Curfews and culture: staying with a host family in Bolivia

21 Dec

This is another feature I wrote for the Cocha-Banner while staying in Bolivia, about the cultural sensitivities families hosting European gap year visitors encounter and how those visitors can learn about their host country by spending more time with the family. I was inspired by my own host mum, Angelica (organised through Projects Abroad), who is absolutely wonderful but in hosting a European girl like me came across similar cultural issues all of the families doing that did – namely that it’s not usual for girls to be going out boozing to all hours and coming home whenever they like in a country like Bolivia. At the time I was feeling a bit self-righteous about how close I’d become to my host family compared to many other volunteers who appeared to be more interested in getting drunk with their English buddies than observing the cultural realities of living with a Bolivian family. I found having to tell my host mum when I was coming home for lunch or after going out quite hard at first – I had already been living in London away from my folks for seven years by then, so I wasn’t used to that – but if you live in someone else’s home they have a right to know when to expect you home, and as they are made responsible for you by the organisation organising the homestay, I found my host mum would wait up for me if I was late.

The reality is that being a girl in a place like Bolivia entails some of the more traditional ways of thinking, simply to protect us and be sure we’re ok – responsibility for which falls on mothers, and for the duration of your stay, you become their child whatever your age. But after a while I found electing to spend more time with my host family and living on their terms gave me a whole other insight into Bolivian life – which after all, is the whole point of the exercise.

Have a read.

We are more than a place to stay: Melanie Stern hears from host families who say the best volunteers are those who try to really integrate

For sure, Bolivia is a long way from home wherever you come from – 6,205 miles from London to La Paz, if you are interested. Who could forget that fact while trying to wash your hair in a cold trickle of water alleged by your hostel to be a shower, rubber flip-flops safely under your feet just in case of electric shocks. But Projects Abroad Bolivia volunteers are among some of the luckiest travellers around. They get to move into a family home while on their placement, share their lives with a local family, improve their Spanish without having to endure classrooms and textbooks – and maybe best of all are the three things all backpackers dream about while staying in hostels – a bed of their own (minus bed bugs), three square meals a day (all home cooked, no nights sat on the toilet), and a shower that covers your whole body with water so hot, it could be a shower of sweet, sweet sunbeams sent from heaven.

But staying with a Projects Abroad family means much more than just the creature comforts. Travelling and working in Bolivia is almost impossible without a little Spanish, and for many people, learning by chatting with Bolivian people is the best way create a working knowledge of the language. Living with a local family is a unique opportunity to get inside Bolivian culture too – to eat local food, to learn local customs, and live the way Bolivians live – and most of all, to enjoy all the things that make Bolivia one of the most seductive, diverse and different countries you´ll ever visit. That said, it´s not always easy for European and North American people to adapt to the Bolivian way of life, and it isn´t always easy for the families either. But both are looking for the same experience: to learn about other cultures, to make friends from other countries, and enjoy the differences.

Maaria Ichazu, host mum

Maaria Ichazu, host mum

Marcia Ichazu, one of Projects Abroad ´s newest host mums, has been welcoming European students from one of the local language schools into her apartment off Avenida America for five years. “I live alone so I like having people stay because we can talk and I can learn about their cultures,” Marcia says. “I love it because they teach me so much about the world.” Luckily for her visitors, Marcia speaks excellent English. Most host mums speak no English – though their children sometimes do – so volunteers do not have an escape route from practicing their Spanish. The volunteers living with Franz Torrico, a host dad whose house in the centre of town adjoins his architecture business, are in perhaps the best environment of all to learn the language, as Franz also teaches Spanish. His mother, sister and her 2 year old son live with him in a warm, close-knit Bolivian family setup typical in Bolivia. “I always have our volunteers cook the family something typical of their country, so we can see how they eat – and my nephew is already learning a few words of English, so we enjoy the cultural exchange,” Franz says.

Eating together is one of the most important ways that families and volunteers bond, particularly in Cochabamba, where the city motto is ´live to eat, not eat to live´, and many host mums cook up fabulous dishes native only to Cochabamba. Sitting around the table at the same time every night with your host family is a great way to practice listening to and speaking Spanish, picking up the things that teachers aren´t employed to teach you – but that can help smooth your way to making Bolivian friends and exploring Bolivian life without the comfort blanket of your compatriot volunteer friends.

One of the things that both volunteers and host families have to work the hardest at is the little habits and differences in life for, say, and English girl and a Bolivian girl of the same age. Late nights and too much Taquiña and are all part of the travelling experience, but they can prove interesting for Bolivian host mums who feel responsible for their temporary daughters, and are not always accustomed to giving their own children the amount of freedom that foreign visitors take for granted. One of Projects Abroad ´s most experienced host mums, Cristina, recalls one or two instances where diplomacy skills came in handy. “One of the girls from England was used to going out really late, getting really drunk and not coming home on time. She found it hard to live here and I was not used to these issues either,” Cristina admits. “Usually my volunteers tell me where they are going and when they are coming back, and I do like to know because I feel responsible for them while they live in my house. I alw ys wait until the last one is in bed, even with my own children. But everyone here lives their own life to their own schedule, they have a key – and I don’t care where they go or with whom. I like everyone who stays here to experience independence because they are often away from their family home for a long time, but I hope if my daughters go abroad one day and stay with a family, they will be looked after the same way as I look after the girls here.”

Some volunteers have to adjust to calling ahead if they are going to be late home, if they are going to miss lunch, and even small touches like the difference in personal or physical space – from kissing their host mum goodbye in the morning to the way Bolivian families spend much of their time together at home, not locked in their bedrooms or glued to the Playstation – make forging a relationship something that needs equal will and effort on both sides. Families are also surrendering a little of their privacy and space, so both parties can understand how it feels. “There are volunteers who miss their homes and families, and there are others whose only words with us are good morning and good night, but sometimes you just have chemistry with someone,” Cristina says. “I have to say that most of the volunteers become part of our family.”

Apart from being more interesting, trying to integrate with your host family and Bolivians in general can have lasting rewards. One of Cristina´s former volunteer guests met her husband, a Cochabambino, while living there. Now living back in Germany, the couple are coming to Cochabamba this year for a second blessing, and to visit Cristina. She and Cristina have kept up contact through emails and photos, and Cristina says that she hears from a few of her former guests regularly. Marcia reports that she got on so well with one particular Finnish girl who stayed; she visited Cochabamba three times since leaving to see her. Marcia’s daughter is flying to Finland to stay with her on holiday.
Cristina, host mum

Cristina, host mum

Some volunteers find that partying with their volunteer group eats into the time they could be spending with their host families or with other Bolivian people: for some, it is easier to stick to the familiar after a long day working with people who only speak Spanish. This is when the differences between European or North American life and Bolivian life show up, and volunteers miss out on a once in a lifetime chance to make lasting friends in the country in which they are working. “If the volunteer never opens the door to you, it doesn’t matter how much time you spend, there is no way to make a connection,” Cristina thinks. “My family and I keep our lifestyle in a way that volunteers can choose to share it with us, or not, with our food, our culture and customs. We always open ourselves to volunteers so they have a chance to learn about the way Bolivians live, if they want to. Sometimes when you have a really good relationship with one of them, it feels like your daughter is leaving home. So there are some that never will be part of us, and some others that become part of our heart forever.”


One Response to “Curfews and culture: staying with a host family in Bolivia”


  1. Wanderlust: Five reasons to get friendly with Bolivia | melstern - 21 May 2013

    […] ask them the questions about Bolivian life and politics, and get under the skin of society. If you choose to live with a local family (which many volunteering companies organise), double all of that and throw in a lifelong […]

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