"You will never be completely at home again, because part of your heart will always be somewhere else. That is the price you pay for the richness of loving and knowing people in more than one place." (Miriam Adeney)
I've been in class now for five weeks, and I've spent a lot of time thinking back on my experience in Ecuador and everything that composed that semester. I constantly have times when something happens here, and it reminds me of something or someone. My dad requested/suggested a reflection on my time in Quito, so here goes.
My host family welcomed me into their home and made me feel comfortable. There were generational conflicts in how to raise a child and what values should be important, but their home was always available for me. True, I spent more nights at my friends' hostel near the end, in part to escape from the increase in familial tension, but that also showed me my own growing desire to have more freedoms from a structured setting. Returning to the dorms (specifically the freshman dorms) has been a difficult experience. Living in Quito at least offered the opportunity to see more of the city and at least watch and take in my surroundings on the way to classes or my internship, but being on campus in a small town makes me feel more and more trapped in this environment.
As for the universidad, I loved my classes. My courses at USFQ allowed me to add a third major to my undergraduate degree (now Spanish, Nonprofit Leadership & Management, and International Relations). It was interesting to approach subjects from a non-United States perspective, allowing for different interpretations of events, policies, and concepts. At the same time, however, I was disappointed in how similar that university was to my home school. It was beautiful, but many of the students came from high-income families and acted rather similarly to those here, or the students from the United States stayed together, limiting the cultural experience and linguistic progress. I suppose I didn't really try as hard as I could have to reach out to new people, but I found my place at my internship.
My experience truly was made by the people I met at my internship. When I first got to CENIT, I was worried that I'd be an outsider there, too. Then I realized that everyone was an outsider who had to reach out and form relationships with the people there for support and friendship. I remember going to the good-bye party for a couple of volunteers near the end of January. I hardly knew them, yet everyone was extremely welcoming. I'm an incredibly timid person, and I don't even go out on campus, yet leaving my house to spend time in the city at night reminded me that I wouldn't learn anything new if I didn't try anything new.
With that in mind, I started partaking in more of the CENIT events or event connected with CENIT people. For Carnaval, I spent four days in the Cuyabeno Reserve (and 16 hours on a cross-country bus ride), part of the Amazon rain forest, with three other ladies volunteering at CENIT. I started going to a local gym with another volunteer, and ended up going there two or three times each week for two and a half hours each time. I went to the Valentine's Day Pub Quiz intra-agency fundraise to spend time with the new people I'd met. I went hiking that weekend with a group of five other volunteers, where we bonded as we hiked in the rain and eventually reached the summit only to have it hail. We went back to their hostel, huddled together in an attempt to stay warm, eventually stripping down to our skivvies and they had to lend my dry clothes for my ride back home. I started volunteering each Tuesday night at the Pub Quiz event held in the tourist district, which gave me the chance to spend time with volunteers. I saw more of the international students from USFQ at that event than I ever did on campus. They recognized me as well, and started to ask about what my connection with CENIT was, which gave me the opportunity to talk about the organization and about our goals. One student even came with me to CENIT to do an essay on a nonprofit organization in Quito.
The frequency and quality of my blog entries and Facebook posts illustrate my increased participation and engagement in where I was. My relationships with people grew, and I started to learn more about myself in the process. I'm far more capable of taking care of myself than I ever thought possible. As a person who was generally scared of anything going wrong, I was finally able to relax. Sure, I was still extremely vigilant and aware of my surroundings, but I could also take the bus on my own, or get in a good taxi and maintain my composure in times of discomfort (like when one taxi driver got lost because he didn't know where my address was, or when one asked me if I wanted cocaine and then asked if anyone was waiting for me where I was going, and then I couldn't find my hotel with the roads so I had to get dropped off in the plaza and walk back to where I was--don't worry, both of those times turned out just fine, though I was severely freaked out by that last one). I could go out to clubs with friends and just enjoy myself and my company, rather than stay in and worry about every last assignment.
In part because I knew the grades didn't transfer to affect my GPA and in part because I knew that the experiences were worth so much more than an assignment in the long run, I started to choose to spend more time with friends even if I knew if might put me behind in class. I neglected a significant part of the third segment of my politics class because I spent more time having dinner with friends and volunteering at the tutoring program for CENIT. Even knowing that my final exam in that class brought down my grade for the class overall, I wouldn't change it for anything. The time I spent with my friends in my last few weeks in Quito are some of my most treasured nights and weekends.
I generally realize (a little late, but eventually) that the quality and effort you put into given circumstances will have a significant impact on how powerful that experience is. My time in Quito was no exception. Once I learned to put aside my fears of failure and of letting someone down, I recognized my own potential and my own capabilities, which meant that I didn't let myself down either. I took chances, I made incredible leaps (figuratively and literally, if you recall that bridge...), I let go of the person I'd arbitrarily decided I had to be, in favor of the person I could be.
Eventually I'll find a way to apply more of what I learned and share it with the people around me. For now, I'll start looking at postgrad fellowships and graduate programs that excite my soul. Hopefully I'll find something that inspires me, but I also know now that a lot of that inspiration has to come from within myself rather than from something or someone else. I'll fall in love with people and places anywhere, though I will also miss the incredible people whose presence made my experience that much more fulfilling.