I lectured my dear friends and families – probably some strangers too – after a visit home to the United States. I had been asked repeatedly “so, how is Colombia?” because people didn’t know how else to start a conversation with me after my year and a half absence; while I got that, I just never knew how to answer. So in this post, I offered a list of questions to ask instead. With today’s post, I begin answering those questions.
QUESTION 2: WHAT IS YOUR HOST FAMILY LIKE? HOW IS IT LIVING WITH THEM?
First, a little bit of background. Peace Corps is a global organization; some rules are standard everywhere (no riding on motorcycles), while some depend on the country (travel restrictions). Living situations happen to vary by country. In many countries around the world, Peace Corps Volunteers (PCVs) live with host families during Pre-Service Training (PST), and then live in their own houses/apartments at their permanent sites. Some countries, like Colombia, require that PCVs live with host families for the duration of their service. Colombia is one of those countries. Our office states that these policies are dictated by Headquarters in Washington based on our country of service’s crime rates. Colombia has had one of the global high crime rates reported since Peace Corps returned here in 2010, largely due to the fact that at first PCVs were only living and working in cities.
There are some exceptions to the must-live-with-host-families rule:
- Couples serving together may live in their own home once they reach their permanent sites.
- PCVs who extend for a third year of service may live in their own apartment for their third year. This includes Peace Corps Volunteer Leaders (PCVLs).
- Peace Corps Response Volunteers may live alone for the duration of their service.
There are two major reasons that the office says living with host families is advantageous:
- Security. Having a locally-based family who is known by their neighbors and blahblahblah makes it safer.
- Integration. The members of host families can help you make connections in the community, with their families, friends, and colleagues.
OKAY, so let’s get to the real question: How is my host family? Let’s talk first about who they are!
My host mom, Alba, is a primary school teacher. She teaches at a school that I don’t work at, but thanks to her almost 30 years of experience and her role as the union rep, she is very well-known throughout the community. When people ask where I live, I often say, “Do you know the teacher Alba? She works at…?” and they say “Ahhh yes, I know where you live.” Alba is generous, creative, and extremely over-worked. As many women on the coast, she works a full-time job and then gets home to manage and clean the household. Yet when students need extra help with their classes, she has them come over for tutoring. When neighbors run into problems, she helps them. When I ask to throw a unicorn birthday party at the house, she puts in elbow grease to help clean and decorate (although I really really tried to minimize her workload). She loves to dance and loves to talk. In fact, according to her, I ended up living at her house basically because she saw the former PCVL Megan waiting at the bus stop near our house and so asked if she needed help finding something. Megan, a very bubbly and chatty person, responded in a way that Alba loved so much that Alba told Megan she should swing by any time. So when Megan was looking for houses for me, she just stopped by Alba’s to talk about the possibility.
My host dad, Charlis (like Charlie with a soft “s” at the end), was working as a security guard when I got here, but has been out of work for a bit. Before Megan met Charlis, Alba warned her that “he has a mean face, but he’s really friendly.” I don’t know if I’ve even really seen the mean face – lots of us suffer from RBF, right? He loves to watch soccer and boxing and talk about cultural and political differences and eat and drink beer. Unlike many men on the coast, he doesn’t disappear for hours to go drink and play dominoes with his buddies. He is very much a home body. However, like many men on the coast, he generally only helps with chores when asked and mostly expects his girls to serve him.
My host sister, Hailyn (pronounced like Eileen), is 22 years old and a doctor. Yes, you read that right. She graduated from high school at 16 and went straight to college and six years later graduated as a doctor. She has unfortunately been living in other cities most of the time I have been here. Six weeks after I moved in, she moved to a city in the interior to do her 6-month residency. She was back for about six weeks early this year before shipping off to a municipality in the far south of the country, where she is living for a year to do her rural service (this is in some way required for doctors here). Hailyn is great. I always miss having her around. She loves to cook and eat, but is also very picky. She has expensive tastes and unlike most people on the coast, does not dance.
My host sister Adriana is 19 years old. She is super sweet and caring and thoughtful. She always remembers when everyone’s birthday is. She loves to talk and is often found on the phone chatting with some aunt or cousin or friend. She is always proud to be in charge of cooking meals, but always forgets to do the dishes afterwards. She loves music and dancing and riding her bike with her friends and rollerskating and watching cartoons. She doesn’t remember things like grocery lists very well and struggles with money. By this description, you may realize that she has some cognitive delays that make her simultaneously a very self-sufficient 19 year-old, and a very happy child. Because of her condition and the lack of resources here on the coast, the poor girl is stuck at home all day every day without much to do. Lately Alba has been trying to get her into choirs and music classes so that she has something to do and look forward to and be proud of.
Also at my house is a very annoying little parakeet named Pelli (pay-yee) and a very sweet dog named Teo. They try to steal food from each other. I once tried to get Pelli to ride Teo, but the stupid bird wouldn’t get onto Teo’s back.
Overall I have been extremely lucky to have them as a family. They have welcomed me in with open arms and vouched for me sometimes when I’ve needed it (fighting to get my bike fixed for free) and cared for me like a baby when I had a fever after getting food poisoning. They share food with me sometimes and are always willing to try my weird concoctions. They invite me out for birthday dinners and going away dinners, and let me crash their family parties.
But it’s still hard to live with other people. Even within one culture, it is difficult; add in cultural differences and it can be just too much sometimes. Fortunately, they’re also pretty good about letting me just hide away in my room sometimes.