WIFI or no WIFI? That is the question.
Each of us has had the experience of staying in two different homestays in Antigua. It was a big change in the middle of the program but I've lived to tell the tale. It wasn't that crazy, but it was interesting. The first home was really more like a student hostel; there were 7-9 students sitting around the table for breakfast, lunch, and dinner promptly at 7:30am, 12:30pm, and 6:30pm respectively. Three of us were from GP, the others were from Spring Arbor University in Michigan, and one chica was a cool Cali native who came all the way to Guatemala to work on an organic farm and practice her Spanish with the workers. So there we all were. Not exactly the Brady bunch but it made for good conversation....in English.
Come to find out our host 'mom and dad', Eldar, a retired bank worker and his wife, Marina, rented the house so they could make a business out of hosting foreign students studying at the first language school where we were studying. It was clear this wasn't their first rodeo, they new their stuff about hosting. We were having crepes for breakfast and pork chops with veggies for lunch, there was always enough for seconds, and then we could peacefully retire to our rooms and plug into the wifi. But learning this wasn't their house, that it wasn't the place they raised their children and had fond memories, explained why they also never sat down to eat with us, and frankly it took away from the authenticity of the experience. This was a major factor in why the GP Directors in-country decided to change schools, second to the most prevailing academic necessity.
Well if we wanted authenticity, we got it the second go around. In my second homestay at times I felt like I was in a convent, or a monastery, take your pick. Meals were more sparse and conversation was one-sided, and by one-sided I mean limited to me and one other GP student listening to our 77-year-old host
telling stories about crooked politics, wartime, family illnesses, and her favorite topic, the operation she underwent five months prior. So grandparents all over the world are very similar! I could only understand about 15% of what she said due to my limited vocabulary and would often turn to Megan for translation - who I think got about 50-60%. The rest didn't make it through the funnel. We wanted authentic and intimate? We got it!
At first the experience was exhilarating as I genuinely love challenges and meeting new people. At some point that turned to frustrating because I had to rely on someone else for translating. And then one night, when Megan was out hiking a volcano and not home in time for dinner, I was at home by myself with abuela Aura and endured a two hour conversation during dinner and beyond. Then it was just plain exhausting. I had to focus so intently on the ebbs and flows of her speech to listen for intonation and any vocab words I knew, and she wasn't slowing down to clarify, even though at times I can only imagine the look on my face. I listened with all my senses. Sometimes, when I thought I picked up some content, I would put together a question for clarification just to get a word in edgewise. Something like, "how many years you when you [had] your first son?" She was 43! That was a whole other topic I would have loved to explore but nope, on she went, and I continued listening. In the end this was such a great bonding experience and I was so grateful for this time alone with our abuela. A few days later, when I forgot my keys at home and she said she should 'give me 100 lashings' I knew it was a term of endearment :)
In terms of cultural interchange, that was abundant in our second homestay. Modern conveniences, not so much. Well we had a warm shower, which I couldn't figure out at the last place. True, it was a choice between temperature and water pressure, but I got clean. And a big difference at this place was the lack of wifi. We had to walk 5 minutes back to the school to use wifi. This was really an inconvenience at first because I had become accustomed to Skyping with my family at night but I managed to read three books, journal, and (gasp) study (!) in my spare time. Other good habits I practiced included: getting up early, getting to bed early, cleaning my plate, finishing my milk, and practicing my Spanish. I have literally spoken more Spanish in the three weeks I've lived in Guatemala than Dutch in the four years I have lived in Holland.
All in all, it was a tough decision to change schools but the homestays were a major factor in that decision and we made the right choice. We all had more authentic and varied experiences and we were more present in the moment and in the country than somewhere out in wifi world tweeting about it instead of living it.