What It’s Like to Volunteer at a Hostel

IMG_2651I waltzed up to the reception desk at TangoInn on a Wednesday morning. I was greeted by Belen’s happy, smiling face and asked if they took volunteers. She gave me the answer I was expecting: I’ll take your email, tell the boss and let you know. But no promises. A few hours later I connected to wi-fi in a nearby heladeria (ice cream) to find an email from her saying to stop by before 4 p.m. The next day I was moved into my new digs and working at 6 p.m.

I contacted a few WorkAways in Bariloche, Argentina a few weeks prior during the holidays. I heard good things about the area—the start of pure Patagonian beauty—and wanted to give working in a hostel a shot. I decided to visit regardless and already was three days in after completing a 25km bike ride and seven-hour hike up Cerro Lopez. I liked the town with its apparent Aspen-esque like feel and the mountains gave me life back after being robbed. I decided to take the door-to-door route and see what my options were. I wasn’t 100% gung-ho about the idea—staying in one place for a while always gets me antsy—but I knew it would give me time to plan my next few weeks in Patagonia.

The Travelers:

Because volunteering in a hostel typically means living in one, I’ve encountered my fair share of fellow backpackers and travelers. Watching TV, reading a book in the ‘living room,’ or cooking dinner is never done alone. It can get overwhelming and a bit frustrating, but the amount of people you meet and the variety of stories you hear is invaluable. I love it. I receive constant tips and hints for where to go and what to do, practice my Spanish and see the ins and outs of people’s trips here. Guests range from Argentinian families on vacation to a solo French Canadian who quit his job as an electrical engineer to travel to two Belgians taking a gap year. Bariloche is a hot spot for summer vacations and it’s a jumping off point for both Patagonia and Chile, depending on if your itinerary goes north or south. It’s a different vibe here—every hostel can say the same—and no two nights are the same.

The Staff:

As I rapidly learned in the corporate world, your coworkers make or break your happiness at a job. The same holds true here. I was immediately welcomed with open arms and already feel like part of the TangoInn family. I live in a dorm (AKA converted attic) with two girls, both in their upper 20s, both from Argentina, who work full time. I meander downstairs at 8:45 a.m. and greet everyone with a Buenos Dias and a kiss on the cheek. And do the same every time I leave. I drink mate in between washing dishes. To put it simply, I’m becoming part-Argentinian. All seven staff members are patient with my Spanish and bust out English at times, some more advanced than others. Jokes, smiles and laughs are a constant among the housekeeping, reception, maintenance and bar staff alike. You have to have a laid-back, flexible, fun attitude in a job like this and would seem out-of-place if you didn’t.

IMG_2652The Work:

Cleaning builds character. At least that’s what I’m telling myself. I work from 9 a.m. – 1 p.m. every day.  Breakfast for guests ends at 10 and I end up washing dishes until 11. Next comes wiping down counters and tables, sweeping and mopping, plus a little window action. It’s quite the change from desk life. My lower back hurts after 40 minutes of leaning over the sink and my hands smell like dirty pool water by the time I’m done. I despise those who walk over my high-class mopping work while still wet and secretly love when people get out of the way when I sweep. It’s not in my future career plans, but four hours of down and dirty work for a free bed and three meals a day? Sure. Why not. After 1 p.m. I have the world (or Bariloche) at my fingertips again. I split the time between half day hikes and staying in the hostel or around town to walk, research, write and read.

Would I recommend it? Heck yes. Two weeks of cleaning might be the max I can handle, but it’s an experience that’s good for the soul and a great option for travelers who can/want to travel slow. Just make sure you’re upfront about expectations and try to meet some the staff before saying yes. I got lucky and hope the trade-off is mutually beneficial.

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