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Guest Post: The Story Behind the Work and Travel Platform Hippohelp!

My name is Leopold, and I’m the creator of Hippohelp, a free map-based online platform that connects hosts with travelers who work in exchange for food and accommodation. Today I’ll share how I got the idea of creating Hippohelp, struggles along the way, and what motivates me on working on it. Let’s get started!

How Hippohelp was born

Four years ago I landed in China, with the aim of finding new suppliers for my ecommerce business.

When I first landed in Shenzhen, southern China I could almost smell the fresh feeling. The warm climate, the tall building, and all the people, everything was so different from Sweden! I had made some plans before arriving, and after resting up at the hotel I spent the coming days running errands to and from Hong Kong (it’s bordering to Shenzhen), visiting new suppliers and making new friends.

One great obstacle I’ve run into when arriving was the language barrier. Very few people here speak English, and without knowing Chinese even the most basic things like taking a cab or finding somewhere to stay can take a whole lot of energy and time.

But somehow it’s possible to see who’s fresh, and who’s been here for a while, and since I was fresh many Chinese really went out of their ways to help me out. My first months in China would have been a whole lot harder if not for all these helpful people.

And for learning the language, it’s obviously a lot of hard work, but taking a practical approach to the learning process made it easier for me. For example, I switched the language to Chinese in my phone, spoke Chinese to my friends and wife, instead of English, and studied when commuting. I liked China so much that I decided to stay here and learn more about the culture and language.

Fast forward 4 years and I had met my wife, and also developed a small piece of land outside Guilin, a popular tourist destination for backpackers. At our small “plantation” we grow our own vegetables, and it’s a great way of reducing stress generated when working in front of a computer all day long.

Growing our own food did however require more time and work than we originally anticipated, and that’s how I got the idea that some backpackers from the area might be interested in helping us out, in exchange for getting free food and accommodation in return.

After that I searched for websites that we could use to find helpers, but found that they were either too outdated, too complicated, or way too expensive, so I decided to create an alternative of my own.

Creating the platform

I didn’t know anything about programming when starting out, so the first thing I did was reading a book about the most important programming languages, and when I was done with it I did a few test projects to put what I had learned into practice. Once I felt somewhat comfortable about what I was doing I started coding Hippohelp. Since it was my first project it took around 6 months before I could launch it.

During the development process I had to Google up a lot of answers on how to do things, and there were a lot of frustrations and errors along the way. But I was also learning a lot, and it was fun at most times, so I just kept going. At a few points I’ve had to hire freelancers along the way to help me out, and generally speaking it’s worked out, but I’ve also found that you need to be super careful when hiring and managing freelancers.

I’ve had some major issues with some freelancers that I’ve hired, and I feel that it’s very important to know enough to make sure that the freelancer is doing what he/she is supposed to do, otherwise it’s easy to get a bad result, or even worse, a result that is harmful for your business.

A freelancer could for example unknowingly do code that makes your site vulnerable to hackers, or implement a SEO strategy that gets your site penalized in Googles search results. However, there are a lot of great freelancers out there, and once you’ve found a fit it can be of really great help for your business.

Another struggle is making the platform more well-known. Since I don’t have any funds to market it I have to do a lot of manual outreach myself, and also rely on people spreading the word. When I first started mailing bloggers who write about travelling I was afraid of being labeled as a “spammer”, but many are very happy to hear about Hippohelp, and have helped me a lot in promoting the site, as well as letting me know how to make it better.

What keeps me motivated

When I first got the idea I wanted to create the platform mainly as I felt that there were no good alternatives around, so I wanted to solve the problems that I saw with the existing platforms, and also learn how to program along the way.

However, after I launched Hippohelp I got motivated for a lot more reasons. After checking all exciting projects made by real people on the platform I’ve gotten more and more interested in their ways of living. There are some people who don’t have a set physical home and travels between hosts full time instead, and there are hosts who lives more or less outside the “system”, growing their own food and living a life that suits them.

I feel like many people think that the “9 to 5” life is the only way of living, and since many of these people doesn’t seem happy about living that way I want to make it possible for them living differently. The idea about working in exchange for food and accommodation have already been around for a while, but I want to use Hippohelp to make the idea more “mainstream” to reach more people who might want to try alternative ways of living.

Another thing that motivates me is all the support I’ve gotten from people on the internet. Since the platform is free to use for all members it’s easier for “normal” people to try it out and discover new ways of travelling, and many users feel that the map-based interface is of great help since it makes it easier to find both travel-buddies and hosts by scrolling the map to a specific location.

Having to open hundreds of tabs when searching for a host is something that seems to be driving people crazy, and since you never leave the map-interface this won’t be anything you have to do when using Hippohelp. It feels very good reading long emails from users who are leaving feedback on how I can improve the site and make it more well known. I feel that these people are happy hearing about Hippohelp and it feels good making a positive impact in other people’s lives.

I hope you’ll find Hippohelp to be a helpful tool on your future travels, also, if you plan on going to China, then pan the map to the area over Guilin. Me and my wife are also hosting Hippohelpers! 🙂

Making Borsch in Obirek – Ukraine

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I took the train to Bakhmach and got off at the wrong stop. On the wrong side of the tracks, I walked around the back of the train and what I saw has been burned into my memory since then. To the right was a grey stone building. Two stories tall, it looked like an abandoned house for railway workers. Cutting in front of the house, parallel to the train tracks, was a dirt road. There were several people riding ancient bikes, and further down a handful of instantly recognizable, one story “Продукты”. This translate exactly as “Products” and if that draws comparison to the type of stores we had in the 1800’s, that’s a more apt analogy than a convenience store. They carry everything you’d expect, like Pepsi and beer, but they also sell meat, fresh bread, and whole frozen chickens.

The train gained speed and pulled away from me, while I stood motionless. It was the most vivid manifestation of time travel that I had ever experienced. Scanning the road I saw a young man riding a bike, with a beautiful girl in a fluorescent green dress sitting on the handle bars. It reminded me of a scene from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kidwhen Paul Newman shares the future with Butch’s girlfriend.

Recovering, I walked to the Продукты, my back sweating in protest of the overweight backpack. Facing the woman working there, I used my limited Russian to ask for two things. Cold water and the number of a taxi. I took the slip of paper from her hand, paid for the water, then staggered out of the store like a gawky teenager.

After a phone call and a fifteen minute wait, I’m sitting in the front seat of a taxi. Leaving the village behind, we drove down a road that cut massive green fields in half. Fields far larger than any I’ve ever seen in the eastern United States. My driver, Alexei, abused the throttle and we hurtled past horse drawn carts. Discordantly, this took place while Drake was rapping about bitches and success on the blown out speakers. The world outside the windows of the Russian made taxi suggested that the industrial revolution was just over the horizon. The music inside reminded me that places like T-O-R-O-N-T-O exist and that women are abundant there.

What’s Smaller Than a Village?

In English, short of saying “outpost” or “colony”, we don’t have a good word to describe anything smaller than a village. In Ukrainian and Russian they do. It’s called a “Хутор” (Hooter) and they look something like this. My hooter was a collection of about a dozen houses, arranged along a quarter mile of well paved road. The houses were all one story, built the same way that they’ve been built for hundreds of years. We passed by massive gardens, horse stables, free range children, pig pens, and pulled up in front of the place that I was going to stay.

The first thing I noticed was a fence running in front of the buildings. It abolished the view so that I could only see the top half of a barn and a home. As I was pulling my ignorantly packed bag from the trunk, a head popped over the fence. On top of head is cap, which didn’t seem to do much as the face had picked up a healthy tan from working outside.

“Hey” said the face, with a smile and Russian accent that you could stick a fork into.

“Привет” I replied . I had learned that if I wanted to practice my Russian, I needed to speak it even when people addressed me in English. I traded my taxi driver 200 Grivna for the twenty minute ride, then off he went. Back in the direction of relative civilization. A bustling city by comparison to my new home.

Meeting the Ukrainians

Two days later and I had met almost everyone living at the farm. Besides me there was one other volunteer, named Olga. She was several years older than me, Ukrainian, and spoke English to put my Russian to shame. Leonard, the head of the household, was a filmmaker and at a festival in Poland. He left behind his very pregnant wife and their two daughters. Finally, there was Mama Luda. Leonard’s mother and the senior member of the mismatched crew. Mama Luda was a lovely person and I spent a great deal of time helping her around the kitchen. For example, the water situation was interesting. While there was running water, it wasn’t a fully developed system yet. Water came out of a plastic spicket and my job was to fill up the five gallon pail of water for the kitchen. I also had the privilege of filling up the hand washing sink, and the large plastic containers that we used to wash dishes.

Another job was lighting the large wood burning stove in the morning, and keeping a fresh supply of firewood in the kitchen. Life at Obirek was traditional and fun. I’ve always enjoyed work that feels meaningful. Working as a cashier in a supermarket and bussing tables in a creperie never offered me any satisfaction, and I often felt like shit after my shift. On the other hand, when Mama Luda is cooking dinner and had to have water, that was satisfying job to see to. Especially when I knew the results would be delicious.

A lot of people are surprised when I tell them that I really enjoyed Russian food. Most assume that all Russian food is pickled, scaled, or somehow associated with Vodka. While there certainly is that subset, there’s more to it. Mama Luda consistently cooked delicious dishes that would convert any skeptic. Green borsch, red borsch, dumplings, potatoes, kasha, and shuba. I ate well every day, and enjoyed the experience of eating traditional food, prepared by a seasoned cook, made in the most antiqued kitchen that I’d ever lit a fire in.

Second Language Cooking Lessons

Despite my appreciation of the meaningful work, after ten days I was ready to leave Obirek. My feelings about gardening were mixing with a craving to start working online, and I knew it was time to get back to Kiev. However, before I left there was something that I really wanted to do. Using my limited abilities with the Russian language, I explained to Mama Luda that I would jump at the chance to cook Ukrainian borsch. Would she be generous enough to teach a young American how to prepare the best soup in the world?

I knew this would be an interesting experience because of the language barrier. My conversational Russian was decent, but I was lost like a tourist in New York when it came to verbs like cut, grate, slice, peel, boil, fry, and almost every other food related action. Determined to make the best of it, we gave it a try.

Every new word Mama Luda taught me pushed out an old one that I had learned five minutes ago. The whole thing would have been a mess if I hadn’t had a notebook with me. Writing half in Russian, half in English, I began to record the experience of cooking borsch. I wrote an entire post with the recipe and cooking instructions, so I won’t get into details. There I was, a twenty-three year old American, learning how to cook a famous Russian / Ukrainian dish, from a grandmother who grew up under the Soviet Union. Thankfully countries change and barriers are broken. Grudges are forgotten and swept under the rug of time. I spent thirteen months in Russia and Ukraine, and in that time I was never greeted by anything but warmth and good emotions. I learned how to cross country ski, curse in Russian, drink vodka with pickles, and cook borsch. And most of all, I learned that there’s a world out there and it’s quite a bit different than how the news makes it out to be.