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Written by Luke P.

The moment had finally arrived.

There we were—Abuelita Carmen, Julian, Emilio, and I—our faces looking out to the empty landing strip of the airport, waiting, waiting, waiting. Excitement had kept me up most the night. It had been over four months since I had seen my family from the States. Would they recognize me? Would they notice how I had changed? How had they changed? How would it be to interact with them after all this time, after each of us had been crafting our own narratives, pursuing our own adventures?

I was ripped out of my thoughts by the sudden appearance of a plane landing. It had to be them.

Then, waiting, waiting, waiting as the stairway was placed to connect the door of the plane to the tarmac and the suitcases began to be unloaded. Finally, passengers started to disembark.

And suddenly, they were there. Four human beings who to anyone else were just strangers going down the stairs but to me were the four people who had raised me, challenged me, encouraged me, made me laugh and cry and celebrate and dream. My brother caught sight of us in the window and waved. All of them waving, waving, waving. Tears formed in my eyes.

The first few days with my family were overwhelming. Two disparate worlds of my life were colliding. It was impossible for me to put to words the entirety of my time spent here—all of the complex emotions that had surfaced, all of the little moments and mishaps that had defined my experience living abroad.

I tried my best to give my family a taste of what life is like for me in Cuenca. This is my host family, the people who show me so much love and patience every day. This is my room, where I listen to music and have dance parties, moonwalking (vainly!) across the room floor, music blasting through my headphones after a long day. This is where I buy the BEST CHOCOLATE CROISSANTS I HAVE EVER TASTED. This is where I hang my clothes to dry. This is where I catch the bus in the morning, this is where I discover delicious new fruits, this is where I work. On and on and on.

When New Years Eve arrived, we celebrated with both my host and States family. To be surrounded by all these people who I love and care about was very special. My host family prepared nothing short of a feast, putting hours into making the ham and aji and llapingachos. It was delicious and my parents and brothers (as well as myself!) went for seconds and thirds under the approving eye of Abuelita.

After dinner, we were blessed with the opportunity to take part in some New Years games and traditions. As the new year arrived, fireworks exploded in the sky as the muñeca burned to ash in the street. I remember feeling so entirely grateful—for my families, for the ability to take in this beautiful moment, for having this experience of a gap year.

Of course, I would love to say that my time with my States family was filled with only these positive moments. But that is just not the case. I would be sharing an incomplete story, one that does not accurately portray the complexity of our time spent together.

There were moments that were frustrating and awkward. We went to a fancy restaurant with Abuelita Carmen, sharing a lavish meal together. This is something that my host family and I would never do. Sitting in that space was uncomfortable. How did her perception of me and my family change when we picked the restaurant? Would she think that we ate like this all the time? Would she feel ashamed of all that she has given me? Of course, these questions are based on my own experience and opinions, incomplete without answers from Abuelita. But they did make my perception of this outing more convoluted.

Then, I left to travel with my family. Again this brought a whole new wave of emotions. I recognized my immense privilege in being able to have these experiences, to learn about different parts of Ecuador. My family and I stayed in hotels and flew on planes and went on boats. All of this seemed so different from my life over the past months. In hearing stories from my host family and members of Fundación Crea Tu Espacio, I could not help but see the dichotomy in these narratives. Who decided that I would be given these incredible, rich opportunities? Especially at Fundación Crea tu Espacio, I have been able to talk with people whose lives are vastly different from my own. I feel guilty for being blind to the incredible access to opportunity I have had in my life.

Traveling with my family, falling back into this mold made me think critically about all of I have been given. In the past, it has been difficult for me to be honest with difficult emotions. Instead of painting the entire picture, I would hand-pick the best moments, creating an abbreviated version that shared all of the highlights. This gap year has taught me to accept these difficult emotions and situations, appreciating them as part of the narrative.

I do not want to pretend that now I fully appreciate all that I have been given or actively analyze situations to be aware of my privilege. I am not perfect, and there are times when I still take for granted the gifts of my life. However, there is no denying that my gap year experience has caused me to be more mindful about how I move about this world.

Now that my family is gone I have had to reflect on my experience. I have changed. That is okay. They have changed. That is okay. Our time together was fun and beautiful, but difficult at times as well.

And that is all okay.

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