by Jill Robinson with Greenheart Travel
Home stays abroad are one of the best ways to experience a culture while traveling abroad. Being part of a family not only gives you a “home” during your trip, but an amazing insight into the day-to-day routines a tourist would never experience, exposure to authentic traditional fare, and a crash-course in foreign language. Whether it’s learning how to speak Italian or deciphering what that green goop is for breakfast, home stays create another level of cultural immersion. This potential gold mind of education doesn’t always guarantee a smooth stay, however. Entering a family’s home, especially one in a foreign country, can be challenging and frustrating – but absolutely worth it. Greenheart Travel staff members share some of their advice for making your home stay experience a success.
1. Go into the home stay expecting to adapt to THEIR culture, routine and general ways of living. Don’t expect them to adjust to yours. If you have the mindset that the “adapting” part is fun, you’ll learn so much more about the place you’re visiting.
2. Make sure to make time for your host family. Seems obvious, but it’s surprising how many people don’t take advantage of family interaction. If they ask you to participate in an outing or activity, do it! Don’t worry about not having time to see the attractions; you can always go back on your own to be a tourist. The times you spend with your family will be the ones you remember most.
3. Don’t automatically assume your family doesn’t like you the first few days of your home stay. If you feel like your family isn’t making much of an effort to involve you, they may be taking the backseat in order to allow you to adjust and organize your time the way you want. In that case, you should make a little effort – ask them if they could teach you how to cook their favorite meal or find out their hobbies. Showing you have an interest in their culture will give you a connection and break the ice.
4. Bring your host family a small gift when you arrive, and leave a small give when you say your goodbyes.
5. Not one for awkward silences between conversation topics? Bring a small photo album of you with family, friends and scenes from your hometown. It is a great way to start a dialogue and really allows you to have a cultural exchange.
6. ALWAYS watch Mexican telenovelas. It’s a great way to practice your Spanish and spend time with your host family. Before you laugh, know that there’s a good chance you will find yourself addicted before too long.
7. We are one of the only countries to blast air-conditioning and heaters, so be ready to adapt to their climate at all times. This might mean wearing mittens while you sleep in Chile or the simple act of applying Gold Bond medicated powder after a shower in South Africa to beat the heat. Either way, it’s all part of the travel experience.
8. Along these lines, it is also important during a home stay to be prepared for cold showers and baths, and the frustration of trying to operate these showers and bath nozzles. In Costa Rica you might get a small electric jolt from the shower head if you adjust it while it’s running. Ask your family for instructions. (This acts as another great way to start conversation or fill uneasy gaps of silence.)
9. Smile even if you are tired. Or at least communicate how you are feeling or frustrations you might have during your home stay. Sometimes, your host mom might not be aware that cleaning your room is driving you crazy. Before you snap on their intended act of kindness, communicate your emotions before a small problem snowballs into an uncomfortable situation. As Matador Travel’s article on home stays mentions “stress is contagious.”
11. If your host mom offers to do your laundry, accept it with many thank you’s.
12. If your home stay is in Latin America, never be surprised if you find chicken feet in your soup, or animal parts or insects in your food that you’re not used to eating. Two Greenheart Travel colleagues joked about their experiences with unusual food items. Pretty much any part of the cow/chicken/pig is fair game in many cultures, and be open to trying this new cuisine. You never know – you might end up loving it!
13. Exchange addresses before you go and keep in contact. A home stay allows you to develop a relationship with a family across the world.
14. Be independent! Your host family is not your personal tour guide, and while they are a great reference for places to see off the beaten path, they are not expected to hold your hand. Home stays offer a much more laid back travel experience, with the best of both worlds in experiencing the community around you. Be prepared to do some exploring on your own.
15. If you aren’t fluent in the language, at least know how to say “please” and “thank-you.” Such small words can make all the difference.