Sometimes the best way to live an extraordinary life is to wake up like a normal person everyday in an unfamiliar place. This was the story of my summer. For a week in Germany, two weeks in Japan, and two weeks in Vietnam, I have done all sorts of work in exchange for meals and lodging. I worked with educational artists at a small German non-profit, helped at a guesthouse in Japan, and created fun learning projects for kids in Vietnam. I found this kind of opportunities independently on a website called Workaway, which connects volunteers with people needing help doing a multitude of things around the world. As a Workawayer I picked up an essential set of life skills and perspectives - like how to not make a tragedy out of cooking, how to connect with my mind and body through art, and how to live (and eat) the way I never thought possible.
Workaway number one was helping a non-profit academy in Germany develop innovative learning methods for young children and renovate the school building resembling a haunted house. Located in the pastoral boondocks of Germany, the academy was sponsored by the EU education and culture agency to do R&D in educational solutions that can be scalable to different countries. My tasks ranged from brightening up the space to making websites and photoshopping. The team consisted of artists from Romania, Ireland and Czech Republic as well as two other Workawayers from Portugal and France. This Workaway offered an interesting perk. Every afternoon was an opportunity to discuss the art and science of learning and do a creative workshop with drawings and rhymes. Daily bike trips around the countryside featuring wildflowers picking and horses stalking made for idyllic summer days.
The Japan Workaway was at a houseguest called Genryu no sato in Kochi prefecture, south-east of Shikoku island. The resort was run by a Japanese family and international staff including an ex-Workawayer. During my two weeks there were volunteers from USA, Brazil, Spain and Hong Kong. From 10am-2pm, five days a week, we were given a rotating set of tasks like making beds and preparing cottages for guests, cooking for the team, and cleaning the onsen bathing facilities. The amount of freedom we had was ridiculous! Afternoon pastimes included mountain biking adventures to picturesque waterfalls and villages, swimming in the clearest rivers on the planet, spontaneous drawing and creative writing sessions, and sampling Japanese candies from convenient stores all over town.
Here I had the summer holiday I have always dreamed of, including memories that are hard to forget. An example is a crazy episode in the kitchen where I managed to obliterate everyone's taste buds with my (apparently nonexistent) seasoning skills. The Oyakodon I made (see the beautiful photo below), according to one friend, tasted so salty it was "like an ocean". Other than culinary tragedies, making 44 beds and cleaning 10 cottages in an incredibly hot and humid day did almost crush my spirit. The soul-soothing onsen bath at the end of every exhausting day made the work worth it. Through this Workaway stay I fell in love with rustic community life, filled with positive energy and peace, where I found myself the time and space to be creative and free.
My last Workaway took place at Circletime English play studio in Hanoi, Vietnam. The studio offers project-based learning for kids old and I was there to design and lead workshops to help students learn English in a hands-on and organic way. If you know about my passion for educational innovation, then you know the work was right up my alley! An example of projects we did is making DIY fish and turtles from plastic bottles as kids learned about the ocean and environmental protection. In a workshop with teenage girls we discussed topics related to health and beauty, introducing the concept "healthy is the new pretty." In addition to Robert the studio founder, I had the pleasure of working with Workawayers from the Netherlands, Germany, and Poland, and Vietnamese assistants who treated us like family and made us bomb authentic spring rolls!
Keeping the kids engaged halfway between boredom and hyperactivity was more challenging and exhausting than any non-teacher could ever imagine – they were madly adorable and uncontrollable at once. All it took was one overly excited kid to elicit class havoc. As soon as each workshop ended we collapsed and couldn't move a muscle for a considerable length of time. The classroom atmosphere was actually no different from life in the old French quarter where we often spent our free time. The bustling night market, people lounging in tiny chairs on congested sidewalks, nonstop jumbles of scooter and car traffic - all contributed to the delightfully frantic Hanoi street life. To escape the urban nightmare, we dedicated most afternoons to maximum relaxation, just laying in bed listening to meditation and self-development podcasts. Day-off getaways consisted of "Cocktail Cruise" to the famous Halong Bay, a day visit to natural gem Ninh Binh, and adventurous hikes through the scenic rice terraces of Sapa.
Workaway is an amazing opportunity to go deep and wide in your travel journey. Deep into local knowledge and experiences an unfamiliar culture offers. And wide across global perspectives you encounter through your fellow volunteers who come from all walks of life. Definitely look into Workaway and other volunteering opportunities if you are thinking about travel plans! I couldn't think of a more meaningful and cost-efficient way to see the world.
I'm always on the lookout for future volunteering destinations, so if you have any recommendations let me know!