by Aurelia Guest
As I cleared security in the Miami airport, a cocktail of conflicting emotions overwhelmed me. There I was, about to embark on the biggest adventure of my life so far, and all I could think was “How am I going to do this?”. As I stepped onto the plane, I could feel dozens of pairs of eyes watching me. I was clearly out of place on this large jet. Most of the passengers were native Ecuadorians returning to their home country. I stowed my carry on and gratefully slid into my window seat as the plane slowly filled up around me. Tired, excited, and nervous, I resorted to the activity that had occupied my thoughts for the the last three weeks; imagining what it would be like. Would it live up to my expectation? Would I get along with my family? Would I understand anything anyone said to me? My thoughts wandered back to eight hours earlier when I had hugged my family goodbye for what would be the last time in nine months. My dad had kissed my forehead and said “Gunna miss ya darling. Give ‘em hell.”
My mom hugged me for far too long and recited the same speech I had been hearing since I first made the decision to spend a year abroad. “Be so careful and don’t go out at night and try your best in school but don’t worry too much about your grades. Just have fun and I’m sure they’ll love you as much as we do. Take every opportunity, but for the love of God, no drugs.”
“No promises.” I had joked dryly, trying to lighten the mood.
“Bring me back a monkey.” My brother demanded as he hugged me reluctantly. He and I are very close, but we’ve never been all that affectionate.
“Sure thing Hank.” I had answered. “See you next year little bro.”
I was shaken from my thoughts by the arrival of my seat mates: a short, dark-haired man in his early twenties who I assumed to be from Ecuador, and a pretty, professional-looking American woman speaking flawless Spanish. I surreptitiously tried to follow their conversation as a test of my rudimentary Spanish skills, but I couldn’t catch more than a few scattered phrases. I took out my book and settled in for the four hour flight to Quito. Soon I felt the slow rumbling of the jet beneath me. As we advanced down the runway I closed my book and started fixedly out the window, determined to commit my last view of my home country to memory. Not long after we took off, the city and sand gave way to endless water.
“Goodbye United States.” I whispered to myself.
A feeling of panic suddenly took hold of me. I was convinced I had made a mistake. What had I been thinking? I’d never lived away from home for more than two weeks, and now I was going to a different continent for the next nine months. I wouldn’t see my family, my friends, my pets. There would be nothing familiar to grab onto when I felt homesick. I couldn’t help second guessing myself.
A couple hours passed and the anticipation of my arrival mounted. I mustered the courage to order a coke in Spanish from the flight attendant, and sipped it while staring at the glittering expanse of ocean beneath me. Suddenly, my seat mate turned to me and asked “Como te llamas?”
After struggling through a few sentences of broken Spanish, he took pity on me and we switched to English. His name was Jose.
“I’ve been living in America for the last five years and I’m going home to visit my family. They live in Cuenca, have you heard of it?”
Of course I had, Cuenca is one of the biggest cities in Ecuador, situated in the Andes in the southern region of the country. We talked for a bit about my coming year as an exchange student and my new home town of Cotacachi before Jose asked me “Are you nervous?”
Relieved to have someone to confide in, even if it was this complete stranger, I answered with a laugh “Absolutely terrified.”
At this point, the young woman in the next seat introduced herself as Emily, a representative from Washington going to Quito to work with a volunteer exchange program that was offering English classes to children in Ecuador.
“You’re going to love it, don’t worry. It’s going to be such a fantastic experience. What you’re doing is amazing; I wish I’d done something like that when I was in high school.”
“Thanks.” I smiled gratefully.
Not long after, I realized it had gotten dark, and I could see the lights of a huge city not too far off.
“Quito” murmured Jose.
I pressed my face eagerly against the small window and stared in awe as the plane dropped lower. The mountains were magnificent. Dark, imposing, and breathtakingly beautiful, they seemed to go on forever. We finally touched down and my stomach tightened. What if there was no one to greet me? I had been told that a representative from the program named Graciela Albuja would be waiting for me, but the paranoid notion that the dates had somehow gotten mixed up nagged me. I disembarked with the rest of the passengers and ended up in line behind Emily.
“You know where you’re going?” she asked.
“Sort of.” I responded nervously.
“I’ll help you through customs.” she said. “When you go up to the window, give him your visa and your passport. And don’t worry; you’re going to have an amazing year.
“Thank you so much Emily, it was really nice to meet you.” I said as we parted ways.
I stepped up to the window and prepared myself for my first mandatory Spanish interaction.
“Cuanto tiempo va a quedarse aquí en Ecuador usted?” the official asked.
Understanding that he was asking how long I was going to be in the country, I responded “Nueve meses.”
“Bienvenidos a Ecuador, siga por favor.”
And I was through. I grabbed my bags from luggage claim and struggled fantastically to make my way to baggage check. Why did I think it was necessary to pack so much? Half my suitcase was filled with books and other items that in my frantic and sleep-deprived state I had rationalized were completely necessary to my survival during the next nine months. That’s what I get for packing the night before.
After clearing security, I stepped through the automatic doors into the waiting area. A cool blast of air from the open doors hit my forehead and I took a deep breath. Again, I could feel the stares of the other airport goers following me. Who was this light-skinned redheaded girl all alone? I was acutely aware of being taller than 90% of the people around me. I tried to look like I knew where I was going as I floundered about, utterly lost. Where was Graciela? I could feel my heart speed up and I willed myself to stay calm.
“She’s here.” I told myself. “She has to be.”
But as I looked about and continued to find nothing, I could feel myself starting to panic.
“I’m alone in a foreign country and the most useful things I know how to say in their language is ‘where is the bathroom?’ “
I couldn’t decide whether the best course of action was to laugh, cry, or collapse in a heap on top of my luggage. Suddenly, a tiny figure waving a sign caught my eye.
“Aurelia Guest” it said.
My face broke out in a relieved smile and I walked over to the girl in her mid-twenties who couldn’t have been more than 4’10″.
“Bienvenidos Aurelia!” she said as she gave me a hug. “How was your flight?”
“Good thanks. Are you Graciela?”
“No, I’m Diana, you’re going to meet Graciela on Saturday.
We talked for a while and she told me that after we met the other four exchange students we’d be going to the hostel where we were staying for the next three days. The Germans arrived soon after, pulling their bags and staring about with varying degress of confusion on their faces. We then made the hour long trip to the hostel. During the car ride we talked about our trips, our homes, and especially our families; biological and host. Antonia, a tall blonde, was excited by everything and didn’t even bat an eye when we thought the van was going to break down. The other two girls, Auguste and Elisabeth, were timid, but once we started talking they proved to be very sweet. Benji, the only boy, had about a thousand questions for me about the United States. I discovered that Elisabeth would be staying in the same city as me, while Benji, Antonia, and Auguste would be staying in a town called Riobamba. When we arrived, we ate and made our way upstairs. The day was catching up to all of us and we couldn’t hide our exhaustion.
“Get some sleep you guys, see you tomorrow at 7:00 for breakfast.” said Diana.
We all mumbled our good nights and shuffled into our rooms. I collapsed onto my bed, thinking excitedly about all my adventures ahead. My first night in my new home country. Looking back on that first night I realize I had no idea. Not a single clue what I had gotten myself into. If I had known how hard the next few weeks would be; how different, exciting, rewarding, and frustrating, I might not have fallen asleep so quickly. But as it was, I was oblivious, and drifted easily into an exhausted, dreamless sleep. My last thought before unconsciousness was “What was I worried about? I made the right choice.”