What motivates a family to host students for the Maryknoll Language Institute? I know that for many Americans, no amount of money could tempt them to give up their privacy ten months out of the year (there are two sessions at the Institute, five months each) to open up their home to strangers. It takes planning, cooperation within the family, and much prayer. Still, I know that many American families participate in programs that do just that, and find it enriching.
Our host family is hard working, close knit, and hospitable. Joel and I are the sojourners here, and we feel very welcomed. Our living quarters are upstairs from the central living space, with a separate entrance, where we have as much storage as we need, a comfortable bed, our own bathroom, complete with a hot shower (although temperamental), as well as a refrigerator, television, and DVD player. On Saturday, our hostess and her son went with us to the Concha, the huge marketplace in the city, to purchase lamps for our room, so that we have lots of lighting for studying at our desk and for late night-time reading. Although the family is a busy one, with adult children living at home and doing their own laundry, we have no problem gaining access to the family clothesline after washing our clothes in the LG (Life is Good) washing machine.
Senor Henry Rosa, the father, met us at the airport when we de-boarded from the plane, our names on a large placard he held up. Exhausted and wearing warm winter clothing, we managed to get our luggage into his Nissan Pathfinder, where we blinked in the hot summer sun as he drove us to our new home in the northern part of Cochabamba, the most prosperous part of the city. We were residing only four blocks from the Maryknoll Institute.
Henry is a pediatrician who also teaches at one of the universities (Universidad) in Cochabamba. He was on vacation when we arrived almost three weeks ago, but today is his first day to return to work. He teaches three classes at the Universidad. Lily Arze, our hostess, works at the Ambassador Hotel in what seems to me a tourist area near the center of the city, where attractive shops, like the Spitting Llama and interesting cafes may be found. There are three children (ages 22, 23, and 25), one daughter-in-law, and one grandson. The oldest daughter, aged 25, lives in La Paz, where she is a production engineer for the most popular beer brewery in Bolivia. The grandson, Sebastian, is taking swimming lessons and plays soccer and catch in the courtyard with his father and grandfather. His energy is boundless, and he talks nonstop, except for the one day when he was ill. The whole family is present for the main meal in the middle of the day; no one misses the mid-day meal, ever.
Infinite patience best describes the family’s efforts to ease Joel and me into the world of Spanish-speaking persons. How many times have I asked Lily, the mother here, to give me the Spanish words for wash, sleep, or even cherries or oatmeal? Her pronunciation, like that of Henry, her husband, is clear and distinct, yet my middle-aged brain hears a word and promptly forgets it. I have created small note-cards to aid my memory, and Joel and I try to write the new words on cards or put them on the computer almost immediately after talking with our host family. Henry noticed my ring of note cards and asked if he could copy them, in solidarity with our efforts to learn Spanish. Joel offered him his own vocabulary list from the computer. The atmosphere is jovial, and the conversation routine is much like charades. Our mutual encounters will enrich both families’ vocabulary and perspective on the world. The many jokes and stories show us that our cultures and mindsets are not too foreign to each other. Both are solicitous about our well-being, and Lily is particularly understanding of Joel’s so-called addiction to caffeine. Talks around the kitchen table after dinner are the best times for communication. All four of us, the two couples especially, find that the dialogue becomes easier to understand as the night goes on. We talk about soccer (we all went to the soccer game yesterday), our favorite music, how our day went—we even exchange stories about our pasts. Henry, Lily, Joel, and I discovered that we are all the same age, give or take a year, and that Lily and I were the same age when we had our oldest child. We have been married 33 years; they have been married 34.
One Sunday afternoon, when Lily’s mother was visiting, all of us discussed the secrets to a successful marriage (the mother had been married for more than sixty years).
This family has been hosting students since 1984. This is the year when Lupita (Guadalupe), the oldest daughter, was born, and also the year when our daughter, Emer, was born. Lily is so well organized in her presentation of meals that I have to remind myself that this is not a bed and breakfast. Joel and I have asserted our rights as more than guests when we help clear the table and take our turn doing the dishes.
Lily works outside the home, so she prepares the noon meal sometime in the morning before work or at night after the small supper. This morning at 5:00, when I got up a little earlier, I noted that the breakfast table was already set for all of us, and I have seen potatoes peeled and rice cooked before she goes to work. We have at least four kinds of fruit in the morning, from melons, cherries, and grapes, to apples and bananas. The first and last meals of the day are taken in the kitchen; the noon meal in the dining room, with everyone present, including all three children, the daughter-in-law, and the grandson, Sebastian, aged 3. All family members help prepare, from cutting vegetables (plentiful) to clearing the table and doing the dishes. This family is the most egalitarian that I have seen in sharing chores.
Like my fellow missioners, I want to learn Spanish so that I may have grown-up conversations with the family I live with. There are so many questions that I want to ask them about themselves. It could be that our host family is our primary teachers here in Bolivia. They take this task to heart, and I hope that I will not try their patience as I ask them to repeat the same word for the fourteenth time.