Just kidding. I'm actually in Peru. You can extract your heart from your throat now, Mom.
Question: What happens when you drive your sketchy developing world public bus off your chosen path through lawless traffic and off a cliff into the deep, cavernous trash filled crevass below, hoping to land on used bathroom tissue that you can't flush down instead of old motorcycle bits?
Ok, now I'm just being dramatic. But long story short, I'm taking a headlong plunge into the unknown--I'm not going back to school next semester. The original plan was two semesters studying in Ecuador through a nice, organized, formal study abroad program, IPSL. Semester one follows a well traveled path--I apply, get the ungodly sums paid, arrive in Ecuador with a robust group of international students, go to a safe, private university with a bunch of rich Ecuadorians, and stay with a well-worn host family. I follow the rules, I stick to the plan, and I have an absolutely fabulous time. I've learned more than I thought possble, seen more than should be legal at my age, and met incredible people. Rock on, study abroad.
But I'm done with that. No more unsatisfying classes at a university so cut off from the majority of the country you need a swipe card and finger print to get in. No more speaking English everyday with my superb gringo friends. No more spending hours at an internship that is unrewarding and has next to nothing to do with where I see my future. No more eating pounds of rice and meat and having my time controlled by someone else. It's been real, but that's not what I want.
So I told my program, Why, thank you very much, but peace out. I'm going to do this myself. Which brings me here--I've finished my exams and papers, I've left the country. And I don't have a single solid plan for the next six months. Between December 19th, 2008 and June 10th, 2009, my life is up for grabs. Nothing has been so daunting, so unsure, and so absolutely freeing.
As much as I absolutely love to travel, six months of pure on-the-road decadence is not going to work. I'm in the middle of school, I have a limited budget, and I have the kind of mind and spirit that need to be productive. Blame society, blame my parents, blame my own personality...but I want to work and learn and see and do. I want to better myself and my world, and not just spend money on hostals and entrance fees. But, I've figured out, that doesn't have to be in a mediocre Ecuadorian classroom. I'm studying Development Studies. I'm in a Developing Country. Let's be creative here, shall we?
So here's the plan. I'm currently in an internet cafe in Piuri, Peru, just south of the Ecuadorian border, waiting for my 14 hour bus to Lima. From there, things get a little foggy, but after New Year's I'll be meeting up with my badass German friend Gesa to travel, cholo style (cheap and ghetto...a little derogatory, but we've decided to be part of the movement to reclaim that word for good), through Peru and back up to Ecuador. Starting in the beginning of February, I will take up residence in Quito, to get my Spanish where it should be (ahora, mi espanol es horible y no lo me gusta) and work in a conscious consumerism development project called Kallari. But because this is South America, hardly anything can be arranged in advance, so it's still all ideas until I get there.
So fine, great. Development work for a development studies major in a developing country. A little detour that will allow me to get what I want out of my time here. Good for the soul, good for the resume, good for the pocketbook. I'm still going back to Berkeley in August as planned. Everybody wins. So why was I feeling discontented? That weight in my stomach wasn't just street food--it was uncertainty. It was that jolt of HOLY CRAP--I'm not protected by my university status, by my program, by the well worn plan of my peers. I'm bailing. And not just bailing for a week on a farm, to return in full capacity with hardly a moment lost. I'm doing something not quite mother approved, in a foreign country, without a real plan or goal or anything. What the hell am I doing?
Hold up. I needed a moment to think. So I took it. Why not? I've got nothing if not time. Monday night I took an overnight bus to Vilcabamba, in southern Ecuador, and from there headed to Podocarpus National Park for my first solo hiking and backpackingish experience. Taking all necessary precautions, telling the proper people, and finding all necessary information (that was for you, Mom), I hiked the 8.5 kilometers to the refugio (basic cabin) and spent the day reading (Savages, by Joe Kane, about what oil is doing to the Ecuadorian Amazon and its people), writing, and meandering through the park's terrain, which is on that lovely line between highland sierra and lowland rainforest, with all the varying flora and fauna in between. I took this moment to just be by myself and think about the next six months. I ate cold canned corn and yogurt and granola with a spoon I whittled (well, at least scraped into something usable) from a piece of wood with my grandpa's pocktknife. I went to bed in my little cabin at 7:30, because what do you do at night by yourself in the middle of the forest with only a solarpowered flashlight, and tried to debunk all of the horror stories that were a product of the media, my mother, and my own overactive imagination--bears, rock slides, jaguars, serial killers, robbers, disease, bloodsucking bats, friendly campers turned rapists, fire ants, flash floods, escaped insane asylum ax-muderers (as if they had a public service like that in Ecuador)...
Day Two, Podocarpus National Park. I woke up at 5:00 to leave my cozy little cabin at 6:00, just as the sun was beginning to bathe this magnificent valley in impossible color and light. I tredged up a practically vertical rainforest-like path, an eroded muddy mess in most parts, but surrounded by dripping green in every hue and bird calls from human song to R2D2, and finally emerged on the mountain ridge, to follow a steeply rolling path through tundra-chapparal and glorious vistas. Completely alone. I didn't encounter one other person until I returned to camp, 14 impossibly hard kilometers, and 8.5 hours later. Unscathed. Take that, Caution. In your face, Dependence. Booyah, Fear.
A quick break for sustenance and regrouping, and I was off again, to conquer the last 8.5 kilometers out of the park, before the rain got me. Though, as usual, Mother Nature won. Halfway through my two hour jaunt, I was pelted with the storm that makes that valley so utterly bursting with life. Exhausted and sore, I reveled in the refreshing feel of clean, pure water on my face, and felt only more alive for it. 22.5 exhausting kilometers, or 14 miles later, I caught yet another overnight bus to cross the border, leaving the country for the first time in four months.
So, did it work? Why yes. Strangely, stereotypically, somewhat cheesily, two days on my own gave me the chance to ask myself the questions everyone else had been asking me. My little solo frolic through the woods gave me the space to self-reflect, analyze, and dare I say self-actualize? (C) What do I want? What do I hope to accomplish before I leave South America? What makes me happy? What is a good use of my time? What does it mean to grow up?
So what's the conclusion? I have no responsibilities, no one accountable for me, no one I'm accountable to. No one to say what I should do. This is exactly what I've hoped for, and a time like this may never come around again. I am happy with my decision to leave my program, and I know I am in no capacity ready to come home. I need to grow up, but I don't need to grow up all the way right now, and growing up doesn't mean 9-5. It doesn't mean stop traveling and learning. It doesn't mean stop being silly, or stop being dramatic, or start thinking soul-searching is a game. It just means being responsible for myself, and to stop being so dependent. To stop being quite so selfish, and to be open to expanding that definition. I am here to enjoy myself, learn about myself. I'm here to figure out how to be the best citizen of the world I can be, how to live a life that's real and practical, but also according to my ideals. I'm here to learn about development, to learn Spanish. Yes I'm messing around a little, yes I'm spending money I could be saving, yes I'm having an absolute blast, yes I'm a silly, flighty, idealistic, privileged college student. So the fuck what? I'm going to own that, and make it work in a way that works for me.
Enough of this rant. I'm on a boundless adventure! What am I doing in front of a computer?