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Photo by Benjamin Swift, Andes & Amazon Semester.

Dragoncitos

Where There Be Dragons—or Dragoncitos (little dragons in Spanish) as Randall likes to say—pays homage to ancient Chinese map makers who would draw dragons on the edges of maps for places they hadn’t yet explored. The wild, unknown, unconquered places where anyone and anything could and can exists.

Take for example our meeting the airport. There is no ancient Chinese map for how to interact with 11 other teens from around the US for the first time-in fact there isn’t even a map for how to get to the Memorial Wall (where we were supposed to meet) so Sierra’s Mom had to show me the way when I was lost in the airport. I remember sleeplessly rolling around the night before, anxious about who I would be spending the next 3 months with. Will they like me? Will I like them? What if they are total weirdos. What if I’m a total weirdo. Furthermore, there are no google map directions for how to confront your new Bolivian homestay family—who you have known for 2 hours—about the toilet you just clogged. There are no scrolls that depict the path of how to continue your Spanish and cooking classes in a country whose president committed fraud, resulting in barricades and protests that pop up about as frequently as Ezra plays Hey Soul Sister on the charango (all the time). There are no hidden pirate maps that show how to navigate living with 15 people for 3 months, no GPS coordinates for understanding a Quechua accent, dancing Tincu without lessons, hiking at 16,000ft in the rain, or a tent collapsing at 3am due to snow.

So then why? Why do we go to these places—to where there be dragons?

It could be because there is a certain freedom in diving into the unknown. Of entering into an experience with no specific prerequisites or expectations to be met. For, without expectations—without a map—a you can do is take the experience as it comes, wholeheartedly.

But it could also be because without going I would never have met the amazing 14 people with me today. I would have never made mahadito with Sam and learned how important food is to culture and connecting with people you love. I would have never heard Ezra and Luca play Noches De Sucre on a public micro bus, showing me how music transcends language. I would have never had challenging talks with Randall and Kesh, who embody what it means to think critically and lead by example. I would never had laughed so hard with Henry and Rose talking about banuna (banana + tuna) pizza, reminding me to live lightheartedly. I would have never seen Lucy swinging in my hammock in the jungle while a little girl crawls on top of her, showing that play dates don’t care about language barriers. I would’ve never heard Nico’s Friendsgiving speech, reminding me the importance of thanking and appreciating those who you love. I wouldn’t have seen Bryn on the iPad writing down song lyrics, reminding me to find time to take care of myself. I wouldn’t have witnessed Dani’s punctuality, showing me the importance of personal accountability. I wouldn’t have heard Pao’s life map, showing me the power of vulnerability to connect people. I wouldn’t have been inspired by Sofie’s boldness in approaching locals to start conversations. I wouldn’t have talked about Europe and Berkeley with Sierra to become even more excited about the future.

Furthermore, I would have never met my homestay family and learned about how sharing a space and routine with someone connects you more than any conversation can. I would have never seen Apu (mountain in Quechua) Ausangate, whose magnificent size and indifference to our being there showed me how freeing it is to feel connected to and love something that dosen’t necessarily love you back. I would have never made strawberry fro-yo with mountain snow, learned the vocab word traviesa, or found my voice among 14 others.

And in my opinion, thats why we go. We are all our own map makers filling in our maps out as we go. We push the boundaries, replace dragons with topographic features, fill in the gaps in our own little worlds. We find our own voices, create our own memories, build our own relationships, and push our own boundaries of where there be dragoncitos.