Tavleen Kaur was fascinated by Turkey, a country full of serene landscapes, beautiful beaches, and a heady mix of the East and West. She was particularly taken by Pamukkale, a natural site with hot springs and surreal terrace formations. So, when she finally got two weeks’ leave in October approved from her office, she immediately signed up for horse-riding classes and read up on the animals.
Not that equestrianism is a mandate for all tourists who want to visit Turkey. Kaur, a corporate lawyer, was going on a different kind of a vacation -- a ‘volunteer holiday’. A ‘volunteer holiday’ or a ‘work holiday’ is a unique concept where people travel to another country (or maybe even within their own) to help out with tasks at hostels, farms, country houses, hotels and restaurants. In return, the volunteer is provided with free accommodation and meals.
The 28-year-old had decided she wanted to visit the real Turkey -- the countryside in all its glory. She chose to volunteer at a horse farm in Uzumlu village in Fethiye district, which is about 800 km from Istanbul. She got to know of the requirement from Workaway (www.workaway.info), a website that provides listings of all such volunteer requirements worldwide. The jobs could include anything -- painting, cleaning, carpentry, babysitting, milking cows, tending to horses, cooking and so on. The volunteer can be from any part of the world. The only pre-requisite is that he/she should have the appropriate skills.
An experience like no other
According to a Ministry of Tourism report, 14.92 million Indians went abroad in 2012. “A work holiday is a brilliant concept. You get to travel to a new country, mingle with locals and experience the country in a way a tourist never can,” Kaur gushes. She narrates her experience of living with a delightful expat couple on a beautiful farm. “They have five horses. My responsibilities included taking care of the animals, feeding them, cleaning up, taking them for a ride and so on.” She was provided with a luxurious room of her own and good food by her hosts. The farm was situated in the middle of a valley and was surrounded by lush greenery. In the evening, Kaur would feed the horses and gaze up at the night sky. “The horses were like my babies. I would do everything for them. During a storm, when they would get scared, we would talk to them, calm them down and put them to sleep.”
The Kolkata girl says that the lessons she learnt during her volunteer holiday are invaluable. “You learn so much about other cultures, their way of living and looking at life. For a city girl like me, it was a heavenly feeling,” she adds. Then, there were things that left Kaur quite speechless. “Turkey is a retirement haven. In Fethiye, if you go to a restaurant, you will get a property menu along with the food menu. Imagine, as you order lunch, you can choose to buy a house. Real estate is quite affordable there. You can get a 4-BHK, fully furnished, centrally-heated house with swimming pool for R1 crore,” she elaborates. Not a bad deal at all.
Travel and learn
Like Kaur, 27-year-old Vikram Mittal, too, went on a working holiday to Spain in July. Mittal is a marine engineer with Maersk. His job entails travelling on a shipping container to many countries. “Forty-two, actually,” he points out. But when he wanted to learn Spanish, he decided to move to Seville and learn the language from the locals.
“No book or tutorials can teach you to speak the language like interacting with a local can. That’s why I went to Seville at a bed-and-breakfast joint,” he says, sounding quite chuffed. Mittal paid his Spanish tuition teachers -- his hosts -- by helping out with the daily chores at the inn. His responsibilities included attending to the guests, cleaning and changing the sheets, painting walls, polishing furniture and so on. He, along with a fellow volunteer from Australia, was given a room to put up in. “And food! The fridge was always stocked with food,” he exclaims.
According to these travellers, most hosts are extremely understanding and friendly. They know it’s important for the volunteers to explore the new country. Kaur’s hosts, for instance, let her wander wherever she wanted, at any time. “I once took a long walk towards the village. But I had forgotten to take money and was extremely hungry. So I came across a fruit orchard and simply plucked grapes and figs off the branches and ate them,” she recalls.
For Mittal, work hours were from 9 am to 2 pm, leaving him free to explore the city in the evening. “I went to all the pubs and tasted local beer and tapas,” he adds. He even ended up taking salsa lessons at a local club. You can’t get more authentic than that.
Working on a holiday is for everyone, lest one assumes this is a yuppie trend. Sixty-two-year-old Ramana Naidu, a Bangalore-based construction industry professional, signed up on Workaway three months ago. “After retirement, I started my own farm with cows, chicken and goats. I want to improve my goat stock and hence, I want to travel to a goat farm abroad to gain some experience. I eventually want to make goat cheese,” he says. Naidu is in the process of short-listing goat farms in the US. “Once I get the perfect place and the winter ends, I’m off on a trip,” he smiles.
Meanwhile, the Gyanis from Delhi are looking to give back to society, and feel that a volunteer vacation fits the bill. Raj Kumar Gyani, a retired senior manager from Canara Bank, was directed to the site by his daughter, who stays in the US. “I’m a post-graduate in economics and my wife, Vimla, had a government job in Delhi. We both registered at a volunteer holiday website, as we wanted to use our skills to help someone.”
The Gyanis say they want to make a positive contribution to projects with a proclivity towards social causes. “I have sieved through the list of hosts, and have found some people who are interested in having us over. We have received offers from Indonesia and other areas,” says Gyani.
However, he got an offer from the Teach India project, which he decided to take up first, as it was close to home. Once completed, the couple will make their first volunteer trip. “I log on to the site regularly to check if new opportunities have been put up. It’s a fabulous concept and we love it,” he exclaims.
A trip to an exotic location like Europe can leave one scraping the bottom of one’s bank account. But on a work holiday, one only pays for his or her flight tickets and visa. Since the traveller doesn’t pay for food and accommodation, s/he can save a lot of money, which can be spent on doing ‘touristy’ things.
Kaur, for instance, spent only a couple of thousand rupees during her two-week stay. “Turkey was very cheap. I had a full,luxurious meal for an equivalent of R850. The only money I spent was on my bus trips to the town, which would cost meRs 125.”
Some hosts even pitch in here. Mittal, for instance, was provided with a bus card, which made travelling quite inexpensive. “I only spent about 150 euros (R12,800 approx) on food and drinks. But that was because I binged on local cuisine every evening. My experiences were heightened because I visited the Plaza del Salvador, Torre del Oro and Real Alcazar. I visited most restaurants and sampled everything I could find,” he says.
Mittal also visited the usual tourist spots such as the Seville Cathedral, Metropol Parasol, castles, bull-fighting stadiums, churches, bridges and museums and also soaked in the local culture during his eight-day stay.
Based on trust
Volunteer holidays picked up during the early noughties, as an extension of couchsurfing. There are quite a few websites offering working holidays -- HelpX, Workaway and WWOOF (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms) are the popular ones. While the third is only for organic farms, the other two have inns, hostels and families as hosts. Workaway was the brainchild of 46-year-old David Milward. It first went live in 2003, explains 37-year-old Alice Irving, a team member at Workaway. Even though she refuses to reveal the exact user statistics, she says the concept is fast picking up in India. Travellers register for a fee of 22 euros (about Rs 1,900) or 29 euros as a couple or friends. Membership is valid for two years, allowing one access to thousands of hosts around the world. “We just had our 7000th host go live. That covers about 135 countries,” Irving says happily. Anyone can be a part of this, provided s/he volunteers for a maximum of five hours a day, five days a week, she adds.
But what about travellers' safety?
Irving explains, “The basic premise is trust, which is equally true for both the volunteer, who is travelling to an alien country, and the hosts, who are inviting a stranger into their homes. We have a feedback system for both. Anyone who receives more than two negative ratings is removed from the site.” Registration as a host is free. There are 124 hosts from India on Workaway and 69 at HelpX.
However, travellers back home claim that after volunteering on holidays, they are so fascinated by this concept that they might never opt for the usual vacation in the future. Kaur says, “I don’t think I can ever stay in a hotel after this. This is so much better. You get to meet so many people from close quarters.”
Mittal adds, “We, Indians, are not that experimentative yet. These trips are a real eye-opener. I have a steady job and I don’t need to do this, but I’m looking forward to my next one. The learning experience is incomparable.” Interestingly, Irving met her partner while volunteering at a hotel. Mittal’s hosts, too, met during a work holiday and eventually got married. So, pack your bags, learn a skill and keep conventional travel at bay, for a change. Who knows where life will take you?
Checklist for volunteer holidays
>> Be thorough with your research and make sure you find the right place to go to. Tavleen Kaur and Vikram Mittal, for instance, spoke to over 20 hosts each before they zeroed in on their respective destinations.
>> Talk to your hosts in detail and in all honesty before travelling. Experienced volunteers say it takes at least three to five months to establish a rapport.
>> Your visa is vital. Sort it out well in advance.
>> Plan six months in advance for south European destinations, as the slots fill up really fast.
>> Even if you don’t have the experience, try talking to the hosts. Tavleen Kaur’s hosts welcomed her even though she wasn’t an expert on horses. The couple were thrilled to have an Indian traveller over.