A blog should be honest and a help exchange cannot always be the perfect match

Why have I been off the grid except for sporadic Instagram and Facebook posts?  I’d left the stark and soulless Innsbruck youth hostel with too high an expectation of a help exchange in the mountains; positive, serene, calm and hopefully laughter filled guest house running yoga courses.  Boy, was I in for a surprise.  After 23 days, I can say easily say the hosts are generous of spirit; opening their home and providing food and accommodation but there were a few too many times when I felt like the hired help and to coin a blogger’s phrase, this can be considered part ‘thought piece’.  My time in the Tyrolean mountains has been a slow 3 weeks.  I left grateful for my fellow volunteers, mattress, the mountain views, the unexpected sunshine and my food but with a quandary; should HelpX or Workaway hosts explain their religious or spiritual sway?

For those that know me, it’ll come as no surprise that I’m no fan of being surrounded by people who know your whereabouts and activity all day every day.  My parents or past landlady were not privy to this and why on earth would they.  On the mountains, there’s no separation of being on or off shift.  Completely my error, I didn’t click.

The anticipation for the guest house has been long since I’d planned this before I left London.  Too long!  I had built up the volunteering fun to be had.  I endeavour the ‘optimistic, low expectation’ mindset but it’s been too easy to daydream.  I was ready to stay in one place for a good 3 weeks or more.  A need to feel lighter; both backpack-less and eating better were concepts I was impatient for.  I know now that my limit for travelling place to place non-stop is 3 weeks, as is the desire to stay in one location.  Because of my work history, I mentally defined the destination as a venue, as a guest house; not clicking the heart of it is a yoga centre, a retreat.  I’d looked at their website and course names in advance, deliberately requested dates when they’d be busy with guests.  Hands up to not looking at the yoga courses in detail, I think this would have raised a red flag for me with an onus on spiritual yoga rather than yoga as exercise.

I’d rearranged to arrive 5 days earlier than originally planned.  I’m welcomed into the house, a 500-year-old traditional Austria mountain house I’m told was once a postal office and a rest stop; the pass is part of the Roman road ‘Via Claudia Augusta’ over the Tyrolean Alps.  ‘Fernpass’ geology is scientifically estimated at 4000 years old following a mountain slide part filling a valley.  I’ll never be a camera woman.

There are several different volunteers here already which is great; 4 students from all regions of Europe: Poland, Germany and the UK, a petite dread locked yoga loving Swede settling in to stay for a whole 6 months, a childhood friend of one of the owners, and me!  I’m given a relaxed welcome and encouraged to explore and settle in but no real induction.  This juxtaposition is a difficult one for me.  I prefer an intro, an explanation of expectations… informally and openly.  When this finally happened about a week in, a new volunteer and I received a list of dos and don’ts given in a weirdly formal meeting.

Even on a day one, it felt like there was stress in the air.  Looking back this was ‘community’ chaos and they like it.  One of the owner couples is heading off to Portugal for a holiday, the current yoga course is cancelled which is a shame as I’d hoped we’d have guests but the owner ‘core’ team are converting a large storeroom into a new single bedroom for an upcoming month-long teacher training.  The place continues to feel on edge, as am I.  I’m writing this after 5 days of being here.  Time has massively slowed and I can’t work out if this is a good thing or not.  It wasn’t all bad, it was just a niggling feeling.

My dream heading to this place was the pleasure of unpacking, hanging up clothes, being in one place for over 3 weeks and as if fate would have it my living space changed 4 times, getting smaller and smaller.  I arrive just as they’ve started building a new stud wall to create a corridor to the new room.  I’m allocated the bedroom next door.  A treat to be given a guest bedroom, I wasn’t expecting it.  It dawned on me 3 days later that I’d be moving very soon with the impending yoga course plus I became a furniture store within a day.  I didn’t really care if I could get to my bed.  I was going to move on Friday then I’m requested last minute to straight away the day before to another bedroom upstairs but only for 2 nights.  This is where thinking ahead was lacking.  Throwing things into bin bags was easier, on Saturday I have the small caravan outside…I get a little too settled.  It was a haven.  A haven for all of 3 nights.  I’m woken from a nap [bad timing] on my day off on Tuesday to move to a mattress with the 2 girls in the hut.  A new volunteer no one had been expecting had rocked up and so I wasn’t pleased by this time.  Not because of the moves but because of the time frames, I plan so this opposite approach does frustrate me so.

A delayed light bulb went off more than 2 weeks in; I saw 2 of the owners paint reclaimed furniture and I realised whilst digging lentils out of a kitchen sink plug hole – again – that there was a distinct difference to the approach of my Chateau volunteering hosts and these guys.  The Chateau was more light-hearted with the very open option to say, “I’m bored of that and I need to change it up”.  The Chateau essential, mundane jobs such as cleaning were completed by paid local staff.  At the retreat, we were the cleaners, cooks, and housekeeping.  6 hours ‘work’ in exchange for a bed and 3 meals a day.  The latter was plentiful vegetarian and vegan food plus we can help ourselves to a multitude of drinks, fruit, nuts, and biscuits.  My complaints sound petty now I read this back.

Note, I enjoyed only 2 bottles of beer in just over 3 weeks – almost constitutes sober October.  I know, I know, I did say… almost.  I will thoroughly deserve the red wine I’ll be glugging when I return to the city.

RotaWe have an easy rota to follow that keeps us on our toes depending on the number of people in the house.  The start time of our morning shift varied depending on the guests too.  Approx. morning shift 7.30-3 and the afternoon 2-10.  You don’t have to be Carol Vorderman to calculate this is more than 6 hours.  We’d have time included in these hours for meals and an hour or so break in the afternoon making it a split shift; I wasn’t a fan.  Special projects relating to DIY invariably allocated to the guys as traditional sexism arises.  The ladies had the joy of ironing.  I prefer to procrastinate and blitz my work OR blitz my work and then sit and enjoy a scour of the internet or read a book.  These tactics didn’t work so well.  No peaceful timeout with so many people around.

Waving goodbye to NathanThe art of filling their shifts with slow and steady completion of their tasks were 2 students Franz and Nathan.  I should have watched them more intently.  Thank goodness for the other volunteers.  Housekeeping in a guest house of only 10 rooms, 16 beds, and 5 bathrooms is nothing compared to the hotels of my past with circa 325 bedrooms.  To spell it out; make breakfast, clear up, wash-up, change the linens, scrub the bathrooms, keep refilling washing machines and dryers with laundry, drag Henry the Hoover around and tidy many throws, rugs, and cushions.  In ‘my’ time, I was constantly searching for a quiet space in the house; especially hard with two nearly 2-year olds walking and wobbling around like miniature drunkards… thankfully one little boy could lift my mood as he loved to copy our cleaning and entertain us at meals.

Yes, there are children.  I could lose a proportion of my readership in the next paragraph.  I am not made to be a mother.  They make too much noise.  My version of ‘yoga retreat’ was well and truly childfree.  I enjoy playing with the two nearly 2-year olds in the house for an hour or so but when I was clearing up their toys for the 10th time, hoovering the food from the floor and trying to block out the crying.  Insert maniacal laughing!  My sympathy to all parents, I’m guessing you don’t mind doing this for your own children as you wanted the mini-mes but would you do it daily for someone else’s?

We all feel it; other people’s houses and their clutter looks like it needs throwing away, tidying or messing up depending on your own ‘style’.  The Austrian guest house is extremely Tyrolean traditional with a splash of Indian inspired or cross-stitch cushions, and many throws covering inherited or free furniture.  Coincidentally I used to love a cushion, a rug, and a throw.  But not like this.  I once tried to organise the ‘tea’ shelf, the linen cupboards, even the cleaning rags.  I knew it was pointless but I enjoyed straightening it at the time.  Within a day all were a little less organised and my cynical brain thought people were not as respectful of each other’s work as I’d hoped.  A hang-up from my job history.  Too many people with big egos, frequently willing to disregard a colleague’s work.

Compared to a Scandinavian friend back home I have a mass of clutter yet another friend considered my old Redditch flat way too OCD   It’d be a bit boring if our styles were all the same though I do not want to see a ratty stripy rug again.  Trip hazard is all I see now.  I miss carpet.

3 of the owners are very Austrian – well, they are Austrian – in their direct instruction of tasks which felt contrary to the dogma.  I know I am a sceptical presence to them.  Hiding my New-Age bullshit detector is hard work but I make the effort.  “I am struggling with air in the salad we ate last night” = something in the dish gave me wind.  The words manifest, energy, meditation, soul, healing, vinyasa, ceremony, and karma come up a lot.

My style of meditationI do not dismiss the new wave of mindfulness as a method to de-stress…. well the Westernised non-god application.  Plus I love my own meditation of staring at nature in warmth, comfort, and silence.  Also known as sunbathing.


To add to the contradictions, I thought I’d left the workplace moaners behind, you know the ones that ’cause a storm and then complain when it rains’.  This was the last place I expected to be hearing about the woes of long hours and lack of days off.  The core team seem to have a decent time off and are in control of their own special projects – the benefit of being the owners of your own business y’d think!

Saying good morning daily with hugs and kisses in the morning feels a little fake.  Not helped that I’m a reserved Brit, I’m not tactile, never have been, thankfully I am better at cutting those that don’t recognise this some slack.  Tactile people are caught up in being nice and fluffy by giving a hug or a kiss.  They can’t help it they don’t cotton likely results for the non-tactile are the opposite.  Neither am I a chatty Cathy in the morning so the Groundhog Day feeling was evident each morning shift.  I give the beginning of the day and the ‘huggers’ the benefit of the doubt and reciprocate – Oscar Award winning I think.

From Friday 29th October, we finally have guests!  I was looking forward to running the house with the guests being our priority.  Two lovely ladies looking after the administration of bookings came in to see the arrival of the weekend course.  I was surprised there wasn’t so much of an arrival committee for the week-long course that started on Sunday 31st.  This was the start of a weird week.  I don’t think the guests felt welcome.  My observation, they also were looking forward to a more contemporary modern idea of a yoga retreat.

My knowledge of yoga history has grown.  5000-year-old meditation practices and rituals relating to ancient Indian religions only shared with the Western world in 1893 as part of a religious conference and then a studio opened in Hollywood in 1947.  The Western interpretation of yoga became widely popular in the 80’s focusing on the physical exercise only.  The fad became a phenomenon, turned a trend into an integral part of the sports/fitness industry.

Thursday 5th October had a funny start for me.  Nicole and I are cooking up breakfast and the yoga course guests are undergoing a silent day.  This means no talking and no real eye contact as this acknowledgment with a frown or smile can easily be considered interaction.  The practice is to encourage inward reflection.  I failed after minutes.  Nodding and mouthing a thank you to a person as they’d moved out the way for me.  Always polite me.

Whilst the food here is plentiful, I do miss strong flavours.  The vegan or vegetarian menu is a little same, same but I give them credit they’re trying to meet the masses.  One of the yoga guests during the difficult week jokingly said to me today, she really enjoyed the chocolate cookies on arrival!  No missing the inference that the rest of the food wasn’t that great and they didn’t get cookies the rest of the week.  I smiled and moved away quickly to avoid encouragement.  Clearly missing sugar.

There is a lot of soup, not my favourite dish but I have had to get used to it in Poland and Czech Republic; combined with high hopes for losing a little bit of weight or at least re-setting whatever metabolism I have.  The Austrian bread is amazing!  I don’t even like bread that much but here, simple pre-bought loaves warmed in the oven.  Fantastic.  Slathering on the butter is not helping my want to lose a pound or 2.  In comical contradiction to my thoughts coming up, I will say “my prayers were answered” hee-hee I found the mustard!  It was a taste I’d been hankering after for a couple of weeks.

One delicious dish I wish I’d taken a photo of was homemade chocolate cake with vegan banana and chocolate ice cream.  Take note for the ice cream, so easy.  All you need…

  • a food processor
  • frozen bananas
  • coconut milk
  • tiny pieces of dark chocolate

Blitz and stick in the freezer/fridge till you need it.  I will be making when I visit the family in December.

I was in 2 minds all through my volunteering whether to be so candid in my blog.  It doesn’t help I’ve entered a guest house with lots of the problems I was trying to separate myself from in the world of venues and events.  Poor communication, lack of forward thinking, monotony, and disorganisation   How they’ve got themselves into this predicament is a wonder.  With no real induction, their preferred method of erratically telling someone what not to do is just so draining.  Knowing a bread cloth from a small tablecloth was not tip top on my list when I first arrived.  Then the joys of having 2 or 3 people with differing ideas, well, at 10 days in, I was counting down to when I would be leaving.  That’s a first this whole trip.

How would I say to the founders and hosts “I want to go early because your idea of calm is the antithesis to mine”?  This was my cowardice as I don’t believe they would really worry.  They see at least 2 or 3 volunteers come and go each month.  I’d not bonded with them.  As always, you will connect and bond with those that have mutual interests and beliefs.  And dare I say it, the gullible.  The mutual interest, of course, was spirituality or India.

Its neither wrong nor right to have a faith, it’s individual choice.  For me, once or twice in the past, I referred to myself as spiritual.  That you can believe in fate.  That things feel like ‘they were meant to be’.  Here some believe the universe is guiding them to places and decisions.  That they ask the universe for support or recite a specific Buddhist or Hindu mantra or chant in the same way a Christian would pray.  Each to their own.  This is not for me.  I endeavour a positive mental attitude and I’m responsible for me.  I make decisions and there is nothing negative with saying that a past decision didn’t pan out the way you’d hoped.  At the time I take a course of action based on sourced information, emotion, and advice.  Each decision is in that moment of time.  They say hindsight is a wonderful thing but it’s as useful as a chocolate teapot and regret.

Then there’s the appreciation of music or noise?  I have an eclectic CD collection but have never been overwhelmed with ‘world music’; a festival performance or friends’ preference at their own home then yes, all music can be enjoyed in small measure [even opera or Slipknot].  If I hear the didgeridoo or the hand-pan/hang in the next couple of weeks, it’d send a shiver down my spine.  I’ve heard a little too often, too loudly.  When played softly, both instruments could be gentle and melodic…. hmmm I’m being nice.  I don’t want to hear the didgeridoo for a long time.  Some would say the same about my CD collection.

Ricky Gervais and Stephen ColbertI agree with Ricky Gervais   A statement I never thought I’d say.  To understand the definition of agnostic atheist.  Agnostic relates to knowledge and evidence, an atheist [or theist] is specific to whether you believe.  I have not seen physical proof of gods and I do not have a faith or belief in gods.  Ricky was quizzed on a US chat show, I felt a little argumentatively by the host, why he, Ricky, didn’t have a faith.  He answered that he believes just 1 less god than the TV host Stephen Colbert who is openly Roman Catholic Christian.  If there are possibly 3000 gods in this world and you believe in 1.  Therefore, I don’t believe in 3000 and you don’t believe in 2999.  A very good answer to the question.

At the retreat, I didn’t want to debate what happens to the soul after death in case I insult someone nor listen to mantras/chanting or how a statue should face a certain direction or that the toilet seats need to be down according to Feng Shui.  I have ignored other HelpX host profiles because they state they are a Christian charity or teaching academy.  I will be wary about other yoga based organisations for future volunteering, however, I give these guys the benefit of doubt.  No-one tried to ‘convert’ me, it was just too immersive.  If the spirituality or religion matters to the volunteer, or in my case desired lack of either, then I accept I should clarify and question the host.  It is beneficial if the host explains their sway and extent but it’s not necessarily their obligation.

My main learning curve with volunteering and help exchanges is the need for an escape. FernpassThis community house was in serious country.  One bus an hour in the morning and nothing timed with the end of an afternoon shift.  Local routes to small villages with little to see and do because this area is all about the hiking and skiing.  It’s obvious really.  Silly me.  The scenery surrounding the property is stunning and I explored a little on my days off.  We are very lucky with an Indian summer and the return of sunshine and heat.  A hiking hiccup being the small distance I can travel, walking up and down huge ass hills doesn’t mean I get very far.  I am massively unfit!  Surprisingly, I’m not half as out of breath as I would normally be.  Maybe being 1200m up is better for my poorly functioning lungs.  Very cool that 1200m is the height of Ben Nevis, UK’s highest mountain.  Carpeted in fern trees and other evergreens, it is called Fernpass after all.  The rest is gravel and rock, not so much luscious green grass in this neck of the woods – pun intended.  It’s like Innsbruck, the rocky parts of the hills are stark and barren or covered in snow.  Very dramatic monsters, the tops are prettier to gaze at when white snow-capped rather than 50 shades of grey.


Thankfully, my last week was the start of a 4-week teacher training and the welcome, the vibe changed even if the talk of oneness and enlightenment grew.  We had the happy arrival of 2 new volunteers and nearly 20 guests.  The work was busier in comparison but I appreciated the week passed by quickly and more upbeat.  I cringe that I achieved zero blogging, my creativity shriveled up and went on a holiday of its own.  The owners here encourage a community where the door is never closed and the place always buzzing with people and activity.  This for me, sadly, is edging towards a hellish scenario.  I’m a person that rejuvenates and reboots by being in solitary situations.  Add in the aging factor where I don’t need to make idle chit-chat with strangers to fill a silence.

This was a challenge and learning experience.  There are silver linings in everything, I know I’d love to have a little guest house or hostel of my own.  What I would and wouldn’t do is already a long list.

After this shared living, I have an en-suite room at my first hotel in nearly 5 months.  Igls is just outside of Innsbruck then I’m on to Salzburg, Graz, Bratislava and finally Budapest for Monday 27th October.  Heading to another help exchange at Aventura Hostel.  I’m excited to be back on the road!