We’d been on the road for about three months; I think about 10 countries so far. On average we have been spending 4-5 days in one place. Camping, shared rooms in hostels, private apartments and staying with family and friends. We thought having a short term job at a place we could call “home” and a work routine would be a nice change of pace, a new experience. In addition, by working for accommodation we can stretch our savings further.
The owners: a German married to a Spaniard in their late 40s with no kids wanting to have a successful guesthouse in the Canary Islands. It was a relatively new guesthouse. We traded a few emails and without much details we agreed to go work for 4 weeks, building furniture from used wooden pallets. The idea was to work 4-5 hrs a day, 5 days with weekends off in exchange for accommodation. We didn’t do much research on the area, only a quick look on the map, previous volunteer feedback and how good the hiking, surfing spots, etc. are.
We flew direct from Germany to Tenerife. The hostel is the last town on the road, at the other end of the island furthest from the airport. Our hosts didn’t offer meeting halfway, or even directions… Already with a sour taste we arrived in good spirits looking forward to a new experience. Sergio – the husband – greeted us and showed us to the room, the smallest with two twin bed and a window overlooking the kitchen. The wife, Karin, then came by and we talked for a few minutes and they excused themselves to their apartment -on the second storey of the hostel- to have a late lunch. We agreed to sit down and talked about logistics an hour later.
The hostel is a remodeled old building, two large rooms in the front with private toilets. Two “dorm” style rooms with bunk beds, a third room with two side-by-side twin beds where we will be staying. A kitchen, a small common area enough to sit maybe 4-5 people, toilet with shower and a garage used as a linen closet and bicycle storage.
Sergio came down first and started by giving us a brief history of how he met Karin, how’s he’s a “professional mountain guide”, how the idea of having a hostel is Karin’s idea. For about an hour he talked about himself / themselves and every time we tried to say a word or share something personal about us, he continued with his script. After half an hour or so Karin joined, we ended up on the terrace on the third floor enjoying 360 degree views of the surroundings: to the south, the town church with the mountains in the distance, to the north, the ocean. At the end Sergio said something that resonated with me: “Based on the last two hours do you still want to spend the next four weeks with us?” I had a flash of questions running through my head. We should have done a video call before agreeing to show up, we should have asked for pictures of the workspace, expectations, tools, etc, etc. But I supposed we are here and no sense turning back now.
Wikipedia defines Narcissism as the pursuit of gratification from vanity or egotistic admiration of one’s idealised self image and attributes. For the next few weeks we learned how Sergio, our host, is the definition of a narcissist.
On the third day of work Selina lost her temper. She threw down her gloves and told him in a stern voice that his micromanaging narcissist ways is not working for us (not in those exact words). I still remember the look in his eyes “I’m just mentioning what I see and trying to help. I learned how to sand wood from professional carpenters from Germany, trust me”. I thought to myself those German carpenters probably gave him odd jobs to keep him occupied, maybe we should have done the same … We continued on; We took pallets apart, carefully, without the nails ripping through and damaging the wood. We needed good long pieces for the dressers we intended to make, roughly 100 tall and enough width to fill 80 cm. Sort, pick out the good pieces and start sanding. I did the first pass with an okay orbital sander and cheap sandpaper that breaks off after an hour of use. Selina finished off by hand, grinding off the nail holes to remove splinters. Preparing the wood since these will be used as dressers and we want to avoid clothes from catching and ripping on wood splinters.
We enjoyed working together, building something people will make use of. We spent our evenings and days off exploring the area: swimming, hiking and remembering how much we enjoyed cooking together. We went to a nearby town rented a small boat and went swimming in caves. Made homemade jam from wild plums we found on the trails. Got lost in the woods and found the trail again. Went diving in the ocean.
A week went by and we finished one dresser. Before we installed the doors Karin sat us down and expressed concerns about our speed, if we would finish everything on time. Interestingly, word for word what Sergio said on the third day – that we were too slow for two people working… I explained the process to her: how taking the pallets apart is tedious and took three days, how making straight cuts with only a jigsaw is not easy, how that poses challenges, how the wood is not always straight or in ideal conditions. By now Sergio joined the conversation, and Karin admitted other volunteers had expressed the same concerns as we just did when they made the bookshelves and benches. Things took a turn and Karin now saw our side, if there are sides to be taken. Sergio started saying how he’s made perfectly straight cuts 2 meters long with a jigsaw, how sanding only takes a few minutes, etc. Before Selina or I could say something Karin told him he’s never made furniture. He continued his boasting and for every one she told him the same. He’s never made furniture. We didn’t say much… In the end we made a list of things Karin wanted us to make, something we already did on the first day, and we assured them we would have the list fulfilled by the time we leave. I made the mistake to ask Sergio to trust us and not micromanage us. “We don’t need to be checked on every hour, Sergio,” I asked him. This offended him and he went off about everything he didn’t like about us, mainly my ignoring his suggestions. I just let him vent and went back to work afterwards, again ignoring him.
The next day we accepted their invitation to join them for a hike with their friends. We figured this may be a good time to get to know them and not talk about work. As an aside, we thought it was odd that they woke up their guests at 7 in the morning to have breakfast, so that they could leave and do the hike. But we learned that they do that each time: wake up guests for breakfast! … The hike went well. We walked for a few hours and about ten kilometers. We didn’t talk about work and learned more about them and their three friends. After the walk we all went for lunch. Selina and I shared the largest pork chop we’ve ever seen. That thing had to be 40cm long!! It was cooked perfectly.
The tension continued on the second week. After a few random comments by Karin I had the feeling we were not the only ones he’s had issues with. She mentioned wanting to be done with the sawdust and the mess, and implied wanting to be done with Sergio not getting along with volunteers. After work and on our days off we tried going to other towns, but everything is so far that it’s minimum 1 hour by bus. They kept all the doors closed, cutting off all circulation. We were asked work questions at all hours of the day and even asked us to check-in a guest so they could go to a jazz concert. The one that annoyed me the most was when we were sitting down to eat, they (mainly Sergio) expected us to stop whatever we were doing to listen to their demands or unwanted suggestions for day hikes. By the time we had our days off we avoided them at all costs. Stress built up whenever we heard noises at the stairs, “ugh, what now” – we thought.
We decided to work more hours each day to finish the list early and leave. We told them our decision at our week two check-in. They seemed surprised and worried, but we assured them the list will be fulfilled. Somehow they assumed we changed our flights already, when we had not booked our flights, or even knew where we’re going (we had ideas but hadn’t confirmed yet). The days went by and I tried to ignore all negative and annoying comments from Sergio, but I was ready to drop everything and leave if things got worse. Maybe it’s my ego telling me I needed to finish the job before leaving, that I have to finish what I started, what I committed to.
The tension for the next five days got worse than the days before. One day we were given a speech about how we always left the lights on. Surprised (we’re pretty good about turning off lights in general), we just accepted the feedback and tried to move on. But at the end of the ‘talk’ Sergio ended it by telling us how when he speaks he expects eye contact and a response. See, a few minutes earlier he and Selina were talking and I walked by without saying “good morning” and only nodding with an admittedly fake smile. My fault for not wanting to interrupt a conversation. But it offended him, and he told us how “this is my house, don’t forget that”. We wanted to retaliate, to do something they will have to pay for, to leave the lights on, always, all of them. But in the end we decided to “kill them with kindness” and work more hours to leave even earlier than expected.
The environment was affecting our relationship with our hosts, and with each other. I’m glad though that I have a partner who is willing to hear things with an open mind, to learn, let go and move on. We admit to each other how we could have handled things differently, how people like Sergio are everywhere and this is just another iteration, and likely not the last we have to work with.
By the end of the third week we have made two dressers with locking doors, one without doors, put legs on four existing cubes, made some signs for the common areas and fixed Sergio’s almost-unusable terrace furniture. Exactly 7 working days ahead of schedule we told them we’d be leaving in two days, and suddenly he wanted us to stay and continue making things. Karin stopped him and sent him to do errands. “They’ve done everything on the list,” she told him.
While we cleaned up our workspace on the last day I had a good talk with Karin. She admitted Sergio can be difficult and doesn’t really know anything about carpentry. I’m no expert either, and apologized for not handling the situation better. She said she even argues with him about his micromanaging. We laughed and agreed that’s life: live, learn and move on. We spent the morning cleaning and went to the other side of the island where there is surfing. It took us 3.5 hours and three buses to arrive to our hostel. We took a nap and went out to eat with the other people staying there. We ordered way too much food; assortment of meats, grilled cheeses and salad. We drank the night away laughing, telling dumb jokes, doing stupid magic, and went back to the hostel for mojitos. We hadn’t gone to bed that late (or drank that much) in a very long time. A night making new friends from all over the world to reset our tensions from the last three weeks.
Today we spent the day recovering at the hostel; doing laundry, playing chess / cards, reading, cooking, talking with the other guests, I got caught up on transferring pictures from the camera while Selina took micro naps and read half of John Grisham’s A Painted House. Selina found a few prospective workaway options that we can contact for later in the year. For dinner we walked to a nearby bar Cafe and had arepas and a hot dog. Tomorrow we will try to go surfing, Sunday we will meet with my aunt’s childhood friend that lives nearby, and on the 7th we go to London. We need to get out of Schengen visa territory so we have time to walk the way of St. James in September with my mom.
That’s been the last three weeks of our lives, cheers!