A Midsummer Nightmare in Transilvania

My Worst Experience as aVolunteer Abroad

Let me start with the reasons why I started volunteering everywhere. If you know this already or you’re not interested in the foreplay, please go ahead and start reading the next paragraph, “*Skipping the chitchat”...

With my fellows volunteers in Craiova, May 2016 (I’m the girl in the middle)

As some of you know, I started my quest for freedom at age 27, 16 months ago, and now I consider myself a happy, fulfilled person, thanks to this whole journey. I call myself a nomad because I’ve been traveling full time, volunteering, couchsurfing and hitchhiking along the way.

Let’s go back in time for a moment: it’s the beginning of 2016, I’m fairly fresh in the labor market but deeply unsatisfied. I see clearly above my head the western society’s Holy Trinity: Money, Work & Time. It seems that all three are lacking, and they’re making us running like hamsters in the wheels, in a perpetuous sense of Scarcity.

We get ourselves trapped in this vicious circle. Pay rent, bills, installments, memberships, insurance, gas, and keep working, working, working, come on, you can do more! There’s no exit, just maybe some holidays but only if you work really hard. In this suffocating scenario, volunteering is not considered an option.

Volunteering is generally considered an altruistic activity where an individual or group provides services for no financial gain “to benefit another person, group or organization” — Wikipedia

In other words, someone would say, you’re working for free.

Not quite: by taking out the element MONEY from the whole process, you’ll get things that are more worthy than the value of money itself. Try desecrating the Holy Trinity by taking out its very keystone, and you could start having interesting insights on what’s really important for you. Just try it.

But seriously, how can we live as volunteers, working without an income?

Well, let me point out something: this is the age of fast information, and we should be extremely grateful for that, because it means it’s raining opportunities. Basically everything you can imagine is out there, in the network, and indeed, internet offers the perfect solution to volunteer and enjoy your life: Help-Stay, help and stay, work in exchange of food and accomodation. Problem solved! There’s even no contract so if you don’t like it you can just leave.

This is crucial: you have complete freedom as a volunteer but also as a host. You can leave anytime but you can also get kicked out anytime. It’s all about trust, reliability and awareness.

Helpstay.com

So I started as a Helper, and after the first “Stay” I definitely got the volunteer bug. I volunteered in more than 15 different situations, including an Ashram, a rooftiles kiln, a car shop, several hostels, various gardens and farms, as a designer etc etc. I’ve learned a lot, visiting 10+ different Countries almost for free, and I made more friends in these 16 months than in my entire life.

Every place gave me a few important lessons, and while helping others I got the tools to figure out who I am, what I want, where I’m going. Things that, in my opinion, our education system fails to provide.

Now, let me tell you about my worst experience as a helper, or volunteer.

Photo by rawpixel.com on Unsplash

* Skipping the chitchat

THE WORST EXPERIENCE:

A midsummer nightmare in Transilvania.

It was during my European Voluntary Service in Craiova, Romania, when I got a message from an Austrian in Transilvania, who was offering me a place as a helper in his little farm and B&B. Before accepting we spoke over Skype to discuss all the details: for 6 hours of work a day I would have had a private room with washroom and a kitchen, I could have used his wifi, his bike and even his car if needed. To be honest, I was delighted. I delivered my resignation letter to the people in Craiova and packed my stuff.

Starting off with my (soon to be downsized) enthusiasm

A few days later I was hitchhiking my way through the sunny hills of central Romania, going to this off-the-grid B&B. I was supposed to stay one month, but I lasted one week because the guy was such a jerk, he didn’t even bother to learn my name. Us volunteers were supposed to build his new fence, and to do so we were sweating like animals for 6 endless hours a day while he was screaming at us, “Move!! We’re not taking breaks!”, indeed, we couldn’t even take water breaks unless he told us so, God forbid!

It was August. I’ll never forget the blazing heat of that week in Transilvania.

On top of that, it wasn’t raining since a while and the well was going dry, so we had to spare on showers to make sure his 4 donkeys and 7 dogs had always fresh water to drink. My hair were long at that time and all my body was constantly swollen and itchy.

At least I was getting decent food, right? Well…

The first days we had some bread and the leftovers from his guest’s meals, but with all that physical work we consumed our supplies quite quickly. When we asked for more food he said “eat potatoes”. And potatoes was pretty much everything we had, so my colleagues volunteers became clients of the super-tiny local store. I stole apples from the trees.

Looking 10 years older. Here I got yelled at because taking selfies was absolutely not allowed. I have a shirt because early in the morning it was still chilly.

The wifi didn’t work so well either, but one day I managed to connect my laptop and I got a message about a logo I had to modify for a client. I’m still a graphic designer occasionally. I didn’t ask my host if I could work on my business, I just disappeared for a few hours; therefore, that night I’ve been asked to leave the next morning. He stated I had no “community spirit” as I was working for myself instead of continuing his fence, so I was not welcome anymore. I was already planning my escape, so my bags were ready. The problem: we were in the middle of nowhere. I had no other choice than walking down the gravel road towards the nearest town, which was several kilometres away; and so I did, bended under my bags, which contained basically all my belongings. Cars were very rare on that road. A guy on a carriage with horses appeared and gave me a ride for a short while, but then I was walking again. When he dropped me he made sure to squeeze my boob, since my hands were busy holding bags, but he seemed to be content with that and left, so I just pretended it didn’t happen and kept going. I had no idea where I was, but never give up hope! Indeed, then a van full of elderly French tourists appeared and they happened to have just one extra seat waiting for me!

I felt quite guilty for the way I smelled in that van, but the French group seemed to be very interested in my story. I must have been quite an anecdote to tell back home: a girl claiming to come from Venice, Italy, appeared out of nowhere in the woods of Transilvania, bended under two big bags and smelling like a workhorse.

What happened next?

As soon as I got wifi I found a new place as a volunteer in a rooftiles kiln near Sibiu for a week, starting from the very next day. Easy. The Austrian took his profile down so I couldn’t leave a nice five stars feedback for the Transilvanian hell.

Posing with the crew at the rooftiles kiln. Usually they were much happier than this, I promise!

Since many of you asked: this host was not on helpstay.com but on workaway.info. But let me tell you that it could have happened on any website, because this guy was quite an actor. Workaway.info is not responsible for what happened. If you stay in touch through my Medium profile, or on Facebook, or on Couchsurfing, you’ll see that I’ll publish soon (next week is the goal) a little guide to help you avoiding bad experiences as volunteers. Feel free to friend me in the network!

Update: The guide for volunteering abroad is now online!

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