Over 100 hours.
That’s the amount of talking I exchanged for a free vacation in Spain with Pueblo Ingles (read: free food/wine and lodging in a quaint Spanish village) where I’d meet new friends and have a “cultural experience that I’d never forget”. I first read about Pueblo Ingles here — and to be honest, if I didn’t read that article beforehand, I don’t think I would have applied. The website didn’t have a ton of information on there (what if was a sham y’all?) and I really had no idea what I’ll be doing once I arrived in Spain. I went ahead and applied anyway; it was something completely different than anything I’ve done before — and if I didn’t like it, at least I had a few extra days to myself in Madrid after the program.
Pueblo Ingles was not a sham after all (whew!), and yes, I made new friends and it was an unforgettable cultural experience. Initially, I didn’t think I would get much out of the program; I was volunteering after all, and there’s a kind of selflessness needed for one to spend your time (especially coveted vacation time) helping others. Looking back, my experience in Spain ended up being introspective and life-changing, to my surprise.
Before I get into specifics on why Spain inspired me to live my best life, let’s backtrack a bit and explain what Pueblo Ingles is, in case you were too lazy to click the hyperlink (I kid…but not really). Pueblo Ingles is an immersion program designed to help native Spanish speakers improve their English language skills over the course of a week. Volunteers are from English-speaking countries all over the world, and help facilitate conversations for Spanish students to gain confidence and improve their vocabulary. Locations are scattered along the Spanish countryside; I spent eight days in La Alberca, a tiny, historic village in northwest Spain, a few hours from the border of Portugal.
For the next eight days, I put in some serious work — this was not the kind of program where I’d live out my fantasy of lounging in the Spanish countryside eating tapas and drinking wine all day. As volunteers, we spent 12-13 hours every day talking our asses off, then talking some more once we all were properly lubricated with alcohol in the evening, then talking some more again until the wee hours of the early morning, almost forgetting that we had to repeat the process all over again in a few hours. Except for two hours of siesta time after lunch, our days were packed with one-to-ones, activities, discussion groups, presentations and more.
Since this is not a typical English teaching program with a ton of structured activities, we had free reign to talk about whatever we wanted, especially during our one-to-ones with the Spaniards. In the beginning, conversations were frivolous and pleasant, even boring: childhood homes, favorite places we’ve traveled, foods we liked. But a week spent with people day in and day out creates bonds that are hard not to forge, and quickly, conversations started to take on a more personal, vulnerable tone — stories of overcoming fears and learning how to be single for the first time in years, ambivalence about changing careers and dreams deferred. A few of my most memorable conversations was with a Spaniard comparing feminism in our countries, and how Spanish women galvanized to create their own #metoo movement after a woman was gang raped and her rapists acquitted. Or one late-night conversation with a fellow volunteer and our hotel bartender, who moved from the Netherlands to Spain when he was 17 and got his first job training horses with no prior experience. Or another conversation with a volunteer who lived in a different U.S. city every year for 10 years and documented his journey online. I bonded with a fellow writer and Spaniard so much so that I stayed in her amazing condo in Madrid after the program ended.
Despite my (rightfully) hoarse throat and wishing we all knew sign language halfway through the program, I came to know Spain and its people in ways that would be almost impossible otherwise. In some ways, I became a globetrotter of sorts by cultivating friendships with other volunteers, too.
After Pueblo Ingles came to an end, I spent the next few days in Madrid. Madrid, for a lack of a better word was…a little complicated. On one hand, Madrid has a youthfulness and sexiness that’s immediately contagious; Madrid was super chill, yet simmered with a kind of energy and excitement beneath it all, like a gently boiling pot of water.
However, I knew Spain was largely monocultural, and I was kindly warned by a few well-meaning friends that my experience in Spain may not be the best. I listened to stories of traveling to Spain and dealing with racism and unwanted advances from men based on assumptions that Black women were either sex workers or “easy”, like one friend who was propositioned by a man while riding on the Metro. Googling “traveling while black in Spain” didn’t help to ease my fears either, and made me wish that I had researched Spain more before committing to Pueblo Ingles and two weeks in a country that started to make me a little leery. By the time I started to second-guess my decision, I had already bought my ticket — at this point, I just had to say “oh well” and shoot my shot anyway. While you never know how you’ll be received when Black and abroad anywhere, it was a risk I was okay taking.
My experience in Spain was mostly amazing — I was at ease during my time in Pueblo Ingles, and save for anticipated communication differences here and there, felt comfortable in La Alberca. Leaving the cloak of the program and into the bustle of Madrid was a bit of a mixed bag. Fortunately, I had pleasant experiences dining out and shopping solo In Madrid, but nothing prepared me for the level of catcalling in these Madrileno streets. Nothing. If I thought navigating the streets of New York was annoying AF, I was in for a treat. Between a random creeper grabbing my butt on an escalator and following my friend and I until we noticed and confronted him, the stares that felt like they were undressing your soul, and the loud catcalls that multiplied the closer I went to the center of the city, navigating Madrid was sometimes unnerving and deeply uncomfortable.
While navigating Madrid tested my ability to dodge fuckboys and creepy old men like no other, I didn’t want these not-so-wonderful experiences to be a deterrent on my time there. Spain was — and still is — largely a homogenous country (especially compared to the UK, France and Germany) and after learning a bit of Spanish history, some things started to make a bit more sense. Immigration to and from Spain was banned until 1975, and it’s still a new concept in Spain relative to the rest of Europe. For my own sanity and enjoyment, I always kept that in the back of my head, and it kept me a bit more grounded — and maybe a little sorry for folks, too. The complexities of exploring Madrid as a woman of color only served as a reminder to walk with my head held even higher, and sprinkle some black girl magic wherever I went.
Sometimes we travel to a country to experience the best of their best, to escape our current realities and replace it with a new, happier one, if only temporarily. Sometimes we travel in hopes that our experience will mirror an episode of Parts Unknown — this deep, immersive, traveling that weighs on you long after the memories have faded and pictures posted on social media. But that kind of travel is also a double-edged sword: the allure and fantasy of a certain country dies once the rose-colored glasses are off, but a deeper understanding and a heightened appreciation emerges because of the people you meet, who help you to navigate a country’s norms and attitudes.
Spain is just as complicated as any other country, and if I had the chance to relive my time there, I would without hesitation. In retrospect, I needed to go and experience Spain beyond what a “normal” vacation entailed. I stayed with a successful TV writer in Madrid after Pueblo Ingles, and I was fascinated seeing her balance a demanding career and her life. That sense of mindfulness, of just being was everywhere — no sense of urgency or compulsory cellphone checking every 30 seconds — and there was a certain ease and grace about life in Spain that I envied. It was in stark contrast to my life now, constantly trying to balance the scales of family/relationships/friends/me time/pursuing passions/work, and never quite getting it right because work often tipped the scales in its favor.
While I occasionally entertain thoughts of living abroad, a bigger part of me took this as a lesson in incorporating a bit of Spain in my everyday life – by not packing my calendar to the brim, leaving work at a decent-ish hour without feeling any guilt, or actually calling friends I had every intention to. My time in Spain forced me to look in the mirror and re-evaluate my life, and take stock of what worked and didn’t. What was not working for me was my job, as the daily grind of working in a tech company became an exercise in mental fortitude. Ever had a job you disliked so much that as soon as you stepped into the door, you wished it was 5 o’clock already? I was that person with that job, and somehow I felt stuck, telling myself that I was doing the adult thing by “sucking it up”. Sucking it up for almost a year worked wonders for me: the stress from work didn’t just burn me out, but triggered dormant health issues I almost forgot I had. My time in Spain showed me it was entirely possible to work and still have a life (gasp!), and I was determined to figure out how. There’s nothing like comparing your ideal life to your current reality to see where things went awry, and the newfound responsibility you feel for making things right.
One of the great things about travel (and especially solo travel) is the opportunity to see yourself as you are, without the influence of your normal circle of friends and routines. I’m the first one to say that a well-traveled person doesn’t always equal an open-minded one, as I know folks who travel all over the world and say the most ignorant, cringe-worthy things. And yet, as I start to travel more and more, I’m reminded of the transformative power of travel. For two weeks, I lived an entirely different life, but I had to come back and face my reality — I was not happy with the trajectory of my life, and that can be really difficult to come to grips with. And if it took traveling over 3,500 miles and two weeks with 20+ strangers to re-evaluate my life, then I’m forever grateful.