My parents worried that if I moved away from California, I might never come back. In hindsight, their fear seems comical. Living away from home has given me a deeper appreciation for the people and places there than I ever could have imagined. It has also made me identify as patriotic–something I never would have anticipated seven months ago. That isn’t to say I’m chomping at the bit to come home, but it does mean that sometimes, I indulge in a fantasy about imagine moving back to the Bay Area instead of across the world to another continent come August. Generally, these thoughts make their way into my head when I’ve had a particularly rough couple of weeks here. I can almost predict these musings in advance of their arrival.
Most of the time, I am content with my life here. I love having my own apartment. I pay my own rent and work for my money. I am discovering the joys of learning how to cook and take care of myself. Last Sunday, I made a red Thai curry that tasted like real Thai food from Berkeley Thai House. Last Thursday, I made chicken parmesan that turned out pretty decent. I celebrate these small culinary victories. I feel more independent than I have felt in my entire life. I can get myself around to most of the places I want to go using public transit, which is definitely an achievement in a city with no online bus maps and many an unmarked stop. I am realizing that my vocabulary has grown, as has my confidence in using Spanish. I’m learning how to pronounce the labial palatal d sounds in words like codo and todito. After having taught two cycles, I feel like a competent instructor and classes have gotten easier. I don’t have to spend nearly as much time lesson planning, which gives me entirely free mornings. I have time to work out, hang out, or chill out, depending on my mood on a given day.
Life isn’t always easy here, though. Life isn’t always easy anywhere in the world, of course. However, one of the aspects of living abroad that any person intrepid enough to attempt it will soon discover is that life is, simply put, more intense when you are abroad. Naturally, there are some smooth periods where life feels plain normal, but when you do experience emotions while abroad, they are usually sharper. Some people use the term emotional roller coaster, and I think that it’s fairly apt. They say you experience the highest highs and lowest lows, and I believe it. March was one of those types of months for me. Consistent readers might remember how tough January was for me. March was a curious mix of very high days and very low ones. Highs like finishing your second cycle of teaching and feeling how much you have grown as an instructor since first starting, and reading the validation and proof in your higher student reviews. The confidence that comes along with that realization, and the energy and enthusiasm it brings to your next cycle of teaching. Relaxing on a white-sand beach under Equatorial sun with someone you love. Drinking rum in a hot tub under the stars and contemplating life. Eating the best chicken empanada you’ve ever tasted with the best hot chocolate you’ve ever had in a tiny, unassuming restaurant with an unbeatable view. Exploring majestic and mysterious mountains and lakes, hiking on delightfully spongy and strange tierra of the páramo beneath your feet. Feeling the most content and loved that you have felt in years. These kinds of things are experiences I was lucky enough to have this past month, and they are pretty unparalleled.
Then all your technology breaks down in the period of two weeks. Your brand new music player that you waited two months for freezes and stops working less than a week after you open it. You hate running without music, so you continue not working out as much as you should. Your Kindle only charges sporadically because the charger is somehow warped. Your laptop stops charging when you trip over the cord, and your insurance probably won’t cover it. Not to mention, importing Mac parts takes about 2-3 weeks, so you’re without a laptop for lesson planning and Netflix-ing and everything else for what feels like ages.
You have several doctors and dentist appointments and lots of paperwork to fill out and translate into English for Peace Corps. Then you get a painful infection and have to find a doctor and navigate the health care system yet again. You find out a close friend has been lying to you, and it hurts. You wonder how much your relationship has changed, and hope it’s not too much. It’s worse because you feel like your best friends are all thousands of miles away in California and England. You realize that you have been here six months and still don’t have the social group you hoped you would develop. In your lowest moments, you find yourself wishing you were living in the Bay, surrounded by people who have known you and loved you for years, to fight the loneliness and the isolation that still occasionally plague you here, despite the fact that you’ve been abroad for nearly 7 months already. The other part of you can’t imagine leaving a place that in some ways has come to truly feel like home, and wonders how the hell you’re supposed to pick up and leave someone and someplace you have come to care for deeply. And then the government still hasn’t paid you for all of 2016, and you might have to leave a couple months earlier than you expected because of it.
But the reality is, even 11 months is a short time in the grand scheme of life. I am supposed to be here just 10.5. As my wise older sister reminded me, relationships take time. My friend Tarika has a theory that true friendships require 2-year minimum to establish themselves. How does that fit in with my shorter-term plan? I knew what I signed up for when I decided to come to Ecuador for a little less than a year, or at least, I thought I did. It’s a strange feeling, living life here as my “real life” but also knowing just how temporary it is. I live here, but part of me is still in the States. I live here, but somedays, especially on the bad ones, my mind is elsewhere. I can see sunset over the Golden Gate Bridge almost as vividly as when it was my daily view.I can taste the spicy deliciousness of House of Curries chicken curry and the refreshing sweetness of a Blue Moon beer at Albatross. I can feel the warmth of cuddling up in my extra-long twin bed with my dearest friends and having some of the best conversations I’ve ever had. I live here, but I know it is just for a brief moment.
So where am I going with this? I’m not really sure. I don’t have a grand insight to share. I don’t feel like I’ve had some major realization. Except maybe that living abroad is simultaneously one of the best and hardest things I’ve ever done. And that establishing oneself in a foreign country takes a whole lot longer than I anticipated. For that reason (and many, many others!), I am looking forward to the 27-month commitment of Peace Corps service. Knowing how quickly 7 months goes by, and feeling the impending date of my departure from Ecuador looming overhead, especially if I end up having to leave my service early, I am grateful that I will have a longer period to make a life for myself in Mozambique than I do here. I didn’t think I would still be feeling so sharply the ups and downs of the roller coaster that is living abroad this far into my time here, but I am. I wonder if it will ever stop, or if this is just the life of a (temporary) expat nomad.
To end on a hopeful note, one incredibly positive thing that has come out of my experience here is a profound appreciation for my friends and family back home in a way that I never could have felt before leaving. To have people who have known you and loved you for years is a precious thing that should be treasured. People and relationships are irreplaceable. Being far away from those people for the first time has given me the space to reflect on just how important they are to me and to cherish the support and love I have from them, even 3,800 miles away. And for gratitude, I am grateful.