I went to get my duffel out of my mom’s trunk this morning and found a box of halloween lights, and a unopened bottle of fall-colored sprinkles in there too. These will no doubt be used on the sugar cookies we make at my sister’s annual halloween party. There will also be pigs in a blanket that are meant to look like little mummies, and my mom will concoct some weird green drink that will be sweet and syrupy and will stain our teeth.
I slammed the trunk and began the walk up the sidewalk to my house, being careful to avoid the little nuts that fall from the tree and hurt your feet. I made sure to check the mailbox to see if anyone had remembered to pick up the mail, and sure enough, they hadn’t.
Through the heavy front door, past the piano with pictures of my sister and I goofing off, up the steep wooden steps, down the hall with the floorboards that make the loudest creaking noises when you’re trying to creep out at night, and into my room. The window is open and the screen has a little hole in it that I have been meaning to fix for years, but I’ve missed my chance and now there’s no point.
The house I’ve had since second grade, on a little cul-de-sac in Iowa City.
I am sitting on the floor, leaning against my bed, surrounded by piles of shirts and shoes and notebooks and all kinds of medication my mom told me I just had to be sure to bring because it never hurts to have. We went shopping for a new backpack today, and some packing cubes, and some hiking boots. You’d think with all the traveling we do, with all the different times we’ve had piles of clothes lined up on those creaky floorboards outside my room, we’d have packing down. You’d think we’d have the whole travel thing down, really, given the amount of times we’ve pulled out of our avenue and off to somewhere else, somewhere new, somewhere different. Yet my mom and I spent a solid ten minutes today discussing the pros and cons of the sizes and types of packing cubes, and my parents still argue over how early one should leave for the airport.
My mom is a travel writer, and I have a vivid memory of twirling down the terminal in my tinkerbell dress after her on our way to DisneyWorld for one of her research trips. My dad is a geology professor, and when I was younger we used to spend our summers in New Mexico while he worked in a lab there. His work takes us to Portugal and Australia, Mom’s work takes us to Florida and Grand Canyon, and when they’re not traveling for work, they’re planning family holidays in Europe or around the U.S. Since before I could walk, my parents have been showing me just how much is out there, and how much I have yet to see.
So it is no surprise that they were more than supportive in my plans to take a gap year. It’s not super common in Iowa City to take a year off before starting college, and so my parents really made sure to stress that not only was it an option for me, but it was one I should seriously, seriously, consider.
I totally stumbled upon Global Citizen. I’m pretty sure I was just googling around and clinked on the link. I read a bit, and then read a bit more, and thought hey, might as well apply. And here I am, leaving for Ecuador in just eight days.
Everything was super last minute (as it always tends to be), and while all my friends were figuring out their future and getting excited for college, I was still writing essays and having interviews and considering back-up plans. Things were very much up in the air and they stayed up in the air all the way through my high school graduation ceremony. I had officially ended high school with absolutely no clue as to where I would be in a few short months. It was quite literally that night that I found out I had been accepted to Global Citizen, and I ran up the steep stairs and down the hall with the creaky floorboards and into my parents’ room to tell them that their daughter had at least some assemblance of a plan for the future.
When I tell people I’m going to take a gap year in Ecuador, they usually ask why. And I feel like my answer is always a little different. Because my parents thought it would be a good idea. Because I didn’t want to go straight to college. Because I want to experience something totally new and not on a set path before I go back to trying to sort out the next fifty years of my life.
Then people ask if I know any Spanish. No, I tell them. Nada. Ah, you will learn, they say. And yes, eventually, I will learn. But between now, where I know nothing, and then, where I know something, I will be very confused and frustrated, and I will be perfecting my charade skills.
Finally, they ask if I’m ready to go. I tell them packing is a little all over the place right now, but I’m getting there. I tell them I’m getting ready. And in that sense, I am. In the packing sense, in the sense that I am checking things off my To Do list, that I am gathering the necessary medication and buying proper hiking boots, yes, I am getting ready. But in the real sense, I am nowhere near it. I look out over my yard and think, I’m not ready to leave this. I walk around downtown, past the Mexican restaurant on the corner, and past the Hawkeye bookshop that sells the really nice white erasers, and think oh boy, I can’t leave this. Not yet, I’m just not ready.
But when I have I ever been ready? Thinking back to the countless times we have packed up and headed out — to New Mexico, to England, to Cambodia or Costa Rica or Australia — I was never “ready.” Who ever is? Countless times, as we have gone off, I have thought of my backyard, and the Mexican restaurant on the corner, and wondered why it wasn’t just good enough to stay home this time. But then in England I see the most beautiful meadows, with bright yellow flowers and grass even greener and softer than in my backyard. And then in New Mexico, I taste these light and airy pastry things called sopapillas that are delicious, and that you can’t get at the Mexican restaurant on the corner.
There are a lot of unknowns right now, as I sit here on the floor, surrounded by piles of shirts and notebooks. I’ve got a lot of questions and no one’s got answers, and it all feels very much up in the air. But things have been up in the air before. And then, suddenly, they aren’t anymore. Thing is, I still don’t know which packing cubes are best, or how many shirts I should bring, or whether Vaseline counts as a liquid or not. Traveling hasn’t taught me that. What it has taught me is that things can’t stay up in the air forever. I don’t know what family I will be staying with for eight months, but I will. I don’t have any friends, or any routine, but I will. I don’t know how to speak Spanish, but I will. Maybe not tomorrow, or next month, or even the next few months. But I will. I will meet so many new people, and try so many new foods, and enjoy so many new parties for new holidays that won’t have my mom’s syrupy green halloween drink, but will be good just the same, maybe even better. There is unknown, and soon there will be known, and before I know it I will be home, and the floorboards will still be there, creaking when I step out every morning.