As part of a tour through Belize, Guatemala and Mexico, I stayed with a Guatemalan family in Jaibalito, one of the villages surrounding Lake Atitlán.
Out of all the villages, this one was the least touristy – meaning no bars, or 7/11s, or ATMs. But we spent our days exploring the other surrounding villages, each with their own characteristics (San Pedro is known for chilling out and learning Spanish, San Marcos has a reputation as the place to unwind with yoga and meditation, Panajachel is where you go to stock up on souvenirs).
There was no yoga or meditation in Jaibalito, but there was Spanish. Our host family only spoke Spanish, so we were learning the language whether we liked it or not. I was sharing a room with my friend James, but because he is male it was assumed we were husband and wife (both James and I had partners back at home). We learnt that unless you're both female or male, sharing rooms, like travellers often do in hostels, is not the norm unless you are married. Lesson one was don’t try to explain anything too difficult if you don’t speak the language – it just won’t be understood.
Lesson two is an obvious one. Don't flush toilet paper. Not just at a home stay in Guatemala, but anywhere in any developing country. Though some hotels may accommodate for the highly technical flush, most don't. If there is no fridge or TV, then assume it’s not a flush-your-loo-paper-down kind of place.
Cooking together with the family taught me new skills, but taught the host family that it's better to keep me away from the kitchen. Lesson three was don't pretend you can make tortillas if you can't. As you can see in the photo, my tortillas resembled blobs. That said, as blobs go, they tasted pretty spectacular.
James and I quickly learnt that Ingrid (the eldest child) was a schemer and knew how to "work" tourists. Evidently the family had had quite a few guests at their home in the past, and Ingrid knew that guests often brought gifts. We were one step ahead. We did bring gifts, but educational gifts – colouring-in books and crayons. Ingrid did like the books for a short while, but wasn't happy we had no chocolate, and by day two, neither were we. There were hardly any shops in Jaibalito that sold chocolate, and the ones that did were at the bottom of an exceedingly steep hill. Lesson four was that you should always bring chocolate with you wherever you go. Kids, adults, you – everyone appreciates chocolate.
Lesson five was watch what you eat. Most families in Jaibalito do not have fridges and purchase meat and poultry fresh. The chicken tortillas for dinner were delicious. The chicken omelette the next day for breakfast had me a little worried. We're all used to different foods, so just be smart when eating out anywhere. Because the chicken pieces were tiny I got away with leaving them without offending the host.
Which brings me to the most important lesson. Home stays offer a wonderful opportunity for travellers to encounter something beyond the typical travel experience. You get the opportunity to stay with a local family and participate in their daily life. Though home stays are often organised as part of a bigger tour, the stay itself is authentic, and usually an amazing experience. So respect the local traditions and just have fun with it – it's something you'll never forget!