I leave for the San Francisco International Airport in roughly 5 hours, and I am now completely done with my Pre-Departure Training, sitting in a dorm in Stanford University trying to come to terms with the fact I am leaving behind everything I have ever known.
I’ve never been more in my element.
However, it’s not because I’m at Stanford embarking on some grand journey, it’s because I’ve got a half-finished letter and a banana I accidentally left in my bag for a whole day sitting on the desk in front of me, while listening to a band whose lyrics don’t make any sense. I feel in my element because my eyes want to close and it’s not resolve keeping them open (nor an assignment I have yet to finish), but excitement. Everything’s new and I want to look at it, think about it, question my previous conceptions, and look at it again. Not to say I’m not scared–I mean, how am I supposed to deal with the fact I am completely oblivious to the things I’m going to encounter, or the extent of the situations I’ll see in Ecuador, good or bad? How am I supposed to accept that I’ve spent my whole life in Boise, Idaho, cultivating friends and growing my life like a well-loved potted plant, but am now on a jungle trajectory? Or that I have to say goodbye to good cafeteria food? I don’t know if it can be done, so I am going to leave it here to wait for me when I get back.
These last three days have been some of the most taxing I’ve ever had, but also the most surprising. I don’t mean, “oh, Ecuadorians like fried plantains and driving with the intent to kill” surprising, which is just the regular kind, but more like a “wow, I never thought I would ever be alright with making mistakes” surprising.
I have moved in with a temporary host family, Jorge and Lilia, two empty-nesters in their 60s and the only thing they seem to have in common is a love of music and nice sweaters. Jorge is the best dressed geologist I’ve ever met, with handsome silver hair and a unique, practiced fluidity in the movement of his hands. Lilia is a warm woman with gorgeous, black hair, hard brown eyes, laid back attitude, and amazing cooking skills. She talks about what we’re going to have for dinner before we’ve even had lunch, and that makes me feel at home more than anything. Before getting to Ecuador, we learned about how they, Ecuadorians, leave their doors open and hug and kiss and there is no sense of personal space, but that’s not how Jorge and Lilia are. While I got what I expected, colorful people who drink and dance, it’s not exactly how I imagined. Jorge and Lilia are made of deep blues and smoky greys, prefer tea over alcohol, and when they think I am asleep, murmur lovingly and slow dance to salsa romantica in the living room.
My room here is small, with brick walls and a low ceiling. Everything I have brought fits in my room like it was meant to be here, with my clothes organized and my guitar nestled neatly in the corner. I have a comfortable bed with a striped afghan, the perfect amount of storage space, and a window overlooking the bright yellow Plaza de Toros which hasn’t been in use for years. There is a bakery nearby and an electronics store across the street. People crowd the trolley and pack into stores, not looking at each other but present and existing together. Coming here I thought it would be a quaint, small country, but there are more people in the city of Quito as are in the entire state of Idaho. I am used to peace and silence, even in suburbia, but at night here I listen to the symphony of stray dogs and wild taxis and wonder how a little flame like me could even make a mark. I am slow dancing with the city, but Lilia has been teaching me how to dance. I miss my stop on the bus a lot because I’m preoccupied with looking at the different bags people carry, and the way they carry themselves. Sometimes people even smile when they catch me staring.
Tomorrow is the first day I go to school alone. Four hours a day for the next two and a half weeks and I couldn’t be more excited to sit in my group of five students with my teacher and simply talk about everything and anything. We like to stay up on the terrace and look out at the apartments with flowers hanging in the windows, drink tea, and talk about current events in Spanish while Profesor Luis scolds us and pushes us to speak correctly. I have the least experience with the language out of all of the students in my class but it puts me in a position where all I can do is learn, which I am grateful for. My head hurts and a lot of the time I don’t even know what’s going on, inside the classroom and out, but oddly enough I am thriving. I have always considered myself an introvert, and I was terrified of the experience I was signing up for but here I am, confused as hell and loving it. After graduating high school I knew that what all of my teachers had taught me was in order to learn, you have to put yourself out there, you need to embrace challenge and forgo fear. Nice and all in theory, but for a prideful IB student like me, difficult to put into practice.
Today, when Professor Luis asked about personal space in the States, I didn’t know how to explain so I just stood up and spun in a circle with my arms out. This is the first time in my life I am completely at peace with being stupid.
I wonder what my old Spanish teacher would think if he saw how active I am in class discussions, trying over and over and over. I wonder if my English teacher would be proud of how openly I share my opinions and my poetry. I wonder what my former writing center supervisor would say if she saw how openly honest I am about how I feel, and how I don’t hide behind any walls anymore. In just two short weeks, I have changed dramatically. This year is about me and my growth, it’s about figuring out how I interact with an environment that is completely unfamiliar, and thus being able to pick out what really makes me who I am. Yet, while this is a selfish break from routine and obligation, it’s also a year for me to become my best self for those I care about, because that’s what they deserve.
I lost an envelope and Profesor Luis returned it, and then not even five minutes later he asks about a lost notebook, which was also mine. He told me I must be in love with losing things and, honestly, I think he’s right.
Today was my last day of class. While I’m a wildfire, it luckily rains a lot here so I walked home the whole way instead of taking a bus. In only three weeks I have become critical of the system. There is admiration and healthy doubts–something fully supported here! I have made connections so lasting that thinking about where I will be in the future doesn’t make nervous anymore, but almost nostalgic. Tomorrow morning I will make my host family palacinke, a dish from home, and then call a taxi before likely never seeing them again. I’m not put off by the idea of packing my bags because it’s a chore, but because it means I am physically removing myself from a life I had just grown accustomed to. Honestly, I am nostalgic and sentimental, I am lazy and scared.
At a salsoteca, one of my friends told me that I am authentic, and I couldn’t help but laugh because every time we talk about this “best self” we need to put forward, nothing comes to mind. Everything around me feels so tangible, but I’m just a walking piece of fog with no real place, even in hot showers or dusty couches. People here talk about “home,” but it’s not always a place, and it’s not always familiar.
I am here, learning how to weave “home” into everything I touch.