At 5AM, the morning sun begins to rise and howler monkeys stir, calling to one another which is my cue the day has begun.
Just kidding. I go back to sleep for three more hours. After that, my day has begun.
Inelegantly stumbling out of bed, my feet hit the floor of the cabina making way over to the outdoor kitchen. I grab a starfruit off a tree and prepare my morning smoothie as the churning of the blender wakes me up. I hear a call from the main house that my host family is heading down to the beach. Quickly gulping my smoothie, I throw on my bikini, an oversized shirt, my sunglasses and hop in the truck. We drive down the unpaved jungle roads of Costa Rica and my head bobs side to side from the bumpy path. After five or so minutes, I feel the sand between my toes and escape into the temperate Caribbean tide. Waves crashing, palm trees swaying; I am witnessing it all. And I’m so happy to be here.
I am half way through college, and I have a small amount of money to my name. This lifestyle I thought growing up, could only be obtained when and if someone is retired or has a trust fund. That was until I educated myself on different websites that cater toward cheap convenient travel such as couch surfing, WWOOFING, and Work Away.
Work Away is a platform that connects hosts with people interested in participating in a work exchange. With a small fee to create a profile, a workawayer lists their skill sets and can contact hosts from every continent on the planet. The host will list what type of help they need, how many hours, and what they will provide in exchange. Usually food and accommodation but every host is different. For me, it’s addicting to click on what country I want to visit and fantasize while scrolling through all the different postings.
My Work Away experience has been incredible, and I am so grateful to have the opportunities that I do. I have a space in a cabina with its own outdoor kitchen and seating area located right outside Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica. My host pays for my food as well as allows me to take her fitness classes free of charge. In exchange, I create videography, photography and other media projects for her. It’s extremely informal, and I have a bunch of downtime to do as I please. I feel like a part of their family and they always invite me on family outings to town.
This experience allows me to reside in a funky, Rasta filled beach town free of charge while helping my host with inspiring projects, honing in my videography skills, and building a portfolio because this is what I study in school. My host is able to market her business better and have a stronger more professional looking presence online. I also have met other workawayers staying here from the Netherlands, Australia, and Los Angeles who all have similar creative goals as I do. It’s a win win situation for everyone.
To be clear, this is the only Work Away that I have ever done. And I know for a fact, most setups aren’t as sweet as mine. But that’s exactly why I want to share my experience, because you can find your dream work exchange.
I was very specific with what I wanted out of a Work Away. I desired to be creating film and media work because that’s my focus at this moment. I knew I wanted to be somewhere lively, and having visited Puerto Viejo numerous times, I fell head over heels with the vibe of the town.
My host and I made a phone call as well as met up in person before deciding on whether we should work together. I know this isn’t possible for everyone but I could because I was already living in Costa Rica at the time. My host family and I established a great connection and I stayed with them for three weeks in June and again right now. The website allows people to post reviews, so definitely check those out before deciding.
Whether you’re moving in with a family, or a hostel, unexpected events may arise. With traveling in general, the ability to adapt to any situation is crucial. At the same time, if the agreements that you established beforehand are not accurate to what you’re getting, be vocal. Work Away is not a binding contract, and you have the ability to leave anytime you feel fit. If anything seems sketchy or not right, use your best judgment.
Work Away is very different than just traveling because you have the opportunity to see and experience so much more than a tourist. In some cases, you’re actually living in the home of a local which can be great for cultural learning and language practice. Work Away isn’t all about hard work. You will learn and gain a new perspective on different places in the world.
Get outside your comfort zone.
Or expand your comfort zone as I’d like to say. The projects I have done have boosted my confidence in my film work, tested me in ways I never thought, and made me even want to give up at times. I wasn’t used to producing films with another person’s vision in mind and doing Work Away has given me so much hands on experience in media and film that I would not have gotten from taking a class in school or studying for a test. Now, I feel as though my work ethic and creative process are much clearer and stronger. I view it as an internship while getting to play in the jungle and beach, of course.
Have a backup plan
I was lucky enough that I was already in Costa Rica studying abroad when I was planning to do a Work Away and if it fell through, I could go backpacking. But, if you’re flying out to a foreign country and banking on the Work Away as your stability net, you need to be confident it’s legit. I would recommend bringing emergency money in case it doesn’t work out and you need to stay in hostels until your next move. Many people will also coordinate to do one Work Away for a few weeks and then do another for a period of time. Options are important.
Have Work Ethic
If strangers are opening up their house and kitchen to you, it might be pretty scary for them as well especially if they’ve never hosted before. Don’t make them feel like they made a mistake sharing their home while you’re on the couch eating potato chips and sleeping all day. I love my experience because it’s not a formal contract, but if you want to stay on good terms with your host, make sure you get your projects done in the time frame you discussed. At the same time, know your worth. You are providing them with a skill that either they don’t possess or don’t have the time for. They need you just as much as you need them. Make sure you’re not being taken advantage of.
Ask Important questions BEFORE deciding to come
Even if specified in their profile, make sure to inquire about what your experience will be like so that you can properly prepare yourself.
Questions such as, What is my living situation going to look like? Will I share a room, and if so, with how many people? Do you have wi-fi? Is food included, and if so, what types of food are available where you live? If you’re cooking my food, can you accommodate my dietary restrictions? How many hours a day will I be working? What days will I have off? Will you be flexible with my hours? Is there public transportation where you live? What is there to do for fun in the area? Are there any safety precautions I should be aware of?
Lastly, and most importantly remember Work Away is NOT legal without a workers permit/ visa in most countries.
One of my friends actually got deported from a country because she told immigration that she was doing Work Away and did not have a visa. Work Away is still work even if you’re not getting paid monetary wise. On Work Away’s website, they do specify this but they don’t make it super clear.
There are loopholes around getting a permit because you have to apply for it and in most countries it is really difficult.
Most countries will allow you to stay in their country for up to 90 days as a tourist. What you can do, is mention that you are traveling. If you say work or volunteer you could be questioned. Best to avoid it.
Remember to be proud of yourself. Getting off the beaten path isn’t always easy to do. In my opinion, I have had so much more fun integrating myself than staying in hotels anyways. I am doing what I love with a twenty-year old’s budget. Doesn’t get much better than that.
Take fear out of the equation and then what do you want?
It comes out of me like word vomit in Mean Girls.
I need more time in Costa Rica.
But I can’t actually do that, right? It’s not part of the “plan.”
Then it dawned on me that I don’t actually have to do anything. I don’t have to go to school, I don’t have to get a job, I don’t have to pay off my credit card bill. Of course I will deal with the consequences of my decisions, but no one’s forcing me to do it.
Nervously punching in the phone number, I wait as my phone starts to ring.
Mom… I have to tell you something. So… I don’t think I’m going back to school next year.
Well, I’m not surprised.
Okay, my parents were relatively neutral about my decision which was much better than I thought. Suddenly, a rush comes takes over my body as I realize I now just altered the direction of my life for the next year.
What will I do with my gap year? Do I want to go back to school at all? How come the damn travel bug affected me so much, I laugh to myself.
Intuitively, I felt that after six months spent studying abroad and exploring in Costa Rica, I was meant to stay longer. I had something more to do, yet I didn’t know what.
Then fear took over my senses.
I already signed a lease for a house with my friends next year. This makes no sense. I’m going to graduate a year later now. What am I even doing with my life? Why am I prancing around traveling when I should be getting an education, right?
Yet, only a day had passed before a friend took over my lease, and everything began falling together perfectly before my eyes. Fast forward months later, and I found a work exchange job where I am practicing and getting hands on experience with exactly what I was studying in school while speaking Spanish at the same time.
I am very privileged to even have these decisions to make. I know most people around the world don’t have the opportunity to choose between University or traveling. And the more I travel the world, the more I am reminded of my privilege.
But what I never learned growing up is that there are other options. If a 4-year degree isn’t what you want, figure out what you’re good at. Want to take time off and volunteer or travel? Go for it. A piece of paper with a bachelor’s degree will get your foot in the door but what life experiences do you have that have shaped your character?
It seems like my friends and I went from seventeen to post-teenager in the blink of an eye. We’re not stressed about parties and getting grounded anymore but internships, jobs, and real life decisions. We’re in the in-between stage, not quite kids, not quite adults.
And I know to most people, twenty is still so young, and it’s normal to not have it figured out and blah-blah-blah. But that is definitely not the vibe I get on a college campus.
The college climate is just ridiculous to me. Everyone is so stressed out, rushing around talking about internship this and getting ahead that. But does anyone even know what they want or who they are? Or is the system just teaching students to enter the workforce, become useful to the economy (that’s completely unsustainable) and don’t bother to figure out what you’re actually passionate about because that won’t pay the bills.
I can honestly tell you I have learned more about myself and life from half a year of travel and sitting in nature than fifteen years of schooling in the education system. I took a gap because I wasn’t meant to function on the clock anymore. I don’t want to try to beat the person next to me and compete with my peers.
No. I want to be sitting in a hammock in nature, editing, creating, writing, connecting, and inspiring. I want to be getting up at 5AM to shoot videos at the beach.
I’m not going to learn Spanish just by memorizing flash cards.
I’m not going to be a filmmaker by stressing about my GPA.
I’m not going to realize the environmental crisis until glass stings my feet on Panama’s beaches.
I’m not going to have a true connection with the world without seeing it for myself.
I am going to return to school and get my bachelor’s degree but when I do go back, I’ll have vision, inspiration, and experience. I’ll know why I am getting my degree and how it is benefiting me. I have made connections with people from literally all over the world. I have learned another language including street phrases.
The fearlessness to leap into the unknown requires trust. It doesn’t have to make sense to anyone but you.
Man does it feel good to slow down for once. To sit with myself, my smoothie and the monkeys in the jungle and reflect on my life and what my goals are. To think about why I am even getting higher education in the first place and if I am truly gaining from it. To understand who I am as a person and how I can make a difference in this world.
That’s why I think I’ll call this The Gaining A Perspective Year.