I hardly know where to begin describing my experience volunteering for the Pueblo Ingles program this past week. There were 43 people involved: the MC (an amazing character, who led all the activities), the program director (who handled all the logistics and scheduling – a huge undertaking), 21 Anglo volunteers and 20 Spaniards determined to improve their English.
The nonstop pace (and the fact that I had a nasty flu throughout) made it exhausting. The program and the people make it extraordinary. I suppose whenever a group of people are in close contact for a period of time – e.g. classic desert island scenario – bonds develop quickly. Perhaps it was even more the case here because we all chose to be there.
By the time we left yesterday, many friendships had been formed, many of the Anglos were already thinking of returning to do another program. Some are regulars and spend almost half their time doing this – possible because they live in Spain. Others (like me) would like to return every couple of years. Many of the old-timers (the oldest was 85, I believe) said your first program remains the most memorable. As we said our goodbyes there were tears, laughter, warm embraces and heartfelt wishes to stay in touch and host/visit each other when we travel in the future. The Anglos applauded the Spaniards who’d worked so hard and improved their English so much. The Spaniards (some of whom may also return – but likely only once!) applauded the volunteers for their willingness to give up this time & pay their own travel expenses in order to help them with their language skills.
I come away from the program feeling my life has truly been enriched by the contact with these people – and, of course, some in particular – and I want to share some of the stories I heard and insights into other lives that I gained (with their permission of course.)
One of the surprises of the program was the fantastic location – not just the “resort” itself, with the little villas for two, meeting room, bar and dining room attached to a larger hotel/castle at some distance from anywhere, but the actual village of La Alberca (a kilometer away).
Our MC took us all on a tour one day (what a tour guide!) It is a gorgeous old cobblestoned town with narrow streets and almost Tudor-style buildings. It is a stop on the silver Camino route, so a seashell is embossed in stone on an old church where pilgrims get their “passports” stamped. There is also a building in the central town square with the stone symbol of the Spanish Inquisition above the door and an underground passage to the main church… gave me shivers!
By the main church there is an odd alcove, up high on the wall with 2 grated windows – behind each is a human skull. These represent souls who are in purgatory, as their bodies were never buried.
There are 12 main families in the town of La Alberca and to this day every night as dark falls, the family responsible for that month of the year rings a bell to summon the lost souls into the church for the night. Although the tradition goes back a long way and was once practiced in much of Spain, today it is only in La Alberca that, early on a winter’s night or later in the summer, the family tolls the bell to keep their dead ancestors safe through the night.