Earlier this year I had the chance to spend a month in La Ceiba, Honduras, learning Spanish and volunteering in an orphanage. I organised this trip through Frontier, a UK-based organisation specialising in gap year travel and volunteering opportunities. Although I was nervous and apprehensive to begin with, the month contained some of the best experiences of my life. Four weeks was a surprisingly short amount of time, so I wanted to share my top five pieces of advice to make the most of a similar experience.
1. Speak as much Spanish as possible
It may seem obvious, but the more you speak the local language, the faster you will begin to correct your mistakes and gain confidence. For me, it was the combination of daily Spanish lessons, living in a homestay, and everyday life that brought me to a good conversational level. Although it may seem daunting talking to locals who are fluent in the language, they will appreciate your effort and sometimes mistakes can provide a good laugh. I’ll never forget the time I confused ‘los bomberos’ (the firemen) for ‘los bombónes’ (the sweets) and told my Spanish teacher a newspaper article was about lollipops!
2. Try the local food
Living with a Honduran family allowed me to try an array of different food, both good and bad! I quickly fell in love with balleadas (tortillas filled with refried beans and cheese) – I think my record was about five in one day. A less enjoyable experience was chicharrón (boiled pig skin), which was very difficult to pretend to enjoy out of politeness. Eating locally demonstrates the two-way relationship of ecotourism; you are able to benefit from a new experience and the local economy can benefit from the money spent. Other ways to support the local economy include using local transport and buying locally-sourced souvenirs.
3. Involve yourself
When volunteering or travelling abroad, it is useful to remember that the more you put into an experience, the more you are likely to get out of it. This was definitely true when volunteering in the orphanage; the more I played and talked with the children, the more they let me into their lives and I could appreciate them for the friendly individuals they are. Learning their stories was often an inspirational experience; one teenage girl was paralysed from the neck down since birth, but wrote and did amazing artwork using her mouth. Spending time with these children made me re-evaluate my own life; it was an incredibly rewarding experience.
4. Try something new
Trying things outside your comfort zone can sometimes bring the most unexpected results. Although I am not religious and not fond of dancing, in La Ceiba I was convinced by another student from my Spanish school to try everything from salsa lessons to local church services. At the salsa lessons I learnt that dancing in Honduras is not only a hobby or form of art, but also a vigorous exercise routine! At church I found myself surrounded by the friendliest group of Hondurans who invited us to eat at their houses, play volleyball and even attend a camping trip. It taught me that some of the best experiences can come from something you wouldn’t necessarily expect to enjoy.
5. Be spontaneous and flexible
Whilst in La Ceiba I learnt about “Honduran time”: a concept which meant someone could arrive a couple of hours earlier or later than planned and still consider him or herself on time. I soon learnt this concept exists throughout Central America, only is renamed according to the country: for example “Guatemalan time”. Although initially frustrating, it taught me to be spontaneous as often plans were cancelled or made at the last minute. Some of my best memories from La Ceiba include a spontaneous car trip to run along a deserted beach, and taking a local “chicken” bus (named after their purpose of transporting livestock in rural communities) to complete a canopy tour of 18 zip lines before relaxing in natural hot springs.
My month in La Ceiba brought me a newfound appreciation of Honduran people and their customs and increased my self-confidence. I learnt I was capable of not only surviving in a completely new situation, but making the most of the experience and enjoying every moment. My final piece of advice would be to travel without expectations; you are less likely to be disappointed if plans do not work out, and an open mind means you will say yes to new experiences.