"How do you like it here?" one of the English professors asks me as she drives me home. It's been a long hot day at the high school, and her air conditioned car is a great source of relief.
"I love it," I tell her truthfully. "This area is beautiful." We pass by rows of palm trees and white-washed stucco buildings that look as if they've been untouched by time. While only a short drive from my home on the busy promenade in Cartagena, the "new town" part of the city pales in comparison to the beauty of the suburbs.
Mari Cruz seems to disagree. "It's terrible," she says. "It's so ugly."
As we drive, I try to picture myself in her shoes. The old-fashioned buildings aren't a wistful look into the past, but the result of severe neglect and a lack of funding. I flush a little, feeling shamefully American.
"Spain is really poor," she goes on to say. "And our English is terrible. Sometimes I wonder, how can Americans come here, to Cartagena?"
Even as the topic turns to language, and travel, and life in general, her words really stuck with me. I had always thought of myself as being fairly cultured; after all, I'm a first-generation American, and I spent several years of my life studying a myriad of foreign languages--if anyone was going to be the ignorant American in a foreign country, it wasn't going to be me. And yet, here I was, looking at this amazing opportunity like someone with a savior complex who'd just finished reading Eat, Pray, Love.
The truth was, I came to Spain with the idea that, through CIEE's teaching placement, I could have an excuse to live in another country, learn another language, and immerse myself in a foreign culture. Of course, the program is great for all of those things (perhaps even more than I bargained for) but at the bottom of it all, I was in a country with a lot of problems, whose shaky grasp on the English language was only a reflection of far deeper issues.
As we head onto the next roundabout, Mari Cruz tells me that she wants to go back to the United States, but it's difficult with the current economy. "Travel is a luxury. And to travel with your family? It's unthinkable. Most people here only make 1000 € a month. They pay bills with it, feed their children with it. A plane ticket costs your entire paycheck."
I think about my own travels, how I had scraped by all summer to save enough for a ticket with 1000 € left over to keep me afloat until my first check rolled in. It was difficult enough with two people living on the same salary--I can't even imagine how I would have gotten here if I had children to raise.
The drive was short, but my conversation with Mari Cruz really humbled me. Traveling to Spain in order to teach is an incredible privilege, and it's something we shouldn't lose sight of. In the States, I had been anything but privileged; I'd come from a terrible neighborhood, I was raised in a broken home, with so many children in one house I was forced to sleep on a cot in the dining room with my grandmother. I was passed from house to house, from family to family, and at one point I was living out of my car. I'm no stranger to food stamps, public housing, or government benefits. And yet, through all of that, I've been able to scrimp and save, to fly to Spain, and to live in one of the most beautiful cities in the world for the entirety of a school year.
CIEE's Murcia teaching placement is an amazing opportunity. You get to work for 15 hours a week, with a pay of 875 € a month, which with the low cost of living is fairly easy to survive on. If you're lucky like I am, you'll only work Monday-Thursday, leaving three-day weekends for regular travel. Best of all--you get to do it all in the beautiful country of Spain. But there's one important thing you should never forget; it is a privilege to be here.
Of course, don't sell yourself short. If you work hard to complete CIEE's TEFL certification, save your money, and go through the hassle of preparing all of your documentation for the flight over, then it's a privilege you deserve to have. But we can't lose sight of the reason we're here--to teach English, to bridge the language barrier in our little part of the world, and to set our students up for a successful future. It's easy to forget when you're dipping your feet into the crystal-clear waters of the Mediterranean, or biting into the juiciest oranges you've ever had, but at the center of it all are real people who you can both teach and learn a great deal from.
And that, to me, tastes just as sweet.