A Backpacker’s Experience of Living with a Family in Central America
I’m in a cave in Alta Verapaz, Guatemala, attempting to climb over a very slippery rock. My only light is the rapidly melting candle I hold in my left hand, and my only handhold is a rope ladder held together with duct tape. Ahead of me are 20 other tourists, screeching in delight as they clamber over rocks and wade through pools in almost complete darkness.
Behind me are a few stragglers slowly ascending the ladder, and below all of us is eight feet of shimmering dark blue water. My flimsy flip-flops, tied to my feet with rope so that they don’t fall off, squeak on the ladder as I slowly inch my way upward. Hot wax from the candle drips onto my hand, causing me to yelp in surprise.
“Vamos, chica!” calls one of the tour guides from behind me. I look down at the deep pools of water, and up at the bat-infested ceiling. I almost considered turning around and just waiting at the bottom. You’ve come this far, I thought, you might as well keep going. I take a deep breath and hoist myself the remaining foot over the rock…
Choosing a gap year
After I finished high school, I had decided to take a year off. The high school I’d attended had been incredibly intense, and I knew that if I started college immediately I wasn’t going to be able to focus on any of my classes.
To be honest, I spent the first month or so of my gap year waking up at 2pm and watching Scrubs repeats all day in my pyjamas. It soon became apparent that I needed to find a job. Before long I was working at a frozen yogurt shop, and also as a day care provider at an after-school program in an elementary school. But something was missing. I wanted to explore the world. And I realised that my year off was the last time in a long time that I would have that opportunity.
I had been in love with the beauty of the Spanish language ever since I took my first Spanish class in kindergarten, and had since made it a lifelong goal to become fluent. I knew that the best way to do this was to live in a Spanish-speaking country, so I decided to volunteer somewhere in South or Central America. I had always enjoyed volunteering; everything from the unique experiences I ended up having when I volunteered to the satisfied, ecstatic feeling I got when I saw I was able to make someone’s day better. I have always believed that anything could happen to anyone at any time, and any one of us could end up one day being someone who needs help.
A family friend who had been to Guatemala several times told me about Common Hope, an organization right outside of Antigua that forms partnerships with local schools in order to help impoverished children get an education. To volunteer at Common Hope, people either pay to live on the premises and volunteer indefinitely, or stay elsewhere and fill out an application to volunteer for free for six weeks.
Because I wanted to stay with a host family, I applied to become a non-paying volunteer. I got accepted, and four months later, I found myself on a plane headed further from home than I’d ever been. I had no idea what to expect, but I was excited about the prospect of diving in headfirst and just seeing what happened.
I’ll admit I was pretty scared at first; I was 19-years-old, I’d never travelled anywhere on my own before, I’ve a terrible sense of direction, am awful at reading maps and I didn’t speak that much Spanish aside from what they teach in elementary school (which doesn’t go too far past “where is the bathroom” and “I would like to order a burrito.”)
Diving in at the deep end
After breakfast on my first day I spent a good 15 minutes sitting on the bed in the midst of my unpacked suitcases, scrutinizing a map of the city and wondering if travelling alone had been a terrible idea and if I should just quit before I started. But then I thought, Hey, you keep referring to this as diving in headfirst, so put your big girl flippers on and dive already.
So I dove.
After a couple days of getting hopelessly lost and relying mostly on facial expressions for communication, I began to really enjoy Antigua. I was staying with the kindest, most welcoming host family I could have asked for. Aside from myself, there were three other housemates from different parts of the world staying in the house, and the parents treated us all as their own children, in addition to their own three children.
The first time I got sick, which happens to every tourist at some point – only drink bottled water! – they stayed up with me all night, asking me if I needed anything and making sure I was okay. Sometimes after dinner, all the furniture in the living room would be pushed to the side, we would put on loud salsa music, and we would all take turns salsa dancing with each other, often while in pyjamas. I also frequently went out to salsa bars with my host brothers or with friends. It didn’t take long for my host sister and I to think of each other as actual flesh and blood sisters, and I would take long walks around the cobblestone streets linked arm in arm with her and her friends.
As the capital of the Guatemalan province of Sacatepéquez, and the former capital of Guatemala itself, Antigua is always bustling with activity. Although Guatemala City replaced Antigua as the capital of the country, Antigua remains a hub of tourist activity, attracting millions of visitors from all over the world.
One of the main attractions of Antigua is its many Spanish language schools. At my particular language school, each student was matched up with one teacher and had on-on-one lessons. In addition to having an amazing host family, I also had a wonderful teacher. He quickly became my friend as well as my professor. We often had class on the roof, and on Fridays we usually played Scrabble. In Spanish!
Experiencing a different culture
In addition to attending language school, I was also volunteering five days a week. For the first six weeks, I was volunteering at Common Hope, working with children ages 0-5. I pushed kids on swings, helped with snack time, cleaned up boo-boos, and played lots and lots of tag. When my six weeks were up, I began volunteering five days a week at Fray Rodrigo de la Cruz, a retirement home in Antigua. Whereas I had worked with children for almost my whole life – babysitting, being a summer camp counsellor, working at the day care – I didn’t have any prior experience with elderly people. But after volunteering at Fray Rodrigo for a few days, I had already learned how to push wheelchairs, shine the residents’ shoes, and help with numerous craft projects, such as paper maché.
Also, my Spanish was rapidly improving. By the time I had been in Antigua for two weeks, I was more used to hearing Spanish than English, since everyone at school, in my host family and at both of my volunteer jobs spoke only Spanish. I found myself talking to myself in Spanish, thinking in Spanish and sometimes even dreaming in Spanish.
Life in Antigua is very different from life in America. In America, if you say hello to random people on the street, people think you’re hitting on them and therefore usually ignore you. In Guatemala, if you don’t say hi to random people on the street, people think you’re being rude. Smiling and saying “buenas dias” to everyone you pass is the norm. When running into an acquaintance, or upon being introduced to someone new, it is customary to hug them and kiss their cheek by way of greeting.
Although I was staying in Antigua, I also had the opportunity to travel around Guatemala. In addition to the trip to Alta Verapaz, I also visited Lake Atitlán (which Brave New World author Aldous Huxley famously referred to as: “The most beautiful lake in the world”), Monterrico (a black sand beach on the Pacific coast of Guatemala, and the most beautiful beach I have ever been to), and Volcán Pacaya (an active volcano which I climbed with a group of tourists who turned out to be some of the friendliest, nicest people I have ever met).
People always say that travelling to a different country will change your life. Those people are absolutely correct. When my three months in Guatemala were over, I was no longer the scared little girl I was on the first day. While before Guatemala I was in no way ready to start college, I returned to America not only excited for school, but much more independent, and with the confidence that I could do anything. And yes, fluent in Spanish.
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About the Author: Jessica Nemire
Jessica is a creative writing major at San Francisco State. She spent her gap year in Antigua, Guatemala, and has also been to various parts of Mexico and all over Israel. Next on her list of travel destinations are Costa Rica and Italy. In the meantime, Jessica lives in San Francisco, California, where she studies at the university and people watches on the train. She is (mostly) fluent in Spanish, and wants to learn Italian and Portuguese. She’s a bit of a volunteering buff and has writter a number of volunteering pieces for gapyear.com.