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Exchange student returns home after year in Ecuador

Sarah Bygd has always known she would travel abroad. The surprise was how quickly it happened.

"This is something I've wanted to do since seventh or eighth grade," she said.

When Bygd's father found himself working at the apartment of Anne Schmiege, chair of the New Richmond Rotary Club's Youth Exchange Program, the pieces fell into place.

Bygd left for Quito, Ecuador on Aug. 16, 2008. She spent her entire junior year of high school at a school taught in Spanish.

"The first day I showed up and just sat there," she said. "I could pick out words, but the teachers speak so fast when they teach."

It didn't take long for Bygd to pick up the language, she said.

"I learned fast because I had to learn it," she said. "As time passed I could understand more and more and eventually I could speak it and communicate."

While in Ecuador, Bygd spent time living with two families. Her first host family, the Salas family, was very hospitable, she said.

"We went on trips all the time," she said. "Every Saturday we would just go somewhere."

That's above and beyond the four trips she took with the Rotary Club - beach, Amazon, Galápagos Islands and a bus tour.

Her stay in Ecuador also opened doors for activities she wouldn't have done in the United States, she said. Those include bungee jumping off a bridge, repelling from a 10-story building and zip lining - none of which her parents were crazy about.

"My mom called me right before I repelled off a 10-story building," she said. "I told her I was repelling off the building and had to go. When I got home I had an e-mail from her that said 'Sarah! What did you say you were doing?!'"

"When I told my dad I had gone bungee jumping, he said 'I thought my daughter was more intelligent than that,'" she said.

The entire trip was a learning experience, she said. It's difficult to pick a favorite memory, she said.

"It's all one big memory," she said. "My first host family and their neighbors played a huge roll in my exchange."

Although she finds it hard to pick a favorite memory, her worst memory is easy.

Only about two weeks after moving in with her second host family, Bygd had to have her appendix removed.

Just before a Rotary outing, Bygd said her stomach started aching. Within a few minutes she was hunched over clutching her stomach. Her first host father, Fabián Salas, who happened to be there because he was dropping off another exchange student, fed her pain killers and herbal teas that Ecuadorian citizens use to heal pain. When she started shaking, the Salas family decided to bring her to the hospital.

After an ultrasound, it was determined that Bygd needed surgery.

"I was 16 at the time and was thinking 'Oh my God, I'm in a third world country and getting my appendix out,'" she said.

She called her mom in New Richmond, who spoke to a surgeon through a nurse who was translating. Eighteen hours later, the surgery was over and Bygd was discharged from the hospital.

"I lived," she said with a laugh.

When considering places to visit, Bygd said her first choice was Costa Rica. When it wasn't offered through the Rotary Club, she looked into Ecuador, Brazil, Mexico, Argentina and Chile. Of those choices, Ecuador was the No. 1 pick.

Although she was at the center of the Earth, Bygd said it wasn't too hot.

"I was in the Andes Mountains so it wasn't too warm," she said.

Ecuador has a very diverse climate, she said.

The Andes Mountains differ from the coast of the west side of the country and from the rain forest on the east side.

"It's three different worlds all in a tiny country," she said. "It's one of the most bio-diverse places for a country its size."

It wasn't difficult to leave her family behind, she said.

"Everyone thinks it would be so hard, but you know you'll see them again in 11 months. Coming home was worse because you don't know when you'll see (your host) family again."

Bygd said she really bonded with her host family's neighbor - a 23-year-old woman.

"We did everything together," Bygd said. "When her family was going somewhere they always invited me."

Now that she's returned to New Richmond, Bygd is busy playing catch-up, she said.

"I'm a little behind but I'll be able to catch up during my senior year," she said. "Five of my classes next year will be with underclassmen, but it was worth it."

She's already planning her next trip to Ecuador.

"I want to make it for graduation," she said. "The kids I was in school with will be graduating next summer."

Her first host family is also planning a trip to New Richmond, she said.

"My host mom said 'I'm going to be there for your graduation. All moms go to graduation and I'm your mom now,'" Bygd said.

Jackie Grumish
Jackie Grumish has been a reporter with the New Richmond News since 2008. She holds degrees in journalism and fine art from Northern Illinois University in DeKalb, Ill. Before coming to New Richmond, Jackie worked as the city government reporter at a daily newspaper in Aberdeen, S.D. 
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