Jensen Martin is a Servas traveler, interviewer for southern California, and co-coordinator of Servas Youth. This summer he went on a Servas Youth Language Experience trip to Spain for two months. Enjoy!
A Servas Experience in Spain
by Jensen Martin
It has long been my strong belief that one of the most important aspects of traveling is the people that you connect with along the way. I have never before felt this so strongly as when I traveled in Spain this summer with the international peace organization Servas. As a student and worker with the US division of Servas, I had the valuable opportunity to participate in a SYLE experience; a month long immersion in another country with the intention of practicing language abilities and adapting to other cultures. When I traveled in Spain, the graciousness and goodwill of my host families astounded me to no end.
Upon my arrival there I immediately felt a connection to this incredible place. I was also bombarded by a whole host of new impressions and experiences. Everything was in Spanish; the signs, the people, the restaurants, the architecture, everything. .. My first week there was with Susana Martinez, the Servas president of Spain. My time spent with Susana was a great introduction to Spain, she spoke great English and did a really fantastic job of helping to teach me the language and show me the wonderful sights of Valencia. While I was staying with her, I had the opportunity to visit her husband Jose at the university and then explore the ancient, downtown part of the city on my own. One of the first things that impressed me so much was the incredible amount of history that is a part of everyday Spanish life. Coming from California, where it is rare to see something more than a couple hundred years old, the depth of Spanish culture and historical richness absolutely blew me away. After a couple days staying with Susana, I visited another Servas host family in downtown Valencia for the weekend. My hosts were Josevi and Lourdes, two long time Greenpeace members who were good friends of Susana’s. I spent a lot of great time with the family there; we all did a 20 km bike ride around the city from their house to the beach and back and they showed me around the ciudad de ciencias, a new part of the city recently constructed to increase Valencia’s international recognition. They were fantastic hosts for me and I really got a valuable experience of what life was like in a typical Spanish city while staying with them. Another great experience was the few days I spent at ACTIO, a children’s camp run by Josevi and Lourdes. This camp is a place for children to learn about nature while staying in a fully ecological setting in the Spanish countryside. I had a fantastic time, due to the amount of interaction I had with the children. It’s incredible how little children discriminate between race and ethnicity, they all wanted to ask me questions and play with me.
When I finished with my stay in Valencia, I eagerly looked forward to journeying into Cataluña, a region in the Northeast of Spain which is culturally famous for its capital city of Barcelona and it’s numerous other culturally important monuments, such as Mt. Montserrat. The first home I stayed in was with Miguel Dominguez, in the rural town of San Celoni. San Celoni is a charming town fairly close to the coast, north of Barcelona. Miguel’s house was in the mountains, bordering the Corredor natural park, where I spent many hours hiking and enjoying the natural beauty. Miguel is retired, though he is very active with a bountiful organic garden that I had the privilege to help work with him on. I had many very interesting discussions with him on the political situation in Spain, but also just generally interesting conversation about all aspects of life. I felt really at home at his environment, and it helped to show me a little bit about how I want to live my life. I also got to meet his son, Iu, and I had a great time in the town spending time with Iu and his friends playing videogames or attending the festival of San Juan, which is a solstice festival only in Cataluña involving massive bonfires and fireworks.
My next destination in Cataluña was Sabadell, a city that could be called a suburb of Barcelona, though in its own right quite impressive. I had a wonderful host family here; I stayed with Carmen and Antonio Bafaluy and their son Manel, all of whom were very gracious and giving to me. I stayed on the top floor of their house where I had a brilliant view of the forest next to their house and direct access to the garden that they had on their outer porch. Here in Sabadell my Spanish drastically improved; my long lunch conversations with Carmen dramatically aided the development of my language skills. I remember watching TV one evening in their house and suddenly realizing, “Oh my gosh! I understand everything they are saying!” It was incredible for me to recognize that only after a few weeks I could understand a television broadcast. While I stayed here I also had the opportunity to explore Barcelona, a very culturally rich city with many new sights and experiences. Barcelona is known for the architect Gaudi, whose organic sculptures and designs have been preserved through the ages. One of his most famous buildings is the great Sagrada Familia cathedral, an impressive monument in the center of the city that moved me very much; its great pinnacles towering over all surroundings recalled images of glorious mountain ranges amidst vibrant forests. Carmen drew me a wonderful map of the city and the metro so I had no trouble getting around. I met many great people here, friends and neighbors of my host family that were equally gracious and receptive of this strange American traveler (me). Another memorable moment was the experience of traveling to Montserrat Mountain, a mystical mountain in Cataluña that is sacred to Catholics for the appearance of the virgin of Montserrat. My host family and I took the zipper train up to the top where we visited the monastery and gazed out over the surrounding countryside. It was a very powerful experience. `My next stop in Cataluña was in a small rural town named Dos Rios where I stayed with the Servas coordinator of the region, Florentina Sanchez, and her two sons David and Nicolas. Dis Rios is on the other side of the Corredor Park where I had hiked earlier in my visit, so I once again had ample opportunity to hike and explore in the mountains. I had many great conversations with Florentina about Servas, her travels to Kenya and our mutual interest in meditation. While staying here I also had the chance to see a play in Catalan. Florentina’s son, David, is a very talented singer who stars in a lead role for “Jesus Christ superstar” adapted into Catalan, one of the official languages for the region. I was very impressed by the talent of the performers and after speaking with the director, even more impressed by the amount of work involved with the translation of a play from language to another. Besides exploring the mountains and hanging out with David’s friends, I was also able to relax in their house and really allow myself to be present in Spain. It is a very important thing while traveling to allow oneself the space to grow. I had been experiencing all these new things over the span of a few weeks and my brain was starting to feel mentally exhausted. And I was only halfway through… I gained some very valuable rest and relaxation in order to prepare for my next leg of the journey, in Calatayud.
So, one Monday morning, I drive with Florentina out to the bus station in Barcelona to get on the bus for Zaragoza. A city in the center of Spain in a region called Aragon. In Zaragoza I was to meet my new hosts and they were to take me to their home in another smaller city an hour away. I gave my farewells and thanks to Florentina and began to wait for my bus. While waiting, I struck it up with some backpackers from New Zealand who were also choosing this summer for the Europe vacation. After talking with them for some time I began to realize what an incredible program Servas is. These other travelers looked haggard and dead and were about to ship off to some other hostel full of other travelers. Sadly, these people missed out on the entire cultural experience that I was getting from my host families in Servas. I was learning about the culture and about daily life in Spain while getting to know actual Spanish people whereas these other travelers only had photos. They were missing the value of the cultural connection with the country. This was a huge revelation for me and it gave me something interesting to think about as I began the six hour bus ride to Zaragoza.
Finally, in Zaragoza, I was greeted by Maribel and her daughter Celia. After spending some brief time with them in the city they drove me to their place in Calatayud, a small city about an hour away. I spent a week there having an incredible experience. Calatayud is a city small enough where everybody knows each other, yet large enough to still meet new people and not get completely bored. There are some ruins of an old Arab castle that stands guard on the hill overlooking the town and the city has a local pool and a main avenue where all the locals congregate. In Calatayud I believe I had my first experience of what I perceived as the original Spain. One evening Maribel took me to meet her parents along with some other friends. Maribel’s parents lived in an incredible little pueblo about 15 minutes out, but the atmosphere of the environment there felt like a relic from the past. All of the buildings and streets were of stone and I was very impressed by Maribel’s father, who farms a huge variety of fruit and vegetables in the traditional manner. I spent the rest of my days there hanging out with Maribel’s son Octavio and her daughter Celia and her friends. I felt treated very well by the people there and I only met open and friendly people, I was very impressed by the generosity and friendliness of the people in Spain in general and I think that the United States has a few lessons to learn about being open to others.
After being in Calatayud, I went back to visit Elena Martinez in Zaragoza. I had a lot of fun staying with Elena, Zaragoza is a really beautiful city with a lot of neat things to see and do. Some of more notable adventures with her include rock climbing with her and her sister’s friends, walking around the downtown portion of the city with ice cream, and an evening enjoying the Spanish nightlife my visiting bars and eating tapas. It was a constant stream of activities, but it was an awesome ride. There was some really wonderful conversation as Elena and I exchanged travel perceptions while talking about her multiple visits to India, a place that I hope to visit someday. I only stayed a weekend with Elena, but it was an unforgettable one at that.
From Zaragoza, I headed westward to a region called Extremadura. Extremadura is one of the poorest regions in Spain, due to its lack of industry. To me, that means that Extremadura is rich in nature and wide open landscapes. I was not disappointed. Here, I stayed in small town named Jaraiz de la Vera. This is a town in one of three large valleys that extend out from Plasencia, the largest town in the area. I stayed with a man named Uwe and his wife, Gib. Uwe is an English teacher at an academy of English in Jaraiz de la Vera and I was able to give back by helping out his classes by helping some of the students in their conversational skills and by talking about Servas. I had a really fantastic time with Uwe and on the weekends we toured some of the best nature that Spain has to offer. We visited several gargantas, which are a type of mountain spring that result in beautiful cascades of waterfalls that are cool and refreshing to swim in and we visited some of the nearby interesting and historic sites. One sight was the town of Trujillo, which is famous for the birthplace of the conquistador Pizaaro. The Parque Montfrague, a natural park with incredible vistas, and the ancient town of Caceres were some other notable destinations. During my time with Uwe and Gib I lived in a finca, which is essentially a house in the countryside, and I met so many of their great friends at little dinner gatherings that they hosted. Since Uwe worked all day, I spent the afternoons hanging out with friends I had made at the school at the local pool, or the lake, El Lago. I spent two weeks in Jaraiz with Uwe and his family. Those weeks passed by so quickly, as I was having so much fun. It was a real blast having the opportunity to help in the English classes; I had never before realized how challenging the English language is for people who do speak it as their mother-tongue. I really settled down in Jaraiz and made a lot of close connections, but I had to say goodbye and move on. Such is life on the road.My final host family was in a very small pueblo named Valdeande. This is a place out in the countryside; south of the larger city, Burgos, along the Ribera de Duero. This small town was one of my favorite environments that I visited; if I had to choose a place to live in Spain, this would be one of my top choices. It was a gorgeous little town located in the midst of large expanses of wheat and sunflower fields. Its climate was cool and the surrounding villages were full of history. My hosts, Gabi and Angela, invited me to stay with them in their countryside home with another one of their friends. During the three or four days that I stayed with them I had a great time, I visited the ancient roman city of Clunia, a nearby vineyard, several small picturesque towns, and the cathedral in Burgos. Once again, I was amazed by how open the people in the towns and villages were. I felt that no matter where I went, I was always among friends. I met so many relatives of Angela’s and I was always met with smiles and good people. By this moment in my trip I was pretty decently conversational in Spanish and I am sure that helped with connecting to locals.
In conclusion, I had an amazing experience this summer with Servas. I had an incredible experience of connecting with the culture of Spain through the hosts that I stayed with, the difference between traveling aimlessly through the city with a backpack and staying with an actual family and making an actual connection is enormous. It is very difficult for me to put into words the value of what I gained from all whom I met while traveling, the experience of traveling abroad is so important to the expansion of the mind and values. Traveling, and especially with Servas, can reshape values and opinions about the world in an incredible way. I will never forget the experience of a lifetime that Servas and the SYLE program provided me, I hope that someday I will be able to pay forward all of the generosity I received by having travelers in my home.