2013 has just began and it has already been an exciting year for me. I left everything I have ever known for three weeks and headed off to South America, in search of adventure, fulfillment and personal growth. I always knew that I wanted to travel. When I was 16 I went on summer vacation to Europe with my aunt, uncle and cousins and that left a lasting impression on me. The experience changed me when I was 16 and I felt like I needed a change again. I had been going to school full time since 2009 and I kept saying that I would go abroad next year, or the year after and finally I decided that I just needed to take a leap of faith and do it because I was going to graduate in a year. I knew that if I didn't do it now that I would be kicking myself later. I kept looking through the empty pages of my passport that were just screaming for more customs and immigrations stamps. Through my University, I was given the opportunity to volunteer for three weeks in Peru. I wish that I could say that I never felt a moment of doubt, uncertainty or fear--but I did and I think that is part of the process of personal growth.
here are a few things I learned and promised myself to do in 2013
Relax-When I arrived in Peru I was greeted by a nice looking Peruvian man who held a sign with my name on it. It was his job to take me to the place that I would be staying at. He told me to follow him to the taxi, which was parked outside of the airport. We walked down the dusty street and he told me to get into this later model, weathered Toyota hatchback. When I got into the car, instinct told me to fasten my seat belt. Unfortunately my seat belt didn't work and I just had to hold on and bear the chaotic Cusquen traffic. The nice man who picked me up told me that his name was Vincent and asked me a little bit about myself. In my best broken Spanish, I told him that I was in college, from the United State and excited to be there and because that was all I knew how to say, the conversation ended rather quickly. Vincent struck up a conversation with our driver in Spanish that I didn't understand and I begin to think about all of the times that my parents told me not to get into cars with strangers. I was so unfamiliar with my surroundings, the new language and the crazy driving that I began to panic. I was thinking about my exit route and how I could easily jump out at the next traffic light. After that I was not sure what I would do next so I decided to just remain in the car. I asked Vincent how much longer because the uneasy feeling would not go away. He said a few more meters; "Okay, what is a meter..." I thought to myself. Luckily, I did some research on where I would be staying, located it on a Google satellite map and began to recognize some of my surroundings (I know that sounds crazy, but I like to always be prepared). I was going to be OK.
Be Patient-We descended up the cobblestone paved hill, Vincent and I got out of the car and he guided me up a stairway into the patio of the house I would be staying at. He told the cook to add one more person to her list, made me mate de coca for the altitude sickness and said his goodbyes. In a matter of thirty seconds, I was sitting by myself and I was back to that feeling of uncertainty. Luckily, the other occupants of the house were welcoming and took me under their wing. My first few days was great, I met people from places that I probably couldn't even locate on a map. Familiarized myself with the city, made friends and started a routine. I was uncomfortable for about thirty minutes and so eager, but I figured things out and found my way.
Staying Humble-I began my volunteer project a few days later and I was told that I would be working with senior citizens. Initially, I was told that I would have been working with children but they were off enjoying their winter vacation. I was a tiny bit relieved because, I have always felt like I connect better with older people than I do with children. The center that I volunteered at was like an urban recreation center. The senior citizens would either walk or take the bus to come. While I was volunteering, I would be serving them their breakfast, usually a piece of bread with jam and coffee. The elderly I worked with really enjoyed to color and took their art time very seriously. I would typically begin my day by getting their breakfast, pouring their coffee into their cup and asking how their day would go. Like any typical abuela, they made sure that I too, enjoyed breakfast with them. It was a nice change of pace, because at home I never actually sat down and enjoyed breakfast. Once breakfast was over, they would begin their arts and crafts. Usually they would color and socialize. One day I decided to bring in clay for them to enjoy something different. They were intrigued by this new art form and I think they really enjoyed creating something with their hands. Some of them created animals, flowers and mugs and it was really neat watching their smiles. They said thank you and seemed to be really touched that I went out of my way to do that for them. There were a few times when I really felt humbled by these people. Early on I began to notice that all of these senior citizens wore the same clothes every day, because that was probably all that they owned. One day, I forgot my jacket and the day turned out to be cool and breezy. Everyone of the elderly, commented on how I needed a jacket and how I must be cold and one even offered me her scarf. It was incredibly humbling. I feel like I really made a connection, despite the language barriers and on my last day they all gave me hugs and kisses and wished me well.
Love and treat your body well-I was fortunate enough to sight see while in Cusco. Four friends and I set off to visit the world famous Machu Picchu ruins. I wish that my vocabulary was large enough to explain the beauty of this place, but essentially, it was amazing. It is a bit confusing but there is Machu Picchu, the town where the ruins are located in, Machu Picchu the ruins and Machu Picchu the mountain. My friends and I arrived around 6 in the morning, the entire time we were in awe at how gorgeous our surroundings were. We explored the ruins a little bit, but we were on a mission to climb a mountain that day. Around 8 or 9 we began our descent. The first five minutes were all fun and games. We were singing "I don't know what I've been told, Machu Pichu's really old", but then the climb started getting really hard and the singing turned to sighing and heavy breathing. Imagine being on a stair stepper on the highest incline and on the hardest level, for an hour and a half, with a back pack. It is amazing what your body can do. Two of my friends made it up the mountain first, while myself and two others took our time. The climb was so steep that there were some points, that if you stepped incorrectly you could easily fall to your death. Every time we passed another climber we would as "How much longer", typically they would look at us with sympathy in their eyes and say "Forty five minutes". I think that happened more than three times. When we made it to the top, I could have cried. I climbed a mountain.
Expect things to not turn out as planned- This can be relevant in any situation. When my friends and I were on our way back to Cusco from Machu Picchu, our travel agent arranged for a bus to pick us up from the train station. We sat on the curb for around twenty minutes and we realized that our bus was not going to come. My spanish was not the best by any means and I decided to ask around at the bus depot. Some man over heard me and offered to call the bus company. I understood that our bus would not be coming and he told us to wait. Another group was expecting the same bus and the man offered to give us a ride. Okay, back to stranger danger 101, don't accept rides from strangers. I would never recommend this but the man ended up taking us back in his van to Cusco. It was weird and a few times, I wondered what our fate would be, but things ended up working out for us. When you just do something different instead of sitting on the curb, waiting for your bus to come, you will eventually make it home.
Conquer fears- This one was a hard one, but while in Cusco, I did what my mom always tells me not to do and I was a follower instead of a leader. All of my friends had decided to go paragliding and I decided to go to because I didn't want to stay at home by myself. On the car ride there, I was so nervous that I probably could have thrown up. I thought that water would calm me down and I ended up drinking a liter of water. When we got to the hill that were were going to jump off of, the instructor informed us that girls would have to go first because there was less wind and we were lighter. I let my friend go first and she was ok. Then it was my turn. I was strapped in thinking "Oh this isn't too bad". The instructor told me that we would basically run off this cliff and let the parachute take us. We started running and I just froze. I could tell that he was getting frustrated and I begged, literally whined and begged my other girl friend to take my place. I was pleading "Pleaaaaaase, Gracie, just go. PLEEEEEEASE GRACIE!". The instructor said it was too late and I was strapped in. Before I knew it, I was in the air. I was told later that the instructor pushed me and another man pulled me. I'm ok with that, because at least I did it. While in the air, I think I was crying, but I made it down safely and I'm alive. I am not that person to get on rollarcoasters, do extreme things and I am always calculating the risk associated with anything. Unfortunately I could not located the statistics for paragliding deaths in Peru, which is probably for the best. I conquered a fear and I am satisfied knowing that even though I was terrified, living with the regret of not doing it, would have been worse.
I will hold my experiences close to my heart and bring back everything that I learned along the way. I am ready, 2013.