Country house in Italy, 50 minutes from Rome, beautiful garden, lake view.
THE online ad showed a picture of a yellow stone house perched on a hill overlooking a lake. An Italian woman was looking for help around the house – gardening, stacking firewood and helping her teenage kids with English.
I had never met her before or knew anything about where she lived. A quick Google of the town Bracciano showed it had a grand castle that was the setting for Tom Cruise’s wedding to Katie Holmes. But apart from that trivial knowledge, it sounded distant, foreign and altogether unknown. An adventure.
I emailed the owner and within a day I had a reply from a woman named Valentina. A few emails back and forth and it was settled: Italy was waiting for us.
‘‘Now I’m a mum, I don’t get to travel as much as I used to. HelpX brings interesting people from around the world into my home and lets me share in their lives.’’Heather Stevens, of Wallsend
The idea of living with a stranger on the other side of the world was something I knew nothing about. Websites like couchsurfing.org sounded intriguing but, after hearing a few stories, the thought of freeloading on someone’s lounge wasn’t too appealing. But then I found a website offering a lot more than just a place to sleep.
Help Exchange (helpx.net) is an online database connecting travellers looking for cultural immersion with hosts who can provide it. Launched in 2001, the site was created by an English backpacker who realised there was no online portal where people seeking a working holiday could connect with hosts from around the world. Today there are more than 5000 active host listings worldwide, ranging from work at farms, hostels, homestays, B&Bs and all things in between.
The premise is simple: hosts set up a profile about what kind of work they need doing, and volunteers (known as HelpX-ers) create their own profile about the skills they can bring. Helpers then contact the hosts and if both sides agree, the exchange is formed: about four hours’ work a day in return for accommodation and food.
The idea of opening up to your home to a stranger is not entirely new. The more widely known WWOOF (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms) has seen people travelling to work on organic farms for decades. The difference with HelpX is that it is entirely online, meaning constant updates about opportunities. Unlike WWOOFing, where volunteers pick a country and receive a book of the hosts available for a year, HelpX is an interactive database of online profiles, where reviews can be left for volunteers and helpers alike. Not only does the online nature of the site keep hosts accountable, it provides a way for new HelpX-ers to get in touch with past volunteers to hear their experiences. Before heading to Italy, I contacted an African-born Spaniard named Assim.
His words reassured any doubt I could have had: “Valentina’s family is highly recommended. So simple and honest, I am sure you will love the experience.”
Sitting on the train from Rome, it was a feeling of one part excitement and one huge part apprehension.
We were heading to a town that we couldn’t even pronounce (as we learnt when buying the train tickets). We had never met this family, or even knew what they looked like. All I had was a phone number and an instruction to call it when we got off the train in Bracciano.
But all that changed once we were welcomed in true Italian style – over a plate of pasta. We joined Valentina and her family for the task of stockpiling wood for the winter and gardening using permaculture methods. But work was barely the point of the experience – most days we would be finished in less than three hours.
The true meaning of HelpX is about cultural exchange. We shared in their lives, from evening dinners with friends to summer festivals in town. In return we showed them a bit of Australia, making a pavlova and playing Crowded House and Cold Chisel on YouTube.
It was this chance to live life like a local that enticed 25-year-old Sean Gilchrist to become a HelpX-er. The Las Vegas filmmaker worked in Scotland and Austria during his exchanges, doing everything from cleaning toilets in a hostel to editing an entire back catalogue of dance concerts on videotapes.
“For me it was the easiest way to travel on a small budget and not see anything like a tourist,” he says. “HelpX provided a diverse and safe way to travel and to gather stories.”
It’s not just backpackers looking for a cheap holiday who make the most of the exchange. For hosts, it’s a way to experience new cultures without leaving their own home.
Heather Stevens, a 32-year-old environmental scientist, has hosted more than 25 HelpX-ers to her Hunter home. Together they’ve tackled the challenge of renovating her house at Wallsend – a task she wouldn’t have the time or money to complete on her own as a single mother.
“Now I’m a mum, I don’t get to travel as much as I used to,” Stevens says. “HelpX brings interesting people from around the world into my home and lets me share in their lives.”
Opening up her home to strangers with a young son on board was something Stevens admits was daunting in the beginning.
“Although at first I thought I’d never leave my son alone with HelpX-ers, it’s amazing how fast you create a bond and trust with them,” she says. Now her five-year-old son loves the novelty of having new volunteers. “He’s even learnt to sing in French, German and Mandarin.”
The trick to finding the right helper is setting ground rules. Buchanan residents Adrian and Christie Roach, in their time as hosts, have welcomed volunteers to their home from France, Germany and the Czech Republic, and they have found a couple of tricks along the way.
“Great communication of expectations is the key to success,” Adrian says.
Her helpers have done everything from assisting in their flower store to mowing grass and baiting rabbit traps. In return, they are treated to tours of Newcastle, the vineyards and visiting the koalas at Blackbutt reserve.
“It’s a win-win for host and helper,” he says. “I like to help other people and I like to get things done that I don’t have time to do.”
Heather Stevens agrees. “It’s a way to become part of a global community,” she says. “Everyone has a story to tell and those stories make my life so much richer.”
Cost: Free to create a profile to see host listings, €20 for two-year premier membership which allows volunteers to contact hosts worldwide.
Cost: Each country has its own WWOOF organisation, prices vary depending on country of choice. A 12-month membership in Australia is $70.
TIPS FOR VOLUNTEERS:
❏ Read the reviews and contact past helpers who have stayed with the particular host.
❏ Get to know the host and what they expect before you arrive – asking basic questions about food, sleeping arrangements and even how far away from town their house is will give an indication of the experience
❏ Remember that the point of it is an exchange – be prepared to work, but also to share in their lives.
TIPS FOR HOSTS:
(from Hunter HelpX Host, Heather Stevens):
❏ Write a clear profile explaining who you are, what you want done and general house rules.
❏ Screen your applications – look at how well they communicate, if they have specifically emailed you or just a mass mail to anyone, if they have references and what skills they have.
❏ Get some simple meal ideas going that you can rely on (meat pies are an Aussie cultural experience to HelpX-ers). Be generous when you can – cheap bottles of wine, a big tub of ice cream or a packet of Tim Tams can be so appreciated.
❏ Be bold – if a traveller is not working out, remember you can ask them to leave.