Wednesday, April 18, 2012

TRAVEL : On Universal Communication


When looking at study abroad options, the word “homestay” seems to have a certain gravity to it – it can be the reason why people either will or will not take a trip. While the idea of a homestay can certainly be scary, choosing to do so can easily end up being a highlight of your travels.  The following modified stories were taken from a journal entry I wrote during a several month long study abroad program in which I participated in my first homestays.
I remember the first time I saw the proposed itinerary for my trip to South America. I remember sitting at my laptop, scrolling through the weeks as my imagination ran wild, conjuring images of mountain climbing, river rafting and Carnaval celebrating. But even as my excitement grew and the trip’s reality became more tangible, the concern kept resurfacing:  “that’s a lot of homestays.”
As a limited Spanish speaker, I looked upon the homestay portions of our journey with a mixture of excitement and something verging on terror. Sharing a home with someone is always a tremendous responsibility. But compounded with meeting new people, eating (possibly) strange food and navigating a wholly different culture, living together becomes a challenge and bleeds into cultural differences. Fears of speaking a foreign language and of not being able to communicate clearly can be daunting.
Yet despite my initial anxiety, the homestays during my trip came and went with surprising ease. Upon meeting my first homestay family, I was struck by their adept command of English. Both my homestay mom and dad were Spanish teachers working in the city, so they were often able to translate my English into Spanish and fill in the gaps left by my broken grasp of the language. Even my homestay partner, another American, was able to lend me a hand when I was at a loss for words in Spanish. My first homestay abroad was defined by a feeling of security in knowing that someone would always be able to help me communicate when I could no longer string the words together myself.
My second homestay marked the first time I was on my own in an environment in which Spanish and Aymara, one of the primary indigenous languages in South America, were the go-to methods of communication. I remember the first day I met the family, worn out from a long trek through the mountains, boots caked in mud and backpack damp from the rain. Exhausted, I was especially uneasy about my ability to speak Spanish. But when I arrived at my new home, I was greeted by my homestay sisters, Deysi, age seven, and Sadie, age twelve, with hugs and huge “holas!” Deysi asked to see my journal, grabbed a pen, and wrote her full name carefully and deliberately in cursive. Her older sister followed her example and offered to write words in Spanish so that I could translate them into English. This small but meaningful gesture allowed me to see that even though the language barrier between us ran deep, it did not necessarily mean in inability to communicate. Indeed, mutual desire to overcome such barriers not only strengthens both parties’ language skills, but also forges human connection. There is perhaps nothing more beautiful than that.
During my first homestay, I discovered the value of a little extra help. As for my second? I know now to never underestimate the power of universal communication. So the next time you are weighing your study abroad options, consider a homestay, even if you are feeling slightly apprehensive. While it will indeed take more effort, the payoff can be immeasurable. 

The Woman Behind the Travel Section:

Katie Helete is a cultured old soul with a kind of energy that would entice you to travel with her anywhere. Attending UC Berkeley as an undergraduate, she is majoring in Political Economy. Explore the world, bucket list by bucket list with the brilliant and bold Katie.

No comments: