As I stared out of the window and watched small puffs of smoke escape the lips of Fuego Volcano, I fought hard against the large pit that was forming in my stomach.
With the inevitability of my return home staring at me through the windshield and with all of my adventures, memories, struggles, and successes fading out of view in the rearview mirror, I checked my seatbelt for the comfort, safety, and stability that I craved.
With shaking hands and a quivering voice, I refocused and tried to concentrate my gaze on the ever-changing horizon in front of me.
Since I had spent the past few weeks doing intense work with different NGOs in Guatemala, I felt like I needed time to relax, reflect, and process everything that had happened and was happening, so I boarded a van early one morning to spend the last few days of my fellowship year on the black sand beaches of Monterrico.
The last time I was there was during my first weekend in Guatemala and I had a blast relaxing and talking with my friend Olivia who I had met through my homestay family in Antigua.
This time I was traveling alone to the beach; however, traveling alone ended up bringing me unique and exciting experiences that made my time in Monterrico a complete adventure.
Within hours of arriving I met other travelers and locals who made the next few days absolutely unforgettable.
We shared stories about the different systems and problems facing Guatemala, reflections of our relationships and our own personal journeys, and hilarious anecdotes from our travels.
I experienced the overwhelming generosity and compassion of others as I spent a day sharing wine, food, and conversation with a lovely couple.
I had a few laughs while politely declining a proposition from an older Guatemalan man and his third wife.
And I enjoyed my time relaxing and getting to know wonderful people.
Together we sipped delicious and fresh licuados on the beach, played volleyball in the scorching black sand, relaxed and chatted in the pool, and explored the small coastal town.
I went on a private sunrise boat tour where I saw beautiful sights of nature, a variety of different birds and animals, and even jumped out of the boat to help push it through the mud and muck.
I even went sea turtle spotting led by a local man where we walked along the beach for hours, failed to find any turtles, and became drenched by vicious and torrential rain.
Ultimately my time in Monterrico allowed me to begin the process of reflection, reaction, and action as I prepared for my journey to the United States.
When I returned from Monterrico I then spent my last full day in Guatemala doing what I love! I spent the day with a youth program as they visited a historic sight in the city of Antigua.
After a day of laughs, pictures, games, pizza, a snake, and activities, it was hard to say goodbye. As we gathered into a large group hug in the central park, I struggled to fight back my tears.
One by one the young women and men approached me with open arms as they hugged me goodbye. Many began to say things to me and about me that I will always treasure.
They told me that they would miss my positive attitude, my funny comments, and how I was always smiling and laughing. They told me that they admired my strength, my happiness, and my openness. And they thanked me for taking the time to be a part of their experiences and for sharing my stories and my personal journey with them.
I have never felt so humbled and so appreciated as they described what our time together meant to them, how they care about me, and how much they will miss me.
I was incredibly grateful that I was able to make an impression on them because they have definitely left a strong impression on me. They have inspired me with their kindness, strengthened me with their resilience, brought me so much joy with their smiles and laughs, and I will miss them dearly.
After witnessing how they have overcome difficult experiences and have remained strong, positive, and happy, I am confident that they will continue to grow in love and in strength.
I feel so blessed that they have shared their experiences, their stories, and their lives with me.
I also feel overwhelmingly blessed, appreciative and grateful for everyone who has made my time in Guatemala as memorable as it has been.
So many people have welcomed me into their lives and their families.
My family here has been supportive, kind, friendly, and has made my time in Guatemala truly special. From delicious meals shared together; heartfelt conversations; funny nicknames (my nickname is Hash brown); and strong feelings of love, support, and acceptance; I feel honored to have become a part of this amazing family.
As my last day came to an end I decided to spend my remaining few hours with my family, friends, and some of the original people I met when I first came to Guatemala. Together we shared an incredible final night of dinner, wine and crepes at a local restaurant, and dancing to a wonderful band at a local café.
With only a few hours left I quietly made my way back to my room, packed my things, and then walked down the stairs for the last time toward my family.
Before I could process all that had happened and all that was happening, it was time to put my bags in the car, say goodbye, drive to the airport, and begin my newest journey returning to the United States.
After months of waiting for this day, wondering what it would be like, and romanticizing the experience in my mind I couldn’t believe that the moment had finally arrived.
I was leaving yet again. I was leaving my family with Violeta’s fabulous cooking, Fernando asking me to sing Lady Gaga songs to taunt Alejandra, and jokes of hash browns and hash.
I was leaving the beautiful view on the mountaintop of Cerro de la Cruz that overlooked the colorful city of Antigua and Fuego Volcano.
I was leaving behind social workers, families, and children.
I was leaving fiery volcanoes, black sand beaches, and cobblestone streets.
For the first time in my year I was leaving one place to return to another.
But what would I be returning to?
It was clear that so much had changed in my life and in the lives of everyone I care about as we had spent a year apart exploring new places, new opportunities, and new relationships.
I also knew that I would be returning to a new stage in my life.
Within a week of arriving in the United States I would be moving to my first ever apartment and within a month of arriving I would be starting classes at law school.
What made me the most anxious was the fact that my relationships would forever be different as I acknowledged that I would need to understand and adjust to how my relationships have evolved and changed over time.
As I sat on the plane and the sight of Guatemala’s mountains and lush, green forests disappeared from view, tears streamed down my face and I felt the same feelings when I boarded my first plane exactly one year ago.
I was afraid. I was excited. I was anxious. And I was ready.