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Rustic Pathways: Spanish Immersion and Service Ilana's fall gap semester, a recap

The purpose of this creation is to document my experiences over the past 3 months, not only so I can hold on to what I learned, but to fulfill the deeper goal of the service conducted throughout my trip: to share with my friends and family the lessons and information I now carry with me. I've tried many times to come up with one phrase to sum up my trip: a trip full of challenges, excitement, learning opportunities, connections, new friendships, difficulty, and lots of rice and beans. So far, every phrase I've tried completely and utterly fails to do these 3 months justice. Maybe, just maybe, through this reflection, I'll get there.

"View from School" Turrialba, Cartago, Costa Rica
Old Havana, Cuba

I locked in my decision to take a gap year on April 30th, just the day before the dreaded May 1st: college decision day, the day my answer had to be final. As a loyal member of Procrastinators United, I waited until the very last moment to ensure my parents and I experienced enough stress and anxiety to bring a small country to crisis. As a true and dedicated member of the procrastinating community, I waited until the pressure and procrastination impacted other commitments. Allow me to paint a picture: April 30th, 4PM. My mother, doing her best to calm herself and her daughter at the same time. Me, panicking as I question not only if I want to defer college or not, but if I even made the right choice of which college to attend. And my father, sleeping, having done all he could to look at the pros and cons of each decision logically and analytically, in a manner very characteristic of him. Nina, gently reminding me over text that if I don't leave my house soon, we're going to miss our appointment. There were still so many unanswered questions. If I deferred college for one year and took a gap year: How could I make the year meaningful? Would I resent being a year older than my classmates? I felt ready for college, did I NEED to take a year off? How would this impact my transition into college? Could we afford it? What would I miss out on? Would I regret it? If I went to college right away: Was I ready for college? What would I miss out on? Would I regret it? But what finally convinced was this: time after time after time, I'd heard from friends: "My biggest/only regret is not taking a gap year." And not ONCE had I ever heard "I regret taking a gap year." Not once. A year away from the traditional classroom held so much opportunity. Travel. Service. New communities. Challenges. Leaving comfort zones. New perspective. So I checked the box to defer, posed with the paper so my mother could snap a pic, dropped the letter at the post office, and drove off to meet Nina to get my nose pierced.

"River rafting on the Pacuare River" Costa Rica
Batey Monte Coca, Dominican Republic

"Did you commit?" "Yeah! And I deferred for a year!" "What?! What are you going to do?" "I don't know yet!" Initially, it was hard for a lot of people to understand how I deferred college for a year without much idea of what I would do. All I knew was that I wanted to make a difference, however that played itself out. In this documentation, I'm just going to focus on the first half of my gap year. Next semester, I'll be heading to Israel- but that's a whole other adventure, and we'll get there when we get there. For now, I needed to decide how I would spend the first half of my year. I began by deciding the pieces that I knew I wanted the trip to include: 1. A service aspect 2. Travel 3. Opportunities to try new things and leave my comfort zone. I started there, and found an organization called Rustic Pathways, and was particularly intrigued by the Spanish Immersion and Service program they offered. I had taken Spanish classes in high school for 3 years, but had not continued it during my last year. Living in California, I knew speaking Spanish was a helpful tool to have, and I had loved learning the language. I also knew that learning a new language helped to exercise and grow the brain. Thus, I added the 4th criteria to my list that I wanted the trip to include: 4. Spanish immersion. My search led me to several Latin American programs with different organizations, many of which included similar pieces: homestays, Spanish classes, service, and adventure. I set up a phone call with a Rustic Pathways employee, and by the end of the call, was pretty close to convinced. Largely, I owed my decision to the responses I received from two questions in particular. The first was in response to my question as to how their organization made the service projects sustainable, realistic, and meaningful. He told me that they have a full-time team in each country assessing the needs of each community and working with local leaders to develop projects where teens can be truly helpful and make a positive impact. More on this later. Second, I asked what he felt was the mission of the organization. He responded that their mission, among many other things, was to give students an experience that they wouldn't be able to have in any other setting; experiencing an authentic cultural immersion, seeing how people live around the world, opening up the student’s lives, living like a local, and having students do new things (I took notes during the call, this is basically verbatim). Now, I can honestly say that my trip achieved all of that and much more.

"Sun sets on our last day in Peru" Huacachina, Peru

We were all instructed to wear the green shirts Rustic had mailed us on our Day #1 flights, so that we could find the other teens at the airport. Thanks to Hurricane Irma, our group flights from Miami were caput, so we came in separate groups. I saw a green shirt for the first time at the window as I went through the Customs line in San Jose, Costa Rica, but she was gone in a flash. I later found out that Madi had actually been on my flight and had seen me run onto the plane at the last minute, courtesy of my severely delayed flight from San Francisco. She said that the many rings on my fingers and the one in my nose had, at first impression, deceived her into thinking I was cool- something she very quickly learned was false. I saw her and another green shirt at Baggage Claim, and after a few moments of failing to get them to notice me, I went over to them and introduced myself. Madi and Mattie they said- in a group of 10, the first two people I met having the same name provided a good laugh and a nice way to break the ice. Together we got our luggage, and ventured off. Over the next 3 months, we'd have 7 more trips to airports together. But there was no way of knowing in that moment, the stories and memories and laughs that would make each one an adventure.

Trinidad, Cuba

I journaled every night on my trip. Fine, fine, I missed a couple days here and there, but I always made up for it the next night. I wrote about what I'd learned that day, the meaningful conversations I'd had, biggest takeaways, highlights, and challenges. At the end of each country we visited, I took some time to reflect on the people, places, and activities that stood out to me during my time there. Here are the main points I took note of:

"Pura Vida" Dominical, Costa Rica

Costa Rica: The people in Costa Rica are kind, welcoming, loud, and colorful. We stayed for about 3 weeks in a town called Turrialba. My host mom, Noemy, was one of the sweetest, sassiest, most talkative women I know, and she will always hold a huge place in my heart. One night, I was on the phone with my parents, and she bursts into my room and starts speaking Spanish to them (they don't speak Spanish). I translated that she had invited them to visit Costa Rica and that they were welcome in her home anytime they wanted. 70% of our lunches in Costa Rica were casadas, which means "married," because all of the food looks like it's married on the plate. Casadas consist of rice, beans, plantains, and some kind of protein: typically fish, chicken, pork, or beef. The common breakfast food is "Gallo Pinto," rice and black beans. Conservation is a big part of Costa Rican culture. Hunting for sport is outlawed, and they have many water and plant conservation laws in place. I love how much Ticos (Costa Ricans) value their land and the world. Costa Rica, being the first country we traveled to, really set the stage for our community service projects. As a group, we had many conversations about what our service meant, why we were doing it, and what impact we hoped to have. In Costa Rica, our project was to put a new floor into a homeless shelter. We learned that the man who started the homeless shelter felt that G-d was always with him. He gave an example that one day, several months before we arrived, he'd had a meeting with some of the other workers at the shelter. They had decided that their next project needed to be putting in a new floor into the cafeteria. A couple hours later, Rolo, the Rustic Pathways Country Manager, called him and said that there was a group of teens coming in September to support the community, and was there anything they could do at the shelter to help? He'd told Rolo that they needed a new floor installed, and several months later, there we were. He told us that about 30-40 people come to the shelter daily for support. In class one day, I was talking to my teacher about our project and she responded "Homeless? In Turrialba?" She made me realize that even in a small town, in a place synonymous with welcoming and care, we could be so unaware about our neighbors who need support. I began to realize that our service was so much more than tiling a new floor.

Sacred Valley of the Incas, Peru

Peru: The first sentence of my Peru reflection is this: "Peru was a challenging, different, eye-opening experience." Our homestay in Peru was a completely different experience from our stay in Costa Rica. We stayed in a village called Pachar in the Sacred Valley, with a picturesque view of the Andes mountains the moment one stepped outside. We were there for one week, and in that week, most of us experienced multiple days without showers, our first bucket showers, long-term loss of electricity, and intense cold. Our homestay families were across the board much, much more quiet and reserved than our families in Costa Rica. We learned that due to the history of imperialism in Peru, there was a very different sentiment towards foreigners. When my sweet mother, Margali, made me dinner, she would stand at the base of the table with her hands folded, waiting to make sure everything was alright. In Peru, the traditional food is ceviche, a fish dish that I truly did give a couple chances to woo me- but each time I tried it, I found the dish a bit too slimy and/or spicy. The cuisine also includes a lot of soup, rice, and meat. Our service project was working with the Sacred Valley Project. The project works to provide housing and education to young girls from low income families in remote areas of the Andes mountains. During our week staying in Pachar, we spent the days attending Spanish classes in the morning and working on the new dormitory for the girls in the afternoons. The vast majority of our work was moving bricks, sand, and tools to mix concrete. The work was more physically demanding than our project in Costa Rica, but there was something else that made this project challenging. Compared to our project in Costa Rica, where we watched as the floor was slowly covered in more fresh tiles, in Peru, there was very little concrete (pun intended) evidence that our work was making any difference. That was when I learned a valuable lesson about what service really is. Sure, it may have been more pleasurable for our group to actually mix the dirt and lay the bricks so we could see our progress, but that wasn't the point. What needed to be done was moving the materials, and we were there to support the project- not for our work to make us feel good. We met the girls that would live in the dormitory several times, and for a couple days, they came to the project site and helped us with the work. It was so meaningful to see their excitement and to have them there- it reminded me that our job wasn't saving a community, it was supporting one. Other highlights of Peru include Machu Piccu (the hike up is worth it, I promise), sand boarding in Huacachina, seeing penguins, sea lions, and crabs at Islas Ballestas, or the "Mini Galapagos," and the incredible Amazon Rainforest. We spent four days in the Amazon, living with and learning from ARC Amazon, an organization dedicated to protecting the rainforest and promoting sustainable development in the surrounding communities. We visited cocoa farms and learned how cocoa is produced and distributed, learned about the organization's research surrounding monkeys, climbed trees, held a caiman, and held one another up as we fought off the bugs, humidity, and dehydration. Few experiences have made me grow and learn so much about who I am than my time in Peru did. I saw the strength and resilience of the Peruvian people, gained a new perspective that simply can not be learned from a book, and challenged myself physically and emotionally in ways I never have.

"Bailando" Jarabacoa, Dominican Republic

Dominican Republic: If I could put a soundtrack into this document, right in this spot would start playing a loud, upbeat merengue song. In a word, the Dominican Republic is LOUD. The people are spirited, fun, and energized, and their country follows suit. There is so much more to the DR than beautiful beaches- they have a rich history, a diversity of people, and a culture of music and dancing that brings people in. We had a two night homestay in the Dominican, in a small town called Manabao. We were with our families Friday and Saturday night, so we really got an idea of what a weekend in the Dominican Republic looks like. In my house, we spent our days sitting on the front porch in rocking chairs, reading our books, writing in our journals, and talking. Sometimes, we walked 30 seconds to the store to get chocolate, or played basketball at the courts with some of the other children from the community, but for the most part, the weekend was relaxed and focused on spending time with others. During our first couple of days in the DR, we had spent some time repairing the aqueduct that brought water to the town of Manabao. At our homestay, there was something very meaningful about turning the tap and quietly knowing to myself that I had played a small part in the water that came out. One of the most impactful experiences of our entire trip for me took place in the Dominican Republic. For one week, we stayed at an NGO called ASCALA, in Batey Monte Coca. A Batey, or plural, Bateyes, are the communities that the sugarcane field workers live in. These communities consist of almost entirely undocumented Haitian immigrants who come to the DR with the intention of making enough money to bring home, but are stuck in the DR, as they make barely enough to keep themselves alive. We spoke to sugarcane workers, learned about the job, and visited families in the Bateyes to learn what their lives were like. We learned about the discrimination Haitian sugarcane workers and their families endure, the poor conditions they live and work in, and the challenges regarding documentation, education, healthcare, and more that accompany undocumented immigrants. It wasn't hard to see the parallels from their situation to the ones of Mexican immigrants in the States. I continued to ask myself, how can I help? What is the right thing to do? The week we were at ASCALA, we spent the mornings building benches at the school in Batey Monte Coca. In the afternoons, we spent time with the students, playing games and introducing them to the basics of the English language. Teaching the students at the school, and speaking with some of their families, made very tangible that immense struggles people around the world face- again, I noted, an experience incomparable to simply reading the facts in a book.

"Museum of the Revolution" Havana, Cuba

Cuba: By the time we arrived in Cuba, I realized I had majorly underestimated how much I would write in my journal. I wrote three lines for every one on the lined pages in my notebook, desperately attempting to ensure I had enough room for the whole trip (I made it, barely). Cuba had always been a fuzzy concept to me. Of the participants from the Unites States, our group found that the American school system overwhelmingly failed in educating us about the significant US/Cuba relationship. The Bay of Pigs invasion and the Cuban Missile Crisis, and in most cases, a vague understanding of the two, was the most anyone had learned from our school classes about the history. During our time in Cuba I learned so much about the history of Cuba, and specifically of interest to me, its relationship (or lack thereof) with the United States. Cubans do not talk about their political views. They continue to live in fear that any mention of dissent from the current government will result in consequence and punishment. Billboards lining the roads boasted "Fidel para siempre" (Fidel forever), and "Patria o muerte" with Fidel's face (The homeland or death), and, at the airport, the desktop background of the Customs workers' computer was a grid of Fidel's portrait 12 times. We, like the vast majority of the country, did not have Wifi in Cuba. In the days leading up to our departure from the Dominican, I had spoken on the phone with my father, who had given me a "US News Update". At the time, hearing about our political climate, the many allegations of sexual assault against those who we elected to represent us, and the many moves of the government that I passionately disagreed with, had led me to frustration and anger. But my experience in Cuba gave me a different perspective. Sure, I get angry when it comes to US politics. Sure, I get frustrated. Sure, all I want to do sometimes is scream from a rooftop "CAN'T WE ALL JUST LOVE EACH OTHER?!" But here's the thing: I CAN really do that. If I wanted. Cubans don't have that privilege, of even daring to speak up against their government, to be angry about their situation anywhere other than inside their heads. I GET to be angry, I GET to be frustrated, and I'm very fortunate to be able to do so. In Cuba, we stayed in a casa particular, similar to the concept of Airbnb. The house had five rooms, and the women who worked and lived there served us breakfast each morning. We ate exclusively at paladares, privately-owned restaurants, to support the self-employers and because state-run restaurants are largely slow-moving and serve low-quality food. Though we did not have an official service project in Cuba, due to the complexity of logistics in the country, we did spend one day learning about and planting mangroves, which are small plants that grow in brackish water and store carbon, helping to weather the impacts of climate change and fight coral bleaching, among other benefits. Cuba has two currencies- one for Cubans, and one for foreigners: the cup and the cuc, respectively. Major highlights from our time in Cuba include the Revolutionary Museum, touring Old Havana, snorkeling, visiting an organic farm, and driving in the old cars, called almendrones. Cubans, I observed, are kind, resilient, and strong. They've developed fascinating methods to advance their society despite an oppressive government, and seem to view life with impressive positivity. As Edgar, our local guide told us: "In Cuba, we salsa dance, laugh, and drink. And if we can't salsa, we laugh and drink. And if we can't laugh, we drink!"

"Con Nuetros Mamas" Guayabo National Park, Cosa Rica

The group: Spending three months with any group of people is a lot- but there is no group I would have rather done is with than the crazy 11 I got to- Lyra and Beba, and Katie, Emily, Nancy, Mattie, Madi, Declan, Jack, Trip, and Alex. I was surrounded by people who, like me, had self-selected to dive headfirst into this adventure. It was a group of people who wanted to be there, who wanted to challenge themselves and grow as people and ask questions to understand the bigger picture, who wanted to be involved and help the communities we traveled to. I spoke with Alex about the similarities between the Jewish and the Greek Orthodox community, with Emily about her life growing up in Germany and how she learned about the Holocaust, with Mattie about the merits of makeup in society, and with almost everyone as we digested the frustration and excitement as we passed around Agatha Christie's "And Then There Were None." I couldn't feel more thankful that I was able to spend three of the most eye-opening, meaningful, exciting, challenging months of my life with this group.

"Repairing an Aqueduct" Manabao, Dominican Republic

What I learned: I came into the trip with five specific goals in mind, and specific steps that I would take to get there. They were goals ranging from Spanish speaking abilities to personal growth, and I made significant progress with them. But where I really grew, what I really learned, manifested itself in a combination of conversations, connections, and moments. Here's what I learned from my trip:

  1. I am so lucky to have a name, to be recognized as a human being under the law of the country in which I live. Not everyone can say that.
  2. We underestimate how valuable an afternoon sitting on a porch, drinking coffee with neighbors can be.
  3. I can do anything if I have the confidence in myself to do it.
  4. My Jewish community is everywhere, because it's within me.
  5. Who you are, what you have, and where you're from isn't your fault. It's your responsibility to do something with it.
  6. Sloths only come down from their tree once a week- to poop.
  7. I don't need a straw in my drink- neither do you. They waste plastic and paper and do virtually nothing.
  8. We must never take what we have for granted. It's easy to remember that not everyone has food, clothing, or a roof over their heads. We can't forget that there are also people in the world who can not speak their minds, who don't have reliable access to fresh water, who don't have family, who don't have a name.
  9. I must make time for myself. It's OK to be an extrovert and need "me time." Sometimes sitting alone, listening to my music makes me feel 1000x better.
  10. International development is a complex issue. The issues our world faces are very rarely black and white, very rarely are there good people vs. bad people and a simple solution to fix the issue. Development takes time, patience, and dedication. One of my biggest takeaways from my trip was to always see the gray in every situation. Ask questions, push to understand the other side, and don't donate blindly- learn about organizations, what they do, and how they function.
  11. A service project goes so far beyond putting a new floor into a building or helping to construct a dormitory. The Spanish classes we took and the homestays were a big part of our work- we weren't simply going to countries around the world and "saving the people," we were learning the language, understanding the community, speaking to the people, and supporting their needs in a way that helped them. And lastly, telling their stories and my story. I'm writing this piece because I feel a need to share what I've learned, to get my friends and family talking about these issues that matter to me, to tell my story of learning, growth, and enthusiasm.

Additionally, I learned how to:

  • Tile a floor
  • Fish
  • Plant mangroves
  • Make concrete
  • Repair an aqueduct
  • Build a bench
  • Kayak
  • Sand board
  • Repel a waterfall
  • Speak Spanish with confidence
  • Cook frijoles (refried beans)
  • Mountain bike
  • Surf
  • Dance salsa
  • Cut sugarcane
  • Roll a cigar
  • Climb trees in the Amazon
"Smiles" Bayahibe, Dominican Republic

I've thought a little more about how to sum up my trip in just one phrase. Looking back at what I chose to include here, what stands out to me, are the stories. The moments I had with the people who left an impact on me, and the stories of love, welcoming, laughter, thankfulness, sadness, or anger that resulted. Stories, I thought. Maybe "One for the Books?" But I don't want my story to be stuck in a book. I want it to be told, to be heard. And in that thought, I realized there isn't really any one phrase that can sum up this experience. This document doesn't even do it justice. But I did think of one word that I felt was worth mentioning. "Go." A lot of people have heard me say "take all the opportunities that come your way," and I guess this is another variation of that. I could not be more thankful that I took that jump on April 30th and deferred college for one year, dropped off my envelope at the post office, and drove to get my nose pierced (Mostly happy about the deferral, but I do love my nose piercing). I'm so glad I chose Rustic, and I'm so proud of the growth I experienced over the past three months. Just, go.

"Sugarcane" Batey Monte Coca, Dominican Republic
"Looking Back On the Trip of a Lifetime" Havana, Cuba

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