One of the challenges that Melinda and I faced when we joined the Peace Corps is that we knew we would have to live with host families during our first 3 months of training and then for our first 6 months in site. There were many advantages to this scenario: we didn’t have to worry about cooking (an advantage and a disadvantage as you will discover), had our laundry washed and ironed, being able to practice our Spanish and generally not having to worry about cleaning anything except our rooms. However, after leaving for college more than 15 years ago and being used to manage our own schedule without having to check in with anyone, there were more than a few tough adjustments we had to make.
The first adjustment we had to make was living apart as Melinda’s and my training programs were different and thus required us to live in different communities which turned out to be a little more than an hour bus ride away on a journey that took you from a rural, tranquil, mountain coffee growing community to a busy, congested and polluted suburb of the capital, San Jose. Melinda’s host family lived conveniently closer to where we would have a number of our group core trainings, representing one of advantages she had over my training location.
We’ve gotten used to taking the bus…
Serving guests enormous amounts of food is one of the cornerstones of pride of the typical Costa Rican mother or housewife (known in Spanish as “ama de casa”). Living in a Costa Rican home is like the proverbial visit to grandma’s house where you are served a gigantic heaping of food, and then when you’re done, you are always asked for seconds. It is generally considered good manners to say yes to as much food as possible and a compliment to both the food and the “cocinera”. Turning down a second helping could send a message to the chef that you didn’t like the food, potentially hurting the pride of your hosts. If you do turn down food, it should be done so diplomatically, complimenting the food while giving an excuse like: “A mi me gustaría comer más de la sopa tan deliciosa, pero tengo que caber en mis pantelones!” (translation: I would like to eat more of your delicious soup, but I have to fit in my pants!) – gesturing dramatically toward your distended belly and pulling on your pants’ waistline.
Olla de carne (one of our favorite Costa Rican dishes)
Side Note: Comments about your weight or others at the table are not taboo here, you could be called skinny (delgadito(a) or flaco(a)) or even called fat or a little chunky (gordo(a) or gordito(a)). In fact, such a comment could even be considered an endearment (like: Ah, here comes my little “gordito”!)
Another difficulty with not being able to cook for yourself is that you cannot control the manner in which the food is cooked, or the nutritional content of the meal in its entirety. Frying food with copious amounts of oil is a very common practice here. Also, the fat on meat is considered to be one of the most flavorful parts (see chicharones http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chicharr%C3%B3n).
Melinda once noticed our former housemother at our current site pouring a bottle of oil into the rice cooker and at their family party during training, Melinda and another volunteer had to impede an invitee from pouring oil into their freshly made mango salsa that they had made for their host families.
Another major inconvenience that we experienced living with host families was the lack of privacy. Our rooms were small, walls were thin and the curtains appeared to be diaphanous (from the inside although from an outside test they appeared to be sufficient). Not only every conversation on the other side of the wall could be heard, but you could hear snoring, breathing and the multitude of cacophonous sounds of everyday life. And surely, if we could hear these sounds on our side of the wall, the same could be heard on the other, leading us to live our lives on tiptoes and in whispers. Another cultural difference which Melinda touched on this on her recent post, is that people will also show up at your door unannounced.
While I joke about the challenges that we faced in our initial living situations, we actually have had mostly positive experiences at all our host families’ houses. In fact, the majority of our house parents have since turned into good friends and collaborators and we recently spent a couple of days around Christmas with Stephen’s host family in the Central Valley. The host families that the Peace Corps generally pick out take their assignment seriously, which is to share their family, space and culture with us as volunteers and to help us adjust and integrate into our new lives as Peace Corps volunteers. Many of them feel that the generosity of their service to us as volunteers allows them to feel connected to the work we do as volunteers in our sites, thus connecting them to their large community as members of the Costa Rican family. And through their selflessness and patience as hosts, Melinda and I feel more connected to our Costa Rican communities and see ourselves in the perspective as one global family, with an urgency to care for one another should we be able to confront the challenges of our increasingly interconnected and threatened "home" (Earth).