Little things excite me about going home: having a bunch of sweatshirts to choose from, eating bagels and tofu and drinking lots of almond milk, seeing my dogs again. It’s been a long time since Mom and I counted expired inspection stickers as we drove around. I can’t wait to eat wacky vegan food—as much as I love Paola’s refried beans and lentil burgers, I could use something a little more creative. There are bigger things, too, but every time a new small thing occurs to me, it tickles me with excitement. It’s fun to look forward to things I used to take for granted. Who would’ve thought that I’d be this excited to get my teeth cleaned?
When I wonder what I’ll miss about Ecuador, little things come to mind, too: always being cradled between Cotacachi and Imbabura Volcanoes, paying twenty-five cents for an avocado, reading on the bus. My house doesn’t have (or need) heating or air conditioning. The abundance of fresh produce blows my mind. I love when little old ladies respond to my obligatory “buenos días” with a wildly enthusiastic “¡bueeeenos dííííías!” Here, it’s not unusual for store employees to point me toward a competitor if they don’t have what I’m looking for.
I look forward to little things without reservation. Yet when I think about how I’m only going to miss little things, I feel guilty. Shouldn’t I feel more sad about leaving the family that’s taken me in for the past seven months? And the co-workers who’ve both taught and been humble enough to learn from me? How shallow am I for putting cheap produce above the kind-hearted people who’ve treated me like their own?
I thought that April would come around and force me to leave part of my heart behind. Maybe I’m speaking too soon, but with nine days left in this country, I appreciate it most for its inexpensive helados de paila, cheap and efficient bus system, and for being away from home. Because if I were home, I’d be running errands with Mom and working retail. I wouldn’t have the freedom to write two pages a day and find out that I do, in fact, enjoy playing with little kids. The mild, seasonless weather has spoiled me. Ecuador put me, homesickness, and culture shock in an old Oster blender, mixed us up on high, and allowed me to crawl out, stronger for it.
It’s okay to miss little things about Framingham, so now that my time is almost up in Quiroga, why do I feel like I should miss something more grand?
It’s time for me to let go of how I thought my gap year should go. It’s gone how it’s gone, differently than I imagined it would. I’ve learned different lessons than I expected to learn. My Spanish still isn’t perfect, but I’ve written a 300-page novel. I didn’t make any close Ecuadorian friends, but with the 50-pound suitcase limit looming over me, I’ve been careful about what I buy. There’s no going to Target just for fun and coming home with new pants. I’ve gotten really good at lighting the stove with a match, and I hand-wash my dishes after I eat. Even though it fosters dust mites, I make my bed every morning, because doing so was on the list of rules Paola showed me on my first day here. (Never mind that my host sisters don’t make their beds… it’s become a habit.)
As a foreigner, I’ve trained myself to see how I look through other people’s eyes. That might be the biggest lesson of my time here—being more self-aware. A friendly old man called me pretty when I was sitting at the bus stop, and instead of telling him snidely that I didn’t ask for his opinion, I just nodded. Yes, it made me slightly uncomfortable, but he was just trying to be nice. Whether I like it or not (hint: I do not), I represent all foreigners, and it’s my duty to be respectful and to apologize when I slip up. Rather than assume that whoever I’m talking to doesn’t understand, I must conclude that I’m being unclear.
So no, I didn’t live on a farm or go on weekly hikes with my host family. I keep forgetting the Spanish word for underwear. Some alumni are in touch with their host families five years later—maybe that’ll be me. Probably not. But my own preconceived notions are what guilt me into thinking I should miss bigger, better things than fresh, cheap produce and incredible mountain sunsets. This year has given me the opportunity to choose what I do with much of my time. It’s given me all the (dangerously strong) sunshine that I needed to grow. For all I know, when I get back home, those “more important” things will hit me. It’s hard to predict what I’ll miss. After all, when I left home, I had no idea that I’d be excited to go back and use the toaster.