13 Reasons Why I Moved to Victoria, Canada

Canada Day is quickly approaching, and now that I’m a permanent resident it feels even more fitting to celebrate the qualities that make this country so loved. Why did I decide to move specifically to Victoria on Vancouver Island? Victoria has many great qualities, but below are 13 of the main reasons it has stolen my heart.

1. Landscape

As I walk home from work along Fort St, a quick glance down a side street will often reveal views of Washington State’s towering Olympic mountains, snow glistening on their jagged peaks. Head towards their direction and you will eventually come to witness the vast Pacific Ocean stretching before you. When I lived in London, my social life seemed to revolve around going for food and drinks, but here a walk along the coast with friends will satisfy your social and physical needs, with no money-spending required.

Go inland and you are immersed in a sea of dense forest with tranquil lakes hiding here and there among the hemlock and Western red cedar trees. The landscape on the Island is so natural and unspoiled, and it never gets tiring to see. If you like photography, you will be in heaven here!

Brentwood Bay

2. Weather

Victoria has a moderate climate with winter temperatures usually remaining above negative. Compare that with -30 degrees Celsius in many of the other provinces and you can understand why so many people choose to move to the West Coast! Snowfall in the city is minimal, and when we do receive a mere couple of inches, the collective panic that erupts is quite amusing.

Summers are mild with temperatures rarely going over 30 degrees, allowing for sun-kissed comfort rather than sweltering torture (especially for someone fair like myself!). The lack of humidity and mosquitoes is also greatly welcomed!

If you’re into ocean sports, you will benefit from clear waters for diving and great wind speeds for sailing and kiteboarding.

Rain is less common here than in Vancouver, but even in the rain the surroundings are beautiful. Most places look dismal under grey skies, but Vancouver Island isn’t one of those places. Drifting fog over a bed of water dispersing slowly against a backdrop of evergreen trees is a trademark of the Pacific North West.

Sailing outside Cadboro Bay

3. Hiking

Drive 30 minutes outside of downtown Victoria and you are entering hikers’ paradise.  A variety of hiking options are available, depending on how far you are willing to drive to get there and how far/steep you want to walk. Mt. Doug is accessible by bus from downtown Victoria and offers 360-degree views over Greater Victoria and the surrounding Gulf Islands of the USA.  My favourite places to explore include John Dean Provincial Park in North Saanich, Mt. Work in Gowland Todd Provincial Park in the Highlands, Mt. Finlayson in Goldstream Provincial Park, Mt. Wells in the Langford area, and Matheson Lake in Metchosin. There’s nothing like a great hike to recharge your batteries and keep you smiling!

Mt. Finlayson

4. Lake Days

While England has the Lake District in the north and Hampstead Ponds in London, summer swims in lakes were never really a big thing when I was growing up.  Over here, you haven’t experienced summer if you haven’t had a lake day. Surrounded by forestry, Victoria’s surrounding lakes have authentic rustic settings that give off strong ‘Dirty Dancing’ vibes. (Because we’ve all at some point day-dreamed about re-enacting that scene!)

For a fun day out, you can pack a picnic and take a drive to Sooke to explore the potholes. More daring types can often be seen jumping from the rocks into the clear pools of water. Those searching for a quiet spot should head further upstream. Durrance Lake is a relaxing place to cool off after a hike in Gowland Todd Park, while Thetis Lake is a great option for chilling with friends, floaties and dogs. An hour’s drive up island, the Cowichan River is renowned by tubing lovers. If you’re bringing booze to any of these locations, please be respectful and take your cans away with you.

5. Wildlife

During a hike, you can expect to see bald eagles, turkey vultures and other birds of prey roaming over the trees with silent authority. Pickle’s Bluff in John Dean Provincial Park is a particularly great spot to witness a flying show.

Black bear sightings are also common as you head further inland, though the closest most people will get to one is from almost stepping in their berry-studded poop! Making regular gentle noise on the trail is typically enough to keep them away. Victoria also recently made headlines when a young cougar was spotted in the Gorge area. Thankfully, I am yet to come across one!

Between October and November, Goldstream Provincial Park is home to an annual salmon run that sees thousands of Chum salmon selflessly battle upstream from the Pacific Ocean and give up their lives to spawn. Watch closely and you can see the female digging her nest with surprising strength. You can’t help but admire these fish as they battle resiliently upstream against the current only, after after all that effort, to sacrifice themselves for the sake of making some babies. But at least it gives the other wildlife a meal!

Otters and seals are some of my favourite wildlife to see on the water, but if you’re looking for something bigger, you’re in the right place. Orca whales call this stretch of Pacific Ocean home, and it’s common to see a pod of them appear during a journey with BC Ferries over the Salish Sea to the Mainland or Gulf Islands. No matter how many times you might have seen them, the sense of awe never fades as you watch these beautiful animals rise up majestically from the water.

Humpback whales are another mammal that I’ve been fortunate to see by boat. Whale-watching trips operate out of Victoria, but as a firm believer in supporting local businesses, I tend to go with Sidney Whale Watching. The guides are knowledgeable and friendly, and they show respect for the whales’ well-being by adhering to regulations for viewing distances. I wish the same could be said for the private American charter boats.

6. Beaches

“I’m going to the beach” used to be something I’d say during an annual holiday in the Mediterranean. Now it’s something I say on a weekly basis. Why would I go drink in a rowdy pub on a Friday night after a busy week at work when I could instead soak up an opportunity for a quieter unwinding?

Within Victoria, Gonzales Bay is an excellent choice if you’re looking for an evening of sand, serenity and sunsets with a book or a guitar. Slightly bigger, Willows Beach in Oak Bay is a favourite for dog-owners and dog-stalkers-that-wish-they-were-dog-owners. A good place for seal sightings, it’s also a great place for a first date (speaking from experience!). On the eastern corner of the peninsula, there are many other quiet little coves to discover during a romantic evening walk.

If you are looking for rugged West Coast inspiration, the pebbled beaches en route to Port Renfrew will deliver. Perfect for a weekend of camping, there are a few options to choose from. Sandcut Beach and Sombrio Beach are two of my favourites. It’s easy to spend a couple of hours on these beaches appreciating the waterfalls, collecting driftwood or pebble souvenirs, looking in tide pools for small sea life, playing with seaweed (aka chasing your friend with it), and admiring the sheer number of clams and mussels. The odd surfer might be spotted braving the waves too.

Willows Beach

7. Road Trips

Whether you’re heading to Tofino for the weekend, taking a day trip to Port Renfrew, or making the long trip to Port Hardy, a road trip on Vancouver Island allows the above elements to be combined into one memorable adventure. The Island may seem small, but whether you are going solo or with friends, there is so much to discover and explore! Stopping in a few small towns such as Cowichan Bay is a great way to get a taste of the Island’s history and discover local art or trades.

Another bonus of road-tripping from Victoria is that the main highway is much quieter than the motorways of England, allowing for a more enjoyable driving experience.

Cowichan Bay

8. Food

Every road trip needs a great picnic, and Victoria is spoiled with places to stock up on snacks. Most importantly, it supports a variety of local restaurants, cafes and delis, meaning there’s no need to visit the big corporations like Starbucks or Tim Hortons.

Red Barn Market makes fresh sandwiches to order using local meat and vegetables, and offers generous servings at the ice cream counter. For this (latter) reason, the location on West Saanich Road has become a must-stop for me after a hike in Gowland Todd Park.  If you’re on a road trip to Port Renfrew, a great place to stop for coffee and sandwiches is Shirley Delicious. I’m pretty sure the South African barista has been on ecstasy every time I’ve gone..but he’s got great customer service!

One of my absolute favourite places for a post-hike treat is My Chosen Cafe in Metchosin. Tasty pizzas are made on site, and while you wait you can pet the adorable goats and donkeys nearby. Make sure you leave room for dessert, as its Sugar Shack really is the place where candy-filled dreams come true. Delicious and REAL milkshakes, mouth-watering fudge, and a variety of baked cookies, cakes and pastries await you. I personally love the Caramel Pecan Brownie and cry a little inside whenever it’s sold out.

While I don’t drink coffee, my penchant for tea has grown since moving to Victoria, thanks to the number of independent coffee shops around that create a cozy ambiance. Wild Coffee on Yates St, Bubby Rose’s Bakery on Cook St, Demitasse Cafe in Oak Bay, and Moka House on Fort St are nice places to catch up over a brew. And because there are so many coffeehouses around, I’m yet to discover more of them!

Then we have the bakeries. The window of Crust Bakery on Fort St is forever enticing drooling passers-by with its unique selection of pastries and tarts. A couple of doors down you have the Dutch Bakery with a variety of sweet treats on offer. If you like marzipan, the Dollar Rolls are delicious! Patisserie Daniel on Cook St has mouth-watering cinnamon buns and makes fantastic cakes for special occasions. Pure Vanilla Cafe and Bakery on Cadboro Bay Road tends to attract Oak Bay’s more affluent residents, but don’t let that stop you from enjoying its selection of breads, muffins and special cakes. Empire Doughnuts is fortunately (and unfortunately for my waistline) located one block from my office, and tends to be my go-to when the menstrual hormones are raging.

Summer in Victoria isn’t complete if there haven’t been several occasions when you’ve gone straight from work on a Friday to Cold Comfort. Located on North Park St, its ice cream sandwiches with their unexpectedly ideal flavour combinations are a wonderful end-of-the-week treat. My favourite flavours include Citrus and Coriander, London Fog, Raspberry Rose, and Hoyne Dark Matter (I don’t drink the beer…unless it’s in ice cream). On Fridays they pair up with Empire Doughnuts…uh oh!

9. Fitness

I love Victoria for its many scenic paths and trails. When I went on runs in London, the sounds of traffic, the air quality and the crowds of people I had to get through before reaching the park often left me frustrated. Here those irritants don’t exist. My favourite running route takes me along a beach, through a leafy creek area, and along a quiet road with gorgeous houses to distract me from the distance.

Whether walking through the pretty neighbourhoods of Fernwood or Oak Bay, running along Beacon Hill Park’s chip trail and grassy routes, or cycling a coastal route from Cordova Bay to downtown, you are bound to find something that keeps your mind happy and your body healthy.

For indoor fitness, Victoria has a huge array of gyms to choose from. I train at at Studio 4 Athletics on Yates St, where there are great options for personal training, individual workouts, and group classes. Victoria is also full of yoga lovers; in three minutes of walking around downtown, you can guarantee to see at least two people carrying a yoga mat.

Mountain Equipment Co-op (MEC) is Canada’s beloved outdoor clothing and equipment store. It’s like a toy store for adults. Located on Johnson St, the store also organizes running/cycling meet-ups, clinics and races. Before a series of niggles influenced me to hang up my running shoes for a while, I went to the Tuesday run meet-ups and found them to be good fun and a great way to socialize while keeping fit. They also inspired me to get back into racing!

Racing at Elk Lake

10. Second-Hand Shops

On the subject of cycling, I bought my second-hand road bike for $600 from UsedVictoria.com. This website is awesome for buying used items, from cars to couches. It’s also how I’ve found many of my room-shares/roommates.

The thrift stores are also a real highlight of Victoria for me. Some people might turn their noses up at the idea of wearing clothing previously owned by someone else, but I personally think it’s awesome! Bagging a deal while helping the environment…what’s bad about that? Some of my favourite work blouses, jeans and summer dresses have come from Value Village or the Salvation Army. The Patch on Yates St is also amazing for vintage dresses. If you plan to go in there only buying one dress, good luck.

These thrift stores are also great for buying furniture and art, whether you are looking for an extra bookcase or some antique ornaments. I’m a big fan of landscape canvasses and paintings, and could spend a good hour browsing through them.

As someone who enjoys reading, I love visiting Russel Books on Fort St just to browse their huge collection of new and second-hand books. Whether you are looking for historical fiction or horticultural guidance, you’re bound to find a cover that catches your interest. It’s a perfect place to kill time if you’re waiting to meet up with a friend!

11. Events

Victoria holds a range of events throughout the year that emphasize the idea of supporting local businesses and fostering a multicultural population.

My favourite event to attend is the Oak Bay Night Market, which runs on every second Wednesday of the month from June to September. With live music, food trucks, and local vendors selling original crafts and baked goods, this market has a real community feel. It feels more personal and welcoming than any of the events I attended in London. It also seems to attract all the local “hot dads”…and their even hotter wives.

Annual events like Canada Day, Car-Free Day, Oak Bay Tea Party, Pride Parade, and the Symphony Splash are naturally a little busier, but they all highlight Victoria’s friendly and diverse… (cue next point)…

12. Culture

“You folks in this town are very friendly, tank you,” spoke an Irish man recently when I offered him some help after noticing he and his wife starting perplexedly at a map. It’s become a habit of mine to proactively approach people when they look lost. I ultimately do it as a way of paying back the help others have given me here.

People visiting from Vancouver or other big cities might mock Victoria for the fact that it still accepts change for buses. I however like the fact that Victoria is a little “behind the times”. It makes it cute and endearing. It’s also a welcome change from London to have a friendly bus driver who says hello and advises tourists when they should get off. Likewise, it’s nice to hear passengers thanking the bus driver when they get off. Further, it’s refreshing when you can speak freely with a fellow passenger without feeling the alarmed eyes of others on you assuming you’re a psychopath. (Yes, that was another dig at London.) In fact, striking up conversation with a woman who used to take the same bus as me in the morning is how I made one of my friends here! I also love the fact that when I’m walking to work, I often see the same smiley old man pushing his trolley who gives me a wave and comments on the weather.

When it comes to my friendships here, I definitely fit the mould of “quality over quantity”. But that’s fine with me, because the friends I have made are some of the most open-minded, easy-going, down-to-earth, adventurous, and generous people I’ve met.

13. Proximity

Even when you live in such a beautiful city, you sometimes need a change of scene. Luckily, Victoria is conveniently located. A 40-minute bus ride takes you to the sleepy town of Sidney, where you can spend a few relaxing hours browsing bookshops, reading in a cafe, and walking along the pier.

Take the bus further to Swartz Bay Ferry Terminal, and you have your gateway to a mini vacation on the Gulf Islands. If you’re craving some time in a big city (or a trip to IKEA), you can take the 90-minute journey to Tsawwassen and head up to Vancouver from there.

From Victoria, there are daily ferries to both Seattle and Port Angeles, with the latter being your pit stop en route to Olympic National Park.

Dallas Road

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If you’re a foodie who loves spending your free time outdoors exploring nature or getting active, Victoria really does have it all. Please feel free to add your questions about or tourist recommendations for Victoria below!

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An Autumn Weekend in Whistler for the Non-Skier

Host city of the 2010 Winter Olympics, Whistler is a commercialised town that thrives off the stream of tourist activity which mounts in the run-up to winter. It’s similar in its appearance and character to the Rocky Mountain emerald of Banff in Alberta (think Swiss-style chalets and designer shops). Skiing is the main attraction here, but if powder isn’t your thing, don’t panic! There are still plenty of things to do on a long autumn weekend in Whistler without getting on the slopes.

Activities all Around

As an Olympic host city, you can expect premium quality from Whistler when it comes to available activities.

Hiking options are aplenty for all levels. You can join part of the 180km Sea-to-Sky trail which runs between Squamish and D’Arcy. A segment of the 33km section running through Whistler passes three lakes: Alpha, Nita and Alta, all of which have their own parks for eating and leisure. Trails are mainly flat and paved, attracting either those who fancy a slow stroll accompanied by coffee flasks and gossip with a friend, or those wanting an early morning solo powerwalk. Experienced hikers can attempt the more challenging 16km-return Rainbow Trail which starts from Rainbow Park on Alta Lake.

The west side of Alta Lake provides a great view of the mountains, even if they’re not sprinkled with snow. Kayakers and paddle-boarders can often be seen cruising along the water. Lost Lake is a secluded place where tourists escape to from the hustle and bustle of Whistler Village, and youths hang out and play guitar on the beach. It provides a great running loop for burning off the sweet treats that will inevitably find their way into your stomach if you visit Whistler.

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For those wanting to move at a faster pace, Whistler is also great for cycling. There are fun gravel routes for off-road biking near Lost Lake. If you stay at UBC Lodge in Whistler Creekside, bikes can be rented for $20 a day.

If you prefer more laid-back sports, Whistler is not shy of golf courses. There is also the swanky Scandinave Spa for those in need of a massage after a long day of hiking. Those tight on pennies don’t have to splash out though ($162 Deep Tissue Package – ouch!); UBC Lodge residents have free access to the hostel’s spa and sauna.

Fill me with Food

There are plenty of eating options available in Whistler Village that cater for various budgets and world tastes.

For a cheap and cheerful breakfast that will fill you up until the late afternoon, I recommend heading to Gone Village Eatery in Village Square where you can have hearty meals for around the $10 mark. Orders are taken and paid for at the counter and there is a washing area for to diners clean up their dishes themselves. This café is also located behind a cool bookstore.

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For lunch, El Furniture’s Warehouse offers a meal for only $4.95. Mainly filled with youths keen to watch ice hockey and NFL on TV, this place serves food that is nothing special (think burgers and mac ’n’ cheese) but it’ll fill you up for a few hours of wandering around. Dups Burritos makes tasty Mexican food priced around the $10 mark. For take-out, the renowned Peaked Pies has savoury and sweet options. Got cash to splash for dinner? Head to restaurants like Caramba! and The Keg Steakhouse for higher-end cuisine.

If visiting Whistler in the fall, it’s likely that at some point you’ll need a hot drink to warm your hands. Good cafes include Pure Bread and Moguls. Both are quite popular and hence pretty small when it comes to seating space, but the $5 cake slices look incredible! Moguls also offers many healthy savoury options.

Craving a sweet treat after an active afternoon? The Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory will satisfy your needs. A dazzling display of decorated toffee apples, flavoured fudge, chunky cookies and hand-crafted chocolates awaits you. Naturally the prices in this chocolatier don’t match ‘Save on Foods’ and deciding on one item is difficult, but the chocolate chip cookie topped with dark chocolate, caramel, nuts and raisins is so worth that $7. Just be sure to brush your teeth extra well at bedtime… Another place to check out is Hot Buns Bakery for its famous cinnamon buns and crepes, while Cow’s Whistler sells ice cream and milkshakes made fresh in front of your eyes from a Prince Edward Island recipe.

For home-cooked meals, there are two large grocery stores in Whistler Village: IGA in the marketplace and Whistler Village Grocery Store in Village Square.

With so many more dining options available, it wouldn’t be surprising if you spent most of your money on food during your weekend in Whistler…

Ease of Entertainment

Most shops in Whistler cater for hikers, skiers and snowboarders but there are also fashion and jewellery outlets available including GAP, Pandora and Footlocker. Even if, like myself, you’re not into these things, you can still get some fun out of window-shopping the many stores along the Village Stroll.

Picnics can be eaten on the Medals Pavilion next to the Olympic monument. Here kids run around playing games, glamorous moms in ski-based attire drink smoothies… and the odd couple perform yoga exercises. You can observe the activity from the comfort of one of the big chairs.

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Worth a visit is the Squamish Cultural Centre just outside Upper Village. This exhibits First Nation crafts including Totem poles and canoe boats, with plenty of photos illustrating the connection of these people to the land. You’ll find out interesting information, such as the tradition that newborns are given one name at birth before receiving their permanent ancestral one at adolescence. One memorable photo depicted two mountain peaks which represent two princesses who begged their husbands not to engage in a war.  Entry to the museum costs $18.

Whistler is quite the party town, featuring many bistros that turn into cocktail and wine bars; public houses offering locally sourced craft beers; and three nightclubs. Promoters will often be on the street with big smiles inviting people to join their weekly bar crawl. The last BC Transit bus departs at 12.59am. Any later than this and you’ll be needing a cab.

Getting There and Around

Buses through town come regularly. A single journey in Whistler costs $2.50 (as opposed to $1.75 in the smaller nearby Squamish). Save yourself from rummaging in your purse for cash by paying $22.50 for 10 tickets at the visitor centre near the main bus stop. The staff here are bilingual and very helpful with recommending activities tailored to your interests. Free shuttles run to the Marketplace from November to April and from the Village to Lost Lake in the summer season.

If you’re not driving, Greyhound and Pacific Coaches are the main transportation services, taking two and a half hours to/from Vancouver. The latter is more expensive, however it does offer pick-up and drop-off at Vancouver airport and selected hotels.

Whistler to some is, like Banff, too touristy, plastic and expensive. Hosting the Olympics inevitably boosted redevelopment of its commercial face. It’s definitely not like the more simplistic rural Canada I fell in love with, and yes, you are bound to encounter the odd rich  foreign skiing-nut. However it’s definitely worth seeing just for the experience and for the natural beauty that surrounds the village. Don’t feel unwelcome because you haven’t brought your skis with you; come along to Whistler for a weekend and treat yourself to a bit of commercial charm.

 

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Would you like to take this article on the road with you? You can download a GPS version to your iPad or iPhone by following this link. Thank you for reading and happy travels!

10 Reasons to do a Help-Exchange

When planning a trip, I tend to split it into two sections – part of it involves true hostel-loving backpacking, the other a help-exchange. We’re living in a day and age where students and ‘gap yah’ kids will spend huge amounts of money to volunteer in an orphanage in a developing country for two weeks, in an attempt to boost their CV with extra credentials. Personally, I’m not a fan of this organised travel; partly for the reason that I believe it does little to encourage independence and travelling skills; partly because I’m not convinced that continuously passing young children onto different groups to be ‘cooed’ over and have photos taken with is beneficial for their mental well-being and social development. (This article sums it up brilliantly). Students may also be lured into paying extortionate amounts of money for holiday package tours, where they only mingle with fellow tourists and essentially see the country for five minutes.

If you do a help-exchange in contrast, you’ll spend so much less money, yet probably get so much more out of the experience. The system is simple – you register with a website, pay an £18-£20 membership fee that’s valid for two years, and create a profile for yourself. You can then scout the website’s host listing, or hosts can contact you. The idea is that you do four-six hours of work a day for your host in return for free meals and accommodation, so that you’re both doing each other a favour. In your free time you’re free to go off exploring on your own. A help-exchange can be done in any country on any continent, with an incredible range of options on offer – from helping an Eco camp in Africa build a school for six weeks, to looking after huskies in Norway for one week. Below are ten extensive reasons why you should consider doing one yourself!

1. Develop social skills & independence
The process of organising a help-exchange requires the sole effort of the applicant: you yourself have to find an appropriate host decisively but considerately, noting their requirements whilst taking into account your relevant skills and other travel plans. Instead of filling out an application form, you have to contact the host directly either by phone or email, ensuring you come across as friendly, coherent and suitable in a few sentences without referring to your ‘exceptional’ A level results. You have to organise how you get to your host – sometimes you might be asked to turn up at the door – in which case you need to plan travel arrangements. And finally, you have to introduce yourself to your host using communication skills that convey your genuine personality rather than the one you might use to impress someone in a job interview, and conduct yourself aptly for a guest. The process is like a less formal version of applying for a job – there are fewer competitors, no strict deadlines and no daunting interviews. Help-exchanges are also a great way to boost one’s confidence at meeting new people.

 2.  Save money & recuperate
A help-exchange is budget travel at its best. Even staying in hostels that only cost £17 per night starts to add up if you’re on a long trip. The particularly great thing about a help-exchange is how spontaneous it can be – you can contact somebody even when you’re in the country having commenced your travels – ideal if you’ve suddenly found yourself short of funds or there’s been a problem with your current accommodation. Staying in one place for a while also allows the weary traveller to rest their body and mind – it’s nice to have some time off lugging a backpack around everyday, or constantly thinking about public transport timetables and hostel bookings for the day ahead. Saving money on the practicalities of food and accommodation also means your pennies can be put towards more exciting activities in your free time. Plus, being given free meals in return for your help makes a nice change from a cheap ‘on-the-road’ diet of cheese-sandwiches, bananas and biscuits…

3. Develop new practical skills
The wide range of jobs that hosts advertise for help with means that you can guarantee learning a new skill, ranging from knitting to carpentry. Sometimes I’ve not contacted a host whose description sounded perfect in so many ways, just because I had no experience of the specific work they needed help with. But one occasion where I didn’t let this feeling of inadequacy put me off was with a family on Vancouver Island. They owned a vineyard, and as much my mum might have tried to encourage me over the years, I had no experience of pruning. As I was shown what to do on my first day thoughts of: ‘Oh crap, I’m totally going to ruin this guy’s vines, he’s going to be annoyed with me!’ filled my head. Then I remembered that it wasn’t a test, and I wouldn’t be judged for asking questions, but was actually more likely to be respected for trying to ensure I did a decent job.

Even when you’re not working, you can still learn new skills in your free time from family members. The first time I went fishing was during a help-exchange in southern BC (I wasn’t very successful). On another exchangeI learned the basics of lacrosse and after a few attempts (and one fall) had (almost) mastered the art of longboarding. It’s unlikely I would have accessed such activities so easily when travelling around alone.

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4. Inspire youth
Being the youngest of five children, I’ve never had much of an opportunity to be a ‘big sister’ to anyone, but taking part in help-exchanges has changed that, as I’ve been able to become a confidante to those a few years younger than me. Being trusted by an adult you’ve never met to take a position of responsibility over their children is a humbling gesture, and as a result makes you determined to live up to the duty and set an example. In my case this has mainly involved listening to problems, sometimes of an everyday form and sometimes more serious, and using my experience to give advice for the short or long term. With young teenage girls I think, being female myself, that it’s a particularly rewarding process. They’re going through a stage when older authority can be resented, and being a good role model without alienating them can be quite challenging. But if you get the balance right, you’re likely to see reserved body language become more confident and bored facial expressions develop into expressions of curiosity and familiarity, as they realise that the new girl in their house is actually not that bad, even though she travels by herself/is single/wearing scruffy clothes and no make-up/into running/a bit of a geek. I hope that as a result of this, most of the girls I’ve stayed with have decided that they too would like to embark on their own independent travel adventure one day. Help-exchanges demonstrate that you don’t have to be in a less-developed country (or pay lots of money) to have a strong impact on someone’s life.

5. Expand human knowledge
Taking part in help-exchanges has made me become a better reader of both individual people and families, reminding me in the process that despite any cultural differences, certain human emotional dilemmas occur universally. As a result I feel like I’ve gained greater maturity and sensitivity, which can be applied to everyday life. It’s something that can’t be taught, only obtained through observational experience. An example is from Canada, where I lived with a 15 year old girl whose life, at the insistence of her mother, revolved around horse-riding and ice hockey. Most of the time she was reserved around the household. Then at the end of the week the two of us went to the cinema and I saw an excitement in her that I hadn’t seen before, realising that it was simply because she wasn’t used to going out for social events. Away from her normal routine and slightly domineering mother, she felt freer and more open. Meanwhile on an exchange in Germany, the 18 year old daughter started tearing up as she said goodbye to her parents before they left for their holiday. She wouldn’t see them when they got back as she would be on holiday herself. “I just feel bad because by going away and doing my own things I see them less, and they’re only getting older,” she explained to me after they’d gone. I could completely empathise with her, having experienced similar feelings of guilt in relation to my own parents. It was an irrational feeling that I hadn’t considered might be felt by others. Doing a help exchange can make a ‘foreigner’ seem more familiar, while also giving you something to take back to your own family; be that a greater appreciation of or the inspiration to change its dynamic!

6. Practise a language
The best way to learn a language is through immersion – visit the relevant country and spend time with native-speakers, listening to their conversations and attempting to initiate ones yourself. Even if you’re not planning to learn the language (mastering Icelandic in two weeks would have been asking a bit too much), it’s nice to simply listen to the different sounds and watch people interact through it, sometimes being able to guess what they’re talking about from their actions. While staying with a small family in Germany, I would carry a notepad around with me, at times randomly asking the daughter, “How would I say this?” or “What does that word you keep saying mean?” She would also ask for clarification that her English was okay too, so that both of us were benefitting. I was then able to use what I’d learned after I moved on from the family. It makes a nice change from hostels and charity volunteering camps where, on the whole, English is the international language. And even better: the tuition is free.

7. Learn about other cultures
Living in a family’s home creates an intimate environment where you can witness the everyday native lifestyle – it’s the best way to learn about the values and norms of the country, either through conversations or general observation. Whilst on my Icelandic help-exchange I was told about Christmas traditions (including a detailed description, involving a picture book, of the 13 different Santas), as well as the less obvious and random traits of the country’s culture. For example: when trying to establish ages, an Icelander will always ask for year of birth over the actual number; a wife doesn’t take her husband’s surname – instead it is always the father’s name, ending with the prefix ‘dottir’ for girls and ‘son’ for boys; names of all residents are written underneath the house number next to the door; dried haddock is a popular snack, and so forth… Staying with locals gives one a greater awareness of and access to the signature brands and dishes of that country, such as ‘Tim Hortons’ in Canada and Skyr yoghurt in Iceland.

Doing a few help-exchanges in different areas is even better, as you get to witness the variety of the country for yourself, just like someone travelling to England would notice changes between London and Yorkshire. For example, I could sense varying attitudes towards immigration, marriage and careers in different areas of BC which, as a History student, I found really interesting. What’s more, if there are other foreign helpers staying at the house, you can learn more about their culture too. The first time I had a proper conversation with someone from China was during a help-exchange in Canada, while meeting a few Germans there partly inspired my decision to travel there the next summer.

8. Integrate into a family and community
In previous posts I’ve written about the overwhelming effect of being welcomed into a host’s life so warmly. Sometimes the ‘click’ won’t happen, either inevitably from significant differences in outlook, or as a result of events during the exchange. But when it does, especially in such a short period, it’s a very touching experience. This, combined with getting to know the local area well, can make you really feel ‘at home’. Doing errands for a host in Germany such as going to the post office and doing the shopping required me to familiarise myself with the area, making me feel like part of the community by the end of the exchange. By the end of my week with a family in Reykjavík, I was on greeting terms with an old man who walked his pug at the same time as I walked my host’s border collie. At family dinners or parties, I’ve been involved in the conversation almost, at times, like a member of the family. Such moments can lead to a bond with a family – a long-term bond that hasn’t been formed through the influence of alcohol and consolidated by the desire for a companion to provide temporary convenience and security, as is quite often the case with volunteer-travel friendships.

For me having no younger siblings, forming a bond with a child or young teenager is particularly special. At first introduction they are often quite shy and making conversation isn’t so easy. My Icelandic help-exchange also involved babysitting an eight year old. His English was exceptional, but there still seemed to be a barrier as we sat eating breakfast on my first morning. After getting a shrug in response to “What’s your favourite subject at school?” I asked if he wanted to walk the dog with me: “Nahhh”; or go swimming: “No thanks.” Hmmm. ‘It’s going to be a long week,’ I though despairingly. “Maybe you’d like to play a game?” I asked hopefully. The boy said nothing. Then suddenly his eyes lit up: “Do you like Star Wars?” Ermm… “Yeahhhhh!” I replied enthusiastically. I know nothing about Star Wars. The next two hours was spent playing a game with no idea what I was doing. But it was worth it, because by the end of it the boy was interacting with me more. Within the next few days I was making him laugh as we played toy soldiers or football, and chatting animatedly with him. Then came the day when he asked “Will you be here this time next week?” followed by a sad “N’owhh” when I said no, and upon hearing that I welled up.

One might say that the same emotion can be experienced after looking after an orphan as part of a charity project, but I would disagree. A charity scheme essentially requires a bond to be formed, by expecting volunteers to devote complete attention to a child who is not already emotionally attached to a regularly-present biological relative. In contrast, children from a host family are less likely to require or crave a new bond, simply because they already have a strong and satisfying connection with their family.  The process of forming a bond is therefore more contingent on both characters involved, which subsequently makes it feel more treasurable.

9. See incredible places & do amazing activities for free
They say that guide books shouldn’t be relied on as source for travel ideas, and help-exchanges prove it. A key reason I’m such a big fan of them is because of their potential to help one discover a phenomenal area of the world, or be given a rare opportunity to do something wonderful. For example, one of my help-exchanges in BC involved working on an Andalusian horse farm, where I helped care for and exercise the horses. Being allowed to ride such beautiful animals as ‘work’ made me feel so lucky, as I thought about what some people would give to be in my position. Another family took me tubing down the Similkameen River, and on my final night with them we drank beers and ate ‘smors’ around a campfire in the Okanogan forest, giving me a true rural Canadian experience. This was an area that I would probably not have considered visiting had I been touring the area independently, because of both the lack of tourist accommodation and lack of attention given to it in my guide book. On Vancouver Island, my hosts lived five minutes from the beach, from where I could admire some of the most enchanting sunsets I’ve ever seen. I was given a tour of Victoria and taken out on the family’s boat for an evening cruise. Meanwhile in Germany I was taken on an afternoon sight-seeing tour of Frankfurt with all the benefits of local knowledge, and in Iceland I got to experience the brilliant Culture Night celebrations with native company. For just a few hours work a day, you can receive something back in return that no salary, no matter how big, could buy.

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10. Form special memories & valuable contacts
The sense of accomplishment after discovering or arriving at a stunning place completely on my own is what makes me love travelling alone…but I’d be lying if I said that some of my favourite and strongest memories from trips haven’t come from help-exchange experiences. Some of them are from the examples stated in #9, while some weren’t necessarily so treasured at the time but in hindsight have provided extraordinary tales of great humour that, without a help-exchange, I probably wouldn’t have experienced. Take the time I went to a house party in Canada, only to find myself constructing a sling out of a tea towel for a guy who broke his collarbone after falling off his quad-bike whilst riding under a very very large influence; or the time a host asked me to give her daughter a lift to a bonfire party in her car (as if having to quickly adjust to driving in an opposite way to what I was used to without damaging her car wasn’t enough, I then had to reverse half a mile along a dyke in the dark after we took a wrong turn); and last but not least was the time one family’s 12 year old daughter jokingly drove a lawnmower towards where I was sunbathing on a downhill slope before parking up, only for someone to start screaming at me to move (she’d forgotten to put the handbrake on…)

Then of course, there are the friends that can be made from a help-exchange, either host’s children or fellow helpers, who themselves account for many of the memories formed. I’m still in regular contact with many of those people I’ve been fortunate to stay with, one of whom I visited in Germany after meeting her in Canada, and one of whom I travelled around the USA with three years after first meeting. These people provide a travel contact either for at the time of the exchange or in future, and meeting them has inspired me to become a host one day myself, in the hope of meeting even more special people and creating even more special memories.

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Being involved in a help-exchange is beneficial for a range of reasons: the potential to help a person develop for the better whilst allowing them to have an impact on someone else; the potential for new knowledge, exciting opportunities and significant experiences; the potential to form strong friendships; and simply for the potential to produce a fulfilling sense of knowing you’ve done someone a favour, whilst also feeling extremely grateful for what they’ve done for you. And the best thing about it is that these elements can be attained without having to spend thousands of pounds.

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Been convinced? Check out some of the websites below and get your own help-exchange adventure started!

http://www.workaway.info/
http://www.helpx.net/
http://www.wwoof.net/