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The End of the Beginning

So it goes: the first month of our journey has come to an end.

A topic of conversation that has come up more than once in our group pertains to how our selves as high school seniors would regard this experience. “If someone told you last year while you were starting your college applications that you’d be in Bolivia right now, what would you have said?” Common answers include, “No way” or “You’re full of it;” yet where are we now?

The more I think about it, I’m not sure how common those answers necessarily would have been. Sure, taking a gap year, particularly coming from the United States, is not the most normal experience, but it’s not unheard of. This time a year ago we had also at least narrowed down our list of schools, and Princeton was surely one of them. Bridge Year is one of the aspects of Princeton’s undergraduate experience that the university touts most. It may not have been at the forefront of the tunnel vision that the college process often causes, but it certainly could have been on our radar. If someone had told me last year, “Oh I bet you’ll go on Princeton Bridge Year to Bolivia,” I would’ve more likely said, “I hope so,” or, “That would be amazing,” than “You’re crazy.”

Where do our hypothetical answers stem from, then? Why are we so ready to express retroactive disbelief about our current situation, the beginning of a nine-month transformative journey? Maybe they come from the positive aspects of our experience that make us feel like we can build a new home here: the beginning of friendships and their concurrent adventures and inside jokes, the views of Huayna Potosi from the top of Pico Austria, or the evening lights of La Paz that dot the mountainside, gleaming and reflecting against the glass of the Teleferico car as it takes us back to our temporary families in El Alto. Or maybe the source is the more difficult elements, the ones that make us long for our old home: the rickety buses that take an hour and a half to cross just twenty kilometers of bumpy unpaved road, the food-borne sicknesses that send us to the bathroom in the middle of the night, or simply the constant awareness of our breath, either from our the most intentional inhaling and exhaling at a higher altitude than we’ve ever experienced or from the ghosts of it we see in our rooms at night as we try to fall asleep in three jackets and under five blankets.

As the marked beginning of our journey comes to a close and we stop travelling around Bolivia so we can begin to live here, one thing has begun to become clear: we have merely sown the seeds for our experience. Every cold shower, every bite of local food, and every step of a hike is merely one of the first of many. Starting as early as our orientation, when our group ate greasy sandwiches and talked about our goals for the year, to yesterday, when we got off the bus in Cochabamba into the middle of the street to realize that we had arrived where the Bridge Year descriptions had advertised as our permanent location, everything is just the beginning. With each passing day, those hypothetical answers of “no way” leave my mind more and more, only to be replaced by an equally vague teenage expression: “Wow.”

Our group’s peer advisor told us from the beginning that the first month would feel different from the rest of the year, almost like a vacation, an extension of our summer vacation in a new place. What he didn’t tell us was how the transition would go. Where do we go from a voyage, where everything is enchanting and alien in equal measure, to a routine, where we stop observing and thinking about Bolivia and start being here?

As I prepare myself mentally for this shift that seems to be approaching with the speed of both a bullet and snail, I think of literature to guide me. “Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anyone else, these pages must show,” is the immortal first line of Dickens’s 900 page behemoth David Copperfield, the book I’ve been carrying with me everywhere from bus rides to camp sites to El Poncho, the eco-lodge where we’re wrapping up our first month. What do Dickens and his hero remind me but to live my life with purpose and conviction, to take my experience with both hands without letting go. This is how I will transition from the mouth of the cave to the depths. This is how I will finish looking and start living.