“So you are going to Italy for two weeks to cut down trees? What is in it for you?”
Well, definitely not soft skin on my hands. But the question is entirely valid – what does one actually get out of it when one decides to spend their free time on a volunteer project abroad instead of lying on a beach in Zakynthos with a piña colada in hand like any other person?
One could go on and on about how the main reason is the good feeling that comes from doing meaningful and rewarding work. That is true. But it would be a shame to reduce workcamps to just that – because in exchange for a bit of unpaid work and free time, you get a lot more than you would expect.
So – what do you actually get out of it?
1. You will be staying in places, you cannot rate with stars
You can sleep in the banquet hall of a German castle, in a mountain hut on top of Lysá hora and in a fallout shelter in Switzerland. I dare say you would not even find this on Airbnb. All of these accommodation experiences you could indulge in on a traditional (maybe even a bit unconventional in the case of the shelter) vacation, but you know – once you pay for something, you are just a tourist. The place does not belong to you.
On the other hand, what it is like to sleep for 14 days on that one bunk bed in a room fifteen meters underground, where there is no signal, no windows, no fresh air, but where you would not even notice through the three-meter-thick steel door that the sun has just exploded outside and burned to a crisp not only the national park you came to cultivate, but also the whole of Switzerland, planet Earth, and Elon Musk’s Tesla floating through space, you will only find out at the workcamp.
2. You will eat so much good food
Fortunately, most organizers have come to realize that a happy and therefore working volunteer equals a well-fed volunteer. That is why you will not really suffer from hunger at the workcamp. If locals cook for you (e.g. in a nearby restaurant), you usually gain a lot of weight (even if you spend seven hours a day cutting down trees in a nearby national park – tested for you). In my experience, most locals seem to be under the impression that if they do not manage to prepare every regional specialty from soup to dessert in those two weeks, they will be stripped of their citizenship. As a result, you will be the most satisfied (and probably the broadest) volunteers in the county.
Then, of course, there is the equally interesting culinary option of volunteers cooking for each other. In that case, count on tasting many specialties from different parts of the world. One day you have a real Costa Rican breakfast, the next day you have a Serbian-style barbecue, and another day you spend 5 hours in the kitchen trying desperately grate 8 kilos of potatoes on a parmesan grater to make real Czech potato pancakes for 16 people who are trying to help you by at least trying to smash the potatoes with a meat mallet. You will have a lot of fun cooking together, and you will also learn a lot (or, on the other hand, you eill teach something to those who see a potato for the first time in their lives). And even if sometimes things go a little wrong, at least you will have the experience of a lifetime. Like when the whole 12-person expedition gets the stomach flu at once. Moments like that bring you even closer together as a team.
3. You will visit places you normally wouldn’t
You will go for a walk in a mountain valley in Sicily under a full moon – because one of your guides is a bit of an amateur mountaineer (of course) and regularly organizes this type of event for his friends. You will go hiking on an alpine glacier (because it is right on the next hill) and as an added bonus you will get an exclusive tour of the local hydroelectric plant, because your local partner has the keys to it (of course) and knows everyone who works there personally (of course). Then, in the evening, you will go and cool off under the waterfall (because it is right at the end of the village), where you will enjoy the view of a 30-meter cliff with the clearest water you have ever seen falling from it. And then at night you will climb to the observatory at the top of the castle tower and look at the stars through the telescope of the castellan, who is (of course) a keen astronomer. Try to find this in a travel agents’ catalog. I dare you.
4. Experience things you normally wouldn’t
This category includes all the unusual experiences that simply do not usually happen in ordinary life. For example, you might attend a workshop on playing traditional African instruments and try to communicate your feelings to others using only music. You could spend a day helping to bake cakes in the castles’ café with its disabled staff. You can learn some amazing folk dancing from a group of local farmers. Or maybe you can witness a situation where two volunteers decide to do their laundry for the first time in their lives and spend the rest of their stay dressed in tight bikinis because they set their washing machine to 100 degrees. It should be added that this is the kind of experience you will take away from the workcamp. And they will all be worth it.
5. You will become manually skilled
If, like me, you attend mostly workcamps focused on manual labor, you will never be upset when you have to sometime in the future: chop wood, haul wood from the woods, shave wood, paint wood, build a traditional Sicilian sala using the method of the 15th century. Bring stones from the forest, prepare cement in a mixer, pave a path in front of the house, build a summer terrace, start a permaculture garden next to the terrace and start growing 30 kinds of herbs in the garden (which you can only name in German, but most of the hobbymarkets belong to German anyway).
In addition, you will know how to measure, grind, trim, sand, paint, varnish, dig, prune, cut, mow, chop… and simply a lot of other things that, as a millennial in the digital age, you are not only guaranteed to impress everyone, but also greatly expand the number of projects you can do at home yourself.
6. You will sharpen your soft skills
If you want to have all the skills you normally pay big bucks for at personal development seminars, go to a workcamp. Teamwork, communication, conflict resolution, creative thinking, leadership, time management… you will learn all of this and you will only find that out when you fill in the final evaluation questionnaire, which will make you realize how much you have improved as a person by asking you some very tricky questions. How much you have been enriched by simply having to work with a group of ten other people for two weeks straight, half of whom you do not understand (which is basically the best preparation for working life you can get), to achieve the same goal. It is not just rewarding – it is mostly terrible fun. Forget memories of your school project with a five-person work team of one working member and four slackers. Volunteers want to work together – and that kind of environment is a complete breeding ground for new skills.
7. You will get to know yourself better
You may already know who you are, what you can do, what is important to you, what great things you have done in your life and what direction you want to take in the future. But if you are still (probably like most of the population) kind of not sure what to do with yourself, go to a workcamp. You might suddenly find that the things you have considered normal up until now – “everyone can sing / dance / play guitar / speak English / work with kids / rake grass / practice yoga / surf / fix a car / work with a circular saw / pilot a plane” (yes, we had those too) – suddenly are not so normal anymore. In fact, workcamp volunteers tend to unwittingly function a bit like a reciprocal coaching team. They all support each other, admire each other’s skills and reflect on how they could be best used. Over a glass of Serbian rakija around the campfire, they make you realize what is important to you in life, what fulfills you, what you have already achieved, what you can be proud of and what you want to pursue in the future. And if you happen to discover that what you want to pursue in the future is more workcamps – well, then your development possibilities are basically endless.
8. You will discover your inner zen
Workcamp teaches you to expect the unexpected. And then watch with serenity as first the expected happens, then the unexpected, and finally the things you simply never dreamed would happen. At the workcamp, you will learn that there is no point getting upset about things you cannot control. Because no matter how well you prepare for the trip, you simply cannot count on the fact that a bus from Palermo (which was coming from a completely different part of Palermo than the infosheet claimed) will collide with a jiggly car on a mountain curve. That it will take two hours to investigate it, so that everyone who is passing by and speaks Italian can comment on it, that the tired and shabby bus driver will forget where he was originally going, and that he will drive you around Sicily for another half an hour, after which he will take you to a completely different place than where the workcamp is taking place. Then, when the organizers finally find you are on the other side of the island in the evening, you learn that yes, we were supposed to stay in a mountain hut, but “all our cars broke down, so we have no way to get you there, we’ll put you up here in the village at the local school instead.” And yes, in the description of the workcamp, we said you’d be marking hiking trails in the mountains. But that was last year’s information. And we still don’t have cars. So instead, we’re gonna improve the local botanical garden. There’s a frog pond, only now there’s no water. Nor frog.
9. You will meet amazing people
The best part at the end. The social bubble is not just a Facebook thing – many of us have it in the real world too. But at a workcamp, you will find a lot of people popping into the bubble as soon as you arrive who you definitely would not expect to be there, and before you have a chance to look around and put some precautions in place, they have settled in and you cannot get them out. Then you find out that you do not really mind. Because where else would you meet such an incredible mix of opinions, life experiences, hobbies, abilities, political beliefs, eating habits and absolutely unbelievable bad habits? Unsurprisingly, you fall in love with all these people and when it is time to leave, you feel like you are 13 again and you are leaving camp, but you don’t really want to and it’s all terribly unfair. You will stay in touch with many of these people, even if it is only through the internet, some of them you will visit a few more times, and some of them you will just never get rid of. And with those people you will be reminded over and over again how good an idea it was to go to that workcamp.
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