A big thank you to New Zealand Lattitude volunteer Rosie, for sharing her experience of her gap year in Spain – sadly cut short, but not forgotten!
Although very different from what I expected, when I reflect on the experience, the decision I made in 2019 to volunteer in Spain with Lattitude has been the best decision of my life.
I was meant to be in a placement in Spain for 5 months, with the option to extend for the full year if I wanted to. But things took a dramatic turn when COVID-19 started to spread in Spain.
Back in mid-January, I met the other New Zealand volunteers excitedly at Auckland airport. None of us really knew what to expect of our experience, and it was with some trepidation we flew to Madrid, via Dubai.
On arrival we spent 5 days in Valladolid, getting to know our fellow volunteers before heading our separate ways to our individual placements.
My placement was in Tamames – a small village in the Province of Salamanca. Small town life was very different for me since I grew up in New Zealand’s capital city, Wellington, and I was definitely used to a faster pace of life. Tamames has a population of around 800 people
meaning that everyone knows everyone else.
Life there was very different from how it is in a city in lots of little ways. I was a bit amused to find that a trip to the local police station was in order if you needed something printed or photocopied (many people didn’t own printers).
During my time there, Tamames celebrated a few different traditions entirely unique to the town. These included a ‘night of the bells’ where the children of the village would run around the streets ringing cowbells late at night and early in the morning. There was also a ‘night of women’ where the old women of the town would gather around a bonfire, singing and dancing in celebration of women. It was all rather fascinating and just an accepted part of life in Tamames.
My placement was at a primary school called Las Dehesas which had two different locations – one in Tamames and the other in an even smaller town called Cabrillas. I taught all students at both schools. In Tamames there were about 60 students from ages 3-13 and in Cabrillas
there were only 15 students from ages 4-13.
My role at the school varied from assisting the English teachers in class, helping with subjects taken in English including art, music and physical education as well as occasionally planning and taking a class by myself. Teaching the students was a very rewarding experience as I watched their English improve. The members of the staff were very friendly and welcoming although at times it was a challenge to communicate with some of them due to the language barrier.
The host family I stayed with were the most generous people I have ever met. From the moment I arrived, I was treated like part of the family – their kiwi daughter. They helped me to fully immerse in the Spanish culture and helped me immensely with my learning of the
Within a few months, I could understand what people were saying around me although my speaking was very limited – which didn’t stop me from trying! Since the town was so small they regularly took me on weekend trips to different parts of the region around Salamanca.
The city of Salamanca is absolutely stunning – known for being a university city and all of the buildings look like sandcastles. It is densely populated with students, young people everywhere and the nightlife is great.
Every few weekends I would catch up with my fellow volunteers and we would travel to different parts of Spain. We also ventured into Porto in Portugal and had many other trips planned. I really enjoyed meeting up with the other volunteers, they were an awesome group
of people and it was refreshing to be with fluent English speakers for a change. I made some great friendships that I believe will last for life. I thoroughly enjoyed getting to see the snippet of Spain that I saw. It is a beautiful country and I will definitely be back.
Everything changed once Covid-19 started to spread in Spain. The weekend before Spain went into lockdown I was in Porto, Portugal with a few of the other volunteers and less then a week later everyone I was with on that trip had decided to head back to their home countries.
I decided to stay and try to wait it out.
It wasn’t clear how long the lockdown would be for and my host family were happy for me to stay. I don’t at all regret my decision as spending lockdown with a Spanish family is definitely a once in a lifetime thing. I grew very close with the family over the 3 weeks I was in lockdown with them and although we couldn’t leave the house, I think this 3 weeks taught me much about Spanish culture and resilience that I couldn’t have learnt by travelling Spain.
In a small town like Tamames, I learnt the importance of community spirit and support. Every night at 8 the whole town would go to their windows and clap in support for the nurses and doctors. The news would be filled with videos of people making the best of a bad situation – innovative ways people would exercise without being able to leave the house, creative children showing their ideas for keeping busy, and immense gratitude for all healthcare workers. It was very heartwarming and showed me that even in the darkest of times, the best of humanity will always come through.
As the weeks went on it became clear that the situation in Spain would not go back to normal for a long time to come. That is when I made the difficult decision to leave and begin the solo trek back home. I won’t lie, the thought of travelling to the other side of the world by myself amidst a pandemic was a bit daunting. We didn’t know if the plane would leave Madrid or if I’d get stuck partway and, in early April, there was only one route operating to New Zealand via Doha. But again, this was another thing I will never experience again in my life. Having done it, I don’t think I’ll be scared to do anything by myself again.
I am sad that my time in Spain had to come to an end so soon but at the same time, I wouldn’t want to change my experience in any way. I am so grateful for everything – for meeting some of the most amazing people and the friendships formed with my fellow volunteers, with my most generous and caring host family that I know will always be a part of my life, and some incredible, once in a lifetime memories. There is much more of Spain that I am yet to explore, I very much feel their pain of 2020 and I know I will be back.
Esto no es adios.