Until you have lived amongst a group of people with a set of cultural norms and practices, it can be quite difficult to understand the intricacies of their daily lives. Why people react and live in a certain fashion can be based on historical influences or even a catastrophic events that altered their way of thinking enough to change them entirely.
A Spanish immersion experience abroad can give you a first hand look into the local culture, especially if you are living with a family and experiencing their daily events. They may not be too different from your own. However, small differences quickly reveal themselves. Something as mundane as a chicken running around in the yard or stray dogs running rampant in the town may bring you out of your comfort level. It can also be a big shock when you try to turn on the little contraption that heats the water coming out of a shower head, only to give up in defeat to a cold shower.
Such aspects looking back are quite silly to me considering all my travels, but these are some of the things that stood out for me when I first ventured to Latin America and visited the beautiful country of Guatemala. It has been years, but the two weeks I spent in the country changed my outlook on how big this world is. I have people ask me all the time when advising students if Guatemala is safe or "Isn't that a third world country", and I gleefully say yes to both questions. Then I explain why third world perceptions are not a reason to avoid visiting a location.
We send many students to Antigua, Guatemala each yearm as you can't beat $210 per week for Private instruction and Host family accommodation with three meals per day. I also like to point out that the only safety incident we had was a high school chaperon that had is expensive camera stolen from him by three bullies on bikes, when he was in a sparse part of Antigua. However the 50 high school kids that were with him and running rampant around Antigua fared better. I bet that just as I have, they learned things that they will take with them the rest of their lives.
For more testimonials and images from Guatemala, check out a fellow blogger's experience as he travelled through Guatemala and the Southern Mexico State of Chiapas, which also has improved in safety over the years. Though some border areas may be very touchy. You can see his exploits at Cafe Sin Leche