Tales From an Australian Work Exchange, Part 1 (a.k.a. How Not To Arrive In a New Country a.k.a. Me Homeless In an Airport)
Sometimes you meticulously plan your life out, make travel arrangements well in advance, and arrive in a new country prepared and according to plan.
Other times, you land in Sydney, Australia at 6:00 am – 2 days after you flew out of the Cincinnati airport – and find out you have nowhere to live.
When these things happen, you:
Slowly drag your overweight hiking bag and your suitcase crammed with 2 semesters worth of belongings through the International Arrivals terminal.
Plant yourself in the free wifi zone near the bathrooms and use said bag and suitcase as a seat and a desk respectively.
Proceed to email every work exchange listing in the greater Sydney area to see if anyone has housing available immediately (trying your best to convey urgency while also not giving away the fact that you are currently homeless in an airport).
Spend the next several hours feverishly checking your email inbox for replies, becoming best friends with the world’s friendliest bathroom attendant, and wondering vaguely why you make poor life choices.
OK, it wasn’t really that dramatic. But, a miscommunication with my planned roommates (who I now live with and love. Hey guys) meant that I did fly to Sydney one month before the start of my study abroad semester believing that I had an apartment secured in the city and I did not find out until my phone service switched back on in the Sydney airport that said apartment was not actually available to move into for several weeks. I did also use my luggage as a makeshift office space next to the bathrooms.
OK, maybe it was that dramatic.
The not-so-dramatic bit is that – yes – I could have sat down in the airport and booked a cheap hostel to stay in until my apartment was ready. But, as any budget traveler or broke college backpacker can attest to, even cheap hostels add up quickly. Multiple weeks of unplanned accommodation costs in an expensive city plus the fact that backpacking hostels are made for people with backpacks, not multiple items of heavy luggage (I have been the person whose luggage took up 3/4 of the available floor space in a shared hostel room. Do not be this person. You will make no friends) meant that I was less than keen on this first option.
And I had wanted to do a work exchange in Australia since confirming my study abroad at the University of Sydney. For anyone not familiar with the concept, work exchanges allow people (usually travelers or vacationers, but I’ve met people who treat work exchange as a permanent lifestyle) to complete needed jobs or do temporary work for a host who then provides the workers with free accommodation, meals, etc. (please cite me if using this excellent definition of a work exchange).
This is probably not earth-shattering information if you’re familiar with organizations like WWOOF (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms) – which has been around for forever – or sites like Workaway or HelpX – which have been around for slightly less than forever. But, I had no idea just how many work exchange opportunities were out there until this past year when I started looking into ways to cut travel costs during my first semester abroad. A quick Google search will give you dozens of websites with listings from hosts in literally every country in the world offering work opportunities for everything from nannying to house work to farming to language help. I’m a big fan of the entire work exchange idea because, even more than being mutually beneficial for both hosts and workers, it facilitates real cultural exchange and allows travelers to experience a new area of the world more authentically than if they stayed in typical accommodation. It is – to use a technical term – dope.
Work exchange websites excite me more than is reasonable and I scroll through them and bookmark listings in countries I want to visit in the same way that normal people swipe through Tinder when they’re bored. The fact that Sydney is surrounded by the ocean on one side and national parks on the other means that it’s an opportunity goldmine for work exchanges on farms, eco retreats, surf hostels, wildlife reserves, and other such places that make my heart all aflutter.
In the weeks leading up to my departure to Australia, I had already bombarded more than a few Sydney-based hosts with job inquiries and links to my carefully crafted work exchange profile (in which I managed to describe myself as both “highly independent” and “an excellent group worker” in the same sentence *wow*).
I have never set up a dating site profile but – if it’s anything like hyping yourself up on a work exchange site – I know I would be amazing at it.
Anyway, the timeframe was tricky and every host I talked to either already had more than enough workers at the moment or was looking for someone that could stay with them for multiple months. When I (incorrectly) found out a few days before heading to Sydney that the apartment my roommates and I had been eyeing was available to move into, I figured a work exchange just wasn’t meant to be.
Flash forward to me squatting on my suitcase in the Sydney Airport:
I have decided a work exchange is meant to be and I shall make it happen through sheer will (in the form of mind control that I attempted to beam out to every work exchange host in the country) and enough subtly desperate emails to fill the junk boxes of every one of those same hosts.
As luck (or possibly the mind control – who can say?) would have it, I received a reply from a host named Penny within just a few hours. Her permaculture farm and bed & breakfast near the Blue Mountains was always in need of some helping hands, she emailed back to me. If I could book a hostel for that night and be at Macquarie Station by the next morning, her partner could pick me up and drive us the 2 hours from central Sydney to their farm in MacDonald Valley. Would I want to do that?
I would want to do that.
It took just a few more email exchanges, a phone call with her partner – a part-time university professor in Sydney – and a quick debate with my new bathroom attendant friend about the likelihood of me being murdered by a work exchange host in the Blue Mountains to solidify my plans for the next 3 weeks. I booked one night in the cheapest last-minute hostel in the city, dismantled my suitcase office, and made my way towards the airport shuttle so I could buy a public transport card and ask strangers embarrassing questions like how do I use this public transport card I just bought.
If you have managed to make it through this entire post, congratulations. If you found it boring or ridiculous (or both), that is unfortunate, because I’ve only just made it to the finding my work exchange part of the story.
Stick around for more stupid posts about me working on a farm in Australia, because I haven’t even told you about the lawn mowing guinea pigs or the wildfire yet.
Honestly, a hostel would have been the simplest solution. But why make life simple for yourself when you can make it uncertain and filled with anxiety???
This is one of my many guiding life-mottos.