Help-exchanges are a form of budget, cultural travel intended to provide reciprocal favours to travellers and a native family. A helper will assist their hosts for up to 5-6 hours a day, receiving free food and accommodation in return. Jobs could range from babysitting to constructing buildings, milking cows to making wine, with the help saving hosts from spending money on an employee.
By summer 2013, I’d taken part in help-exchanges in Canada and Germany. Despite the connotations of the title ‘helper’, I had always believed that I was the one that really benefitted from this role that benefitted most from the experience. I had a roof over my head and food within reach, could save money and was able to get to know a local area and culture first-hand. In addition, the effect of help-exchanges on personal development seemed to swing mostly in my favour; I wasn’t sure I was having much impact on my hosts as people. When I lost my backpack in Canada, the mother of the host family looked after me like I was one of her kin. I felt incredibly grateful for her sympathy and acceptance. I believed it was only really me as the helper who had developed a strong sense of gratitude towards a stranger – gratitude that would be carried forward into future travel experiences. The host would probably never be able to appreciate just how thankful I was in my heart, rather than in my purse, for her assistance.
Then I travelled to Iceland in August 2013 and my experience of help-exchanges changed.
Recently, Iceland has been in the news because of its public’s ‘revolution’ against the bankers responsible for the country’s financial crisis. This activism has led to the creation of a new constitution by the public themselves. Alongside this display of democracy, Iceland has also been classed by the World Economic Forum as boasting the narrowest gender gap and friendliest population in the world for visitors. This is a credit that I myself can understand. The soft, slow speech of an elderly bus driver made me feel instantly welcome upon arrival. The ability of Icelanders to rapidly switch into English was embarrassing for someone coming from a land with a lazy attitude towards learning foreign languages. But of course, just because a country has a friendly face in general, does not mean that everyone is friendly to each other.
I spent my second week in Iceland taking part in a help-exchange with a family in the capital, Reykjavík. I immediately warmed to my lovely host, a single mother and teacher at a special-needs school. She was devoted to her children and her job, and had an extremely gentle nature. However, noticing tension between her and her teenager, I sensed there was a personal family-issue going on. As the days went on, the pressure on my host to conceal this difficulty became too much, and she broke down in tears to me one morning and explained the situation.
Immediately, I became my host’s confidante and instinctively assumed the position of the ‘father’ of the family, in which I felt I had to be the strong one, responsible for keeping her and her children upbeat. The news I had heard was also traumatising for me, and the role I inevitably undertook was quite emotionally demanding. It was only when I got out of the house alone that I was free to release my own troubled feelings about the problem. One afternoon, I visited the Botanic Gardens and watched the ducks in the pond, wishing my host could glide around carefree with no worries, just like them. A random cat came and sat next to me on a bench, as if sent by someone to comfort me. The old man who stopped and chattered away in Icelandic made me smile with his optimism, even though I had no idea what he was saying.
It was clear how much my support meant to my host. One evening as I was preparing dinner, she came up behind me and rested her chin on my shoulder affectionately. She was literally leaning on me for support. Another evening, she came into my room, sat on my bed and started sobbing as soon as I asked how her day had been. Going to give her a cuddle felt strange; as the traveller away from home in a foreign land, it seemed more likely that I would be the one needing a shoulder to cry on.
I ended the exchange experience proud that the tables had turned slightly, in that I was the one doing something personally meaningful for my host. I took comfort in knowing that I had left not just as a temporary practical help, but as a permanent treasured friend. My host and I remain in regular contact and are likely to see each other again in the future. I hope that at some point, all help-exchangers can establish this relationship of mutual emotional support with a foreign host, and see it flourish in the face of the world’s physical and cultural boundaries.
I’m Shannon Colman and I use my difference to make a difference by opening up emotional connections with people I meet travelling, so that friendship can spread over continents. I’m a 22 year old History graduate of King’s College London. I love to discuss socio-cultural themes of travel on my blog www.soleseeking.com. Catch me on Twitter: @ShanSoleSeeking.