It's 7:20 a.m. in the South of Spain and my alarm clock is going off. This town's very sensible birds won't be up for another hour, but I don't have the luxury of sleeping in on the first Monday of my vacation.
Instead, after a shower and quick breakfast, I'm speeding through the narrow streets of Rota with teacher Pepe Moreno Carrascal, trying to get to Castillo de Luna high school by 8:30.
We stop in the staff room to catch our breath. Then it's off to the first of four English classes I'll be helping with during the day.
Mine is hardly the schedule a typical visitor would keep in this sunny resort town, especially in late October when lounging on the beach is still an option. But then nothing about this vacation -my first as a volunteer -is typical.
Tell people on either side of the Atlantic that you are working during your holiday and watch how fast the eyebrows go up. Even the cab driver who drove me to the airport in Madrid had to make sure he understood correctly (of course that could have something to do with my rusty Spanish).
Given that you can take walking, biking, and cruising tours of Spain, I have to admit that a trip requiring regular use of an alarm and a day planner does sound like something out of a Dilbert cartoon.
But nontraditional is just what I was interested in. I had traipsed around Western Europe sightseeing on my own and was ready for a deeper cultural experience -and to share the journey with others.
Working-vacation options are abundant today, ranging from counting mammals in Zimbabwe to building homes in the Southern United States (see story, page 19). I knew I wanted to go to Spain, and teaching English had always appealed to me, so I applied to Global Volunteers in Minneapolis.
No teaching or language experience was required, but I did pay a program fee and my airfare.
I was one of 13 volunteers -including a two-time Fulbright scholar, a handful of former teachers and businessmen, and a guy with two pet rats -who arrived ready to work in Rota.
Team leader Theresa Borruso told us our assignments as aides in elementary and high schools would be easy: "The only thing you need to do is go into class, put on a smile, and speak English."
Rota has been part of the Global Volunteers family since 1994. That's when the nonprofit group was invited (it only go where asked) by the community to help with cross-cultural exchange.
Among other things, volunteers help counter the image of the "young crazy GIs," Mr. Moreno says, who roll into town when visiting the nearby naval base. "This community has a stereotype of Americans," he explains.
My volunteer manuals included lots of suggestions for conversation starters: family photos, maps of home. Instead, I unabashedly used Leonardo DiCaprio and pop culture to get shy Spanish teens to speak in English.
Some needed little encouragement. "May the force be with you," one junior said, grinning as I left his class.
For the less outgoing, soccer teams and rap music worked well as talking points. Sometimes I made students choose between Leonardo and Spanish heartthrobs (you can guess who won).
Teens toting Nike backpacks and wearing hiking boots heard about my life, then wrote essays (which I graded) describing my family and activities.
I'm a quick study on siesta culture
In exchange I learned much about Spanish culture. Lunch isn't served in school, but after 3 p.m., when the town shuts down for siesta. Another new thing: Students stay in the same room all day and the teachers move around.
I also adapted to the more laid-back pace. "In Andalucia, people operate on 'ish' time - 9 can mean 9:15 or 9:20," Ms. Borruso explained our first weekend. "People don't like to be stressed."
In school, that translated into getting to class a few minutes late and no one having a big problem with it.
Politics came up frequently in the two weeks I was there. Students signed petitions to see Chile's Augusto Pinochet brought to justice. And between classes, Moreno and I discussed the changes in Spain since the death in 1975 of Francisco Franco, the fascist dictator who ruled here for nearly four decades.
Moreno, a veteran teacher and head of the English department, had me tell students about drinking and smoking laws in the US. Such constraints aren't enforced in Rota, a town of 25,000 where it is common for entire families to stay out socializing until dawn.
"I want them to see how much freedom they have here," he explained.
During free periods, I sat in the staff room attempting to read Spanish newspapers and chatting with teachers. Unlike at other schools, I was the only American assigned to Castillo de Luna.
That meant I was left to boldly go where someone of my Spanish ability probably should not have gone. In one conversation with a music teacher I confidently used the word sobre (about) when I meant algunos (some). Pride goes before the quest for fluency.
Fortunately, my reputation wasn't too besmirched. Members of the English department befriended me and occasionally asked me to help in their classes. Once, a group of teachers invited me to go to a nearby eatery to have bread with jamn serrano (thinly-sliced ham) during the half-hour morning break.
All this cultural exposure made getting up early and mandatory volunteer meetings worth it. But the advantages of being a "servant-learner," as Global Volunteers calls participants, didn't stop there.
Our team also got to know the community through daily tutoring. Most of us agreed this was one of the best aspects of the program. "We love to talk about our culture," Moreno told volunteers early on. "We will bury you with information."
Between 4:30 and 6 p.m. most days, I sat outside talking with a thirty-something woman who was learning English to improve her job prospects. In the warm afternoon sun we discussed movies, the Spanish custom of not always wearing wedding rings, and heavier subjects like situations where abortion is legal here.
One volunteer tutored two tour-guides-in-training, who later took us around Rota's Old Town. There we wandered through a 16th-century church and a castle that dates from the 13th century. It sports a plaque honoring favorite son Bartolom Prez, who sailed with Columbus.
And the Atlantic was so warm
For all our daily commitments, there were moments that really did feel like a vacation. Volunteers swam in the Atlantic and walked along the beach. We found the answers to questions like "How many Global Volunteers can you fit in a Ford Fiesta?" when we piled into cars for weekend trips to places like Seville (90 minutes north) and Granada (four hours east) (see story, below). In the evenings, residents invited volunteers to choir practice and outings to nearby Cdiz.
Also making the $1,795 service fee worth it was the oceanfront guest house. It offers impressive views of the Atlantic and sunsets that we in the New World rarely see. The accommodations were comfortable but dorm-like, and included a kitchen and a washing machine.
We were also well fed. Like most things in this town, the restaurant we ate at daily was within walking distance of our villa. At Taberna de Yantar, we discovered that french fries -patatas fritas - are a Spanish staple, and that a tortilla is a thick, filling omelette.
Our meals were rich in fish and vegetables, reflecting Rota's traditional professions of farming and fishing. One local specialty, Urta de la Rotea, was a white fish in a special sauce.
"It's the best fish in the sea," a waiter at one restaurant, El Faro, told us, exhibiting the pride many had for things hecho en Espaa, made in Spain.
Used to traveling alone, it was a pleasure for me to have company at our midafternoon and late-evening meals. Volunteers talked of doing the Hokey Pokey and demonstrating trick-or-treating to friendly grade-schoolers. At a vocational high school, one pair worked hard to keep the attention of mainly uninterested students. They celebrated small victories, such as students who were not in the class wanting to sit in.
While volunteers praised much of the program, some left feeling they could have done more or been better utilized. Others were more content. "I prefer to see how people actually live, and I think this is a good way to do that," said Geoffrey Nafziger, a paper technician from Torrance, Calif.
As for me, an entry in my oft-neglected journal echoed his thoughts: "This is exactly the kind of thing I was looking for."
*Send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org Global Volunteers offers programs in 20 countries including the US. For more information call 800-487-1074, or visit www.globalvolunteers.org or e-mail email@example.com