It is Sunday, July 4th, 2010. Happy Independence Day, America! Today it hit me that I have 2 full days before I leave for Costa Rica, and I have a lot to do before I get done, including my first blog post. So here goes nothing…

A little bit about myself…

My name is Elina Sagaydak. I was born in Ternopil, Ukraine on February 16, 1994. I moved to Skokie, Illinois (a suburb of Chicago) on July 10, 1999, when I was 5 years old. I am now 16 years old and will be entering my junior year at John Hersey High School. I speak Russian at home, understand Ukrainian, and I have been learning Spanish since 7th grade. I live with my mom, step-dad, and half-sister who has recently turned 3. Her name is Alexandra (we call her Sasha) and she is the cutest thing in the world. I also have a cat named Sunny (he’s orange), but I would love it if my mom got me a Yorkie (although that’s not going to happen anytime soon). My favorite colors are lime green and pink. (My dream room would be lime green with pink polka dots.) My favorite/lucky number is 5. I love all kinds of food, but my favorite would definitely have to be Asian food. Yes, I am obsessed with the Twilight Saga, just like every other teenage girl in the United States. Team Edward or Jacob, you ask? Team Edward, no doubt, but I’m also Team Taylor. (Come on, he has nice abs.) I also love Nicholas Sparks stories, and, yes, I love sappy movies. Favorite artists would have to be Taylor Swift and John Mayer, but I like all types of music. I hope to one day become a doctor, maybe a pediatrician or dermatologist, and then travel the world in my downtime. I have been figure skating since I was 7 years old. For those of you that are wondering and don’t know me that well, I do not plan on going to the Olympics; I just love the sport because it’s so unique and beautiful to watch. Out of all my hobbies and activities that I have done (which include ballet, piano, violin, flute, and painting), figure skating is the one that I have not been able to give up. It has become increasingly difficult to stick with it, considering the amount of time school takes up and the expensive nature of the sport, but I do my best to keep up. I have also been playing badminton for my school team since my freshmen year. It’s a great, but tough sport that requires you to use your head (contrary to what people think). It’s also been a good experience to be a part of a team, since figure skating is more of a solitary sport.

It’s been quite a year to say the least.

Last September, I was diagnosed with Grade 3 Pleomorphic Liposarcoma, a rare form of cancer. I had noticed a mass in the inside of my mouth in late June. I went to the dentist, thinking it was a problem with my teeth, only to find that my teeth were perfectly healthy. It didn’t seem like too much of a problem, since it wasn’t particularly painful, so I dismissed the thought as I went on a 3 week trip to Ukraine. After seeing my friends and my dad’s side of the family, I knew my problem had not disappeared. The day after I came back to the states, I went to my family doctor, who referred me to an EMT doctor, which specializes in the ear, nose, throat. He told me, without any scans, that I had a globulomaxillary cyst. We scheduled surgery for the removal of this cyst a week after, on September 4, since I was very concerned about my appearance in school pictures. The procedure was simple enough: make an incision inside my mouth to remove the cyst. The surgery took barely an hour, and I was back on my feet the very same day. This was my first surgery, and my first experience with anesthesia, and let me tell you, it is the oddest thing to be put to sleep in an operating room. But that’s another story.  My surgery was full of complications, including an infection that caused a high fever and the left side of my face to swell up like a balloon for several days. It turned scary when I couldn’t open my left eye one morning. Needless to say, my mother was very concerned and we ended up going to the emergency room. I took a week off of school, and, unfortunately, I didn’t get to take my school pictures as I had wanted to. 3 weeks later, my mom received a call from the doctor who did my surgery.  I could tell there was something wrong by the look in her face. He asked to talk to me and quickly told me the news no one ever wants to hear. They had not removed a cyst, but a cancerous mass. I remember how quickly it overwhelmed me, and the waterworks began. I distinctly remember the doctor telling me my diagnosis was “not a death sentence”. But who could rejoice at such news? It frightened me when I thought about everything I would miss out on if my illness were to turn serious. In the weeks following this call, I visited countless doctors and missed quite a bit of school.  I had a second surgery on October 29 in order to remove the margins, my parotid gland, and part of a lymph node to make sure the cancer was no longer present.  This was a more complicated procedure. The surgery, performed by 2 EMT doctors, took roughly 7-8 hours, given the delicate nature of the area. When I woke up, the first thing I wanted to know was what time it was, because I didn’t want to miss my Grey’s Anatomy! In the months following my surgery, I had acupuncture done twice a week to restore the function of muscles in my face. Although my face will never return to its original state, it looks a lot better than it did before the acupuncture. Today, about 8 months after my 2nd surgery, I have nothing more than a fading scar on my neck to account for my experience, but I am happy, healthy, and very thankful. Aside from check-ups and scans every 3 months, life has returned to normal.

Why am I describing this experience in such detail? Well it’s for several reasons. A lot of people ask about my scar, and as tempting as it is to say that I was in a fight, I end up saying I had cancer. But that really doesn’t begin to describe it. More importantly, I want to pass on is the lesson that I learned, since it leads me to the point of my soon-to-be adventure. What I learned from this was that I should never pass up opportunities that come around once in a lifetime since life is way too short, and this is the reason I applied to the Wandering Scholar program. I wanted to be given a chance to expand my study of the Spanish language and learn to actually use it in a place beside my Descubre workbook. Besides that, I wanted to be able to visit the beautiful country of Costa Rica and be immersed in the unique culture it has to offer. I have also discovered a few things about myself this year, including a talent for writing and a liking for photography. My project will be a contemplation of pictures and videos from each place I visit to show the fascinating things I’ve seen, the memories I have made, and, most importantly, the culture and people of Costa Rica. Of course, I will also be blogging and putting my writing skills to some use. My English teacher would be proud.

It’s been quite hectic since I finished school. I’m proud to say I ended up with all A’s, even in my AP World History class. And not to mention 96% on my Spanish 3 final. Hopefully I can use some of that in my upcoming trip (Did I mention that it’s in 2 days?!?) Anyways, I’ve been occupying myself with figure skating and badminton camp these past 3 weeks. It’s become an endless routine. Wake up. Get ready. Pick up my cousin. Go to skating camp (which not only included figure skating, but also ballet, yoga, and conditioning). Drive (as fast as I safely can) to badminton. 2 hours of badminton. Take a shower. Relax. As my day came to an end, I would usually spend time with my boyfriend and/or friends. I also discovered a newfound addiction with coffee. Lately, my evenings have been spent drinking tea or coffee. Good thing they have plenty of that in Costa Rica!

What have I done to prepare for Costa Rica?

In all honesty, not very much. I had vaccines for Hepatitis A and Typhoid, since these are 2 illnesses that are easily acquired while traveling in the country, but are also easily prevented with a vaccine. The nurse at the travel clinic told me all about what I could possibly get sick with, including traveler’s diarrhea and Dengue Fever. Neither one of those sound appealing in any way; however, during my conversation with Tamara, Shannon, and Anna Marie, I was assured that I don’t have much to worry about since the water in Costa Rica is filtered according to some government regulations and I can protect myself from mosquitoes with insect repellent. The nurse at the travel clinic also suggested a repellent with 30-50% DEET since mosquitoes are more prevalentin Costa Rica than in Illinois. She said anything over 50% is not much more effective, but rather irritating to the skin. Another thing I’ve done to prepare is join the Costa Rica Immersion C group on facebook. It gives me a chance to talk with some of the 14 other teens that will be joining me in Costa Rica before we actually go.

So in the next few days, I have quite a few things left to accomplish.

Most importantly, I need to pack. It is always very difficult for me to “pack light,” and this trip requires me to do so. I’m not much of a shorts and t-shirt kind of girl, but that is mainly what I will be wearing for the duration of the trip. I still need to visit the store to purchase a few things, including mosquito repellent, sunscreen, and a present for my host family.

This is the list we were given for packing:

7-9 pairs of underwear
6-8 pairs of socks (include 2 pairs of long/soccer socks)
6-7 t-shirts, tank tops or work shirts
2 long sleeve shirts
1-2 sweatshirts/jackets
3-4 pairs of athletic/work shorts
2 pairs of comfortable/work pants
1 nice shirt/top to be worn at fiestas or more formal dinners (girls might want a skirt or something a little nicer for such occasions)
1-2 swimsuits
1 rain jacket (rain pants are optional)
1 pair of work shoes/boots (please make sure that you have footwear appropriate for hiking/athletic activity)
1 pair of sports sandals ie Chacos/Tevas etc.
1 pair flip flops (optional)
1 pair of work gloves
1 shower towel (quick dry is advisable)
1 beach towel (optional)
1 Hat
1 pair of sunglasses

Toiletries: Bring the BASIC toiletries you need plus:
Sunscreen (you will use a lot)
Mosquito repellent
Band aids and Neosporin
Hand Sanitizer

Journal and pen
Camera (disposable/waterproof, digital)
Alarm Clock and watch
Visa/MasterCard debit card or US dollars (we recommend about $50-$100, depending on amount of desired souvenirs, extra items etc.)
Durable water bottle
A small gift for host family/village, ie photos of your home and family, soccer balls, school supplies, books, etc.
Spanish/English dictionary

How does all this fit into a duffel bag and backpack, you ask? I’m not exactly sure. I suppose I’ll manage.

For the flight there and back, I thought I should have something to keep myself busy, so I’ve been squeezing more music into my iPod and yesterday, my boyfriend surprised me with 2 new books: A Walk to Remember and Dear John (both my Nicholas Sparks of course). Plus I have summer reading for school. Yay. So I think I have plenty of reading material and music to keep myself occupied.

I have yet to finish skating and will have my final lesson before my trip on Tuesday. Last week, my coach told me that I should embrace the coolness of the rink since I won’t have much of that in Costa Rica. So that’s exactly what I plan to do. I also plan to see Eclipse in the next few days since I have not had the chance to yet. Before I leave, I would like to visit the beach one more time and go downtown into the city with my friends. I’m trying to spend as much time as I can with them now. We went to the beach and Frontier Days, a sort of carnival, a few days ago, and then had a bonfire. Those are always super fun. I know I’ll make plenty of new friends across the whole country on my trip, but I will still miss the ones I have here.

Well, I think that’s all for now. If you have read this entire post, I applaud you for not falling asleep.

Hasta Luego,