Andean societies value reciprocity. People engage in frequent, non-quantified exchanges, in which I give you something today, and though I keep no kind of record, I know that sometime in the future you will give something back to me. This form of give and take keeps people connected through ongoing ties of obligation and friendship. It is a foundation of community in Andean society.
As we go and immerse ourselves in this kind of society, we would do well to remember that we are immediately entering into a relationship in which we are, and probably always will remain, indebted. The people in Bolivia who welcome us into their homes and their lives may be compensated for their efforts, but what we take away from the experience far outstrips the money we pay for our homestays and language classes. Going in with this awareness can inspire in us a sense of humility, which can ground us and help us appreciate what we are giving and what we are gaining from this exchange.
As you enter your homestay, remember that you are under no obligation to offer a gift to your homestay family. People will certainly not expect anything from you, asking only that you respect house rules and comport yourself as would a member of the family. Still, giving a gift is a nice way to thank people in advance for their generosity in taking you into their home, a way of immediately trying to address that balance sheet on which you are always in the role of debtor. While I am not necessarily the best judge of what homestay families might like to receive, the following is a list of gifts that have worked for others in the past. Readers of this blog, please add to this list based on your own experience:
• hand towels or bath towels (the soft fluffy kind)
• small kitchen items
• books and magazines, in English or Spanish
• small hand tools
• toys for children
• scarves, jewelry, clothing
• baby clothes
• small household items
• something from your university - a t-shirt or sweatshirt, perhaps
Whatever you offer will be accepted with gratitude and appreciation.