Reasons Why I Travel and Organize Travel: Learned Abroad
The trips I’ve taken over the past five years have almost always been to small communities in developing countries, with the purpose of carrying out community service projects that help foster the economy of the people living in an area, while at the same protecting the natural environment. I have lived with and met some truly amazing people in Costa Rica, Ecuador, the Galapagos Islands, and Peru. Looking back, I can honestly say that one of the greatest lessons I have taken away from these experiences is the ability to foster an immense sense of gratitude for everything I have in life. This connection may be difficult to understand, and I feel it is my privilege to share exactly what I mean with various stories and encounters from my travels.
Living with a community on a small island off of the coast of Costa Rica was the first time I was truly exposed to how different life could be for various people and cultures around the world. Our community was very small, and mainly lived off of what they needed to maintain a simple lifestyle. Our volunteer project was to build a bus station, which would be the first out of thirteen. The island communities wanted to start up an ecotourism market, but up until that point there was no stable transportation system established. The inhabitants would just wait by a corner and hope for one of the public buses to swing by around the time it usually does.
This truly astounded me. While I was there, physically building a bus stop, I was mentally thinking about the amazing networks of roads, public and private transportation systems that we use every day in the United States. I really never thought twice about things like cars, buses, freeways, and highways, and where we would be without them. For the first time, I was feeling gratitude for a standard service we have in the United States that I personally had been taking for granted every day.
This first community service trip abroad was life changing, and the main reason why I continued on with these projects with my school club for the next two years in Ecuador. This past winter, I traveled back to my Ecuadorian host community for a third time alone.
I quickly learned that my community was in the middle of a drought, and there hadn’t been rain for three weeks up to my arrival. In the United States, I would hear things in the news about how drought conditions were affecting farms in Illinois, or causing wildfires in California, but these stories were always so far away and impersonal. Living in the middle of the jungle with limited resources, I learned just how much we Northeasterners take water for granted.
For starters, there is virtually no plumbing system in my community. Every family has a water tank in their backyard that supplies rainwater to their toilets and showers. Since the water level was so low, to use the bathroom we had to take a bucket half full of water and virtually throw it in the toilet, hoping that the pressure would be enough to flush. And we could completely forget about showers, with the amount of water that would be wasted within 10 minutes. Instead, my host father would take me to the river every day after work and we would bath there. Finally, after about five days of this, we had a storm and we were able to use the toilet normally and shower in the house. These are simple things I had been doing every day for my entire life, but up until I went without water for a week, I had no idea how grateful I was for them.
I could go on for pages with these little examples, but my main point is that traveling abroad does something to you. Every time I would come home, the only way I could describe it was that it always felt like I’d been in a bubble my whole life, closed off from how the majority of our world lives. I know that I will never look at certain things the same way again, such as a road or running water. We have SO much here to be grateful for. Just the simple freedom that allows United States citizens to travel virtually anywhere in the world is a true testament to this fact. I would like to illiterate what I mean by this with one more story.
One of my last days in Ecuador I was riding on a bus with my host parents back to our community after shopping in the town. We sat in the front and made friends with the bus driver and his wife. My host mother told them that this was my third year in a row visiting there. Now, this part of the conversation I do not believe that I was meant to hear, but the bus driver’s wife said something along the lines of, “Oh, how lucky the Americans are that get to travel anywhere, while it is only the dreams of us working people.” For some reason, this really resonated with me. I put myself in her shoes, and the shoes of every friend and family member I have made in that community.
Many of the people I’ve met believe that the U.S. is the best place in the world, and tell us that someday their dream is to go to the U.S. The sad fact is that even if the money wasn’t an issue, it is still next to impossible for an Ecuadorian, or South American in general, to get a visa for the U.S. due to our immigration policies in place. Thinking about how relatively easy it has been for me to have traveled abroad every year makes me feel immensely sad and more than a little guilty that the reverse cannot be possible. I have dreams quite often of my host family traveling to New York, where I introduce them to my American family and friends and show them the places that I grew up. Unfortunately, I always end up waking up and realizing that it was just a dream.
So, what is the take home message? Well, for me it has come in two parts. The first is that I now have such an extreme appreciation for every little convenience in the U.S. that I once took for granted. I was given the opportunity to see what we have through others eyes, to live without it, and to help create it in another place. The second part of my message is possibly more important. In addition to this sense of gratitude, I also established a sense of duty, to help others less fortunate around the world. Because of all we are given, I believe it is our natural job as global citizens to “even things out” and make the world a better place for everyone by using the tools and opportunities that have been given to us. As I’ve stated, my life has been forever changed by these trips, and if I had the power I would demand every student to partake in one of these experiences. I believe it is to the benefit of not only the individual, but to our society as a whole.