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An unscientific examination of why study abroad is the experience of a lifetime

See the kids in the image above? Those are kids I used to encounter on a particular callejón during my daily on-foot expeditions through San Pedro La Laguna, Guatemala, one of a handful of enchanting Mayan villages spotting the shores of the incomparable Lake Atitlán. These kids resided but a few hilly blocks from the humble home where I was living while studying Spanish in the village and, like almost everyone I encountered, they were beautiful and generous and, above all, interested to get to know me, and not in a superficial way. I was invited into their home for simple dinners -- hand-patted tortillas, rice and beans -- cooked on a tiny comal heated by dried corn cobs whose stripped and ground kernels we were now consuming. I was invited to accompany them to the shores of the lake for afternoon swims. I was hugged and loved and appreciated. It was a reception I -- this giant, out-of-place stranger relaint more upon gestures than words -- never would have anticipated, an experience that repeated itself through my next six years in-and-out of Latin America, one that repeats itself every time I return.

This next group of kids? My family. A family I lived alongside for three months (and have since twice returned to visit, a third visit being planned), sharing their dinner table and living spaces, laughs and triumphs and tragedy and mourning. Playing games. Teaching them and learning from them every single day. This idea of unquestioningly accepting a stranger into your home and treating him with the same love and respect you afford your actual blood, this was a concept with which I was totally unfamiliar and, theretofore, probably uncomfortable. To say I learned invaluable lessons immersing myself in Latin America, far outside the narrow confines of what had previously constituted my comfort zone, is a gross understatement.

I learned a lot of Spanish on my first trip to Latin America, nearly twenty months of true immersion on a meandering backpacking path through Central and South America. That is a skill that has proven life changing, opening puertas I never knew existed as a monoglot. I took a lot of beautiful photos -- more a byproduct of truly magical terrain and landmarks and radiant people than my abilities as a photographer! -- that I'll be excited to revisit and share as long as I live. But what impacted (and continues to impact) me most are the friendships, the relationships, that I will cherish forever.

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