Deciding whether to live with a host family or in a private apartment is a decision that all Abriendo Mentes volunteers face. Both have their advantages, so it can be difficult to decide. I recently spent three weeks living and volunteering in Potrero and chose to live with a host family. I hope that my experience can be helpful in deciding which option is a better fit.
I was fortunate enough to live in the heart of Potrero, close to everything. I was lucky to have a house so close to the center of town because the location of host families varies. My family consisted of a grandmother, uncle, mother and two children. They had several pets such as cats, dogs and birds. I slept in a separate bedroom with a fan to keep me cool at night.
The family members themselves are great people and I enjoyed getting to know them. The beauty of living with a host family is that you are integrated into the daily lifestyle of local people. There is really no better way to experience Costa Rican culture first hand. Being exposed to the daily adventures that Potrero life brings is entertaining. On my first night, a toad the size of a volleyball hopped onto our front porch. The chaos that ensued as the family screamed and fled the scene was a hilarious way to mark my entrance to Costa Rica.
I chose to live with a host family because it is an incredible way to improve your Spanish skills. My host family spoke no English so I was forced to use my Spanish skills constantly. Though I did not always understand everything going on around me, I had no trouble conversing with the family directly. Using my Spanish so regularly gave me increased confidence in my ability to communicate and increased willingness to speak Spanish without stressing over making mistakes. It can be uncomfortable to be in an environment where you are worried about your ability to communicate. However, I would not have gained as much confidence and comfort with Spanish had I not been surrounded by it constantly.
While staying with a host family, you receive breakfast and dinner. (My host family was also kind enough to wash my clothes.) Eating meals with a family is another great way to experience Costa Rican culture first hand. After a busy day of volunteering, I really enjoyed being able to come home to someone cooking dinner rather than having to figure out what to eat myself. There are not a lot of grocery options in Potrero so host families have more insight into what is available and how to utilize it. I am sure that I got the opportunity to eat more diverse foods through my host family than I would have found on my own. I also got to try traditional Costa Rican recipes, which was an adventure. I particularly enjoyed breakfast in Costa Rica – the Gallo Pinto is hard to beat. My most interesting cuisine experience came on my last dinner in Potrero. I realized immediately that I was eating something unique and chose not to ask what it was until after I had finished. (I made a deal with myself on the first day that I would graciously accept whatever they offered me at mealtimes. What better way to experience local life?) Along with rice and beans, there was a grey, chewy meat. Chewy is really an understatement. I made no progress by chewing and eventually had to gulp it down, trying to avoid terrorizing myself with thoughts of what I could be eating. When I finally asked, it was a Spanish word I had not heard before, “Mondongo.” Translation? Cow intestines. It was certainly a memorable last meal in Costa Rica!
It is no secret that living with a host family presents certain challenges. Being in an environment without English speakers can be intimidating. Certain cultural differences can also be interesting, as I learned through my experience with Mondongo. However, I would not trade my experiences with my host family. That feeling of awkwardness was worth it because I am now much more confident in my Spanish skills and my ability to adapt to drastically different situations. Living with a host family stretches you in unexpected ways and gives you a glimpse into what life in Costa Rica is really like. Creating relationships with my host family allowed me to feel like part of the community. I am grateful for the ways my horizons were expanded through my time in Potrero.