The End!

And just like that my semester abroad is coming to a close. In nine days I’ll be sitting in my house in Geneva, Illinois with my family who I haven’t seen for four and a half months. The best word to describe how I’m feeling at this point is content. I’m happy in Ecuador and have loved my time here. It’s an experience that I’ll cherish forever, but at the same time I’m excited to get home and see my friends and family. I’m sure over the next few months I’ll have to deal with all that comes with processing an experience like this, but for now I feel content about leaving.

This is my final post, so I thought I’d share some advice for studying abroad!

  • Get to know the people in your program.

One of the greatest blessings of the semester has been the friends that I have made here. There are nineteen of us in the IES Quito program and I take my classes with the same ten people everyday. We will be the first to tell you that we are a diverse bunch. We have different interests, different personalities, and we all come from very different backgrounds. But that’s the beautiful thing about these friendships. We are all very different from one another yet have grown so close because of this experience. I am going to miss seeing these people everyday and doing life with them, but I know that for the rest of our lives we will always have this bond, no matter where we are in the world. We struggled together, laughed together, and have seen the best and worst in one another. To my IES amigos, I am forever grateful for you!

  • Know that whatever you’re feeling is valid.

Studying abroad is exciting and scary at the same time. You leave everything that is comfortable behind to jump into a life filled with unknowns. It’s perfectly normal to feel nervous. Everyone feels differently when they leave. For example, I was anxious beyond belief. It didn’t hit me until the morning I was leaving that I was actually terrified. But I moved past it once I arrived and took it one day at a time. Some of my friends were just excited to get here. Everyone is different and whatever you’re feeling throughout the whole semester is okay!

  • Step out!

The biggest lesson that I have learned this semester is that stepping out of your comfort zone is where you experience the most growth. Try new foods, meet new people, do things that you might not normally do (with reason of course). When you leave your comfort zone you learn so much about yourself and it’s pretty cool. Be adventurous!

  • Be present.

While I have fallen in love with Ecuador, there have been a lot of times when I think about what’s going to happen this summer, next semester, etc. Try to stay as present as you can in your experience because it doesn’t last forever. I’m not saying cut off all ties with your previous life, but try to stay as connected with the country you’re in and the people you’re with as you can. Studying abroad is temporary but the lessons you learn will never leave you.

  • Open up your perspective.

Be open to new ideas and opinions. With having a diverse group of friends I have heard various opinions on all kinds of topics. Take it all in. You become more well-rounded when you take time to listen. Ecuador had its presidential election while I was here (it was huge, they haven’t had a new president in ten years) and I learned so much about different people’s perspectives and viewpoints. Be open, don’t judge, just listen and then shape your own opinions.

  • GO!!!

If you’re even thinking about going abroad, do it! You won’t regret it! You will learn things that you never could have learned anywhere else. There’s a country for everyone, so look into it, apply, and get ready for the journey of a lifetime!

When I think back to when I chose to go to Ecuador I just think about how I had no idea what was in store. I have seen and done a lot, more than I knew possible, and I am thankful for all of it. Even the struggles and obstacles, I am thankful. I can honestly say that I will not be coming back to the United States as the same person that I was when I left. Thank you, Ecuador. My life has forever been changed for the better and I will miss you dearly.

 

 

Resorts, Rest, and Realizations

After all of the adventures that I’ve been on this semester, from snorkeling with sharks to hiking a volcano to bungee jumping, it was okay with me this weekend when we decided to take a break and have a relaxing getaway. This weekend we went to a town called Papallacta which is located in the mountains east of Quito. We only stayed for one night and that was just enough time for me.

We stayed at a hot springs resort and it was probably one of the coolest resorts I’ve ever been to. The resort has tons of hot springs everywhere for you to try out the different temperatures and what not and all of them have incredible views of the mountains. We stayed in cabins which was a fun change from hostels and we had hot springs right outside our door.

Pretty much the whole time we were there I just relaxed in the pools with my friends, having good conversations and forgetting about all of the essays that we had waiting for us in Quito.

Before leaving the resort to head back to the city, a few of us decided to stay a bit longer and do a hike in Parque Nacional Cayambe-Coca. This hike was one of my favorites because it was easy and had amazing views of the mountains around us. We would walk through segments of a forest, crossing bridges over a river while inside the trees, and would come out into the presence of the green mountains that surrounded it all. Truly beautiful in every way.

 

Eventually we left to get back to the city in the most Ecuadorian fashion: waiting on the side of the road until a bus would hopefully come by. Don’t worry, we only had to wait about ten minutes before one stopped for us. It was a quick trip away but one that was necessary and that brought just enough rest for the upcoming week.

As I looked back on my photos from the weekend I was really struck by the mountains and began thinking about this theme of mountains in my semester. I have faced a lot of mountains this semester, literally and figuratively. Here’s the thing about them: mountains are rarely easy to climb. You feel weak and inadequate and want to give up. However as this semester has gone on I have become less intimidated by mountains and the challenges they bring because I have experienced undeserved grace and constant faithfulness in the most difficult climbs. The struggles are real and that is okay. Struggles are a part of life. But there is joy that comes when the thing that once made us weak is overcome.

 

Galápagos Getaway

The trip that we’d been waiting for all semester finally came this past weekend and oh was it even more incredible than I could’ve imagined. We went on our second and final IES sponsored excursion and this time it was to the Galápagos Islands. Yes, THE Galápagos Islands, complete with crystal clear water, giant tortoises, and the purest beaches. We packed a ton of different activities into our four days there, so for this post I’m just going to share some of my favorite parts.

First, here’s a bit of basic info about the trip: we left early on Thursday morning, flew to an island called Baltra, took a 10 minute ferry ride to an island called Santa Cruz and stayed there until Friday morning. On Friday we took a 2 hour boat ride to the island of San Cristóbal, where we stayed until Sunday.

Now for my personal highlights!

  • Boat tours

Something to know about me is that I LOVE, and I mean really love, boat rides. I have been blessed with the gift of never getting seasick which makes the whole boating experience way more enjoyable for me. This weekend was filled with boat rides so I was pretty content the whole time. Like I mentioned before, we took a 2 hour ride to get from one island to the other. I listened to music, continually reminded myself of where I was and how cool that was, and even got to drive the boat at one point (let’s just say I didn’t find my calling with that experience). We also took boat tours on Friday and Saturday in San Cristóbal. My favorite tour was on Saturday when we were on a boat from 7:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. (with some breaks on the beach and in the water) and we circled the entire island.

  • Snorkeling

Another pretty sweet thing that we got to do was snorkeling. We went snorkeling in three different spots, each bringing something special. The first time we went snorkeling we swam at a small island called Isla Lobos and swam right next to sea lions (sea lions are everywhere in the Galápagos by the way). The second time we snorkeled at a rock formation called León Dormido and we went through a cavelike structure where sharks swam beneath us. Our guide said they were vegetarian but I don’t know how much I give in to that…nonetheless the initial fear turned into awe. Finally, we snorkeled in a lagoon with more sharks, sea lions, giant sea turtles, and sting rays. Snorkeling kind of weirded me out at first because I’m not the biggest animal lover, but it’s actually such a cool experience and one that I highly recommend to all.

 

  • Exotic animals

As I just said, I am not a huge fan of animals. They kind of freak me out to be honest, but I don’t think you can go to the Galápagos without enjoying the exotic animals there. The sea lions were hilarious because while they are truly graceful animals in the water, on land they are the strangest creatures. They just flop around, sometimes pretty quickly, and make the ugliest noises. Think of a man vomiting and that sums it up. At night, hundreds of sea lions would come onto the beach near our hotel and would just flop around on each other and yell. I hated it but was so amused all at once. We also took a tour at a ranch where we saw the infamous giant tortoises. They really are giant, everyone. Aside from that and from the sharks, sting rays, and sea turtles, we also swam with numerous tropical fish and saw native birds. I still wouldn’t call myself an animal lover, but maybe I’m a bit more intrigued now.

 

  • Beaches

The beaches there…oh man. We went to small beaches where nobody else was which made the experience more special for our group. The sand was the softest I’ve ever felt, the water incredibly blue, and the views were beautiful. It was nice to have breaks from the boat and get to just relax on different beaches together. The beaches there are well taken care of and are so pure. My expectations for beaches are probably way to high now.

 

Overall, it was the trip of a lifetime. I admire the work that is put into keeping the islands clean and natural. Imagine if every beach was that pure and every body of water was the bluest of blues. What a world it would be. Get to the Galápagos if you get the chance because it’s amazing!

Since the beginning of the semester I’ve said that once the Galápagos trip is over the semester is going to close quickly. So here I am. The trip is done and I have less than a month left. Oh my goodness, how I’m at this point in the semester I don’t know, but there are still four weeks of adventures to be had and lessons to be learned. Happy last month to my IES amigos, let’s make it count.

Back to the Beginning

Wow. That’s the word that keeps filling my thoughts. Wow. Wow. Wow. This past week has consisted of a lot of reflection. I’ve reflected on my time here, how my life is going to transition soon into life at camp, and how I have been impacted/changed by Ecuador. At one point I was talking to my friend Emily about how awesome (literally I am overwhelmed in awe) it is that I have gotten the opportunity to come back to Ecuador.

Oh yeah, I forgot to mention before that this isn’t actually the beginning of my journey in Ecuador. That story began five years ago when I came here on a mission trip with my home church. My church has a relationship with a camp/retreat center called Hacienda El Refugio in a rural town called Calacalí and each year my church goes to serve them. It was an incredible two week experience and one that has been so valuable in my life. Honestly, like I’ve said before, I never imagined that I’d be studying abroad in Ecuador. I saw Ecuador as a place to do missions, not to live in for a significant amount of time. But here I am.

So how the heck did I end up in Ecuador again? For my whole freshman and sophomore years of college I was set on studying abroad in Chile. I don’t really know why, it seemed cool and adventurous and different. I was excited about it and didn’t really consider doing anything else. The program would run from the end of February to the beginning of July of my junior year, so I knew that the summer I’d be spending at camp before junior year would be my last one there. I thought I was fine with that, but apparently not.

It was about halfway through the summer when I was hit with this heavy feeling that I was not supposed to be done at camp just yet. I felt like I was supposed to go back the next summer, meaning that I wouldn’t be able to go to Chile with their schedule. So I started looking into other programs in South America and Ecuador was the best option. That pretty much sums up how I got here, and there’s the first wow moment: I have been blessed to come back to a place that was so influential in my life years ago.

I have been very aware the last few days of how incredible it is that God had called me back here even when I didn’t understand why. I have learned more than I can express since being here and I’ve experienced life in a way that I couldn’t in the U.S.

Here’s the next wow moment that I had this week: I went to a church on Sunday morning and the congregation was filled with people from all over the world. Very cool. A pastor started talking about announcements and mentioned their young adults group. He then said that they would be going on a retreat in May. This next part really threw me. He said that they would be going to Calacalí for a retreat at Hacienda El Refugio. Wow.

I didn’t think that I would ever have the chance to go back there. This place that had been the start of my story with Ecuador that sticks out in my mind as a highly important part of my faith walk came into my life again through this random church that I decided to check out. So I asked the pastor about it at the end and I think that I’ll be going on that retreat. I get to go back to El Refugio and I get to go on a retreat, which I haven’t done since high school, so I’m pretty psyched.

I can’t even explain how I fully feel though. The odds that I would be able to go back to this tiny camp in Ecuador five years after I originally went were pretty low I thought. But God has yet again shown up and has chosen to bless me with the chance to return to the place where I learned to serve. To the place where I began a friendship with one of my best friends (shoutout to you, Soph). I was baptized on that trip. My faith grew into my own through my experiences in those two weeks. That trip was truly life changing for me and I can’t wait to celebrate all that the Lord has done in my life since that trip when I go back.

The service ended by singing the song “10,000 Reasons”, a song I haven’t heard in a long time, but it was absolutely perfect in that moment. The words say, “For all Your goodness I will keep on singing, 10,000 reasons for my heart to find”. In that service I had certainly seen His goodness yet again and I was overwhelmed with gratitude.

So there you have it. Sorry for the long post, but I’ve learned this past year that our stories are important to share. Our stories are just that, ours. My story is different than yours and that is pretty neat. God has written Ecuador into my story more than once and I am more excited now than ever to see where He leads me in this next chapter of life. Basically, God is good and aw man am I thankful for this week of wow moments.

 

Soaking It In

As of today I only have 6 weeks left here. That’s a pretty crazy thing to think about. I’ve known that I wanted to study abroad since I was in high school and to think that’s it’s coming to a close very quickly, well that’s just a strange thought. This incredible, wild, eye opening experience is going to wind down soon and I don’t know how to feel about it. Luckily I still have 6 weeks to enjoy this country and to continue to learn as much as I can from every encounter with the people and culture. So here’s to 6 more weeks of living an Ecuadorian life!

This weekend my friends and I headed to the coast. This time we went to a town called Puerto López that is about 8 hours away by bus. The first day we pretty much just hung out at the beach (in the shade of course because last time we went to the beach we learned our lesson about sunburns…), ate good food, and swam in the Pacific. It was nice to relax and get away from life in the city.

The next day we went to an island called Isla de la Plata. We took an hour long boat ride to the island and then went on a two hour hike. The hike wasn’t difficult, however I do think that I sweat more on that hike than I ever have in my whole life. The sun in Ecuador is no joke. On the hike we saw a few different types of birds, tropical flowers, and amazing views of the clear blue ocean. It was truly paradise. After the hike we got back on the boat to go snorkeling. The only other time I had snorkeled was in the glorious Geneva Lake in Wisconsin, which I don’t know if it counts because you can’t see a thing in that lake. Snorkeling here was way better (sorry Wisconsin). The water was so blue, tropical fish swam right next to me, and we were right above a coral reef which was pretty cool. After a while we got back in the boat to head back to Puerto López. The rest of the night was spent getting dinner, enjoying the beach a bit more, and hanging out in the hostel.

 

On our final day we went to a beach that was about 15 minutes away from where we were staying. The beach is called Playa de los Frailes and is located inside a national park. There was barely anybody at the beach which was weird because it was so beautiful. Right away we all ran into the water and some of us were taken aback (literally) more than others. Two of my friends and I got caught where the waves break and may have had an experience doing some somersaults underwater… but we got out just fine and figured out the better places to be in the water. After that we spent so much time jumping over waves and soaking in our last hours in the ocean that we could. We brought our lunches and had a little picnic on the beach, definitely felt like a family vacation. Later in the day we took a walk along the shore and climbed around on some rock formations at the end of the beach. Eventually we had to leave the beach to get back to town and grab dinner before going back to Quito on a night bus.

 

 

Overall it was such a fun weekend that was filled with equal parts adventure and relaxation. I’m not much of a beach person, honestly I’d rather be exploring a city or doing more hiking, but the beach was a nice break and being in the sun was incredibly good (I did get sunburnt again F.Y.I., but I can only reapply sunscreen so many times, ya know?). I love these weekends that we have to travel and experience different parts of the country. It’s definitely one of the best parts about being in Ecuador.

Soon I’ll be going to the Galapagos Islands which I’m psyched for and I can’t wait for all that the island has to offer. This weekend I’ll be in Quito and as of right now I don’t really have a ton of plans, which is kind of refreshing. Study abroad has been packed with traveling and activities (that I love), but it will be good to slow down and to not feel obligated to be somewhere or to fill my time. I can rest and enjoy a weekend in my city. 6 weeks left? Time to soak it all in.

Volcano Views, BBQs, & Fútbol Blues

Not going to lie, I think that this has been the busiest week I’ve had so far this semester. I’m in the midst of papers and presentations while still trying to enjoy new experiences. It’s definitely preferable to not have a ton to do, but that’s what study abroad means: doing school work while taking on a new culture and new adventures. It’s a bit stressful right now, but it’s still great, don’t worry.

This past weekend was pretty packed with activities. It began on Thursday night when a few friends and I went to a food truck garden (super cool, has Grand Rapids vibes) to watch a soccer game. Soccer, or rather “fútbol” is a huge part of the culture here. Everyone LOVES fútbol and has great pride for the Ecuadorian team. We watched Ecuador vs. Paraguay and unfortunately we lost, but it was still a fun time getting to see a part of the culture that brings everyone together.

On Friday a group of us decided to hike Cotopaxi, an active volcano located about two hours south of Quito. We were all pretty excited because we heard that there would be snow, a rare thing here. In the Midwest, I know snow is the last thing you want more of, but I was looking forward to it because it’s a little piece of home I guess. When we finally arrived, the volcano was hidden in fog. I could barely see the people walking in front of me. Also, this hike was the hardest hike I’ve done so far. It was a straight incline the whole time, but luckily it took less than an hour to get to the top. The top really meant a refuge about halfway up the volcano because the rest of the volcano is closed to hikers (it’s pretty dangerous past that point.) Halfway through the hike it began hailing. It was kind of painful to be honest, but when we finally reached the top the views were beautiful. It was snowing at the top and oh man, I was filled with joy. On our way down it snowed the whole way and we even stopped for a little while to have a snowball fight. A snowball fight in Ecuador on an active volcano? Madness. Cotopaxi has probably been one of my favorite adventures so far.

On Saturday we had a field trip to two cathedrals in the historical center. First we went to La Basílica del Voto Nacional. We had visited this church during orientation, but this time we got to climb to the top of the cathedral. We climbed up ladders to get to the top of the towers, which provided incredible views of the whole city. On top of that, the weather was perfect. No rain (a miracle in Quito), the sky was so blue, and the sun was shining. After that, we went to La Compañía de Jesús, a cathedral that is covered in gold on the inside. Overall, it was great morning doing some sightseeing in Quito.

In the afternoon, my friend Adrien invited us over to his host family’s “quinta”, there second home out in the country. It was more like an estate owned by the whole extended family, including houses, a soccer field, a playground, and they even own a few horses there. We barbecued for lunch and dinner which was another thing that felt like home. We ate a ton of meat, listened to music, talked about life, and forgot for a few hours that we were in Ecuador. Life felt very normal and familiar there. The barbecue was just what I needed at this point in the semester. It was a day to slow down and to just enjoy the company of good friends. It also didn’t hurt that we were eating food other than chicken and rice.

Sunday was dedicated to homework and was nothing too exciting, but I needed to use that day to prepare for the rest of the week. On Tuesday I actually went to an Ecuadorian soccer game. We bought tickets for this game months ago and were told it was going to be crazy because it was Ecuador vs. Colombia (they aren’t the biggest fans of each other…). Oh, and it was also a qualifier game for the World Cup in Russia 2018. It was crazy indeed. We ended up having seats that were surrounded by Colombians for the most part. Everyone was cheering the whole game and energy was definitely high. Unfortunately, Ecuador lost… but it was still a very cool cultural experience!

P.S. While we were trying to find our way into the stadium, a news station interviewed my friends and I! It was hilarious…So now Ecuador knows my name, that I’m from the U.S., and that I definitely thought that Ecuador was going to win (sigh).

So now I have to crack down on my homework because this weekend I’m heading to the coast! I’ll be visiting a beach town called Puerto Lopez and I’m very ready for a weekend of relaxation. Chau for now!

Ticket to Ride

This past weekend an Ecuador bucket list item of mine was crossed off. Since last semester I knew I wanted to take this train ride in Ecuador that goes through the mountains and was supposed to have incredible views. Luckily, some other friends wanted to do it too and so my dream came true. We headed out on Friday and took a five hour bus ride to a small town called Alausí. There’s not much to do there, so we pretty much just ate some dinner and wandered the streets in hopes of finding anything really. We actually did stumble upon a community center that had a soccer game going on. Naturally we decided to sit in the bleachers and watch for a while. Everyone stared at us the second we entered because we were clearly not from the community, but it was cool to see a piece of the life in Alausí. After the game, we went to our hostel and hung out before getting some sleep.

In the morning we went to the train station to take the ride I’d been waiting for since November. The ride is called Nariz del Diablo and like I said, it goes through the mountains and man were the views beautiful. Everything was so green there and looked peaceful. We rode for about 50 minutes then stopped at a station for an hour where there were some very touristy attractions, such as indigenous music and dancing, a tiny artesanal market, and a restaurant. After that, we headed back to Alausí. While I wish the train ride could’ve been longer, it was a great experience. Since there was nothing else to do in the town, we ate lunch then grabbed a bus back to Quito. The trip was a quick one, but worth it for the good views.

On Sundays in Quito they shut down one of the main streets until mid-afternoon to allow people to ride their bikes safely in the street. It’s called Ciclopaseo and it’s a way to encourage getting outside and also a sense of community throughout the city. Those who know me well know that I have a pretty big fear of biking. I had a bad experience as a child and it has kind of haunted me since then. However a common theme with studying abroad is that you don’t want to miss out on any experience. Even if it is something that is uncomfortable or that you’re unsure of, it’s probably good for you. So I decided that I’d join my friends on this bike ride and I’m grateful that I did.

 

We rode for about 14 miles, going through parks, the historical center of the city, and in new areas that I’d never seen before. I rode at the pace that was comfortable for me and talked to my friends about all kinds of topics from visiting each other at our different schools next semester to how we have a pact that we’re going to invite each other to our weddings someday. I was pretty nervous before we left, but felt at ease the whole ride because my friends were by my side. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, but getting out of your comfort zone is truly the best way to grow and to learn.

It was another nice weekend, but now I’m back to going to classes and living the life of a college student. I have papers and presentations coming soon, however I am still finding fun things to do during the week too. For example, I just got home from getting Papa Johns (sometimes we just need some American food, okay?) and going to see the new Beauty and the Beast (it was great, go see it). Traveling and seeing different parts of Ecuador is wonderful, but the normal everyday life things are pretty great too. I’ll be in Quito this weekend and the adventures will surely continue.