First Impressions: Volunteer Program in Portugal

A recent volunteer shares their first impression of Global Volunteers’  volunteer program in Portugal.

From my first look at Beja, I fell in love. It is all I imagined this part of the world would be: narrow winding streets of small pavers set in patterns, Moorish architecture, shops intermingled with colorful doors leading into homes, magnificent tiled walls, the ever-blue Portuguese sky. There are many parks, clean of debris as are the streets, with lovely old trees, many with fountains.

Our family-owned hotel is charming, tiny but bright and decorated with interesting pieces of art collected, I understand, when the family lived in Angola. Every morning we meet for breakfast in the maroon breakfast room and eat on trays with embroidered place mats. The very narrow front of the Residencial features an ancient blooming bougainvillea and the rooms on this façade have Juliet balconies. Unbelievably there is a chocolate shop two doors away. Besides the chocolate shop, our street has many small shops; some have very trendy clothes and shoes. From the windows of these shops, it looks as though the children of Beja are the well-dressed children of Portugal. Many shops have a strange conglomeration of goods – from fishing poles to jewelry to pots and pans.

Every morning I walk to Escola de Santa Maria. It is about a 25 minute walk which I enjoy. I have never discovered a direct path to the school through the twisting disjointed streets of Beja but I know how to get close enough to see the walking backpacked kids and so follow them. The less than 20 year old building is large and would be rather stark and institutional if it weren’t for the art work of the students on the classroom walls and in the corridors. There are 900 students ranging from three-year-olds to late teenagers; the younger children study in a separate building.

My classes are for the most part pupils who have been learning English from one to four years. After the first day, they are responsive and eager. They are very curious about me and about the
United States. They seem to understand my use of a simple vocabulary; I try to get them to answer my questions using sentences which, with prompting, they are able to do. From what I can tell, English language is taught here somewhat blended with social studies with emphasis on the European Union Countries.

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