Liz Maag, 3rd from left, and other exchange students at Morrocoy on the Venezuelan coast.
by Karen Diefendorf
Liz Maag returned from a year in Venezuela in time to begin her senior year at Bothell High School.
The 17-year-old left for South America in August of 1994 after seeing an ad in a scholarship book for American Field Service (AFS) exchange programs and with the encouragement of family friend Stu Huggins.
Huggins is a proponent of just "picking up and going" and an enthusiastic bicyclist and adventurist.
Maag chose Venezuela, and after an orientation by AFS, was sent to Acaragua, a farming town of 6,000 in the center of the country and very close to the equator. The average temperature during her stay was 103 degrees. The standard of living was very poor, with few amenities.
The public school she attended bore little resemblance to Bothell High. All the students wore uniforms consisting of blue jeans, black shoes and a tan polo shirt.
The school itself was basically a concrete rectangle divided into class rooms with no windows and few educational supplies. There was little chalk, no books and no air conditioning.
"At first, it was tough taking tests with sweat dripping off my forehead," Maag said.
Although Maag had chosen Venezuela because it was a Spanish-speaking country, and she had had two years of Spanish, she soon discovered she had to start over from scratch. All her classes were in Spanish, but learning the language by total immersion worked for her. After four months she described herself as "pretty fluent," and by the time she returned home, she was completely at ease with Spanish.
Entertainment for teenagers in Acaragua was scarce. There was one movie theater, but for fun, most teens spent time sitting in cafes.
Maag and other exchange students she met used Venezuelan buses to learn as much as they could about the country. They often just got on a bus and didn't get off until the bus reached its destination, wherever that may have been.
This is not something a Venezuelan 16-year-old girl would be allowed to do. "They are not allowed to date until they are 18 and lead a very protected life," Maag noted. "But they all love to dance."
Of her travels, she has many memories. "Venezuela has everything: deserts, jungle, beaches, mountains, and plains," she said.
Maag particularly remembers her visit to Angel Falls, the tallest waterfall in the world, and a trip to Colombia. "Outside the big cities, the Colombian people were so nice," she added.
However, not all her experiences were pleasant or safe. She described a gang of 12- and 13-year-olds who stopped her and her friends and demanded their bags at gunpoint. To Maag, losing the money was one thing, but also in her purse was her passport and credit card.
Fortunately, they were rescued when a young man, who later became her friend, came along and vouched for the group of exchange students.
Other fond memories she returned with were hang gliding in the mountains, and getting what she described as a "very small tattoo."
Her goal during her stay in Venezuela was to leave a true picture of a typical American teenager.
Maag's plans for the future include four years at Boston College and a career in the diplomatic service making use of her talents with foreign languages.
For further information about the student exchange program, call 1-800-AFS-INFO.