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Gap Year, Part II: Getting Murdered Less by Amber V. '24

How to HelpX, Couchsurf, backpack, and hopefully not die

My last post was on my gap year, which was wild, full of writing, and very far from school. Now I’m in the midst of a lot of school and am looking back fondly on those days, so I want to share how I did it. Maybe someone will feel inspired, and we can dream of what we’ll be doing when the world can accommodate travel again.

This post will be a list of the resources I used, the costs, benefits, and how-to of using them, and tips on backpacking. 

 

Disclaimer: I am but a wee freshman, and thanks to COVID I have only spent seven months travelling. Therefore my experience is quite limited, and there are countless other blogs that could tell you more. If you’re planning to actually use any of these, definitely do your own research.

Finally, looking back, some of the decisions I made were downright dangerous, especially for a woman travelling solo. Luckily I didn’t die. I tried to take steps that would make getting murdered less probable, and I’ll spell those out — but if you do get murdered, don’t blame the blogs, capiche?

Resources I Found Helpful

HelpX

  • The idea: you volunteer to work on someone’s farm, hostel, airbnb, or house, and in exchange they give you free room and board. Usually hosts and helpers share meals and, being from different parts of the world, cultural exchange (hence the name, short for ‘help exchange’). If the helper is lucky, they’ll pick up some farming skills or other knowledge as well.
  • The reality: This is generally the case, but definitely ask about the conditions and expectations before you go. I’ve only been to two farms, and one of them didn’t mention anywhere in their bio that they were completely off-grid — which was hard for me, because I like to shower after I run every day. Also:
    • I often found that while HelpX recommends 20-30 hours of volunteer help per week, this can vary a lot. Oftentimes, for me, hosts were flexible with work hours and wouldn’t keep a ‘clock’ — some days were light on work, but others I would find myself working for eight hours or more. You’ve got to advocate for yourself, and, if you’re like me and prefer to have a set schedule, must communicate that to the hosts.
    • the hosts I stayed with were very flexible, in that they wouldn’t tell me when to start– or when to stop, and they weren’t bothered about working overtime. It’s helpful to set out your expectations for yourself every day and advocate so that you can follow them.
    • There is a sort of laid-back culture to a lot of the places I’ve found on HelpX, which is pleasant, but doesn’t necessarily match with my ‘how much work can I fit into a day’ vibe. Also, preparing, eating, and cleaning up after group meals seemed to take forever.
    • The farms are usually somewhat far from big cities/tourist attractions, so while you can trek it on a bus for the weekend, your weekdays will most likely be spent on the farm, not out sightseeing.
    • The people I stayed with were fair, but I’ve heard horror stories (always from a friend of a friend) about hosts who were not. Allegedly one host provided only apples to eat, nothing else.
  • How to use: Go to their website and check out the hosts!
    • If you’ve set your mind on somewhere, apply to a lot of hosts. Many will not respond to you, or won’t have availability, so cast your net wide.01 It's rather like finding a UROP in this regard
    • This is similar to WWOOF, except:
      • HelpX extends to more than just organic farms — there are also homestays, non-organic farms, hostels, and airbnbs.
      • There is generally less oversight than WWOOF (for example, hosts don’t have to pledge to have max 20 hours per week)
      • In order to write to the hosts on their database, WWOOF charges $20-30 per country, but HelpX has a one-time fee of ~$25 for the entire world. This made HelpX the more affordable option for me, since I was travelling to many different countries in Europe.
    • Make sure to read full bios — different hosts have different requirements, such as minimum/maximum stays, number of guests, and age (some do not want people under a certain age, such as 21 or 25). The bios are also a great place to find if a host is off-grid, or if you will be expected to camp outside or eat only apples.
  • Dangers: HelpX doesn’t require any verification — your host could totally be a murderer trying to lure smelly travellers to their murder site.
    • People do leave reviews, but there’s no verification for travellers either, so it’s feasible for a murderer-host to make fake helper profiles and review their own posting.
    • I recommend asking for phone numbers, websites, or other forms of identification.
    • If you get bad vibes, run as fast as your heavy backpack will let you.
    • I personally never felt in danger, even though some of the farms I went to were in the middle of nowhere.
  • Recommended: for people looking to interact with local communities, travel cheaply, and chillax.
    • HelpX is the best way I know of to meet local people and interact on a deeper level than swapping stories with travellers in hostels. The hosts I worked for were great people (and one of them really liked MIT!). I couldn’t have spent three months in Europe without HelpX.
    • However, I felt like I didn’t learn as much about sustainable agriculture and building as I wanted to, and a lot of the work was pretty menial.02 to be fair, if I were a farmer and had to assign work to a dumb American, I wouldn't trust 'em with anything too hard

Couchsurfing

  • The idea: Reciprocity! Basically, there are people who will host you in their homes (for free!) for a night or so, and feed you and engage you in great conversations. Then, when you are back home, you host travellers in your home.
  • The reality: There are a lot of young male hosts, with pictures that could be cross-posted to their tinder profiles. When you look at the reviews left by people they’ve hosted, it’s mostly young women.
  • How to use: Personally I would not opt to stay in a strange man’s house when there is weird sexual tension (also, hostels are literally $15), so I vet very carefully: first, I only send requests to women and nonbinary folks. If none of them respond, I look at couples, and then men, and make sure that they have hosted travellers of different genders and different ages. I read the reviews people have left to make sure that the stay will be friendly, respectful, and safe.
    • Also, as with HelpX, send a lot of requests, because a lot of hosts will say no or ignore you. I usually did 5-15 per location, in batches of 5.
  • Dangers: There is actually a very great potential for danger here. I’ve seen reviews on certain hosts’ profiles complaining of sexual assault/harassment, and the Safety section of the Couchsurfing website details some scams people run, such as catfishing.
    • Also, there is no verification. I am a “verified member,” and can tell you that this just means you paid for a $60 membership — there’s no verification involved.
    • Having a “verified address” just means that they send a letter to your address with a code inside, and you send them the code electronically. So it shows that you have access to that address, but does not prove necessarily that it is yours, or could be traced to you in a police investigation.
    • Passports, driver’s licenses, and other government id is “verified” by a computer scanner, I’m pretty sure.
    • My advice here is to ignore whether or not someone is verified, and go by reviews– make sure they have a lot of them, and maybe check to see that the reviewers seem real as well.
    • When you go somewhere, look up nearby hostels beforehand. As you would do before going on a date, tell someone you know where you will be, and that you will text them at a certain time.
  • Recommended: In hindsight, I’m not sure why I did this, except that I was broke. Like, extremely broke. Couldn’t afford a plane ticket home broke.
    • However, I did meet some cool people while couchsurfing. In Rome I stayed a week in the guest room of this marathon runner, who mostly talked about dieting, lifting kettle bells, and running.
    • I think this would be more fun and less scary to do with a friend, as it is somewhat nicer to be in a house, as opposed to a hostel. Also, the people who use couchsurfing as it’s meant to be used — that is, not as a substitute for tinder — are pretty cool people who have a lot to talk about.

Other Recommendations

While I have not tried these personally, I’ve met people who Aupair and work in hostels. 

Aupair

  • basically, an aupair works as a live-in nanny. There are various different websites and services to match aupairs with families, and, as I haven’t done this, I don’t know which to recommend.
    • I met a girl from Germany who used Aupair in America, where the company set the guidelines and had local representatives to check in on aupairs. She signed an eleven-month contract, and acquired a twelve-month visa to the US. She got free room and board and was paid a set rate of 25 hours of labor per week (I don’t know the exact hourly rate, but I assume it was somewhere around California minimum wage). She could be required to work up to 45 hours per week: 20 for room and board, 25 paid.
    • This is useful for some people because it allows them to build income, and because they have a stable place to stay. The girl I knew had a good work-life balance where she would go on a brief vacation once a month, and work the rest of the time — a stark contrast to my method of pennypinching and couchsurfing and doing contract work while in beautiful cities.
    • Personally, I would never, ever do this, for the simple reason that I hate being responsible for children.

Hostel work

  • Basically, many hostels in Europe hire short-term workers to work part-time and live in the hostel for a few months. You have to apply in advance, and I discovered this too late for it to be of any help to me, but it seems like a cool option! The only downside, I assume, would be the lack of privacy that comes with living in a hostel — I imagine that would be draining after a month.

Internship

  • There are a lot of internships out there, and if you’re a college student at MIT or elsewhere, chances are you’ve already started looking for some. I’m not really qualified to give advice on this front, so I’ll just say: figure out what you’re looking for, and then email a lot of people.
  • I was lucky: I cold-emailed all of four writing retreats, asking if there were internship opportunities, and two of them said yes! I got to interact with professional writers — part of my job was to take them on hikes in the redwoods — and I developed a sense of what lifestyle an author might have if they are published but not famous.

Backpacking tips literally no one asked for

but I want to write them anyway

  • So I read this ‘minimalist backpacker’ blog that said ‘bring maybe three shirts and also wet wipes. Trust me. You will need wet wipes.’ So, like an impressionable fool, I bought some wet wipes, and never opened them until the grocery stores ran out of paper towels.
    • Point being, you know yourself. Bring the things you use in your daily life; don’t buy anything extra, except maybe a toothbrush holder.
    • Also, I brought closer to ten shirts. Laundry is *expensive* and takes *forever* and I did not want to be stinky in all those fancy art museums.
  • Being cheap is well and good, but BUY YOURSELF A DECENT BACKPACK.
    • I made the mistake of getting one for $35 at an army surplus store, sized for a man, so the waist strap at its tightest was still an inch wider than my waist. When it was full of my 10 shirts and 8 books, it was amazingly heavy; my shoulders were constantly in knots. I couldn’t walk a mile without stopping to breathe.
    • To be fair, the good backpacks I found were upwards of $100, which seemed like a heinously hefty sum. However, 10 days in the shittiest room of a hostel is also $100, if not more, and 3-4 last-minute bus tickets are $100, and five fancy meals are $100. I haven’t strong opinions now, but I remember cursing myself for being cheap at the wrong time every time I had to wrest that backpack onto my shoulders.
  • This is probably known, but just in case: I’ve found it’s often cheaper to buy plane tickets between big cities and take buses from those cities, rather than fly directly to a small airport.
    • For example, I found a suspiciously cheap plane ticket from LAX to Madrid, where the cost of (plane ticket + bus from Tucson to Los Angeles + train from Madrid to Grenada) < (plane from Tucson to Grenada)
    • Of course, if money isn’t an issue, flying is faster and more relaxing (when we aren’t in covidtimes). So pick your poison.
  • Also, if you can be flexible in your arrival times, some sites can show plane tickets in a multi-day range, which gives you a somewhat better chance of finding good deals.
  • I didn’t do a *lot* of research for this, but the phone plan I used was Google Fi, because there isn’t a surcharge to being out-of-country.
    • When I wasn’t hotspotting myself on that farm with no electricity or hot water, the cost of having a phone plan in Europe was pretty much the same as it would be in the US.
    • Google can stalk me much more effectively now, though, I should mention. I mutter to myself while doing psets and google voice chimes in and tries to help, like a befuddled but enthusiastic dog.
  • Personally, I found that booking overnight bus and/or train rides to save on a hostel was not worth it for me — I love sleeping on actual beds, even if those beds are surrounded by  strangers in other beds. I’ve met some travellers, however, who book red-eyes all the time.
  • Unless you really like reading classics, I must recommend bringing enough books to last however long you will be abroad. (If I actually knew Spanish, this wouldn’t be an issue, but alas). Finding English-language bookshops was harder than I expected, but fortunately I felt no shortage of books, because I brought eight.

All told?

This was a wild, glorious, chaotic period of my life. I’m really, really glad I did it. But would I do it again in quite this way? I’m not sure — I wonder if I would be more able to focus on writing in a somewhat more stable environment (such as renting an apartment for a month in some small town in a random country — and taking remote work to pay for it). I wonder if I could have deeper connections with people if I were in a more controlled setting, such as a MISTI03 MIT's study abroad program trip, where your hosts have been vetted and know what to expect from MIT students.

Looking back, the least controlled times — when I was hostel-hopping and living in my car — were the times when I got the best writing done. I was razor-focused on not dying, seeing new things, running, keeping basic personal hygiene, and writing, more or less to the exclusion of all else.

Somehow it worked. I’ve never been able to maintain that output of writing before, and likely won’t have time to work up to it in the foreseeable future. I wouldn’t give that up for anything.

However, coming back home, I felt that I had let my academic growth slide a little more than I wanted to. I’d set out promising myself to take bio on MITx, but that never happened. I had very high hopes for learning all sorts of sustainable agriculture on those HelpX farms, but the learning turned out to be mostly experiential, not facts and careful notes.

It was also lonely, sometimes. This allowed me to focus on writing, but I think that when I travel again, I’d rather go with someone.

I chose all this on purpose — going alone, independent of any costly and controlling gap year program — because I wanted to grow in ways that I wouldn’t if someone were telling me what to do. I think that the Florence I saw, marveling at everything but mentally weighing the cost of dinner against the cost of entrance to a museum, is different than the one my friends went to on a school trip. I learned a lot, and I think that living alone freshman year is easier for me because of it.

However, I also discovered that I learn more when someone else is setting deadlines and giving me exams; it holds me accountable. Going forth, I’m excited to work with MIT groups such as MISTI, where I might be somewhat less free, but would be able to travel and explore  without struggling to stay afloat. And I may learn many cool things.

In the meantime, I keep googling plane ticket prices, even though I don’t know when it will be safe to travel.

Pizza and laptop

This cost like $7, and they let me stay and write :)

 

 

  1. It's rather like finding a UROP in this regard back to text
  2. to be fair, if I were a farmer and had to assign work to a dumb American, I wouldn't trust 'em with anything too hard back to text
  3. MIT's study abroad program back to text