What I’ve Learned

22 Jul

No travel or experience abroad would be complete without being able to walk away with a new perspective, or lacking that, at the very least having some new knowledge to help in every day life. Spending almost a year in a foreign country, there’s a ton of new stuff that I can add to in my “Experiences” file. Aside from the obvious things that you’re going to learn like language and customs, there are other things that are acquired.

Before I’d studied in Spain I was a beginner in Spanish, with only a semester under my belt. But that was part of the experience for me. I wanted to know what it would be like as a newcomer to a country where you don’t speak the language well, and how long it could take you to improve. I wanted to see what it was like for immigrants in the United States. At that time there was a lot of talk about putting up a wall between the U.S. and Mexico, and I wanted to be on the side of the foreigner to see what it was like.

Though you can never fully understand someone else’s life, it gave me a lot of insight on what it’s like living in a foreign country, struggling to get by in a language that isn’t your own. By the end of my 5 months studying abroad, I sat on a park bench alone writing and realized that I wasn’t finished yet. I loved being abroad, traveling, and learning new languages. So here I kind of entered into the “Forrest Gump” stage of my life. Instead of running, however, it was living abroad. When I was 17 I backpacked through Europe with my sister. After the three weeks, I realized I wanted to study abroad. Once I’d studied abroad for 5 months, I knew I wanted to live in a Spanish speaking country for a year to improve in the language as much as possible. And once I got to Ecuador, I figured I might as well just keep going with it and spend at least another year in South America, this time in Argentina.

So arriving in Ecuador, I didn’t have to go through the same process of learning the language from scratch, though it has been a learning experience all year long. But what have I learned? For one thing, I know that teaching English as a second language is not my calling. That might seem simple enough, but at least I know there’s one other field I’d rather not be working in. Was that worth $5,000 to find out? Probably not.

Before arriving here everyone was worried for my safety, thinking I’d be kidnapped or killed. I brushed it off as unwarranted fear that was brought on by the media. But the first week in the country my night bus was hijacked, rocking my world and waking me up to the fact that yes, this can be a dangerous country. And even though I was pretty paranoid and wary of most people I’d met for a while after that, I eventually got over it and realized that, just like anywhere else in the world, you will find good people and bad people. Unfortunately, as much as you try to surround yourself with the good ones, bad ones sometimes come looking for you.

Only a few months into my time here I was reading about gang violence back home in Boston and saw articles about teenagers getting gunned down, kids accidentally shot in playgrounds from driveby fire. And people were still saying I was crazy for voluntarily coming to Ecuador. But what they didn’t understand that maybe it was just as dangerous, or more dangerous, to be in Boston at that time. Couldn’t they read the news?

And perhaps the saddest thing about all of this is that if I were walking in Boston 2 days after coming home and was accidentally shot, mugged, or killed by a drunk driver, it would be a tragedy, but people would think nothing more of it. Because it’s their neighborhood, and it must have been random. But if the same thing had happened to me in Cuenca, it would be because it was a dangerous country with criminals everywhere and I had no place being here. Let me point out again, aside from the bus hijacking my first week here, which was just bad luck, nothing has happened to me since. No country in the world is entirely safe, except maybe Switzerland.

Not just talking about the safety issue, I’ve also had a lot of time to sit around thinking and to grow as a person. With a lot of down time each day, a dark, depressing room with no windows, and hardly any entertainment other than my lap top, I had to rise above the boredom and frustration. As a former teacher of mine once said, you learn the most about yourself in the hardest situations. And that’s the truth. Stepping back and thinking of the relationship between foreigners and Ecuadorians, not only in modern terms but also from U.S. foreign policy dating back 30 years or more, I can see more clearly why we get some of the looks that we get.

And at the end of the day, I know about a country that I’d previously known nothing about. I don’t even know if I’d ever given Ecuador much thought before deciding that I wanted to come here for a year. But now, 11 months later, I’m better informed and have been fortunate enough to live in a country that most people will probably never visit, but hopefully through my own writing, some out there will now understand more about this country. And one day, maybe, they can experience it for themselves.

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