I never imagined all of the things I would learn from a year abroad – of course I knew I’d be learning a new language, manoeuvring a new city and adapting to cultural differences. But until you have lived abroad you don’t quite realise the amazing number of quirks each culture has. You also get a lesson on your own culture – it is impossible for me to not compare my own country’s culture to the one I am living in; the good and the bad. There are things about Honduras that I can’t wait to say goodbye to (the harrassment from men on the street for one) but there are so many more things that I love and wish I could pack up in my suitcase to bring home with me. It’s just not going to be the same describing things to friends and family at home – like the sexy dancing and how passionately Hondurans talk about every subject. So here are some things I learnt while living abroad in Honduras…
1. You can’t really learn what a country is about from just a few weeks. Many of the things I’ve learnt about Honduras were after months of settling in; if you only live somewhere for a month or so, or you live by yourself, or you don’t speak the language, how can you learn the little quirks and eccentricities of a culture? I still learn something new every day from watching people at my project, in my family or just in the street. How you address someone you respect, whether you can ask someone who they are voting for or what is an acceptable way to eat. There are just an unbelievable amount of things about a culture you can’t imagine before you get there.
2. Learning a new language is complex… but you don’t always need it. Unfortunately my Spanish isn’t as good as I would have hoped by the time that I am leaving. But I can get by and I enjoy speaking Spanish, despite the headache is can bring on sometimes. But despite my lack of fluency, I have managed to make amazing friends with people who speak not one word of English. Having someone help you form sentences when neither of you speak the same language can be a lot of fun and helps you to trust someone. And the feeling of reward when you can have a full conversation with someone is enormous.
3. You will realise aspects of yourself that aren’t just about you… you’re actually more British than you thought (or whatever nationality you might be!). For example, in the UK if you happened to make the mistake of sitting next to an odd, smelly person on the bus, you wouldn’t dream of changing seats even if there were plenty of others available. Otherwise you might just accidentally offend someone you will never see again! But in Honduras there is none of that silly over-politeness. Even you want to change seats on the bus, you just change. Simple. Other British traits that have been a disadvantage to me during the past year: my eagerness to queue, inability to complain to the person I need to and always feeling the need to talk about meaningless subjects, like the weather.
4. Traditional occasions are celebrated differently. This Christmas will be my first abroad and with people other than my family. I have to admit that my sister and I are quite spoilt at Christmas – we get some nice presents and then a big, fat Christmas dinner. We enjoy spoiling our parents too though, and of course our dogs. This year I won’t be expecting any presents or yorkshire puddings… but instead I will be staying up until 5am Christmas morning and then visiting family and eating lots of traditional Honduran Christmas food. I will also be joining one of my host sisters in giving food to homeless people in the city… how amazing is that. And, thankfully, they love Christmas trees and Christmas lights in Honduras too!
5. You’ll never understand your second home country completely. There are still so many things about Honduras that I just can’t understand. And I know if I lived here, some things would drive me crazy. This may be due to the large cultural difference between the UK and Honduras but I think it would be true of any country – everywhere has things that are hard to explain to a foreigner. But it makes living abroad an adventure every day; constantly learning and growing in your understanding of a new place.
6. Making new and exotic friends can be good and bad. I never imagined that I would make so many great friends during my time here – both from Honduras and Europe, through my volunteering organisation. It has been amazing to learn about other cultures, share stories and be invited to visit so many foreign places. But along with new friends, comes more goodbyes. Especially with my host family, I know I won’t see or talk to them anywhere near as much as I would like to. But it’s all part of the experience and so worth the airport tears.
7. You’ll learn how adaptable you are. Having been here during two volunteer periods (my volunteer organisation sends volunteers for 6 or 12 months at a time), I have been with around 12 different volunteers and every person has had such a different experience. Some people can really adapt and integrate into the culture, whereas others approach their time as being a temporary volunteer in a foreign country; just visiting. Fortunately, I have been more of the former and I have been described as a ‘catracha’ a few times, which is a name for a Honduran woman.
8. Everyone’s experience is different. I have been quite narrow-minded in my view of Honduras. I love Honduras, truly I just love the country and it’s people so much. And I love travelling and living abroad. But some people don’t love Honduras, don’t have a particular interest in exploring other countries or would hate to live somewhere other than their own country. And for some time, I struggled to understand these other stand points – I thought people who didn’t want to travel and explore were missing out. But I’m missing out too – I see my friend’s Britishy Christmas pictures, I see pictures of my family together and want to cry with jealousy that I’m not there with them, I can’t complain about the weather with everyone I meet. Everyone’s priority list is different so you just have to learn to appreciate another’s persons different list to your own.
9. Politics are REALLY complicated. And differ in every country. The approach and state of politics are so different in Honduras than in the UK. Obviously, Honduras is a lot less economically stable than the UK but it goes a lot deeper than that. It was a really interesting experience to see the 2013 elections here and it helped me to learn a lot more about the country. Just as a small example, the graffiti on walls here is all about the government and freedom, rather than swearwords and weird letters. There is a wall near the centre of Tegus that has a painting of a stack of dynamite with a tag on saying ‘Para: el gobierno’, which means ‘for the government’. As well as a, really good, painting of a toilet with the word ‘education’ going down the bowl. I just think that’s amazing… people really care about politics here but have little opportunity to express it.
10. Sharing your own culture is a refreshing experience. It gives you the chance to be passionate and proud of your country, and even encourage you to recognise things you maybe hadn’t seen before. I’ve never been more proud of our posh accents and that English came from England (not the US as some Hondurans think). But also I’ve never been more ashamed of our ungratefulness for our welfare system and social security. I’ve never been more proud of the Royal family and little baby George. But I’m also ashamed of our issues with racism and ignorance. Sharing your own culture can be great though, especially when you’ve got a big bar of Cadbury’s to pass around.
As I said before, I need to be more open-minded to other people not wanting to travel etc, but I think it is a great experience to live abroad, at least for a couple of months. You can learn so much about a new culture, your own culture and yourself. I have loved almost every moment of my year abroad – someone asked me recently what was my worst day this year. I really couldn’t think of any particular day – of course I’ve been upset a few times but this year I have generally been happier. I wish I could do the whole year again, thank you Honduras.