The following post was written by Global Gap Year Fellow Ameena Hester.

I’m a glutton for sentimentality. I’ve already forgotten why I came.

“What’re you bringing back with you?” they ask me.

One vessel, swollen with life. All I can fit into a empty honey jar, and affidavits of each day I took a spoonful: there are luggage claim tags, rocks from under waterfalls, dirt from where I stood and gazed at the most beautiful sunset I’ve yet seen, dried foam I found in my hair 3 days after Carnaval, a hospital band, receipts from all the bread I indulged in; tchotchkes too little, but too salient, to leave on this side of the world. A pocket of a world that, for a fleeting epoch, was mine – and all mine. Call me Fred G. Sanford. All is quidditative and I would like it no other way.

I glance over at a pregnant Venezuelan woman every now and then while I write this. She is always sitting under the higo tree at my bus stop, and she looks about my age. What does one take with them when home won’t let them stay? Do all the trifles, all the filled jars and filled cabinets, fade into nugacity?

My mind whirrs in rumination.

I am here, entirely voluntarily. I choose where I work, when I eat, what to bring with me. I am enjoying life under the blessed aegis of God, my family, a respectable school and more-than-generous program. Right then, I resist the cacoethes to stand in traffic and scream at passersby. My work in the organization is for women; I advocate for their reproductive health, their livelihoods, their children’s wellbeing, their safety. Why couldn’t I secure hers? Moreover, why did I think I could?

My gap year has undoubtedly, irrevocably, single-handedly been the best decision of my life. But there’s a lot of mierda to it.

Future Gap Year Students: Do not think you hold the power to change the situation of a person, a population, or a community. The cold truth is that it will not come easily, often not at all, by the will of your own hands – no matter how vehemently you’re impassioned. We are all moved by something that resonates within us to our cores. God, don’t let it be pity. Don’t let it be familiarity, or certainty, or comfortability. Let it come as timorous, electrifying, and anguishing as it is. Feel it all; be galvanized by the heat. The most fulfilled I have felt in service is when I am dizzied in confusion, disarrayed by chagrin, a heartsick puddle of raw emotions. It’s when I love so hard I forget to stop to consider whether my time is deserved, or love cherished (please don’t get me wrong: taking good, good care of yourself is vital to effective service). It is finding the place where every single thing you see tells you to stay. To do all the things. But learning to relinquish what you cannot change. Accept that sometimes it just doesn’t work out. You don’t get the internship, the work schedule, the relationship. Sometimes stuff hits the fan and you have to be okay with that. Let go or be dragged, I’m learning.

These are the things they will not tell you. And rightfully so. You must go and see for yourself; that is the heart of understanding.

The following quote encompassed an accumulation of my feelings over the past few months perfectly: “’Finding yourself’ is not really how it works. You aren’t a ten-dollar bill in last winter’s coat pocket. You are also not lost. Your true self is right there, buried under cultural conditioning, other people’s opinions, and inaccurate conclusions you drew as a kid that became beliefs about who you are. “Finding yourself” is actually returning to yourself. An unlearning, an excavation, a remembering who you were before the world got its hands on you.”*

What are you bringing back with you? they ask me, more fuerte, this time. An excavated love for reading? The realization that I’m stronger than I ever thought before? Is patience an acceptable souvenir? The ability to engage in educated discourse without tearing up? A thousand witnessed crooked, beautiful smiles I could never begin to explain to you? When all is reduced to embers, what do we use to remember the flames? Atomism of parts, that’s what.

I glance again at the Venezuelan woman through sun-strained eyes, when she looks at me. If this isn’t the first time, it’s the first time I ever felt it so profoundly.

Are you safe? my heart asks her in a contact of eyes. How are you, really?

The littlest shift of a skirt, of watching the Pepsi Truck Guys in detestation, who are telling her to turn around one time for them, of a waiting game in which I tell myself I can wait until the next bus, just until she packs the unsold, tepid drinks into the cooler and makes her way across the congested street. I feel the birth of a maternal, sanctuarial spirit within me. As women, we are guardians of the other. The unspoken promises: Estoy aquí. Estoy observando. Seré testigo. I’m here. I’m watching. I’ll witness.

Can you bottle feelings? Can you tell me if the weight of a story I’ve never lived can go in a checked bag? How many jars hold the city rain melting with semáforos across the windshield of an overcrowded bus? Can I bottle the war of diesel emissions and freshly baking pan battling in the air? Can I fashion my host mother’s “te quiero muchos” into a pair of earrings so they can always hang by my ears? How many rooster-initiated, flustered 5 a.m. wake-ups can fit in my backpack for later? How do I make a nest of my hair for the hummingbirds on the power lines?

The line 16 bus pulls away, fluxing the colors of the Equatorial sun.

I’m hanging my cap on my gap year with more questions than answers, more places to go than I’ve been, more effervescent moments to bottle than I have ever before experienced. It may seem dismal (I’ve never been a fan of good-byes or the-ends) to stitch all the threadbare stories together to wrap myself in warmth of memory later. No, there are so many realizations & manifestations that I carry on my person that bask me from the inside out. It’s an inner atlas that reminds me never to forget the miles I’ve traveled just to make it here, right where my feet are, poised onward toward terrifying, abounding mountains. To hell with happy endings, I’m here for the story.

*Quote by Emily McDowell