Volunteer Travelling

I left the UK at the end of September and it has been 8 months travelling mostely in France. I am now heading back to the UK in mid June to earn some money and the current plan is to explore the Spanish side of the Pyrenees – Catalunya – next year. As the time here comes to a close, I’ve been reflecting on the experience and have decided to share some details for people who might want to follow a similar path.

Context/Aim

I began this trip because
a. I want to learn and experience how to live more sustainably.
b. I want to move to a warmer, drier climate more conducive to human habitation.
c. I want to be closer to massive nature and enjoy my life more.

Volunteering

To fulfill this aim, I drove down in my camper van to Ariége region of Southern France in central Pyrenees and began a series of volunteer stays using workaway.org. For those who may not be familiar with it, it’s an updated online version of WWOOF where you only need one account to apply to anywhere in the world. The deal is to help out for 4 to 5 hours a day, 5 days a week, in exchange for 7 days of food and accommodation. Usually, we worked in the morning and had the whole afternoon and weekends off.

We generally stayed at each host’s place for two weeks which we found to be a good amount of time to get to know the hosts well and learn useful skills, but not too long that things become monotonous. In between stays – so roughly every two weeks – we would take a long weekend off before starting at a new place and go into the mountains to climb, hike and trail run, or check out new locations for possible land.

The hosts on workaway are generally families trying to establish a homestead and a few established farms in between. This is great if you’re scouting the area as a potential place to settle and wanting to make connections with the people in the area. The hosts have usually gone through a similar process and have a wealth of useful experiences to share too, such as the local climate, the water flow through the land, predominant wind, councils and mayor’s influence over planning permission process, what available land there are in the vicinity etc.

However, if you’re looking to gain deep, perfected technical knowledge accumulated over many years in the shortest possible time, I feel that you’ll be better off going the WWOOFing route, visiting well established places. My experience so far is that generally (with some exceptions), workaway hosts are at the beginning or in the middle of their journey towards this mastery state. There were still many things to be learnt for newbies like me, but at times, I felt like I was gaining more from the online research I was doing in my free time.

Accommodation

I designed and built my van in February 2017 with this trip in mind and overall, I’ve been very happy about the choices I’ve made. The van provided me with my own space that I’m comfortable in. The cooking facilities provided full autonomy (road trips in between stays, morning coffees and some late night snacking/odd instant noodles to fulfill my Asian requirements) and the thick insulation gave me a decent amount of warmth (with two people sleeping in it, the temperature within was generally 10 degrees above outside temperature).

Having your own space and being able to move freely inbetween stays made our experiences far richer and less stressful. I highly recommend going the campervan route if you go volunteer/travelling.

Finance

Since I was going to be fed most of the time at various hosts, I calculated that £4000 will be enough for me to survive for a year. This included the occasional alcohol, fuel, insurance, food in between stays, emergency vehicle repaires (£1000) etc.

I also figured, with ill-founded confidence, that putting half of that money into cryptocurrency will double or triple the amount in a short time. It, however, continued its brutal bearish descent and didn’t take long for the £2000 to drop in value to £700. Thankfully, it has risen back to nearly where we were last year but it meant that I could not access the funds as I hoped. I certainly won’t make the same mistake again.

Around the same time, my van had a series of unexpected breakdowns requiring extensive repairs including the clutch replacement. This came to about £1700. Sally coming over in January and shouldering half of the repair cost helped significantly. But again, for next year I will try and have £2000 for emergency repairs instead of the £1000 I initially budgeted for. To look on the bright side, I know the new parts that I replaced will be solid for the next few years at least.

Had I had access to the £2000 as accessible cash, the total expenditure calculated recently showed that £4000 would have been enough to last 10 months, even with the £1700 repair. I am really bummed that I’m having to go back to the rainy cold Britain precisely when the summer in France is beginning. I think my move next year will begin with £5000 or more saved, at the start of Spring, or perhaps begin my journey in January, February in Portugal where winter temperatures stay above 10 degrees.

What I’ve Found

If you’d like to know what I’ve found out about living more sustainably, read some of the posts on this blog – particularly the update posts.

To share my findings on the land, Ariége receives both the hot Mediterranean weather and the seasonal rain from the Atlantic, with plentiful source water closer you get to the mountains. The winter can get cold but the strong frequent sunshine makes it the perfect place for passive solar architecture. The temperate climatic conditions allows apples and other fruit trees to flourish and the forests are rich with biodiversity, including mushrooms.

The area near Montbrun Bocage is full of conscious people living the alternative lifestyle with a thriving market and a Steiner school close by, and Toulouse is only an hour away. I think this is a good mixture to look out for if you want to move to a new place.

  • A community of open minded people already established
  • A thriving organic market that can provide most of your daily needs
  • A decent school system
  • Fairly good access to a biggish city

Though these ideals are firmly in my logical mind, the illogical part of my brain wants to go closer to the mountains. Deeper into the wild territory.

The Spanish side of the Pyrenees was also equally beautiful but felt very arid with fewer trees, less topsoil and less biodiversity. We’ve only ventured briefly into Spain so I’m not making any conclusions yet, but I’ve met many people who’ve tried Spain but moved back to the French side for water security. Having looked deep into the climate change predictions for this region, water security is a serious factor to consider.

Next stage

Our current plan is to drive back to the UK in time for Glastonbury festival where we’re volunteering as stewards. Unfortunately, Sally will be parting ways and will be returning to Scotland after that and I will be hanging around Bristol/Cardiff area to find work. Next year, my aim is to explore some parts of Portugal but mainly spend my time in Catalunya as much as possible.

Due to changes in circumstances and a lot more real work ahead, ‘tree a week’ will turn to ‘tree a month’ to ease the pressure and my post will become less frequent for a while. Sorry!

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