18 Off A Gap Year: White

Honestly, re-entering the country has not been a fluid transition. From April 14th, the day my Global Citizen year ended, to today, I have been working to mend that gap between countries — mentally, physically, culturally, and (of course) financially.

Yesterday, June 7th, 2018, was the day I officially became an official Alumna by GCY protocol. I thought I would share some peculiar and silly in-between moments I had in my time re-adjusting back to the life I led before embarking on my year abroad.

The streets of Boston are not cobblestone. I have become accustomed to the beautiful, antique cobblestone streets of Cuenca. The GAD Municpal de Cuenca puts a lot of effort into maintaining these prided roads (to fruition, as Cuenca was deemed “Best Destination for Short Vacations in South America” at the World Travel Awards (WTA) ceremony in 2017). I love Boston, but potholes and highways just don’t compare.

The Charles is massive. Cuenca is known for its four rivers (the Tomebamba, Yanuncay, Tarqui and Machangara rivers). They are magical. They are also a fraction of the size of the Charles.

Hot water?? From the sink?? Hot water is a luxury for showers, but for your everyday hand washing? Heavenly.

(Most of) My friends don’t speak Spanish. Nor do they bump Maluma/Ozuna/J Balvin/Bad Bunny/REGGAETON :(!! Rest assured. They are out there. I will find them, my Spanish speaking, Reggaeton blasting champs.

Foooooood :’) but also fooood :,( Oh, how I’ve missed sashimi and lasagna and jasmine rice and pho and coxinha and burritos! But a whole meal costs $10+ in the U.S!

My Fellows are far. People that used to live an hour by bus away now live an hour by plane away. Friends I saw everyday are now across the country, across the globe. We used to complain about living too damn far away from each other, but I’d take a bus ride over an ocean any day.

What now? For weeks after I left Ecuador and came home, this was the haunting question. What now? It was agonizing to think about a reality where I was not in my small home in Ricaurte, waking up everyday to new adventures and challenges. My goal then was to live and enjoy, to thrive. What now?

Now I am 18 off a gap year. I’ve spent countless nights trying to immortalize every birthday, every joke, every family member, every volleyball game into writing, paintings, playlists — but I’ve realized that I will never be there, be that version of me, again.

And that’s ok. Because I was there. I was me. I did that.

Ecuador was red, yellow, and orange. It was blue and green. It was pink. Now it’s time to tuck this finished piece of my life into my collection. And my canvas is white again.

18 On A Gap Year: Pink

Pink is the color of love. Past loves and new loves, soft love and hard loves. All of which I experienced in these 8 months.


Side note/interesting fact: My mom calls these flowers Hoa Giấy  or “paper flowers.” These flowers are abundant on the coast of Ecuador, and reminded me of my home country and of my mom.


There are lot of ways to say “I love you,” literally and non-verbally. I grew up in Vietnam and the U.S., so I’ve learned how to be loved in the ways American friends and Vietnamese parents know how to love. Let me share with you the ways I was told I was loved and the times I felt cared for in Ecuador by friends, family, and coworkers.

  1. ¿Estas triste? – “Are you sad?”
  2. ¿Quiere comer? – “Do you want to eat?” The answer is yes. Every time.
  3. ¡Hola Maestra/ Profe. Phuong! – It was empowering to be called a teacher/professor. Also to have crowds of children swarm you and ask for your autograph.
  4. ¡Baja a comer! – “Come down and eat!”
  5. ¿Quiere ir en las bicicletas conmigo? – “Do you want to go on the bikes with me?” This particular invitation was significant to me, at that time and now still. My second oldest sister, Andrea, asked me this in my first months in Ecuador. It helped me adapt a little. Here was something I knew and could apply to a new environment to give myself a sense of familiarity and control.
  6. The use of usted.  – My family always addressed me in the second person formally, using the verb endings for usted. This was a sign of respect, as I noticed they only used usted when talking to our host mom or dad in the family.
  7. ¿A donde se va? / ¿Se va? – “Where are you going? / You are going?”
  8. Usted es muy inteligente. – “You are very smart.”
  9. ¿Les extrana sus padres? – “You miss your parents?”
  10. ¡No te vas! – “Don’t go!” My extended family (aunts, uncles, cousins) gave me warm hugs and said this to me during our last Sunday Family Volleyball Game. My 8-year-old nephew said these words to me in a fit of tears the night before I left.
  11. ¿Quiere ir a jugar basket/volley? – “Do you want to go play basketball/volleyball?”
  12. Invitations – I was so thankful whenever I was asked to go places. My family’s openness paired with my eagerness to participate led me to late-night basketball games with the neighborhood kids, family parties that ended at 3:00 AM, many hours dancing in heels, volleyball games played with very hard soccer balls, and trips to Cuenca on miscellaneous errands.
  13. ¿Quiere mas (para comer)? – “Do you want more (to eat)?” Again, a very important question.
  14. ¿Esta llena? – “Are you full?”
  15. ¿Como le fue? – “How did it go?”
  16. ¿Esta con gripe? / ¿Esta enferma? – “Are you sick?” Unfortunately my response to these questions was too frequently, “yes.”
  17.  “I can take you to the doctor.” – My Team Leader, Diana, AKA my interim mom for these past 8 months saved my life on multiple occasions. Mentally and physically.
  18. House Keys – The day my family gave me my own copy of the keys to the house, I knew I had a home.
  19. Making my bed – I had never made my bed in my life. I know. So when I first came to my new home, someone made my bed everyday. I would rush out of the house in a tornado of wrinkly clothes and tangled hair, backpack and papers flying everywhere, and when I came home from work or school that day, my bed would be neatly made with the door of my room open. It was a silent declaration of house rules and a sort of initiation. I started making my bed everyday and leaving the door open whenever I left the house.
  20. Cuidase. – “Take care of yourself.”
  21. Tome un asiento. – “Take a seat.” This phrase was a relief on those long nights I wore heels.
  22. Cuidado. – “Careful.”
  23. A Buddhist in a very Catholic country – One of the first questions I was asked was if I was Catholic. I’m not. I went to church with my family a couple of times for weddings and my nephew’s baptism. I was never pressured to go to church with my family, and I was never guilted nor ostracized for not going.
  24. Descanse. – “Rest.”
  25. “Do you have parasites too?” – This phrase was thrown around from fellow to other fellows often, especially whenever anyone had a mild stomach ache. It’s less frightening when your friends are also on the same sinking ship. Misery loves company!
  26. Mija… – This is an endearing way to address a young girl, similar to daughter. My supervisor called me “mija” on my first day of work. I remember standing there trying to figure out how to tell her my name is Phuong, not Mija. 
  27. ¿Tiene plata? – “Do you have money (to go out)?”
  28. Si quiere. – “If you want.” This phrase was key to my sanity. It reminded me that I had the freedoms of a young adult, that I still had choices in this new environment. Feeling like I was still in control of my life and what I wanted in a foreign country and house that was not mine grounded me.
  29. Que bonita usted. – “How cute/beautiful you are.”
  30. Spanish Learning – My Spanish skills can be accredited to my family, especially the youngest sister in the family, Maria. I loved that she corrected my grammar and vocabulary.
  31. ¿Seguro? – “Are you sure?”
  32. My Lamp Quest – One day I told my sisters I wanted a reading lamp at night. We walked 20,000 steps the next day to find me a lamp.
  33. Buen viaje. – “Good travels.”
  34. “Let’s meet in Cuenca/Azogues/Sig Sig” – These invitations were from other GCY fellows and played a huge role in keeping me from just booking a flight back home during these 8 months. Speaking English and ranting about how we miss hamburgers reminded me that I was a normal teenager and that I wasn’t alone.
  35. Somos su familia. / es nuestra hermana. – “We are family. / You are our sister.”

I am grateful to have experienced love in a foreign country. These were the times Ecuador was Pink.

18 On A Gap Year: Green & Blue

A lot of my memories in green and blue are outside my host community of Ricaurte, when I was traveling in Ecuador or Peru. I’ll take this time to list all the cities I travelled to and share a story.

In Ecuador, I went to the cities of Quito, Ibarra, Otavalo, Tena, Azogues, Cuenca, Vilcabamba, Playas, Puerto Lopez, and Guayaquil.

In Peru, I went to the cities of Juliaca, Puno, Cusco, Aguas Calientes or Machu Picchu Pueblo, Ica (+Huacachina), and Lima.

In total, I’ve probably spent more than 30 hours on ground transportation including private cars, taxis, and buses.


My favorite destination was definitely Cusco! In the few days I spent in Cusco, I embarked on many excursions, i.e. to Macchu Picchu and La Montaña de Siete Colores. 

One afternoon in Cusco, while it was pouring, my parents sent me into La Plaza de Armas (a square close to our Airbnb). The sole instruction I received was “find something cool to do tomorrow and let us know.” My budget was < $100 / person.

After a couple minutes at the first tourism office I stumbled into and a phone call to my parents, I purchased 2 bus tickets ($60 each) to Vinicunca, La Montaña de Siete Colores. There was a hike included in the package. My dad had a cold so he opted out, but my mom wanted to go if the hike was not too extreme. The man behind the desk assured me el camino es facil, corto y tan hermoso.

“The path is easy, short, and beautiful.”

That night, my mom and I bundled up for the day-trip and packed lightly. We set out our comfy walking sneakers, as recommended by the man in the excursion office. “Nothing special needed” he had said when I asked if we were to need special shoes/clothes/items.

At 3:36 AM, my mom and I were picked up by the company bus (I know because we took a ridiculous commemoratory photo). We arrived to the base of the mountain at 7:30 AM.

It was heavenly.


And then the hike  TREK up was demonic.

We were given an option of either walking up the mountain path or taking a horse up. My mom chose a cute brown horse. The rest of us were given broomsticks as a kind of economic trekking pole.

I found out much later that the venture was 22 km total.

People were on all fours and some were even sitting down, defeated. It had just rained the night before, so bodies were hitting the ground left and right. The trail could have been mistaken for a slip n’ slide. There was mud in all my orifices by the end of the first hour and my broomstick snapped before I reached the top (but I think that was just a bonus experience since nobody else’s did).

Meanwhile, my mom was riding her horse daintily somewhere ahead.

At one point, as I was sliding down a small slope after another fall, a kind stranger grabbed my broomstick. We played a kind of tug-of-war mid-slope, both of us hanging on to either side of the flimsy wood, except that in this case the objective was to save me from body-sledding all the way down to the bottom.

I started on the path with two feet, but as I approached 16,000 ft I found myself on all fours. And there was my mom, sitting on a rock, unscathed, waiting for me at the 16,000 ft checkpoint.

We walked/crawled the last leg up to the top together.


If you look closely, you can see the death in my eyes. I think I made the entire climb down on my butt. Like I said, a slip n’ slide.

But without that struggle up, I wouldn’t have gotten these bad-ass photos. And in the midst of the adrenaline, in that moment on top of Apu Winicunca, the Mountain of Seven Colors, I was so proud. Here was something I decided to do and I did.

On April 22, 2018, the Sunday I came back to Boston, I attended TEDxBostonCollege. There, Lawyer & Assistant Professor at the Carroll School of Management, Juan Montes, told his story. He was a mountain climbing enthusiast. Juan had climbed Mt. Everest and other sky reaching mountains, he wasn’t interested in baby slope tourist bumps like the one I had climbed. Juan shared incidents of accidents and deaths, casually mentioning ungodly conditions including hypothermia, frozen toes, and sharing oxygen. And the whole time I was thinking wow. This dude is crazy.

When he showed us the pictures, I thought of my own, now seemingly painless and insignificant, expedition.

One of his last slides was a question: Why do people climb mountains?

I stared at this slide and whole-heartedly wanted to know why people chose to put their lives at risk for this extreme hobby, because everything he had told us so far painted a picture of suffering.

“Because it’s there,” Juan quoted George Mallory, a famous English mountaineer.

And an image appeared in my head. This one.


And I understood. A little.


18 On A Gap Year: Orange & Yellow

One of the most notable fruits I’ve tried for the first time in Ecuador has to be granadillas. They look like orange raindrops and are in the same family as passionfruit. The insides are similar to passionfruit in that the seeds are encased in a kind of goop, but it differs in color and taste. Granadillas are sweet and mild, and a favorite among the Southern Cohort! Above you can see Natalia with a bright orange bulge (that’s the granadilla).

I tend to associate orange with warmth, so in this gallery I’ve included times and objects that made me feel at home, included, and just content. This includes sunsets on Puerto Lopez, roasting marshmallows around a bonfire in Playas, making Neoguri ramen in my family kitchen, and the blanket my mom made for me before I left home. The song is Carry Me Home by Jorja Smith. I listened to it whenever I started to miss home (coincidentally the EP cover for Project 11 is also orange).

Countries change but the girl doesn’t! If you’re looking around and I seem to have disappeared, you can probably find me where there are dogs. Bingo is one of my many furry friends I’ve made in Ecuador. He is my brother’s adopted neighborhood puppy. My brother lives separate from us and actually only has one Shiba Inu (Nacho) and a black kitten (Leila). One day, a neighborhood dog (Princesa) showed up with two puppies. We have no idea who the father is, but now Nacho and Leila have a family of three joining them for supper every night!

Yellow is exciting!

Did you know Ecuador is known for their fresh fruit juices? My parents were so amped to learn this, almost as much as I was to see them after 5 months in a foreign country. We traveled all over Peru and Ecuador, trying new foods like cuy (guinea pig), llama, yellow watermelon, choclo (a breed of corn), and more! And of course we drank fresh juice by the tank.

I will probably never look at the color yellow the same again after being surrounded by a sea of yellow uniforms, walls, signs, and stationary for my apprenticeship. My school’s colors are black and yellow, so nothing within a 10 ft radius of the school gates could escape the infectious yellow glow of the institution.

PSA: You can get cheap $2 hamburguesas almost anywhere in Ecuador. If that’s not exciting, I don’t know what is. I can be spotted outside a function or discoteca eating (multiple) hamburguesas (in one night) while dancing to Dura by Daddy Yankee.

Sometimes Ecuador is orange, and sometimes Ecuador is yellow.


18 On A Gap Year: Red


I had always thought red was too aggressive of a color, but it has come to represent familiar objects and remind me of people that I adore.

Red is the color of the ice cream I buy everyday at the local tienda. I’ll walk down the street in PJ’s and flip flops, in the pouring rain or beating sun, sometimes accompanied by one (or all) of my 4 nieces or nephews, for the heart-shaped guilty pleasure above. I unfailingly, everyday, purchase this addictive dairy product despite being lactose intolerant.

Red is the color of the sweet flesh of sandia that I encountered not only in my local market in Ricaurte, Ecuador, but also in the outdoor markets of Juliaca, Peru. It’s also the color my face flushes into as I struggle to barter in Spanish.

Red is the color of the countless bouquets of roses I have been given while in Ecuador from my nieces, nephews, host dad, and other Cuencano admirers. Some of these occasions include my first day, Valentines, el Dia de la Mujer, and a typical Tuesday.

Red reminds me of my good friends Sophie and Jordan. Sophie, because she’s poppin’ all the time (my true bad b inspiration) and Jordan, because we always find ourselves under red strobe lights in some club. And for some reason, the song Corazón by Maluma, Nego do Borel is always playing in said club.

Sometimes, Ecuador is red.


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