This post was contributed by Gaby Napoli.
When anyone asks me what my favorite country I’ve ever visited is, my answer will always and forever remain the same, Puerto Rico. This answer often perplexes people and more often than not, is followed by responses such as “wait but… you lived in Argentina” or “you worked in Perú” or “ pero you saw amazing beaches in Brazil” and “you went to Cuba right when the borders opened for the USA again” (*Shoutout to Obama for those friendly international relations, still grateful). And none of those responses are wrong. I did do those things. But then comes the stereotypes which get me tight like nobody’s business. “But that’s like, a really Americanized country, how could it do anything for you?” and “Well, I guess it’s good you went then and not now.” Ignorance, I think to myself. If only they knew, but my story is far too precious for me to share with cualquier persona, or just anybody, so I’ll generally respond with a “don’t knock it till you try it” or “why don’t we try to focus on the recovery that they, autonomously have made and think about individual ways we can help.”
Rewind 4 years, and young me is sitting at my dorm room desk, sweating my you know what off and trying to persuade my twin sister to take a trip somewhere, anywhere, that holiday break. We check around, considering various options and finally decide on Puerto Rico for the price (let’s be real, that’s how we plan half our trips). So we book the flights and then I forget about the trip completely as I wrap myself up in the semester. But I wrapped myself up even more in my recurring depression. I was confused and lost. When I told people that my major was International Relations they always asked, “well, what’s your career objective with that,” to which I would respond “ the world.” It sounded like BS, and I had no idea what I was saying. And then came the whole, me coming from NYC and now living in a small college town with one street of civilization and only 6 thousand people in my surroundings. Enter the guy who messed with my head and made me think I would have some relief from feeling lonely and isolated by being with him. Spoiler alert, he didn’t help me. My anxiety went out of control from the combination, and I lost 25 pounds very quickly. I left the semester feeling broken, but more importantly looking in the mirror and not recognizing who I was. I had completely forgotten about my trip, and not even one thought passed my mind until one day my sister says, “ Yo, we gotta plan where we gonna stay unless you tryna sleep on the beach.” #MOOD
We fly to Puerto Rico on January 1st, 2015 with an extreme hangover. It wasn’t that I wasn’t expecting it to be incredible, I just couldn’t think past anything that didn’t have to do with self-wallowing that nothing had crossed my mind. But damn…
The best way I can describe how I felt, stepping into our rental car with the beach in the background and the sun on our pale-NYC winter skin with the salsa going in the background is like how your feet feel after taking your heels off at the end of the night, how your throat feels after eating a Nature Valley Bar and then taking a huge-a$$ drink of water, or the feeling of changing your glasses prescription to be adjusted to how your eyes have changed after not going to the eye-doctor for 2 years. Clarity.
With each step I took, each new location we explored and every person I encountered, a part of me was being rejuvenated. I felt my breath restored to a normal level again and a tightness in my chest finally released. Puerto Rico slapped me in the back of the head and told me to “deja de pensar en solo mi misma” or in other words:
Stop thinking about yourself and start appreciating LIFE.
Yeah, life – that thing that can be taken away in two seconds, that we try to live to the fullest but end up looking at our phone and spending the whole day watching Netflix and buying nothing that we need off of Amazon Prime. Puerto Rico told me, and still tells me every day, that there is an entire universe outside of my head, if I can only try and get out of it, I won’t regret it.
Entonces, my trip continues. The healing takes on new shapes and forms, and my sister and I get into a conversation about study abroad. I tell her that I’m thinking of choosing between Greece, Argentina, and Turkey. She’s interested in Japan.
The following morning, I wake up to get coffee and walk around the capital observing the signs in Spanish, the beautiful architecture, but mostly the sounds of the people speaking. The architecture is something so beautiful I had never seen before that I began to tear up. I’ll never forget that moment, the way I felt, being purely elated to be in a place with nothing else affecting my happiness but the environment. Not the people, not my college, not a boy. Just a culture. Some people asked me random questions on the street, and I wanted so badly to be able to respond, but I didn’t know any Spanish at this point. I walk into a local coffee shop and ask the shop owner why people love the city so much, to which the owner responds, “the sins are close.” I chuckle and yet feel pure bliss. I heard another couple speaking Spanish at the table next to me and have this gut feeling that penetrates my body so strongly, I need this language in my life. That became my objective.
Spanish was my objective.
Being able to communicate with other people in their native language to get to know them better, became my objective.
I promptly returned to our Airbnb in San Juan and told my twin sister, ” I’m sorry but I won’t be able to visit you when you study abroad in Japan, because I decided I’m going to Argentina to study Spanish.” And that was that. My path which had been curvy and windy with so many questions all of a sudden felt linear.
I returned home, changed my college schedule to add Spanish 101 (you gotta start somewhere), and that exact time the following year I found myself on a plan to Argentina. I returned home after the most amazing year of my life, fluent in Spanish to finish my final semester of college. And somehow, someway, I found myself on a plane once again, 2 weeks after I graduated to return to live in Argentina, this time with no end date.
I’ll never forget that moment, the way I felt, being purely elated to be in a place with nothing else affecting my happiness but the environment.
Now I’m the “yanqui argentina” (American Argentine). The culture is a complete backflip from Puerto Rico, but I found something there that too, had awoken me in a way that Puerto Rico did as well.
I sometimes wonder if I had not been in such a bad place when I went to Puerto Rico, would things have turned out the same? Who knows. But 11 countries, countless friends, experiences, embarrassing moments practising my Spanish and learning that home is wherever your heart feels content later, I wouldn’t change a second of it.
Meet Gaby: I’m 23 years old born and raised in Brooklyn NY. I come from an Italian, Egyptian, Jewish background, and the idea of exploring other cultures has always felt second nature to me. I like to think of travel as looking for the beauty in the differences, and the comforts that make us similar. Keep up with her on IG.