A Volunteer Miscalculation: How Not To Save Money While Traveling
I attempted a new method of saving funds while traveling, commonly referred to a volunteering, but let’s call it what it is: working without getting paid.
Unlike many travelers, my trip lacks an end date. I do not have to return home at any point, mainly because I do not currently have a home. I plan to travel as long as the money lasts, which I realize will not be forever. I had heard about websites that connect travelers with hosts who trade a free place to stay for a few hours of work a day. I signed up for a website for 25€ and sent out what were essentially cover letters to variety of hosts in countries all over Europe. For example, I offered my services to an alpaca farm in Germany, an English school in Morocco, and a few hostels in Budapest. A small hostel in Riga, Latvia offered me a bed in their staff room for one month in exchange for three to four hours a day of changing beds and general cleaning with one full day off a week. I had felt terrified of running out of money at the time and accepted the hostel’s offer.
My miscalculations became clear immediately upon arrival in Riga. It was snowing. It was freezing. Boston had had the snowiest winter on record the previous year, a fact that largely contributed to my not wanting to stick around that city for another cold season. I could not figure out why I traveled to the Baltics when I had worked so hard for the freedom to go literally anywhere in the world.
In addition to the cold weather, I did not find Riga particularly interesting. It seemed like every other major capital city U had been to in Europe. It looked the same, had the same activities, such as walking tours, escape rooms, and pub crawls, and even had the same shops and restaurants. I looked around the city and thought, “Oh wow another church. Another statue. Another old town.” I visited a twenty sixth floor sky bar which was fourteen stories lower than the floor on which I had worked in Boston. Nothing about Riga drew me in, impressed me, or gave me the feeling that I would enjoy spending a month there.
In hindsight, I should have worked harder to find an opportunity outside of hostels. I had been staying in hostels for almost four months and felt like I was having the same conversations every few days. Hostels serve as a great place to easily meet other travelers and quickly make friends but these accommodations do not provide insight into the actual culture of a city or country. I desired an opportunity to fully immerse myself in a different culture and a hostel is not the place to learn the customs, traditions, and norms of a country. I had met a girl in Romania who had volunteered at a monastery and spent a month making honey, teaching younger girls how to use photoshopp, and completing other various tasks related to running the monastery. I had intended on finding an interesting cultural experience like that rather than a month of changing sheets and vacuuming up after a bunch of Germans and Australians. Fear of running out of funds caused me to accept the first offer.
Additionally, small things about the hostel made me uncomfortable. I slept in the staff room, which was an extremely messy office straight out of an episode of Hoarders with a set of bunk beds. I did not have a storage cube or drawer or anything in which to store my things, which is not a big deal for a few nights stay but I would have liked somewhere other than the floor to contain my belongings for an entire month.
The hostel also had some weird rules. There are many, many unwritten rules of hostel etiquette, such as don’t leave your things in the middle of the room, be friendly, lock up your valuables, introduce yourself, turn the attempt to be quiet by not typing away crazily on your computer when people are sleeping, do not sit on a made bed that does not belong to you, and do not have sex while other people are in the room. This hostel felt the need to write down and post a lot of rules, including the last three and even quantified the last two. It’s pretty odd to be told that you are not allowed to use your own personal computer after a certain time of day. Sitting on a bed in which you did not sleep would incur a 7€ fee. Be prepared to pay a sex invoice of 50€. The hostel also had a no shoe policy that does not seem outlandish until an employee yells and borderline sprints towards the door to remind people to remove their shoes. These written down unwritten rules created a weird vibe where people always felt like they were doing something wrong and could get fined at any time. I didn’t exactly love it.
As the result of these few overlooked items, I cut my commitment short. I had not signed contract nor was I an indentured servant or even a highly trained specialist. The hostel could easily find someone else to tuck sheets under mattresses, change pillow cases, and put blankets in duvets. I initially felt like an asshole for working one out of the four weeks requested but then the owner gave me a lecture about commitment and respect and attempted to make me feel as though I had been lucky to have been selected to volunteer in the hostel in the first place. I then felt like I had absolutely made the right decision to leave.
I most likely will not attempt to volunteer again. I would rather run out of money visiting places I want to see than save money spending time in uninteresting places or doing the work of an employee without the benefit of a paycheck. If I were to volunteer again I would try something completely different than hostel work but attempt to volunteer in a place I already knew I liked. Stay tuned for an alpaca farm in Germany post! (I wish.)