AS I was walking to the bike rack after school one day, an orange flier in the hallway caught my eye. It mentioned a trip to Puerto Vallarta. It was advertising a student exchange program. The next day I went into the school office and asked for an application. Some real doubts about making it flashed through my head. If I did, would I want to go? I was only a freshman in high school and figured they probably would give upperclassmen the places instead. Since my best friends weren't interested in going, would I know anyone on the trip? What would it be like being on my own in a foreign country?
Then one day about two weeks later the president of the organization phoned, notifying me that I had been accepted. I was really happy, but the doubts kept flashing through my mind.
My parents and I went to the orientation meeting later that week. I knew one of the other kids slightly and the rest of them seemed like they would be really compatible. The whole idea of visiting another country and living with a local family would be a real adventure.
Maybe I would live with a family that was very wealthy and had a beautiful house. I had seen pictures of Elizabeth Taylor's home in Puerto Vallarta and thought I wouldn't mind staying there. Maybe my host and I would hit it off instantly. Maybe he played water polo and liked to sail, like me.
Finally the day came. My parents drove me to the high school and we all said goodbye. That was when I had second thoughts: Would it really be all right? We all boarded the van. The door slid closed behind us. Whether I liked it or not, I was on my way to Mexico.
The plane landed in Puerto Vallarta at about 3 o'clock in the afternoon. We exited the plane in total silence. Inside the terminal we found our hosts awaiting us. My thought at the time was: Which one would be mine?
I soon found out. His name was Andr'es. He was short, 17, and spoke fairly good English. He seemed nice and shy at the time, but who didn't? Andr'es was with two men. I assumed they were his father and older brother.
I got into the back seat of the car with Andr'es. We all drove into town on cobblestone streets. The others talked and laughed in Spanish and I wondered: Were they laughing at me? Where were we going to stop? Where was I going to live? The family had a car, so maybe they were wealthy.
My first impressions of the town were a little confused, because I kept wondering whom I was with, where I was going, what I was doing here.
We stopped in front of a building that looked like a garage sale for food. Andr'es got out and told me to come, too, with my bags. I thought we were getting some food for dinner, so I was a little surprised when the car drove off.
I followed Andr'es through a dust-covered door, which opened on a wide hallway leading to a courtyard at the rear of the building. The passageway was lined with birdcages filled with exotic Mexican birds.
At the end of the hall, some women sat knitting. Andr'es introduced me to one of them, whom he called ``Tia,'' ``aunt.'' The women looked me over and as Andr'es took me through a kitchen I heard them whispering about me.
Andr'es pulled back a curtain on the far side of the kitchen and showed me into a room. Along a wall was a mattress atop a few crates. A dressing table and chair stood in the corner and a light bulb hung from the ceiling. A bombed-out hole in the wall was covered by a curtain and looked out on the courtyard.
Andr'es told me this was where I would be staying. Well, it was not Elizabeth Taylor's house, but the room was clean and had everything I needed.
I soon found out that Andr'es lived upstairs with his aunt and her family because there was no school where his family lived outside town. The people who drove us into town were Andr'es's best friend and this friend's dad, who were fortunate enough to have a car.
The next morning, when it was still dark, I was awakened by the family pets, a cat and a chihuahua, playfully fighting on my bed. Andr'es showed me where to shower among the trees in the courtyard. After I showered and dressed, we went out into the street to catch the bus to school.
It was a picturesque ride along the waterfront toward the bullring. We got off at the bottom of a long dirt road that led up to the school, situated on the edge of the jungle. There were iguanas in the courtyard and the air was full of mosquitoes. We stopped to have a cola and taco for breakfast.
Andr'es and I headed for a classroom filled with about 30 Mexican teenagers. The teachers apparently came to class when they felt like it - in this case, three hours late. So to kill time, the students moved the desks, got out a guitar, and taught another Californian and me the Mexican hat dance. We sang and danced until they ran out of songs.
Then they asked us to teach them some songs and dances and American expressions. When the teacher finally arrived, they were going around admiring each other's clothes, mouths, noses, and eyebrows, all in English. By noon I had become acquainted with the whole class and learned some of Mexico's history, culture, and slang.
After school, all the American students met at a hotel beach. Our Mexican friends had to study. Andr'es especially had to study, because it was his last year in school and he had to learn acceptable English to get a decent job in a hotel.
We lay out on the beach, played water polo in the hotel pool, and bought papayas from passing beach vendors.
Other days, after mornings in school, we would go into town, shopping along the main street and at the flea market.
At about suppertime, we headed back to our ``families,'' not for dinner but to get our Mexican brothers and sisters and go out again. The organization sponsoring our exchange had planned parties, at which we played games and ate hot and spicy food. This relieved the families of having to feed extra kids. I ate with Andr'es's aunt and her family only twice in the two weeks I was there.
One evening, Andr'es and I were invited by one of his classmates to her 15th-birthday party. This party is a big celebration in Mexico, like Sweet Sixteen is a big deal in the United States. There was a pinata, a formal sit-down dinner, and a huge traditional Mexican birthday cake. It was a good occasion for me, be cause I was the only native English-speaker. I was forced to use my Spanish.
My stay in Puerto Vallarta seemed to fly by and soon I was packing to go home. I said goodbye to Andr'es and the family, hailed a cab, and told the driver in Spanish to take me to the airport.
As I look back on my experience, which took place 18 months ago, I realize how much I grew during those weeks. I didn't live in Elizabeth Taylor's house; my Puerto Vallarta ``family'' lived differently than I did or had expected they would.
Out of this experience I gained two important things: First, I acquired a sense of confidence about going into unfamiliar situations and being able to cope. This helped me when I went away to school the next fall.
I also gained a better understanding of the way the third world lives. I learned that material possessions are not necessary for happiness. The family I stayed with had everything they needed, no more, no less, and seemed content. This opportunity has changed my outlook on life and the world.