Home-stays are often touted as the best way to learn a new language through ‘total immersion’ or a good way to really experience local culture and ‘real life’ of the country you’re in. But what is is really like? We may worry about it being an excruciatingly awkward and embarrassing experience to live in such an intimate way with total strangers. We may worry about making a dreadful cultural faux pas. Maybe the family we live with will be awful and we won’t be able to find a way to extricate ourselves from the situation. All these things are possible, but on the whole they don’t happen. I’ve had the privilege of staying in two home-stays, once in Guatemala and once in Belize and both were delightful experiences.
In Guatemala I was welcomed into a home with Mayra and her daughter Tiffany in the beautiful town of Antigua. Mayra was around my age which gave us something in common straight away. I was volunteering in a nearby town, which meant I had purpose during the day and just came home in the evenings. Mayra made me feel welcome and at home straight away. I was learning Spanish and as my language improved, so did our conversations! We found we had a lot of common ground despite the cultural and economic differences. We ate local food which meant lots of frijoles (re-fried beans) which are a great source of protein and extremely delicious. Mayra’s house was lively with 12 year old Tiffany and her friends, in and out all the time, and Mayra’s friends and family popping in.
In Belize, I stayed with Ricky and Ivette with their 4 lovely boys whilst in training for a marine conservation project in the quiet village of Sarteneja. This household was also lively. Ivette made me feel most welcome and took it upon herself to show me her culture. We cooked tortillas and drank tea flavoured with cinnamon, lovely juices and ate lobster tails, so fresh you could almost taste the sea. One day we came home to discover fish and corn being cooked outside over an open fire for our lunch. The fire was a sure fire way to ward off mosquitoes, and I ended up with a friendly dog in my lap as I waited, sitting on a low strung hammock.
For Ivette, nothing was too much trouble. One or other of her boys was dispatched at regular intervals on their bikes for ice or some treat from the shop. Indeed, one hot evening she insisted on putting two chairs in the heavy duty carrying crate in front of one of the bicycles so that myself and my fellow lodger could be ‘driven’ all the way to our evening out. Hammock time was insisted upon and when we had laundry Ivette proudly wheeled out her new twin tub, bought with the proceeds from home-stays, for us to use.
In Belize the language is officially English but most people speak Spanish at home, which meant that Ivette and I had a useful mode of communication, lapsing between the two if there was a word we didn’t know in our non-native tongue. Conversation flowed very easily by the time I left (only a week later) and I was sorry to say goodbye.
For me both experiences were nothing but positive. I think if you go with a healthy respect for the people you will be staying with, a willingness and openness to learn new things, and make friends it is likely to be a success. It’s important though to recognise that there are possibly going to be economic and social differences.
In Guatemala, Tiffany was often left alone in a way we wouldn’t do in the UK. This lead to much loud music, sometimes late into the evening. These things have to be approached in a non-judgmental way – you cannot judge until you’ve walked a mile in someone else’s shoes.
There are different attitudes to money, poverty and wealth when you are coming from a wealthy western country and going to a developing country. Maybe used to being average, or even a little hard up in your own country, having saved all your pennies to travel, once you’re in country you are suddenly viewed as wealthy. I have found that the best way to cope with these differences is to be candid about the cost of living in your home country but also to acknowledge that yes, we do have a higher standard of living in the west – dialogue, with tact, respect and diplomacy opens up your experience and a whole new way of looking at things.
In Guatemala I was volunteering as a teacher with Global Vision International on a project which has since matured and become sustained by the local people. To find out how the project is doing now visit The Phoenix Projects.
In Belize I was volunteering on a marine conservation project with Blue Ventures, an award winning conservation organisation which has based it’s model on training volunteers to undertake underwater survey work on the reef.