Visiting Spain was a life changing experience.
That sentence has launched a thousand sorority sisters’ stories. Traveling abroad is a rite of passage for a certain, shall we say, privileged segment of the population and has long been an indication that your buddy is going to spend the next three weeks speaking in a vaguely European accent.
How much do our lives really change after such travels? It depends a great deal on how much you immerse yourself in the culture of your destination. I’ve had opportunities to backpack through Europe and I’ve never taken them. In fact, the very suggestion of such a journey was part of why a girlfriend and I broke up. There are many ways to travel, and none inherently better than others. For me, though, slow travel is best.
I’m not sure it gets much slower than living a year in each city. It was a thorough way to experience the United States, but it also meant that I was in my 30s before I left the country for the first time (Tijuana doesn’t count). By contrast, there is a 27-year-old woman on the verge of traveling to every country in the world and setting a world record in the process. It takes all types.
Visiting Spain was my second European trip this year, and the one that has, brace yourself, changed my life.
One evening last spring, feeling claustrophobic and aimless, I opened Google and typed “Cheap ways to travel Europe.” A few clicks later, I came across a blog with a list of 15 ways to travel cheap. Some I’d heard of, such as WWOOF and couchsurfing, but one suggestion was new to me and stuck out: Pueblo Ingles.
Pueblo Ingles is a language immersion program run by Diverbo. It helps native Spanish speakers strengthen their conversational and professional English speaking skills with the help of English-speaking volunteers. The week-long program runs throughout the year and is free for volunteers. If you can pay for your plane ticket, they take care of the rest. (There’s also a Pueblo Español program for those wishing to improve their Spanish.)
My initial reaction upon seeing this program was skepticism. It seemed too good to be true, so I did some research, finding a number of blog write-ups from program volunteers. Figuring, “What have I got to lose?” I signed up.
Just having the plan to travel again reenergized me. The come down after the conclusion of 10 Cities/10 Years was brutal, and the feeling of being stuck – even in a city as invigorating as New York – had started to sink in.
A few months before my trip, I was speaking with my best friend who lives in California and she admitted to feeling similarly mired in her own life. I suggested Pueblo Ingles, figuring with her schedule it was a long shot. A couple months later, she was officially onboard.
In the months since we returned, the two of us have chatted often about how our time in Spain has stuck with us. Just last night, she texted me, “It’s hard to put into words just how amazing it really was.”
She’s right. But I’m a writer, so that’s kind of my job.
From Friday to Friday, a group of roughly 25 Anglos and 25 Spaniards stayed at Abadia de Los Templarios on the outskirts of the tiny village of La Alberca in the Sierra de Francia mountain range. Picturesque is an understatement.
My perception of Pueblo Ingles is, at least partially, the product of luck. For eight days in the mountains, we had perfect weather, with warm days, cool nights, and no rain, only white fluffy clouds breaking up the brilliant, blue skies. Our group, a mix of young travelers, professionals, students, and retirees, was uncharacteristically chummy. Rarely does a group of 50 people click so seamlessly, and some of the program regulars would attest to that. It’s quite possible, if I had gone the week before or the week after, I would’ve had a very different experience.
But the fact that there were program regulars – people who had volunteered five, or 17, or, in one case, 100 times – tells me that overall, this is a positive experience regardless of circumstances.
So what did we do? Talked, mainly. Oh, and ate. And drank. But mostly talked. (And ate and drank).
The week has a highly structured schedule, which at times can feel a bit like a mix of school and camp. There are hours set aside for one-on-one conversations, group discussions, and presentations. Even the meals are organized so that Spaniards and Anglos are always sitting together. At no point did you forget that your role there was as a teacher and tutor.
Yet, it never felt like work. Every conversation, every interaction was a learning opportunity, an exchange of ideas, and a friendly chat, rolled up into one.
Oh, also, there was dancing (I did mention drinking, right?).
There are dozens of small aspects of the week – walking the streets of La Alberca, tasting fresh chorizo, shooting orujo – that helped create the atmosphere, but what each person takes away from Pueblo Ingles is going to be unique to the week and the individual. Playing the card game Werewolf or taking photos of the wilting mementos of a previous day’s wedding ceremony will certainly live in my memory for as long as I still have one, but if one moment will forever cement my (first) week at Pueblo Ingles, it will be our group singalong to Queen. (I trust all video evidence of this has been destroyed.)
I don’t know if Pueblo Ingles is the ideal travel experience for everyone, but for me, for someone who likes to set their feet on the ground and dig in with the locals, it was an incomparable opportunity.
But was it life changing?
Well, next September, I’ll be moving to Spain to begin working as an ESL teacher, so hard to say.
And hell, I didn’t even mention Barcelona or Madrid. Another time…