After a couple of years of break from work exchanges, because of our 1 year scholarship in Indonesia and following trips, it was about time for us to start slowing down our traveling style and to learn new skills for our future projects.
It was end of September. While being in Belgium, we took a bold decision and decided to turn West and chase the winds towards UK, instead of heading south for the milder upcoming Autumn and Winter seasons. We did that with one purpose in mind: to learn the skills on how to build our own house with natural materials through the few remaining work exchange projects about sustainable building still going on, late in the year. UK is the most active region in Europe when it comes to sustainable living, alternative communities, and natural building. Besides, it was the first time for both me and Davide visiting UK, one of the last unexplored pins on our European map. We felt curious, excited!
The Apple-Cider-Straw-Bale-Roundhouse-Cob Deposit
While searching on the web for interesting building opportunities, we came across Joe’s project in Devon: helping finishing and plastering with cob a straw-bale roundhouse with a pretty reciprocal roof, a self-constructed family project for the purpose of depositing Joe’s family own production of apples and cider, on the edge of their beautiful apple orchard.
Besides this being the main work focus, we could spend some time collecting apples or wood if we were finding it enjoyable or get involved in our own small practical or artsy project if some cool idea for improving the spaces crossed our minds. It was the usual deal: 4-5 hours of work, the weekends free for travelling and food and accommodation provided on site.
But it wasn’t the usual living setting and interactions one might expect. To begin with, all the volunteers were living in a forest Dome, forming a temporary community with fun people from different cultures. But I will tell you more about our Dome community and living in the woodland in a second article.
The reason we chose Joe’s project to write about, is because it holds our dearest memories despite of the challenges and we consider Joe’s attitude of being “grateful for any kind of contribution” to be the best approach to work exchange. His project was as much about his expectations and vision as about our own expectations and things we wanted to learn and experience.
This flexibility and openness from a host is the key to engage a helper not only by the number of hours he works but most importantly is engaging the helper with his creativity, bringing forward a better version of themselves.
We were very happy to add our touch to the Cider Deposit by making some thematic clay sculptures on the walls. Davide felt like he was in his own meditative ceramic bubble where he could have spent days upon days smoothing his cob sculpture unaware of the universe moving around him.
He focused his efforts on a sculptural shelf that would represent (of course!) an apple, and at the same time would act as an apple dispenser. Its seedless core would transform into a candle holder at night, providing a dim light and a cosy atmosphere to the apple deposit.
I tried to bring a bit of magic myself by adding (still!) clay apples along a window and making a symbolic chicken eye with forest lashes that would represent the pillars of the roundhouse and the initial inhabitants of the farm.
Apart from the great fun we’ve had with our decorations, working with clay plaster was hard and tiring: shoveling clay from the river, carrying it with a wheel barrow, crashing it, drying it, mixing it by hand or with a spade with sand, water and straw until it reaches the perfect consistency.
The plastering itself was a little bit monotonous but somewhat relaxing and a grounding activity.
In fact, we were applying the clay with our own hands rather than with the trowel, so that we could perceive every movement on the surface and feel the consistency of this primordial material. But this had a big disadvantage: cold temperature and wet hands don’t go along together! So, at times we were wearing a double layer of gloves to try to keep them warm.
But the work was not only about the roundhouse: we also developed some simple ideas to improve the “Dome settlement” where we were living, like organising and decorating the sloppy dome, Davide’s wood cutter trunk and his sign installation for the compost toilet.
Three weeks passed fast, winter was approaching and the Dome was freezing, so it was time to move on. But we were really grateful for this work exchange experience, for the people we’ve met and for having had the possibility to express our creativity while learning new skills.
So, what’s the deal with work exchanges? Where to look for? Is it free?
For those who are not familiar with the work exchange deals, the first good news I’m giving you is that there are several online platforms on the internet where you can search for the projects you are interested in, according to keywords or different criteria like: where about, type of work, host ratings, facilities etc. Although every project is working as a unique agreement between the host and the volunteer (so conditions and expectations might differ), the usual deal is that volunteers help out 4-5 hours per day, 5 days per week in exchange of food and free accommodation during their stay.
When we first heard about this trending travelling style, was all about Woofing – people involved in agriculture projects – but soon, platforms offering a mix of different opportunities started to develop and nowadays the most successful one in terms of popularity, usability and updated content is Workaway. In order to access the contact information of the hosts you are interested in helping, you have to pay an annual subscription fee that varies from a web platform to another, but just to give you an idea, is between 20 – 30 euros per person, or 30 – 40 euros per couple or two friends. The hosts don’t have to pay anything to advertise their projects, so it is easy to understand how their numbers are constantly growing. There is also a feedback and a rating system, similar with the reference system on hospitality networks and all users (hosts and helpers alike) are encouraged to write a few lines about their experience with each other, and grow the trust in between the members and the work exchange network.