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  • Writer's pictureEmily Rojas

And My Life Was Forever Changed

Almost exactly three years ago, I left America for a 2 month trip that change my life forever. I left with five of my friends to spend the summer completing a leadership training course and traveling through Haiti, Austria and India.

I've said those three countries in that same order out loud more times than I can count now, trying to explain what that summer meant to me. If you've spent any significant amount of time around me, there's a chance it's come up. The summer I spent in three vastly different countries, and the summer that changed my life.

If you've ever been on a trip like this, even if it was only a few days or a week, you know how hard it can be to explain to others what the trip was like. You can list off itineraries, bring back souvenirs, show slideshows of photographs, and none of it will be able to capture what really happened. It's been 3 years and I'm still figuring out how to explain it to people, and maybe I never can. Maybe it's something between me and the five others I traveled with, something only we can understand.

I'll try my best, though.

Before the trip began I didn't want to go.

children playing in Haiti
An image of some children playing in Haiti

I never want to go on trips like this, to be honest, because I truly, deeply hate flying. I have never been able to sleep on planes, because sleeping requires you to be able to lower your heart rate at least marginally --- my anxiety around flying has never allowed me to be quite so relaxed.

So I reluctantly agreed to this trip in the first place, and honestly parts of me hoped that it would be canceled. For real. I knew that I would have to, at some point, fly all the way to India and my inner flight-hater was very, very nervous about it.

I almost hate to admit this, because I know people struggle to fundraise for trips like this, but I put next to 0 effort into fundraising for my trip. I just felt like if it was the thing I was meant to be doing, God would have to send me a massive sign because I really did not want to go.

Of course I did raise all the money in more than enough time, and that was the sign I needed. I would go, and I would deal with the flying as it came.

As it turns out, spending a full day on an airplane will cure you of this aversion pretty quickly. That's the first thing this trip gave me. I may still get some anxiety when I fly, but I realized it's something I am privileged to do. As long as I am able to travel, I need to keep on doing it in spite of my fears.

Five people around coffee table in Haiti
A moment in time, Haiti

Each country stands distinctly in my memory.

In my memory Haiti is all hard-work and hard-play. It's pouring cement, exhaustion, painting, walking. It's also card games, soccer, dancing, late parties, stargazing. We could sit on the roof every night and watch shooting stars. We had conversations with new friends in English/French/Creole hybrids. We played spoons and learned a dance I can still remember but just barely.

Next we traveled to Austria.

We were going to stay there for a month. We also vaguely knew we'd be meeting refugees, working with CRU, and going to a summer camp. That's pretty much all we really knew going in to the trip, and even though those were the basics of what we did I don't think we had any idea what we were in for in Austria.

Five people in an elevator
An elevator ride in Austria that I barely remember due to sleep deprivation.

What we later realized was a bit of a hazing ritual, but at the time felt like pure torture, was the second we landed in Austria we essentially stayed up for two days straight after traveling. As I mentioned, we found out later that this was the beginning of an Austrian test to let our hosts know how much we could handle. It didn't slow down for the first two weeks. We immediately went to Salzburg where we were walking the entire city and sleeping even less at night. And through the midst of all this, we made some amazing friends. Truly, truly, truly.

That's the thing about traveling like this and the second thing this trip gave me. Often when

Soccer game outside
Playing soccer on the fourth of July with one of our friends.

you travel for leisure or on vacation, you don't interact with new people in this same way. But when you're in a more rugged situation, you rely on others. At first we needed help with everything --- transportation, scheduling, translations, explanations, finances. More than that though, we were going through intense experiences with relative strangers. Camp is always intense, that's universal I think. But also flash mobs on the streets of Vienna can be intense in their own fun way. Traveling on minimal sleep, walking around cities at night, sharing your life stories. Sitting with refugees. Sharing meal after meal after meal. All of these things bond you to people that you just met a day or week or month ago, and I think that's only heightened when you're traveling.

Person looking out stained glass windows
One of my favorite shots from a monastery we visited.

I know now, when I get together with some of the friends I traveled with, we still tell stories about the people we met and the things we did in Austria. Vienna will always have a very special place in my heart, as it's where I spent one of the most meaningful and beautiful and wonderful months of my entire life.

Even three years later, even now when I'm able to put this experience into words finally, it's almost impossible for me to talk about my experience with refugees.

About a year and a half ago, I had the incredible opportunity to speak on a panel about refugees and my experience with them. Even then when I had the chance to prepare, I couldn't quite put it into words. I know that refugees have been hotly debated here in the U.S., and I know it's a debate that comes up across the world in different ways. All I can say is that my experience with refugees was the most holy, awe-inspiring experience of my entire life.

Young girls on a swing
Playing with some children in the refugee camp.

I played with children and swam in a river carrying them on my back. They cooked us several meals, and welcomed us into their homes. They danced with us and laughed with us and welcomed our stories as much as we welcomed theirs. I heard about what it was like for them to flee their countries and leave everything they'd ever known behind. I have never been the same. If I think about it, and close my eyes, it is almost like I am still in one of our refugee friend's homes. It is something I could never forget as long as I live.

When it came time to leave Austria, it almost broke my heart. Over the course of the month we had met people who had become close friends. It was so hard to leave. I still think about it often, and I'm certain I always will.

None of us believed we'd actually make it to India until we actually stepped foot in India. We were exhausted after a long week at camp in Austria and more long travel days, and we were all a little homesick if I'm being honest. We also were all sick. So, India is a blur. A colorful, beautiful, blur. It was filled with tons and tons of children asking us to remember their names (you try remembering 100 names, ok), painting, and a ton of garlic naan.

Two boys
Co-leader of the stars, Nik, and one of the kids in India.

India taught me that I'm so much more capable than I think I am. Because we were all so exhausted, but had to continue to find ways to get up every morning, and we did. Also then we would come in yawning and the kids would tell us how they got up at 5a.m. to pray for us and study and that's a real reality check let me tell you.

Although we were so tired, I remember a lot of laughing in India. Most nights we would eat dinner together in one of our hotel rooms, and there's some inside joke from one of those nights I still say constantly (Says the cow in the CORNER).

Due to a strike in a city we were in, we had to spend a whole day in a hotel room once without much food or any entertainment. Even though it was terrible at the time, I look back on it with (measured) fondness, because it was certainly a memory.

And I will never, ever, as long as I live forget the image of Jermaine (pictured right) getting up to help some of the boys perform an elaborate dance on our last night in India. It was incredible.

Then, quickly (too quickly) it was time to go home. We left our mark on the children's home, and completed a beautiful mural in the dining area that I had the honor to help design and paint.

Me + the mural

This trip taught me perseverance and faith. I learned to rely on others and on God. I learned that God's silence doesn't always mean what I thought it means. I prayed for things on this trip that I didn't see come to fruition until years later. I did things that I didn't realize the impact of until someone told me years later. I learned how to work hard and how to enjoy the little things.

I'm not an expert by any means. But this trip truly changed me, for the better. I came back from the trip with more perspective, more empathy, more faith. I gained a tribe of Nik, Christian, Emma, Rebeca and Rachel --- 5 people who went through this incredibly formative experience with me. I gained these dope pictures, and some memories I will probably never be able to put into words.

My advice? If someone offers you a trip like this, a trip of a lifetime, do it. Know that it will be tough, you will miss home, your bed, your family, your dog, tacos. You will cave and find the only Mexican restaurant in a random corner of Vienna on the fourth of July just to feel somewhat American. You will cry. You will fight with your teammates (but not your roommate shoutout Rachel). You will cry when you leave places that you didn't even want to go to. You will cry 3 years later thinking about the trip. But it will be the best trip of your life.

Thanks for reading this far (if you read this far). I've been waiting all this time to be able to explain the trip, and I still probably didn't do it justice. As always, subscribe for more, or follow me on Instagram @emilyamartinblog. Also feel free to email me or comment or DM me if you have questions or if you went on a trip that changed your life and you need someone to talk about it with. I'm here.

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