When the taxi driver pulled up to my host family’s house, my heart sunk at the sight of it. Upon entering the house, it sunk further. Although my host mother Flor had greeted me with a rambunctious hola and a kiss on both cheeks, I couldn’t help but feel mildly scared and apprehensive when I looked around at what was to be my home for the next three months. Having grown up in an extremely comfortable upper middle-class home, I realized what it would mean to literally “live below the poverty line,” and in a developing country no less. On my very first night there while taking a shower, I was forced to kill a cockroach that had appeared out of the drain with my shampoo bottle. I was naïve enough at the time to think that cockroaches were only used in movies to dramatize situations. Little did I know what frequent visitors they would be at Flor’s house.
Meals were not much better. I never fully understood what my host mom did for a living, but she worked extremely long and late hours. In her place, her daughter Gabi acted as the señora of the house. Flor had another child, a boy of 10 whose name was Daniel, who although he acted quite shy around me, I had seen him on enough occasions to know “reserved” was not part of his nature. I got along well enough with Gabi, except that she was still a teenager who liked to have her friends over. Consequently, there were many nights in which already small meal portions were shared among multiple people, including Gabi’s friends who seemed perfectly at ease being fed each night in a house that was not their own. The only meal of the day in which I felt as if I were actually ingesting some nutritional content was at breakfast, when a plate of fresh fruit was put out for me. Fresh fruit is always a godsend, but especially so in a country where it is so cheap and able to be plentifully bought by people with less means.
Although not the most attentive of host moms due to her hardly ever being home, Flor always made it a point to chat with me when she was around. I learned that she was a single mom (I was never able to garner if she had ever been married to Gabi and Daniel’s father), and that, unlike in the United States where child support is the law, no such mandate existed in Costa Rica. She was essentially raising her two children completely by herself without any financial support from their father on a salary that was most likely pittance when compared to ones in the United States. On a lighter note, one weekend when I traveled to Puerto Viejo, a popular beach town located along the Caribbean coast, she even joked with me on how guapo (handsome) the los negros (black people) were. (The Caribbean coast is home to a sizeable black population whose origins in Costa Rica date to the turn of the 20th century when laborers came over from the West Indies, mainly Jamaica, to work on the railway construction). I could tell just how guapo she found los negros judging by the fact that Gabi and Daniel were bi-racial, their father most likely of African descent.
My first host family experience ever was in Mexico, and had been wonderful in terms of the accommodations, meals, and host family dynamics. As my first month passed in Costa Rica, I had resigned myself to the fact that this was the complete opposite. However, not being the complainer, I knew I would make do. Little did I know how much my home situation there would unravel into a living nightmare.
Growing up, neither my brother nor I had been problem children for our parents. Although we both had our share of mild “grievances” over the years, there was never anything to warrant daily confrontations between one of us and them. Voices were never raised, hands were never used. But on a particular Saturday at Flor’s house, I came to discover just how sheltered and nice an existence I had had in middle-class American suburbia.
I always prided myself on my Spanish language abilities, that is until I started hearing the screaming voice of my host mother and realized I could not follow anything she was saying. The screams of my normally reserved host mother were followed by the sounds of someone being hit. Not knowing what to do I left the house as quickly as I could and headed to the Internet café, but was disturbed to find that I could still hear the screams and cries coming from the house even as I walked away from it.
Never one for confrontation, I was torn on what my next step should be, if any. Was it my place to speak up about something that was none of my business and didn’t directly concern me? Did I have any right to voice my concern over a situation that was taking place in a home in which I was only a guest? After spending the remainder of the weekend either at the Internet cafe or sequestered in my bedroom, only mingling with the rest of the family at mealtimes, I came to the conclusion that I needed to do something for my own particular situation. I realized that there was nothing I could do to change the situation between Flor and her son. I just was an American college student who had neither the means nor right to be preachy and say that what was going on wasn’t right. However, it was one thing to live in a house that was essentially overrun with cockroaches, but quite another to live where mental and physical abuse was taking place. Realizing that this was a time I would need to think of my own well-being, I emailed the housing coordinator for my study abroad program and explained the situation. I was dismayed upon being told that multiple students before me who had been placed in Flor’s home had complained and voiced their concerns over the same issues as I had. I was further upset when I found out that Flor had been allowed to continue to host students, provided she and Daniel attended counseling sessions. Seeing as how there were still two months left in the program, I requested to be moved to a new household.
The following evening I came home and dealt with a situation that was not of my wanting or doing. Flor, who was never home in the evenings before me, was in fact already there with tears in her eyes. Flor succeeded in laying out the guilt trip of all guilt trips, saying how she greatly depended on the income brought in by hosting an exchange student, as it was the only way to send her children to private school. Realizing that I would need to stay strong and think of my own well being when living in a country that was thousands of miles away from my home, I just kept uttering the words lo siento (I’m sorry) to her. The only silver in that otherwise mostly gray lining was that I had remarkably understood everything that my host mother had said to me, and even was able to respond intelligibly to her. I’ve often found that when emotions are involved all the years of language learning can quickly be forgotten. But thankfully I was able to keep track of my tenses when speaking and didn’t have to translate in my head what was being said to me.
The following night I moved out, with only Gabi there to say goodbye to. I knew I was taking another risk by going to live in a house with completely new strangers, but I reasoned that anything had to be better than the alternative. I hadn’t been told much about my new host family, except that it was an elderly couple who occasionally hosted students.
Flora and Carlos’ home was everything that Flor’s household had not been-stable, quiet, not overrun with teenagers, pleasant to be in, and full of good food. Flora’s cooking was so good, in fact, that I actually put on weight while living there, even a few pounds too many. Nothing is more delicious or filling than a plate heaped high with fried plátanos (plantains), mashed yucca, and gallo pinto, the country’s national dish that consists of nothing more than rice, beans with a few spices mixed in.
While one door shut for me in Costa Rica of my own choosing, another one opened in its place. Choosing to live with a host family in a foreign country is a gamble by all accounts; most of the time the winnings are big, but occasionally you do strike out completely. I didn’t let the negative experience with Flor and her family keep me from requesting another host family placement when I studied abroad in Spain the following spring, even though I had the option of living in a flat with other international students. When I look back at the incredible experiences I’ve had abroad, living with a native family has always been at the top of the list, for the best way to experience the culture of another country is to live among its own people.