  The internet has given birth and given rise to these organizations and to so many others that are radically changing the human experience and the ways in which people organize, communicate, create and maintain relationships, share information, learn new skills and other languages, buy, sell and trade; and frankly, it’s exciting to see it all happen and to try to imagine what will happen next.

I don’t know what exactly compelled me to sit down and write this.  Maybe I want to promote Workaway and to inspire somebody else to travel.  Maybe I want to stimulate an interesting discussion about the statics and dynamics of culture and to talk about where we’re headed.  Maybe I just wanted to remember my own travels and the joys they provided and the promises they fulfilled.  Until now, I realize that I’ve said very little about my own experience through Workaway or my travels abroad in general.

In a few words, I traveled to Iceland in March last year and lived there for three months.  I returned later that same year in September and stayed again for another three months.  On both occasions, I worked on a dairy farm located in the north just outside of Akureyri, the so-called culture capital of Iceland. I milked cows, fed horses, herded sheep, and raised chickens.  On fair weather days, I rode a bicycle into town through the breathtakingly beautiful Icelandic countryside.  From the international airport in Keflavik, I rented a car and twice took the most incredible road trip from the south to the north both times I flew in. In the winter I watched the northern lights, and during the summer I saw the midnight sun.  On the farm, I became a member of a wonderful family who taught me more about life in Iceland than I could have possibly gleamed from any book or otherwise.  With them I had the pleasure and privilege to share food and drink and a home to live in.  In the city, I became friends with several strangers who were only too eager to make me feel welcome and to show me around.  With their patience and continued support, I’ve learned to speak Icelandic and continue to improve on a daily basis.  Last but not least, I met somebody, somebody I have come to love very much, and I will be returning to that little island of fire and ice in three days to see her again.

I don’t want to chalk all this up to a love-story, but to be fair that was an important part of it. More importantly though, for me, it was a story of pursuing something desirable and perhaps even necessary in the face of adversity. I was fresh out of college, and I felt the social pressures to begin my career or to continue my education. In fact, I was nearly ready to apply for graduate school with applications in hand, letters of recommendation ready to be made, and a letter of intent in progress.  While a very real part of me wanted to go to graduate school, and a part of me still does, a bigger part of me wanted to just say “Fuck this!  I’m going to travel instead”.   And so that’s what I did.  I had spent a year living abroad, working and going to university in Sweden and Norway from the summer of 2011 to the summer of 2012.  It was an unprecedented period of time in my life where I had assumed all these new roles and responsibilities that were deeply rewarding and very satisfying, and when it was all over and time to come home, I was devastated.  Home shock!  I spent the next few months back in Texas remembering my time abroad and trying to figure out how I could travel again, and through a chance encounter with a stranger I learned about Workway.

Traveling may not be for everybody, and I would never be so presumptuous to prescribe that everybody should.  For me personally, traveling has enriched my life and empowered me in a way that nothing else has.  I was so worried about forsaking my career and my education by traveling, but in reality those things were only ever cultivated by it.  My career, my art, my passions, and my relationships with others have never proliferated more than they have since I traveled during college and even more so since I graduated.

As this memoir of sorts has run on for some time, I want to conclude it with an idea that is very personal to my own experience.  In trying to understand for myself why I love to travel and to express that sentiment to others, I find it best to use a sort of birth/death metaphor to explain, at least subjectively, what it feels like and why I like that feeling as much as I do.  To be clear, by travel I refer here exclusively to places foreign in language and culture and for periods sufficiently long enough for me to feel like I belong there.  In these cases, it feels as though my arrival and departure to and from a place demarcate my birth and death respectively, and everything in between is a life once lived.  They are the bookends, so to speak, of a series of thoughts and feelings and in some cases behaviors that are confined to a particular place and time that together seem both too important to neglect how they’ve shaped me and too remote to acknowledge that they were my own experiences.  Twenty-seven years old, I’ve lived the life of a Texan, a Swede, a Norwegian and an Icelander.  Who knows how many other lives I’ll live before I die, but it feels like it’s been a hell of a lot longer than twenty-seven years, and I mean that in the best possible way.

Your life is a story, and the life you choose to live is the story you choose to tell.  It may be a comedy, or it may be a tragedy.  It may be a novella, or it may be an odyssey. But the words will be written by the stroke of your own pen.

One of the things that Jacob and i have both brought up about workaway.info that really excites us is the possibilities it allows for the birth of a robust and mobile counter-culture. Imagine if you could work for a season in mongolia on a horse farm, and then move south into a commune in vietnam for a season and work as a organic farmer and then move to india for a season to work in a bookshop? You could move when your travel visa’s run out, you would spend incredibly little money, and see the world and various cultures along the way. It’s a new paradigm to travel and adventure abroad.
Also, imagine if within a country networks of workaways were set up within certain economic subcultures so that communists, anarchists, quakers, daoists, or whatever could perpetually move and participate in an underground (or hell, above ground) economy and culture that wouldn’t require paying taxes, rent, or setting up all the normal bullshit. Something to think about for the anarcho-diasporists out there.