I’m sitting in my kitchen, eating a piece of fresh chocolate chip banana bread, listening to my mom talk on the phone and my brother talk nonsense. Classic day in the Ureste House. I’m home, and man, it feels weird.
The last few days in Quito were bittersweet and exciting and sad and happy and weird. Honestly just the strangest mix of emotions. On Monday and Tuesday, I had final exams, which I was not prepared for at all, but made it through! Also spent time just hanging out with friends that I already miss, chilling out at the IES center, having dance parties (soulja boy, anyone?), and talking about what it would be like to readjust.
Monday night was the IES Abroad goodbye dinner. All of the students in our program plus one host family member and the IES staff headed to a nice restaurant for a delicious meal of ceviche and chifles, turkey and soufflé, and chocolate cake and ice cream. It was fun to see all of the host moms and to talk with my friends and their families. It was a strange night, because at the end of the meal we had our first round of goodbyes to friends that were leaving earlier.
Wednesday was the last day in Quito. Started it off with a breakfast of pancakes with the friends who hadn’t flown out yet and then we headed for one last walk through Parque La Carolina and the botanical gardens. After eating lunch and dinner with my host family and sharing our last goodbyes, I left for the airport, flying out of Quito at 11:30 pm.
There were 8 of us on the flight from Quito to Atlanta, so many goodbyes were shared in the Atlanta airport before I flew to Detroit, getting in around 11:30am. I still feel strange about saying goodbye to my friends: I saw them almost every day for four and a half months straight and it still feels like I’ll see them again on Monday after a long weekend. I think soon it’ll hit me how much I actually miss them, but I’m still waiting for that realization haha.
It was the most incredible experience of my life: I learned and lived and loved harder than I ever have before. Each day was an adventure, an opportunity to grow and to try new things. And so, I want to end with some things that I learned:
–Say Yes to More. How many times did I say yes to things that scared me? SO MANY TIMES. How many times did I regret it? ZERO. Life is always going to present you with new experiences and opportunities to try new things, and you get to decide whether or not you take that chance. I would recommend yes. From bungee jumping to surfing to trying out a church alone to going to conversation club to talking with people at my bus stop. No one forced me to do any of these things. Each of them presented some level of discomfort at the beginning. And each of them changed me for the better. You guys, ¿Por qué no? For the rest of my life, I’m going to say yes to more and no to less. There’s no growth in the comfort zone and there’s no comfort in the growth zone.
–Love People Different Than You. I loved the make up of people I got to interact with this semester- from IES to every Ecuadorian I met. Different backgrounds, different social classes, different religions, different core values, different races/ethnicities, different cultures. It is SO beneficial to get outside of your bubble, whatever it may be, and to interact and love people who have different life experiences. How can we learn from people who are the same as us? Answer: we can, but only so much. If you really want to expand your mind and grow your worldview, you absolutely must be interacting and befriending people who can give you something new to think about.
–Care About Global Issues. I loved watching Ecuadorian news every night, because it featured things that I would never see on the news in the US. Examples: the effects of a giant 20-year-old oil spill in the Amazon, the crisis in Venezuela, indigenous rights, immigration in Latin America, presidents of Latin America, protests. Friends, THE WORLD IS A BIG PLACE. The US is not the most important country in the world. Around the globe there are thousands of issues and people who are important and deserve our attention. Yes, we have a president right now who is not my favorite person, but what about President Maduro of Venezuela whose people are literally starving? What about the fragile democracy of Ecuador? What about the Colombian refugee crisis? What about the people who work in the dump in Quito? If we only care about the problems in the US, we are literally ignoring the rest of this beautiful, broken, amazing world. We are all humans and we are all connected because we live here. Care about it.
–Culture is Important. I learned so much about culture this semester and loved every minute of it. The mestizo culture of Ecuador: how everything is sincretismo- a mix of Spanish and Indigenous and African cultures. The indigenous culture of South America: how these people have overcome genocide and oppression and continue to live their ancient cultures to this day. The Afro-Ecuadorian culture: small yet rich, unappreciated by their own country, yet full of history and importance. The immigrant culture: very similar to the US- facing prejudices and discrimination yet working hard and adding so much value to a country that is not their home. It has been a blessing to experience and appreciate so many different cultures in such a small country. Wherever you are, try to understand your own culture and/or cultures different from yours.
–Home is Where You Make It. I never imagined that home could be in a small apartment building on Avenida 6 de Diciembre in Quito Norte, but it was. I’ve discovered that you can have more than one home- I think now I’ll always have 2- and that the people around you make up home. In Quito, my Ecuadorian family and the friends who became a second sort of family became my home. Special thanks to my host mom Katty and host sister Dianita for filling my life with care and love and laughter throughout the semester. Special thanks to my IES friends for being the all around best.
–Fluency is Relative. I’m mentally preparing myself for the amount of people who are going to ask me “Oh, so you’re fluent in Spanish now?” Personally, I don’t really believe that the level “fluent” exists for someone who is a non-native speaker. What even is fluent? Everyone defines it differently. Does it mean I don’t have an accent? Does it mean I understand slang? Does it mean I can carry a conversation? Does it mean I never forget a word? I don’t know what fluent is, but I don’t think that’s important. Am I fluent in Spanish? No. Do I speak Spanish with fluency? I think yes!! This is a hard concept to understand unless you’ve ever tried to learn a second language. I will truly never speak Spanish without an American accent. It will never be perfect. I’ll definitely continue to forget how to conjugate certain verbs. But I also have improved so much- I’m completely comfortable having conversations about the widest range of issues, can throw in some quiteño phrases, and absolutely LOVE speaking it. And I’m super proud of that!
–Reverse Culture Shock is Real. The amount of shock I’ve felt since I’ve been back is wild. Honestly there are just so many white people everywhere here. I said “permiso” and “gracias” to countless people at the Detroit Airport and the Chance the Rapper concert on Thursday and have gotten so many weird glances. I keep forgetting that I don’t need to speak in Spanish in public places here. I also keep forgetting that it’s okay to throw toilet paper in the toilet, eat with my fingers, and greet people without a beso and an abrazo. I keep wondering where the mountains are and why it’s so easy to breathe. I (maybe?) even (subconsciously) miss the constant sound of the crosswalk signal outside my window! I know this is only the beginning- they say it’s a journey and that adjusting to one’s home culture takes a lot of time and energy. I believe it. I never thought I’d feel this out of place or weird in the US, but here I am and I’m rolling with it. It’s going to be a process for sure and thank you in advance to the people that are going to be witnessing it.
It was an amazing four and a half months. Not every moment was good, and after about two months the “honeymoon phase” ended and life became quite normal. Yet still, every moment was an opportunity to learn and grow and dig deeper into who I am as a person.
I’m still waiting for the moment when someone asks me how study abroad was and I respond, “it was good!”. Because how can I describe this experience in one word? How can I describe it in one hour? How can I capture a million colors, lessons, ecosystems, mountains, people, laughs, bus trips, long conversations, mosquito bites, sandy feet? How can I capture all of those times I listened to Despacito on repeat? How can I capture all of those times I said “qué chévere” and felt very local? How can I capture the most incredible experience of my life and explain it well?
Ecuador pushed me and challenged me to become Emily Brooke Ureste at a deeper level. And I’m forever thankful. I’ve come back with determination: the drive to work harder at Spanish and Social Work, to stay educated, to love people well, to seek joy on the daily, to embrace the world around me.
Ecuador, gracias por todo. And now, Onward.