I‘ve told this story a hundred times and as everyone keeps asking me about it, I have decided to write it here.
I am originally from Mexico City, one of the largest in the world. The truth is that I never liked living there, too busy, too many cars (traffic), insecurity, pollution, gray landscapes, little vegetation and green areas and a huge number of neighborhoods where I wondered “Being able to make this place beautiful, do they make it uglier on purpose?”
I had always wanted to travel to Europe, I had been to the USA a few times and I like it, but it doesn’t catch my attention as much as the old continent with all its mixture of cultures, history and stuff. In 2010 I had the opportunity to travel on a university exchange to Spain, I was afraid at first but eventually I told myself that if I didn’t do it then, I would probably never do it. It was an experience that changed my life completely, helped me overcome my fears, learn many new things, make great friends and countless positive experiences more.
I had to return to Mexico after a semester in Gandia, near Valencia, to finish my studies in graphic design and during that time I kept looking for ideas on how to return to Europe for good.
I did my last year of studies, finished my final project and I realized that without money and some professional experience was not going to get anywhere so I searched and found a job as a designer in a marketing agency in which I worked for 11 months. At that time I kept looking for ways to go to Europe, saving all my salary and continuing my French language studies on my own.
It was during this search that I found in an online forum two websites (www.helpx.net and http://www.workaway.info) that handle the concept of “working as a volunteer and travel” which caught my attention. The way it works is you create your profile saying as much as possible about you, you pay for the Premium membership (one payment of 25 euros and it’s valid for two years) which gives you access to lots of hosts posts worldwide seeking people to help on projects for short or long term in exchange for room and meals, you contact them explaining why you are interested in their project, they accept, you make the necessary arrangements and go.
That’s when I made up my mind, I contacted hosts in France and one of them accepted me. I would go there to improve my French and help without spending my savings, so that once I spoke the language well enough, find a job and stay.
To this I might add, because people always ask me, that I am lucky enough that my grandmother inherited my Spanish nationality to me, herself being from Galicia, by a law called “Law of Historical Memory” that Spain decreed so that the descendants of emigrants because of the civil war, could be entitled to become Spanish citizens, therefore I do not need visas or permits to be within the European Union for as long as I want.
Everything went as follows, I submitted my resignation where I was working, I made the necessary preparations to leave, documents, bank account, etc., I sold a lot of things I had from my childhood and other trinkets that I got from my family for the purpose of increasing a little more my savings (including two plaster busts of the ex-president Adolfo Lopez Mateos that sold like hotcakes) and took my flight.
Flights from Mexico to Europe are usually very expensive hovering around 1.000 to 1.500 euros, however, one of my other discoveries in the internet was a Belgian low-cost airline Jetairfly (www.jetairfly.com) with which you can fly from Cancun to Brussels (Belgium) sometimes for as low as 199 euros one way. This, combined with a cheap flight to Cancun with Volaris (Mexican low cost airline), allowed me to cross the pond for a price that did not exceed 250 euros (and in the end got paid by my parents as a gift).
The next thing I tried for the first time was couchsurfing (www.couchsurfing.org), a website where, similar to helpx and workaway, a person living in a certain city you are visiting, gives you accommodation after responding to your request and checking your properly filled in profile, for one or two nights for free and basically the goal is to get to know a place from the perspective of the locals and make new friends in the process, all within the basis of trust between strangers.
My first experience was in the city of Lille in France, where I went by train (TGV or high-speed train, this one is expensive) just after arriving in Brussels and the truth is it was very good. I stayed with a young couple of about my age who were also hosting for the first time, they took me sightseeing, we talked a lot and had fun.
Couchsurfing has a certain “code of conduct” which basically states that it is not a dating site and should not be used as such. Basically it operates through a referral system and if what you’re looking for is hooking up, you can end up with bad references which would block your future attempts to search for lodging. The same goes for people who just want to take advantage in any way like stealing, etc. After all, the system operates on trust in others.
After two nights at my hosts’ and a very good experience, I had to go to the place of my volunteering in northern France in the Haute Normandie region, to a village called Longueville sur Scie.
Travelling by train in France is quite expensive and as I wanted to save as much as possible, I had to look for alternatives, this way I found another way to travel cheap called covoiturage (www.covoiturage.fr) also known as Blablacar / carpooling. This works as follows: you want to commute from one city to another, someone else has a car and wants to make the same journey on the same date as you, they put a notice on the website with a price to share traveling expenses such as gasoline and tolls, you contact them, book the trip and travel with this person. At the end, depending on the website, you have to give the driver a code that the page sends you so that the driver can unlock the payment, although sometimes it can be agreed to make payment in hand-to-hand as well.
I shared a ride with a slightly older than me guy who spoke almost no English and I with my limited French could not talk a lot but somehow I made him understand that my true destination was not exactly the one in the website’s post (Rouen ) but the village of Longueville and he told me that he was also going there but covoiturage system normally operates by posting the names of the big cities instead of just the villages. In the end, he took me all the way to where I needed to go, saving me the cost of the regional train.
So where did the two years of travelling come from?
As the original “plan” did not work very well for my first host of the French town was British with another British volunteer and an American girl, and in that village no other people could be seen anywhere, I did not get to practice and French there and got no positive responses in my job search either.
From there I went to another helpx place in the center of France with an English / French couple where I could practice some languages, but also the Christmas season was approaching and no work luck with the job search. Being there and in contact with a very good Spanish friend, he invited me to spend Christmas with his family in Zaragoza, so without any other plans, I looked for flights and found one with Ryanair for something like twenty euro, I booked it and left. I spent a month there and during that time a friend from Poland also invited me to visit her, therefore I checked flights, I found one also for about twenty euro and left. Already being in Poland I thought “why not stay as a volunteer here and get to know how Poles live?” Which I did. It occurred to me that being close to Ukraine, I should also pay a visit, I saw that the trains are not expensive and there is the concept of first, second and third class so I went there too and then returned to Poland with the family that had hosted me the first time, Agrochatka, which incidentally was one of my best experiences I’ve ever had and who are very good friends of mine. Afterwards I got invited by a family in Austria to spend a month with them and help play with the children and help them practice their Spanish. As I was in Poland, I decided to go by land and check out Austria’s neighboring countries before reaching my volunteering destination, Slovakia and Hungary.
For a long time I had wanted to visit Istanbul, and one day while searching for flights out of curiosity, which normally are around 150 euro single-trip from most European countries, I found a fairly cheap flight from Vienna, for around 50 euros and that’s how I visited Turkey.
Not knowing how to leave Turkey and return to Western Europe without spending a lot of money on a flight, I decided to take a train to Romania and volunteer there while the flights’ price decreased, besides the fact that it’s cheaper to fly from there than from Istanbul.
Well… the point of all this incredibly long text is to show that I have traveled without a specific plan, simply going where I’ve wanted to go and finding cheaper ways to travel being as flexible as possible. Throughout my journey everything has gone very well and I have not had any truly bad experiences, I have rather had many curious ones I’ll write in this blog and well, after Romania I’ve been to several other countries including Italy, Germany, Lithuania , Latvia, Estonia, Finland, Sweden, Denmark and Norway. As I write this, I’m at a place called Mons in Belgium looking forward to what will follow and continuing the endless search for a job.