It happened on the second day, right after breakfast. I called my mom for the first time since arriving at my host family’s house. We talked about how great my host family is, how beautiful Illuman (my new town) is, how excited I am to start my new apprenticeship, and how things are back at home. I hung up the phone feeling content to have spoken with my mother and excited for the day ahead.
A few minutes later, I felt a lump in my throat. I was confused; until that moment, I hadn’t experienced a negative emotion more powerful than a basic sense of apprehension. I tried to ignore the lump for a few hours without success, and eventually had to escape my host family in the living room and seclude myself in my room to cry.
I found the train that is my mind circling around the same track of “what am I missing at home?” and “I won’t see my family and my girlfriend for an eternity,” and “I can’t connect with my host family because I can’t speak Spanish well enough,” and “why did I choose to do this?” for the remainder of the day (and well into the next day). I had never dealt with such intense feelings of loneliness and hopelessness. Talking with my mom and girlfriend on the phone helped to some extent, but in some ways made me feel even worse because it made what I was missing out on even more evident.
The next day as I was hoping my host mom cook lunch, my host siblings (11 and 7 years old) got home from school. I accompanied my host sister Laymi to Otavalo (the closest city) to buy some fabric for my host mother Nancy (she makes backpacks, clothing, and bags to sell at the market on weekends), but the fabric store was closed so we came home. When we arrived back at the house, Laymi and her brother Yauri led me outside to go for what I presumed would be a short walk/tour around Illuman. I followed their lead and we ended up at a farm right at the foot of Imbabura Volcano that I thought belonged to their grandparents (thanks to my poor Spanish skills), but later realized was just a random farm. We ended up playing games like football tag and hide and seek (but instead of a person hiding, Laymi hid the football for Yauri and I to find), we had a sawdust snowball fight and made a sandcastle with the extra shavings, and we also just played plain old catch.
Sitting on tree trunk stools looking up at the peaks of Imbabura while Yauri and Laymi shoved sharp blades of grass into my fingers (one of their favorite pastimes), I felt authentically happy for the first time. My host parents are wonderful people, but the language barrier is more prohibitive than I expected it to be. Playing with my new host siblings was the first time I was able to feel truly connected to someone since arriving at my new house. I felt like I had taken a time machine back to when I was 9 or 10, exploring the backyard of my childhood home with my brother and having lightsaber fights.
We got lost on the way home and I stepped in cow mud, but I skipped home behind my siblings with a smile bigger than Imbabura that night. The alleviation of my homesickness was temporary, of course– it came back with a vengeance the next day and plagues me as strong as ever as I write this– but that day, I learned that connection and interaction is probably going to be the most meaningful part of my gap year. Each day, to quote Miley Cyrus’ ‘The Climb’, is an “uphill battle,” but I have to have faith that it will get better. Even if this homesickness never leaves me, highs like the one I experienced on that random farm on Monday come pretty close to making the lows worth it.