With just 10 days left of my 5 month stay here in Ecuador, reality is slowly taking over as I prepare to head back to Green Bay. Five months I have spent living in quasi-paradise; sometimes choked by the overwhelming fumes of the million buses that roam the streets, other times choked up for the natural beauty that seems to make Ecuador such an awe inspiring destination. In the five months I have been here, my Spanish has flourished under constant practice and my own stubbornness to refuse to speak English with the other gringos. While it may be difficult to deny your native language, I guarantee anyone who plans to take on the challenge of studying abroad that this is the only way to truly become fluent. And so I find myself with 10 days left in the country, 3 more final exams and a bit of free time to enjoy what´s left of what has at many times felt like an extended holiday with classes on the side. How do I feel about this? How would you feel if you had to leave 4 mangos for a dollar, public transportation that costs roughly $1 every hour of travel, a plethora of every kind of terrain imaginable and all within a daytrips distance?…yes you would probably feel a little put out as well. The most difficult part of any trip is returning back home, knowing that awaiting you there is work, more work, studies, and yes, probably yet more work. But why dwell on what is to come when so many great memories have passed?
In the last two weeks, I managed to escape to the small mountain town of Mindo, roughly two hours northwest of Quito, and Pasto, Colombia, border town and what might just be south America´s ¨rain¨ capital. If you aren’t familiar with the term zipline, then I should be pleased to inform you that it is one of the more interesting extreme sports here in Ecuador in which a person is strapped to a small cable and flies at lightning fast speeds across mountain to mountain gorges. For just $10, Mindo´s zipline adventure allowed me to take 13 of these ziplines up and down the mountains, making for one crazy day. Combine that with an afternoon of river tubing and you have yourself one interesting little town off the beaten path. In comparison, Pasto, Colombia is a town of only about 300,000 people….making it slightly larger than the quiet blip on the map that is Mindo. A border town with Galeras, the large active volcano overlooking the city, Pasto is an interesting stop…except for the almost 24/7 rain that plagues an otherwise beautiful city. We mustn´t forget, however, that border cities have their dangerous moments, and Pasto is no different. During my 5 days there I was able to visit a beautiful lagoon taken right out of a fairytale and the scenery of the Andes is to die for; but sadly, so are the armed gangs that can sometimes cause a few problems here and there. While I had no real problems, I did manage to catch a glimpse of about 6 adolescents armed with machetes and bats running through the streets in what looked like less than jovial shenanigans. All things considered, a little adventure never hurt and as long as the machete is on the other side of the road it sure isn’t my problem!
One can definitely draw conclusions that the life here in South America can be quite different. Tourist attractions such as Mindo, dangers such as the night time in Pasto, and all the lovely adventures in-between (like a 6 hour bus ride to the border) make up one semester abroad that can probably never be repeated. With so many fun adventures and so many different places explored, it’s a wonder that I still feel like I know next to nothing of this grand continent of Spanish speaking cultures. Every country has its own accent much like every state has its own way of speaking English, and so the more time spent here in different regions, the better one will become in speaking and understanding Spanish. Before I came to Ecuador, my education in Spanish had me prepared to read a few things, conjugate a couple verbs and struggle through broken sentences with a lack of practice that comes from living, obviously, in an English speaking society. But with just five months of immersion, my confidence and abilities have skyrocketed, the door of opportunity opened and my lust for adventure has only further been fueled to seek out new and exciting adventures in distant and unknown lands. While I may be returning to Wisconsin, I feel that this chapter of my life I have begun will probably never end, nor will life ever be quite the same. I feel that even living in Green Bay, I will have mornings where I will wake up thinking in Spanish, wanting to converse with my family in my newfound language (knowing they can´t really understand a word of it). The lifestyle I have been living in combination with the language have become part of me just as every trip one makes changes their mentality a little bit. This is probably the greatest advantage about traveling and studying abroad; learning, growing and changing. If you don’t visit new cultures and experience new ways of life, how will you ever grow to be a better person? I believe it is difficult to become more worldly and accepting of others if you never take the opportunity to step outside of your comfort zone. In my five months here in Ecuador, I have all but forgotten the boundaries of that once held comfort zone and because of this, life has never felt so great. A fond farewell, chao, adios, and hasta luego to Ecuador, my home away from home as I get ready to head back to Green Bay and another Super Bowl win. While I have picked up many new things from my host culture, the heart of cheese still beats within this Wisconsin boy as I begin to slowly accept the fact that I am coming home.
Ted Schoenleber is studying abroad at Universidad San Francisco de Quito in Quito, Ecuador.