My free week in wine country with Work Away
As most of you know, I've been lucky enough to spend the last 3 months living in America. The initial plan was to spend 2 months helping out on a project in San Francisco and then to high-tail it back to Esalen in Big Sur to spend a cost-effective month learning how to be a better person, volunteering on the farm and garden, meeting new people and lazing around naked in natural hot springs.
Unfortunately mother nature had other ideas and this plan was shattered almost immediately. The entire Big Sur region (one of the most beautiful places on earth and definitely one to check out if you ever come to California) has been closed off for most of the year due to storms which have broken concrete bridges and roads blocked by landslides. In all seriousness it's been a very worrying time for the community over there, many of whom rely on tourism as their only source of income. You can read more about the devastation here and donate to help the locals if you're feeling generous here.
So I scaled my holiday back from a month to a few weeks, and bade my time until I came upon a suitable plan B. After much online searching I came to the conclusion that traveling the "normal" way in America can under no circumstances be done cheaply. Even the crappiest hotels cost 80 pounds a night and given I'd already hit up all the key sites in Cali on my last trip, I wasn't quite sure of my working situation when I got home...I was not prepared to pay those rates to do it all over again.
SO I decided to explore alternative ways of traveling. Inspired by my wonderful friend Sophie (who incidentally has written & published a lovely children's book to raise money to build a school in Nepal - definitely worth a purchase if you have little ones) I booked myself into a weeks work trade in wine country with Workaway. It's the sharing economy of global travel. In return for a weeks free accommodation and food, you volunteer 25 hours of your time helping on whatever task that particular "host" requires. NO not that kind of task, get your minds out of the gutter.
For me this has meant living in Kenwood, Sonoma (wine country) in a totally lush eco-house with our host and four other volunteers (who've now become pals). My time has been spent lazing by the pool, bubbling in the hot tub, exploring the forest, drinking wine (obvs) eating yummy food and sharing stories...with a few hours of gardening/landscaping (which I happen to find very relaxing) and casual demolition (my personal forte) a day. You can blitz out all your hours into a few days to give yourself more full days to relax. Or in my case...work for a few hours most mornings before it hit 35 degrees celsius at midday and you had to stop, swim and sunbathe before you could sweat to death.
I'd recommend this way of doing things to anyone looking to really embed themselves into local life, meet like-minded people and travel more cost-effectively. There are hosts all over the world in the most amazing locations and you can volunteer your time to help with all manner of tasks: from building, to childcare, cleaning, gardening, farming, teaching, making websites...if you've got a skill, there's someone out there willing to put you up for free and feed you in return for it. The minimum commitment is a week and if hosts like you they are usually happy to have you for several months, particularly for the child care roles.
Feel free to share this with anyone you know planning their gap year, longer-term adventures abroad, sabbaticals, career breaks or fun retirement. I wish it had existed when I was 18 as it's definitely something I will be doing again down the line. But for now I am hanging out with new found friends before flying south to explore Arizona for a proper holiday, no volunteering required!