Six amazing places to stay for free around the world – if you volunteer | Travel


For almost 30 years, Helga de Silva Blow Perera, the flamboyantly attired owner of Helga’s Folly, a 30-room boutique hotel overlooking the Sri Lankan city of Kandy, has covered the walls of her estate with frenetic and dreamlike murals. In 1988, she began painting the hotel – at that time, run by her parents – after divorcing her second husband, and while still in recovery from the suicide of her first, British writer and historian Jonathan Blow.

“My father suggested that I ‘doodle it out’,” Helga said, referring to her grief. She painted one room black. Her next project was a trio of gold and shimmering “hear, see, speak no evil” monkeys. True to her father’s word, Helga discovered a form of self-healing in art. Walls soon glittered floor-to-ceiling with psychedelic flowers, suited animals, skulking devils and spinning folk dancers.

Sri Lanka map

In 1994, Helga inherited the property and established her own hotel. As the Folly’s artistic reputation grew, guests asked if they could contribute. In early 2016, Helga began recruiting aspiring muralists through the website workaway.info, which matches travellers with volunteer placements around the world. Last year, she hosted around a dozen painters. I was her fourth.

I came across Helga’s ad on Workaway – which sought “adventurers with a sense of whimsy”– but she had no opening for several months. Then I got word of a last-minute cancellation. I hopped on a flight from Chennai to Colombo (just an 80-minute trip), then boarded a commuter train for a journey through mist-covered tea country toward Kandy. The city is Sri Lanka’s second largest and until the early 19th century was an independent Buddhist kingdom.



Mural in a hallway at the hotel.

Arriving at sunset, the British-built arcades of the colonial-era city centre were glowing pink. My green tuk-tuk circled the length of Kandy Lake, an artificial reservoir built in 1807, then buzzed up a stretch of lush hillside. Finally, the mountain bungalow (built in 1933, and famously and riotously adorned) emerged from a canopy of forest.

“Expensive,” the driver tsked. For regular guests, rooms can run into triple figures. Frowning at my tattered backpack, he asked how much I was paying. “Nothing.” I said. Helga provides a private room and full board in exchange for a half-day of painting. “I, sort of, work here.”

It was dinnertime. A young manager in a sari escorted me to a pale blue settee in a chandelier-laden parlour, where I was fed a light, tangy coconut soup, red lentil curry and rice spiced with home-grown peppercorn – and chili-infused chocolate ice-cream for dessert. The teas come from Helga’s husband’s tea estate, while at breakfast I had homemade bread rolls, string hoppers (rice flour turned into noodles) and coconut chutney.

In the communal areas, walls were layered with feverishly surreal paintings, baubles and sequins, year-round Christmas decorations, antique memorabilia, and framed newspaper clippings about Helga’s illustrious family and the hotel’s famous guests (who have included Gandhi, Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh). A plaque in my room – tangerine-walled, festooned with enormous paintings of almond-eyed black cats – stated that the Mahatma had once slept there.

Artist painted room at Helga’s Folly, Kandy, Sri Lanka



Artist painted room at the hotel. Photograph: Ariel Sophia Bardi

The next morning, Helga assigned me a shadowy corridor of the hotel, which I began covering with jungle ferns. She imagined a thick, dreamy woodland scene; but Helga also likes to give free rein to the imaginations of her artists. “I find it exciting when they listen to the walls,” she said.

When I was younger I sometimes painted every day but it had been years since I had picked up a brush. Day after day in Helga’s narrow hall, I experimented with designs, adding a couple of neon red macaques to my forest scene along with a wild, unruly carpet of bright leaves.

Helga welcomes amateur muralists: “One doesn’t need to be an artist in the conventional mould,” she told me, “just slap the colours on.” But one famous guest painter was Jane Lillian Vance, a Virginia Tech instructor who created a stunning downstairs gallery – dubbed “the grotto” – in honour of her former student Morgan Harrington, who was abducted and murdered in 2009. The girl’s ashes are mixed in with the paint, which adds to the hotel’s slightly macabre air.

One afternoon, a Norwegian guest passed my worksite, and spotted me in my smock, atop a stepladder. “Are you a ghost?” he barked. He wandered off, scowling. “You can’t tell in this place.” Another day, when I was invited to Helga’s private quarters for a cup of green tea, I ducked as a bat shook off its nap and darted past me.

“Everyone has art in them,” Helga said. Halfway through my 10-day stay, she came to survey my work, clad in an electric-blue kimono and sunglasses. “Just doodle it out!” Helga instructed, repeating the advice her father had given her. To Helga, and now to her hotel’s fleet of volunteer painters, this phrase has formed something of a rallying cry.

helgasfolly.com

FIVE MORE PLACES TO STAY FOR FREE

View of Piha beach and Lion Rock, Waitakere Ranges regional park, Auckland, New Zealand



Piha beach and Lion Rock, Waitakere Ranges regional park, Auckland, New Zealand. Photograph: Andrew Watson/Getty Images

Mad Monkey hostels, Cambodia and the Philippines

At Mad Monkey hostels – in six locations across Cambodia and the Philippines – artists, musicians, DJs, photographers, videographers, writers and bloggers are invited to apply via its Creative Hub programme, with skills or work exchanged for anything from one night’s dorm stay for doing a DJ set, to 14 days’ private room stay in exchange for writing a thorough travel guide for its website. Artists can also negotiate a free stay for up to four days in exchange for creating a piece of work for the hostel – there is also potential to be offered a longer residency.
madmonkeyhostels.com

Sunrock Backpackers’ Hostel, Corfu

Beside Pelekas beach, Sunrock is a laid-back hostel offering cheap accommodation for those after a Mediterranean getaway. For those who want to wile away a month or longer in the Greek sun, the hostel runs a volunteer programme in exchange for food and board. You can help out in the daily running of the hostel, or work on its organic farm, with tasks including feeding the animals, collecting eggs, picking fruit and vegetables and stacking hay bales.
sunrockhostel.com

Piha Beachstay, Auckland, New Zealand

For those seeking surf and solitude, Piha Beachstay, in a remote coastal village in the Waitakere Ranges regional park, is a perfect spot. Volunteers are welcomed via the Workaway website and guests can help out with gardening, general maintenance and or with ongoing eco-projects.
workaway.info

The Place, South Africa

The Place is a tranquil farmstay in a stunning valley setting with two self-catered guest cottages. It is welcoming of artists and has a studio and creative space available to use. It also welcomes volunteers, and though the work required is “hands on”: converting accommodation, constructing “earth tents” out of mud and straw, and tending to the organic permaculture gardens, volunteers are promised plenty of free time to “meditate, read, study and explore the farm”.
the-place.co.za

Casa Mermejita, Oaxaca, Mexico

On a tranquil hillside overlooking the sea, Casa Mermejita is a creative eco-hotel filled with contemporary art and surrounded by tropical fauna. It’s always on the lookout for those with a focus on land art – art that works with the earth, sand, rocks, etc – to help create work that will add to the atmosphere and environment of the hotel and its surroundings. In exchange it can offer a private room, two meals a day, and potentially some payment for your art too – it’s up for negotiation. Volunteers are accepted via Workaway.
workaway.info

Will Coldwell



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