In 2011, I (Kayleigh) was lucky enough to spend eight months living in Ireland.
I went over there with a year-long working visa, and because I went with the SWAP program, I had access to an office in Dublin complete with computers, fliers for jobs and apartments, travel brochures and advice, and two lovely ladies who were there to help us with anything and everything to do with living in Ireland. I worked for a little while as an office temp, though by April or so I was tired of Dublin and wanted to find a way to see the rest of the country – but I wanted something more involved and more stable than trudging from hostel to hostel for months on end. One of the women at the USIT office (SWAP’s Irish equivalent) suggested that I look into WWOOF or HelpX as a way to travel a bit, meet more people (especially Irish people as opposed to other travellers) and save on rent and food expenses.
Basically, you sign up for one of the websites (or both, if you’re really keen) and connect with people in your country of choice who are looking to have people work on their farms, in their gardens, on in their homes in exchange for room and board. Some of you probably think this is really sketchy – I know I did at first. But there is plenty of opportunity to email and talk to your potential hosts before you go, and HelpX provides reviews for its hosts from previous helpers, so you can get an idea of the place before you go.
I signed up for HelpX and not WWOOF because (at the time, anyway) I had very little experience with gardening, especially with organic gardening, and HelpX seemed to include more of a variety of work, including hostels, animal rescues, and at least one island-based bookstore (which, sadly, I did not get to visit).
All in all, I stayed with three families – one in the Wicklow Hills south of Dublin, one on the outskirts of a tiny village in County Kerry, and one near Belfast. I stayed for about two weeks at each place, and went back to two of the families for another two weeks, because our schedules permitted it and I had really enjoyed my time with them.
It was truly an incredible experience. Each family was different, and while I mainly worked in the gardens of all three, each had different needs and different goals. I went in as a slightly shy, mostly inexperienced first-time traveller and came out someone who knew how to prune tomatoes, how to plant leeks and hedges, how to corral wayward ducks, how to make slug traps with beer, how to talk to people and find common ground and how to be comfortable making friends out of strangers… a whole host of things I never thought I would be any good at. And stepping for a little while into someone else’s life taught me things about how I myself want to live (for example, dogs are great; four dogs is too much). I learned that I value gardening, growing my own food, and all manner of DIY. I learned that I really, really love to weed (you can turn me loose in an unruly patch of nettles and mint with only a pair of gloves and a few podcasts for company and I will be happy for hours, as one of my hosts discovered). I learned that I can help build a set of stone garden steps which will not experience a catastrophic loss of structural integrity and which will be utterly recognizable as a set of steps.
And what makes it all relevant to this blog is that everywhere I stayed, the people there had a deep interest in sustainable living. They grew some (if not most) of their own food, they raised their own ducks and chickens for eggs and meat, they recycled things and made do with things and got truly excited about the ways in which they could have a satisfying and sustainable lifestyle. And I really appreciated the chance to travel in a way which supported that. It also made me feel like I was giving back to the country I was exploring, and getting to experience Irish life in a way that would not have been possible otherwise. I would likely not have stayed overnight in a Wicklow beach house, or gone shopping for school uniforms in Downpatrick, or watched a weekly music practice at a tiny lakeside pub, had I been only trudging from hostel to hostel.
In the end, I came away with new skills, new experiences, and new but treasured friends. So if you’re planning to do mid-to-long-term travel, and want to do it a little differently, these two sites are definitely resources worth checking out.