Home Away From Home

By Shira Yeskel-Mednick, Marketing and Communications intern

Alexandra (host sister), Josef (cousin), Jenny (cousin), and Janis (host sister) ready to dance in the festival.

Voices reach from room to room, calling out well worn and familiar phrases. It’s clear that the same sentence with the same cadence and the same answer has bounced off the walls a thousand times. The baby shouts out nonsense syllables from his crib, grinning up at everyone and adding to the comfortable cacophony. The walls are covered with colorful posters advertising festivals, and boxes full of products for the family store cluster in precarious stacks all around the edges of the room. Something smells incredible, and steam is gently rising from pots on the stove. Among this warm, energetic household I shared my first meal in Peru.

Like many Awamaki volunteers, I opted to spend the first part of my time in Peru living with a host family. Living with a host family offers the opportunity for an intimate kind of cultural exchange, one that is difficult to find any other way. Living in a homestay requires a period of adjustment, but the ease and generosity of families that host is always impressive and appreciated. The only way I’ve found to make it through through that period is to make a deliberate effort to spending time in common spaces as opposed to in my room alone, ask lots of questions and trying to participate in family life in whatever ways I can find. It feels odd, bordering on surreal, to call strangers family and participate in their daily lives, but over the course of time the label starts to make sense. Small, priceless victories come when I notice myself thinking of the host family’s house as “home” or when the family unconsciously includes me in the chores and rituals that keep the household running. Eventually, the relationships that form between a volunteer and their host family end up deeply benefiting both. For the host family, volunteers add to a constellation of loved ones that often extends across the world.

Ebelia, my host mom, (middle) on the day of the festival.

For the volunteer, a host family opens the door to participating in the traditional aspects of the community. For example, Ollantaytambo celebrated the 34th anniversary of the artisan market two weekends ago with a big festival. The artisans dressed up, danced through the streets, and dueled each other in a massive game of tug of war. Sunday culminated with a dance in the main plaza. As I waded through the crowd to get a good view, my host dad grabbed my hand and cried “A bailar!”, meaning, “Let’s dance!”. So there I was, the only person under 30, and maybe more importantly the only person not from Ollantaytambo. I got a lot of looks, but I was having a great time, so I smiled every time I made eye contact with someone. About 95% of the time I got a huge smile in return. What truly made the experience was that afterwards, I heard both my host mom and host dad jovially explaining the situation, saying “pues, es mi hija!”, which means “that’s my daughter!”.

When both the family and the volunteer engage and really put in an effort to get to know each other, a deep bond forms. When I talk to my host mom about her past volunteers, she always speaks with affection and nostalgia. Laura, our volunteer coordinator of three years, stayed with the same host family I did upon her arrival here. Over the years, she’s maintained her relationship with the family. Laura is off to grad school soon, and will leave Ollanta in early April. When I asked Ebelia, my host mom, about Laura’s departure she said “We love Laura so much, and we will miss her terribly. I’m certain that Alexandra and Janis [the daughters of the family] will cry and cry when she leaves.”

Baby Tiago, the nugget.

An average day in my homestay includes eating breakfast, lunch and dinner as family members run between the dining room and the family store, which are connected. The TV is almost always on, and I’ve quickly became addicted to the novela “Volver a Amar.” It comes on after dinner, and my host mom and I watch it together every night. I’d say my favorite thing to do at home is playing with the baby. Tiago is one-year-old, and just about the cutest nugget on the planet. Having a family and a home to go back to for meals and community, even if it’s only for a short period of time, is something I value while abroad.