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Crossing the river before summiting 17,500 Pico Austria. Photo by Ella Williams (2016 Fall Semester Photo Contest, 2nd Place), South America Semester.

A Note to the Friends and Family of Dragons Students Returning from Fall Semester Courses

I just packed for the last time on this trip. After almost three months of packing my bag at least once a week, you´d think it would get easier, but let me tell you, it does not. Fitting three months´ worth of memories and souveneirs into the same 75-liter pack I bought at the REI in Boston all those months ago was a long process that took about four hours and involved a lot of loud music and reckless rationalizations about what I will actually need during the two days between now and when I arrive home

Home. That´s a funny word, now, because for the past 12 weeks, my home has been here, traveling. Peru and Bolivia, the next adventure, my homestay in Urubamba–those have been home. And yet suddenly, creeping up on me as if the date were set last week rather than last year, is the idea of a new home, an old home. A place to ¨go back to¨ now that ¨our adventure is over.¨ Tell me, how am I supposed to wrap my head around that?

Don´t get me wrong, I can´t wait to see my family, wash my water bottles in a dishwater, and be able to flush toilet paper down the toilet again. But I´ve been having a hard time figuring out how, exactly, I´m going to get through daily life without waking up surrounded by the nine strangers-turned-family I´ve woken up to for the past 81 days, without being able to walk to the market and buy fresh mangoes from my caserita, without being understood when I accidentally mix English and Spanish in the same sentence

This morning, we did an activity about how to talk about our trip at home. If I were given three words to describe my journey over the past three months, I would choose these: it was amazing. Given three minutes, I would mention a few of the places we´ve been (Uyuni salt flats, Maccu Picchu), a few of the people I´ve met (Graciela, Basilio, Julio), a few of the things I´ve learned (you can´t always get what you want, sometimes you need to slow down the pace of life). In three hours, I might talk about some of the sources of our deeper conversations on this trip (happiness, environmentalism, stewardship/our responsibility to other human beings), or my deeper thoughts (why do we learn languages? how do we go about volunteering in foreign countries? how do I incorporate what I´ve learned here into my future?), or I might go more in-depth about some of the cool places we´ve seen throughout our travels (the Amazon, Nacion Q´eros, Potosí). But there´s something else I want to tell everyone I know about this trip, and it´s not something you can just blurt out: it was a life changing experience.

Know that I don´t take the phrase ¨life changing¨ lightly–I signed up for this course expecting to have a lot of cool and interesting experiences, not to affect any kind of difference in myself. I´m generally skeptical of doing things that use the claim of ¨changing your life¨ to draw you in. But think about it. Can you spend three months living completely differently from how you´ve lived the rest of your life without changing at least a little bit? I don´t think you can.

I´ve been thinking a lot about what it will be like to go back to a place where everything is the same and I´m different (home). It may not be an obvious difference–I´m still the same person I was before I left–but in some way, I will be different, and it will be weird having to relearn how to live my life

I guess what I´m saying is that no matter what, just by the nature of this program being what it is, I´m different. But it´s more than that. It´s the places I´ve been, the foods I´ve eaten, and the people I´ve met during my specific past three months that have made the differences in me, which means there´s no cure-all for everyone experiencing reverse culture shock. Maybe that´s too obvious, so let me take it a step further. Before this course, I´d never enjoyed taking a cold shower. I´d never seen my ankles swell from mosquito bites even once, let alone four times. I´d never really liked eating avocados. I took a shower every day, and never journaled. I avoided speaking Spanish like the plague and thought giardia was something to avoid at all costs.

I could go on and on and on, but I should really be getting to the point of this Yak, which is this: people at home, you will never truly understand exactly what happened to your child, sister, brother, niece, nephew, friend, whoever, over the past 12 weeks of their life. Don´t worry, that´s not a bad thing, but I want you to know that if they are having a hard time, this is why. They just had a life changing experience, and now they are home, where everything is the same and they are different. And more than that, they probably won´t be able to explain exactly what feels different.

Here´s some advice: be patient. Give us time to process, to panic, to figure out that no matter where we are, life goes on. Start to remind us, slowly, of what it is we love about home. When I get back to Boston, I´m going to drink hot chocolate, bake cookies, and spend time with my family. I´m going to watch movies with my mom and get brunch at my favorite place and welcome my friends as they return home from college for winter break. I´m going to take long, hot showers and sleep in my own bed in my own room and use my phone to look up all the random things I want to know. But I´m also going to be sad. I´ll want to talk about the trip, try to explain what it is that made my last three months so special. I´ll want to FaceTime the very people with whom I just spent the past three months, and mourn for all the parts of Bolivia and Peru that I can´t bring home with me.

People at home, you´re in for an interesting next few months as your loved ones return home from their Dragons courses, bug-bitten, suntanned, and maybe a little bit more worldly, filled with new ideas and new memories. I wish you and them the same thing I wished myself midway through the course when I wrote a letter to be opened in our last week here: congratulations, and I´m sorry.