Marsha asked me what I had been doing in Venezuela when I had the lovely experience of no water for five days. She got me thinking, and remembering. Quite simply I was an exchange student.
I guess it was the overachiever in me (yes, I was chronic in my youth) that gave me this need to finish learning Spanish. I hated to do anything halfway, and taking a couple of years of Spanish in high school didn't seem like it was going to teach me as much as I wanted to learn. Somehow my mother understood this and when she stumbled across an opportunity for me to be an exchange student, she made it happen. I found out years later that she had borrowed the money to send me, and I'll always be grateful for her understanding my need to go.
I was seventeen when I left, having just finished up my junior year in high school. I went on a summer program -- after all, I wanted to learn Spanish, not give up my only chance at a senior year in high school! I flew all day to get from Phoenix to Miami and then stayed the night in a hotel in Miami. Believe me, this was a big adventure for a seventeen year old with sisters. Having the bathroom all to myself was, well, there simply aren't words to describe it.
My travel to Caracas was a little more complex, but that's a story for another day. Let's just say unexpected layovers, diverted flights, eventually arriving at six in the morning....
The family that took me in for my summer stay was incredible. They had two children, a daughter a year older than me who had just spent the school year in the U.S. and an older son who was married and out of the house. The parents spoke little English, but were kind, generous and patient. Their home could best be described as a three bedroom condo. It was on the sixth floor of the building that housed their jewelry store on the ground level. The bakery was across the street, the photo shop right next door.
I had lived in Phoenix, but never had I experienced this kind of city living, the kind where you went to the bakery for fresh bread every morning, or to the butcher for fresh meat each afternoon. The shops closed down for two hours each day for siesta and we went out every night (except when we watched Miss Venezuela win Miss Universe on television.) Gasoline was only $0.24 a gallon so travel was cheap. We, along with just about everyone else in the city, traveled to one of the beach towns each Friday afternoon, returning on Sundays.
Discos, restaurants, shops, and parties. Life was never dull and somehow through the whole experience I learned the culture and how to speak the language. I can still remember the morning I left. I stood out on the balcony staring out at the early morning sky. I was trying to remember every detail, the sounds of the city, the beauty of the sunrise, the feeling of belonging I had found with this family I now considered my own.
When I left that day, I had already starting making plans to return. I would try to get into the University somehow. Returning to Caracas was paramount in my mind, but it wasn't to be. I think deep down I knew I wouldn't be coming back, at least not any time soon. My early acceptance letter to BYU was waiting for me when I got home, and almost instantly reality struck. I wasn't going to see my family in Venezuela again.
I always feel a pang of homesickness when I see Venezuela on the news even though I know it is a changed country since I lived there. Still I doubt there will ever be a time that I won't look back on that summer abroad with fond memories. Someday, just maybe, I'll be able to go back and make some new ones.