Chapter 2: The Way Less Traveled By

When Your Head Catches Up with Your Heart

I usually don’t fail at big efforts I make.  I don’t know if that’s because I subconsciously only try for things that I know are well within my abilities to achieve, or if I gauge failure differently–not as failure, but rather as an opportunity to either persevere, adapt, or change my path.

At the beginning of the school year, I made the decision to go all in for grad school in Germany because it seemed like a good doorway to the next adventure.  I had found an MA program that hits just the right spot between comparative literature and useful real-world skills, I could learn a new language, and I could adopt a new culture.

So, I took two semesters of German, joined a couple of honors organizations and did some volunteer work to pad my CV, decided to write an Honors thesis, secured an internship, planned a month-long Europe backpacking trip with my sister for right before the beginning of the semester, told everyone my plans, and applied for a DAAD scholarship that would give me full funding to study in Germany.

And then I didn’t get the scholarship.

I sacrificed sleep for a month to finish it on time, stressed myself out writing a statement of purpose, and squandered most of my university print credit printing out three copies of the 44 page application to mail in when I had already submitted a perfectly good online version.  Then I waited five months with fingers crossed to hear back.

When I got the rejection email, I drew in my breath in shock and waited for the exhale, for the sinking, crushing disappointment.  But instead, I felt…liberated.  If I had gotten the scholarship, I would have been locked into my grad school plan, which isn’t a bad thing.  However, without the scholarship, my options opened up.

I could still feasibly stick with the plan.  I’ve been fortunate and resourceful enough to graduate debt-free and with some money leftover besides, but I would still need to work and maybe sacrifice some of my travel budget while in Germany.  I also have various other options, including finding a job here and either starting a career or waiting a year to apply to other grad schools, but the more I think about it, the more I want to go backpacking.

I wrote a post a while ago about why I shouldn’t go on an extended backpacking trip, which is why it wasn’t in my initial plans.  Ever since I first had that gut desire to hit the road, though, my logic has been catching up with my heart.

My study abroad changed me as a person, for the better I think, but it’s not like I’ve been stagnant since returning.  In fact, preparing for grad school hasn’t been a waste at all.  Writing my statement of purpose for the scholarship was one of the hardest things I’ve done this year, but it forced me to clarify for myself as well as for the scholarship committee in New York what I want to do after college.  As it turns out, neither Germany nor grad school are crucial to those goals, which in hindsight is probably why I didn’t get the scholarship.

I want to help people with cultural transition, which is why I got an internship with the immigrant services and refugee resettlement branch of Catholic Charities in Houston this summer.  I never would have taken the initiative to secure that if I hadn’t thought it necessary to my grad school application, but I’m glad I have it now.  I’m also quite the fuente of Tolkien knowledge, thanks to my decision to write an undergrad thesis, but that’s another story.

Anyway, the experience that made everything come together was my spring break in Nicaragua.  I spent the first part of my week off the Gringo Trail in Estelí because I had found some mention online of some kind of “eco-tourism” that involves hiking and outdoors and staying with rural host families.  What I discovered when I got to the hostel was a nonprofit that organizes it so tourists like myself can hike with a guide in the mountain, eat meals and stay overnight with host families, and come into more contact with the culture than we would have in a month of hostel-hopping.  More importantly, all the money goes directly to the families, and there are other offshoots of the organization, like a traveling library, or bus full of books, that goes around the schools in the area.

What impacted me most, though, was meeting the people in the community.  My host parents are in their sixties.  My host mom told me that she, her husband, and many in the community had grown up illiterate and mostly isolated from the cities and other parts of the country.  Since her youth, though, she has learned to read and write, made informed decisions about her reproductive health, lived through the revolution and counter-revolution, sent all six of her children to university, and organized a women’s cooperative in the community. Something that was incredible to me was that she has never left her little rural corner of Nicaragua, and yet she has the perspective and knowledge of a traveler since she has had the opportunity to talk to so many different people of different nationalities and viewpoints.  Organizations like Café Luz y Luna had given her the resources she needed to direct her own life.

I could go on talking about my experience there for days, but I digress.  The point is, there was a sign in the hostel inviting volunteers to contribute their skills to the organization.  If I had had more than a week in Nicaragua, I would have volunteered, but they ask for a minimum of 3 weeks of service.

If I can volunteer at these kinds of nonprofits while backpacking, I can combine my need to help people with my desire to travel.  As a bonus, it’s generally a cheaper way to travel since many organizations will give you free room and board and you won’t be constantly paying for trains and planes.  Also, I can get experience for future work in the nonprofit sector.

Guys, I can live out of my backpack for an undetermined length of time! Now’s the time to do it, while I’m young, single, and have some money saved up.  I can see new places, conocer new cultures and people. learn how these nonprofits operate, and find ideas worth spreading to other places.  Not to mention, write all I want, read whatever I want, and get away from my dang phone screen.

The only real disadvantages I see right now is that I’m going to sacrifice my roots for my wings again.  Also, I’ll probably never achieve fluency in German since I doubt I’ll stay in Germany long.  I plan to go more to developing countries.  Lastly–and this is the first time I’ll make this particular sacrifice, and it’s probably the toughest–since I won’t have a home base, I won’t be in one place long enough to develop the deep relationships that mean so much to me.

But hey, my blog will probably get more interesting.

If you want to know more about Café Luz y Luna in Estelí, Nicaragua, visit their homepage here.
If you have any ideas of nonprofits I can work in, please comment!  Right now I plan to stay in Europe/Asia/Africa, but knowing me, there’s a good chance my feet could take me to Latin America.

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