Being budget travellers we’re always looking for ways to stretch the dollars as far as possible. One of the best ways to do this is to volunteer your time in exchange for food and accommodation. While it isn’t quite as helpful as actually earning an income, we just aren’t yet in a position to make that happen, simply not spending anything is better than nothing.
However, on some rare occasions, the description of the situations are slightly misleading to what one encounters upon arrival; such as what happened to us recently.
The job itself was located on a small but beautiful island on the Pacific coast in Central America, almost entirely untouched by tourism. We’d be constructing fish ponds and buildings, gardening and farming, and general property maintenance; with hopes of bringing more people to support the local community. The posting itself described how to reach the marina where we’d be picked up by a small boat costing $25 dollars; while this seemed pretty steep for the location, we figured splitting it two ways would make it okay considering we’d be saving accommodation for roughly two weeks.
Upon arrival, the red flags began almost immediately. First, nobody at the marina had a clue what we were talking about but said we could stay and have some beer while we figured it out. Kylee tried calling the contact, but his phone was out of service. Several frustrated emails were sent over a couple of hours before we finally decided we might as well spend the night in the overpriced concrete cell at the marina, as travel back to the city at night wasn’t the best option.
Suddenly, a tiny boat sputters towards the shore and our host soon heads our way up with dock. Happy something is finally happening we pick up our bags to meet him; but he simply suggests we relax a little longer as he’s just heading to the airport to pick up another volunteer. As we wait for another two hours, an Italian girl arrives, also heading our way, so although a little tired and confused, at least we knew the boat would be cheaper.
More Red Flags
The host arrives with the fourth guest and only now are we told that the boat is actually $25 per person! Unfortunately, we’ve passed the point of turning back now, so we reluctantly hand over the money and board the 10 minute trip to the island – made only slightly longer as the tiny motor ran out of gas and we had to flag down another boat for some spare fuel.
Arriving at the island, now after dark, we head to a neighbouring restaurant for some delicious pupusas and visit with some of the locals; all fantastic people and laughing children. They were one of the best parts of the entire experience. Returning to the property, the host has disappeared and we’re shown to our ‘room’ by one of the other volunteers. It’s no more than a mostly open-air net shack used to store surfboards; the bed is a plank of plywood on a few cinder blocks. No bedding, no pillows. Just wood. Certainly not the canvas tent full of actual beds the posting displayed.
Things deteriorated quickly from this point, we confronted the host about the bedding and the ridiculous cost of the boat ride itself, in which he simply told us that the money was going towards the food and pupusas. Food being no more than instant noodles and eggs, and pupusas for dinner at a whopping $1 per person.
Things slowly got worse from there. The overflowing toilet was just a hole in a rotting piece of wood with a plastic chair to sit on, surrounded by a torn tarp loosely strung up on some branches. The ‘internet access’ was only provided with local sim cards you could purchase for a few dollars from the host and only worked at the beach, twenty minutes away. For the ten of us staying there, we had one burner to cook with and the ‘family style meals prepared by the host’s wife didn’t happen either. She wasn’t even there.
But my favourite part of all was the ‘fire tree’ as the host jokingly called it. The properties electrical service was nothing more than two leads of an extension cord tied directly into the overhead power lines and draped over a tree. It was called the fire tree, as when it rained it would constantly spark from the live, bare wires. I should add that this was a few short feet from the open-air shower.
Not All Bad
As much as the past few hundred words have been knocking this experience, there were definitely some positives. The other volunteers were amazing and we’ve become friends with several of them. The local community was friendly and beautiful and even invited us all to a birthday celebration on our final evening where we probably had the most fun of the entire stay. The beach was absolutely stunning with at least a kilometre or two of nearly untouched sand and perfect waves. And although the provided food wasn’t much to write home about, a few of the local places around the island had some of the freshest seafood we’ve ever enjoyed.
We’ve stayed in some pretty dismal accommodations over the years and will very likely continue to on occasion. However, there’s usually a good reason for it and we know ahead of time what we’re getting into. This property has so much incredible potential to become something fantastic, a small backpacker spot that would be a real draw for a few people at a time, bringing in just enough money to help the community without corrupting their system. Unfortunately, learning that this place has already been operating like this for over four years and is still unfit for habitation, our hopes and motivation were crushed.
It didn’t take long for most of us to start vocalizing our feelings to one another, and it quickly became clear that everyone felt the same. Shortly after when a full six of us had enough and decided to leave, that we learned there was a local ferry which would bring us all to the mainland for $2 dollars each.
Where all that “boat money” had been going, I guess we’ll never know.