Adapting to Living Abroad in Ecuador as a Student
Training to Teach in Tumbaco
Near the end of my junior year of college, as I trudged through endless (and honestly, mildly repetitive) education classes, I questioned my desire to become a teacher. Fearing that I had lost something that I had felt so confident about since 9th grade, I decided to go ahead and finish the degree, following it wherever it led me. I chose to leave the United States because I thought it would be less daunting and repetitive than spending a final semester in Georgia and I wanted to go to graduate school for linguistics--and maybe Teaching English as a Second Language--if I could get over the slump of being frustrated with my major.
In my case, it was most important to prepare for the trip mentally, which is a factor that some people tend to forget when they are caught up in the endless paperwork of visas and passports (more on those later). At that point in my life, I had not been more than a few hours away from home for more than a week at a time. Even though I was sure that I wanted to go to Ecuador, and wanted to have an experience that would help me to grow into an independent young adult, I felt insecure and did not know if I could do it. While I knew that I would be traveling to a safe area, the idea of spending my first international experience in what some consider a developing country made me feel a little queasy.
Mental and Emotional Preparation
There are several practical ways to mentally and emotionally prepare yourself for a trip abroad:
- Have conversations with people you respect as well as with people who have been to the country you are visiting. I spoke with professors about my uncertainties and overall reservations. I went to meetings at my university about the student teaching trip and listened to alumni speak about the country. By chance I got into a relationship with someone who had traveled to Ecuador. Having conversations with him was beneficial because I was able to ask questions and gather opinions from people within my comfort zone. You do not know anyone who has actually been to the country? Try online message boards!
- Educate yourself. This overlaps with #1, but if you are like me, you need something more than reassurance. I needed facts and statistics. I used travel.state.gov/ to see if there were any alerts about traveling to Ecuador. The website also offers statistical information including crime rates and other important notes for traveling Americans.
- Anticipate culture shock. I thought it was a myth, but as I went through every single stage during my semester in Ecuador, as well as when I returned to the United States, I became a believer in the phenomenon.
Putting Together the Paperwork
The biggest mistake that some of my colleagues made is that they waited too long to acquire the necessary documentation. Government documents take time. If you are studying/teaching/researching abroad for more than a couple of weeks, there is a minimum of two forms of government paperwork you will need: a passport and a visa.
Acquiring a passport is not exceptionally difficult, but the processing time could take over a month. The State Department website provides the information you need to apply for your passport travel.state.gov/passport/get/outside/outside_5462.html. The paperwork is also provided in pdf format so that you can fill some of it out before you even leave the house, which will save you some time. Also, check out the website of your local post office. Many offices will allow you to schedule a time to apply for your passport. Don’t be afraid to call and ask questions; one of the most frustrating parts of applying for these types of documents is being unsure of which identification paperwork you will need, and you don’t want to have to reschedule an appointment because you forgot something.
Visas are a little trickier because you have to make sure you apply for the right one. Even though I went abroad as a student, I was told by my institution that I needed to acquire a “Cultural Exchange” visa, rather than a student visa. If you are traveling within a program associated with your institution, make sure you ask the faculty members involved about the type of visa you should apply for. The type of visa can change based upon your intended reasons for travel as well as the amount of time you will spend in your chosen destination country. travel.state.gov/visa/ offers more information about the different types of visas available.
Before I really looked in to traveling to Ecuador, I had always thought that studying abroad would not be a possibility for me due to a lack of finances. However, once I inquired about the options associated with my institution, I found out that studying abroad would actually be cheaper than staying in the United States for the same period of time due to the scholarship money I was able to apply for.
Some of the opportunities offered to students in the United States include:
Spend at least 30 minutes sitting in your apartment/house/wherever you live and think about what you do on a regular basis outside of your home that you would not be able to do if you were locked inside for a month. I am serious. You need to take care of a plethora of things before you leave unless you are positive you will be able to do so from the country to which you are traveling. This includes:
- Medications (you need to go to the doctor EARLY to try to get these because some pharmacies can really be a hassle when you try to get several months of prescriptions at a time).
- Bills. If you don’t pay them electronically, you need to make sure reoccurring payments, such as car loans, are taken care of before you leave. These things are difficult to work with internationally.
- Bank. Your bank needs to know that you are leaving the country. I spoke to a teller who originally told me that I would not need to do anything special with my account; that teller was wrong. If your bank is not aware of your departure, your account may be frozen.
- Mail. You might want to get it forwarded to a family member or a trusted friend.
- Phone/internet. This is not always possible, but I wish I would have had a plan for communication before I left. Some areas have very unstable internet access, and Skype cannot always be depended upon.
- Insurance. I went to the hospital in Ecuador!
Are we there yet?: After all of the paperwork is complete...
My first night in Ecuador was probably one of the loneliest nights of my life to date. I lived with a family, in a room right next to the main house with a bathroom and big windows. Be prepared for differences. It sounds obvious, but you don’t realize the changes you are about to go through until you actually get there.
Along the lines of my emphasis on mental/emotional preparation, I advise that you make a “deal” with yourself before you go. I promised myself that no matter what happened during my time in Ecuador, I would figure out how to take care of each situation to the best of my ability. I would not give up and go home, and would not allow myself to slip into a state of anti-social solitude. As I cried in bed my first night, not because my conditions were poor, but because they were different from what I was used to, I told myself that I would get through it. I saw a few bugs in my room, and I was scared to take a shower without flip flops. I don’t mean to sound spoiled, but I was used to keeping a clean apartment, and had to take deep breaths and remind myself of that promise the very first night.
One of the most important personal characteristics to have as a traveler is the quality of being a “good sport.” You have to just accept that some of the situations you encounter will be uncomfortable and adapt accordingly. On my first full day in Ecuador, I decided that I wanted to travel to Quito, the major nearby city, because all of my friends from the university were staying there. I felt lonely and distant. I was in situated in Tumbaco, which is a beautiful and rich area, yet it was far away from everyone I knew.
Getting there was not very difficult; with the help of my host family, I took a bus and a taxi straight to my friends’ apartment. However, getting back was a nightmare. I had thought I remembered the way to the bus station, but found myself getting lost. I searched for people who looked approachable and settled on a family with children.
“¿Dónde está el autobús?” I asked. They did not seem to understand my accent very well, but they tried to point me in the correct direction.
Once I made it to the bus station, I faced the even larger problem of figuring out which bus to ride. There were red, blue, and green buses, all facing different directions. I could not remember how to properly pronounce the town I now "lived" in, and it took asking three different people to get onto the proper bus.
But the experience was empowering and absolutely exhilarating. I would not have believed I was capable of navigating my way around a foreign country if you had told me so a few years earlier. Being brave is a good thing; however, it would have been wiser and more responsible for me to have had a better idea of where I was going and how I was going to get there beforehand. It is important to keep your head steady and calm when in a new land for the first time.
Another instance of bravery relates to being open to trying new things. It is a lot easier to face your fears if you go in with a positive attitude. After all, you may never have another opportunity to do some of the activities offered in other countries. In my case, it was zip lining. I am more afraid of heights than anything else in the world, especially if I am not in an enclosed area. The mere idea of being hooked to a string and flying over the cloud forest made me nauseous. But with a little peer pressure and reassurance, I found myself hooked onto a line, flying over the trees.
As the guide prepared to release me onto the line, me mumbled, "I'll wait for you" in English.
Not realizing that I had misheard him, I exclaimed, "You'll pray for me!?" I was sure I was dead.
Soon I flew over the rainforest, and it was the most terrifying and exhilarating experience I have ever had. I have never experienced such silence in my life--I felt like I could just breathe, and that was it. The thought of falling lurked in the back of my mind as I allowed my body to hang so high in the air.
The purpose of sharing these experiences is to offer specific examples of the ever-so-common theme of personal growth that goes along with study abroad stories. My advice to the newest travelers is to allow yourself to grow and change through your experiences. Keep your mind calm and your eyes open because you are bound to run into situations that are uncomfortable or at least different from what you are used to. Regardless, keep a positive attitude and allow yourself to experience the personal change that comes along with leaving your comfort zone.
Kristie Kannaley traveled to Ecuador through an institutional partnership between Kennesaw State University and Colegio Menor San Francisco de Quito January 2011-April 2011. She is currently a graduate student at the University of South Carolina in Linguistics and TESOL. Kristie grew up in a suburb outside of Atlanta, Georgia, and graduated with her degree in English Education from Kennesaw State University. Her future goals include teaching adult English language learners as well as teaching and researching on the university level.