Another place to call home: Exchange student from Spain sent home from valley early due to COVID-19

Inés García-Portilla, 17, was in Invermere on an exchange program from Spain when the pandemic hit.

By Inés García-Portilla

Special to the Pioneer

Inés García-Portilla, 17, was in Invermere on a school-year exchange program from Spain when the pandemic hit. She was sent home months early without having the chance to say goodbye to those she grew to love during her time in the valley. Inés wrote the following essay about her experience for a school assignment and received a mark of 100 per cent.

“I thought it might be great for our little valley to read her experience and see how much our little town is loved and appreciated,” said her host-mom, Trudi Wells. “She has a place in my life forever.”

At first naïve, then happy, now grateful

We are never satisfied with our achievements and, no matter how much we have, we aspire to a better life. Humanity seeks greatness. In my personal search for greatness and development, I applied for a scholarship that would give me the chance of studying abroad for a full year. I was fifteen years old and my only motivation was to pursue the “American high school dream” many stereotypical movies had made me believe was real. Unlucky me, I was told I would spend the 2019-20 school year in a small town lost in the mountains of British Columbia. I did not know this at the time, but later on that town would become my favourite place on earth and my mom is the one to blame. Out of wisdom, or maybe laziness, she persuaded me not to give up the scholarship. Resigning involved a lot of paperwork. Off to a fresh start, my adventure in Canada began.

Barely a month into the experience I could already feel how important that year was going to be for me. To this date I am still amazed with how something I did not even want at first changed my life. The second I got to Invermere I was fascinated by the nature it was surrounded by. The smell of fresh air invaded my lungs and my sight was delighted by the beauty of the lake and the greatness of the mountains. Deer peacefully wandered the streets and occupied the yards of many small houses that stood right next to each other but had something unique to them. Maybe it was the cool sunny afternoons of September that made me fall in love with this place, maybe it was the cold days up in the mountains skiing for hours, or maybe it was the hockey games where we would rather hang out than watch the actual game; but I for sure did. I liked that place and its people so much that I forgot it had an expiration date. Who wouldn’t have? My life had never been so full. My host-family became part of my family and I became part of theirs, I started to love playing basketball again, I met the most amazing people I will ever know, I fell in love, I partied maybe a little bit too much, but most importantly, I found myself. The road to find out who I really am that I had started that summer in Spain came to an end in Canada. I can now say, as narcissistic as it might sound, that I am proud of the person I am today in spite of the mistakes I will probably make and I have made along the way, because I know I put my heart into everything I do. Invermere made me discover it. I put my heart and soul into this experience and made the mistake of forgetting it would have to end at some point. The finish line was so far away it was not even worth thinking about it. When I fell from the tree, it was a hard hit.

On January 5, 2020, the World Health Organization published a report on a new virus outbreak in China. This new disease was unknown to scientists and as of that date, it was not given much importance. I guess the teacher was alone in class the day they taught a stitch in time saves nine. Two months later it was not nine stitches but 79,824 cases and 2,870 deaths due to this insignificant virus. If the whole world was late to respond to this pandemic, imagine how late Spain was. When every country was closing down big events, even in Canada with barely 25 cases, the Spanish government was promoting a massive protest to celebrate women’s rights. Even though this is a very important cause, health is a bigger issue. Two days later Spain went on lockdown due to the global pandemic. Despite all this craziness going on in my home country, I was safe. Canada did not have many cases and actions were being taken by the government. I was surprised when I was told by my coordinator that I had the option to leave Invermere if I wanted. It was not something that seemed reasonable for me or my family. Both my mom and host-mom agreed that it was safer for me to stay here than getting in a plane and flying to Spain where the situation was far from getting better. However, we were not the only ones with a word in this topic as I came here with a scholarship. I woke up one day and I was barely awake when the scholarship informed me through an email that it was not my decision to make, it was theirs. To this day I am still uncertain of why they did it but I was basically forced to leave. It felt like my life had been struck by lightning and burst into flames in a matter of seconds. When I had the strength to get out of my bed and go upstairs, I stood in the middle of the room crying with my face down. I did not have the courage to say the news, but no words were needed. The plans I had made and the memories I had yet to live were taken away from me in a heartbeat. In a cold-blooded heartbeat.

Going home was not something I would have ever expected to do. My mom did think about it though, as she asked my school’s principal in Spain to save me a spot in case I had to come back mid-way through the school year. Just like Murphy said, if anything can go bad it will. Sadly, bad was even worse than what I had imagined. The whole town went basically on lockdown, so my desire of saying goodbye to the people I still care about turned into an unachievable dream. Had I known I was leaving the last time I saw my friends, my return home would have been less painful. When I got to the airport my mind was filled with regret and disbelief. Nothing seemed real. While I drowned in tears all I could think of was waking up in my bed from this crazy nightmare. Seeing with the corner of my eye the people I love crying as I walked through security broke my heart. Sitting on a plane filled with many other internationals who seemed happy to go home broke my heart. Getting to my house and going into my room, although I felt home, broke my heart. My arrival should have been three months later, not then. To this day, I often still get surprised when I wake up, open my eyes, look around and find myself laying down in my bed in Spain and not in Canada.

To put an end to this story, I will say I did learn something from it. Now that I have had a full month filled with empty mornings and standardised afternoons to organize my thoughts, I can understand why it is so easy to get used to the good things in life. Keeping our feet on the ground does not seem like a hard thing to do, but when it comes to reality it is one of the most difficult tasks. I, too, have learned to avoid taking things for granted, to be grateful and to enjoy every breath I take as if I was about to drown. This whole experience was a rollercoaster of emotions, but, at least, I now have another place to call home.


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