“How is your homestay?  Are you getting enough to eat?” asked Lynn, almost in a whisper.

We all answered at once, “Oh yeah, it’s almost too much.”

“I feel bad, I can’t eat everything they give me.”

“It’s so much food!”

One other voice chimed in, “I don’t know, I think a bit more food would be OK.  Last night’s dinner was so small.”

“As small as a single egg?” asked Lynn?

Every meal with our host family was large and Rosa, our host Mom, placed heaping portions on our plates with lots of flare.  “You are too skinny, eat!”

Anything other than a clean plate was likely to bring a disappointed look and a guilt-inducing response, such as “You don’t like my cooking?”  Rosa wielded guilt with skill

Usually the meals were carbo-loaded; tortillas, rice, potatoes, pasta…  sometimes all 4 in one meal.  But never a lonesome egg

In Lynn’s first night with her host family something had happened with the family, and dinner preparation was cast aside.  One of the young children had put out an egg for the students…

Later that week in Lynn’s homestay, the water stopped running.  Another student, Lisa, mentioned it to the family at breakfast.  “The water doesn’t seem to be running, did something happen with it?”

In an accusatory tone, the host father said, “Yes, we think one of you did something to break it in the night!”

Lisa moved out that afternoon.  “It’s not as if I have a habit of waking up in the night and practicing amateur plumbing!”  After the egg incident and other oddities, this was the last straw.

We had several oddities and general awkwardness with our host family as well.  So did other students with other families.

A couple from New Zealand wanted to thank their host family at dinner one night, and brought home a bottle of wine.  If this were my home, I would have gratefully grabbed a bottle opener and some wine glasses.  In this case, the host mother rebuked the couple and sent them to bed without dinner.  In their particular religious practice, alcohol in the home was strictly forbidden.  This could have been a great opportunity to bridge cultures and discuss differences, or in this case an opportunity to treat guests like small children

I think it would be difficult to welcome a series of strangers into your home.  Cultural, religious, and language differences can help people grow and learn about themselves, or be a reason to keep others at a distance.  They can certainly make things interesting.  As can wealth disparity.

“You will stay for only 1 week?  You should stay longer.  We are very poor,” Rosa greeted us for the first time.

Did she just say we should stay longer because she is poor?  She didn’t even ask our names or where we are from…  maybe we just misunderstood.  After all, she has one of the biggest houses we’ve seen on a big lot with a view

The next morning we meet some more of the family.  Flor is 2 years old and greets us with a big smile, and then hides around the corner.  She giggles as she peeks out at us.

“Flor is sick”, says Rosa.  “She needs medicine.  It’s very expensive.  Will you stay longer?”

Did she just play the sick child card?  We’ve been in the homestay for less than 12 hours; maybe she isn’t really viewing us as a walking ATM.

Our first shower was ice cold; the suicide shower was obviously broken.

“It will be expensive to fix”, says Rosa.  “Some students like to take long hot showers and this probably broke the water heater.  The family doesn’t use hot water to shower because hot water is expensive, and we only use enough water to rinse the soap from our bodies.  We don’t leave the water running.” Her tone was clear; we should do the same.  Water and electricity are expensive

At lunch one day, there was a small fried fish, a rare treat.  Excited to try something new, I asked, “Is this fish from Lake Atitlan?”

“Yes, it is.  But the family doesn’t eat them, they are very expensive.”  In a very awkward moment, we realized the only plates with fish were our own. Equally awkward was how Rosa always referred to the family in the 3rd person

The family didn’t really eat together.  Occasionally our host father would sit down to dinner and chat for a few minutes, but usually he was tired after physically laboring in the mountains all day.  More often than not it was just the two of us eating while Rosa nibbled on some tortillas.  It was difficult to talk with anybody

We would try to chat with Rosa through meals, but she was mostly very quiet.  When she did speak, she would pull conversation back to a few key topics.

“We are poor”
“Things are expensive.  Fish.  Vegetables.  Hot water.  Life in general.”
“You should stay longer”

Our expectations for a homestay not being met, after our week trial period we were ready to move out.

“Don’t you like us?  You don’t like the family?”

Rosa didn’t like the answers we were providing.  We preferred to be closer to the school and coffee shops where we studied.  15 minutes walk each way over a hill was good exercise, but we are lazy.

We preferred to have flexibility in our schedule, to not have to return at specific times for meals

“You don’t like my cooking?”

She wasn’t making this any easier, and she was laying the guilt on thick. How to frame this in a way that she would understand without hurting her feelings?

“Rosa, it’s just that it costs less for us to stay in an apartment.”

Finally we were speaking a language that she understood. After a moment of silence, she said,

“Oh….  Well…  You will probably get your camera stolen!”

Thank you for sharing your home with us, Rosa.  We wish you the best

Cost of homestay (room and 3 meals a day except on Sundays):  $10/person/day
(no discount for double occupancy)
Average teacher’s monthly income in Guatemala:  Q2500 (~$321)
# of students that can be hosted at one time:  5

Together we were paying the family the equivalent of 2 teachers incomes

Life lessons:
No matter how much you have, if you don’t feel appreciation it will never be enough
Treating others as equals is likely to result in better relationships than treating them like a personal ATM