Lots of us dream about taking a job overseas, and when I heard that Jo Maeder, bestselling author and former top New York DJ, actually took the plunge, I wanted to know how she did it. We’d met up in Seville, and the conversation turned to travel with a purpose and the many ways that having a focus for our journeys offers opportunities to dig deeper and learn more about other cultures — and ourselves.
What inspired you to work abroad?
It was June 2017 and oppressively hot in North Carolina. I had to get away. I used to travel every year. Somehow it had been nine since my last real trip. I’d fallen into The Freelancer’s Quandary: when you have the time to travel, you don’t want to spend the money because you’re not working. When you have the money you don’t have the time because you’re working.
I was determined to hack at least two weeks in France, in a nice place, for under $2,000 including airfare. If I could make the trip a résumé builder it would be guilt-free, though I didn’t want it too work-related or it wouldn’t feel like a vacation.
How did you find your overseas job?
I Googled “travel work exchange” hoping to find a small business with no time to do social media and update their website. Based on reviews, I narrowed the choices of “cultural exchange” sites to HelpX.net and Workaway.info. You’re expected to work five hours a day, five days a week in exchange for room and board. You pay your travel expenses. Some hosts offer a small stipend. They’re rare. There were opportunities all over the world from farms to child care to remodeling. I used keywords related to the freelance marketing work I did.
Like online dating, you can only do so much for free on these sites. To connect with a host you have to create a profile and pay a membership fee. HelpX is €20 for two years. Workaway is $42 a year for one person, $54 for a couple/friends. HelpX is where I found my incredible match at the Hotel de Cours de Thomazeau in Castillonnès, France.
What kind of work did you find?
I was nervous because it seemed too good to be true. Would I end up scrubbing floors? It was an 18th century hôtel particulier [château] in southwest France near Bergerac owned by Jennie and Ron Whetton, a British couple (so no language issues). They had used only one other HelpXer, however her review of them was full of superlatives — always a good sign.
Jennie and I worked out that I would help with online marketing, social media, and their website. I still wasn’t sure about this and only signed on for two weeks. Then my wanderlust exploded and I figured as long as I was there, I’d see friends in Toulouse and Provence. My entire time away was 24 days.
How much did you pack for the trip?
I was reading your blog at this point and challenged myself to do the whole visit with one carry-on bag. It would not only eliminate the baggage time-waster when switching flights, it would give me hope that I was becoming the Minimalist I longed to be. (My mother was a Category 5 hoarder. I'm eternally afraid the apple won't fall far from the tree.) I used my trusty 20-year-old Travelpro carry-on and a roller "briefcase" for my computer.
How did you get along with your hosts?
Jennie and I were about the same age. She loved that I wasn’t a gap-year kid who had to be continually managed (not that the previous HelperXer was, but that was her biggest fear with outside help). I was so focused on my work for her that she often pulled me off the PC. “You can’t work all the time!” she’d say, then take me to an antique brocante (second-hand market) in another quaint town, to visit a friend, or to see a photo exhibit in a medieval church.
How were your living accommodations?
Need I say more?
What did you learn from this journey?
I would never wait another nine years to travel again. I would do this over and over in a heartbeat. I came back happier and more confident. I had no idea my life was about to change dramatically in many ways.
A sad part of my trip was that, right before I left North Carolina, I learned my beloved brother had not conquered his prostate cancer as we had thought. It had spread to his bones. It made me realize how quickly it all can change; how short our time is here. I made a trip to Lourdes and brought back a bottle of water for him. I had an experience there I’ll never forget. I went into a small room that had a statue of Mary. I lit a candle and prayed for my brother. It wasn’t the first time I had done this on the trip, but I felt something, a reverberation in the room, when I lit that one. It was like God put his hand on my shoulder and said “All will be fine.”
My brother lived almost another eight months. When he passed, I was heartbroken, naturally, but I knew he was finally at peace and not suffering. It was the same feeling I had at Lourdes.
A few months after my return, it was discovered by accident that I had an extremely rare non-cancerous tumor in one of my adrenal glands that had been pumping out ten times too much adrenalin on and off for years. I was at high risk for a stroke or heart attack. It was a miracle it was found. I’m a new person since it was removed. I’ve never felt this good! Would they have found it had I not gone to Lourdes? It depends on what you believe. It certainly didn’t hurt that I went there.
What I do know is that all that worrying about money and not enjoying life could very well have been killing me. It was also no wonder I’d been unmarried for 30 years despite wanting to be remarried and trying, trying, trying to find The One. It was now clear I could barely live with myself much less someone else.
I stopped coloring my hair and embraced a “this is me, take it or leave it” perspective. I changed careers and became a charity fundraiser and auctioneer. It’s lucrative, seasonal, highly gratifying work that leaves plenty of time to travel. I fell in love with a wonderful man who craves travel too and has plenty of time for it. We met — where else? — online. I said in my profile that with the right person, 1+1=3. He’s a mathematician. At last, I’m a “we” instead of a “me”. My sojourns are fulfilling in ways I never imagined possible.
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I'm an American travel writer based in Spain and currently living in California.
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