I always knew I wanted to study abroad, but I never knew it was possible for me. During Christmas time, my family would receive holiday update letters. In them, family friends would always mention how their daughter or son was coming home for the holidays after a semester in Cambodia or Italy.
As “braggy” as it sounded, I secretly wanted to do the same. I wanted to get out of Tennessee, out of American day to day living and see what it the air smelled like, how the stars and moon looked in a new and different place.
I tried to talk my parents into a semester exchange to a Central or Latin American country, but that was about as effective as talking to a brick wall fortified with solid-steel mortar.
I took Spanish for 3 years in high school and really wanted to travel to a Spanish-speaking country in college, but it seemed like my dreaming was coming to an end and I would have to live vicariously through telenovelas and text book descriptions of cultures in the countries I desperately wanted to experience with all my senses.
One day, after climbing the stairs of Thaw Mountain, my friend and I stopped by the water fountain to catch our breath and read about the new travel study trips. We skimmed for a bit, and then we squealed because a travel trip was being offered to Ecuador with a concentration in sustainable tourism!
We went to the interest meeting and then devised a plan to get our parents’ permission. It took some real buttering up, brownnosing and a little bit of prodding (I did not hesitate in stating the fact that my brother went abroad twice in college, once to Poland, once to South Korea) and to my surprise, my parents said yes.
After the non-refundable deposit was put in, I began to disclose more information, each revelation closer to the departure date, “By the way mom, I will be staying in the remote jungle a couple of nights with no electricity. By the way mom, I can only take one pack. By the way mom, I’m probably going to hike in the amazon jungle multiple times—wish me luck!”
Even with hesitancy at each bit of new information, my parents gave me their blessing and I was off on my grand adventure.
The first night in Ecuador, our group touched down in Quito. I remember looking out the tiny window of the airplane and seeing itty-bitty lights of the city get closer and closer. Then when we got off the plane and walked out to the van that was meeting us, I took a deep breath and thought “Oh my God! I’m really doing this!”
Each day in Ecuador was like a dream. There were some difficulties adjusting to a new culture, but my heart was so full being abroad.
In Baños, I learned I’m not as good of a dancer as I think I am. While doing an Irish jig/hip hop shuffle, I fell flat on my face in the middle of a dance club—but I persevered, poorly played it off and danced with my new friends.
In Guayaquil, I went to a park filled with iguanas, and I got to hold a baby one. I went on a wonderful boat ride and ate llapingachos. In Puerto-López, I saw incredible sunsets that brought tears to my eyes, got a treasured yellow beaded bracelet, swam in the warm ocean, and got asked on a dancing date by a kind and handsome Ecuadorian man.
Ecuadorians truly value hospitality, and I felt what it is to be welcomed. When we stayed with an indigenous family outside the small city of Tena, I remember laughing with all my friends, new and old, so hard under a single flickering light bulb. Within that simplicity and with all my sweat and sore feet from hiking and walking, all I could think about was the true happiness I felt.
Going abroad is one of my fondest experiences of undergrad. The feeling of being foreign is good for the soul, and I now know that love and kindness go a long way across all borders.
I also learned that having darker skin does not warrant the use of less sunscreen, but maybe that’s a topic for another time. Overall, I think to go abroad is to live a little deeper, and as it turns out the stars look the same in Ecuador, but they will always outshine all the others in my memory.