Reflections on My Homestay in the Gálápagos
By Carolyn McDonald ’16
Neptuno III skims over the water towards the dock on Isabela carrying seventeen queasy Bates students and our two professors. I apprehensively examine the island that is to be my home for the next two weeks: The lush green vegetation at the edge of the island gives way to the ominous outlines of volcanoes in the background, their peaks obscured in the clouds. My stomach flutters as I realize that I will have to meet my host family, who speaks no English, in just a few short minutes. And I speak only basic conversational Spanish. Fantastic.
Not only am I afraid of the language barrier, I am also anxious about the cultural differences I know that I will encounter and how I will handle them. What if I make a mistake and insult them? I know that my experience on this island will be unlike anything I have ever known when we munch on the popcorn the waitress sets down on the table at lunch on that first day, and we are informed that the popcorn is actually used like crackers in the soup, not as a pre-meal snack.
When we arrive after lunch with a no-seatbelts taxi ride, the warm hug and cheek kiss I receive from my host father Marcos, host mother Betty, host sister Monica, and her seven-year-old daughter Ariana alleviate my nerves slightly. Before my roommate Rose and I leave for our orientation at IOI, they invite us into the house for a cool glass of Fanta, which is refreshing in this heat and humidity. I’m surprised to find out that Monica and Ariana live with Marcos and Betty, an arrangement rarely found in American culture. Their yellow concrete house consists of a small room that contains both the living room, consisting of couches arranged in a circle in front of the TV, and the dining room, formed by the dining table and chairs. The dining area melds into the small kitchen that contains the always-important blue water jug. I am surprised to notice that it lacks an appliance standard in every U.S. kitchen: an oven. A door leads from the living room area to Monica and Ariana’s bedroom. Attached is Marcos and Betty’s room, accessible only through a door outside the house. Their humble living arrangements are an abrupt change from the larger two-story houses and sprawling lawns I’m familiar with from home.
My nerves return again as Rose and I walk up the dirt driveway to the house, after spending our first afternoon on Isabela touring the town with our IOI coordinator, (and island mom), Miss Amanda. I sit on the edge of the couch next to Rose, who is fluent in Spanish, as she talks to Betty, Monica, and Ariana about where we are from, what we are studying, and our plans during the trip. I try to follow along, but I am only able to add sophisticated sentences like, “I am from the U.S.,” and to relate to Ariana, who enjoys her math class, “I like math.” I spend dinner silent as well as Spanish surrounds me. I instantly regret deciding not to minor in Spanish, wishing that I could find the key to the unlock code that they speak.
The next few days are not much better. I know that the family is very nice, but I have trouble relating with them. Monica speaks quickly, Betty speaks quietly, and Ariana speaks only to Rose, who she has begun to grow close to. I sit on the edge of the couch, trying to find a point to break into the conversation, but I end up only listening and trying to keep up with the fast pace of the discussion. Also, the TV in the living room that is always on confuses me: why leave it on if you never watch it?
“Is it ok if we go to the park with them tonight? There’s some show going on that they want us to go to,” Rose asks me on the third day of our homestay. My heart sinks. We have spent a long day in the relentless sun, hiking around the nearby island of Tintoreras and estimating population numbers of marine iguana size classes. I really want to go to my room, face-plant on my bed, and take a break from the whirlwind of language barriers that envelops me. Instead, I take a deep breath and say “sure,” as cheerfully as I can muster.
The show, aimed at children, is about conservation. And it is, of course, in Spanish. I sit on the edge of the concrete bench between Rose and Ariana, feeling awkward because I don’t know if I should attempt to talk to Ariana and what I should say. She slaps at a whining mosquito, slightly bored with the show and the fact she can’t converse with anyone next to her. I know that if I want a chance at becoming her friend, I need to say something now. The actors in tortoise, blue-footed booby, and penguin costumes dance on the stage. I take a deep breath and blurt, “te gusta bailar? (do you like to dance?)” She looks at me, her face spreading into a grin full of lost teeth. She nods vigorously, her long black ponytail bobbing up and down. “I take dance classes,” she says. “I like to dance, too,” I say. She moves closer to me, and we sit in silence for a few minutes. She then glances at me mischievously, and reaches her hand behind my back to tap Rose on the shoulder in the age-old trick of making people turn in the opposite direction. I grin at her, and she snickers as Rose turns to look at us, shaking her head in mock outrage. Ariana wraps her arm around my waist as we walk home. I smile.
Over the next few days, I realize that I understand the conversation more easily. I begin to relax, and when I’m asked a question I respond in broken Spanish rather than in English and have Rose translate. I don’t think twice about the fact that Monica lives with her parents because I see how important family is in the Latin American culture. The TV that is always on becomes background noise as I begin to only glance at it when something interesting is on, like everyone else. I stop reaching for the seatbelt every time I climb into a taxi truck. Life on Isabela and with my host family has become normal.
On family day, the Sunday before we return to Bates, my host family takes us to the beach. We swim and play monkey in the middle and catch. Monica serves us heaping portions of our picnic lunch, chicken and rice with the always-delicious peach juice. Monica and Ariana begin collecting isopods on the beach. I jump off my bench and run to the water to help them paw through the sand until I feel the critter crawling in my hand. I dump it into the red pale Monica holds. “Monica told me they eat them,” Rose whispers to me. I stare at the crawling crustaceans in the bucket. We look at each other, praying that the isopods don’t find their way into our dinner tonight.
That night is the Mother’s Day celebration. I am a little overwhelmed when I catch the word “veinte” used next to the word “personas:” twenty family members will be gathering for the dinner, none of whom speak a word of English. I prepare myself as they come up the driveway. But as they smile and greet me in the traditional way, I know that my nerves were not necessary. Dinner consists of a large plate filled with pasta with pesto (made by Rose and me), chicken, broccoli, green beans, and, of course, rice. As I eat, Betty sits across from me. She begins talking to me and asks me a question about the weather in the U.S. I automatically look around for Rose, but she is already engaged in a conversation with Monica’s sister. I take a deep breath and slowly begin to explain why it is warmer in Florida than in Maine. Betty stares at me intently, concentrating on understanding my words. After much starting and stopping, I finish my explanation and she says “ahh,” as she comprehends my Spanish. I smile and sit back in my chair, proud that I produced a few coherent sentences in Spanish.
As I lay in bed that night, listening to the gecko chatter on my metal roof, I reflect on the day our family spent with us, and I know how lucky I am that I live with this family. Monica makes us dinner even if our school plans change, Betty cleans our room, Marcos is always interested in our latest adventure, and Ariana proudly marches around the streets of Isabela, holding the hands of her two host sisters. They are patient with my Spanish, and they buy us ice cream treats. They do all of this for us because family and community are the most important aspects of life in Isabela. Without each other, their lives hold little meaning. When a cousin drops by for an unexpected visit, the faces of my host family glow with joy to see her and dote on her. They treat us like we are members of their family. We visit the park, attend a meeting, and shop at the grocery store with them. And I am proud to be a part of their family.
The last morning. I open my eyes to the familiar sounds of a dog barking, roosters crowing, and a gecko chirping on my roof. I gaze sleepily around my room, at the table with the Santa Claus tablecloth, the window where I hung the Lightning McQueen towel as a curtain, and my bedside table with the pot of flowers. I am surprised to find out that Marcos, Betty, Monica, and Ariana are all driving us to the dock where we will board the boat to leave Isabela. The air is thick with humidity as they help us unload our suitcases from the bed of the taxi truck. Ariana holds onto Rose and me as we watch the pinguinos (penguins) and lobos del mar (sea lions) play in the water, waiting for our water taxi. Monica takes a few last minute pictures of us all together. Finally, the time comes. I thank them as I hug them goodbye and give them the cheek kiss. As the water taxi pulls away from the dock, I see Betty and Marcos waving to us. I wave back, grateful that I met them and they welcomed me into their family and way of life.
[This piece was Carolyn’s reflection on her experiences in the Gálápagos as part of Bio s32 – The Ecology and Evolution of the Gálápagos Islands given on on May 22, 2014.]