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Thoughts on Flexibility: Advice from a Gap Year Student Whose Plans Were Fractured, Jolted, and Smashed to Smithereens

Dear Future Duke Gap Year Student,

 

First off, I want to congratulate you. You have successfully graduated high school. You have been accepted into college. You’ve completed one of the hardest chapters of your life and now you have so much to look forward to. I know our current climate seems a little daunting, a little disappointing too. But don’t let that stop you from being optimistic about the future. You have so many incredible journeys ahead. Some of those journeys will be planned, the ones you dream about months in advance. But I promise you, some of the most incredible journeys you have will be the unplanned, the unexpected.

In fact, it’s often been said that a true traveler is one who understands that rarely do things go according to plan. That beautiful itinerary that one spent perfecting on Microsoft Word late-at-night, weeks before the scheduled trip… well, one who has spent time traveling knows that things will happen on the road and some of those perfectly outlined plans will be thrown out the window.

However, in terms of unexpected, this spring has been one of the most life-altering experiences of them all. From the moment COVID-19 arrived in the headlines, plans all over the world have been met with the same response:

Cancelled. Postponed. Next Year. See you later, alligator.

My gap year was no exception. Yes, I was disappointed when my South American adventure was cut short after only two months. Yes, there were tears when I had to leave my new group of exciting, intelligent, and hilarious friends. But I’m here to tell you there is always a way to look on the bright side. Upon returning home, I was able to keep in contact with my friends through a virtual book club and online game nights. I kept learning Spanish through online resources. Although it may seem like the end of the world when plans change, adapting to new circumstances is just a reality of life. No year has taught me that better, and I’m sure you’ve already had your fair share of adapting to change this semester.

So, my advice for you as you plan for your adventure next year (whatever it may be), make sure to leave room in your suitcase for the most important commodity of all: flexibility. Being able to “go with the flow” is an incredibly important mindset when it comes to a year off (and also just life in general). When trying something new or following a path unknown, have malleable expectations. Let them be bent and twisted. This way, you’ll avoid disappointment when your expectations are not met exactly and instead be energized by the new opportunities and experiences provided by change.

This wasn’t the spring any of us had predicted. Far from it. But that will not stop us from continuing on our individual journeys. So, let’s all pack our flexibility and trek on into this uncertain but exciting future before us.

 

Best of luck,

Cate

 

A Quarantine Cooking Adventure: Ecuadorian Edition

By Cate

I’ll admit it. My spring semester didn’t go as planned. But then again, in this crazy year of 2020, whose spring has? I thought I would still be in Ecuador during this time. I thought I would be learning Spanish, giving art classes to students, and spending time with my Ecuadorian host family. I thought I would be exploring the downtown of Cuenca or hiking through the highland terrain of Cajas National Park. But here I am, back home because a global pandemic had a different plan for my gap year.

Of course I am disappointed that my time in Ecuador was cut short, but I am also incredibly thankful to have spent the two months I did learning and growing in an international setting. And that growth hasn’t stopped upon returning home. It’s been different for sure, but I’ve tried to continue my path of learning through online Spanish classes and conversations with my Ecuadorian friends and family members. But most importantly, I’ve been keeping up my “studies” of Ecuadorian cuisine.

During quarantine, it seems cooking (and baking) has become the new favorite pastime of many Americans. I have never been a cook (unless you count peanut butter jelly sandwiches and scrambled eggs as cooking phenomena), but I decided there was no better time than a stay-at-home order to try something new. Ambitiously, I decided to recreate several of my favorite Ecuadorian dishes in my American kitchen.

My Americanized Ecuadorian Meal.

Surprisingly, with help from my family, we accomplished the impossible: a somewhat authentic, astonishingly tasty Ecuadorian meal. I’ve included my adapted recipes; in case you’re interested or have the inclination to become an amateur Ecuadorian chef this quarantine. ¡Buen provecho!

Llapingachos: Potato pancakes

Ingredients:

  • 6 russet potatoes, peeled
  • 1 white onion, finely chopped
  • Typically, achiote is used, but I substituted 1 tsp cumin, ¼ tsp turmeric, and ¼ tsp paprika
  • Around 1 cup of mozzarella cheese, shredded
  • Salt and pepper
  • Vegetable oil
  • Flour, if needed

 

Steps:

  1. Peel the russet potatoes and boil until soft.
  2. As the potatoes are boiling, add oil and chopped onions to a skillet. Cook until the onions are translucent and soft. Pro tip from my mom: to keep them from burning, add a little vegetable or chicken stock to the onions as they cook.
  3. Once the onions are soft, add the seasoning (cumin, turmeric, and paprika). This will create a refrito, or a “flavor base,” that is then added to the potatoes.
  4. Now, mash the potatoes until smooth and add in the onions.
  5. Once mixed, shape the potato mixture into small cup-like structures with a pocket in the center. Fill this pocket with cheese and cover with more of the potato. Once fully covered, shape the round ball into more of a patty shape. If the potato mixture is too crumbly, try adding some flour.
  6. When the patties are ready, cook them on a skillet until golden brown. This is probably the hardest step as the potato pancakes never really “firm-up.” However, we found that using canola oil and heating it up before putting the patties on the skillet makes the process a lot easier. Don’t be afraid to add a lot of oil!
  7. I like to eat llapingachos with avocado slices and curtido recipe included below, but lots of Ecuadorians eat them with salsa de mani (peanut sauce).
A meal of llapingachos in Ecuador.

 

Curtido de cebolla y tomate: Onion and tomato salad

Ingredients:

  • 1 large red onion
  • 6 tbsp lime juice
  • 1 tbsp olive oil
  • 2 large tomatoes
  • 5 tbsp chopped cilantro
  • 1 tbsp salt

 

Steps:

  1. Cut the onion into very thin slices (we used a mandoline slicer) and place in a bowl.
  2. Cover the onions with the tablespoon of salt and let it sit for about 10-15 minutes.
  3. After this, cover the onions with water and let sit for 10-15 minutes again. Rinse the onions and drain.
  4. Add the lime juice and a pinch of salt to the onions and let sit for 45 minutes. The onions should lose most of their acidic flavor.
  5. Once the onions are ready, cut the tomatoes into thin slices (again, we used a mandoline slicer to get them thin).
  6. Add the tomatoes, oil, and cilantro to the onion and lime mixture. Serve with the llapingachos and avocado slices.

 

Morocho: Ecuadorian sweet drink with corn

Ingredients:

  • 1 can white hominy corn (can be found at most groceries stores in the Mexican aisle)
  • 6 cups milk
  • 3 cinnamon sticks
  • 1/3 cup sugar

 

Steps:

  1. Place the can of hominy (after being washed and strained) into a pot. Add the milk and cinnamon sticks.
  2. Cook on low heat for about 3 hours, stirring every now and then.
  3. After 3 hours or so, add the sugar and cook for 30-45 more minutes. The more time simmering will increase the cinnamon flavor.
  4. Serve warm.
Proud of our first llapingachos in Cuenca!

¡Que Viva el Carnaval!

By Cate

Acostumbrarse. The Spanish verb for becoming accustomed to and also one of the first words I learned upon my arrival in Cuenca. Within those first few weeks of learning to live with a host family, speak a new language, and maneuver an unfamiliar city, I thought that I would never become accustomed to this strange new way-of-life. At times, I felt almost overwhelmed by the amount of challenges I faced on a daily basis. Luckily, within my first six weeks of being in Ecuador, I got to experience the levity and merriment of Carnaval, one of the biggest holidays celebrated in Ecuador and in South America. Due to this festival (and the copious amounts of pan con dulce de leche that I consumed), I was able to overcome many of the stressors of cultural adjustment and begin to truly enjoy the breadth of Ecuadorian culture.

Carnaval is a momentous occasion here in Ecuador. Back in January, when I first moved in with my host family, they were already discussing their plans for Carnaval: where we would go, what we would eat. It was not a matter to be taken lightly. In the weeks leading up to the festivities, our house became a storage center for water guns and cans of carioca, or party foam. Bottles of Coca Cola and Pilsener began to collect on our porch.

Then, on February 15th, about a week before the official start of Carnaval, my host family and I traveled an hour outside of Cuenca to the Valley of Yunguilla. Here, we met up with thirty other family members from all over Ecuador. For me, this was when Carnaval truly began.

 

Upon our arrival, and as we unloaded the seemingly endless amounts of food and drink from the car, several of my host family members began to set up a station where we were to “play Carnaval.” I’ve learned since then that “playing Carnaval” can take many shapes, but for my family, it involved becoming a “human mess” and then eventually getting “cleaned” of all the gunk that covered us.

At first, I had no idea what was going on, but once my tío oh-so-gently threw chalk into my face, my tía sprayed the entirety of my body with carioca, and a family friend rubbed some avocado on my cheeks, I began to understand the whole “playing Carnaval thing.” Or so I thought… Because once I was covered in chalk, foam, and avocado, I was rushed over to a stool where a trash can full of water (and shoes, for some reason I have yet to uncover) was dumped over my head.

Then, these steps were repeated again and again for every person until the sun began to set and the combination of our wet clothes and the nighttime breeze made us shiver and rush over to the hot tub. And while I thought then that the party was over, in reality, it had only just begun. Shortly after our escape to the hot tub, five hours of karaoke began as my host family members fought over the microphone and danced to every new song.

And after that, a week of Carnaval activities followed. My favorite activity? Jueves de Compadres y Comadres, or the Thursday before Carnaval when the people of Cuenca gather in a plaza in order to spray carioca into each other’s faces (aka eyes). Thankfully, I wear glasses and had some semblance of protection. Others were not as lucky.

Following the events of the previous weekend and Jueves de Compadres y Comadres, I had imagined that the weekend of Carnaval itself would be nothing short of crazy. But after watching a parade in the city center of Cuenca, where (surprisingly, I know) there was more carioca and chalk, my weekend was spent relaxing with my host family.

We traveled to Yunguilla, ate traditional foods such as cuy (guinea pig) and Mote Pata (an Ecuadorian soup only served during Carnaval), and played board games. This togetherness and family bonding time was one of my favorite aspects of Carnaval, as it helped me strengthen my familial relationships and I learned my new favorite board game: Rummy-Q.

While completely crazy at times, I am so thankful I got to experience Carnaval here in Ecuador. The time I spent immersed in all of its festivities, from being sprayed down with foam to eating a traditional soup with my family, was time I spent learning more about the Ecuadorian culture and abandoning the stress of acclimating to a new, unfamiliar place. And after experiencing the fun-loving, carefree attitude of Carnaval, I have decided to adapt certain elements of that attitude into my own mindset as I look toward my next three months here in Cuenca.

¡Que viva el Carnaval!

 

Cate – About My Gap Year

Hi! My name is Cate and this year I will be taking a gap year before pursuing my college education at Duke University in Fall 2020. By taking this gap year, I will get the opportunity to explore my interests, recharge from the stress of high school, and gain new skills that will be useful in my college career-and beyond! With this blog, I hope to keep you updated on all of my newest adventures and discoveries throughout the year. But first, let me tell you a little bit about myself.

I come from Idaho, also known as the land of the potatoes, and grew up with the mountains in my backyard. From exploring national parks all across the West to learning to fly fish in the Boise River, I’ve enjoyed spending time in nature from the very beginning.

Upon reaching high school, this love for the outdoors expanded into a love of science and inquiry as I took my first chemistry and biology classes. As I look toward my future college career, I’m hoping to continue my scientific inquiries and study biochemistry. However, I’m still unsure as to where my path may lead and am excited to explore my interests further during this gap year.

While planning my year, I decided that I really wanted to delve deeper into topics and interests that I really didn’t have the opportunity to explore much in high school. By thinking about these interests, I formed a plan for a year that will hopefully lead me toward better understanding myself and my goals for my future at Duke.

As I mentioned above, one large part of my identity is my love for the outdoors. In high school, I didn’t explore many of the opportunities regarding nature and the environment. So, to begin my year, I will focus much of my attention on environmental policy and start an internship at the Sierra Club Idaho Chapter. Through this internship, I will explore local environmental issues and learn how to run effective political campaigns. During my time in Boise, I will also be training with a professional grant writer. Throughout high school, I worked to establish a summer camp called Young Maestros, a fun summer orchestra experience offered to underprivileged elementary and junior high schoolers at no cost. For the past several years, Young Maestros has relied on donations from parents and other community members. My goal is to learn how to write grants in order to make Young Maestros more self-sufficient and to provide more resources to the students.

 

The second part of the year, I will embark on a 4-month trip to Cuenca, Ecuador as a part of the Amigos de las Americas program. While in Ecuador, I will take Spanish immersion courses through the Amauta Spanish School and have an internship with a nonprofit agency focused on biodiversity and sustainability. During the semester, I hope to build my cultural awareness, along with leadership and Spanish language skills, by living with a host family and attending different cultural workshops. To prepare for this trip, I plan to take Spanish language courses at a local language school. Throughout high school, I took German language classes; however, learning Spanish has become a goal of mine and I look forward to working on my language skills throughout the entire year.

In pursuing several different experiences during my gap year, I hope to explore some of my passions and hopefully even discover more. Whether it be studying Spanish in Ecuador or learning more about environmental policy with Sierra Club, I hope to go into my freshman year of college more confident about what interests of mine I should explore further.