Hands down, one of my favorite things about traveling to other countries has been staying with families in their homes. It embodies that most sacred of travel buzzwords: authentic. (Of course, the word authentic can cover over a myriad of inconveniences that you would otherwise never put up with.) Someone else’s home may not be the nicest place you could stay, or the most convenient—but it is probably the cheapest. It may not be representative of the whole country, but it’s real, and you can’t argue with that.
I wax romantic about the beauty of staying in someone’s home—being adopted, temporarily, into a new family—because of how powerfully it moved me on our mission trip to Paraguay a few years ago. The Paraguayans set a standard of hospitality that humbles and embarrasses me, since I’ve never been so generous with my home or time. The women of the church cooked all our meals; the guys drove us from place to place, insisting we never walk; everyone was so pleased to see us and excited to hang out each day. I ask myself, how would I help out if a group came to visit my church for a week? Maybe I’d show up to one event, or help with one meal. It would not cross my mind to say, Yes, we have room. You can sleep in my bed!
Saying goodbye, with some tears, to our host family after the Sunday service.
Pabla and her family went way out of their way for Israel and me, as did her fellow church members for the other people on our mission team. We occupied her best room and were treated as honored guests. In the cold dark mornings, I treasured coffee and pastry time with Pabla, before the van came around to pick us up and take us to breakfast #2 with our team, then the day’s work.
(Free advice for travel in Latin America, or, actually, anywhere someone’s hosting you: eat what they offer! Fortunately this was no difficult task in Paraguay. Their food was simple, hearty, and good. Lots of meat, rice, potatoes, and, surprisingly, sliced beets at every meal. The risk, especially when there’s a language barrier, is that your hosts will be worried you’re not satisfied with the food. So even if you’re not hungry, try bites of everything, don’t look afraid or perplexed when faced with a new dish, and be more verbal and effusive than you think is necessary in your thanks.)
Pabla’s three kids were charming, and hilarious, and did their best to help me communicate. And I will never forget when Israel gave Junior a Listerine breath strip to try. You better believe his eyes popped wide open.
To make it just perfect, of course, there had to be the precious abuela. She didn’t live in Pabla’s house, which I didn’t realize until the end of the week, because she was there every morning when I got up. I was and am a lazy American. Abuela and I weren’t able to have deep conversations, but we smiled. I loved her and she loved me, and she offered to let me stay with her whenever I wanted to come back to Paraguay.
More free advice (or as my neighbor would say, a “pro tip”): If you’re in a foreign country, especially if you’re staying in a private home, but even if you’re not, start off on the right foot by asking the host if there are any details about how the bathroom works that you need to know.
In some Latin American countries and elsewhere, you toss the toilet paper in the wastebasket instead of flushing it, since the plumbing is not equipped for that. And please, note well: in Spanish, hot is caliente. Ergo, the C on the faucet knobs in Mexico does not signify Cold.
I knew that much, but still, in Paraguay, Israel and I took cold showers for half the week. (In the middle of their winter. Not as cold as it is here, but we were ill-prepared coming from summer in the U.S., and didn’t heed our packing advisories. And, since their winter isn’t as cold, buildings don’t have heat.) But we were tough; we were doing the authentic experience, man!
We didn’t realize there was a switch on the wall to turn on the hot water heater before your shower. Of course, this electrical hot water system was their normal, so why would our hosts think to explicitly tell us how the shower operation went down? I never would have predicted that my week in South America would be one of the coldest of my life.
In the showers in Denmark, one knob controls the water pressure and the other is hot/cold, which is a pretty reasonable way to do it. Fortunately, our hostess, a fellow American, let us know about it right away. And by the time we were presented with an “eco toilet” in Sweden, we’d learned our lesson. “Yeah, we’re going to need some instructions on how to use this toilet.”