Travel buddies: Ayaka and Santiago
July 22, 2021 17:54

There are some things that we, as exchange students, can relate to each other. That is the case when I want to explain where my best friend is from…so let me introduce you to Ayaka. Her family is originally from Japan but was born and raised in Canada. I met her during my exchange to Switzerland back in 2014.  I’m Santiago Salcedo, from Mexico City.

Both of us were lucky enough to have arrived not only at the bilingual city of Fribourg, but also at the same school. One day, Kenna, an exchange student from the US told me that there was a Canadian at our same school, Ayaka. That’s when I decided to ask for her phone number to text her to see if she wanted to hang out the next day after school. That next day, we were both waiting outside the school building; Ayaka expecting (maybe) a more latino appearance and me, a Canadian blonde girl. We were next to each other until she said: “Are you Santiago?” and I replied to her question with a second question: “Ayaka?” We went for ice cream, took a small walk downtown and that my folks, was just the beginning of a great friendship…

We later realized not only were we in the same high school and the same city, but we were also neighbours. We took the same bus to go to school in the morning. As a part of our commitment to learning the language, we decided to speak in French to one another. I can say that Ayaka was a great support during my exchange year.

She helped me see things in different ways, and talking about our challenges always seemed easier with her by my side. She was the only one that could truly understand me because we shared similar stories.

We decided to travel throughout Switzerland as much as we could. She went skiing with me for the first time in Switzerland together with my host family, she was always by my side (even though she was an expert and could have left me on the beginners’ slope). We all have moments that will always remain a special memory in our hearts. Some of these adventures, trips, anecdotes, laughter and joy are: we went all the way to the Italian side of Switzerland for a full day; when I taught her how to dance salsa, visiting many castles, discovering the magical Swiss traditions; and enjoying the beautiful Alpes. One of my best memories is when we dressed up for carnival and spent the St. Nicolas Holiday together. One day we crossed the border and visited the city of Evian in France. For us, it was amazing to spend the day in another country, something which we are not used to at all being able to do. The trains were perfect for our endless talks, and silence taught us to just BE. In addition to that, another friend and YFU exchange student from Belgium, Helena, would sometimes join us in our adventures. Before our exchange was over, I was able to visit Helena near the city of Gent, she hosted me for the weekend at her house. Ayaka, after all our trips together she decided to call us “travel buddies”. We did travel a lot. We got lucky.

It may seem that the only thing during our exchange was travelling, but we were good students as well. Ayaka as a sports fan, signed up for Badminton because one of her cousins from her host family was a coach there. To her and my surprise, when she arrived, she saw me there as well, in the same club. It was so funny that we were doing the same exact thing without even planning it. To this story, I have to add that we would always meet by a lamppost right outside her apartment so we would go together to badminton practice. I have to admit that my new friend learned that Mexicans are not always punctual. The next year, my host family decided to host once again, but this time a Swedish boy, Leo and Ayaka’s sister, Carmen, also went the next year to Switzerland. Guess who became really good friends? You are right, another friendship was beginning…

Ayaka and I are similar in terms of personality, being one of the traits that we like some “the old-school” things. After our exchange, we decided to write each other letters by mail. Seven years after, we still do. I have kept all and every single letter she has sent me. Our travelling doesn’t end here…two years after going back from exchange, I got exciting news from Ayaka: she was visiting me in Mexico! Two days after, when Helena found this out, she said she was coming as well. As exchange students, we all have that hope that we will meet again, considering that’s one promise we always make when saying goodbye but has not a clear date. They stayed in my house for two weeks, and all the things we used to discuss about each other’s culture, now they saw by themselves. They considered me their “tour guide” when I was explaining the historical Aztec and Mayan patrimony together with the Day of the Death offerings. Ayaka said Mexico has been one of her favourite destinations and has kept asking and learning about Mexican culture. Our friendship was even stronger after that trip.  

We kept in touch with all three of us, but especially Ayaka and I, through letters, WhatsApp and Skype. All three of us started university, we continued to be amazed about learning about new cultures and kept admiring the wonders of the world. We decided to study similar careers (not surprising anymore) and all influenced by our exchange year; Ayaka applied for International Development, Helena for International Relations, and me International Business. I guess we somewhat wanted to continue to be internationals.

In the second semester of 2018, unpredictably, all three of us were on our second academic exchange at the same exact time (it seems one exchange wasn’t enough); Ayaka wanted to experience Japan not as a tourist or temporary visitor as she was before, but this time as a local so she could get to know more about her origins; Helena decided to go to the US because of the good quality education university program she signed up for and also because she was really good friends with Kenna and wanted to visit her; and I decided to go to China mainly because of two reasons: firstly because I was born and raised in Latin America (Mexico), I did my exchange in Europe (Switzerland), so I wanted to experience a different continent and for Mexicans, China is considered to be the furthest place from us, so for me what seemed to be the most challenging and different, the better; secondly, because of the academic experience considering China is a world leader in trade and business which fit perfectly for my career.

Discussing together how awesome it was for us to be on the exchange once again at the same time, I proposed to visit Ayaka in Japan. We both agreed it was a good idea to spend New Year’s Eve together in Yokohama. We weren’t able to make this plan without telling Helena, so we did. Helena was not going to let this opportunity go so easily. Then our initial plan changed a little, but I would rather say it got a better version. Helena joined our trip all the way from the US  while Ayaka all the way from Japan grabbed her bags heading also to the futuristic city of Shanghai, where they joined me. After we spent a few days together visiting Shanghai (my home back then), we headed off exactly on December 31st to Tokyo. Helena for some reason was “stuck” with the Chinese police at customs, Ayaka and I were waiting for her watching the clock getting closer to our departure time. Lucky enough, Helena appeared again after 1.5 hours. She explained to us that the Chinese migration agents got Helena’s stay date wrong and thanks to that we remember that stressful time back then with laughter.

 Now in Japan, our tour guide was Ayaka, hosting us at her university dorm, yes, all three of us sleeping at her dorm. Ayaka took us to the best local restaurants, made us try all sorts of dishes and introduced us to the Japanese New Year’s Traditions including watching the first sunset of the year. I remember freezing while we were doing the countdown… 3, 2, 1…Happy New year!! At that moment, once again, we only had the three of us. We just hugged each other and were grateful to be reunited again. Japan for me, has been my favourite country I’ve ever been to. Sadly, all good things in life don’t last forever. This amazing trip was coming to an end. Helena took her plane back home, to Belgium. I stayed a couple of days more before I came back to Shanghai.

 In 2020 I was working as an intern for YFU France in the city of Tours. Ayaka was planning a Euro trip with her family, and of course, she was planning to do our next trip, but this time to Spain. Unfortunately, due to the covid-19 pandemic, our plans had to be cancelled but it is definitely a trip we are looking forward to doing. Personally, I promised Ayaka I would visit her in Vancouver.

Throughout my exchange, I did learn about Switzerland but also about Ayaka’s mix of cultures. I have learned about Ayaka but also about myself. Making friends at the beginning wasn’t easier but knowing I had one true friend was just enough for me. Even though we don’t message or call every single day, I know she will always be there for me. She has been there in my greatest moments and the moments where I’ve needed her the most. We both have seen and followed up on each other’s success and also advised on our upcoming projects. Without a doubt, I can consider her my best friend. Throughout time, we have seen each other grow and we’ve kept on building our friendship. You can imagine we have lots of stories and anecdotes to tell. We still have lots of things together to be accomplished, lots of trips and adventures. We don’t have an exact date or destination where we will meet next, but one thing is sure: as travel buddies, time is relative and the world, our destination.

Author: Santiago Salcedo, YFU Mexico
An Exchange student who went to Switzerland in 2014/15 and created a life-long friendships through the YFU. 

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