true life: i am a hostel volunteer
Workaway is a site that posts volunteer opportunities for backpackers in exchange for accommodation and sometimes other perks/compensation. I had never really worked in the service industry before but I like meeting new people and feel like I'm pretty easygoing, so it seemed like a good way to stay in one place for a while, save some money, and meet other travelers.
Volunteering at a Hostel
Going into my first Workaway experience, I didn't know what to expect. I figured I would be doing what was stated in the description: greeting and checking in guests at reception, light cleaning, occasional bed making, and managing the hostel's social media accounts.
I applied for a volunteer position on the Workaway website to help out at a hostel on the island of Hvar, Croatia. The island is known for not only its beautiful beaches and neighboring islands, but also for its party scene.
On my way over from Split, I decided to check the volunteer description again, but when I tried to find it a message popped up saying that the listing had been removed. Looking through the site's FAQ, I realized that Workaway removes host listings when they receive more than two negative reviews in a row. Having seen the post active just the night before, I knew something was up.
I arrived at the hostel and was greeted by the owner and another volunteer. The owner and I had spoken over Skype a few weeks prior and I thought she seemed nice. It was really hot that day and I was hoping to settle in for a bit, rest, and put my belongings in my room. Instead, she made me work at the front desk right away. As I started my shift, the owner explained that I had a choice of where to stay - I could either take a room in the hostel, vacating to a new room whenever a bed was booked, or I could stay at an apartment that was a 10-15 minute walk away with no WiFi and shared with the owner and the woman in charge of cleaning. I told her I would think about it while the other volunteer showed me around.
While giving me the hostel tour, the other volunteer quickly filled me in on what had happened right before I arrived. She mentioned that another volunteer had left pretty suddenly because of some issues with the owner. This all happened within the first 30 minutes of my arrival. I decided it would be best to stay in the hostel and occasionally move to a new room every few days.
Working at the hostel was relatively easy. The three volunteers would split up with shifts— morning, afternoon, evening— and each would take turns working at reception. Sometimes we’d have to hang up wet laundry, sweep, make beds, or help make signs for tours and/or events. Part of the job was also to socialize with the guests and make sure they were having a good time. Aside from spending time with the other volunteers, this was the best part of the job. The types of people that come through hostels are usually pretty laid back and open to meeting new people, making it easy to socialize with travelers from all over the world.
Learning on the Job
I got along with the hostel owner from the beginning, but quickly found her to be a bit unpredictable. The expectations would change from one day to the next depending on whom she was talking to. She was usually fine with the work I was helping with; lot of the time I would be taking photos for the hostel’s Instagram account and regularly posting on their social media channels.
This place in particular had no orientation—the other volunteers and I picked up as we went, which is how I assume many new Workaway postings to be. Some hosts on Workaway just want all the help they can get and are new to the whole hosting/volunteering dynamic. This one, however, had been up and running for a few years and according to one of the other volunteers, had gone though many Workawayers.
Without any kind of orientation in place, it felt as though we were set up to fail. If someone made a small mistake, the owner would rhetorically ask, “Why did you do that?” Unfortunately, she started bullying one of the volunteers to the point where it was uncomfortable for myself and the guests to witness. Granted, my friend had made an error during her second week, forgetting to collect the remaining balance from a guest. Although my friend apologized profusely, the owner told her to leave only halfway through her second week. But since she had nowhere to go, she begged to stay and said she would pay whatever the guests owed. The owner reluctantly let her stay, but her attitude towards my friend deteriorated from that day onward.
Once, my friend and I were eating lunch and the owner came out to the kitchen area where we were sitting. My friend went to the trash to throw the rest of her food scraps away—maybe a piece of lettuce and a few pieces of carrot—and the owner remarked: “So this is what I'm paying for? For you to waste food?”
Comments like this started occurring daily, to the point where my poor friend told me she wanted to leave earlier than planned. "I don't deserve to be treated like this,” she said.
Week 2: New Volunteer and Escalated Behaviors
It was the end of my second week when the newest volunteer showed up. She could also sense that something was off about working at the hostel and felt uncomfortable. Since no other rooms were available in the hostel, she had to stay in the apartment with the owner which she told us was “disgusting, hot, and unkept.” I didn’t think it could be that bad until she showed us some pictures.
Right around this time, the owner started treating my friend so badly to the point that they started ignoring one another. The owner would start questioning everything she did; nothing was ever correct.
I got the sense that since I was close with the other volunteer, the owner was becoming paranoid and distrustful towards me. She even started acting very passive-aggressively in front of guests to the point that one of them even told me, “Your manager is so mean to you.”
Week 3: On Edge
By the third week, everyone felt uncomfortable. At this time, the longest-standing volunteer decided to leave. It was down to me, the new girl, and a guest who wanted to extend her stay in Hvar and volunteer for a week more. My poor friend who had continued to be targeted by the owner planned to leave, but was “fired” before she got the chance to do so. The owner told her to leave within two days.
The day after she left, the owner asked me, “Why did she leave? What did she tell you was the reason?” I told her my friend was very uncomfortable and unhappy there. She asked how long my friend felt this way and I said, "Since the start." I added that she felt she wasn't treated fairly. From the look on her face, she seemed to feel a little bad about the way things had ended.
I tried to subtly give her advice on how to handle situations like this in the future. No one likes to get criticized, but if you don't tell people what they’re doing wrong, then they’ll continue to make mistakes. I did my best to give her constructive feedback on her behavior, and I really thought she absorbed what I told her.
Deep down, I don’t think the owner is a bad person. I think she’s running a stressful business and is constantly surrounded by young people; it’s hard for her to relate to others and understand different perspectives. I suddenly just felt sorry for her.
The day after we had this conversation, any progress I thought we had made went out the window when this incident occurred:
A guest asked me about the price of renting a boat and I told him I was almost sure it was 400kn. "Let me check with my boss." I went to get her from her room and she came out and told him it was 500kn. Immediately I asked, " I thought it was 400kn." No, she said. The guest thanked us and walked out of the room. The next thing, I know, she was accusing me of purposefully making her look bad: "So you think I'm lying to the guests? It's 500kn, I'm not lying. Call the boat company and ask now. Call them!" She yelled at me and motioned to the landline.
"It was 400kn a few weeks ago—"
"A few weeks ago?!" She snapped. "Now it's changed."
"It even says 400kn right here," I pointed to a piece of paper taped to the counter with all the details of boat rentals.
She tore it off the counter and started screaming, "The price is now 500kn.” She glared at me and then suddenly started attacking my character. "This sheet was made by another volunteer, in fact, a better volunteer than you because they actually made the effort to check the prices while you do nothing!"
A small thing such as questioning the price of a boat rental suddenly became a personal attack. But I thought were on good terms now? What happened?
She continued to yell at me, telling me I was "useless" and was the reason the hostel was getting bad reviews. That's when I got really mad—I was never anything but nice to the guests—taking them out, giving them directions to sites, etc.
"Stop talking to me like that." I looked her straight in the eye when I said it. "I am always nice to the guests," I said. "I have never had a problem with anyone here.”
At this point, she just kept going on and on, telling me I'm rude "like now" she said, and kept trashing my character. She even told me it was my fault the hostel got a bad review from a former guest: "Maybe he hit on you and you rejected him." Even if this were true, you do not make people feel guilty by making an inappropriate accusation such as this.
I gave up. There was no point in arguing with someone this irrational. I just started agreeing with everything she said. Yes, of course you're right. I'm useless and I don't do anything. I haven't helped you at all.
"Get out, I don't need you,” she said.
I knew she didn't mean it. Or did she? I waited until she left. I called the boat company as she said and she has been right—it was 500kn. So she was right about the price and I was wrong. She came back 30 minutes later.
I apologized to her about the boat price information. “I’m sorry—you were right about the price.” But what she was actually mad at was that I had brought up the price discrepancy in front of the hostel guest. “You could have waited until he left,” she said. I told her that I had just told him it was 400kn before she entered the room and I was double-checking again since we had both told him different information.
In any case, I apologized for making her look bad. She wasn't going to make me leave that day.
The last few days in Hvar were tame. I never knew what was going to happen in the morning. I could be her favorite volunteer one day and her sworn enemy the next. I don't like leaving people on bad terms in any situation and things ended okay for the most part. The day I left, she thanked me for my work and gave me a hug. I felt relieved and a little sad; aside from working at the hostel, being in Hvar for that long was a great experience.
I’m currently writing this from my second Workaway experience in Bosnia and Hercegovina. It’s already so different from working in Hvar. Each volunteer experience has its own set of expectations, just like any job would. Some are more organized/professional than others; some are just starting out and have no structure whatsoever. The whole point of volunteering via Workaway is to help out and make whatever the opportunity is better in some way while also getting a chance to explore another country, learn about a new culture, and make new friends.
Overall Impressions of Workaway and Volunteer Exchanges
As I said, the best part of this whole first experience was getting to meet some great people, both hostel volunteers and guests. I would definitely recommend doing volunteer exchanges either through Workaway or similar sites. The positions listed are not always working at hostels; some are teaching English for helping out at a farm or tutoring kids or helping build websites. If you’re into alternative forms of travel, this is definitely a great option. Just make sure you read the reviews and ratings left by previous volunteers—there’s also a way to reach out to volunteers who have previously worked at places you’re interested in going.