I discovered this concept of “volunteering holiday” quite by accident. My former flatmate had booked one a couple of years before, and I had signed up for the newsletter fully intending to go someday.
At the time, however I was working three jobs and studying for a Masters degree so was unable to leave. When I finally finished my degree and started to pay off my debts, I was desperate to find a cheap way of getting away.
Having worked abroad before, the idea of a working holiday was not new to me, but the idea of volunteering most certainly was. As money was tight and I would be travelling alone, the thought of going away and meeting lots of new people was irresistible. I was also very attracted by the pictures of Valdelavia, the village hotel in remote Spain that the program was to take place in. It was also a great chance to visit Spain for the first time.
So what is it that attracted me to a vacation that was not a vacation. The Spaniards always ask the same question. What makes me pay for my flight to Spain to spend 13 hours a day making conversation with complete strangers, have very little time myself, work to an intense and regimented schedule, and finish up completely physically and emotionally exhausted? For some volunteers it is being to help others, for some it is the free four star hotel and food, and for me initially, it was the very cheap vacation. But why I return so often? There is no simple explanation.
The fact is that these programs offer a unique social and shared experience. Although it is more difficult for the Spanish as they are away from their families and finding it frustrating to not understand everything or communicate fully, the native speaker (Anglo) also goes through an intensely emotional ride too, spending so much time talking about his/herself. You get to hear fascinating stories from fellow volunteers and from the Spanish participants, which for some people, including myself, has been life changing.
The result of putting 40 strangers in an isolated hotel where you are fed more food that you can eat, given a comfortable, sometimes quite luxurious room, is like a social experiment more on a par with “Big Brother” than anything else I can imagine.
Between the two companies – Pueblo Ingles and Vaughan Town, I have now been more than twelve times, and yet each time is different. For it is not the experience that is only unique, it is the group, and the venue. There are several different locations to choose from, all of which have their own unique character, and new ones are being added all the time. I have been to six or seven different parts of Spain I would probably have never discovered had I not been on those programs. I have met people from different part of Spain and the English speaking world, all of whom have their own story to tell, from the everyday to the inspirational. Each one-to-one English speaking session is different. Some easy, some less so, but the effort is appreciated by the Spaniard and rewarding for the volunteers.
Having now been so often and knowing what to expect, the experience continues to give me something different. I find that the week refreshes my social self. It reminds me of how to live. That life is not only something that happens to you, but something that you make happen. That the connections we make with others enrich our lives in unpredictable and yet priceless ways. The day-to-day of making a living can make us forget these things and whenever I return from this week in Spain, I am a more relaxed, more energized, more proactive, more creative, and more passionate version of myself. Now that is what I call a vacation!
~ Jeremy Sheffer is a theater director who lives and works in London. He has volunteered in Spain over a dozen times. Read more about him on his website.