You know, this post was meant to be a positive one. I was eager to recommend the virtues of Helpx to every Malaysian (and non-Malaysian) out there. You work a few hours a day in exchange for free accommodation while travelling. Sounds like a good deal.
After all, I read so many blog posts about people’s experience with HelpX and they were almost always positive. (For example: Jonathan, Rhianonabike and Michelle.) I’m a naturally suspicious person and found Helpx too good to be true. So I looked up blogs writing about the experience. Since an overwhelming majority loved their Helpx experience, I thought it sounded safe enough to try.
I thought it would be a fantastic way to get to know Australians and Australia in a unique and intimate way before settling in. But somehow I lucked out with a super controlling, tyrannical and abusive Helpx host instead.
The tale began when I contacted Boss Lady (I came to call her that for reasons you will soon see) for a place. We exchanged a few emails but in the end it didn’t work out because I couldn’t fly in at the time she wanted me too. I was actually a little glad it fell through because her tone in the emails made me comfortable. The remark that got all my alarm bells ringing: “I’m always helping people, but somehow people never return the favour when I need it.” She seemed to have a big sense of entitlement … Also, she kept complaining about how life is unfair to her, and how people didn’t help her the way she wanted. All in all, I sensed that she had a negative mindset and was depressed.
Lesson 1: If you’re uncomfortable with the remarks the Helpx host makes, listen to your gut and skip that host, no matter how alluring the location!
I arranged with another Helpx at The Barossa, and packed for my big move to Australia.
Then, Boss Lady emailed me a fortnight before I was to leave and asked if I could still come to her place as she has now postponed her plans.
I had initially thought of staying in a hostel before heading to Barossa, so her invitation and offer of free accommodation was welcome. I took it despite my reservations. I mean, how bad could she be?
Lesson 2: Do not let your desire to save money overpower your reasoning faculties.
She picked me up and took me to her place. And that’s when I found out that her cheery ad on Helpx did not reflect what she really wanted me to do. In fact, she wasn’t very clear in our email conversations. Initially she told me that she’d like me to do “some cooking, help her with her office and memoirs”, utilising my skills as a writer. I sent her a link to my website so she knows who I am and what my skills are. From my impression, she wanted me for my skills as a writer. Perhaps I didn’t make it clear enough for her, but it seemed obvious to me that I’m telling her that I’m not a professional cleaner or au pair.
Lessons 3: Be very sure to find out what’s required of you.
Thus began two weeks of house arrest. Yes, you read that right. I had to work almost 9 hours a day, six days a week. My duties include babysitting, mopping, vacuuming, cooking for the people in the house, organising her incredibly messy office, garage, gardening, wiping, and washing dishes. I didn’t mind the hard work. What I minded was that she didn’t like me going out of the house on working days.
At first, she didn’t mind when I went out for dinner with a couple of friends. Later, she got more controlling.
Once, I realised that I forgot to buy shampoo, and asked her if I could go to the nearby supermarket (just a walk away) to buy it. This was after 8 hours of work, mind you. She said stiffly: “You should’ve done that on your off day.” Later, after days of not being let out, I was going stir crazy, and asked her if I could just go out for a walk. She was very unhappy about it, but allowed me to go out. Once, the other Helpxer left the house after completing his duties. When she returned and found him gone, she quickly called him and demanded to know where he was. To her credit, she didn’t demand him to return.
I ended up sneaking out to do personal things or never telling her what I’m doing on my off days lest she thinks I’m taking advantage of her!
And I thought, this is crazy! Am I not a free person? Who does she think she is, restricting my movements like this? And how am I suppose to experience Australia cooped up in her house being her cleaning lady and au pair?
Granted I was give two days a week off (first week was just one day though), but I resented not being able to go out of the house on “working days”. I felt like a prisoner!
Lesson 3: Be sure what the working conditions are like. Sometimes Helpx hosts are vague or flat out lie in their ads. Privately contact other Helpx hosts who lodged there before if possible.
Still, I did not mind the hard work. I know that the amount of time we worked vary among Helpx hosts. I was more annoyed with myself – that I didn’t make sure how many hours I was required to work.
What I couldn’t deal with was her demanding, abusive, mercurial and mean personality. For example:
She would often complain about her previous Helpx helpers – how they always never helped her the way she wanted to. When your Helpx host does that – run! Because you may be the next one she complains about. She was never really thankful for what they had done for her, which includes renovations and such.
I soon realised that it was nearly impossible to please her because she expects you to know instinctively what to do. Boss lady expected me to read her mind!
Once, after completing about 15 over tasks in six hours, she scolded me for not doing two items not on her list.
“Any reasonable person would know that you should do this,” she insisted.
No [$#@!]. We are not mind readers. And no thanks on the 15 tasks I completed.
She would often compare me with her previous Helpxers. As much as she disliked them, she was upset I wasn’t like them. I told her flatly that I was not them, so she better just deal with it. She wasn’t happy that I thought that way either!
She would watch every morsel I ate or utilities I used. She kept complaining about how much food I and previous Helpx helpers were consuming (fyi: I usually only ate twice a day, and meals were often just celery and dips with some cheese and meat slices; she stopped cooking for us after my fourth day there). When I dared to eat more meat than usual, she would remark how expensive I was becoming. She took away my hair dryer and hinted (strongly) that I shouldn’t use the heater. I admit, I was stubborn enough to continue eating those meals because I felt that that was the least she could do for us after her nasty behaviour!
I tried to comply as I know utilities are simply expensive in Australia, but when she complained about the electricity I was using skyping with my parents (she didn’t provide me access to her Internet, so I had to use my mobile connection), I just couldn’t believe it. First of all, I was using my laptop’s battery power, I was just making an innocent remark and I bloody skyped in the library!
Which brings me to this point: I had to watch what I said carefully.
There’s no such thing as an innocent remark with Boss Lady. She looks at my every remark suspiciously and seem to think I’m just up to no good. For example, when I innocently remarked that I was helping my fellow Helpx housemate plan a trip, she said:
“You mean you’re taking away my helper?”
I was flabbergasted. Boss Lady, did you think that we’ll stay with you indefinitely just to provide you free service? That’s not the spirit of Helpx – Helpx is about cultural exchange, friendships. At least that’s what the glossy website said.
If all this is not clear enough – she’s super controlling and demanding.
Once, while mopping, I answered a call on my mobile. She quickly told me to put it away: “I don’t want you distracted while working. No mobile phones while working.”
She told me that she wanted me to go on my hands and knees and wipe the bathroom floors with a rag. And I remembered how a friend told me that in Australia, people premium for detailed cleaning. I didn’t really mind the work – not even when she insisted I use a toothbrush to clean the corners of rooms, but I saw no reason why I couldn’t use a mop.
She didn’t like me sleeping late because that meant I won’t be alert working the next day. I told her that I had to work on my writing at night as I couldn’t do it any other time. She remarked that I shouldn’t be on another job while working with her. I told her pointedly that I told her via email that I was writing a book and she knows that very well.
Lesson 4: When you have a personality clash with your host, it’s just best to leave.
The final straw came when, after a 9-hour day of 20 tasks – where I cooked for five, she tells me imperiously: “You’re not trying hard enough.” I looked at her incredulously.
“Oh, I know I am.”
“Oh, I don’t think you are.”
(Since I know she’s convinced that I’m not trying hard enough, what else is there to say? Besides, I felt like we were in a kindergarten bralw: You did too! No I didn’t! Did too!)
Boss Lady: “I have to supervise everything you do! I mean, look at X. The other day, you mopped the room and just didn’t bother flicking the throw off the sofa. X did it without even being asked to.”
Me: “I’m sorry that you think that way. I admit that because I’m so focused on the list, I overlooked that.”
Boss Lady: “You wrote to me, offering all that help, but I have found you to be practically useless! You’re just not making an effort at all. I mean, that dinner you cooked for us – you kept saying it was simple. Yet when A & B came, they prepared [some fancy French dish].
Me (incensed): “I explained to you that the reason why I cooked that simple meal was because I didn’t want you to spend money on unnecessary ingredients! You are always so concerned about finances, so I thought of the simplest, cheapest dishes to help you out! Furthermore, you kept saying that your kids are fussy eaters – any of the exotic dishes may turn them off as they are spicy or taste very unusual!”
Boss lady: “Yes, but you see – I don’t think you’re helping me much at all. I’m having trouble finding your niche. You wrote to me offering all that help but I find that you don’t have any skills. I thought that you could at least do some cleaning. But even that you’re bad at. You just have no initiative! You don’t arrange the books in the shelves, you don’t arrange the things in the office without being told…”
“You wrote to me saying that you like my skills as a writer. But never once did you ask me to help you with your writing projects. Instead you put me on cleaning. I’m not a professional cleaner, and a lot of times I do not dare to touch things in your office as I am afraid of filing an important document in the wrong place. I need to be told how to do things – I need to know your system. I do not want to mess up your system!”
Boss Lady: “But I told you that I have no system. And I just don’t have the time to tell you in detail what you should do.”
Me: “Well, in that case, I don’t think is working out. Do you want me to leave? Because, I should just leave if you think I’m so unhelpful.”
Boss lady looked a little uncertain, and I thought – Wait, you actually thought I would stay after this conversation? But in the end we agreed that I should leave.
Admittedly, after that conversation, I was really shaken up. For nearly two weeks I had been criticised, called useless, micro managed, told never to go out, had to sneak food from the fridge, and sniped at whenever I make an innocent remark. It was the worst possible way to get to know Australia. Luckily this is not my first impression of Australia as I’ve had extensive travelling experience, but if I was a newcomer to Oz, I would seriously think that all Aussies are tyrannical users.
Tearfully, I called my friend Yin and asked for her help. I was at wits’ end. I couldn’t find a new place to bunk in time, had turned down accommodation because of Boss Lady (she also promised to rent me the room for a great price). She was in the neighbourhood and offered to whisk me out.
In an hour.
So, I packed up and took my bags to the street. I waited in a corner a few metres from her house, afraid that Boss Lady would throw more abuse at me if she found out I have “escaped”. Yin came, and we made a daring escape. We laughed all the way – partly because of the exhilaration and partly because it’s so hilarious that we’re even doing this.
By the time Boss Lady came back, an hour after our conversation, I was GONE.
I was polite enough to SMS her that I left.
She texted me: “I didn’t expect you to leave so soon. You didn’t even say goodbye to the kids.”
And then, the best thing:
“Keep in touch.”
Lesson 5: If you’ve had a bad Helpx experience, move on and just be more careful next time.
Sadly, Helpx is not perfect. There are people who abuse the system such as Caroline’s experience in Germany where she was treated as slave labour. This is why I felt annoyed at the two glowing reviews left by people at my host’s place. I’m going to break the trend by leaving a two star review – but I may have to face the repercussions.
The sad thing is most people who have had bad Helpx experiences would rather not leave a bad review as the host can retaliate and leave a bad review for the Helpx-er, making it difficult for the Helpx person to find another host. I think this system has to be improved so that we can avoid abuse. However, I can flag the host, so I plan to do so. As this is my first Helpx experience, getting a bad review could just nix my chances of getting another one. It’s annoying, but I did pay 20 euros for the website, and I’m calculative that way.
Anyway, if you’re in Australia – and you want to know who this host is, please leave me a message and I will tell you who it is. I want your first helpx experience to be a good one, not a disaster like mine.