Blog by Paiton Marshall

I was sitting in a circle with eleven strangers on the spiky grass outside a hostel that was a deeper hue of orange than the dusty sidewalks of Entebbe. One of our overseas educators, Adam, was speaking. “Okay, we’re going to do a quick check in with everybody about how you’re feeling about being here on a scale from one to five. One finger means you’re thinking ‘what did I get myself into’; five fingers mean you’re totally stoked about the next three months.”

My thoughts were revolving between ‘what on Earth did I get myself into’ and ‘why did I think that spending three months in East Africa would be a good idea’. But as I looked around the circle, I saw hands with three to five fingers raised. No ones or twos in sight. Not wanting to be the downer of the group, I raised three fingers.

On my third night in Entebbe, I cried myself to sleep. I was completely overwhelmed. Everything felt unsurmountable. Unable to to bring myself to eat the street food that other people devoured, I was hungry. Unable to sleep in a hostel with multiple other people, I was tired. Unsure of what the next three months would bring, I was scared. Tears flowing from my eyes, I starred at the mosquito net that enveloped me. It was filled with dead. Nauseous, I pulled a sleeping mask over my eyes.

The mere three days that had elapsed felt like weeks. I didn’t know how I would survive three months. But I knew I would. And I knew that by the end, I would be laughing at how upset I had been that night.

I was right. Three months later, I was at the airport in Dar Es Salem, saying goodbye to eleven lifelong friends. I felt confident that taking a gap year and traveling to East Africa had been one of the best decisions of my life.

My aim in traveling to East Africa in a group was to specifically address several of my fears and thus my most severe limitations simultaneously. All of my fears before my group semester could be summed up as a fear of not being in control (of the food I was eating, of my accommodations, of the people surrounding me, of my daily schedule and routine, etc.). By the end of my group semester, I had faced and overcome all of those fears. I was stronger; more resilient. With every fear that I overcame, I became increasingly confident that I could handle anything that the chaos of backpacking abroad tossed my way—and thus, anything that the chaos of life tossed my way.

After six weeks at home catching up with family and friends, I found myself at Boston Logan Airport once again. This time, my final destination was Cusco, Peru. Equipped with a strong sense of confidence in my ability to navigate a foreign country independently, I was completely free of all of the anxiety that had plagued my mind in September. Whereas my fall semester revolved around facing external fears, I intended to make my spring semester more of an internal journey—a journey of healing. With this goal in mind, I ended up selecting a comfortable spring placement that would allow me to delve deep into several of my passions: the Healing House in Cusco, Peru.

I could not have selected a better placement. The Healing House is located in the bustling, tourist-filled city of Cusco, Peru. Although the house assumes many roles, it primarily serves as a hostel and yoga studio. The volunteer aspect of my placement is significantly less structured than that of many Carpe Diem latitudes placements. Mostly, I have worked reception and assisted with miscellaneous projects, programs, and events within the House. For me, this has been ideal. It has provided me with plenty of free time to engage in all of my favorite pastimes: cooking and creating healthy recipes, lots and lots of yoga and meditation, reading and reflecting inward in my journal, connecting with people and spending time with friends, hiking and enjoying nature, and healing broken parts of myself.

The region of Cusco where the Healing House is located—San Blas—has grown into a hub for health-conscious yogis and spiritual healers from around the world. As a result, San Blas is bursting with an impressive amount of natural food stores and delicious vegetarian, vegan, and healthy restaurants. The markets in Cusco are overflowing with an abundance of beautiful and intensely flavored produce. I have been pleasantly surprised at the availability of all of my favorite ingredients. The Healing House also has a garden with a myriad of different herbs the I use for cooking. Much of my time has been spent in the hostel’s kitchen.

As for yoga, I recently accomplished my longtime goal of becoming a yoga teacher. I completed a yoga teacher training here at the Healing House—I’ll be teaching my first official class this coming Sunday. The training was called the Karma Yoga Teacher Training. Led by the wonderful Shaina O’Neil Butler (founder of Yoga Behind Bars—an organization in Seattle dedicated to bringing yoga into prisons), the training was a vinyasa training with a special twist: a central focus on yoga as a form of service to the world. Throughout the training, we focused on strategies for creating a living practice: a yoga practice that extends the philosophies of yoga beyond the mat and into the world. Together, we volunteered at two non-profits in the local community: a home for young mothers and their children as well as a home for children with disabilities. Beyond the training, I have been able to participate in the regular yoga classes and workshops here at the House. At the end of April, I plan to take levels one and two of Reiki energy healing.

After spending so many years in school memorizing facts and learning a standardized curriculum out of textbooks, this year of learning about subjects unique to my own interests from experiences, books, and people has been wonderfully refreshing. In addition to the books I stuffed into my carry-on, I have relished in the Healing House’s library of books. The people I
have met from all over the world have provided me with a database of stories and perspectives.

As for the experiences I’ve been blessed to have—they have taught me invaluable lessons about the world and myself. Cusco is also a hiker’s dream. Although Machu Picchu is the primary tourist attraction, it is far from the only mountain or site of breathtaking ruins from the days of the Incan Empire. I have spent plenty of time basking in nature and exploring all of the hidden treasures scattered throughout Cusco.

Taking a gap year was truly one of the best decisions of my life. While I was more than prepared for college academically, I was not emotionally ready. By the end of my senior year, I had spent so much time studying and involving myself in my community that I could not differentiate the ideals and goals projected on me by society and my community from what I was authentically passionate about. My year traveling through Carpe Diem has given me a stronger sense of identity, a clearer vision of my goals for the future, and an increased confidence in my ability to achieve those goals. I highly encourage any senior in high school or any college student considering taking a gap year to travel with Carpe.

Carpe Diem! Seize the day!