Unlike most volunteers with Long Way Home, I do not live at the volunteer house at Parque Chimiyá, but reside in town with a host family. It is about a fifteen-minute stroll from the school to my house. Long Way Home is close with this family, and my host dad, Donal, often picks up new volunteers from the airport. Donal and his wife, Ana, have two sons, Estuardo, who is eleven, and Alan, who is five. In addition to the taxi service that Donal operates, my family owns a small tienda (store) that is connected to their kitchen. Of the hundreds of tiendas in Comalapa that sell choco-bananos, I’m convinced that you won’t find a better version of this tasty treat than at Ana and Donal’s place.My host family is even sweeter than those delicious choco-bananos that they serve. Estuardo taught me how to make birdcalls with my hands. Donal offers me advice, checks up on me if I’m sick, and is quick to provide comic relief. Besides always making delicious food, Ana gently corrects me when I make a mistake in Spanish and occasionally will have a treat waiting for me when I get home: some watermelon, Jell-O or a choco-banano. Alan is consistently so excited when I arrive home after work, and the first words out of his mouth are always, “¿Puedes jugar esta noche?” (Can you play tonight?)
Living with my host family has presented me with cool opportunities to explore the town and meet people. One Saturday in late July we all went to Ana’s mom’s house for lunch. Standing on the roof of her tall house in the center of town, you can look over most of urban Comalapa. Construction had just been completed and so about 25 family members were gathering for lunch to bless the home. I arrived with Donal and the two kids, and when we made it up to the roof, Ana was already cooking meat on an open fire with her sisters. I was last up the steps, and once I made it to the roof, Ana proclaimed, “Y aquí es mi hijo mayor” (And here is my oldest son). Roaring laughter ensued.
Once lunch was ready, we gathered on a lower level of the house and sat in plastic chairs in an elongated U shape around an altar. On my left sat Donal, and on my right a very friendly man whom I had just met. The mood was jovial as contented conversations filled the room. People ate the delicious lunch of tortillas and meat, and drank cold Cokes from a straw – a relaxing Saturday afternoon.All of a sudden, the abrupt sound of a plastic chair snapping and its former occupant falling to the floor broke the tranquility. Yup, there I was, sitting on the floor, my broken chair behind me and every eye in the room looking at the mess. If they had somehow missed the tall blonde dude that was in their midst beforehand, they were for sure aware of me now.
Donal made sure that I was alright as I got up, and I was graciously provided with two chairs, stacked one on top of the other, as my new seat. While my face remained a deep strawberry color, my lunch mates resumed their conversations, an undercurrent of laughter permeating the room. It’s not every day a gringo destroys a chair during their family lunch.
Ten minutes after my fall, another plastic chair snapped. I checked beneath me to make sure I was still properly plopped atop my upright chair. Indeed, it wasn’t me this time, but rather a man on the other side of the U. Ana quickly turned to me and cheerfully said, “¡No eres el único!” (You’re not the only one!)
When people get up to leave a meal here, they say “muchas gracias” and everyone else responds with “Buen provecho.” When I said my thanks after this lunch, I substituted, “Muchas gracias por caerse” (thanks for falling) to my fellow chair-breaker. After lunch, the two of us had a long conversation on the roof about his police work and about what I was doing in Comalapa. He even offered to take my picture with the big white church in the background. It’s funny the kind of events that can open the door for more in-depth interactions. Surprises happen, man, and the only thing to do is to embrace the challenge, embarrassment, fatigue, or what-have-you and keep trucking forward. Good things will happen. The sudden snapping of my silla (chair) is far from the only thing in the last two months that has reinforced this idea.
I don’t go to their relatives’ houses and break chairs every weekend, but living with a host family, I am constantly able to use Spanish and learn about Comalapan life. Here is a jumbled assortment of some of the lessons I’ve learned during my homestay and while wandering around town:
· Laundry is not easy. The first time I did laundry, the results were far from superb. I had a bag of “Blanca Nieves” laundry detergent, the large pila at my host family’s house, and a medium-sized bucket at my disposal. Interestingly, my first instinct was to try to mimic the wash cycle of the machines from back home. I dumped my clothes in the bucket with a heaping scoop of detergent and water from the pila, and began mixing around the clothes under the water with my hands. The final result: incredibly starchy, detergent-smelling, still-brown clothes. I have since improved my laundry technique, mostly by realizing that there is a technique, and it is quite different from the Whirlpool machines back home.
· To get somewhere quickly, just hail a tuk tuk – the three-wheeled taxis that are constantly whizzing by in town, barely dodging people, dogs and cars. They will take you anywhere in town for Q3 (less than 50 cents), though sometimes you have to bump it up to Q4 or Q5 for a ride from my house to Parque Chimiyá (about a 25 minute walk).
· It’s astonishing how much noise pollution there is in town, especially for a relatively small place. Tuk tuks, dogs, roosters, motorcycles, blaring music, the propane gas salesman with his megaphone: “Zeta Gaaaaaaas”…
· If you go to a tienda and ask for an “agua” (water), they might hand you a Coke. To ensure you get water, you need to ask for “agua pura” (pure water).
· All tortillas here have two distinct sides – as in, there is a correct way to fold a tortilla. When Donal told me this, it blew my mind.
· Angry Birds has been so successful at infiltrating everything everywhere. Angry Birds clothing, Angry Birds toys, Angry Birds stickers, Angry Birds puzzles…It’s absurd.
· Sitting on a tiny plastic chair sipping from a steaming hot cup of atol from a street vendor is amazingly comforting and a great way to hang out in town.
· Playing Super Smash Bros doesn’t have to be the most competitive thing in the world. If Estuardo’s character knocks Alan’s off of the screen, they will both laugh hysterically.
· Tradition and customs here are very important – from religious practices to eating the same local dish every Saturday night. But this deserves a whole separate blog post…
My time with Donal, Ana, Estuardo and Alan in Comalapa has been a delightful and educational experience. When I walk through the wide wooden door after work today, Alan will come bolting through the red curtain over the entryway to the kitchen asking me if I can play tonight, I will chat with Donal, Ana and Estuardo, and then make my way to my room to take off my boots before dinnertime. I will be home.
by Nathan Rockey