Where Travel Has Taken Me

by Courtney Slanaker

By: Jack Resnik

Talk to anyone who has traveled, or worked, or wandered through the world, and I guarantee that you will hear several things. First, appreciate your digestive system — it’s hard out there for a colon. Second, they were never the same after.

If having the “travel bug” seems like the oldest cliché in the guidebook or something you should maybe be vaccinated for, let me assure you that it is neither. No, infection by the travel bug is like being a mute with a juicy secret — it’s amazing, you have to tell, you’re dying to share, but can’t even begin to express it. And once you know, there’s no going back.

Iguazu Fall

However, being a traveler, a backpacker, a global nomad or whatever, is not a secret club for the lucky few who “get it”. There’s just no decent way to answer the always asked question, “How was your trip?” There’s no way to synthesize the epic constellation of experiences that comes with an adventure abroad. Stepping out into the world is like making the move from the fishbowl to the super-sized aquarium, and since I can’t accurately describe the general sensation, I will explain what has happened to me, and how my life has been irrevocably changed in the last two years.

It all started with a hasty decision to volunteer in Peru.

I was in my last year at Arizona State, slogging through a Biochemistry degree and knee-deep in thesis research thicker than my mattress (on which, I was not sleeping much). I had ambitions for medical school and the scars of anyone who has suffered through the MCAT. Like my friends, I was not eager to graduate; unlike many of them, I was not keen on college, the Master’s version. I would take a gap-year, and why not? My test scores were good for three years. I was in no hurry, so I did a typical senior thing: I applied for a job. A Real Job. I would have the office chair, a forty-hour week, full bennys, and a salary that seemed impossibly large — at least not when you microwave rice for dinner. I talked my way into an interview, then into a second, smoother than the lucky silk undies I was definitely not wearing. When I left the office, glad handing and joking with my interrogators, I was sure the job was mine.

My optimism lasted approximately one day and six hours, when I received an email: thanks-but-no-thanks. It was stone-cold.

I’m not going to lie, that rejection put me out. I had been so ready for casual Fridays and disposable income, paid leave and office lunch. For a moment there, I had a plan. One, maybe two years lined up neatly. Moving from the regimented mayhem of college into the total chaos of the Real World is a bit like jumping out of a plane. Right then, my parachute had vanished. Impact with graduation was coming up quick, and now I was flailing in freefall.

So I applied to volunteer in Peru. I didn’t speak Spanish. I didn’t know the first thing about Peru. But I was passionate about work in health and with children — and here these Healthyouth people would let me do just that! What did I have to lose? I regretted never studying abroad, and now with a potentially empty year looming, this seemed like my last good chance. I submitted an application to Healthyouth the same day I saw the volunteer listing; I beat the midnight application deadline by fifteen minutes.

It was the best decision I ever made. When I returned from five weeks in Peru, I hadn’t seen Machu Picchu, but I had given over one hundred vaccinations, had stitched up one very bloody arm, and had my eyes opened wide to the world of global health and community development. I had made lifelong friends and experienced how easy it was to travel, even when you can’t speak a word. Med school could wait; I wanted to stretch my legs some more.

Glacier Hug!

So I came home, determined to scrimp and save until I could travel again — this time I would go the length of South America. For ten months, I worked and planned. I was also determined to learn Spanish. It’s one thing to get by with Spanglish and charades, and quite another to interact clearly and deeply with people of a different tongue. Communication adds an unparalleled richness to the travel experience — I know that now. But then, even with nearly a year of self-study, I still struggled mightily with stating anything but the obvious. Keeping up with casual conversation was impossible.

One week before my departure for Buenos Aires, I had a final meeting with my college professor, in whose laboratory I had worked for the better part of three years. She had given me a tremendous opportunity to get in on the ground floor of exciting research, and I will always be grateful for her mentorship and guidance. At that particular moment, though, her advice left me a little dismayed.

“Enjoy your trip, it’s going to be a great experience,” she had said (more or less), “but know that you have a year of this vagabonding, maybe two before you have to come back to the real world.”

The real world — Where is that exactly? If you ask me now, I’d say that hiking the mountains and waterfalls of Argentina, biking through the alien landscape of northern Chile, and wandering in the Sacred Valley of Peru all felt real to me. I’ve asked people from Córdoba to Cusco, Buenos Aires to Bogotá, and they all seem sure that their world is real as well. It begs the questions, whose world is the realest and why do I have to pick one?

Sixty days I spent roaming the continent. Not much time at all, and still, it felt like an age. I learned endlessly. myself and my capabilities; about people and the infinite diversity of the world. I learned about the countless ways to live a life — all of them very real. I left home alone, and came back with a band of dear friends from all over the globe. It would require many thousand more words to shout out to all those exceptional people and all the moments, big and small, that we shared. It’s easier to say that I love them all and treasure the time spent. I had a great trip.

I backpacked South America because I wanted to, and the experience ultimately paid huge dividends. Beyond the buddies and wonderful memories, beyond blowing up my fishbowl existence, I found new passions and new opportunities. I realized where my ambitions really lay (sorry, Dad & medical school), and then I found a job that would help me realize those dreams. I had been home for a month when I accepted the Global Health Fellowship to lead and develop health and education programs with Healthyouth in Huancayo, Peru.

The rest, as they say, is history — albeit recent at that. Between December and February, I worked on parasite campaigns, health education events, and taught English with a stellar group of US volunteers and Peruvian doctors. By the time I leave in August, I will have spent most of 2015 living abroad. Until our summer term starts in May, I will be in Colombia — today I am writing from Bogotá, next week I hope to be volunteering on a nature reserve, and the week after diving off the Caribbean coast. I’m happy to say that I haven’t the faintest idea of where I’ll be next year.

Sand Sunset

Jack Resnik is the Global Health Fellow and Peru Coordinator for Healthyouth. He is currently working in Huancayo, Peru, with schools and medical centers to improve adolescent health through education and health campaigns.

Interested volunteers should email info@healthyouth.org, year-round placements available.

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