Homestays are supposed to be uncomfortable. Sleeping in a stranger’s bed, eating strange food, speaking a strange language, and sometimes the entire experience is condensed into 6 strange meals. How would you make the most of those awkward meals? Would you act with a boldness bordering brash, able to take a stiff situation with an airy attitude or would you be someone to get caught up in the strangeness?
Strangers create moments.
Fast looks, shy smiles, handshakes, roaring laughter, quizzical brows, and the fumble of sound and movements we take meaning from; a fleeting glance through a bus window, an eye-opening conversation across a worn wooden table, or a welcoming ‘buenos dias’ in an unfamiliar kitchen.
It is both the explicit, implicit, and position of ourselves in it all; the words we speak and the motions we make. It is almost startling how quickly we communicate with a blink of an eye, an instantaneous judgement; as well as the steady and slow unravelling of the internal tape recordings of all their moments.
Sitting at the table of my host family in Costa Rica, I couldn’t help but ponder the significance of language as the mother, daughter, two of my classmates, and I engaged in a conversation of Spanish, English, German, Mandarin and French.
Quick background: my host family experience was a feminine one. The estrogen level was at level “5 girly-girls all under one roof with no males and a chubby dog.” It was a blur of rolling ‘Rs’, well-placed and mis-placed giggles, and a series of moments and lessons I will cherish for a really long time.
As a someone who has been living out of a suitcase for the past three years, I have been living in a psychedelic sea of moments; and the moments have left their vibrancy on my body. The outlines of countless mattresses that have shaped the curve of my back, the flavors of countless meals that have stained the taste buds on my tongue, the faces of countless strangers lay ingrained in some tissue of my brain.
Maybe they are countless because I didn’t even think about counting them.
As someone who is critical of the “live in the moment” philosophy, I sure am obsessed with the idea of it. This is both the fault and the strength of the travel writer. The lust for romanticizing moments is really just making mountains out of molehills.
And I end my preface of profound moments to introduce you to my monomyth of a homestay.
Our group of fourteen 11th grade students came tumbling out of a bus in the city of Orosi. Our first point of contact was a building I forgot the name of. We were greeted by Sarah, a Canadian lady who moved here because the moose can’t handle her energy levels. Gosh, they must have had seizures just thinking about her. After Sarah goofing-ly lectured us about how we must be well-behaved children, we were released to our families. Tiana, Sabrina, and I were paired with a mother and daughter.
The five of us females hit it off immediately; all of our personalities opened right up like our pie-holes at dinner that night. No, we didn’t have pie, but dinner was just as delicious. And guess what? There wasn’t a lick of beans on the table! You should have seen my stomach doing dance moves. I had been avoiding beans all of Costa Rica because me plus beans equals a necessity for gas masks.
Although we all hit it off, there was a weird moment during this fun night, or at least a moment where I felt weird. It was when we were talking about ethnicity, and drifted into a conversation about “chinos.” Know, my spanish language abilities are minimal and rough around the edges to say the least. But they started talking, and my mind stopped processing sounds as meanings. They all started doing the eye thing, and I was kind of like ‘woah, what did I miss? You know I am sitting right here right. I am asian. Sabrina is asian. Why are you doing that.’ It ended up with laughing and I just decided to shake off the racism as ignorance as there isn’t many asians in this area so they only know the stereotype. Little did I know (later found out), that it actually was just the language barrier that built the wall between the communication.
Language is both the actions you make with your body, and what comes out of your mouth – if you don’t understand both, you are doomed to misinterpret what the actual message is. Instead of derogatorily talking about asian’s eyes, they were talking about how strong they think that feature is, and how they think it is beautiful; kind of the opposite of what I thought they said which was more along the lines of how small they are and how larger eyes are more attractive. Oh well, lesson learned – language is weird.
That first night, we also attended and played in a neighborhood soccer or futbol match. The name you call the sport depends on how important you think the game is. I am someone who calls it soccer in my head but futbol out of my head to avoid getting beat up by my soccer, I mean futbol, crazed peers. Our host family, the female squad, went over to the stadium, and was greeted with sweating children, the lingering smell of old sweat, fellow host families, some other locals, and Sarah-the-eccentric-lady’s family.
I swear, that this whole game was out of a Murakami novel. Sarah’s son – 10, white-blond, brace faced, spoiled – brought his cello to the soccer game. Oh my gosh. I wish that I could have stabbed myself with his bow. But noooooo. It got even better. His mom took his cello and started playing “Twinkle, twinkle, little star”. At that point I wanted to crush the mini cello into the pavement and say “YOU ARE A GROWN WOMAN. CONTROL YOURSELF.” But then I would of gotten sent home on a plane because apparently, Sarah thinks she has the powers to just do that. But you know, she is a nice lady, just kind of interesting.
I could go on about her interesting qualities for a while.
But I won’t because that would be mean.
And slightly boring.
Anyway… After socc- eh, futbol, we walked back to our host family’s home and got into our pajamas and had a pillow fight and had virgin margaritas and watched chick flicks and painted each other’s toenails!!
Kidding. However, I would have been down for some chick flicks. What actually happened was the the five of us all parted our ways, brushed teeth, said goodnight, and went to bed. Tiana, Sabrina, and I stayed up for a little talking but then went to sleep – exhausted from our day of travelling, laughing, and cello-listening.
Waking up, the first thing you see is a foreign ceiling: a hybrid off grey off white color that seems to have been painted 8 or so years ago (maybe longer). Then you feel the sheets: grandma-y, flower-y, rubbed of softness, a tad pilly, a tad rough, fully loved. You can’t help but pat yourself on the back for wearing sweatpants instead of shorts, and instantly feel bad about it.
Of course, since I just woke up the morning after a night of girl talk, most of this didn’t cross my mind. I was too preoccupied with finding my phone, which was somewhere in my bed, to check the time. Reaching around, searching for the phone that has managed to not fall off the bed, I wiped my nose. Oh crap.
Yup, that is a budding zit.
I find my phone, grab my shower things, and go to the bathroom to take the first shower at 5:55 am. I look in the mirror and feel the bump. Yup, that is an underground volcano ready to emerge and erupt.
After Tiana, Sabrina, and I showered, changed, had breakfast, and got all of our stuff ready for the day, our host mom Yita took us to the meeting point which was at the building we all arrived at the day before. After showing us the way there, she departed with a wave and was off on the 5 minute walk back to the house.
Climbing off the bus after our day of doing things I can’t even remember, I, along with the other two girls, headed towards the house.
Walking home was surreal.
The sun was low, giving a contoured look to buildings, people, roads. I kept on thinking about my swinging camera at my hip. My fingers were itching to capture the images my photographer’s eye kept on catching. I repressed the urge and instead lived in the moment.
I couldn’t help but think that after I left this town, I would never smell these smells, feel this air, hear these noises, walk these roads, hop over these sewers, see these sights again. I could not help but become in awe of a moment that I would never be able to recreate. And in that moment, my mind was clear; I wasn’t thinking about things that were going on in relationships, in school, in the future.
Our walk ended when we reached our house.
I forgot to mention that all of the houses have bars on their windows, bars on some doors, and gates separating their house from the streets. The houses are a lot nicer inside that the street makes them out to be. Its kind of like opening a present wrapped in aluminum foil, and getting a smartphone — which everyone seemed to have.
Yes, in straightforward-not-fun-swirly-description, our host family was well off. Obviously not all of the houses will of looked like this, but that is my experience. Do not take the real estate in this area at face value.
When we all sat down at the table, my host mom said to me, after putting some food into her mouth, “do you want me to pop your zit?” This issues a burst of hysterical laughter from every chair at the table, and a good-natured nod from me as well.
This dinner was by far the most fun. We talked about all the things females love to talk about when it is just girls: zits, periods, boys, love stories, etc. We also talked about more widely approved topics across the genders such as languages, education, what we did that day, etc.
After dinner came the eruption.
What happened involved a very small and crowded bathroom, a mirror, some cotton, some rubbing alcohol, and some finger pressing.
And my face.
So, we all crowded into the bathroom, my host mom Yita and I the center of attention. I started pressing my volcano, but nothing was really happening. So Yita took control; she took her two thumbs and pressed.
It hurt, bad.
And then, I did some pressing and then…
A cheer went through the crowd! Woohoo! The eruption was spectacular! But you thought that people would leave after? Never! We must wait until the red liquid comes out! We want blood! (Like I said, we talked about this over dinner)
Everyone continued to be infatuated with the crater in my face for a few minutes more, until it was just me holding the alcohol-soaked cotton ball to my face.
The technique worked though, I woke up that morning with barely a trace of a scar.
My time with my host mom, Yita, host sister, Madelien, and my class mates, Sabrina and Tiana, I will never forget. Everytime I look in the mirror and see my upper lip, I will think of them. And I smile every time I do.
Experiences are what make people. What you did, what you laughed at, what you cried at, what you ran from, what you ran at, and what you worked at. Experiences are made with others. Who you met, who you laughed with, who you cried with, who you ran with, and who you worked with. You can have done all of these things, but it would be nothing if not done with others. That is what determines the quality of what you have done.