It’s not a secret that you don’t need to be a millionaire to travel. But you can cut your expenses even more if you consider volunteer traveling. In order to show you how it can be done, we’ve talked to Roman, who worked as a volunteer at the Paralympic Games in Rio and then traveled across South America while working at farms.
Hi, Roman, and thanks for taking the time to share your unique experience! How did you decide that you want to go volunteering in South America?
It was kinda random. I’ve never dreamed of going to South America in particular and didn’t even know you can apply to be a volunteer at the Olympics. Somebody mentioned it to me in a sauna in Finland where I was on Erasmus exchange. I came home and googled it and the deadline was in 2 days. So I just applied straight away!
So what is the application process, is it difficult?
The application process starts a year and a half before the Olympics, in my case, it was the end of November the year before. For each Olympics, they create a separate volunteer application page where you register and fill in your application. It’s a long process with several rounds, as they sift through thousands of applications.
First, you just fill in a short form with your name, contacts, and country. Then, they ask you for more info. They are specifically looking for people with some useful qualifications: photographers, press, translators, etc. You also tell them your sports interests and the list of languages you speak. Mind that you’ll be given a competency test for all the languages that you mark as known at an intermediate level of higher! You are also given a test with some difficult situations you might encounter at the Olympics and you must tell what you would do in each. It’s just testing how adequate your behavior is, nothing very difficult.
Maybe it was just this Olympics, but they didn’t decide on who can come until the last moment. I hadn’t bought a ticket in advance and I didn’t have money for the last moment one, so I turned down the offer to volunteer at the Olympics and chose to go for Paralympics instead. There’s much less hype around them and it’s much easier to get tickets.
What do you get from the Olympics committee as a volunteer?
Not much. You have to pay for your own accommodation and tickets, but they do provide occasional free food and several sets of uniform. I stayed in Rio via Couchsurfing to save the money and I’ve managed to sell the uniform to tourists for a nice lump of money that funded my subsequent adventures.
What were your responsibilities as a Paralympic volunteer?
I was lucky to get a very cool job to do: I was helping sportsmen move from the sea to the bikes at a triathlon. It was the first Paralympic triathlon ever, so everybody was very excited! Our work was to move them as fast as possible in order not to spoil their finishing time. So you might say we contributed to their victories!
The triathlon was taking place right at the Copacabana beach, so I spent several days there with my feet in the water. It was a lot of fun but also physically taxing: you have to carry people from high waves in your uniform clothes. Besides, the day started at 6 am and finished in the evening. By that time I wanted only to sleep and sleep some more. The atmosphere at the games was very cheerful and friendly, and the sportsmen are just amazing!
Did you go to South America only for the Paralympics or were you planning anything bigger?
I bought a one-way ticket there because I knew I wanted to stay there and explore more, but besides that, I didn’t have much planned. After the Olympics, I only knew I wanted to leave Rio as fast as possible.
But why, everybody says Rio is amazing!
Maybe it is, but it’s also very crowded and dirty. The only place I liked was the Copacabana beach, and that was because it was winter and it was rather empty. I also really enjoyed the climb to the Cristo Redentor statue, especially so because I went there on foot for the sunset, when there are not that many tourists there. The view is indeed very impressive! But nevertheless, I was tired of Rio and wanted to get out.
So where did you head from Rio?
I took a bus to Foz do Iguaçu. There are no trains in South America, and flying is expensive, so long bus trips are inevitable there. This trip took about 24 hours, but I think I was asleep for more than 20 of them. The buses are really comfortable, with a lot of space even for my long legs, and they also serve food. Surprisingly enough for South America, they are also usually on time! The only problem is that sometimes you can’t buy a ticket online as the system doesn’t accept international ID… But it’s never a problem to get a ticket right at the bus station.
So Iguaçu is where the famous falls are, right? Did you visit them?
Of course! They are about 20 mins by a public bus from Foz do Iguaçu itself. It’s a national park so you have to buy a ticket to go there, which also includes a ride in a bus from the entrance to the falls. I saw them from the Brazilian side, which is cheaper, whereas from the Argentinian side you can get a little closer to the falls. You can get a boat trip in the park if you want an even closer look.
Where did you go next?
After the visit to the falls, I crossed the border to Argentina (just 5 hours at the customs, easy!) and started a streak of volunteering jobs. I had registered at Workaway for a registration fee of about 20 euros. There, you can choose any destination and find a job in few hours. You’ll be working for accommodation and food and there’s a great variety of jobs: farms, hostels, building etc.
So in Argentina, I started working in a secluded place in the mountains for a musician in his 60s helping him to build a house. In volunteering jobs, you usually stay for as long as you want, and I stayed there for 2 weeks. In the next gig, I worked at a hostel with an olive farm that belongs to a wonderfully crazy US man who once traveled the world with 4 kids and smuggled Bibles to Soviet Russia.
After that, I crossed to Chile, hitchhiking with a man whose car was searched for drugs for hours at the border. There, I helped with the construction of a cabin and web page maintenance for another hostel in the mountains close to Talca, near Parque Natural Tricahue. I went hiking in the park and saw some trees 600 years old! It was amazing!
So all this time you were traveling for free?
Yes! Basically, I only spent money on food when I was in between the jobs. When you volunteer, you’re provided with food and shelter, and when you’re moving from place to place, you can easily hitchhike. Couchsurfing helped me a lot, and when sometimes hosts canceled, there were always some nice people around who let me stay at their places.
You’ve mentioned you’ve reached as far as Patagonia in your trip?
Yes, my last job in South America was at a farm to the south of Osorno, Chile. I ended up staying there for 2 months. We, volunteers, lived in a barn without windows and a toilet, cooking our own food, working hard and sleeping in sleeping bags. I know it sounds harsh, but it was amazing! I slept in a barn tower without a wall, so basically outside, swam in a lake instead of showering and made some great friends!
The community was the best thing on that farm. We connected with people so well that at some point I really considered staying there and probably would if I hadn’t promised my parents to be back home for Christmas. When I bought a ticket home, my friends saw me off to the bus station some 8 km from the farm. We’ve kept in touch ever since, and some have already visited me here in the Czech Republic!