Work Exchange on a Family Homestead Near Tomar
Work exchanges are one of my favourite ways to travel. The idea is that you’re a willing worker, you fill in a profile including the types of work you’re hoping to do, and then you browse through a list of hosts and bombard them with emails until you find someone in search of help. In exchange usually for five hours a day, five days a week they feed and house you and you end up with an opportunity for a cultural exchange that’s quite far from the usual AirBNB or hostel trail.
I did my first ever work exchange through a website called Help Exchange way back in 2005 in New Zealand. Other than having to live with another volunteer (an old, very creepy, Norwegian man) who I didn’t get along with at all, the experience was amazing. Since my current plan is to travel around Portugal to explore, meet new people, and learn new skills, this sort of work exchange-y arrangement is perfect for keeping my costs low while getting all of the benefits of helping people out with their projects.
I found my first hosts through a fantastic website called Workaway (basically the same as Help Exchange but with a sexier interface) who have a seemingly endless list of hosts from all around the world looking for helpers to do a wide variety of things (everything from child care to working in a hostel to farm work to playing board games with the elderly). Because my plan is to move to Portugal, set up a permaculture type place, and build a natural house, I figured I should try to meet as many other people who have already done (or are in the process of doing) something similar and this family seemed to be the perfect fit.
So the day after arriving in Portugal, I hopped a train in the direction of Tomar and was collected at the station by a slightly frazzled mother who was trying to get about a million things done that day. It’s always a weird thing sort of pushing your way into someone’s existing life, arriving as a total stranger and hoping to leave as friends. It’s awkward at first and there’s a bit of cautious optimism as people figure each other out but I make sure to read people’s profiles carefully and I put a lot of time into writing my own super awesome ‘me sales page’ so that the hosts also have a good idea of who’s coming their way.
They’ve got a nice little setup in caravans and a yurt while they work on their house and a large garden with all sorts of fun things happening. They have fruit and olive trees, grape vines, chickens and a plot of land that’s around the same size as what I think I’d be able to manage. It’s great to actually be on a piece of land to see what’s possible within a certain size. It was easy to slot into daily life with them and I really enjoyed the work I was asked to help with.
New Things I Did
- Helped repair a leaky yurt using plastic sheeting. Nobody likes a leaky yurt, that’s what I always say.
- Caught and held a chicken… something that had always freaked me out for some unknown reason. Actually I guess the reason is that chickens are freaky.
- Finally learned how to make a decent omelette. I have no idea how this simple breakfast item has confounded me for so many years, but the abundance of eggs each day and the presence of the perfect omelette frying pan inspired me to experiment.
- Burned a huge bonfire made of stacks of branches and small sticks and scrub that had been collected over the winter. Making giant fires is sort of intimidating due to the fear of setting Portugal on fire but, happily, it all went ok.
- Measured and drew up rough plans of their house so they could start the rebuild. In theory. In reality I’m not sure how useful the plans I made actually are, but I had fun trying.
Things I Want to Copy
- They have an awesome chicken coop and surrounding fence that’s enclosed at the sides and top so you don’t have to worry about putting the chickens in each night. They just wander inside the house themselves when they’re ready for a snooze.
- Their yurt has been built on a sturdy, raised wooden deck and it’s super cozy and way more spacious than it looks. I’d considering putting one up to live in temporarily while I build my house and then keeping it up as a great guest house for visitors.
- Getting to know the hosts, learning about life in the area, and enjoying some sneaky beers in the evening with them.
- Really feeling welcome and at home at their place.
- Attempting to figure out how to draw up house plans which was a fun challenge and, more importantly, an activity that could be done inside in the dry.
- Meeting their friends and having a few fun evenings out and being welcomed to a family Easter dinner.
- Doing some permaculture planning and transplanting from the green house to the garden beds. It was great to get my hands in some soil for the first time in ages.
- Eating amazing food for every meal.
- Going out for walks on the couple of rare days when the sun shone and the weather didn’t freeze me to near death (yes, living in East Africa for so many years has made me very wimpy and slightly dramatic when it comes to the weather).
- Living as part of a family with two young kids who were occasionally into screaming and throwing things.
- Being stuck inside for a good portion of the time due to the remarkably freezing, rainy weather that wanted to kill me.
Overall my time on this work exchange near Tomar was really great! I liked that I was given free reign to identify things that needed to be done and just get to it. I really liked this autonomy and, though I want learning to be a big part of my work exchanges, having the freedom to figure things out on my own can be just as valuable. It might have been nice to have some company once in awhile in the form of another volunteer or the host working alongside me, but I learned that I’m ok just putting my headphones in, zoning out, and getting tasks finished on my own.
I’m happy that the whole work exchange thing was as good an experience as I’d had over 10 years ago. I’ve got a couple more lined up this summer and this experience has made me quite excited about the rest. I really can’t recommend sites like Workaway and Help Exchange enough so if you’re someone who wants to learn some new things and have a bit of an unusual travel experience, give either of them a try!