Three Lessons in Self Love

by Silas, Tufts 1+4 Participant

Parque Rodó in Montevideo, one of my favorite spaces to relax and reflect. Photo taken by me. 12.02.2019

With the biting Vermont breeze a refreshing reminder of where I ended up after a week of mild chaos, I finally began to reflect on my time in Uruguay. As my dog ran ahead of me, I remembered some of the highlights of the year, laughing to myself, thinking of all the crazy things that had happened. I then found myself getting a little more philosophical, as I tend to do on my walks. I tried to piece together who Silas is after the experience and how he compares to Silas before the experience. Through lots of reflection, I realized how little self love I had prior to beginning my gap year. But that all changed in Uruguay. On my walk a few days upon arriving home, I tried to narrow down what catalyzed this change and I came up with three

1. Space for Reflection

When was the last time you tried to be completely alone with your thoughts?

I began to reflect at our orientation week at Tufts when Professor Talusan told us journaling would be an essential part of our class. Originally dismissing it as a useless formality, I grew to recognize the importance of devoting time to reflection as it was reiterated through activities and workshops. On our final night, our peer leaders, Daniela and Mateo, led us in a sharing circle, where for the first time, I worked to identify what drove me to take the gap year. This allowed me to know what I wanted to work on over the course of the year and gave me a way to gauge my progress. During the first few months of being in-country, I journaled nearly every day. Those daily 5-10 minutes helped me deconstruct what I felt that day, which especially helped through a period of intense homesickness. I obviously had felt sad, or angry, or scared, etc. before in my life, but I rarely gave myself the space to unpack it. In trying to keep up an always positive, happy facade I would not work on or even validate those feelings, instead convincing myself everything was fine, remaining ignorant of my own emotions. During the year, I devoted time to listen to myself instead, whether through journaling, meditation, or simply taking a walk. In the wake of being robbed, reflecting on those emotions helped me to not panic anytime a beggar asked me for change. During bouts of homesickness, reflecting helped me be more open and honest about how I felt, recognizing the sadness as a real and valid emotion. Giving myself the space to reflect has made me feel less like the product of other people’s expectations and opinions, as those are no longer the only feelings I listen to.

2. People

Who in your life do you feel you can be completely yourself around?

I’ve told friends I love them before and it has been true, but never has it held so much meaning as saying it to other gap participants on our last night. The end had come much sooner than we expected so these final moments made us reflect on our time spent together. Going through this experience with people was very powerful, as we were learning so much about ourselves, together. A friend once told me “It’s hard to change when the people around you are just gonna classify or treat you like the person they are comfortable knowing you as.” We, however, were all comfortable with each other while growing, so we were unafraid to show that development. What resulted was friendship based purely on love for who we were. Unlike some previous friendships in my life, there was little fear of judgment, meaning that as I learned so much about myself, I was able to show it wholeheartedly. Being vulnerable, and still valued by amazing people helped me value myself more.

3. Hell yeah, I just did that!

Do you know when you’re crushing it?

I’ve always had trouble recognizing and talking about my accomplishments because I don’t want to seem like an egotistical person. Not talking about them also meant I did not celebrate them myself. However, in Uruguay, I realized it was healthy to recognize accomplishments, no matter how small. Earlier in the year, I wrote about how I had discovered the most gratifying parts of life to be the small victories. Focusing on these little moments day to day helped me through some of the toughest times in Uruguay because even when all I wanted was to go home, I thought of the short conversations at work, the memorable nights with friends, the walks exploring the city, and I was reminded of the life I was building there. When we heard we would be leaving the program early, I was devastated, which surprised me, after spending so much of the year thinking about home. However, I had built a vibrant life on a different continent with all new people, in a language I couldn’t speak well before. That’s pretty amazing. I took initiative in getting to know the city, building a healthy routine, becoming an important member of my internship. Part of my journey to self-love was realizing that so much of the success of the year could be attributed to my own actions.

Perhaps the greatest lesson from the year is realizing the importance of growth. Through learning self-love, I grew into myself. On the first night of our Bridge Year orientation, another fellow asked me why I decided to do this. “I don’t know,” I said. “I just know something has to fundamentally change in my life.” I knew I was looking for something, but I didn’t know what. During the year, I found what I had lost: myself. Before the trip, I felt I had lost parts of what made me myself, or at least I failed to value them. The journey of self-love is certainly not over and neither is the journey of growth. All of life is an opportunity to grow and I hope to never stop.

A photo from our very special final night in Uruguay. Taken by Liani Astacio 03.14.2020

Coming Full Circle

by Giovana, Tufts 1+4 Participant

I walked into my neighborhood’s TATA (a supermarket chain in Uruguay) on the morning of my two-month early departure, due to the pandemic, to buy some Uruguayan essentials: dulce de leche, yerba, y membrillo. As I entered the store my attention was immediately drawn to the song playing on the overhead speakers. I started singing along in my head, “Caballero… Recuerde que el amor es lo primero.” My mind drew the connection instantaneously that the song playing was “Alegre Caballero” by Rubén Rada.

Before this year, I had only come to Uruguay once 5 years ago with my sister and dad, and we had listened to that song on repeat because it was the only CD in my Uncle’s car. I stopped in the middle of the aisle and allowed myself to embrace all of the nostalgia in that moment. It felt as though it was this perfect paradox: Where the in-country exploration of my Uruguayan culture/heritage had begun and ended.

I had always felt that I was lacking a personal connection to the country, preventing me from claiming my “Uruguayanness.” It had always been a place of relevance but one I couldn’t fully grasp. Both my parents would talk about how our culture and their experiences living there influenced them deeply but without further explanation. Beginning this bridge-year, I had this expectation that I would leave fully feeling confident to claim my Uruguayan identity yet it became so much more than that.

In October I met two people who became my closest Uruguayan friends throughout my bridge-year: Marcelo and Agustina. They both allowed me to connect intimately to Uruguay as a country, by being a platform to meet more local youth and subsequently deepening my connection to the language. The more time I spent with each of them the more I learned. Sometimes Marcelo would say things like “manzana” (apple) accompanied by a hand gesture, and claimed he was teaching a very slang version of Uruguayan Spanish. He advised me to never use it in a formal context, which eventually became an ongoing joke that I would later tease him about in the months following. Agustina would always invite me to cool “underground events” which allowed  me to uncover deeply the city of Montevideo and take advantage of everything it had to offer. These friendships created a foundation and a tangible connection to Uruguay. Such experiences allowed me to construct a Uruguayan life of my own, independent from that of my family.

Once I had that foundation and felt increasingly comfortable in the life I was constructing for myself, I began to understand my own upbringing better and the references my parents would make. I can picture my dad taking a bus from the countryside into Montevideo to sell fresh fruits and vegetables in the local ferias on the weekend. I can picture my mother at her boarding school, looking out her window into her ocean view. It’s simply being in the country and picking up the customs, and hearing the day-to-day noises in the environment that brings more awareness and understanding of my roots.

After spending 7 months in Uruguay, I realized I grew up more “Americanized” than I thought and learned to embrace being a yankee (gringa), or as some of my friends called me, “Uruguaya-yanki.” Before this year, I would’ve gotten defensive about being called these names and would’ve felt invalidated of my identity but instead, to my surprise, this year taught me how to embrace it. While it still may take time to fully embrace myself as a Uruguayan-American, I left making a home of my own, feeling more connected to my roots, and confronting parts of my identity that used to make me insecure. There is so much more reflection about my experience that I anticipate having and unpacking throughout the next few months and beyond, but I feel more confident than ever of who I am. The song Alegre Caballero” by Rubén Rada, will forever be an ironic symbol making my own identity out of a collective one and mark a place of my own in Uruguay.

3/15/20: With Agustina and Marcelo on my last night in Uruguay.

Disfrutar La Vida, Paso a Paso

by Christopher, Tufts 1+4 Participant

I laid on my bed in the humid hostel room as the dry bed sheets stuck onto my sweaty back. The whole room reeked of body odor from the day-old damp bathing suits hanging on the towel rack in the bathroom and some hidden in plastic bags. Two of my friends came back from their beach run with their sandy feat and were laughing in unison as the white floors became muddy. I was getting frustrated by these small annoyances, so I silently slipped out of the cramped hostel room while the four of my friends applied their sunscreen. I started walking on the Olón Beach to escape all the chaos and to let my mind breathe. Ten minutes into the walk, I closed my eyes and started walking, something that I do sometimes in my neighborhood in Tokyo out of boredom when I’m walking home from various places, but I often fail to walk even a block without opening my eyes out of a fear of hitting a pole or running into a bush. It’s a kind of test for me to see how straight and far I can walk before I become afraid of running into something. But on this beach, I was free. I checked the view before I closed my eyes again, and no one was present for a mile or two. However, the moment I closed my eyes, the liberating feeling that I enjoyed just moments ago was overtaken by fear. I felt blind, and I didn’t know where I was going.

Fear clouded my mind momentarily, but as I continued to walk, it was replaced by a sense of thrill for this challenge. I began to think about the physical senses that I could use to guide me toward the other side of the beach. So after I took a few deep breaths, I tuned into the sensations of my body. The warm and soft wave wrapped my ankle, and I felt the moisture in the sand; I was somewhat close to the water, and I was going in the right direction. A few minutes later, I realized that the waves weren’t hitting my ankles anymore; however, my feet were still feeling the moist sand. So I took a few diagonal steps to the left: one, two, three, four. My toes felt the lukewarm baby waves wading back into the ocean.

I eventually had to reopen my eyes after what seemed like hours, but realized that I probably only walked for half a mile. It was interesting how different the experience was to complete one mile while closing my eyes from a normal walk, because during my blind walk, every step mattered. The same mile contained steps with a totally different purpose and beauty to it. As I continued the walk towards the other side of the beach, I thought about this metaphor. I didn’t know far the end of the beach was and I couldn’t see if there were any obstacles in my path, but I learned to cherish the beautiful moment-by-moment sensations of the baby waves brushing my ankles, the warm and moist sand, and the rustling sound of the waves going back home. Just like on this blind walk on the Olón beach, my future is full of unknowns and sometimes my mind gets clouded by the sense of fear and the lack of direction. However, deriving anxiety from the future–something that I cannot fully predict or control—and letting it influence my present situation is pointless. Focusing on the one step ahead of me—no matter how blurry life may seem—will give me the strength and the courage to achieve it. So enjoy life, step by step. Disfrutar la vida, paso a paso.

O Caminhão Que Vem

by Seneca, Tufts 1+4 Participant

My host father Giulianno and I hanging out at home, he is almost always in incredible spirits. Photo taken by me on March 16, 2020.

I met a host of incredible people during my year abroad. Strangers who welcomed me – a foreigner with no voice or connection to the local community — with open arms into their homes and their lives. These people shared so much with me, more than I could ever recount in a blog post, but one lesson stuck with me more than the rest: that there’s no singular path, no one way to go about life. Now this lesson is applicable on many levels, part of the reason why it has resonated with me so much. It applies to a single decision, an opportunity, or musings about the more distant future.

The first person who helped me learn this lesson was a Russian friend names Yana who I met at my apprenticeship in Brazil. She had recently finished four years of university in China, and was traveling throughout Latin America, picking up work from place to place as she taught online English classes and saught to learn the native languages. I really admired this lifestyle, as hectic as it appeared. She had left behind everything familiar to her, and was just playing things by ear, living day to day. We love to romanticize the idea of truly living in the moment, and in my eyes she embodied that ideal more than anyone I had ever met.

The second person to help teach me this lesson was my host father, Giulianno. He had never felt particularly comfortable in a traditional academic setting, and did not finish college. In the community I had grown up in, this was unheard of. I thought that only geniuses like Steve Jobs or Bill Gates could drop out of college and live a satisfying and enriching life. But no, Giulianno is one of the most genuinely content, comfortable people I’ve ever met. He does mainly mechanical work and takes care of the house, while my host mom logs long hours at a beauty parlor.

I also found these qualities in my grandfather. I only recently took the initiative to delve more into his past. He was a member of the Merchant Marines and traveled the world on merchant vessels for the beginning of his post-undergraduate life. He attended Merchant Marine Academy at Kings Point, and the financial burden he avoided with this free education allowed him to be considerably more flexible afterwards.  

As I pass this piece of writing off to my mom for her thoughts, I can only imagine what is going through her mind. No mom, this doesn’t mean that I want to travel the world without a  real job, that I want to drop out of college and do mechanical work, that I want to join the military and travel on merchant ships. But it is relieving for me to know that these options are out there. It gives me a real peace of mind in our society, which puts far too much pressure on far too young people to be certain about their futures. I don’t consider everyone’s story as a real possibility for myself, but as I meet more people and learn of their unique paths, it helps to quell the anxiety I feel about my own future, knowing that there are ample routes.

My grandfather, Richard Petry, in the summer of 2015. Pictured here with a Mahi Mahi. He has always carried his passion of fishing and the sea throughout his endeavors. Photo taken by my father.

Quantifying an Experience

by Madeleine, Tufts 1+4 Participant

Since coming home to Maine, I’ve been asked “How was Uruguay?” a million times. I hear it from neighbors, friends, and relatives, all meaning the best, but not understanding that I still don’t know how to answer. I know what everyone wants to hear:

“It was amazing! My host family and internship were awesome, and I made so many friends and saw such cool places!”

This is the response I first used and, to be fair, it’s all true. But it’s hard for me to group so many memories, conversations, adventures, and emotions into a sentence like that. You can’t know a book without reading the whole story, and obviously, a one-sentence summary does not suffice.

Being asked this question and never knowing how to respond made me wonder how I would measure the seven months. Meaning, answering “How was Uruguay?” not to an outside party, but only to myself. My first instinct was to take tangible parts of my experience, assign value based on how many times they occurred, and in this way, determine significance. The most significant things would be what I could measure my year with. I soon realized that I was basically rewriting “Seasons of Love” from Rent ( The song brings up a good point- it’s surprisingly hard to take such a concrete amount of time and define it by something else. I could define it more generally by how many bus rides I took, how many times I traveled, how many friendships I made, how many sunsets I watched. I thought that those would be great, universally understandable and beautiful memories, but they lacked a certain emotional value. Using these experiences to quantify my time didn’t feel complete- it was too general, too normal, and left out too much.

Then, I began thinking of ways to incorporate that personal side that I felt was missing. I could use dozens of personal ways to quantify my time with memories specific to my friends, family, and internship. However, I realized that these experiences, though meaningful to me, were too specific to quantify in a general statement. I think they will hold more value in a journal entry for myself than in a blog post, or in my short answer about my experience abroad.

I came to the conclusion that I could not use numbers to determine significance. I had more general experiences that were vast in amount, and I had specific experiences that were too isolated, too small, and therefore, I couldn’t possibly group them together. Throwing numbers out of the equation, but still thinking about significance, I found a solution. The answer was to quantify my experience with concepts- things like beauty, joy, and love. I found that using such concepts as a way to quantify my experience to answer that question adequately incorporated the complexity of my time in Uruguay, as well as simplified my answer to be appropriately short for the prompt. These feelings were present in every experience I could describe as general, as well as every isolated moment. All of them were so present in my seven months, yet all numerically unquantifiable. When I think of my time in Uruguay, there is beauty, there is joy, and Rent was definitely onto something, because there is, most importantly, love. The most significant part of my experience was that I grew love for my family, my internship, my friends, the city, my home, the language, and myself.

And now, I ask myself, “Maddie, how was Uruguay?”

“There was beauty in every moment, and my days were filled with love- I will be forever grateful.”

My first and last photos from my seven beautiful months in Uruguay.

Lessons from Toddlers

by Luke, Tufts 1+4 Participant

A dirty diaper falls and squishes against my pant leg as I catch it on the way down. Screams pierce through the already chaotic din, demanding attention. A bowl soars through the air, its contents scattering across the floor. It’s just another day at the centro infantil, a daycare center for toddlers.

As part of my internship at Fundación Crea tu Espacio, I work at two different centro infantiles in Cuenca. The Fundación has partnerships with these centro infantiles in part because they serve some families from migrant populations. When I first learned that I would be working with toddlers, I imagined bouncing them on my lap, softly singing them to sleep, watching smiles light up their faces, and playing elaborate games of hide-and-go seek. Obviously, I had little past experience with child care, envisioning an idealistic experience like this. Very soon, I was met with a much more genuine reality.

My first few times at the centros infantiles, I only remember feeling exhausted. Riding the bus back home, snot crusted on my shirt, falling asleep and awakening abruptly every few minutes, I questioned, “How did the teachers do it five days a week, eight hours per day?” I was only there for two days a week, five hours per day and afterwards I always felt like my body had been punched repeatedly and then put through the spin cycle of the washer. So much of me wanted to throw in the towel, to focus on other projects at the Fundación; however, I decided to give it a chance, to see what would become of it.

As the weeks went on, it began to get easier. In no way did I feel any less worn out at the end of each day, but at least I felt more comfortable in the environment. But this new comfort did not come without my fair share of mistakes. One time, I threw a ball way too hard in the playground and watched as it collided with a baby’s head, sending him tumbling to the ground. Another, I was too slow in helping a toddler get to the bathroom and suddenly there was a puddle spreading quickly across the floor. These moments were frustrating, but they also served as platforms for growth and opportunities to learn from the teacher. And, of course, I still make mistakes. But it has gotten easier.

And as the initial stress and fear of failure wore off, I noticed that I was learning a lot—not just tangible skills from the teachers (changing a diaper or feeding methods) but also life lessons from the toddlers themselves. I remember witnessing the playground escapades: the micro-alliances that were formed and immediately forgotten, the wild adventures embarked upon, and the emotions being adopted and shed in the blink of an eye. I felt an overwhelming sense of wonder for these little human beings. There was much to learn from them.

I watched as one boy jumped up and then face-planted in the grass, feeling the soft ground against his skin. He laughed with joy and proceeded to complete this ritual over and over and over again. Two other girls, scolded by the teacher for fighting, were set on a low rock wall to take a break. Within seconds, their grumpy demeanors were replaced with outright fascination as they examined a flower growing in a pot near them. Another boy brought several rocks up to the top of the slide and, with little gasps of amazement, watched as gravity worked wonders to bring them back to the ground, ceasing to be bored even after it was his fifth time.

I found myself feeling envious of these kids, who managed to find joy in these simple things in life. They were all engrossed in the present moment, invested in their own narratives, oblivious to the wants of others. Moreover, they were responsive to their own needs. When they were tired, they slept. When hungry, they cried. When they needed to use the bathroom, they vocalized that (or cried!). I thought of all the times in my life when I had neglected to pay attention to my own needs—especially in high school—getting insufficient sleep or rushing out the door without taking time to eat.

And yes, I know that life is not as simple when we grow up. But I think that I could learn a lot from these toddlers about being more in touch with myself, living presently, and appreciating the little things.

At the centro infantiles, I am blessed to witness the valuable lessons that younglings teach. From the teachers, I have learned how much time and effort and energy it takes to support children. They are real-life superheroes. Watching them in action has made me realize that a lot went into raising me. I can only say thank you from the bottom of my heart to all those who changed my diapers and fed me and sang me to sleep and held me when I cried and read me books; thank you to all those who loved and challenged and changed me. You are my superheroes.

Delicious pitahaya