by Lee Mook

There is this moment of sheer bliss when one finishes his/her pre-departure to-do list, and there are no more clothes to pack, prescriptions to fill, or bags to be weighed. I leave for the first part of my gap year tomorrow: a month and a half in Sabana Grande, Nicaragua. The hectic nature of getting ready for my trip allowed me to keep my mind occupied instead of fretting over what the future holds, but once there was nothing left on the list and the last vestiges of bliss disappeared, the flood gates opened. Whereas each task on one’s to-do list is concrete, such as buying bug spray or getting a yellow fever shot, future challenges abroad will not be nearly as obvious and simple to solve.

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To many, I am sure that is a daunting prospect, but I believe that moments of difficulty forge one’s identity, and I have become increasingly excited about the idea of experiencing moments that help me discover strengths and weaknesses I never knew I had. This past summer I was living in Xi’an, China. It was early morning – yet the heat was already in the hundreds as I rode one of many overcrowded buses. I was lucky enough to claim a seat near the exit so that I could leap off at my stop without the risk of the bus pulling away before I got off, something that had happened many times before. Despite my luck, standing in front of me, practically over me, was a sweaty, obese man. He was wearing his shirt in the style that most Chinese men do when it gets hot, up around his nipples, exposing his stomach. As the bus pulled to a stop the man realized that it was his stop and turned to run off the bus. WHACK, and just like that, my morning was blessed by hot and sweaty stomach fat slamming against my face.

I just laughed. Here I was 7,571 miles away from my home, living with a Chinese host family I’d just met, traveling the streets of Xi’an alone, speaking a language, experiencing a culture totally different from mine, and I had just been hit in the face with stomach fat. What did I learn from this difficult situation besides the fact that my face is stronger than I thought? I discovered that I can take a situation that could ruin someone’s day and laugh about it, and I am curious to see what I learn in my upcoming trip.

I will stay in Sabana Grande, Nicaragua for a month and a half working with an organization called Grupo Fenix. I will be working on a project that uses solar energy to distill and distribute water for homes in the community, as well as fixing solar-powered stoves. I will be staying with a host family who, although lacking running water in their home, was selected by Grupo Fenix to have a solar panel installed on their home so that they may have some electricity throughout the day. I look forward to living with my new family, and hope they like UNC because I got them matching tar-heel hats!