Budget Travel: How Low Can You Go?

It swings from a tower over the dining room and when it DONGS, people jump. With the exception of a two-hour break after lunch, every hour of every day is tightly scheduled and you quickly lean to ask not for whom the bell tolls ... it tolls for your Anglo butt to go talk to some Spaniards.

And not just polite small talk, oh no. The days are filled with skits and games and group presentations, faux business meetings, phone calls, and intense one-on-one conversations. It's like summer camp, with constant conversation instead of archery and s'mores.

The post-lunch break proves to be a welcome bit of solitude. A four-star hotel at the top of the hill offers the use of a luxurious spa for just $75 a week. And a beautiful 20-minute walk brings me into the cobble-stone plaza of La Alberca, where some of the world's best ham and sausage is served with a glass of the fine local wine beneath a 15th-century chapel.

But just when I'm beginning to relax…DONG. Time to talk.

I find a jovial Scotsman named Gerry enjoying the last moments of his break at the common room bar.

"Do you consider this a holiday?" I ask. "No. This is work. It is work in a beautiful place with lovely people. Not a holiday. Great fun, but work."

He tells me this is the third year he's volunteered. Me? I'm spent. My brain and my smile hurt.

I bid adios to my new friends and hitch a ride back to Madrid to try my hand at what promises to demand considerably less effort; couch surfing.

Like Facebook for globe-trotting backpackers, the mission of CouchSurfing.com is to "create a better world, one couch at a time." The site boasts over a million members who rate each other based on their experiences as hosts or guests.

Rather than take my chances combing through the profiles, my producer Jen asks the site to recommend a host in a prime area of Madrid and they point us to Alan Wilkes, a 31-year-old English teacher from Long Beach, Calif.

Though his profile is packed with rave reviews, it feels a bit odd ringing a stranger's buzzer hoping to spend the night. But the street is attractively funky, the building appealing and the voice on the buzzer friendly. I climb the four floors to his flat and find a Joaquin Phoenix lookalike, hand-rolling cigarettes with a 20-year-old couch surfer/au pair from London named Charlotte.

He tells me about his couch-surfing adventures across Europe, about the guy outside Amsterdam who made a mint in online advertising and has a "sick house."

"It's like a commune," he says. "You bring something for the house and then take whatever you need. ... He works six months and then takes six months off! That's my dream."

He's eager to show me around Madrid before he has to go to work.

"Do you ever hear any couch-surfing horror stories?" I ask as we stroll towards Plaza Mayor.

"The worst that happens is people who are rude," he says, scrunching his nose. "Using someone's phone without paying or stuff like that. There hasn't been any rapes or murders or anything."

Charlotte weighs in with her favorite bit of couch surfing lore.

"I had friends who stayed with this Mexican gangster in Tijuana, " she says, grinning. "He was like this former cage fighter with a mansion and a swimming pool and tattoos all up his neck. And he paid for everything! Even the hookers! It was amazing!"

Alan keeps trying to interrupt.

"This is not a good endorsement," he says.

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