by Agatha Maxine
I’ve just arrived at the south west of France for the first time ever by carpool. The French couple that drove me here were strangers that I contacted through Blablacar, a website that provides a platform for people to travel around with others heading towards the same destination for a cheap price.
I’ve been traveling with them in their car for 6 hours now, and we’ve finally arrived at my stop, the place where I’m supposed to meet my host in Help Exchange (HelpX.net) for the first time. Weeks earlier, I registered to a site called Help Exchange (HelpX.net), a site that allows people to be hosted for free by locals in exchange of a daily dose of house-hold or garden work. I told the couple about the program and the French couple insisted on hanging around a bit to make sure that they weren’t delivering me into the hands of a creepy host.
A car then abruptly pulled in and parked in front of us. The tinted window of the driver’s side slowly rolled down, and I recognized the blond-haired man from the profile of the site Help Exchange. I looked at the friendly couple and nodded. Yes, it was him. In the copilot’s seat sat a friendly looking foreign girl. “If you need anything or if something happens, give us a call. You can stay with us,” said the couple that drove me. “We live just one hour away.” they added. And like a scene from a spy movie set in an inconspicuous parking lot, both parties hastily exchanged some words and shook hands. And the drop was made.
I thanked the couple who drove me and watched their car slowly disappear while I started buckling my seatbelt in my host’s car. Later in that day I learned that the host was a British-Australian journalist and soldier based in Africa who quit his job to become a viticulturist with the dream to set up his own permaculture farm in the south west of France.
So far, he has received 60 xhelpers since he joined the site. As for the girl sitting in the copilot’s seat, she turned out to be an Australian xhelper like me who just started helping him in the farm three days ago.
In France, being broke is not an excuse to shun traveling. There are many possibilities for people on a tight budget (or no budget at all) to move around. You just have to step out of your comfort zone and socialize… a lot.
You’ll have to trust strangers, and most importantly, trust your instincts. You have to approach strangers, be friendly, be well-mannered (being polite and clean certainly pays off and extra points if you know how to make pacute ) and come up with a Plan B just in case anything happens.
Instead of taking the train, bus, or airplane, you can hitchhike or go carpooling (blablacar.com). In the process, you get to meet interesting people of all walks of life, hear a lot of personal and crazy passed-on stories, receive useful traveling tips, build your contacts, maybe meet a local in the place you’re headed to, and sometimes, make a friend.
The funny thing is, when hitchhiking, I always thought that that female drivers would stop as I would appeal to their ‘maternal instincts’ and gender. As for my personal experience, it was surprisingly the men who would always stop and express their worries of me meeting dangerous men along the way. (REST ASSURED PARENTS, I choose unsuspicious cars, always hitchhike with a friend, and take pictures of, or at least pretend to, of the plate number before entering the car.)
During my short trips of hitchhiking in the small village where I used to live as a student, I got to ride in the car of the mayor, some people that happened to be my neighbors, farmers, and some professors. Being in their car was like sitting in the front row of a live theatre but with full frontal experience of someone’s take in life and drama…with matching little outbursts of saliva spat into your face. Some conversations also summed up to friendly interrogations about my life which have always lead them into abruptly asking what in the world was I, a Filipina from a beautiful tropical island, doing in the very cold and remote village so far away from the big cities or better yet-from home.
And so, depending on the driver, sometimes there were interesting conversations, and sometimes there were just awkward silences.
Accommodation and food expenses
Now that the different means of traveling have been covered, you’re probably wondering about the accommodations and food expenses. For that, you can couch surf (couchsurfing.com). It is a social networking website and hospitality exchange where a traveler can be hosted by a local in their destination for free and sleep in their couch or guest room. Each profile of a host and a couch surfer contains information about their personal interests, hobbies, and comments of other couch surfers or hosts who’ve met him/her.
There are several programs where one can register online and pay a minimum fee in order access hundreds or even thousands of profiles of people all around the world who are looking for people to work with or for them (3-5 hrs a day) in exchange for food and lodging. For HelpX, work can vary from household chores, babysitting, carpentering to helping them out in the garden or farm. World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms or Wwoof (wwoof.net), on the other hand, only deals with organic lifestyle.
When I was an xhelper, I got to work 4 hours a day (depending on the weather) on a permaculture farm. And when we weren’t working, we were hiking in the Pyrenees Mountains, exploring the nearby cities with the host’s girlfriend, using his homemade sauna, and eating to our stomachs’ content the organic dishes that the host would cook up with the other xhelper.
“I have to feed my xhelpers well, so they can work!” he would chuckle. He was also ecstatic when I got to cook sinigang with his two-year-old expired sinigang mix stashed in his kitchen cabinet.
Needless to say, I was lucky with my host!
One tight community
Isn’t it wonderful to live in a world where everyone just shares his or her personal assets and information for a minimum price or even for free? The phenomenon and proliferation of the ‘shared economy’ allows people to save money, act ecologically by reducing their carbon footprint, provide people with goods they can’t afford or who aren’t interested in long-term usage, and more.
Through hitchhiking and couchsurfing, among other programs (excluding Uber and Airbnb that are mainly valued due to their cheap costs), social interaction is valued in exchange for transportation and accommodation.
The exchange of information and skills reinforces a web of interdependence, solidarity, and builds stronger relationships and communities. The generosity of strangers then creates a ripple effect which is eventually passed on to others.
There are so many opportunities that benefit everyone, so we just have to dare to take that leap and plunge into the unknown. So the next time you think that you can’t afford to travel, think twice!
Aga finished Management and Conservation of Nature and recently graduated from a course called Analysis and Inventory Techniques of the Biodiversity in France. She plans to go back to the Philippines and work for the environment. She is currently still struggling with her French and working with Ecotone Resilience (www.ecotoneresilience.org).