All my life, I’ve seen embroidered pillows that say, “Home is where the heart is.” For me, that’s a little kitschy, and also not true. For me…home is where my mom is. Obviously, I can’t drag her around Latin America, so little by little, I’ve learned how to find home in new places.
Anyone who has ever lived or studied abroad can tell you that homesickness and culture shock can be two of the most challenging aspects of a trip. All study abroad programs try to prepare students to cope with it. This being my fourth trip abroad, albeit my longest, you’d think I’d have come up with tricks to conquer those challenges…but that’s not the case.
What I have learned, and what family, friends, and mentors remind me of regularly is that it is okay to be vulnerable. When we arrived to the community of Martin Senteno for our rural homestay, I had a really bad cold. I tried so hard to keep it together and pretend I was fine—ready for anything, like a good study abroad student should be! I didn’t want to offend my homestay mother…I was afraid she would think I was upset about staying with her. Not surprisingly, I lost it. My host mom, Estela, heard me crying and asked me what was wrong. I told her I was sick with a cold and tired from the long trip. Estela went into mom-mode. “You go lay down in the hammock, I’ll bring you some chamomile tea.” She did, and then I took a nap. When I woke up she had brought me a fan from one of her neighbor’s houses to make sure that I could sleep comfortably. For those five nights, Estela made Martin Senteno home.
With this small world, it’s also possible, even likely, that you might find someone or something from your home. One day, on the Caribbean coast of Nicaragua, we were walking into the house of a man who was going to talk to us about the literacy campaign in the 1980’s. As I walked through the door I heard an unmistakably southern voice. When I asked the woman where she was from after introductions, she said “South Carolina” in a way that sounded just like home. As it turns out, she was from Spartanburg and does mission trips in Nicaragua. Just chatting with her for five minutes gave me a sense of comfort that I didn’t even know I wanted. As she left, she of course gave me a hug like we had known each other forever.
I also tricked myself into thinking I’d found something familiar, and it ended embarrassingly. Pearl Lagoon is in the Caribbean part of Nicaragua and the people there eat mostly seafood. We spent the day with a family in the community and I was desperately hoping we would go crabbing, because it’s something I’m actually familiar with as a Charlestonian. I talked big about how I crabbed when I was a kid and was excited to teach my New Yorker friend how to crack open the legs and get all the meat out of the body. What I didn’t know is that every time I ate crabs as a little girl, my grandma washed out all of the goopy stuff from the body (anyone who has seen said goopy stuff knows that there’s no better way to describe it). I cracked open the body of one of the thirty or so crabs we caught and I was absolutely dumbfounded. I had no idea how to eat around it, and my host mother was eating it as is. I couldn’t eat the “goopy stuff,” and I’ll know next time to find out what we’re doing before I start bragging about my experience.
The world seems huge, and I’ll admit I was nervous about going on this trip alone. I’m finding out, though, that it’s a pretty small world and we all have a lot in common. Estela took care of me with the worry and the patience of any mother. The woman from Spartanburg that I ran into was seeing things in Pearl Lagoon from a perspective similar to my own. Crabbing with my host family on the Caribbean coast felt just the same as crabbing with my own family in Charleston—a fun family activity that ends with happy, full stomachs.
And for those wondering…I’m still a mama’s girl—and not just for the soup and goop!