Homestay With A Mayan family

July 10, 2013 | By | 3 Replies More

San Juan La Laguna

When I was in Guatemala I did a homestay with a Mayan family in the town of San Juan on Lake Atitlán. A homestay is an experience where you can live with a host family to study abroad, learn a new language, and exchange cultures. Families will often host visitors to supplement their income and learn from people of different ethnicities through exchanging traditions, knowledge, and culture.

I organized my stay through Rising Minds, an organization that provides support and training to cooperatives around Lake Atitlán to improve their quality of life. Many of the Mayan families are living in poverty and the organization promotes understanding and cultural awareness between the developed and developing worlds.

I chose this program is because I was volunteering with Rising Minds to help one of the local cooperatives improve their business. I didn’t want to make any recommendations for a project without having an understanding the culture, so I lived with a Mayan family for about a week.

Mayan room

The family I stayed with spoke Spanish and Tz’utujil (pronounced sue two hill), which is one of the 21 Mayan dialects. There were seven members that lived in the household. Their home was constructed of bricks and had sheet metal for the roofing. There was running water, electricity, and propane gas in the home. It also had the typical three compartment cement sink found in most Guatemalan homes where laundry and dishes are done. There was only one bathroom in the house.

I stayed in the room pictured above. It had a flat screen TV, DVD player, and cable TV. I didn’t watch it, but I was a bit surprised to see expensive electronics. There were a few toys, books, and games like you’d find in any home. A certificate of recognition from the father’s work was displayed on the wall. The furniture in the room was simple and the bed was comfy.

Learn weaving

I spent some time at the cooperative and learned how to weave. I also worked in the store to see what a typical day was like. Weaving was labor intensive.

Mayan stove

The daughter taught me how to “tortillar” which is make tortillas. The Mayan women make tortillas everyday. They cook them on clay stove heated by firewood. The son climbs up a mountain every weekend to cut wood or “leña” for the following week. While tortillas can be store bought, it’s their tradition to make them the old fashion way.

Mayan dinner

One of night for dinner, we had broccoli, scrambled eggs, tomatos, and tortillas. The Mayan diet typically consists of tortillas, rice, beans, plantains, served with a spicy chili sauce. Meals alternate to include eggs, fish, chicken, and vegetables. Meat and vegetables were often eaten in separate meals. The portion sizes were a lot smaller compared to the American diet. I really liked this way of eating because it’s enough food to be filling, but not too much that it makes you feel full. Small portions gives your body time to get nutrients without over working the digestion process in one big meal.

Coffee tour

The father took me to the coffee cooperative where he worked and invited me on a tour of the plantation. I got to learn about the whole process from when coffee was planted to enjoyed in a cup.

La Reina Pageant

On the last night of my stay, the family took me to the annual celebration and crowning of San Juan’s queen. Seven single Mayan women competed and were judged based on their cultural presentation, how they answer questions dealing with social issues in their community, and their ability to answer the questions in both Spanish and Tz’utujil. I was probably one of less than a handful of gringos who were at the event.

The whole week went by too fast. I really got immersed into the Mayan culture and the family invited me in as if I were one of their own. Many things that I learned about was how sad the Mayan weavers are from working long hours, alcoholism in the culture, illiteracy in the older generation, and violence and crime in Guatemala. There were several positive things I learned as well such as their strong sense of community, preservation of cultural heritage, family values, simplicity, work ethic, and desire to provide educational opportunities for their children. This homestay experience really helped me with my volunteer project. After living with this family, it made me re-evaluate how I eat and think about more things that I can simplify in my life.

I paid $30 USD a night for this experience which included three meals a day, a private room, and they washed my clothes. According to what I was told, Rising Minds gives the family 37% of proceeds, and 63% goes to the organization. This price per night is around the ball park of a backpacker’s budget, but traveling in Guatemala can be done cheaper.

Since there was money exchanged for this homestay, I questioned how authentic was it versus a culture exchange done on Couchsurfing. Did the family put on a show because I was there for a week, or was that how they really are? Does the family really need assistance if they can afford a flat screen TV? These are thoughts that crossed my mind. Don’t get me wrong, the family was very hospitable and wonderful.

Regardless, the homestay program was an eye-opener and immersive learning experience to get a feel for the Mayan culture and learn more about Guatemala.

Would you do a homestay? If you’ve done one, what was your experience?

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Comments (3)

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  1. Amy says:

    It looks like you had some great experiences and learnt a lot; it would be interesting to hear more about the cultural issues you mention such as the long work hours and alcoholism as well as more stories about the positive lessons you took away from your experience. A homestay sounds like a great idea and we’d love to do one, preferably one where all the proceeds go to the family though.
    Amy recently posted…Terima Kasih MalaysiaMy Profile

    • Mig says:

      It was quite an experience and highly recommend a homestay.

      I should elaborate on the long work hours. Mayan women weavers work hard. They start early in the morning and finish late at night. Making one product can take several hours to a few days to complete. A scarf can be done in several hours to less than a day, but a tablecloth that sells for 150 Q ($21 USD) takes a few days. Assume an 8 hour working day for two days, they would only make 9 Q an hour to finish a 150 Q table cloth!

      Here’s a typical schedule of a Mayan weaver:

      5:00 a.m. Wake up, start fire for stove to make breakfast
      8:00 a.m. Clean, wash clothes, afterwards start sewing
      11:00 a.m. Make tortillas for lunch
      1:00 p.m. to 6:00 p.m. Continue sewing
      6:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m. Cook and eat dinner
      8:00 p.m. to 11:00 p.m. Continue sewing
      Sunday morning is a rest period then they begin sewing in the afternoon again.

      Many women are sad because they work a lot. If they can’t make ends meet, they work in other houses and clean to make extra money. They wash clothes and eat quickly while they work. There isn’t that much time in their day to help their kids out with their homework. The kids help out around the house cutting wood to sell. A woman earns 30 Q to wash clothes from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. or they climb the mountain to cut wood with a machete for 20 Q for 8 hours of work. The typical wage working for 12 hours 8:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. is 30 Q – 35 Q. That’s $4 USD a day! To put things into perspective, lunch in a local restaurant is 15 Q.

      As far as alcoholism, I don’t recall why it’s such a problem in the culture, but hope someone else living in Guatemala who is reading this can chime in here on the blog.

      I did take away several positive lessons such as adjusting my diet from learning about how Mayans eat, how they build a strong sense of community and family connections, and I found it wonderful that when someone leaves the dinner table they always say thank you, and when they said thank you… it was very genuine and they we’re totally present in the moment when saying thank you.

      It would be nice to find a family to live with and just give them the money, but the organization has logistical costs to make sure the Mayan families they work with can handle a homestay guest. They interview and screen each family that is part of the program, they do hygiene training to make sure the family is cooking food that will be suitable for foreigners, as well as making sure the room is also clean and safe. I understand why the organization gets a cut, but hope to find other programs with a better logistics cost ratio that can help out a family more than the organization.

  2. Amy says:

    Wow, that is a very intensive work schedule for little pay – puts western work habits into perspective. With regards to homestay fees, I was thinking about when Andrew and I were invited to stay in an Iban Longhouse in Borneo, in that case we gave the Chief some money and gifts but we knew that it was all going straight to the people who lived in the longhouse. That experience was quite rare though and from what you’ve written above I can understand why the agency takes a cut. It still sounds like an amazing experience which both you and the host family benefited from.
    Amy recently posted…Our Journey into the Jungles of BorneoMy Profile

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