Updated: Dec 15, 2020
I arrived at the Madrid Atocha Train Station at 17:00. It was raining for one of the first times since I’d been in Europe, and it was cold, for the first time since I’d been in Europe. Stepping off the high-speed train from Valencia and onto the outdoor platform, I realized the sandals I had bought three weeks prior in Portugal were not going to cut it here. "Zapatos cerrados" (closed shoes), became some of the first Spanish words to re-enter my vocabulary. After having to ask for directions twice (in English, thank God), I found my way through the station to where my host family awaited me. I knew the father’s name was Raul, and that he had adequate-enough written English to correspond with me via messages on Workaway, and to direct me to the Atocha train station. I learned quickly that the mother and children spoke about 20 words of English combined, and that about eight of those were colors 11-year-old Daniela had memorized.
Workaway is a unique website that enables travelers and host families to connect. Once a member, you create a profile as a workawayer, and list your expectations and your goals, along with any skills you can offer to potential hosts. These may range from the most basic, like housecleaning or child-minding, to specialty trade skills like building or sustainable design. The general agreement is about 20-30 hours of work a week in exchange for room and board. This is an ideal situation for a budget traveler, or if you wish to spend a significant amount of time in one place. It’s perfect for immersing yourself into a culture and a language.
The next three weeks I learned just how possible communication can be without words. Hand gestures and smiles of the mouth and eyes, blinks, shrugs and the sound of words in Spanish I didn’t know, and some I did, allowed me to know a family I otherwise wouldn't have had any connection with.