Why every backpacker should do a work-exchange at a hostel

I spent way too much money in San Pedro de Atacama, in part because the town itself is very expensive and I wasn’t as ready as I thought. My bad. So I went to Arica, Chile, a town known as a city with eternal spring. It’s also a desert town but has a beach right next to it. It’s also known to have an Afro-Chilean population and there are many descendants of Chinese immigrants from the 1890s. This explains the many Chinese restaurants that offer chifa that aren’t Peruvian.

I worked out a deal to do a hostel work-exchange because I needed to settle down in one place while fundraising for a documentary I’m producing and figure out next steps financially. Though it’s not too difficult, checking someone in or out of a hostel (and probably any hotel, etc) is also not as easy as it seems, especially if you aren’t a local.

Though I’ve only got about another week to go, I’m in charge of setting up breakfast, doing a lot of cleaning, and making sure people have a good first impression. This isn’t so easy for me because although I’m not timid, I’m a terrible salesperson and have a hard time understanding organizing systems I didn’t come up with myself.

Plus, there’s the fact that I’m also a freelance writer and haven’t had as much time as everyone else to check out the town. Doing this has given me a better appreciation for people who work in tourism and who raise children. This is particularly because I see a lot of people who waste water when washing dishes, don’t lift a finger, and can barely turn on a stove. Likewise, I see a lot of people who adapt quickly and don’t expect someone else to clean up inordinate amounts of mess (which is thankfully most backpackers). (The whole thing about raising children is because I can tell who was expected to do chores, and most backpackers were, but there are exceptions).

Originally I wanted to do a work-exchange like this in Cusco but I decided to do it here because the volunteers who were doing this left almost as soon as I arrived. I thought it’d be better to hang around instead of going somewhere new and trying my luck. Right now I have a lot of work because it’s a full house, and the bulk of the work stems from when people check out.

The main reasons why I think backpackers should do this at least once is because we sometimes have a tendency to overlook hostel staff. Unlike hotels, you have a chance to hang out because sometimes staff are also on work-exchange deals, and because there’s more camaraderie, so staff members are often open to hanging out, and some people become friends with staffers.

We also sometimes forget that it’s not a hotel. I haven’t had instances of anyone trying to treat me like a servant, but do have to answer a lot of questions. I have so much more appreciation for past staffers who had to answer my questions about where the nearest grocery store is even though they do this many times per day, or who have to wash someone’s dirty dish because they didn’t do it themselves. Those who’ve been servers, retail workers or have worked in service industries have a great understanding of how hard the job is. I never worked as a waitress and this is probably as close as I’ll get, and even though I make it a point to tip and be nice to them, this adds an extra layer of understanding because we take service workers for granted so often. Oh, and let’s not forget janitors and cleaning staff!

It’s also a good way to make friends. Being in the hostel for hours on end also means that you’ll have some downtime to talk to others. There are plenty of solo travelers who are willing to have a nice chat. Earlier this week I met a nice German couple and a Canadian traveler and we wound up cooking a nice dinner together. Plus, I save money on lodging until it’s time to get to Cusco.

A few tips for those who want to do a work-exchange:

  • It helps if you’ve already spent a night or two at the hostel where you’d like to volunteer. This will give you a feel for what it might be like to work there or what you’ll have to do. Plus, it’ll establish rapport with the owner or manager that gets to decide if you can stay.
  • You usually have to commit to a minimum of 2 weeks. If you think you might need to do this, plan your trip in this manner so you can continue backpacking with enough time.
  • There are assholes everywhere. Most backpackers are cool. They understand they have to clean up after themselves and they may end up eating on a broken plate, etc. I haven’t run across any yet (knocks on wood), but it happens.
  • Get as much sleep as you can. Usually, the volunteer has to set up breakfast before everyone else is awake.
  • Get to know people! If you see someone eating dinner alone, say hello! You might make a new friend.
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