Not many people have the opportunity to travel to seven countries in five years, much less do it by age 20 as Jesse Amstutz has.
For Amstutz, each of these places come with a 15-second, 30-second, 1 minute and a “do you have time to sit down and talk?” response.
It’s in the “do you have time to sit down and talk?” conversation that you might learn about his favorite foods from each place. Or maybe he’d talk about the album or song he listened to the most in each place. Digging a little deeper, he might choose to share what these experiences have taught him and how they directly affect how he lives his life today.
I got to hear it all in my “do you have time to sit down and talk?” conversation with Jesse.
Paraguay, age 15
What was he listening to? “Age of Adz” by Sufjan Stevens
What was he eating? A glass of drinkable yogurt and an alfajor, most commonly two cracker-like cookies, sandwiched together with dulce de leche, and covered in chocolate.
What was he doing there? Beginning when he was 15 years old, Amstutz took his first trip outside the U.S. to Paraguay as an exchange student through Bethany Christian’s exchange student program.
China, age 18
What was he listening to? “Manifesto” by Nahko and Medicine for the People.
What was he eating? Hot pot: a big boiling pot of oil and broth set in the middle of the table, often a lazy susan, with numerous raw vegetables, fungi, meats, and other animal parts ready to be cooked together, combining all of their flavors.
What was he doing? Jesse’s brother was teaching English in China at the time so the family spent five weeks visiting him.
Honduras, age 18
What was he listening to? “Helplessness Blues” by Fleet Foxes
What was he eating? Baleada, which consists of a flour tortilla, refried red beans, crumbly cheese, and mantequilla (a sour cream-like butter). It was also popular to add scrambled eggs, avocado, pickled onions, and a choice of meat.
What was he doing? Instead of starting college right away Jesse took a gap year which led him to Honduras with the program Serving and Learning Together (SALT). As program assistant for the Peace and Justice Project, Jesse did tasks around the office as well as going to schools and talking in Spanish about different topics. These topics included everything from conflict to hygiene to student rights and responsibilities.
El Salvador, age 18
What was he listening to? “The Trapeze Swinger” by Iron & Wine
What was he eating? Pupusas, thick corn tortillas stuffed with beans, cheese, vegetables, and/or meat. In Jesse’s case, they were only stuffed with beans, cheese, and veggies, because he was at a Seventh-day Adventist retreat center that did not serve meat.
What was he doing? On a ten hour bus ride with 20 or so other Honduran youth Jesse travelled to San Juan Opico, El Salvador for the Central American Mennonite Youth Convention. There he participated in worship services and workshops with Mennonite youth from Guatemala, Belize, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Puerto Rico.
Bolivia, age 19
What was he listening to? “Desire Lines” by Deerhunter
What was he eating? Salteñas, which are like an overloaded Paraguayan empanada. They are mainly filled with beef, chicken or pork and a sweet and spicy sauce. They often have peas, eggs, olives, raisins or potatoes as well.
What was he doing? Jesse was visiting his sister, cousins, and aunt and uncle. At the time, his sister was doing SALT in Montero, about an hour outside of Santa Cruz. Jesse’s cousin grew up in Bolivia and this was the first time he had seen her and her husband in over ten years. He also got to meet their two little boys. Jesse’s father lived in Bolivia for three years during his youth, so Jesse remembers him being extra excited to go back and visit some of the people and places that he remembered.
Mexico, age 20
What was he listening to? Half-Light (album) by Rostam
What was he eating? Tacos. He could (and nearly did) eat authentic tacos al pastor every day. The taquerias varied in quality, but Jesse never regretted a meal of tacos, even after reaching double digits in one sitting.
What was he doing? A Spanish major at Goshen College, Jesse’s plan to fulfill the requirement to spend two semesters in a Spanish speaking country began in Xalapa, Mexico.
“My first night in Xalapa with my host family, my host mom and host brothers took me out to walk around the town and get some elote, which is the corn on the cob. I’ve always wanted to try this, it’s famous and stuff. I decided to get the extra spicy one. Horrible stomach ache that night and the next day I was puking and had diarrhea all day. My host mom just took me in as a son immediately. I hadn’t even been there for 24 hours and she’s like ‘here’s your medicine, do you need anything?’ she was taking care of me all day. Even once I got better…my first day coming back from classes or whatever I had scheduled that day she comes home gives me a great big hug and kisses me on the cheek, ‘welcome home, how was your day?’ I was like wow, she is ready for me to be apart of this family. I’m ready to be in this family. This is awesome.”
Unfortunately, Jesse and others with Brethren Colleges Abroad (BCA) had to leave due to heightened violence in the city.
“We had to decide by Friday if we were going to go back to the U.S. or if we were going to go to Spain with BCA where classes would start the next Monday,” recalled Jesse. “Friday was just caught up with a bunch of packing and saying goodbye to people. I really tried everything I could to stay there.”
To make it all more difficult, the week when Jesse and others found out they had to leave was really when he had started to connect with friends.
“I had gone to a bunch of friends houses that week,” he said. “All of sudden I had to get up and leave.”
Spain, age 20
What was he listening to? “Safer” by Animal Collective
What was he eating? Food in Spain, or at least in Barcelona, to Jesse was disappointing because of the lack of strong flavors and variety. Olive oil and salt were the condiments of choice. Barcelona did stand out in its wines, beers, and cheeses to Jesse. However, by no means does he consider himself knowledgeable in wines, beers or cheeses.
What was he doing? Jesse’s plan was to be in Mexico for a full year. In fact, when he was deciding where he wanted to go he had said no to Barcelona, specifically not Spain.
I don’t want to talk with that accent.
I don’t want to live in such a European culture.
Also, Barcelona is so touristy.
Everything was more expensive there.
It wasn’t just the city of Barcelona that made the transition difficult, but the contrast in host families.
In Mexico, Jesse’s host family consisted of a a single mom with two sons who are 16 and 19, the 19 year-old having gone to the same university as him and loving many of the things Jesse loves including playing soccer and Xbox.
In Spain he was placed with an elderly couple mid-late 70s.
“I’m not exaggerating, my host dad, all he did was just watch TV and be on his computer,” said Jesse. “They were not active at all. There was no community that they offered. Finding community was extremely difficult. I didn’t do it. I didn’t make a single Spanish friend.”
Lydia Kelsey, who made the same transition with Jesse came to appreciate how he responded to the difficulty of their situation.
“He treks his own path,” she said. “I remember one time towards the beginning we were all out at a restaurant in Cuernavaca, and we sat in a room with Sharpie drawings and words all over the walls. I remember looking at the drawings and wondering what they were and who had written them, wondering if they were put there on purpose or if any random person who came to the restaurant was allowed to write on the walls. Then I looked over and saw Jesse by the wall, drawing away.”
A quality that led Jesse to the Pyrenees, a range of mountains that marks the border between Spain and France.
“We didn’t really have a map with us, we just looked up a blog from some other college students we had done it, and thought that it should be pretty easy,” said Jesse.
The group followed the red markers up the mountain instead of alongside, an easier route they found out later.
“We are all the way at the top and we’re like ‘where is this refuge at?’” he said. “Luckily there was someone else up at the top that had Google maps and said it should be in that direction, so we started going that direction, oh we found it, there it is, we’re saved. It turned out fine.”
This trek up the Pyrenees was Jesse’s highlight of the three months he spent in Spain.
“I’m really glad this transition from Mexico to Spain happened after I had gone through many other transitions,” he said. “I feel like if I had had to do that my first time going abroad that would’ve just been even more traumatic.”
He feels as though the transitions he’s gone through before have helped him out quite a bit.
Three learnings from his time abroad:
- I have gained a greater appreciation for community. Especially when in a foreign country for a longer period of time, it is essential to find friends and family whom you can go to for cultural guidance and for processing your experiences.
- I have learned adaptability and flexibility. In so many Latin American countries there is a culture of consistently arriving 30 minutes to two hours later than the scheduled start times of events and gatherings. I have become accustomed to plans being cancelled or changed at the last minute without a notice. I have learned to adapt and to relish in the excitement of improvising.
- I have learned to live more simply. After packing and unpacking many a suitcase and backpack for varying trip lengths, I am very aware that I have too much stuff. This realization comes not only from repeatedly packing what I deem essential, but also from living with families that consume substantially less than the average American. Hearing outsiders’ impressions of the US has revealed to me many of our country’s and my own detrimental habits regarding over-consumption and material waste.
Jesse actually wouldn’t recommend traveling like he has.
“At times I feel like I’ve missed out on some of the culture here,” he said. “Not just in the United States, but the culture of Goshen and the culture specifically at Goshen College. I think what the hardest part has been is what I’ve missed in relationships.”
While he grieves the relationships that haven’t progressed Jesse cherishes the one’s he has been able to grow in.
“There isn’t a day (maybe even hour) that goes by that I don’t think about one of my host family members or significant friendships,” he said. “I think that there are certain words and phrases in Spanish that trigger specific memories I have from outside the U.S.”
Usually once or twice a week he breaks out the guampa, bombilla, and yerba mate tea leaves to enjoy the popular South American beverage, mate (served hot) or terere (served cold).
“If anyone is curious what it tastes like or what a guampa and bombilla are, just find Kevin Florentin boarding around campus with his thermos joined at the hip,” said Jesse.
Next stop? Mexico. To complete his required two semesters abroad in a Spanish-speaking country.