Tag Archives: adventure

Overcoming Loneliness in Chile

The past three weeks of my study abroad program have been spent traveling. We spent a week in Putre and then had one day back in Arica to unpack and re-pack all of our things before we headed to the south of Chile. Our first stop was Temuco area. Here we spent most of the out time in Maquewe, which is a town 20 minutes away from Temuco. Despite it’s proximity to a city, Maquewe has no cellphone service, most houses don’t have internet, and there is no store or plaza around. It’s a very rural, spread out town that consists essentially of houses, farms, a hospital, and a school. Each day, for me to get to the hospital for class it was a 25-30 minute walk on the “highway.” There are buses that go from Maquewe to Temuco but other than that there was no public transportation system. Here is where my feeling of loneliness started. The house I was staying at was one of the farthest houses from the hospital. While I was staying with one other girl from the program, I felt very separated from my friends and I missed the ability to leave my house to just walk around small shops near the plaza.

Things didn’t really get any better when we left Maquewe to do our small group study of one of the other small towns around Temuco. I was in a group of three other girls going to Chol-Chol. Within the group, I definitely felt like I was an outsider. Most of the conversation came back to sororities or other topics of conversation that I could not really join in on. It didn’t help that in the afternoons we got trapped in our hostel because of the pouring rain. Again we had no internet but there was no cellphone service. For the entire time that I was in Chol-Chol I still had a feeling of isolation. I was really looking forward to our time in Pucón and hoping that it would be better and in reality Pucón did end up being a better situation. Maybe it was because we traveled as a group to some waterfalls, lakes, and hot springs. I was also just really excited to have a two days of free afternoons to explore and take a break from the constant class and lectures that we had the week before.

 

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Hot springs in Pucón!

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Some of the waterfalls we went to see in Pucón.

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Nicole and I on the other side of the falls.

 

After our two day mini break in Pucón, we headed to Santiago. This is where my feeling of isolation hit me the hardest. During check in, I somehow ended up without a roommate. The second night in Santiago I had spent an hour in an Entel store trying to get my phone to work since I can’t receive phone calls. I was with a group of people from the program who were also trying to fix their phones. When we got back to the hotel, the other girls I was with rushed out to go to dinner with a friend who was studying in Santiago. It was getting kind of late at that point and I was trying to find someone who was still around the hotel and hadn’t eaten yet. I didn’t have much luck and the messages that I sent out to people weren’t getting responses. After about another hour I heard back from one group of people who were in the city eating. I headed out to try to join them. I got on the metro and then was using my phone to get me to the restaurant address when my phone suddenly lost all data. I couldn’t find my way to the restaurant so I had to call my friends to find me at a street corner and I sat there for about 20 minutes.

This was really the pinnacle of my loneliness. I was sitting in front of a bank on a dimly lit street corner in Santiago at 9:00 at night alone, just waiting for people to find me. During this time I really felt alone and forgotten. However, this feeling was about to finally lift starting the next day. The next night I asked one girl to let me know what her plans for the night were, instead of trying to make last minute plans and sulking in my room. She texted me around 8:30 and we went out to dinner with three other girls and then we walked around Santiago looking at different restaurants and cafes until midnight when we returned back to the hotel. The following day, a girl came to my room and told me that she had somewhere that she needed to show me. So we put on our running shoes and she took me to a park. I was a little confused why we were there until I saw the climbing holds on a building. She had run past this the other day and thought of me. I was so happy, not just to have found a climbing wall but also I was happy to know that she had thought of me. We hung around to watch people climb and then jogged back to the hotel.

 

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Some of the climbers in the park in Santiago.

 

That night was the birthday of a girl in the program and so we went out to dinner with her at a Mexican restaurant nearby the hotel before buying ice cream at a grocery store and working on homework in the hotel conference room. However, it wasn’t really until Saturday that the feeling of isolation completely lifted. Saturday was our one free day in Santiago so eight of us decided to take a bus to Valparaíso for the day. We took the bus in the morning and made the 10:00 am walking tour of the city where we got to see the former prison, many murals, a cemetery, and hear a lot of the history of Valparaíso. The tour ended around 1:00 and we found a lunch place right by the street fair. Our lunch was very disappointing – our soup was just fish broth, and my friend’s seafood bowl tasted like nothing. But the food we found at the street fair made up for that. After touring the fair and getting little gifts for friends back home, we headed out to explore more of the city’s famous murals and see the open air museum which is a collection of murals created in the 1990s.

 

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A mural we found in Valparaíso

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Song lyrics painted on stairs in Valparíso.

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“We are not hippies. We are happies.”

 

By the end of the day, we were exhausted and ready to get back on the bus to Santiago. As I sat on the bus, I realized that I hadn’t smiled or laughed that much since we left Putre. I had probably laughed more that day than for the entire two weeks of traveling we had done before. It wasn’t that people hadn’t wanted me around or had forgotten about me, it was that I had let it get to my head. I let all the little moments, the little accidents, build up in my mind and turned them into a much more extreme situation that it was in reality. Before, I felt like I was being pushy asking if I could come along to dinner or on little adventures, but that day in Valparaíso made me realize that I needed to make the effort to be part of the group. I needed to ask if I could come because otherwise I wouldn’t do anything and that, above all, made me feel isolated and like an outsider. There was, in reality, no one stopping me from participating except myself.

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Filed under Brooke in Chile, south america

When in Rome…Don’t Go Home

One of the best reasons to study abroad in New Zealand is the long break that students get in the middle of each semester. Two weeks is standard, but spring break here at the University of Canterbury is three weeks, and it’s going on now.

Back when I had a girlfriend in California, the plan had been to fly home and visit her. After we broke up last month, it took me a long time to decide what to do with my already purchased plane tickets.

My first thought was to fly home and stay with my parents instead. They would have been happy to have me, and I had reason to visit. Besides getting to see family and friends, I could have finally replaced my lost driver license, something that has been a limiting factor here in New Zealand.

Going home would have been the safe, familiar choice. That’s why I gravitated toward it initially. But as the days passed and the time for a decision drew nearer, I realized what a missed opportunity that would be.

The comforts of home can wait. This is probably the only time in my life I will have three weeks’ vacation in New Zealand, and there’s still so much of this spectacular country I haven’t seen. With only hours to spare, I cancelled my plane tickets for a partial refund.

By the time you read this, I will be on a thousand-mile road trip with my German flatmate, Marius. I’m lucky that he recently bought a camper van for this purpose, and that he hadn’t yet found a travel companion.

Ordinarily, I would feel the need to meticulously plan for a trip like this, a trait I get from my dad and that was reinforced during my four years in the Marine Corps. For this trip, however, I think it’s important that I not overthink it. This semester, I’m learning to accept that it’s impossible to plan for everything. Even if it were possible, I’m not sure that I’d want to. Proper preparation reduces the risks involved, but it also takes away from the fun and adventure. Knowing what’s going to be around every corner makes for a sterile experience.

I credit my cycling for teaching me this life lesson. Despite a pair of recent rainstorms, I’ve now put 400 miles on my bicycle. I’m closing in on my goal of riding through every square kilometer of Christchurch and its suburbs. I carefully plan each ride to cover as much new ground as possible, but once I’m out on the road, I allow myself to detour if I see something interesting. Whether I’m on the predetermined route or wandering impulsively, I find that my best memories are unplanned.

 

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In downtown Christchurch, Cranmer Square is covered with crosses bearing the names of the thousands of Canterbury residents who died in World War I. It’s part of a nationwide effort to commemorate the fallen on the War’s 100th anniversary.

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Christchurch is home to a couple of wizards. I first saw them at a Waitangi Day celebration in February. Here they are again, this time enjoying afternoon tea on New Regents Street. The large sculpture across the street is one example of the hundreds of works of public art around the city.

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Looking west toward the Avon River from Cashel Street in downtown Christchurch. From left to right: a bike share program (free for the first 30 minutes), the Bridge of Remembrance war memorial, and a public ping pong table (paddles and balls included).

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This week I rode 12 miles to the next town north of Christchurch, Kaiapoi (population 10,200). I crossed the main bridge in town just in time to snap a photo of this kayaker on the Kaiapoi River.

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My favorite things about Kaiapoi were the pedestrian bridges across the Kaiapoi River, which connected miles of paved paths along the tops of the river banks.

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The 2010/2011 earthquakes liquefied floodplains in and around Christchurch, including land in Kaiapoi (pictured here). About 10,000 houses were condemned and demolished, leaving behind only the streets and the driveways. There is much debate over how to repurpose this “red zone,” but nothing has been done yet.

 

For example, roadwork often forces me to deviate from my route, but I love the challenge of having to find a way around it. The most creative solution I once found was to carry my bike through an adjacent cemetery, then squeeze through a fence to get back on track.

On another ride, I was passed by a portable building that was being towed by a slow-moving car. I sprinted to catch up, then drafted behind it, coasting for several hundred meters before it turned off the road.

One day, riding back from the farmlands north of the city, my route was cut off by a flooded road. Rather than turn around, I decided to pedal through the shin-deep water. It was unpleasant at the time, but it makes me smile to think back on it now.

 

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Not all cycling surprises are fun ones. Here I had to ride through a puddle the size of a pond. My shoes got soaked, but it was worth it, because I was way out in the country. Turning around would have added six miles to my ride.

The best rides have multiple surprises. A couple Sundays ago I stumbled upon an old outdoor cycling track. There was no one around, so I took it for a spin! Then, back on the road, miles later, I chased after a convoy of classic cars until I found the show where they were gathering.

 

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On a recent ride, I detoured through Denton Park, where I discovered this velodrome. Originally built for the 1974 Commonwealth Games, it is now open to the public. Zooming around its steeply banked curves was nerve-wracking, but fun!

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Back on the road after leaving the Denton Park velodrome, I noticed I was being passed by dozens of classic cars. I chased after them for more than a mile trying to find out where they were going. Just when I was about to give up and turn around, I discovered a meeting of the Canterbury Branch Vintage Car Club.

 

All these unexpected encounters have happened in the few weeks since my last blog post. Just like the improvements to my social life I wrote about then, again I am learning to embrace uncertain situations for the new experiences they offer.

 

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The fun part about cycling through an unfamiliar city is that I never know what I’ll find. This middle-class neighborhood has a street with my name on it!

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A friend invited me to try the high ropes course at Adrenaline Forest. We made it all the way to the highest platforms!

 

Wanting to be more relaxed and accepting of the unknown is what convinced me to spend my break in New Zealand, and it’s the same approach Marius and I have agreed to have on our road trip. We have a general plan, but nothing is set in stone. We’ll figure out the details as we go! For the first time in a long time, that suits me just fine. I’m finally learning to let go.

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Filed under Oceania, Trevor in New Zealand

A Venture into Volta

One of my favorite experiences thus far in my study abroad endeavor was a journey into the Volta Region in Ghana. Ghana is split up into ten regions, and the Volta Region is named accordingly due to its physical border of the grand Lake Volta, the largest man-made lake by surface area in the world. The Akosombo Dam is also located in this region, and provides the majority of energy for the country. The Volta Region holds some of the nation’s most prized natural wonders, some of which I had the chance to see over a refreshing weekend excursion.

At the beginning of our adventure, we stopped to walk over the Adomi Bridge that overlooks the Volta Lake. The bridge held marvelous views of the rolling green hills and fishermans’ villages below. After we crossed, the villagers sold local dishes, most of which included the seafood caught from the lake below.

 

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The view of the lake from the bridge.

 

Later that day, we had the chance to visit a monkey sanctuary called Tafi Atome where wild but protected monkeys approached with hunger as we suspended bananas in front of them. Eventually, the furry creatures warmed up to us, and one even jumped on my arm to take his share of the fruit! Later in the evening we were invited to meet some of the elders in a village nearby, and we went through several customs and rituals such as pouring some alcohol on the ground in honor of the ancestors past.

 

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Our furry friends.

 

The following morning, we awoke at the crack of dawn to begin our hike up the tallest mountain in Ghana. Mt Afadja is 885 meters high, so this was no laid-back climb. High humidity and extreme heat followed us up the nearly entirely vertical path. After the many stops to catch our breath and wipe away the moisture that clung to our clothes, we arrived at the top of the mountain. I hope you trust me when I say that the view was not a disappointment.

 

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After our big hike.

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Posing with the Ghana flag. 

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The incredible view from the top.

 

Following the spectacular views from the top of the mountain, a quick lunch break ensued to refuel our energy for one last big pit stop. A breathtaking waterfall awaited us at a short distance, and not much else sounded better than swimming in chilly water after a long hike. I welcomed the misty spray from the powerful beauty as I approached the base of the falls. Each step closer built my confidence to creep under the crashing beast and I accepted the wonderful pounding of the water to wash away any worry and fill my mind with awe and marvel.

 

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Filed under Africa, Coryl in Ghana

The Two Sides to a Sunday

I would argue that Sunday is the most conflicting day of the week. It’s the last day of freedom before Monday, a day that is introduced with an intrusive yet essential beeping that sneaks into my dreams as a car alarm, a phone call, or a door bell, to remind me of reality and responsibility. The purpose of a Monday is clear, whereas a Sunday’s identity is split into two: do I sleep in, have a late brunch, and watch some telenovelas with my host mom? Or do I wake up early, go to a café, and let my fingers carry the day away searching for definitions of Spanish words and phrases, creating essays, and analyzing short stories from brilliant Latino authors who blow me away with their complexity and ability to think beyond this dimension of time and space, like a script from the Twilight Zone?

 

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A productive Sunday with a delicious strawberry, mango, and banana batido (smoothie) and some Kichwa (an indigenous language that is primarily spoken in the Andean region and is a recognized regional language in Ecuador) homework.

 

Despite all of the differences between countries, cultures, and generations, I know that I can count on the destiny of any given Sunday being unclear for gringos and Ecuadorians alike. From Sunday trips to El Parque Carolina, to plans to meet up for lunch or explore downtown, there’s always some number of people not wanting to face the reality of a Sunday, similar to my experiences in college in the U.S., especially as a resident assistant. From my own personal perspective, the double-sided identity of a Sunday is one of the most beautiful aspects of being a human – and the similarity here in Ecuador to a Sunday in the United States has helped me realize that my infatuation with this day of the week is something that unifies my experience in the world with many others, even those living in another continent. It has also awakened me to realize that everyone needs a break sometimes, and that no one should feel guilty about it.

I hope that this post will inspire people to enjoy their upcoming Sunday, instead of worrying about the Monday that follows it. Although last Sunday was not an academically productive day for me, it was a day that I will never forget. It was the first time I had ever climbed a volcano, and I felt like I was on top of the world – a tiny gringa in a huge city, just taking it one adventure at a time.

 

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Views from the TelefériQo!

 

Pichincha Volcano is an active stratovolcano in Ecuador. Its two highest peaks are Wawa Pichincha (wawa is kichwa for child or baby) which is approximately 15,696 feet high, and Ruku Pichincha (ruku is kichwa for old person) which is approximately 15, 413 feet high. Luckily we did not have to hike from the bottom, since there is a gondola lift known as the TelefériQo, one of the highest aerial lifts in the world, rising from 10,226 feet to 12,943 feet. From there, we started our ascent to the top of Ruku Pichincha.

 

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Taking a break on the way up the volcano. Lots of water, snacks, and layers needed for this trip!

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Slightly intimidating goal…

 

As we got closer and closer to the top, the wind become harsher, but was still refreshing. When it wasn’t covered by clouds or fog, the sun beamed down on my skin, warming me to my core, inspiring me to continue trekking to the top of Ruku’s peak. After several stops for snacks, water, taking off and putting on layers, and of course, posing for pictures and admiring the breathtaking views, my friend Stephanie and I finally made it to the top of Ruku Pichincha. The group that we started with split up a little bit based off of pace and comfort level. It took us about 4 and a half hours to make it to the peak, but when we stepped foot on the top of the summit and saw the sign welcoming us to the la cumbre (the top), a gust of wind full of joy and pride whisked by me and as I took a deep breath in, this wind sent chills from the bottom of my toes to the tips of my fingers, and I knew that I made the right decision to make this Sunday a beautiful and inspiring day for myself. It was a day unlike any other, surrounded by the natural beauty of the country that is my home for the semester, as well as wonderful and supportive friends with whom I shared a common goal: to push ourselves, together and individually, to greater heights than we had ever gone before.

 

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We did it! After some slightly sketchy rock climbing. But as they say in Ecuador, así es la vida (such is life).

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And life is so, so worth it.

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Filed under Alicia in Ecuador, south america

A Word on Being Alone

There’s a stark reality underneath the layers of all the newness that comes with study abroad (new friends, new “family,” new places). The reality is that you have transported yourself into to a completely other culture that is a whole 12 hour flight away from your home. An entire different set of humans living their lives here just as you had been living yours. They are speaking a different language and eating different foods. They shop at stores you’ve never heard of and at weird times of the day. You are surrounded by the unfamiliar and in this reality you are alone.

 

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Studying abroad can sometimes feel like you’re upside down. This photo was in the Museo de Arte Contemporaneo and was taken by Elías Adasme of Chile.

 

I don’t want this to sound like a message of fear. I want to explain that this sense of alone-ness can be your greatest friend. You create your own reality. Maybe at home, your reality was influenced by your parents or things your friends shared with you, whether it be interests, activities, ideas. Study abroad is your chance to really think about what you’d like your reality to be about and go ahead and create it.

Last weekend’s circumstances called for me to venture solo. My study abroad program had a field trip to Santigo to visit a few historically important sites and I decided instead of taking the bus back that evening with the group, I would spend the night at a hostel.

After navigating the metro system, I checked into my hostel. I was informed it was the largest hostel in Chile. While the man at the front desk was showing me around the hostel I experienced something like deja vu. The place felt like something that had appeared in a childhood dream. It had many staircases and hallways and a bohemian vibe. A kitchen with cooking things waiting to be discovered in the many cabinets. If you walked towards the center of the hostel you’d find yourself in an open air patio that continues on to the dining area. What looked like a modest, maybe shabby old brick building from the outside felt like a mansion of travelers from foreign lands on the inside.

 

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Santiago streets. It’s always the season to eat outside here.

 

After buying groceries, I spent a while under a tree in the park eating gummy worms and people watching. Perfect. I cooked dinner, a stir fry of broccoli, green onions, and bean sprouts while dancing around the other guests cooking their meals in the kitchen. We swapped a little Spanish as they monitored their pasta. Cooking dinner was very exciting because after three months of eating food cooked for me by my host family, it feels nourishing to cook for myself.

I felt like a queen.

I ate dinner with a table of girls I had never met, all from different countries all over the world. We talked and laughed and decided to find a place to dance that evening and went out together. We bonded over feelings of displacement and being inept at dancing the salsa.

In the morning the hostel had a nice breakfast included in the price of my stay so I ate as many pieces of bread as possible in true Chilean fashion, slathered in caramel-ly manjar* and consumed several cups of REAL coffee.** Fuel for my day. I planned to visit two art museums: Museo de Bellas Artes and Museo de Arte Conteporaneo.

*Manjar is similar to dulce de leche or a caramel-like spread. It bears resemblance to the caramel frequently used for caramel apples. However, Chileans put it on anything possible, like cakes, candy, donuts, and of course toasted bread for breakfast.

**It is rare to find real coffee here in Chile. If you order it in a restaurant or cafe, you will frequently receive a mug of hot water and packet of instant coffee powder on the side.

I had selected this hostel because of its walking distance to the art museums. I walked in the general direction of the museums and trusted my instincts. I stumbled upon a record sale and fingered through vinyls of many Chilean bands that I was ecstatic to recognize and had to restrain myself from spending all of my pesos.

 

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Records found at the pop up record fair. Los Prisioneros is a popular Chilean band that I recommend giving a listen.

 

I wandered through a flea market and craft vendors selling beautiful handmade clothing and jewelry. I walked through a cobblestone street surrounded by artsy cafes and bars. Eventually I found the art museums (free admission!) and spent several hours wandering around the two galleries. How fun it is to be on the other side of the earth and still be doing things you would do in your home town.

 

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Books for sale. Books in your second language seem to possess a new mystery because they reveal themselves in a whole different layer.

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More bizarre, cool things stumbled upon in the art market. Old cameras for sale.

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Photo found at Museo de Arte Contemporaneo. Called Las Dos Fridas, it is a play on the original painting by Frida Kahlo. This one is enacted by Chilean writer and artist Pedro Lemebel and photographed by Francisco Casas.

 

I got very hungry and decided to try the tiny cafe inside of the museum and was served an awesome meal of salad, soup, and spinach lasagna. The two cafe workers were about my age and had fantastic taste in music and when I paid for my meal we chatted about their great tunes.

I caught my bus back to Vina del Mar and was back home.

The point of this is that being alone is good for you. It develops self awareness, forces you to face your reality, and allows you to credit yourself with confidence. Embrace the uncomfortable zones of your identity. Pretend you are like a vegetable on a vine that needs rotation so that each side can face the sun. You may feel like a tree without roots for awhile, but by becoming comfortable with the uncomfortable you can learn a lot.

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Filed under Natalie in Chile, south america

Robert Goes Kayaking

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Filed under Robert in Argentina, south america, Video Bloggers

Reflecting on Guatemala

Right now I’m taking the train into Philadelphia to a doctor’s appointment. I’ve put off writing this for a while, but I figured that now, when I have nothing else to do, I have to start thinking about the end of my study abroad experience. Part of why I have avoided writing this blog is that I’ve been adjusting and catching up on sleep. I’ve also been meeting with friends from home and preparing my things in this quick turn around between Guatemala and returning to school.

Part of it, I won’t lie, is because I’ve picked up watching The Office and I had to get to the point where Jim and Pam become a couple. But behind all of that is my want to avoid thinking about what just happened. I feel like I’m in sixth grade, adjusting to waking up early for school for the first time, refusing to open my eyes or move my body even though I’m awake just because I know that I have three more minutes until 6:30 a.m. and maybe I’m not ready to face a return to real life yet. For a week I found myself giving vague responses like “it was amazing,” so that I don’t have to start synthesizing my adventures. Once you catch yourself in your own tricks on yourself, how can you let yourself keep playing them?

So now I’m thinking about the question my friend asked me three weeks into my study abroad: “Is it everything you thought it would be??” Wow. Fantastic question, Meg. You really nailed me to the wall on that one, making me stop saying superlatives and start thinking. Geez, I don’t know, I thought. For the most part, before this summer I just knew I would have “experiences” with no real idea of what kind they would be. I decided I would wait to answer that question until I had lived every part of my experience. I kept waiting because I didn’t want to say that it was over.

Well, was it everything I thought it would be? Heck no. Is it too cliché to say to say that it was better and more than I thought it would be? Probably, but that’s the truth. How could I have predicted anything that I did or saw this summer? Disney got one thing spot on when it said, “You’ll learn things you never knew you never knew.” In my last week alone, I found out more tangible examples of what I want to be than in two years at college.

When my last week in Guatemala started, I was on a redeye bus from Tikal to Guatemala City, coming back from the oldest, most expansive, and most impressive site of Mayan ruins in the world. At the same time, my friends, Taylor and Risa, and I realized it was the end.

“We go home next Saturday,” Taylor said.

All I could think of to say back was “yeah.” To be fair, what else can you communicate in a whisper in the middle of a red-eye bus? I sat up and leaned my head against the window while I tried to make out familiar shapes from the unfamiliar shadows on the highway. No, the fact that we were leaving so soon hadn’t sunk in. I couldn’t feel anything. I don’t think it had fully hit any of us. None of us felt like saying things like, “I can’t believe we’re leaving in a week,” or “I know, right?” We felt numb but not so much that we didn’t know it would be cheap to say things we didn’t really understand yet.

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On my last Monday I acted out a skit in Spanish class with my friend Aiza of our first real weekend when we went to the less-than-safe, more-than-fear-inducing-and-dangerous caves in Semuc Champey. I recalled how scared and cold I had been, how I had heard a choir of children singing “Will I Lose My Dignity” from RENT in my head, and how I had said I never wanted to go in those caves again. All I wanted now was to be back in that state of fear with a whole summer of adventure still in front of me. I watched as Nory, my lovable Spanish teacher, for the seven hundredth time encouraged us to learn through laughter and real life, and I thought, “Man, I’d love to be like her.”

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Later we went to a Mayan ceremony that asked for blessings for workers and students, where the priest asked for safety, health, and success for each of us by name. We had a barbecue with one of our professors, Ricardo Lima-Soto, at his house.

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See, the thing is that Ricardo is one of the most intelligent, funniest, and nicest professors I’ve ever had. He’s had more adventures than Leonardo DiCaprio in all of his movies combined. Ricardo could spark incredible debates and conversations about subalternism, post-colonialism, and racism in Guatemala with respect to the scores of different identities and nationalities in Guatemala, but somehow got us to draw just as many parallels about the intricacies and social-racial dynamics in our own country. What left the biggest impression on me was how at peace he seemed to be with himself and the world. It was not that Ricardo underestimates the problems in the world or the problems he faces; instead I think he has a perfect understanding of both and still he has a calmness, happiness, and sense of stability. As malleable, young twenty-somethings who lack this peace and clear sense of direction, my classmates and I marveled at our teacher who could talk about systemic oppression and then Minions without missing a beat or seeming like he didn’t understand the actual level of gravity or levity of the two, respectfully. We all decided at one point or another, “I want to be like him.”

On Tuesday night I had my last night with the teens and young adults in the English class at Los Patojos. I silently admired at how openly determined they were. Even if you’ve thought otherwise, the truth is that I’ve always been a little shy about saying, “this is what I want to do with my life and I am working on it right now.” But these people had the bravery to say, “These are our dreams and we’re putting them in action.” Again, as I talked to the other teachers and the students, “I thought to myself, I want to be like them.”

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On Wednesday afternoon my friends and I went to Earth Lodge on top of a mountain ridge, where we talked about our summer experiences while we watched the sun set over Antigua and the surrounding volcanoes below. Then our professor, Jennifer Casolo, told us her story. Jenn became my hero probably less than two minutes into the story: she had worked for peace in El Salvador in the 1980s, been mistakenly arrested by the military, interrogated and tortured for days despite refusing to lie and name innocents as subversives, and then eventually released thanks to nation-wide support back in the United States. As I sat there, feeling like a preschooler with my hands motionless and my head tilted up to watch her without blinking, I realized I was listening to a hero. Even now on the train, I can still see Jenn, her hair tucked behind her ears, wearing colorful clothes, standing instead of sitting as if she was about to sprint with all of her excess energy, her hands alternating between motions and clasps together, and her eyes trying to reassure us as we listen in panic. Jenn was calm as she told a story more harrowing than our worst nightmares. She told us of how she had felt at the time like she would somehow be okay, and we sat there like cub scouts listening to our first ghost story, in awe and mystification at how she could be so courageous. It grew dark and we all had to go home for dinner (I know, how cute and great is that?), but we begged Jenn to meet us at a café afterwards to continue her story. We sipped our tea by candles and leaned in down the table to listen. There was a room-wide warm-golden-fuzzy-happy feeling as we heard about her adventures. This time I thought to myself, “I wonder if it’s even possible to ever be like her.”

On Thursday I went to Los Patojos and saw part of the Poetry Exposition that they hosted for all of the schools in the area. Fourth graders recited and performed poems written by current Guatemalan poets, some of who attended the event. I felt like the kids were singing songs in front of rock stars. If these kids wanted to go to the moon, I think the teachers at Los Patojos would contact the X Prize competitors and make it happen. Seeing their commitment made me want to be like them.

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On Friday I said goodbye to my teachers, my roommates, and my friends and students at Los Patojos. When I started to realize it would be years before I saw these people again, I felt duped. For two months, I’ve been trying my best to acclimate myself in Guatemala and to feel and learn everything possible. I sewed my heart to this place and these people. And as I left, I felt someone pulling at the seams. I don’t think I write enough to explain how much I love this school or how Juan Pablo is my role model.

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This summer I got to have real adventures, the kind I always watched in movies and assumed that I’d never get enough bravery or coolness to leave my warm couch and blanket to have. I clung to the bars of an open truck bed as we drove through the jungle of Alto Verapáz on our way to climb up waterfalls. I found out that I’m afraid of caving and bats, but I climbed and swam through caves of Semuc Champey and I walked through the Bat Palace of Tikal. I jumped off a rope swing, took a boat to a zoo in the middle of a lake, walked through an ancient Mayan ball court with a little girl in Mixco Viejo, kayaked in a lake surrounded by volcanoes in Panahajel, climbed volcanoes in Pacaya, made new friends and danced on the regular. I got to study in the peace of the most beautiful and expansive social science library in Central America, listen to speakers who have actually changed the world, have some of the best conversations, and joke with my host parents daily. Guys, I got to see a volcano every morning when I woke up. Can’t stress that one enough. But the adventures can’t compare to the people who taught me what I want to be when I grow up. (I’ve still got plenty of time before I cook my own Thanksgiving dinner, and that’s the standard of adulthood that I’m sticking to.)

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So what’s next? Well I’ll go back to school at Penn State and work to earn enough to return to Guatemala as soon as I can. I’ll keep wearing the bracelets my kids gave me. I’ll take small steps as I try to get used to walking down College Ave instead of Segunda Avenida Sur. I won’t even be mad when I have to explain that I went to Guatemala and not Nicaragua, Costa Rica, or even Thailand. I’ll wish my friends back in Guatemala happy birthdays and think of them every time I see them on Facebook. I’ll do my best to not cry as I work on compiling all of the work of the kids at Los Patojos into the final book. I’ll write more of my novel. At the risk of another cliché—but hey, third time’s the charm—I promise I won’t forget this summer in Guatemala. I mean, really, how could I? I might’ve known that I wanted to be a writer and a teacher before this summer, but I never could have known the mindset and personality I wanted to have without Guatemala.

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There’s just one more thing I’d like to clear up. Lucky and José, I wanted to explain to you what I couldn’t before. Whenever I’d ask for a packed lunch, you’d always play a joke on me and pretend to be inconvenienced, and I’d always get worried that you weren’t kidding. We’d laugh about it, José would say “Tranquila,” (Calm down) and then we’d move on to the next joke. Here’s the thing: Ninety-eight percent of me knew that you were kidding. How could you not be kidding? You two are the nicest, funniest, most interesting, and most welcoming host parents I could have asked for. But that two-percent possibility that I was upsetting you made me freeze because the last thing in the world I wanted was upset two of my new favorite people in the world. Man, José, I can hear you teasing me and asking me if I’m going to cry. Pretend you can hear me saying “no” unconvincingly. Lucky, I can hear you laughing. Pretend I’m saying good afternoon after class. Pretend I’m smiling because you just called me your rose or baby (sin pampers, so almost close to an adult but not—I never did acknowledge how true that is). Pretend I’m a minute late after the dinner bell and tease me about it. Anyhow, I just wanted you guys to know that I love you both and that I’ve always wanted to be like you. I promise I’ll be back soon. Jose, help a gringa out and translate this for Lucky.

Forgive me if any/all of this seemed scattered—that’s sort of how I feel. I guess it’s better to say it all like this than to not say anything. I know that there are a bunch of things I’ll wish I had written later on. But the summer’s got to end and I have to pack my dorm furniture, so count up your points, my friends, and maybe you can take away one last thing from all of this. The best I can do is to tell you that I thoroughly loved all of my life-changing fifty-six days in Guatemala, from the unbelievable adventures to the everyday chores. Que te vaya bien, hasta pronto.

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