All photos by David Ashwanden
For many ages and across many cultures, the question of land ownership has puzzled and confused those who consider it. Should we really have to pay just for being somewhere? And if we should, surely we should be paying whoever put us here; God, Mother Earth, the universal energy – call it what you will, for many it makes more sense than paying another person. After all, they too are only being.
In cities, perhaps, this feeling is less easy to define. Go out from the concrete box and away from the tarmac streets; follow the faint scent of wildflowers and sweet adventure, and stand with your bare feet on the bare earth, and then…breathe. Here is the clarification that you are a part of the land: it belongs to you and you to it.
Yet if you want to live in a place that is not completely wild, it was probably built by someone and so they should receive some kind of acknowledgment, perhaps. Generally, however, the line of contact is not so direct and it is rare to find that the person to whom you have to pay money for the place you live is the same as the person who built it. More ‘normal’ is to pay someone who has nothing to do with the place you live a continuous stream of money simply to be in the space. But is it necessary to pay anyone at all?
There are many different ways of playing with alternatives to paying simply to live somewhere, a few of which I have explored.
One quite common method is to exchange something other than money – most commonly, time given to the person who claims some kind of ownership of the place, to help them out in whatever occupies them.
This method is fairly well established and websites such as WWOOF (Worldwide Work on Organic Farms) (1), Helpx (Help Exchange) (2) and Workaway (3) have thousands of members globally. The kind of places you could end up living in through one of these websites could range from a hand built concrete geodesic dome in the middle of the desert, to an immobile caravan 1600m up a mountain side, and the range of projects you may be asked to participate in is literally humungous. This is especially true with living with Helpx hosts, as this website has no specifications for what kind of place it needs to be (by contrast, to be a WWOOF host you have to prove that you are an organic farm). Workaway seems to have more hosts outside of Europe, the USA, Australia and New Zealand but many request a monetary contribution for food.
My own helping experiences include, to name but a few
- Building artificial coral reefs from recycled toilets
- Riding and chasing horses around a field for exercise (for both of us!)
- Helping to empty a 100,000 litre water tank into a deposito in the desert
- Implementing irrigation systems in a Holistic Management farm
- Feeding and playing with cats while staying in a wood cabin in an orange grove
- Creating an adventure playground for a summer camp
Fun and enlightening as all of my help exchange experiences have been, it seems clear that they still rest on this basic presumption that you should be giving something for the place that you stay. There are other alternative ways of living which question this notion entirely.
Three that I have some experience with are squatting, “free” communities, and websites such as Couchsurfing, Tripping and Bewelcome. They are all very different ways of going outside the idea that you need to pay to stay, and all add their own hue to this woven tapestry intermingled with, yet not quite touching, the generally accepted norm.
Occupied Buildings or Land
Beginning is easy…Right? The world is full of abandoned or forgotten buildings or pieces of land; jam-packed, in fact, and all beckoning with the exciting potential of what they could become. All you need is the will to change them into a living environment…Right?
In my experience, it seems that in order to occupy a piece of land the most important thing is to first establish a community. Without the support of your fellow so-called “squatters” (a strange term which we perhaps need to transcend if we wish to propagate the idea that the Earth is everyone’s to walk upon freely) or, crucially, of whoever lives in the area already, then it doesn’t matter how much you put into the occupation; you do not have the necessary network to succeed. This, much more than whatever the local laws may say about occupation of buildings or pieces of land, appears as the most important factor.
I have visited and lived in many squats in Europe and the successful ones are always the ones who are considerate of their neighbours, at least to some extent, and wherein the community of squatters is at least somewhat cohesive. These range from a squatted community in a forest in the UK, who were asked to occupy the land by local farmers to attempt to halt planned development which would have caused deforestation and loss of ecosystems to an impressively well-organised ex-fortress in the centre of Rome, Italy, where people not only live but grow their own food, host festivals and events and run a range of community workshops.
It is not always easy to find occupied buildings to stay in, for their grey legal status means that they are often only found by word of mouth. Of course many have an online presence but if you want to find out what is really going on there it’s best to visit. I lived in one squatted community in Spain where, when I left to visit local villages or cities, I was frequently given the news that the community had been evicted by the local authorities- only to return to find everything as ‘normal’ or at least how it had been when I left.
I have intentionally left out the names and locations of the occupied projects mentioned as the people living in them and running them may not wish to be public. If it’s right for you, you’ll find some occupied communities to stay in; just keep your eyes open.
The global network of intentional communities is growing all the time; all of them with different aims and principles and all with different rules about whether or not you can stay in them. Some, such as Tamera in Portugal (4), are very strict: if you wish to visit Tamera you have to pay to stay for a minimum of 1 month as part of your ‘education’, after which time you can choose to pay to stay for more time, and on the ‘visitors’ section of their website they say rather inhospitably “we wish you an intensive time”. Others, such as many Rainbow communities around the world, are much more loose and indeed less hierarchical about who can stay and for how long. You can find more information about intentional communities in general here: (5).
Couchsurfing and related themes
The second most helpful website in revolutionising the way I travel, after Helpx, has been Couchsurfing (6), an international network of hosts and travellers where, if you have a spare room, bed or couch, you can offer it for people to come and stay with you. The central idea of this is that hospitality should be a gift: there is no reciprocity expected, simply the inherent idea that anyone who is coming to visit your home is worthy of being hosted. Such an idea seems in my experience to be quite an integral part of culture in many Islamic societies but is a new idea for modern industrialised civilisation. Couchsurfing has existed for a number of years now and in that time it seems to have morphed somewhat into a kind of dating website. However, the idea remains and many other websites have sprung up which are similar, such as BeWelcome (7) and more specific ones like Warmshowers (8) where people host travellers on bike tours, usually providing them not with a bed but with space for a tent and, as the name implies, usually a warm shower.
There are many jobs which offer accommodation as part of the position, from artist’s residencies to boarding schools, and from architectural assignments to landscape gardening. If you already have a particular skill it may be worth considering if you can travel with it. Similarly there are many online jobs which you can do from anywhere, though there still remains the question of how you choose to relate to being where you are.
The power of the book of face
It seems strange to include social media in an article about physical community-connections. Yet it didn’t feel right to include all of these ways of staying places for free without including the power of Facebook (9) in facilitating this. There are so many groups now on Facebook that it seems you can find hosts in most places. The advantages of this are that you don’t have to pay the website fees which Helpx, Workaway, Wwoof, Couchsurfing and others all require, and that, since many many people use Facebook extremely regularly, you are much more likely to get a swift response. The appeal of using websites such as Couchsurfing is that there is a reference system so you can check up on your potential guests or hosts; however, Facebook also provides a kind of informal reference, with really a lot more information than a couple of lines someone who has known you for 2 days may have written. Of course, there is a also a lot of irrelevant information on this website but using it is perhaps healthy exercise of one’s critical faculties.
All of the aforementioned represent changes in our ideas and our culture which are a part of a real evolution into a more consciously connected global community, linked not by our ability to pay to be somewhere but by our shared humanity and wanderlust. Want to find out more? Maybe that holiday you’ve always dreamed of isn’t actually out of your reach; maybe you can learn the skills you’ve always wanted to study by practically doing them while being fed and hosted; or maybe you are simply a little curious to see how people do things in different ways.
Why not try it out?
- Wwoof International, 2016. ‘How it Works’. http://wwoofinternational.org/how-it-works/
- Helpx, 2016. ‘About Helpx’. http://www.helpx.net/about.asp
- Workaway, 2016. ‘Who We Are’. http://www.workaway.info/whoweare.html
- Tamera, 2016. ‘About Us’. https://www.tamera.org/what-is-tamera/about-us/
- Fellowship for Intentional Community, 2016. ‘Welcome’. http://www.ic.org/
- Couchsurfing, 2016. ‘Couchsurfing’. http://www.couchsurfing.com
- BeWelcome, 2016. ‘FAQs’. http://www.bewelcome.org/faq
- Warmshowers, 2016. ‘Home’. https://www.warmshowers.org/
- Facebook, 2016. ‘Facebook’. http://www.facebook.com