Diary of a Homestay

by Susanne K

My homestay family is devoutly Catholic and they have a lot of fun together. The parents, four grown children, a pregnant daughter-in-law and her two-year old son all live under the same roof. This is not an uncommon arrangement in Guatemala where families are generally close and rents are high in relation to incomes.

This family’s house is large, two storied and has been under construction for 14 years.  Each night the family huddle around a tiny round table for dinner with a makeshift kitchen in a nearby corner. A large unfinished, once modern, dining and cooking area sits a few metres away. It is filled with boxes, junk and still-boxed dishwashers and other appliances waiting to be installed. There is a mountain of rubble in another corner next to a spiral staircase which leads to the unfinished living quarters on the first floor.

I am told the house has cost more than US$400,000 so far and that the suspended construction and subsequent brick camping arrangement is the result of council and building industry corruption as well as changing legislation.

The family talk slowly and loudly to me during dinner. It is like a four on one Spanish lesson with catering. I feel pressure to make them feel like they are good teachers, especially when I have no idea what’s being said to me despite their collective effort. One word that will definitely not be forgotten is ‘sabroso’, meaning tasty. This is because I confused sabroso with ‘amoroso’ (amorous/loving) when trying to compliment the chef and papa nearly fell off his chair with shock and laughter.

On my second day, I woke up inside what felt to be a machine from the industrial revolution, with the sounds and vibrations of metal on metal and a rusty castle drawbridge yawning open.

The next morning I was quicker to realise what was piercing my half-consciousness: the sound of papa’s car engine reverberating around the concrete garage beside my room. In fact this was virtually the same room, because the large window between us contained no glass. The moat door was simply the house’s ornate iron veneer splitting open to release him to the world for another working day. Though it was a traumatic way to wake, I might not be relaying this scene if it had not occurred at 4.30am.

It was fortunate this soundscape was approaching familiar by the third morning when the parrot, which lives under a large piece of cloth in the garage, decided to chime into the cacophony. Its contribution was a mash of jazz skat, Sybil characters with Latin accents, and potted phrases like ‘that’s so funny’ followed by psychotic laughter. This would have been disturbing, even if I was fully conscious.

As well as having a soft spot for parrots, the big-hearted mama collects street dogs, which roam freely in the house’s central courtyard. A few times a day, their tussles escalate way beyond playfulness so that intermittent canine aggression and unpredictability rounds off the domestic ambience nicely with a special brand of menace.

Wifi, which can only be accessed by leaning your device into the glassless window frame in an effort to pick up a signal in the two square foot hotspot, is another idiosyncrasy.

It is becoming clear that this is all too steep a price to pay for my own bathroom. It is time to inspect the upstairs option with its curtain-walls.

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