Long-term nomads find it possible to navigate the world on surprisingly tight budgets by employing strategies to stretch every dollar, euro, and kuna. It helps to choose destinations where cost of living is cheaper than at home, keep day-to-day expenses low, and limit splurges, but for many, the real trick is wrapped in a practice as old as humanity: the barter system.
By bartering I mean trading by exchange of resources rather than by use of money.
The fact that bartering is alive and well in the modern world is a secret long shared by travelers and no platform demonstrates the idea better than Workaway, where the equation is simple:
I tackle a project for you, you provide room and board for me.
“That’s very hippy,” said a globe-trotting friend when I mentioned my first foray into the popular platform.
The statement took me by surprise. I hadn’t thought of the idea as hippy, just simply as a logical progression in the sharing economy. With sites like Airbnb and Bla Bla Car gaining more loyal users every day, the very nature of travel today revolves to an extent around sharing resources.
Workaway founder David Milward stumbled upon the idea through his own experience trading lodging for work. While building an off-grid house in Southern Europe, he often met travelers willing to lend a hand in exchange for a room. Recognizing an opportunity to bring diverse people together, facilitate cultural understanding, and help each other along the way, he launched the site in 2002.
Thirteen years later, Workaway pairs a roster of over 16,000 hosts in 126 countries with eager volunteers from around the world (especially the U.S., UK, France, Spain, Italy, Germany and Australia.) Some try it once during a holiday break, others turn it into a lifestyle, traveling the world from project to project. Both volunteers and hosts cite cultural exchange as the main reason for participation, with work contributed and money saved being the crunchy icing on the cake.
Gigs range from greeting guests in a hostel to shoveling manure on a farm. For some inexplicable reason, I chose the latter. Ready to leave a hyper-connected world behind, I boarded a train to northern Croatia two weeks ago to meet the Siblinek family—total strangers with whom I would live and work, in relatively close quarters. Four adults, three children, four horses, two pigs, two dogs, two cats, a gaggle of chickens, and a rooster pressed together in a grand cultural exchange. What could be more hippy, I quickly realized.
Days were spent cleaning horse stalls, weeding the garden, cooking and canning vegetables, splitting and hauling wood, and whatever else needed to be done. Evenings revolved around sharing meals and stories.
Sitting around the table, we talked politics and war, discussed Europe’s migrant crisis, swapped recipes, told personal tales of our families and backgrounds.
When I left the farm eight days later, I walked away with bruises, blisters, and a throbbing backache, but also with a deeper understanding of Croatia’s history and culture as well as present opportunities and challenges. No city tour, museum exhibit, book or film could have delivered the insights gained via Workaway. Being a regular tourist would have never brought me to this place of understanding.
In addition, I now know more about growing and cooking tomatoes than I thought possible. I have a new respect for anyone who works the land for a living and a healthy appreciation for horseshit’s varied and vital uses.
And, most importantly, I left with new friends and the immeasurable feeling of no longer being a stranger in a strange land.