My first homestay was in Costa Rica in 2009. It was a two-day homestay, nothing long, and nothing too extreme. I had my own bed in a nice middle-class family's house and was surrounded by those in my travel group, all of whom stayed in houses next to mine. However, I remember being humbled, inspired and affected by my experience … an experience that later led me to take a gap year. I found a passion for getting to know other peoples and cultures. I loved speaking Spanish and being pushed out of my comfort zone; I found it to be scary, exhilarating, fun, exciting, different.
After graduating high school, I set out to Bolivia and Peru, chasing those exact emotions. I quickly found myself out of my comfort zone in Bolivia, which at the time was Latin America's second-poorest country. I traveled in a gap year group of 12, called Where There Be Dragons, where we strayed off the normal, beaten path and trekked through rural parts of Bolivia, getting to know new cultures. I was able to witness poor conditions in all social sectors: health, education, the environment … a lack of infrastructure, corruption, you name it. Although I witnessed poverty around me, I was infatuated with the amount of hospitality, love and happiness the Bolivians showed me. I stayed in some of the poorest conditions - sleeping on a pile of potatoes in a closet of an adobe brick house, going to the bathroom wherever I could find a discrete place within the community, taking cold, cold bucket baths, eating on the dirt floor sharing scraps with guinea pigs.
At first, these things seemed extreme and the conditions shocking (especially when that cold bucket hit your back), but I eventually became accustomed to it. I actually enjoyed it. It was such a simple way of living. There were no material goods, objects or anything else that got in the way of my enjoyment of the company that surrounded me. We were happy with what we had and what we had was each other's stories, jokes, laughs, smiles and joy. By building relationships with my homestay family and community members, I was able to get a better understanding of the needs within the community, but also of their strengths. One learns how resilient people are - how strong and determined they are.
Traveling is one thing, and living and communicating within a community is another - I learned the importance of building trustworthy relationships, as it is the key to the hearts of the community and the key to change. My homestay experiences are always invaluable opportunities to learn and grow from those with whom you are exchanging.
My homestay in Cedro Galan this past week was just that. I was able to spend time in the community getting to know a family of six (same number as mine). I slept in a room with the four children - I was on a mattress on the floor with one of the younger girls, while the boy, Juan, was on his own little board in the corner and the other two girls shared a bed right next to mine. On the other side of the thin tin wall were the parents sharing a twin-sized bed. If you stepped right outside our rooms, there was the living room, which consisted of two metal chairs, a few boxes to sit on, a small fridge and a tiny TV in the corner. If you walked outside and to the other small tin room you found the kitchen, which consisted of a wood "counter" and a fire pit to do the cooking ... no stove, no oven, no fancy steel appliances. But the food was good. I mean really good! Jessenia, my host mom and BFF, is one mean cook. The food usually consisted of rice and beans but she was always able to add amazing flavors and twists to the Nica diet.
During our time together (waking up at 5:00 am, going to bed between 8:00 and 11:00 pm) we discussed community needs, her visions for a business and for the community, brainstormed ideas for the clinic and for a trash-collection system. When we weren't busy dreaming we played card games after card games. They taught me a new version of poker that kept us occupied for hours upon hours. Might I add, I had no electronics with me all week, just one backpack filled with a few pairs of clothing, a deck of cards and a notebook. Another simplicity. By removing technology, which at times can be toxic, I found myself living far more in the moment. No Snapchat, no Instagram, no Facebook - no need to let other people know what I was doing. The only worry I had was whether I was going to win that hand of cards. It truly is liberating and peaceful, yet exhilarating to be able to live in the moment and not worry about what other people were doing, or feel the need to tell everyone in the world via Snapchat. Truly, living in the moment. Enjoying each moment. Each laugh. Each exchange.
I will always continue to learn from people. It is my passion. I love living outside my comfort zone. Listening to the experiences, histories and ideas of others. I believe it is our way to true social change and the key to a better world. We all need to listen, live in the moment and learn from one another.
Until next homestay - Paz y Amor,
Natalie is a Christianson Grant recipient from the InterExchange Foundation volunteering in Nicaragua with the Manna Project International, a nonprofit organization committed to holistic community development in Latin America.