Nine months ago, on a cloudy August morning, I got on a plane bound for home. But this wasn’t just any home. It was my home thousands of miles away from my physical and psychological home that I would be calling my second home. Remember that chilly night I landed in Ecuador—completely confused with where my leap of faith took me, with no foresight of where I would be living, who I would be living with, or what I would be doing from day to day? As I write the last chapter of this long and beautiful journey nine months later, it only makes sense to call it a long and beautiful journey. This has been the most transformative stretch of my life, and I couldn’t ask for more. I constantly wonder what will be left of this experience as I go back to the hectic, fast-paced city life of Los Angeles. I constantly wonder what sentiments will cross my mind as I get into my own bed at night, unable to decipher whether or not I was dreaming this year or actually living it. I constantly wonder how this experience has been engrained in every part of who I am. And through every good and hard experience I’ve had, Ecuador has definitely become a part of me.
This year, I’ve summited Volcán Pichincha, at 15,696 feet above sea level. I watched Volcán Tungurahua erupt three times before my eyes. I lived at the base of Chimborazo, the closest place on Earth to the sun. I lived with a family of seamstresses. I worked on our farm. I learned how to adapt with people who live completely differently from me. I had too many crazy moments to count as a teacher to a thousand kids. I swung at the end of the world. I was surrounded by bats at night while rowing down a river deep in the Amazon. I bathed in a river under the pattering rain. I gained a deep interest in food. I got hundreds of bug bites in a single day in the rainforest. I was on TV for the Independence Day parade in my small community of Guano. I snorkeled in the Pacific. I bargained alpaca sweaters down from forty dollars to sixteen dollars and eventually to fifteen in the indigenous craft market of Otavalo. I took a crazy Spanish class with an actress. I navigated the bus system and got lost a million times before finding my way. I ate guinea pigs, larvae, and intestines. I made artisan chocolate. I was part of the World Food Day parade in Guayaquil. I had some ten eggs thrown at me and even more buckets of water during Carnaval.
But I’m not going to lie–living in my community this year has been harder than anything I have ever done. It’s been very difficult to live in a family of seamstresses three times my age who would rather spend all day and all night sewing than going out. It’s been very difficult for them to take every sarcastic joke I say very seriously. It’s been very difficult for me to hear that everything I do is “peligroso” without being trusted to having a key to my own house. It’s been very difficult to live my life here after being pampered in my life at home. It’s been very difficult to be secluded from anyone my age and living life without any friends. It’s been difficult to work with a supervisor who didn’t want to work with me simply because I am gay. But now that I think of it, what would my life be if things hadn’t played out the way that it did?
True, my life in Ecuador is a story of adventure, and I have become a crazier person, but my Global Citizen Year has taught me so much more than just that, and though my year has had many moments in which I’ve wanted to quit, I want to open my eyes to everything good I’ve learned this year.
I’ve gained so much openness and empathy to the way people perceive me. Never before have I been in an environment where gender stereotyping is so prominent: “You’re a guy. You can’t have dyed hair. You can’t wear boots. You have to eat the blue cake and not the pink one.” Never before have I been in an environment where it’s “not okay to be gay.” True, I have been hurt by these words people have said to me–but it also made me aware of how people think in other parts of the world and adapt to the cultural norms others have. Frankly, the world is a big place, and though I have my own thoughts about how I want to live my life, it is important to respect everyone and understand the thoughts of others.
I’ve escaped from trying to be a perfectionist all the time. My life in Ecuador has been an emotional roller coaster of confusion, frustration, panic, but also success. I can’t think of a single day when I haven’t felt even the slightest bit out of place, whether it be physically or culturally. It has been a huge challenge to change the chip in my brain to live and breathe everything in Spanish, and an even bigger challenge to navigate my way around. I always wonder what I got myself into and constantly live with the mystery of not knowing what I’m doing. It was a challenge this year to get over a fear of myself–a fear that I would mess up, that I would feel emotionally low, that I wouldn’t know what I was doing half the time. I have left my old self behind me–the person who always had to have a plan, who lived such a structured life. Somehow, I became okay with not knowing what my life holds for me and opened my heart to new experiences–both good and bad. Simply put, I have learned how to let go.
I’ve come a long way in understanding myself as a person. I have become more adventurous. I have learned how to live with more openness and empathy. I have learned how to let go. And most importantly, I personally believe that I have learned how to become a better global citizen. And when I get back home, I will never forget this incredible ride.