Everybody’s trying to be environmentally conscious and healthy these days, right? Talking about things like the green movement (just saw an awesome performance touching on that: Marc Bamuthi Joseph/The Living Word Project with Theaster Gates red, black and GREEN: a blues), CSAs (community supported agriculture), and repurposing. If in this green movement repurposing is more efficient than recycling, then they really know what’s up in Central America: drinking fresh juice out of a prayer candle jar with the image of a saint still wrapped around the shaft of the glass.
When I was in college two fellow students planned a social justice awareness trip to Nicaragua. After the info session for the trip I left the auditorium with that excited, nervous, nauseous feeling in the pit of my stomach and my heart beating fast, knowing that I needed to be on that trip. We stayed with host families in the small town of San Ramon, with quiet roads trafficked mostly by families strolling. The house I stayed in had brick walls, a dirt floor, two bedrooms, and a living room. The bathroom was just outside the back door, and the kitchen was also outside, cooking being done over wood fire. My energetic host mom had short black hair and was quick to smile and laugh. She was a very sweet woman and extremely dedicated to providing the best possible future for her children. Her husband left the house early each morning to work on a farm, and he and my host mom operated a restaurant five nights of the week out of their house, with customers seated on the patio or in the front room, dining at plastic tables with plastic chairs. On my first morning at this house next to my plate of rice and beans was a prayer candle — I mean, a glass of fresh juice. Being a highly Catholic country (they’re speaking Spanish there, remember) I wasn’t surprised to see this religious paraphernalia but I was a little weary of drinking out of it (being raised Catholic I wasn’t sure if this was allowed). So, I when-in-Rome’d it and drank from the jar that once housed a candle, picking up a saint’s image matching the curvature of the glass of frothy fresh delicious juice made with melon, sugar and water.
Two years later, I organized and led the trip to Nicaragua, returning to stay with the same host family who was impressed by how much more Spanish I spoke the second time around (after having studied abroad in Quito). To get a feel for it, watch the minute and a half video of my second trip to Nicaragua. I left this trip with hand written letters from my host mom, her granddaughter, their pre-teen neighbor who helped around the house in exchange for meals (her family didn’t have as many resources as they had children), and a bag of jewelry made out of seeds found in the forest near their home. The younger host brother had recently started working on his artesanίa, and I agreed to sell things for him in the states. I sold the jewelry in a fair trade shop in New Hampshire and learned how to send money through Western Union.
We continued to have a fair amount of dialogue, and I felt good being “involved”. But what happens with these relationships we create while traveling? What is supposed to happen? After leaving do we feel obligated to maintain a relationship out of “first world guilt”? On the other hand, there most definitely are genuine connections formed and continued concern for a host family. I know I cried in front of a room full of people while trying to thank my host family at the second trip’s going away party. And I don’t fall for everyone I meet. Only a few days more than two weeks of my life with these people, and they left more of an emotional impact on me than my host family of months in Ecuador.
Maybe it’s the novelty and the romance of such a brief intense period of time with someone? The intimacy of sharing daily life and the ephemeral nature of the host/guest relationship? The assumed fondness you think they feel for you due to their friendliness and hospitality?
At any rate, it’s a lot like juice and repurposed prayer candle jars, trying to figure out the proper and mutually beneficial way to maintain a relationship with a host family. It could take on many forms, changing states like fruit from solid to liquid, and altering the use of the relationship: I am a guest, I’m using the host family for a bed, food, and gaining a cultural experience. I am a paying guest (the host families were paid an appropriate amount for the cost of our food, bottled water, and inconvenience to their families) so they’re using me for a small amount of income and maybe also gaining a cultural experience.
Years later, all I’m sure of is that my younger host brother has recently been to the United States (I was informed by the Internet; we’re Facebook friends, of course) and I’ve got a juicer sitting in the cabinet under the kitchen counter that a friend left while traveling and didn’t take with him when he moved to Oakland. The juicer had never used before, and I thought about making Nicaraguan melon saint juice but quickly remembered that my host family in Nicaragua didn’t have a juicer. Instead they had a blender. Into a blender went a chopped-up cantaloupe, some spoonfuls of sugar, and half a cup of water. I turned on the blender and waited for the froth. I don’t have any empty prayer candles, just an old Anthropologie glass candle jar.