The single most important skill you must have when traveling or living abroad is the ability to problem-solve. In life, being able to solve problems is the mark of a self-sufficient adult. While traveling, it’s the main determinant of whether you will run out of money, become stranded in a foreign location, or if you make it back home again. Though I already knew this very well having lived abroad and traveled many times before, it was still overwhelming when everything went wrong my first week working as an auxiliar de conversación (assistant English teacher) in Spain. Here’s what happened.
I received my teaching placement with the North American Language and Culture Program in the first week of June last year. This was my first year with the program so I didn’t really know what to expect. They told me that I would be teaching in Galicia, my first-choice region, in a tiny fishing village of about 4,000 people called Cariño. Like all the former auxiliares said to do, I googled the town to get a feel for my new location and emailed my elementary school.
My first email was short but concise. I introduced myself and asked for any information that I could get about my work schedule and how to commute from Ferrol, a bigger city 55 kilometers south where I planned to live. The director, Antonio, responded quickly with a nice message. He said that it was great to hear from me and that he and the other teachers were looking forward to meeting me. He also stated that the prior year, about five teachers from my school and the high school had commuted from Ferrol, so there shouldn’t be a problem if I lived there. He gave me the email address of the other auxiliar, Devon, who would be working at the high school. Antonio added that we would resolve everything “when I arrived.” Alright, awesome. I was feeling very at ease with the whole thing and told him I’d contact him when I arrived in Spain.
I met Devon my first day in Ferrol, a week before school started. We had emailed back and forth before about commuting together to Cariño and he seemed like a pretty cool guy. His school said they would have a ride for him so most likely I could go as well, which was nice since my director told me I’d have to catch the bus the first day. No problem. Devon and I double checked again with our schools that we didn’t need to prepare anything else before the first day of work and they told us that we didn’t. Perfect. Meeting Devon would turn out to be one of the best things that happened to me that whole year, especially with what happened next.
On Tuesday, September 30, the day before we were supposed to start working, everything went wrong. First, Devon received a very vague and poorly-translated email from his school saying that he wouldn’t have a ride until the “next Friday,” and that they didn’t know about me. Very confused and freaked out, we decided to find the bus schedule from Ferrol to Cariño, or, as we quickly found out, the lack thereof. There were only two buses each day, one at 12:30 p.m. and one at 7:30 p.m., and they only went to a town called Mera, 11 kilometers south of Cariño. In other words, there were no buses. Also there were only two return buses back to Ferrol, at 7:50 a.m. and 3:50 p.m. When we looked up the train schedule, we found the same terrible timetable. Right about then we started to full-out panic.
I called my director, Antonio. I believe that it’s important to mention that he never spoke a single word of English to me the whole year, so the following conversation I had to conduct in Spanish.
“Hi, Antonio? It’s Heather, the new auxiliar for the year.”
“Oh, hello! How are you? I see you made it to Spain then.”
“Good, yeah. I did. I’m in Ferrol now. So…we have a problem. I’m here with the other auxiliar, Devon, and his school just said that we won’t have a ride tomorrow to school…” I was pacing back and forth while trying to find the Spanish words.
“Well have you looked at the bus schedule?”
“Yes, the only bus will arrive at almost 2:00 p.m. and the only returning bus leaves at 3:50, but from Mera. Could someone come get us from there?”
“No, the school will be closed by then. It’s too late.”
“Well, there are also no trains. So we have no ride. That’s the problem.”
“Well that’s not my problem.” I stopped dead.
“….um…..what?….I’m just trying to tell you there is no way for us to get there.” I began to get very anxious. “You said before that there would be someone to take us from Ferrol if we lived here, that it wasn’t a problem. Can we have their number?”
“I didn’t say that! Don’t put words in my mouth! I said that you might be able to live in Ferrol, but that I didn’t know where the teachers would be from yet. There are no teachers from Ferrol working at the school this year.” He was speaking very loudly now.
“Ok, maybe I misunderstood you, so I’m sorry, but Devon and I both found apartments in Ferrol now so we need a way to get to Cariño. What about the teachers from the high school? Can you give me one of their numbers?” I was speaking louder now too. Devon gave me a very surprised and anxious look since he couldn’t understand the conversation, but he knew the tone meant it wasn’t good.
“No I can’t give you their numbers! You can live in Cariño for all I care! You’ll have to come to Cariño if you’re going to work here. I told you that it was your problem, not mine!”
“Wow. Well I don’t know how we’ll get there tomorrow, but we’ll try, so maybe I’ll see you.”
“Alright. Let me know, like if you’re still going to work here.”
We both hung up. I was shaking I was so nervous and mad. Apparently Antonio meant that we would resolve everything “when I was there in his office,” not just in Spain like I had understood. I turned to Devon and told him that I was pretty sure I had just yelled at my new boss. He laughed and told me that was for sure.
The next day we went all over Ferrol checking schedules again and trying to find any mode of transportation to Cariño, but there was nothing. Living in a tiny isolated village in the middle of nowhere on the northern coast of Galicia was out of the question for us, so we had to think of something. Suddenly, it came to me, our one and only option. At first Devon thought I had just lost it due to the hysteria from the day prior, but he knew there was no other way. We’d already missed one day of work so we really had no other choice.
At 6:30 in the morning, we took a taxi from Ferrol to Cariño. Seriously. The trip took almost an hour and cost us around 60€, but we finally arrived. After everything we went through, here’s the real kicker: not one teacher or director so much as batted an eye at this ridiculous expenditure. Well, that and the fact that there were SEVEN teachers at Devon’s school that lived in Ferrol. We had no trouble getting a ride for the rest of the year. (And for free too!)
Although no experience will be identical, you can see that you never know what problems you will have to solve while traveling or living abroad. They may even be in a foreign language. There will be good days and bad days (when you have to yell at your boss), but in the end it’s totally worth it!