Visits and volunteering

A brilliant way to learn about permaculture is to visit projects, and get involved in volunteering. 

If you are planning to go visiting, the following tips may be of use.

Tip One : Don't know it before you see it
What is the biggest problem facing visitors and visited? Quite simply: Great Expectations, not the book by Charles Dickens but ideas we have about a place before we see it. Until you actually turn up at a site and see it for yourself, you don't really know what you are visiting. You may have read something about the place or heard something about it, but in the end the only successful way to visit is to put aside your expectations and try and see the people and the place as they really are. Remember, if you have no expectations you can't be disappointed.

Tip Two: Reliable Information
Despite what is said above we still need to know something about a site in order to decide if we want to visit it. Here we have to rely on information other than first hand. So what information is reliable? Accounts of visits to sites are as reliable as the people who give them and in some cases that is therefore rather doubtful. So when you get information about a site then consider the reliability of the source of information. Probably the most reliable information you can get is by directly contacting the site. This is pretty necessary anyway, as Tip Three will tell...

Tip Three: Don't just turn up - Don't just not turn up
Now some may say that this one is pretty obvious, but experience shows that it still happens. In fact, people who turn up at the door step, usually around meal times, expecting free board and lodgings in return for their listening ear are very rarely welcomed with open arms and asked to stay for as long as they wish. So try this. If you are thinking about visiting a place contact the hosts first. You can use the postal service, email, fax or telephone. To avoid the problems of great expectations tell the hosts about yourself and why you would like to visit and if you want to work, what kind of experience you have. Be honest about yourself so you don't give the wrong impression. For example if you don't know how to work equipment you are endangering yourself and others by doing so! So just say what you can and cannot do. Ask about the site, the people and what is expected of visitors. The more questions you ask the better the impression you will get of the place and the less likely you will be disappointed.

If you have made an agreement to visit a site and for some reason can't then please let your host know this. They may be holding accommodation or facilities free for you which could be used by someone else. It's plain courtesy anyway.

Tip Four: Agree on your terms of stay
Before you end up in a Siberian style work camp when you were expecting a relaxing holiday, try the following.

Generally host sites do not offer free board and lodging to anyone who turns up. Here are some of the deals offered :

You receive food and accommodation in return for work. This varies usually from four to eight hours a day (and more!) depending on the project. Don't believe that Permaculture Projects don't involve work, this common misconception has led to many a misunderstanding. Don't overrate the value of your work. Short stay volunteers require a lot of explanations from the host, some "simple" jobs can only be done well after years of practice. Be aware that the host pays for your mistakes and could do a lot of the jobs quicker themselves rather than explaining it to you. The host doesn't necessarily therefore just value you for your work, but also for the opportunity of meeting new people. Remember: as a volunteer you are responsible for yourself. This includes accident and health insurance, visas and other legal requirements for you being at that place. Don't expect the host to provide anything unless specifically agreed.

The Employee
Much less frequently offered, but often expected is a paid job. Whilst some hosts supply pocket money in some cases this is not the rule. Jobs are usually only given to trained persons although some unskilled workers are taken on at harvest times. If you are looking for paid employment let your potential host know this at the beginning of the conversation to avoid misunderstandings.

The Intern/Apprentice
If you seriously want to use a visit to further your education then you should consider a longer visit as part of a training programme. This usually differs to volunteer work in that it covers a longer period of time and involves tutoring in your own training programme. Exactly what is offered varies from site to site. For further information apply directly.

Paying Guest
If you don't want to work, try being a Paying Guest. Many projects tend to suffer from under-financing and welcome paying guests. Feel free to offer this as a lot of hosts have difficulty asking for money in return for your use of their facilities. Don't think that hosts are obliged to provide you with anything just because you chose to visit them. Most hosts are generous people who are not intent on ripping you off, return them the complement.

The Guided Tour
Frequently visitors inquire about a guided tour of the site. Remember that these tours take time which would otherwise be spent in gainful employment or site promoting activities, so don't be surprised if you are asked to pay for a tour, even if it is free donations are usually welcome. If you wish a tour then ask whether there are any set dates for them and what they cost. If you wish a private tour be prepared to pay more for it.

Tip Five: Tread Softly
When you do get to the site how can you cause the least damage? Many a guided tour in a permaculture vegetable plot has ended with half the edibles trampled by unsuspecting visitors. So watch your step. Keep on pathways and avoid wandering in the bushes unless you are invited to do so. Generally the best way to behave is conservatively, remember you are not aware of 50% of the ideas put into action around you, so be careful when moving around the site and making judgements about it. Whilst being open for ideas and suggestions most hosts have a good idea of what they are doing, it can be rather annoying to be lectured on your mistakes by someone who has very little practical experience. The departure of such visitors is often a cause for great joy. The basic rule applies for all human relations: respect of others opinions reaps greater respect for yours.

Tip Six: Feedback for Hosts and Guests
Mostly stays go well and both hosts and visitors feel rewarded by the experience, but it doesn't always go that way. If you are planning to stay longer and problems arise, it is better to cut your visit short as soon as possible. Neither host nor visitor is served by putting up with a bad deal. Let your host know immediately when problems arise. Often misunderstandings can be resolved quickly. Should this not be the case a swift ending of the stay gets the best results. That way both parties have a better experience.

Feel free to give positive feedback too. All projects go through bad phases and a few kind words can help a lot. Don't underestimate your effect on your hosts.

(Article adapted from the original by Peter Birkett)