How to fast track a truly cultural experience

Our featured blogger, Thidara Udomritkul, reveals the quickest way to get under the skin of a country.

7 mins

I've stayed with a host family on three different occasions now: once in Sanga, Nepal; once in Juaso, Ghana; and finally in Bududa, Uganda, for a month in 2012.

Each of these experiences have been unforgettable, each in their own little way. You are truly immersed in the culture staying with a local family. You realise that your humanity runs deeper then your differences. You are able to connect, to love and to embrace another family in a completely new environment.

I always worry beforehand: that I won't gel with a new family, that our cultural differences will induce awkwardness or that they will just find me plain annoying.

That's how I felt heading to Bududa. My flight landed at 3:00am and I was met by Emmanuel and Robert. It was pitch black outside as we drove through Entebbe and central Kampala. It was a four-hour drive to the village. For the first hour, I was running on excitement and wide-eyed interest, trying to take in the sights of the city, the sugar-cane plantation and the River Nile. I crashed soon after, waking up to a bright morning in Bunabumali hours later. 

Upon arrival, I was introduced to mum, dad, Esther, Joy, Eseza and Mathieu. I had a tour of the school, dropped my things into my room, and marveled at the lush, green hills and surroundings. 

My first dilemma came on my first night. There was a big, evil looking black fly inside my mosquito net. I sat on my bed, armed with a towel in an attempt to swat it out. I shook the net. It buzzed and I let out a involuntarily whimper. I try to gather my thoughts. Come ON! You are 100 times the size of this thing. Why are you letting it get the better of you?! I battled with my thoughts for 30 minutes before I gave in. 

I knocked  tentatively on my 'parents'' door.

"Mum?" I asked. "Sorry, there's a big fly on my bed."

I feel like a kid. I feel bad for getting her out of bed, on my first night. 

She expertly swiped the fly out of the bed with her hands and said she was glad I called her, because they bite. 

It always takes me a few days to settle in, but my Ugandan family couldn't have been more welcoming. Eseza, my host sister, was my age. We often bantered and laughed. The kids were delighted at my presence, drawing out joy and laughter from the everyday encounters. 

Patience, a little three-year-old, was absolutely terrified of me. She would cover her eyes and cry whenever she saw me. Joy reassured me that it was nothing personal, it was just that she'd never seen a foreigner before. It took a fortnight or so but I gradually gained her trust. 

I settled in through engaging in the everyday family activities. I helped out with the cooking, peeling beans and with the water collection. I was surrounded by children who had so little but they loved, laughed and contributed to chores endlessly and diligently. 

After a fortnight, I moved down to sleep with my host sisters, due to mosquito bite issues. We shared a single bed but I loved it. We often spent the night chatting away. I started to get really attached to Emily, a nine-year-old in P4. We often spent evenings together playing chase, cooking dinner, gathering pumpkin leaves for cooking and exploring the local area. I watched her expertly climb a mango tree, fearing for her safety as she got higher and higher. 

She embraced and laughed at my mzungu (foreigner) attempts to do things and took joy in teaching me. I could never swing an axe accurately to chop wood. My knife skills were worse then that of a ten-year-old in Uganda. A teenage girl could hold heavier loads of water then me. I loved trying and Emily loved watching. We bonded through activity and the language barrier was never an issue.

I remember feeling a deep sense of dread at my impending departure date. I didn't want to leave; I could've stayed an extra year. I tried to be dignified about it, but I really wasn't. I don't like crying in front of other people, but I was a sobbing wreck. Emily whispered "Don't go" when I hugged her tightly. I said sorry to her over and over. I loved her and I would've happily adopted her as a daughter. 

I cried all the way to the airport, and I rarely cry. By the time I boarded the flight, I must've looked pretty awful. Even on the flight, I couldn't stop the tears from flowing. I cried quietly onto the pillow, pretending to be asleep. Hopefully the person next to me wasn't too mortified. 

I loved my Ugandan family. Staying with them was a great leveller. It's always reminded me to stay grounded and to value family, love and to work hard. I experienced a bit of culture shock back in the UK. There is so much advertising. Why does everyone have so many accessories? There were pavements, but I was used to dirt tracks. Technology when I was used to family time.

I made some wonderful bonds in Uganda and I will return soon.

Thidara (Thidara)Days of Adventure | Thidara Udomritkul

Travelling is the opportunity to see the world with fresh eyes, to embrace the unknown, and to appreciate the beauty of everything around us. This is the philosophy I hope to share through my blog.

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