We know that real-life travel isn’t what you read about in glossy magazines or see on the Travel Channel. We want to hear what traveling is like for you — our readers. How does travel change your life? In this Yahoo Travel series, we get the low-down on the transformative power of travel, along with all your tips and strategies. If you’ve got a story that you think Yahoo Travel should spotlight, email us at email@example.com
A group dinner at Valdelavilla. (Photo: Tami Fairweather)
Name: Tami Fairweather
Occupation: PR and Marketing Consultant. Represents ExOfficio
Lives: Seattle, Wash.
What: Traveled to Spain in 2009
How did you find out about this English program?
In 2009, I was watching the “Today” show, and they did a segment about Diverbo, a program where English speakers serve as counselors in Spain. I was looking for inexpensive vacations after the recession, and I thought it sounded like fun.
I went to the website, and they had really good information. I found myself going back to look at it over and over again, and eventually I just decided to do it. It was pretty easy, I never talked to anyone, I just signed up through the website.
How does the program work?
They recruit volunteers who are native English speakers. They select anyone who has English as their first language, so there were Americans, Canadians, Australian, Irish, and British volunteers. As a volunteer, you sign up to to spend a week at a camp, and they take care of your room and board. You have to fly yourself into Madrid, but after that, everything is taken care of. You stay in these little villages that are outside the town.
Tami (in the blue jacket) playing cards with the group. (Photo: Tami Fairweather)
Was there an orientation?
Yes. That first day when you get into Madrid, there is an orientation. They serve you lunch, and they had some flamenco dancers come and put on a performance for us. There were about 15 other volunteers, so it also gave us a time to chat and get to know each other.
What are the accommodations like?
The “Anglos,” aka English speakers, stay in hostel-style accommodations. The rooms are small and have two beds in them. I ended up having my room to myself and just sharing the bathroom. It was nice.
The Spaniards have their own rooms with bathrooms.
Tami’s accommodations (Photo: Tami Fairweather)
What are the Spanish speakers like?
The Spanish speakers are coming there to learn conversational English, so it’s not like you’re teaching them from scratch. Many of them are professionals, and during my week there, was an HR manager, a veterinarian, a doctor, a dentist, and a pharmaceutical sales rep. Many Spanish educational institutions offer MBAs in English, so attending a weeklong conversational English experience is part of the program. So the Spaniards are paying for the week (or their company pays to send them) so that they can get better with conversational English.
What are some of the things you teach?
During the week, you’re assigned a 50-minute appointment with each of the Spaniards. It’s your one-on-one time. It’s funny, because at the beginning of the week, you don’t know each other, but by the end you’ve formed friendships, so the one-on-ones are more fun. The program gives you a couple of things to teach them, like the definition of a phrasal verb. This would be something like explaining the definition of “breaking up” vs. “breaking out.”
Writing down words was a great tool to help with conversations. (Photo: Tami Fairweather)
You also spend a lot of time discussing commonly used phrases they don’t understand, like the definition of “back to the drawing board” or “hangover.”
Other than that, we spent a lot of time talking about movies, music, books, and other things pertaining to pop culture. And we talked about cultural experiences they don’t have in Spain, like a homecoming dance or Black Friday. It’s definitively a cultural exchange, because they share things as well. I found out how long they get off for a maternity leave, and I was shocked.
Do you spend time as a big group?
You eat every meal as a big group, so it’s a great time for conversation. You’re supposed to sit by someone different each time, and the seating is every other (Anglo, Spaniard, Anglo), so that encourages conversation.
The Spaniards also have to do two presentations in English. One is a business presentation and the other is on whatever they want. As a volunteer, you are scheduled to be in the audience for some of these presentations. There is also an Anglo who leads the presentation.
What was the most frustrating part?
Naturally, there are people who you just don’t connect with. But you end up mixing up enough, so you aren’t around the same people constantly, so it’s easy to deal with.
The counselors and campers were very diverse in age. (Photo: Tami Fairweather)
What were the people like?
People are lovely. And I realized that there is so much to love about people at different places in their life. There was a kid in his early 20s, and he was shy and a hippie and kind of a smart-ass. We had secret pals at the end of the week, and we had to give gifts to each other that didn’t involve money. His secret pal had all the different women give him a kiss on the cheek. He had lipstick all over his face and didn’t wash it off.
Across the board, people were in their 20s to probably 70s. It was lovely.
They had an activity at night where we shared our own cultures. The Spaniards got together, and the Anglos split into different groups based on where they were from. We were supposed to sing a song that represented our culture, but the Americans had a hard time pinpointing a representative song, and we ended up singing “Leaving on a Jet Plane,” which I didn’t agree with. The Spaniards, on the other hand, knew exactly what song to sing and performed it.
Do you have advice for others who might want to volunteer?
I loved my notebook. I brought it to write about my experience, but I ended up using it a lot to draw sketches when trying to explain something to a Spaniard. Or we would use it to write out words so that they could see what they looked like. After the experience, it was fun to flip back through my notebook and look at the notes I’d made during the week.
Also, be ready to talk. You’ll talk at least 100 hours during the week, but don’t be frightened.
Relaxing during siesta time (Photo: Tami Fairweather)
Did you get to do any sightseeing?
Every day there is siesta time, where we didn’t do anything. Most people take a nap, but you can also use this time to explore. You can go hiking, and you can walk around the grounds. There were ruins that were 3 miles away, so one day a bunch of us hiked there together.
When you get yourself into Madrid, you can stay a couple of days before or after the program if you like.
Did romance bloom for you or any of the other campers?
I did hit it off with a lovely guy, but didn’t stay long enough to see if something could happen. After camp, we spent the day together in Madrid and he showed me around.
As for others, I remember people saying that previous campers and counselors had met and got married.
Do you still keep in touch with anyone?
I’m still in touch with some of the people from my week. There was crying when we left and lots of hugging. There was a new group coming in, and they had just got there, and we were looking on like: “They have no idea!”
The Valdelavilla grounds (Photo: Tami Fairweather)
What was the most surprising part?
The funny part was that in the beginning of the week, you just have your faith in humanity restored. People are just lovely. They want to help each other, pour wine for each other … pick things up. But then, by the third day, certain people start to get on your nerves, and you find yourself thinking: “I hope I don’t have to sit next to them.” But then at the same time, we became a family. It’s like going to a cabin or camping, and you have to meet all of your basic needs with the help of other people. You end up becoming very close. And at the end of the week, you become really great friends.
WATCH: Students Help Officers Learn Spanish
Check out our original adventure travel series, “A Broad Abroad.”