It’s easy to experience a country. By travelling–seeing the local sights, talking to the local people, and eating the local food–you constantly gain new experiences. But by living with a local family, you encounter a whole other dimension. You feel the country. You empathise with their issues and share their joy. You learn not to scream everytime there’s an earth tremor. You start to consider rice and beans as part of your staple diet. And you witness life from a whole new perspective.
I arrived at my Guatemala homestay on my first day in Quetzaltenango (a city more commonly known by its Mayan name, Xela). It was a little overwhelming; I was travelling, on my own, to a city that nobody back home had ever heard of, to move in with a family who I had never before spoken to.
By living with a local family, you encounter a whole other dimension. You feel the country.
I needn’t have worried. My amiable driver dropped me off and Marta, my mother in Xela, was by the door waiting. Her extremely rapid Spanish scared me a little, but she had amazing patience and would wait for me to search for every other word in the dictionary, awful as my Spanish was back then. I explained (very slowly) to her that I needed to Skype my mum, as it was her birthday and she’d be concerned about whether I got to Xela safe. She asked how old my mum was, and then declared she was the same age. What she said next stuck with me. I know how she feels… I worry too.
No matter where we go in the world, families are the same. Mothers worry and children spend a lot of time out of the house doing crazy things. And we all share love and compassion towards each other.
However, I think there are certain things that families in the developed world can learn from Guatemalans. In Guatemala, I live with three grown up children and their parents. In the western world, kids are eager to fly the nest as soon as possible. But in Guatemala, they normally stay at home until marriage, partially for financial reasons, but also because of a commitment to the family unit.
While I am in favour of moving out and having independence, the Guatemalan dedication to their family has taught me something important: don’t forget your parents. Although my mother and I are very close, witnessing the Guatemalan maternal love has reminded me not to take my family for granted. Text your mum!
Despite this love and dedication, Guatemalans are aware that bad things happen, and there’s nothing that can be done about it. The life expectancy is much lower here, and illness a lot more commonplace. Healthcare is more expensive and not as complex as it is in western countries. Xela is nowadays a safe city, but the whole country is still recovering from a devastating civil war and many older Guatemalans can recall those terrifying times.
Nonetheless, the nation is instilled with a fantastic sense of optimism. Sure, things could be better, but they could be a lot worse. Disasters do happen, but worrying won’t change the outcome. I am a chronic worrier, but after a week with my Guatemalan family, I found my anxieties much lessened. Perspective is a great position, and I started to realise the things I worried about were both trivial and unrealistic, and adopted the Guatemalan mentality that as long as things are good right now, I shouldn’t really concern myself with much else.
I’m fortunate enough to be living with an amazing chef, and I’m really enjoying the food here. Staying with a family who speak only Spanish still can be pretty daunting, but it has improved my language skills hugely. Guatemala is a beautiful country to be in; if you like hiking volcanoes, charmingly colourful markets, intriguing colonial architecture, good coffee and wonderfully friendly people, I urge you to visit this small nation. The Central American country doesn’t have a great reputation, but as soon as you meet the locals, you realise that a small few have tarnished the reputation of an otherwise amazing country, and it’s actually much safer than perceived in the media.
I started to realise the things I worried about were both trivial and unrealistic, and adopted the Guatemalan mentality that as long as things are good right now, I shouldn’t really concern myself with much else.
In general terms, if you feel like you need a break from Western consumerist, absent culture then I urge you to travel to a less developed country and live local life there. I chose Guatemala because I was keen to learn Spanish (which Xela is a great city for, by the way), but the same mentality is present in many other countries.
Living this life is completely liberating; it has made me realise that a great deal of western preoccupations are futile and the importance of life lies in just focusing on the goodness of the present. My eyes, heart and soul have been opened to Guatemala and I am so grateful for the opportunity to feel this amazing country.