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The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of Being a Help-X Host

Being a HelpX host wasn’t at all what I expected.

After hosting three volunteers via the working holiday online database, HelpX, I have several thoughts about the experience.  What follows is my take on what it’s like, and what it takes, to be a HelpX host.

The Good

I’ll admit it: the only reason Bruno and I became HelpX hosts is because we needed help with our bus conversion.  We were totally overwhelmed with the project and couldn’t afford the expense of hired help in the United States.  Quite honestly, Bruno wasn’t chuffed about sharing his home, his meals, his free-time with strangers.

After having hosted three volunteers, though, I can say (whether or not Bruno agrees is unclear) that the interpersonal and cultural exchange that transpired when we welcome strangers into our home was an unexpected positive of HelpX hosting.  I wasn’t expecting hosting to provide such a keyhole into American culture, nor for the people we’d host to be so varied, so quirky, so intriguing.  But it was, and they were.

Bruno and Will, our 1st HelpX volunteer.  This photo is so cute!

Bruno and Will, our 1st HelpX volunteer. This photo is so cute!

Despite the fact that our three volunteers were all American, all male, and all young adults, we received a wonderfully diverse cross-section of American subculture.  We had one vagabond-minimalist-philosopher; one conspiracy-theorist-anarchist; and one brilliant-but-socially-inept architecture-artist-scientist.  I’ve already introduced you to the philosopher and the anarchist, but allow me to briefly describe our latest volunteer, A.J.

I reached out to A.J. on HelpX because he was a carpenter by trade.  Bruno and I had had enough of the inexperienced volunteers who struggled with our projects and whom Bruno had to closely supervise.  We needed an expert.  It just so happened that A.J. wanted to visit Baja California so it seemed we were meant to find one another.

A.J. is incredibly intelligent, at least in an intellectual sort of way.  His conversations always steer toward statistics and scientific evidence, and the topics that interest him are very cerebral.  Several nights during A.J.’s 11-day stay, I was up super late talking to him about all sorts of things.  The conversations were both enjoyable and thought-provoking.

Ryan, our 2nd volunteer, and the one who stayed with us the longest - 3.5 weeks!

Ryan, our 2nd volunteer, and the one who stayed with us the longest – 3.5 weeks!

Early on, I assumed A.J.’s choice to wander around the United States this past year or two and not to earn money was motivated either by a desire to travel or by self-imposed poverty.  Neither was really the case.  He had gone nomad because he’s looking for a partner to accomplish a project he’s been working on for a while but can’t get off the ground (an open-cell battery) and he does work-exchanges because he is, as he put it, really bad at earning money.  It was somewhat incongruous to hear that someone so intelligent wouldn’t be poor simply by choice, but this is what I mean about the eye-opening things you learn about the world as a HelpX host.

Of course, the best part of A.J. was that he was able to build us several pieces of furniture for our bus, like a table, a few doors, and a few cabinets.  Despite the added bonus of getting to know interesting and unique volunteers, the best part of being a HelpX host is getting help, of course!  The quality of help may not be consistent (we had one who barely met his minimum hours and one who put in way more time than requested but accomplished way less than hoped for) but at the very least there is the morale boost of knowing we’re not in this [crazy F$%@ing bus conversion!!!!] alone.

A.J., our expert carpenter and third volunteer.

A.J., our expert carpenter and third volunteer.

The Bad

Throw strangers together in a confined space, and there is bound to be conflict and drama – isn’t that what all reality TV shows are centered-upon?

In my eyes, most of the bad of being a HelpX host comes down to the intangible sacrifices that one must make to accommodate others in one’s home.  Some things are small: having to wait for the bathroom to be free when my bladder is bursting (this only happened in Ensenada, as we had two bathrooms in our lovely Tucson rental!); having to be friendly and social when I’m, in fact, grumpy or tired; tiptoeing around the house every morning so as not to awaken our guests.  Some sacrifices were larger.  Sometimes, the volunteers’ actions or personality traits annoyed me.  Sometimes, I felt uncomfortable in my own house (which is a strange sensation).

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Ultimately, the biggest drawback of being a HelpX host was sacrificing our privacy and personal space.  “Couples’ time” was non-existent.  Quiet evening time was shared.  Because none of our volunteers became wonderful friends, there came a point in time where Bruno and I wanted our space back more than we wanted them around, and in each case, we felt relief when our volunteer left.  (From the experiences of other hosts I’ve managed to find online, this is a totally normal reaction, so I’m not judging myself.)

The other bad side of being a HelpX host, at least for us, involved food.  Because part of our agreement was that I cook lunch and dinner, I was on full-time kitchen duty.  It felt like I was always either at the grocery store or in the kitchen, and I felt pressure to cook “real” food for every meal.  I couldn’t feel lazy one evening and just serve salad with bread and hummus, you know?

Our arrangement was also that breakfast was self-serve, and I left my cupboards of expensive organic ingredients out for the taking.  When our first volunteer made himself a $10 oatmeal out of hemp and sunflower seeds, it created a sore spot in me that never entirely healed.  I’m a bit controlling over my kitchen at the best of times, but thereafter it was even more difficult for me to give free access to our volunteers.

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The Ugly

This is probably when the bad turns into the ugly.  It was over food that our relationship with A.J. broke down.  I don’t want to rehash the experience too much, but I also know that giving some vague context is necessary.  Here goes:

A.J. expressed early on that he had high caloric needs – we’d seen evidence of this the first night when, after arriving without notice at 9pm, he downed an entire box of cereal.  He put it to me more bluntly later, when he exclaimed that he was struggling with our “experiment in calorie restriction”.  So I began cooking more and offering him extra snacks, but when this still proved to be insufficient, we came up with a new game-plan: I would buy staple ingredients A.J. requested and he would cook his own meals.  I did, and he did, though I still welcomed him to join us at dinner because I felt happy to give him “extra” for the good work he was doing.

It wasn’t until A.J.’s departure that he expressed his distaste with our work-trade arrangement.  He felt he’d gotten the short end of the stick, massively.  He’d put in about 50 hours of work, which, in the U.S., at $10/hour, would be worth $500 – he felt he’d not received the equivalent of that amount in what we’d offered him in room and board, so he felt undervalued and demoralized.  I had had no idea A.J. felt this way, but since his departure last week, I’ve had plenty of time to analyze what went wrong.

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What Went Wrong

Perhaps there were a few subtle elements that led A.J. to feel less than satisfied with our work-trade agreement.  I know that he wasn’t terribly pleased with the accommodation provided (I agree that our current rental is no Tucson Air BnB!).  I also know that he wasn’t at all taken by Ensenada city or the vibe of Mexico, generally (it was his first time leaving the United States).  The lack of appeal of our digs and environment may have made A.J. more negative about the work-exchange, generally.

I also know that he struggled with the  working conditions.  We didn’t have the tools, workshop or materials he was used to, and he wasn’t as adept as Bruno at making do with what we had.  We did purchase some of the tools he asked for, but at this late stage in the game, we didn’t want to make a large investment in tools that we would use for a single project.  Perhaps the work itself, then, wasn’t as pleasant for A.J. as he’d hoped.

But I think the crux of breakdown was the different understanding we have of HelpX.  Clearly, by A.J.’s purely mathematical calculation, he sees HelpX as a network for more money-oriented work-exchanges.  He even asked us for a small daily stipend in our initial email exchange.  Throughout his stay, A.J. calculated not only his calories, but our estimated expenses on him.  We, on the other hand, understand HelpX to be a platform for working holidays for volunteers seeking cultural experiences and cheap ways to travel.  If our understanding is correct, there are several intangible elements hosts offer to the exchange that cannot be calculated numerically.

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I think the biggest contributor to the sour ending of our time with A.J., though, was the breakdown of communication.  I began to turn inward early on because of A.J.’s challenging way of communicating, and so after thinking I’d solved his food problem, I didn’t dare re-approach the issue.  Bruno stopped trying to communicate with A.J. entirely after consistently being told his English was unintelligible.  Apparently A.J., too, ceased communicating with us, except for negative, rude, and condescending remarks.  The slow breakdown of communication led to ill feelings that festered within us all, and by the time they exploded, it was too late.

What I’ve Learned

The unfortunate end to our most recent HelpX hosting experience has led me to do some significant soul-searching this past week.  I reached out to HelpX for a written manifesto of the organization and the role of hosts.  No reply.  I’ve googled others’ HelpX experiences.  I’ve found some, but the vast majority are written from the experience of the volunteer (see “Resources” at the end of this post).

And so, despite my father advising me not to blog about my negative HelpX experience, I decided to share.  At the very least this post will provide one account from a host’s perspective that can be useful to current or future hosts.  Perhaps I may even receive feedback from other current HelpX volunteers or hosts that will help me continue to make sense of my experience (I’d love that!).

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I’ve learned that being a HelpX host shouldn’t be something you take lightly.  Even if you have experience hosting friends or family, hosting a volunteer is an entirely different experience.  In many ways, it’s a skill that requires refining.

After our first volunteer, I realized I couldn’t just accept any old friendly stranger.  I needed some sort of vetting system.  For my next two volunteers, that mainly involved a few more emails about my expectations and hopes and a few questions about their skills.  I now know that this screening is not sufficient.  I believe that, in choosing a volunteer, it’s important to speak with them on the phone or provide them with some sort of questionnaire.

What types of things are important to find out?  Well, food choices and preferences for a start.  But more than that, I think it’s important to understand what is motivating the volunteer to stay with you.  Is it because they’re really into your project?  They like helping people?  They want to learn new skills?  They want to live as cheaply as possible?  Travel cheaply?  Meet new people?  Understanding the prospective volunteer’s intentions can give a lot of insight into whether or not they will be a good fit.

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Being a good fit is, I think, also very important (in fact, our slowest worker was still our most positive HelpX experience because he was the best overall fit).  You’re going to be working and living with the person pretty closely, so it’s a good idea to see if their personality and world view will jive with your own.  That’s not to say that you should only accept people who have, say, the same political views as you – that would be against the very idea of HelpX, in my opinion.  But people have different work styles, communication styles, and eating styles, and, for the placement to work most smoothly, styles should, at the very least, not clash.

I learned quickly that it’s essential for hosts to make our expectations clear from the get-go.  We should clarify what we expect from the volunteer (in terms of work and hours), and provide as many details as possible about the projects and what we will offer in terms of room and board.  We should encourage the potential volunteer to ask questions so that they don’t come with unreasonable expectations.

With A.J., I even re-iterated my expectations the morning after he arrived so that we were both on the same page.  I was hoping this would help us avoid misunderstandings, which clearly it didn’t.  I still think it’s a good idea to have a debriefing conversation at the start of the placement.  It’s probably a good idea to have one a few days in as well, to check in on how everyone is feeling.

Debriefing is a way of keeping the lines of communication open, which is probably the most important thing I’ve learned about being a host.  If I’m feeling annoyed or uncomfortable about the volunteer, there is a pretty good chance they are feeling the same way about us.  Ideally, a conversation can improve these feelings and lead to a more positive experience for both parties.  At the very least, if the conversation goes poorly (like our final debriefing with A.J.), you can learn something which might improve the experience with your next volunteer.

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So, Would I Be a HelpX Host Again?

In some ways, I think Bruno and I were great hosts.  We provided extremely flexible hours for our volunteers and never pressured them to work more hours, even if they asked (which is a complaint I read time and again in volunteers’ online reviews).  We remembered that, even if our sole goal was to complete our bus, theirs was not.  We also cooked really tasty, healthy, high quality meals (even if A.J. didn’t appreciate them), provided the volunteers with access to a bicycle and as much freedom as they wanted to do their own thing.

But, if I’m being honest, we are not ideal HelpX hosts.  We’re not local to the places we hosted in so we provided no linguistic or cultural understanding of the place, and no inside connection to the community.  We were too busy with our bus conversion to spend time teaching skills (though Bruno was forced to do a bit of this anyway) or to socialize much.  (In our case particular, I don’t believe any of our volunteers were looking for this, but I’m just trying to be objective.)

Ultimately, we chose to be hosts because we needed help and couldn’t afford to pay for it.  I believe that a truly good HelpX host derives pleasure from hosting guests (be they family, friends, or perfect strangers).  They are happy to go the extra mile for volunteers, taking them sight-seeing, allowing them to integrate into family life, sharing long, loud meals.  Bruno and I, we were just average hosts.

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So, would I be a HelpX host again?  I’m not sure.  I don’t think Bruno and I will need any more help with our bus conversion project, so I don’t think we’ll be in the position to host again anytime soon.

But more than that, I don’t think I realized the learning curve that was involved with the job.  I think I have a pretty good idea, now, of what it would take to have more successful experiences as a HelpX host – I just don’t think I’m interested in putting the time and effort into becoming one.

I’m more likely to try being a HelpX volunteer, I think.  The experiences I’ve read about online – and heard from a few traveling friends of mine – tickle me with the excitement of adventure, of cultural exchange, and of trying my hand at new projects and skills.

Yeah, I definitely think I’m more of a volunteer than a host.

Resources for Current or Prospective HelpX Hosts

http://www.helpx.net/host-tips.asp?network=3

http://wanderingfootsteps.com/the-americas/help-from-helpx/

http://wanderingfootsteps.com/the-americas/update-on-our-bus-conversion-pt-iv/

http://wherearemikeandshelby.blogspot.mx/2014/05/my-article-about-helpx-tips-for-helpx.html

A Few Tales from HelpX Volunteers

https://malaysia2adelaide.wordpress.com/2012/08/19/the-curious-case-of-the-helpx-host-from-hell-aka-my-first-helpx-experience-was-beyond-awful/

http://waysofwanderers.com/travel-workaway-helpx/

https://www.thebravedame.com/my-helpx-experience/

https://www.helpx.net/articles/dionnestory.asp

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