In 2011, I volunteered as a Spanish language teacher in Ecuador for two months.
Fresh out of high school with a suitcase packed with Spanish for Dummies and highly inappropriate footwear, I set off on my first solo overseas trip to live with a host family in the indigenous town of Otovalo, Ecuador.
A then-18-year-old me entered the experience with enthusiasm, excitement… and precisely zero concerns regarding the fact I couldn’t speak the language I’d signed up to teach in.
In hindsight, and in the eyes of my family and friends, this was naive of me.
I learnt the hard way that volunteering in a developing area of a foreign country was not the ‘Instagram holiday’ I thought it was going to be, as I stood crying on the doorstep of my temporary home, unable to muster a simple ‘hola’ to my host mum.
Rather than packing waterproof jackets, Gastro Stop, just anything that would be even remotely useful, I took khaki chinos and white linen shirts, because that’s what people wear when they’re going on an exotic adventure, yeah?
But if I’m honest, the one thing I forgot to pack was a genuine desire to help others. Yep, it’s not the most comfortable of revaluations, but it’s true.
As much as I’d like to think my intentions were selflessly motivated, deep down I know it had a lot more to do with helping myself.
I wanted to do something none of my friends had done before, and post photos about it on Facebook.
I felt like I should be doing something 'meaningful' with my gap year, broadening my horizons and all that.
Most of all, I wanted to have the 'epiphany' that comes with travelling outside of your comfort zone and suddenly leaves people with a shifted perspective.
And yes, things did shift for me during those two months of volunteering, just not in the way I thought they would. I can't pinpoint the exact moment I stopped taking of photos of everything and began living the experience, but somewhere along the line, I stopped caring about how my trip looked from the outside.