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Lifestyle Travel

How A Simple Volunteer Project Turned Into The Summer Of A Lifetime

By on October 5, 2016

We sat at the kitchen table in our apartment in Shanghai, combing our hair and brushing any creases out of our clothes ready for the big phone call. We’d applied for a job as a ‘B&B Manager Couple in Portugal’ about 3 weeks previously, which we’d found on one of my many favoured sites, JobsAbroadBulletin. That morning, we had received an e-mail from the owners of the B&B asking for a Skype interview later that day (evening time for us). Our Skype conversation went extremely well – both Thibault and I felt very confident that we’d made a good impression, and agreed to meet them back in Belgium the following fortnight.

We’d decided it was time to leave China (as you can read about in a different post, here) and had now set our hearts on Portugal. We’re still not even sure how this came about – I think it was a combination of our desire to be back in the normality of Europe, but we didn’t want to just resort to the likes of Spain or France – Portugal kinda just…made sense. Since we now had somewhat of a plan being formed, it was the perfect time to cut our loses and move on from Asia.

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Two weeks later, we’re sat at a Starbucks in Leuven, Belgium, talking with the owners of the 1 million euro estate in a little rural area a short distance from the infamous ‘Albufeira’. They engaged us in their dreams and aspirations for their new business abroad, to which we both grew fonder of by the second. They were your typical mature couple, who were looking at securing a better life for themselves after retirement under the beautiful Portuguese sun. The whole meeting lasted for at least 2 hours, and by the end we were almost certain they wanted us, just as much as we wanted them.

They didn’t.

Turns out, they had another couple in-mind, a local Portuguese couple who clearly fit the description much better than Thibault and I.

Did I forget to mention, Thibault and I were so sure we’d get the job, we’d already booked our flights?

Right. So, we were heading to Portugal with no plan, no money, and no idea what the fuck we were doing. I jumped onto my usual go-to when in this kind of situation, ‘Workaway’, and began scouring the website for some inspiration. I found a listing for a lovely looking hostel in The Algarve named ‘Bura Surfhouse’, and immediately sent them an e-mail telling them of our utter eagerness to come and work for them. Of course, Workaway is a volunteer website, but to be honest at this stage we just wanted some kind of assurance that our flights to Portugal weren’t futile. They had a pretty swanky website, and their TripAdvisor reviews seemed to match. So we figured, what have we got to lose?

Fast forward a couple of days, and we were packing our bags for Faro Airport, ready to embark on a new adventure for the summer. The manager of the hostel, Katie, had confirmed that they’d love to have some new faces around, and told us we’d be welcome right away. Thibault had never tried a volunteer project before, so was feeling somewhat sceptical about the whole thing. I assured him as much as I could – but hey, what did I even know? I’d never been to Portugal, let alone worked in a hostel – so my confidence in the whole thing was fairly ambiguous.

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You see, we had no idea what to expect. In my head, I was spending the summer in my floral Zara dress, collecting lemons from underneath the lemon trees and putting cute little chocolates on guests pillows. Now that our plans had been turned on their ass and were now committing to a summer of hostel life, I wasn’t sure to turn up in my cute dress or maybe dungarees were a better fit? The idea of working in a hostel doesn’t usually shout elegance or panache…but fuck it I thought, I’ll bring both.

We arrived, somewhat with tails between our legs, and were shown around our new home for the upcoming summer season.

Our first impressions of the hostel were unimpeachable – a beautiful white villa that had been ever-so-lovingly turned into a home for tourists and backpackers. It was clean, bright, and had personality like I’d never quite seen before in a hostel. The walls gave off a certain vibe that told us we’d made the right decision in coming. To put it plainly, it just felt ‘right’.

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That evening we sat at the pool-side bar chatting with the bar tender, about our travels, with a particularly strong Mojito in hand. Within minutes, we comprehended that we’d once lived in the same town, at the same time as each other – Gold Coast, 2013. The new ease of travel and working abroad is continually surprising us with these serendipitous encounters with friends we simply haven’t met yet – and we’d just added one more notch to our metaphorical travelling bedpost within hours of landing in a new country.

The following days were a bombardment of new faces, new places, and new emotions. Everything was exciting, fast-paced, and awakening. Since being in China, our senses had kind of been ‘dulled’, and they were now abruptly being stirred and woken up by our new exhilarating surroundings.

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The hostel was based in the quaint town of Lagos, only about an hour away from the airport. Lagos itself is a vibrant yet historic town, full of friendly locals and tourists alike. In minutes we could walk to the beach – or if we were feeling lazy hungover, we could simply roll down to the pool and spend our days splashing around on inflatables with a beer in hand.

One of the main draws to Portugal was the surf, as Thibault was very keen to pick it up after giving it a quick go in Bali at Christmas. There’s plenty of jaw dropping coastline to choose from when heading out for a session, so we were always spoilt for choice where to go. We ended up buying a car (RIP Saul) who dotingly allowed us to travel around the Algarve and enjoy whatever beach took our fancy.

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Thibault worked as the general handyman and runner for the hostel – picking up guests from the bus & train station, grabbing all of the groceries for the evenings lip-smacking menu, and pretty much fixing anything that wasn’t quite right in the hostel. During the peak months, Thibault was also doing street-shows in the town centre, and even performing with his crew for events at the hostel.

For me, I had a variety of jobs from the moment we touched down. I began the summer volunteering as a housekeeper, but when Katie thankfully realised cleaning was certainly not my forte, I moved over into the kitchen and began helping the resident chef. We had plenty of laughs in the kitchen, but after talking relentlessly for weeks how much I’d like to help them with their Events or Social Media, I was asked for a so-called ‘trial’ week so that they could ensure I had the skills to back up my moaning.

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Luckily, Katie together with the owners of the hostel saw my potential and I was able to spend the rest of my summer as their resident Photographer and Social Media Manager. I would befriend guests and essentially follow them around (albeit in a much less creepy way than it sounds) taking photos and talking with them about their travels and what brought them to Portugal.

Every guest had their own story to tell, and it was simply beautiful to watch friendships grow right in front of my eyes between both fellow guests and staff.

The summer fucking flew by. Months felt like days, and before we knew it everyone had started the process of quietly booking their flights home and organising their lives Post-Bura. The last few weeks working at the hostel were full of denial – denial that the season had come to an end, denial that we were all leaving Portugal, and denial that our family was being torn apart.

The fact of the matter is, when you work with people in such intimate, informal surroundings they literally become your family. We would bicker together, fall out together, make up together, eat together, drink together, live together. We were a force to be reckoned with, together.  We didn’t know when, where, or even if we will see each other again, which still makes the whole experience so surreal in my eyes. Saying goodbye never gets easy. And to tell you the truth, saying goodbye to all of the beautiful individuals at Bura Surfhouse was one of the hardest yet.

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Those 6 months Thibault and I spent in Portugal are some of the most poignant months of our lives. I’m a massive believer in fate, and personally believe this summer is the definition itself of fate.

When our B&B dreams crumbled, we felt that we were going to be missing out on an opportunity of a lifetime. We felt disappointed, abandoned and at a loss of what we were supposed to do.

I want you to understand that this is a big part of travelling, and you will have to pick yourself up many a time. Plans go wrong, and things change. But that’s okay. That’s what gives you your thick, robust skin, and that’s what makes you into a good, spirited traveller. Roll with the punches. Don’t sweat the small stuff. Remember that sometimes, you just have to wait for fate to make the first move.

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If our plans hadn’t fallen to pieces, we would of never met all of the amazing people we were lucky enough to meet this summer. The world is unfathomably huge at 7.5 billion people, yet I put my hand on my heart when I say that it would be a different place without our Portugal family, the very people that gave Thibault and I the best summer of our lives.  

When we turned our backs and walked out the door, we knew we’d experienced something very special, and would be lucky to ever experience something like it again. We’ve all held back the tears and gone our separate ways, and I write this article feeling a mixture of emotions.

Sad, that it ended all but too soon. Happy, that we’ve created life-long bonds and memories. And Grateful. Grateful that things didn’t work out as planned, and fate couldn’t of landed us in a better place.

So next time things don’t go exactly as you’d planned, keep smiling. And if your lucky, you might just end up having the summer of a lifetime.

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