Doing workaway programmes is a great way to travel cheaply by staying somewhere for longer, getting to know local life and learning new things. They are often described as cultural exchanges between locals and travellers. When I arrived at mine, I firstly met the lovely people I’d be working for, and was then unceremoniously dropped of at the volunteer house, on my own, to then find no wifi and a large ant infestation. It’s all cultural, right? This preceded a week of bugs, no water and working in 35 degree heat.
Before I go on, I’d like to say that I have absolutely loved my workaway experience. However, I would very much like to document and share the bad and comical things I’ve experienced along the way. It’s been an interesting ride but I wouldn’t change it and would 100% do another workaway.
I have been volunteering at an eco village in Belize called Carmelita Gardens. It’s an off-grid development with a great produce garden and beautiful grounds. Land is typically bought by ex-pats as investments, and they build custom homes to use for holidays or to retire in. It employs a lot of locals and the man who fronts the whole thing is a pretty awesome and inspiring guy. It’s been a great place to spend my February.
House of Ants
I was initially pretty unfazed by the ‘quirks’ of the volunteer house, which is located in a small village half an hour away from San Ignacio, Belize. It hadn’t been cleaned in a while so I spent my first evening wiping down surfaces, cleaning the fridge, making my bed and trying to ignore the ants whilst making a mental note to pick up some insect killer. I settled into bed, read my book and anticipated a night of restlessness.
Wake up calls
Actually, I slept like a log, for the most part. However, one of the downsides of being located in a countryside Belizean village is all of the animals. Whoever said roosters crow at sunrise is a liar. Belizean roosters crow from 2am until they’re sure everyone is awake. Just in case anyone has managed to sleep through, the dogs chime in and have a sing off with the birds. Then the tortilla man takes over at 7:30am when he drives his truck around the village beeping his horn so you can buy tortillas. No sleep for Santa Familia.
Meeting the new volunteers
I was still pretty chipper considering I’d been over 24 hours without wifi, in a house infested with bugs on around 4 hours of solid sleep. We then went to collect the other volunteers (finally someone to talk to). We headed into town and due to a mix up of times, had to wait a couple of hours for the others. I didn’t mind this and, for the most part, tried to get a teeny bit of wifi from the welcome center (note: wifi at the welcome center is rubbish). We finally got them and, to be honest, I was slightly concerned. They were a couple, probably around 8-10 years older than me and were from France and Lithuania. They were pretty quiet and I felt like it was going to be a bit awkward. Still, I pushed on.
Another thing not ideal about our volunteer house was the lack of walls. Well, there were walls between the rooms, but they don’t go to the ceiling so whilst you can’t see everything, you can hear it. I thought this would be an issue, but it turned out to be fine. Just a strange thing that you end up forgetting is even an issue (similar to the light switches that you have to press a certain way, the sink that leaks when too much water is poured down it and the sofa with a huge hole in the middle covered by a pillow).
A broken shower
That evening, we bonded over the ants and spent most of our evening spraying the nest (coming from the bathroom sink), forcing them out and watching them die all over the bathroom floor. It was quite a sight, and they continued to appear for days after. If the ants weren’t bad enough, I jumped into the shower only to have the head fly off whilst the sad water poured down. It was quite funny and we couldn’t really believe it after everything else. We then got to know each other a little bit and ate a good dinner which partially put my mind at ease, but I was still a bit miffed that I’d be volunteering with just a couple. Having downloaded a film earlier that day, I settled into bed and chilled out ready to start work the next day.
The first day
The day started with a new issue once again. No water. Anywhere. We were puzzled and prepared to tell the owner as we left, but it came back at 7am. Turns out, there’s no water overnight and it just comes on in the morning. Who would’ve thought? We arrived to work at 8am (obviously we’d been up for hours because of the roosters) to be met by someone new who gave us our first job. This was to paint a really long white fence. We actually didn’t mind this too much as it’s a pretty easy mindless job, and it was a cloudy day. What we didn’t really account for was the fact that, having eaten breakfast at 7am, and doing a physical job all morning, we’d be ravenous by 10. We didn’t bring food with us (learning curve) and just worked on until our 5 hours were up. At 1pm, when we were due to finish and the sun was burning down, we were pulled in to have some meetings. My meeting was about a really exciting architectural project that I’d been given and it gave me a lot of hope for the month. We ended up finally getting back to the volunteer house after 3pm and could barely stand up.
Still painting… in the heat
The next two days got worse and worse. We were painting our fence, but the weather was far hotter. By 11am we were dripping with sweat and blisters were forming on our hands. Not to mention occasionally stepping on fire ant nests which are no fun. By the third day we were completely over it. Our bodies were aching all over and we were too tired to do anything after the morning shift and just collapsed at home and got into bed at 8.
First week round up
The last couple of days of the week were somewhat easier, but still pretty outdoor jobs. We got on with it and tried to make the most of any cloud cover we got. Paired with some easier gardening and inside jobs, we did okay. We also had an unexpected visit from a bat which we spent a comical half an hour trying to get out with various household items, and by both a scorpion and tarantula. We also discovered yet another thing to keep us awake in our steel-roof-with-no-insulation-house: rain. Tropical rain. The kind of storms that batters down onto the roof making it feel like it’s going to cave in.
By Friday we finally had wifi, a functional shower and, most importantly, the next two days off, so we were happy.
The best parts
I had to share all of these stupid, funny elements of the first week of the workaway, but I honestly didn’t mind any of it. We showered and used the wifi at the eco village, got used to the critters we shared our house with and quite enjoyed the change of physical work and an improved tan. We also ended up being so tired that not even the roosters, dogs, birds, rain or tortilla man could keep us awake.
There were also so many amazing things in that first week, and in the following three.
- After travelling for a month in hostels, I finally had my own room. It was by no means luxurious, or even fully functioning, but it was mine and it was really nice to have some private space after hostel life.
- The people at the eco village were great. All of the residents (mostly American and Canadian) are lovely to be around and I’ve got to know all of them well. The staff are mostly locals and they, like all Belizeans, are super nice as well.
- I also got to really enjoy the company of my fellow volunteers and warmed to them a lot.
- The grounds are green and luscious. I’ve learnt about many trees and plants, and it’s located on the river which is gorgeous.
- I learnt about the architecture and construction which is really interesting and something I can take forward in the future.
- The horses, which arrived the same day we did, are just my favourites. I love being around horses and I’ve spent every spare moment with them for the last month. The first week when they were skittish and wouldn’t go near anyone, compared to now is a huge difference and I have truly fallen in love with them.
- We have a little sheep called Oreo at the eco village and having taken her under my wing, I have grown so fond of her. She thinks she is part dog and part horse and is ever so endearing.
- Our little house was in the friendliest village where everyone knows everyone and its customary to say hello to random people in the street. There is also a lovely 10 year old girl living next door and I’ve enjoyed many an afternoon chatting to her.
In summary, my first workaway began in a way that should’ve probably made me leave, or at least find difficult. Instead, I fell in love with the place I lived (ants and all) and thoroughly enjoyed the whole experience. I have a lot to take away from it and I’m keen to write about the more positive aspects of my month here, but that’s for another time.