How long does it take to feel at home? How long does it take to learn to never start your writing with a question? I haven’t been here in Ecuador long enough to answer either one, apparently. “Feeling at home” is tough to define as it is. What does that mean, exactly – you refer to where you’re staying as your house? You no longer check to make sure everyone’s left the kitchen before slurping the remains of your cornflakes? Four months here, and I do both of things with practiced regularity. Still, I can’t help feeling like a guest.
Originally, I chalked it up to living in someone else’s house, that nagging, perpetual feeling that I hadn’t quite settled in yet. But I’m unpacked, unburdened, and frequently skid down the hallway in my boxers and socks – I don’t get much more comfortable than that. Plus, you could put me in an apartment here complete with a hot dog vendor and Captain America for a roommate (“Evan, friend, are you eating ramen noodles… out of my shield?”) and I’m pretty sure I’d still feel somehow away from home.
I blamed my friends and family next – of all the injustices I’ve faced in life, the nerve of the lot of them not picking themselves up and moving here to Ecuador to occupy all the surrounding apartments is pretty appalling. Surely if my girlfriend was here with me right now I’d feel at home instead of wishing a single box a dental floss didn’t cost $5. (Don’t blame me, dentist. Blame Ecuador.) But no, I’m wrong again – if she were here then we’d both just be wishing for cheaper floss. Clean teeth are important in a relationship, you know.
For a while, much like a pirate resting his bad leg on a recently-chopped down tree, I was stumped. But then, it dawned on me. (Notice how I didn’t say “much like someone using dish soap at sunrise.” Similes must be used in moderation, after all.) In many ways, I think feeling at home is about feeling involved. That’s to say, it has to do with feeling like you’re capable of making a difference, in the lives of others or even your own, instead of just floating along for the ride. It’s a sobering realization, but despite the intimate knowledge I’ve gained about Ecuador, as a study abroad student you’re fairly helpless. I don’t choose what I eat, or how much. I don’t have a car, or career I’m planning on pursuing here. The lifestyles, values and traditions of Ecuador are far too complex to even understand, much less try to change or influence.
Of course, if you’re with me on the above fact, then the way out is simple – just start getting involved, start doing my part in bringing real change and leaving my mark on Ecuador. It’s what I try to do in the States, after all, and likely why I feel so deeply rooted and comfortable at my home school and in Memphis. But as I don my “Get Sh*t Done” suit (which I look fabulous in, by the way), I’m thinking it might not be so simple.
When you study abroad, maybe you’re not here to bend reality to better suit your likings. Sure, I have no doubt I’d be able to start making a truckload of difference here in Ecuador if I put my mind to it, starting with changing the way my host mom makes sandwiches (one slice of cheese and no condiments? En serio?) and ending with, I don’t know, changing a culture that still sees birth control as taboo. Hell, I might even start feeling at home. But making changes to a culture is something you do when you’re within it, not up against its glass, peering in. And as a study abroad student, I’m not here to settle down. I’m here to learn, to understand, and frankly to be uncomfortable. Rather than leaving my mark, Ecuador’s leaving its mark on me.