By Jamie Hoagland
We left for Alicante this morning. Initially, the drive was a mix of city with rocky mountains off in the distance. The drive was littered with patchwork gardens and buildings that are surely hundreds of years old. As we drove through the countryside, I imagined what it must have been like when those buildings were erected. The care and intention which went into each tile, brick, and all materials used to create the still functioning structures is outstanding. I appreciated the bus ride as it provided me a view of the country I would not otherwise be able to enjoy. I am overwhelmed with the deep sense of rich culture and history that is on display. It is unlike anything I have experienced. There were industrial sections just off the highway that could be distribution points or manufacturing sites.
Farms are scattered along the drive of what I assume to be olive trees since olive oil is a huge export for the country. I saw a farmer on his tractor tending to fields that appeared to be in the initial phase of planting. Then another farmer positioned in a field of more mature trees appeared to be inspecting the progress of the olives.
Eventually, we stopped at what would be comparable to a U.S. highway rest stop with gas to have lunch. Interesting enough, Spain closely monitors the hours driven of the public transit operators with devices located on the bus. Information on how long and how far the bus driver has gone can be calculated. It is mandatory for the operator to stop for 45 minutes for every 4 hours driven. The stop was in a field with a beautiful view of mountains off in the distance. Although the population I have spoken with continues to explain how hot Spain is, particularly in Alicante, I find it to be extremely comfortable. We were provided a sack lunch of an apple, water, and traditional sandwiches of bread with cheese and meat. While I sat in the shade away from the highway, a slight breeze made the experience exceptional. The view of the mountains made it easy to be completely present within my surroundings.
Back on the bus, we moved up into mountains and I know this because my ears were feeling the pressure. Up in the mountains, a view of the Mediterranean Sea was offered and it made for a magnificent back drop. The deep blue water lining the coast outlined what looked like traditional Spanish residences was fairly breathtaking.
Once we arrived in Alicante, we stopped at a McDonalds to take a bathroom break and engage in group discussion on what to expect upon our arrival and meeting our host parents. My anxiety was beginning to build slightly. The unknown is often the most stressful experience I can translate. We arrived! The host families were all sitting together with smiles and looks of anticipation as the bus pulled up to the curb. They all seemed to be genuinely excited to meet their new guests and assist us in immersing ourselves into their culture.
My friend, Kat, and I were the first to be introduced. Two adorable ladies, of whom we would refer to as senior citizens back in the United States, were locked at the elbows standing together eagerly awaiting our initial interactions. Vale, pronounced Volley, is a short, sweet looking grandma type and a fast talker. We verbally introduced ourselves with the help of Darlene (shout out to Darlene; you rock!) and Vale led us to her car. It took approximately .06 seconds to figure out this adorable lady speaks absolutely no English. However, this is okay because I speak no Spanish. It seems as though the culture does not make distinctions between adults and seniors like we do in the United States. In many interactions with the leaders we have met about these distinctions most respond with, they are adults.
We made it to the trunk of her car, placed our bags inside, and after a few minutes of blank stares and intense lack of communication, I realized she is asking if we have anymore to place in the trunk. I say, “No mas.” She laughed at me and gave me a friendly nudge of approval.
I sat in the back seat and Kat was in the front while Vale was having a fast and furious conversation. Kat appeared to understand some of it and gave simple answers. I was suddenly more appreciative of Kat’s existence on Earth than ever before. Without someone around that can get the basic gist of what Vale is saying, it would have been a very long and confusing week.
As we made our way to Vale’s apartment, she gave us what I assume was an educational discussion on local sites, such as the bull fighting arena. She also provided us with loose directions on where we came from and how we were getting to our destination. We arrived at her apartment and she parallel parked her tiny car in a spot only a real pro could manage. Vale is a total boss.
Upstairs, her apartment is extremely clean and very cute. She provided us with a brief history of her family from the pictures on the wall. I believe she has a son, a daughter, and her husband has passed. But, I could be totally incorrect due to the language barrier. Vale brings us to our bedroom where she assigns us to our bunks, shows us where to store our things, and gives us a brief run down on expectations and how to use the shower.
We moved onto the patio where we reintroduced ourselves in a less chaotic situation. “Me llamo Jamie.” “Me llamo Kat.” Kat, this brings some confusion so we do our best to clarify. “Me llamo el gato, meow.” Again, she laughs and shows affection as if she has known us all our lives.
She moved into the kitchen and brought out potatoes to peel. I asked if I can help and she politely but sternly told me no. Those potatoes were peeled in no time flat.
We used Yelp to show her a vegetarian restaurant in the area we may like to visit in the future. This ignited a frustrating and chaotic discussion about gluten, meat, and cheese that only the foreign ministry could have negotiated with less freight.
Apparently, Armando left out dietary restrictions and we brought it up like a surprise. (Note to self: no more Yelp.) Vale quickly got Armando on the phone and they worked it out with little to no issue. Vale communicated many things dealing with Armando I will never know.
Vale made us a torte potato like a real Spanish grandmother would. Tasty. We made our way into the bedroom and set ourselves up and contacted Darlene and Jade who are just across the street staying with Vale’s BFF. In this time, Kevin showed up. Kevin is an American who is staying in the front bedroom on a different study abroad program and has been here since January. He explained Vale has foreign students in her home often and gets it that we do not speak Spanish. He explained, what I am beginning to understand on my own, that she is a uniquely sweet lady and we have nothing to worry about. He leaves in a week but he speaks Spanish so this gave Kat and me more hope.
Kat and I explain to Vale that we are going to meet our friends and explore the city. Vale smiles and waves her hand at us signifying we are on our own. We meet Jade and Darlene and take the bus to the last stop. We know it was the last stop because the bus driver told us to get off of the bus. It dumped us out near the water and Las Rambla where it appeared there may have been a flurry of entertainment and action. However, it was getting late and most of the vendors and entertainers were packing up or had already left. We made our way to a bar Kevin suggested but opted for another near his suggestion since that one had accessible outside seating. “Uno Mojito por favor.” After our drink, we walked the 18-minute walk back to our host families’ homes and ended what I believe was an amazing first day in Alicante.