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Photo by Ryan Kost, Andes & Amazon Semester.

The Things You Don’t Do

A young arriero leads a mule across fresh snow in the Peruvian Andes. Photo by Benjamin Swift (2016 Fall Semester Photo Contest Finalist), South America Semester.

For my friends and family, the general sentiment around taking a gap year in Bolivia is a combination of disbelief and excitement. To them, it seems, the central components are the crazy things I’ll do: summiting mountains, becoming fluent in Spanish, living with strangers, leaving everything I know for a year, etc. “You’re going to have the time of your life!” “I can’t wait to hear all your stories!” These words of encouragement, however appreciated and well-intentioned, stem from an over-romanticized view of what it truly means to live abroad.

Now, that’s not to say they don’t capture a fundamental aspect of the experience. The crazy things I do are fun, immersive, eye-opening, perspective-altering, and, well, just that: crazy. I’ve joined an arts-based service organization and begun teaching music to children who come from incredibly challenging situations; I’ve summited Pico Austria at 17,580 ft (with the help of friendship and coca leaves) and connected with the beauty of unspoiled Bolivian nature in the snow-capped mountains, the lakes, the stars, and the alpacas; I’ve become a novice zampoña (pan flute) player and played music in a cemetery with my homestay brother’s band, celebrating Todos Santos, the unbelievable day Bolivian families rejoice their deceased loved ones’ return to earth and eat/drink around their graves; and I’ve lived in La Paz/El Alto and ridden the Teleférico, the stunningly beautiful, gondola-based public transportation system which connects the two mountainside cities. I’ve done more humble things, too, like finally made my three cats like me (the two dogs I had a more instantaneous connection with), tried (and grown to love) rice with milk, and I’ve made friends with the local ice-cream lady and man who own the juice/pastry shop. These formative experiences are an integral piece of living abroad – but they only capture a part of it.

When my friends and family tell me how excited they are and how much fun I’ll have, they’re imagining the above. They aren’t picturing the tears I’ve shed during the days I sit in my room, playing guitar and missing home. They aren’t picturing the days when I’m not sure why I would ever embark on an experience which holds such gravity, which takes such a staggering mental toll. They aren’t picturing the regular days: days when I’m not ecstatic or depressed, but am just average. Days when I just go to work, eat three meals, read a little, and sleep. Yet these things are as integral and formative a part of my experience as the excitement and the thrills. These things teach me about who I am, and challenge me to find a version of myself independent of everything I’ve ever known.

Life, no matter where you are, never consists solely of happiness and adventure. But time spent sitting in the living room or eating dinner in silence forms you in a way different from those times, a way crucial to a widened perspective: it gives you true cultural understanding. It allows you to feel what it means to create a life somewhere beyond where you call home. It allows you to not only put yourself into someone else’s shoes, but to live in them. Not having water because of a city-wide drought, doing laundry by hand, taking crowded and hot public transportation to work; these things are unglorifiable and unromanticizable. There’s no way to make them a thrill. But those moments when you don’t feel like you’re living a wild adventure, when you’re simply experiencing life, are the moments when you also experience true understanding. Because of these things, I’ve been able to find home and help create the beginnings of a family with strangers and a house I’ve never known.

In a nutshell, what I’ve learned during my time here is this: the things you don’t do are just as important as the things you do.

And so, to close, I’d like to write a reminder to myself, a year, 10 years, 50 years from now, when I’ve returned to the tightly-wound, fast-paced ball of stress that is American life. Don’t spend your whole life doing nothing; fill your days with rich activities, do what you love, and have times where you need to pull all-nighters just to get through it all. But sometimes – not always, but sometimes – don’t. Some days, just exist. On these days, live inside your mind. Be at peace with boredom and loneliness; explore them. Welcome them. You need them to appreciate the other side, and to understand yourself. Take these days to learn to love yourself, to deepen your internal peace and contentment, independent of external ideas of happiness. Become the self you truly want to become.