“What are you doing?”

It has been awhile! I have settled back into life in Winnipeg, Canada and school has been keeping me busy. In my Journalism course we were asked to write an opinion piece. I wrote mine on the importance of taking a gap year. So, I thought I would share it here. Enjoy!

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The question was first asked sometime during my last year of high school and I haven’t been able to escape it since. “What are you doing with your life?” This question quickly became my nemesis. Since its conception, the question of my life’s plan has become a hot topic throughout many of my conversations.
I used to try to avoid the question with introspective possibilities, but that never satisfied their curiosity. People wanted to hear of attainable plans and majors. Uncertainty and doubt only raised more concern and created more questions. So, what is a confused, indecisive grade 12 student supposed to do when interrogated about the direction of their life?
My solution was to look my interrogator straight in the eye and state that I would be taking a gap year.
A gap year may be considered impractical. The biggest concern is that a student will lose momentum or fall behind their peers. Society has established that the logical direction after graduation is to continue studying. There is a fear that if the pattern of study is broken, the young adult will not want to return to school.
I was greeted by many concerned individuals when I revealed that my life plans would not involve immediately obtaining a post-secondary education. These individuals may have been apprehensive because they had never heard of the benefits of taking a year off.
The biggest advantage of taking a year off is that it provides a break from formal education. Even Harvard University recommends that students defer their enrolment to take a gap year. A break from academics does not mean a vacation from learning. Many people will use a gap year to volunteer, work, and acquire new skills or travel.
Traveling in a different country offers invaluable insight into different cultures. Perspective cannot be taught. It must be learned.
One of the best ways to learn about oneself is to embrace a diverse new way of life in another part of the world. Travelling also provides a unique opportunity to learn a new language and make new friends.
For those concerned about the financial aspects of travelling, there are many ways to raise the money and travel on a budget. I worked for five months before I travelled to Ecuador. I volunteered there for four months, learned Spanish and plunged into the South American culture.
Upon returning from my travels, I was even more excited to begin University. In fact, the majority of gap year students do return to school. These students even have an advantage over their peers. They are better rested and more self-actualized.
While most people use their first year of University to figure out what they would like to do, students that take a year off explore their possibilities while embracing their sense of adventure. Most gap year students return to school with their “What are you doing?” question answered.
I would not trade my gap year for anything. I had experiences that challenged and shaped me, but, most importantly, I made life-long memories. So, if you are faced with the uncertainty of life, consider grabbing a map and a guide book. There is a whole world out there just waiting to be discovered.

Home and its side effects

Home sweet home! After two months of travelling it’s hard to comprehend staying in the same place for more than a couple of days. Reverse culture shock is slowly settling in…

During a ten hour layover I sat down in a restaurant to kill some time. As I was evaluating the menu the waiter asked if he could get me something to drink. I politely refused any beverages and continued scrutinizing my food options. A few minutes later my waiter returned, somewhat concerned and again asked if he could at least get me some water. I was prepared to turn him down again when he added, “there’s no cost…” FREE WATER?!? (My mouth may have dropped..) I had forgotten the beauty of it! Not only that, it came in a glass with ice instead of a water bottle and was in front of me before I could request that it be “sin gas!”

This was just one scenario in which I realized just how much of an impact South America has had on me. There are many more examples:

I now must consciously think every time I enter a vehicle about putting my seat belt on.
I am shocked when I walk across the street and am NOT almost run over.
And I am delighted to end the long cycle of white bread and jam breakfasts that had become an unfortunate staple.

I’m excited to have home baked goods, to not hear car alarms or an exuberant amount of honking. Even going for a walk outside after dark will no longer be taken for granted.

Though I am still slightly overwhelmed by my closet full of clothes, I am very happy to be putting away the backpack and settling back into a routine. I will just need an extra 15 minutes to get ready every morning… (So many clothes)!

There are aspects of Ecuador and Peru that I will miss, but I am very happy to have found my way home!

Nos vemos Ecuador

There is no way to easily summarize the last few months. So right now I’m not going to bother… Instead I am going to humbly write a goodbye.

In four hours I will be saying “Adios” to a country I have grown to love. Ecuador has been a wonderful home for the last six months and I will never forget my time here. From working in a school during the week to bungee jumping on the weekends, I will walk away with many wonderful experiences and memories. The people I have met here in Ecuador have changed me and made my time here even more incredible. There are many people I have to thank and many more I am so blessed just to have met.

Thank you Ecuador for everything! Here’s hoping we meet again! 

Qué. ¿Perdón? ¿¿Disculpe??

No entiendo

My first few weeks in Ecuador I’m pretty sure I paid for everything in pain.. The word “dollar” in Spanish if pronounced incorrectly is the verb “pain.” An accent mark can be the difference between the word “dad” and “potato.” And placing the emphasis in a different part of a word can completely change the verb tense.

My new favourite word is “perdón,” meaning “excuse me.” It is also my most frequently used word. From kids who speak in muffled whispers to a host family that races through their sentences, I rely a lot on repetition. Being the good Canadian that I am I also apologize…A LOT.

Language is so powerful. Not understanding a language is the best way to truly understand just how powerful it is. I have always taken the ability to communicate for granted. My last four months in Ecuador have taught me a lot in terms of humility. My eyes are often a dead give away when I don’t understand something. My host mom will sometimes look at my face and laugh at my blank expression. At times it is an encouragement to work and study harder. Most of the time I just want to apologize and crawl back to my comfortable English world that doesn’t require an extensive thought process to express basic ideas.

Of all the many challenges I have had to embrace while living in Ecuador,
the language barrier has by far been the hardest.

I have felt frustrated, angry and humiliated by my inability to communicate many times. I am now more empathetic towards those that are struggling to learn a new language in a new country. I also appreciate people who have enough patience to talk to me and admire those that already have the ability to speak more than one language fluently.

I am now partially fluent in Spanglish… Perdón! My Spanish is still a work in progress…

A concert in Quito

**This was written more than three months ago when I was still in Quito.. It’s a little blast from the past that doesn’t have an expiry date. Enjoy!**

My last day of Spanish class is terminado and my days in Quito are coming to an end. These last two weeks flew by a lot faster than I ever thought they would. Quito has also felt like a tasteful vacation. Apart from morning classes and evening homework, I’ve had a chance to explore Quito as the terrible Spanish speaking tourist I am.

Some highlights include: Visiting the museo de la ciudad, exploring Calle la Ronda, finding the way to Parque La Carolina and balancing an egg on a nail on the equator.

Last Friday my wonderful host mother invited me out to a concert. An experience I will not soon forget started with the journey to the theatre. Traffic was so heavy that night that my host mom, her granddaughter and I vacated our car and its driver on the middle of the street and ran to catch the electric bus. The bus wasn’t much better. After two busses passed by after barely stopping, we managed to squeeze onto the third bus and quickly bonded with the people we were unintentionally hugging. At this point I realized that every time I had gone out I was with at least one other english speaker. This was my first time out of the house without an english cushion to fall back on. So, I can’t tell you exactly what happened next. All I know is that there were a lot of people screaming at each other and we had to physically shove our way off the bus. There appeared to be a man blocking one of the doors, but I can’t say for sure or give any explanation. When you’re standing on the street beside a dark theatre, a small girl and a confused women it becomes painstakingly apparent how often the act of communication is taken for granted.
I set unrealistically high standards for myself in the Spanish course. I am notoriously good at setting unrealistic expectations for myself so at least I was being consistent.

It did not take long to realize that the empty theatre was not meant to be a concert setting in a mere 15 minutes. The theatre we were supposed to be at, (if we wanted to see a concert), was located fairly close to my host mother’s house and no where near to where we were in that moment. We managed to pile into a taxi, drive like crazy and arrive in time to find decent seats at the front. Of course, in true Ecuadorian fashion, the concert did not start on time.

When attending an Ecuadorian concert it is not abnormal for the women sitting next to you to answer her phone twice and sing along to every other song… While this drove me crazy, I really enjoyed the show! It was all in Spanish. So I didn’t understand much, but I didn’t need to. I now appreciate music and dance that much more. It is an international language that no one is really fluent in and yet everyone understands.

My host mom’s granddaughter fell asleep in the middle and apart from waking her up the rest of the night was pretty uneventful. Overall, the concert was a great experience!

Life and lists

Oh yeah I have a blog…

I again have to apologize for my lack of posts. For a long time I felt like I didn’t have anything to say. Now I don’t know where to start!

Life here in Cuenca feels natural. Apart from the sky-high gates around all of the houses, the buzz of electric wires while walking down the street and the beautiful colonial style buildings, appearance wise it’s not too different from Winnipeg…
I’ve had to get used to a couple things. The rainy afternoons, the evenings starting at 6:30 pm and washing all the dishes by hand are just a couple of small examples. The language barrier has been another story, but I will save that for another post.

Today I’m going to give a little snippet of what I’ve been up to and some thoughts from the side of the world where the toilet flushes the other way:

The music conservatory where I spend my afternoons provides many wonderful opportunities. I joined the Cuenca Juvenile choir when I first arrived and we now practice in the evenings three times a week. In the middle of April we performed “The Coronation Mass” for the Foundation of Cuenca. One performance involved an hour long bus ride out of Cuenca to a small nearby town where we performed in a beautiful church. The other two performances took place in the “Casa de la Cultura” in the historical centre here in Cuenca. Being in this choir has given me a great community of like minded, hard working people whom I respect and admire.
The conservatory has also given me the opportunity to take a Ballet class once a week, practice music theory and learn to play the drums!

My mornings at the school are filled receiving hugs from adorable children. Their affection however, does not in anyway reflect their desire to listen and follow instructions. Between understanding the students and teachers, to learning the basics about what makes a good teacher good and the ever puzzling riddle of a child’s mind, I am challenged everyday.

My biggest challenge continues to be learning Spanish and communicating with those around me. The language barrier has opened my eyes in more ways than one and as frustrated as it makes me at times, I do think (and hope) that I am learning. I owe a lot of credit to my Spanish teacher. I take private classes twice a week for two hours with an awesome woman named Belen at the Simon Bolivar Spanish School. She is picky about pronunciation and has been rapidly moving me through the language/grammar book that we use. Though it isn’t easy, I always look forward to our classes.

My evenings are either filled with choir practice and homework, friends and Zumba or suppers with my host family. My weekends range from marking tests and skyping my family to travelling and exploring. In the last month I spent one long weekend in Mancora, Peru and another in Vilcabamba. I could write a lot about both experiences, but for now I am just going to say they were both AWESOME!!

My Spanish classes, and all my learning at the Conservatory has reminded me just how much I enjoy school. This is the time of year when course timetables are released and plans are made for the next school year. While most students eagerly welcome summer, I am excitedly looking into University classes for the fall.

 

If there was a show about outrageous love affairs I feel like I could be on it.. because I love lists! Something about them…how they make me feel, how much they help… Once I get started writing lists I don’t want to stop. So with planning my fall I have also been planning my Summer! To say I am SUPER excited about this summer is an understatement which I will state anyway. I am SUPER excited for summer! I have a bunch of stuff to be excited about right now. In fact I think I’m going to go make a list… 🙂

So to summarize: I’ve been keeping busy and I’m happy to report that all is still well. I also promise not to wait so long before my next blog post. I’ll put it in on my list!

Volunteering

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**Dear reader, please note that I have purposefully been keeping you uninformed in an effort to build anticipation. A blog post feed by curiosity, in my opinion, is worth a lot more and can hopefully then appear that much more interesting…**

This week marks the start of my fourth full week of volunteering. Starting at 7:30 am every morning I have been at “Angel Polivio Chavez” school teaching English. It is a public elementary school for kids from grade 1 to grade 8 with a separate section for those in nursery and kindergarten. Monday, Wednesday and Friday I assist another English teacher, but on Tuesday and Thursday I am all by myself. Assisting another teacher has its perks. She is a native Spanish speaker so she can easily communicate with the kids, and as she is still learning this crazy language we call English herself, I can be of some help in the classroom. I mostly correct homework or help with the pronunciation of words, but it feels good having something to do. That being said, Tuesdays and Thursdays are my favourite days. Not only do I have a shorter day, (I end at 10 am instead of the usual 1 pm on Mondays and Wednesdays), but I get to prepare my own lessons and teach the way I want to. Each grade has their own English work book, which leaves all the lessons and activities predetermined. The English teacher I help follows this book fairly closely. On Tuesdays and Thursdays I make my own lessons and I work with smaller groups of students who don’t have as much experience with English. Most of them are new to the school and their previous school didn’t have an English program. I really enjoy teaching these smaller groups. I get to know them better and teach them English songs and games. My one group has even grown to include students who have expressed an interest in learning more. I find it challenging as well, teaching on my own. I have a full class of grade two students that I find very hard to control. The language barrier doesn’t help. I can speak in English as much as I want, but if I really want them to do something I have to speak in Spanish. It has become a big learning curve for me.

The kids are wonderful and crazy. Sitting in their seats appears to be impossible to do for more than five minutes at a time and they come right up to you if they have a question. So having six kids swarming around you at one time is not uncommon. They can be very sweet as well. I receive hugs everyday from students and when I first arrived I got cards, pictures and was even introduced to one little boy’s grandmother!

In the afternoons I am helping out at the Conservatory. Right now I am assisting a teacher Monday to Thursday with an hour and a half long music theory class. A lot of really energetic kids cramped into a small room singing scales and clapping rhythms is a lot more fun than it sounds. The teachers are super encouraging and the kids are awesome! The atmosphere at the Conservatory reminds me of International Music Camp (a place I LOVE). People sitting around in the grass practicing their instruments and rehearsing their dance routines made me realize how much I’ve missed studying music and dance.

I don’t think I will really teach the kids at either of my placements much. If the children at the school could answer my daily “How are you” questions with out giving me a dumbfounded look, at this point I would be proud. I sometimes feel like I’m not doing enough at my placements. Maybe in some ways it’s the placements themselves. In general I think I should be doing more. Something, anything more to really make a difference. It’s hard for me to accept that I may have come all this way and may not be helping anyone who really needs help. In this way I have learned a lot in terms of humility. This entire trip has shifted gears for me in the last few weeks. I am no longer here in Ecuador to volunteer. I am here simply to learn. The food, the language, the music, the dances, everything about this culture and its people is rich and fascinating. I want to take every opportunity and learn as much as I can. If I do manage to teach anything while I’m here that would be a wonderful bonus.