March 29, 2009 -- Spain on less than $100 a day? Airfare included? You scoff.
But I take off from JFK with a couple aces up my sleeve. First, a visit to Pueblo Ingles, a total-immersion language campus that boards and feeds volunteers whose only skill is speaking passable English. Then, I will stay in Madrid without a costly hotel tab thanks to CouchSurfing.com, an online community of people willing to open their homes to fellow travelers.
Play these cards right, and I'll have a glorious time in sunny Iberia for the cost of a $404 plane ticket and a few incidentals.
At least that's the plan.
The first bad omen comes in the form of the thick clouds hanging over the Spanish capital. The jet punches through the gray mist and for the next few days, the rain in Spain falls mainly on ... well, everywhere I am. And airport coffee is a pricey $3.75.
But my arrival is brightened by a sunny Coloradan named Brian Bolles, my emissary from Pueblo Ingles. During a two-hour bus ride and a delicious lunch in the university town of Salamanca, he tells me how he came as a volunteer several years back and never left.
Hearing him describe the program (and mention of a Spanish temptress), his biography makes sense. Volunteers from around the English-speaking world are given eight days of lodging, food and ground transportation simply for conversing with Spanish business professionals.
While the locals spend a couple thousand dollars a week to practice their English in rustic comfort, the "Anglos" get to enjoy the same digs for free, in exchange for simply chatting with them.
"I can do this," I think. "I'll sip a Sangria and wave hello to the occasional passing Spaniard. How hard can it be?"
We drive down the billboard-free highway into the high country of the Castile and Leon region. Our "English Village" is located near the medieval town of La Alberca, where are group of Spanish school teachers awaits, honing their conversational skills with Americans, Canadians, Australians and Scotts, aged 20-65.
Dusk falls as we pull into a cluster of cottage-style villas with stone chimneys and tile roofs. We enter the common room and are welcomed by a fire in the hearth, and conversation in the air. Before long, I learn most of the Americans came with the same frugal motivation.
"I don't have to pay for room and board, PLUS I came on frequent flier miles," an Alaskan named Christine Donovan tells me. "Which was amazing. A miracle. I think I spent $250 on taxes and fees."
Ana Mora, her new Spanish friend, is just as effusive.
"It's not only about language, it's about culture," Mora says, "and we're getting to know people from all around the world. And getting to know each other is great. Everyone here is SO enthusiastic."
The rooms prove to be just as inviting as the common area, set in a "Romeo and Juliet," two-story style. To help enforce the "English-only" rule, a Spaniard stays in one room with an Anglo in the other and they share a living space and kitchenette.
But it becomes quickly obvious that very little time is spent in the room. When they promise their paying customers "total immersion" in English, they mean it. My naïve Sangria fantasies are quickly doused when I hear ... "the bell."
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.
After a quick lap around the Puerta del Sol neighborhood, Charlotte heads for her nanny gig and Alan displays the innate trust of this tribe by giving me the keys to his flat and going to work -- a chance to check out the digs.
I'm sure that it is bad form for a rookie to look a gift couch in the mouth, but allow me to err on the side of honesty (and it pains me, because Alan is an interesting, seemingly decent guy). You know the stained love seat you occasionally see abandoned on the side of the freeway? That would be an upgrade. The bathroom looks like it hasn't been cleaned since Franco died and the kitchen sink is full of last week's dishes. Welcome to Bohemia!
But who needs $12 cashews and a working television? I'm here to see one of Europe's great cities, not a cigarette-and-couch-surfer-scented fourth-floor walk-up!
In search of a cheap, authentic meal, we head to a place called El Tigre for a typical 10 p.m. dinner. A few of Alan's fellow surfers have joined -- a philosophy student from Berlin, a film student from Denmark and Dilip, a Northern Californian who's eyes light up as he describes the first time he surfed with a family in Nepal.
"They picked me up at the airport. They had little kids. They fed me authentic Nepali food. It was beyond anything I could even explain," he says. "It's revolutionized the way I travel. I think a lot of people come into it as a substitute for a hostel. But people who think they can save a dime or two will maybe realize later that this is more than that."
Later, Alan's friends tell me that they tried to talk him out of giving this community any publicity.
"The more people who join, the higher the chance something bad will happen," the guy from Denmark says.
We enter the raucous restaurant and wade towards the bar.
Spain is suffering a much worse recession than the U.S., with an unemployment rate around 15 percent, so tapas has become a form of survival food. Order a $2 beer and you get a plate of rustic-but-filling bread, cheese and chorizo. It is the Spanish equivalent of living on happy-hour buffalo wings, and it would have been great for my competitive budget, but I offered to buy Alan dinner.
"Look, man. I really wish you were here tomorrow," he says as I hold out the Euros for another round. "I get paid and I could do you up proper!" Alan tells me he traditionally cooks a meal for his guest on their first night.
After dinner, the group walks back to his flat and after a interesting conversation about the future of capitalism, it's light's out.
Since the love seat is good foot shorter than I am, Alan throws down a plastic-covered cot mattress and apologizes for not having any sheets or blankets. Or pillows.
I say thanks and good night, and tuck in beneath my rain coat. Around 3:30 a.m., Alan's roommate comes home and, in the darkness, steps on my head.
"Sorry, dude," he says, and then proceeds to his room where he turns on Radiohead's "OK Computer" and begins to sing along softly.
At 4:30, I sneak out, round the corner and check into the Hotel Melia Madrid Princessa, where a sleek king room goes for $172, (or more than four times my daily budget).
Since CouchSurfing.com lists over a million members with 1.9 million "positive experiences," I feel compelled to give the final word to Lisa Lubin, a television producer who spent two and half years couch surfing around the globe. If you read her posts you'll see that sheets, pillows and gracious hosts are the norm.
She tells me, "There are some 'couches' that are big houses or penthouses. Most of my hosts gave me the keys and some went out of town. There is this wonderful trust that is just heartwarming. ... How cool is that? It gives you faith in humanity."