Volunteering and travelling in South America – two weeks in an off-the-grid cabin helping a local family on their property
Three hours work a day in exchange for free accommodation in an off-the-grid cabin and use of a bicycle for beach and supermarket trips? Hmm, I’ll take it!
Being a Workaway volunteer in Uruguay
That was the deal offered by Workaway hosts Ashley and Patrick, two Chicago expats who made Uruguay their home three years ago. Have a look at my blog post Workaway – A Great Way to Volunteer while Travelling here, to see what Workaway is all about.
Although Workaway hosts usually offer food and accommodation in exchange for five hours of work a day, I decided that the chance to live in my very own cabin was too good a deal to pass up.
Ashley warned me in advance that there’s no running water, no electricity and a dry toilet but that sounded perfectly fine to me! The only thing I’d struggle with would be no internet but that wasn’t a problem as the cabin was just a few metres from the main house, with perfect WiFi signal.
Off the grid cabin life
I quickly got into the habit of collecting water daily from the hose – one black bucket of water for washing with (myself, my dishes and my clothes) and one insulated water carrier for drinking. The black bucket heated the water quickly in the sun and the insulated container kept my drinking water cold.
The toilet was simple – a bucket with a compostable sack inside, a few handfuls of hay or grass clippings after each use and when it’s full, tie it up and dump it on the human manure pile to decompose over the next six to twelve months.
Solar powered lanterns lit the cabin brightly each evening. I just needed to remember to put them outside each morning. A two-ring gas stove completed my needs.
Of course, I live in my van during the British summers so I’m quite used to basic living. I don’t have a fridge or electricity in the van either. Have a read of some of my UK vanlife blog posts here. I’ve got really interested in the tiny house movement of late though and #cabinporn is one of my favourite Instagram feeds, so I was hugely excited to have my very own cabin for two weeks.
Daily Workaway tasks
It wasn’t all about cabin life though. I had to actually work as well! Volunteering through Workaway is great as you never know what tasks you might be doing and you often learn new skills. Three hours a day didn’t sound too taxing and I was relieved to have time to do all of my planning for my next trip, travelling from St Petersburg to Mongolia by train, which was only two weeks away.
Each day Patrick would come and find me around 10am to give me a list for the day. It was my responsibility to not work over three hours, he said! The first few days were easy. I weeded the raised vegetable plots, mowed the never-ending grass around the house and cleaned the porch ready for painting. I also painted some old pallets white, which Patrick then fitted together to make an outdoor shelving unit.
Then the tasks got a bit harder. Dig a grave for an old fridge-freezer unit? Okaaay. That’s a bit more physically demanding then weeding the tomatoes! Oh, you’re probably wondering why we were semi-burying a fridge? It was to be used to store potatoes and onions, to keep them cool, of course!
On my last couple of days I got given the real backbreaking work of hacking out bamboo roots with a pickaxe. Every muscle in my arms and back ached, I was covered with a mix of sweat, suncream and earth, yet every time I filled another wheelbarrow full of roots I felt immensely satisfied.
Lazy afternoons at Fomenta beach
By 5pm most days I was on my way to the beach. 6km away along a quiet road lay the Uruguay coastline.
Fomenta beach wasn’t nearly as pretty as the beaches in the East, especially those at Punta del Diablo and Santa Teresa national park (read my blog here about Travelling Uruguays Stunning Coastline) but the water was inviting and the beaches almost empty during the week.
I’d cycle home via the sandy back lanes, between fields of corn and soya, as the sun began to set. A variety of birdlife, from bright green monk parakeets to the striking red-crested cardinals,flitted around me each evening as I cycled. I had to watch out too for the wild guinea pigs who would stay perfectly motionless in the track as I approached, then lose their nerve and scurry back into the hedge at the last moment.
Back at the cabin, I used the water that had heated naturally throughout the day to have an outdoor bucket shower, before making dinner. Halfway through I’d be surprised by the sudden darkness and have to scramble to find the solar lanterns.
Another quiet evening would pass as I read, watched Netflix and enjoyed the peace and quiet of cabin life.