I have a lot of time to think and I do. a. lot. I think about the mundane things, the intricacies of culture, development, what it means to really help/give to someone and the fact that as Americans we grossly overestimate our qualifications in this area. I think about things taken for granted and how the decisions of one government affect people in places in all corners of the world. These are things I never would have had the capacity to think about had I not chosen to do what I’m doing. The opportunity to think about these things are what I’m most appreciative of and I will be happy if they’re all I take away from this experience (along with some fabulous hand-made indigenous crafts).

The ability to travel to and live in just about any country in the world is a privilege I, and I’m certain many Americans, never really think about. We take it for granted, its almost considered a universal. Then one day something happens and it hits you like a ton of bricks, you have not only one but two (thanks to the Peace Corps) American passports. With those passports comes a whole world of privilege and resources, how did those passports get into my hands?

Even after hearing the embassy tell us during training about the process for an Ecuadorian to get a visa to the States (even for short travel), I didn’t really understand. Maybe there is such a demand that they have to be incredibly strict and selective. Maybe people do cheat the system and to compensate, people trying to get through the system legally and fairly are denied. This week, that something happened to someone close to me and for the first time ever, I really understood the privileges I’m granted just for holding an American passport. This person has tried multiple times, unsuccessfully, to get a non-immigrant travel visa to the States to visit family living there. I sat at the kitchen table and read the rejection letter, written in Spanish and English, and it made my heart hurt. The words are so abrupt and definite, absolutely no room for discussion. Those who apply are at the complete mercy of the person behind the window.

I won’t pretend I understand anything about immigration policies and why they are the way they are and I’m not implying that the embassy should abandon their processes. However, I think its something most Americans never think about. We grow up in a place with cultural influences from throughout the world, we’re used to diversity on varying degrees, and yet the paths people have taken to get to the United States are often forgotten. We don’t think about what’s on the other side of the border, what people have left behind in terms of cultural values and all that comes with that. A major difference I’ve noticed between my version of American culture and Ecuadorian culture, in general, are the views toward family. From my point of view as an outsider, most Ecuadorians place family bonds above most other things in life. What does it mean for an Ecuadorian when they are denied multiple times the right to visit family members? Sure the family abroad could come back to visit, and they do, but why should someone be denied visiting family just because of the country they have chosen to live in? How is it fair that my family can visit me with nothing more than a passport?

Reading the letter and seeing this person visibly upset about being denied once again, I felt completely helpless, helpless in a way I haven’t felt in a very long time. Really, there’s nothing I can do other than share the story and maybe raise the consciousness of someone who wouldn’t have thought about it otherwise.

And so my friends, that is what I’m most thankful for this Thanksgiving, my passports, the opportunities that come with them, and the ability to share the stories of the people and places they have taken me.