If you want to experience a foreign culture in authenticity, eat the way locals eat, speak their language, walk a dusty mile in their flip flops, watch their familial interactions, drink a cup of coffee with them, and use their shower, I suggest doing a homestay. This is a wonderful way to immerse yourself in a different culture as well as learn their language.
I wanted to learn Spanish so I went to San Pedro, Guatemala, for language school, opting for the homestay as I figured my family wouldn’t speak English. I would be forced to get over my hesitancies in sounding foolish when babbling in foreign tongue if my only means of communication was Spanish. It worked. For a month I lived in a four-story house made out of cement. Don’t let the four stories fool you. It was bare bones, nothing fancy, and it was completely eye opening and humbling. For instance, there weren’t faucets. On the ground floor next to the bathroom and the top floor in the kitchen, there were deep cement basins that were filled with water about once a week. I used a little bowl of water to wash my face and hands and brush my teeth. I washed my laundry by hand and only showered every three or four days.
My host family consisted of a mom, two sons, twin teenage sisters, and a grandfather. Every morning (except Sunday) at 6 a.m., my host mother would begin making corn tortillas, a daily chore that took her around two hours. We ate every meal together, most often some variation of rice and beans with fresh, homemade corn tortillas.
The most difficult part for me was the bathroom, which everyone in the household shared. There was no bathroom door; there was simply a curtain. This perhaps would not have been so bad had I not had a severe case of parasites having a grand fiesta in my gut. I hoped for a more soundproof bathroom in my next homestay.
Bathroom curtain set aside, my Spanish improved tenfold while there. I always had my Spanish-English dictionary handy during meal times to bulk up my vocabulary when my family said words I couldn’t understand.
This dictionary followed me to the table of my host family in Barva, Costa Rica (a teeny little hamlet about 45 minutes outside of San Jose). I took a month-long intensive TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) course and, not wanting to lose all the Spanish I had just learned by speaking English in a teaching course for eight hours a day, again I opted to live with a Costa Rican family. I lucked out. If the country had superlatives, they would win kindest family in all of Costa Rica. This time it was just me and my host parents. Maria, my host mother, literally said to me, “mi casa es su casa,” when I arrived. She wanted to know all about me and she always had a huge smile with a hug waiting for me every day after my class. I ate like a queen: delicious fried plantains, gallo pinto, and empanadas filled with chiverre (a similar flavor to dates). This family also spoke no English and my host mother was especially patient in correcting my errors. I was treated as one of the family and despite the fact that often I was very lost in conversations when everyone was speaking rapidly, I never felt excluded or like a “foreigner.” They told me they would always be my Costa Rican family and that I should always come for “un cafecito” (a cup of coffee) whenever I was in town.
I cannot stress enough how valuable and memorable a homestay will be. When you stay in a hostel, you often meet other travelers and you are stuck being an outsider cupping your hands to the window of the life of a local. You can peer at it but you may not know how to get across the glass barrier. But with a homestay, you are on the inside, you are witnessing firsthand the way a local lives their day-to-day life. If you can do several, it is interesting to see how different each experience can be. The bed might not be as comfortable as your own at home, you may only have a shower curtain as a bathroom door, you may not have hot water, the internet, or electricity at all times but when it comes down to it, how important is all that stuff anyways?