She looked the part of a cowgirl – sitting atop a horse, wearing a light-colored cowboy hat on her head.
But the experience was one of many new Texas adventures for Finnish teenager Vilja Erkamo.
Vilja has spent most of the past month with Mike and Christine Neagle and their daughter, Miranda, of Chico as part of a short-term exchange program through Rotary International. The Decatur Rotary Club is the host club.
On Friday, Vilja headed back to her hometown of Lahti, Finland, but she was’t alone. She took along 16-year-old Miranda for the second part of the exchange program.
Last Thursday, Vilja, 16, listened intently as Decatur Rotarian Curtis Creswell gave her a quick lesson on riding a horse, including how to make the horse turn to the right or left or how to stop.
“Don’t kick her,” he instructed, “or she’ll go.”
By “go” he meant take off in a gallop, something a first-time rider might not want to experience.
Vilja climbed atop the horse, took the reigns and slowly began to inch the horse forward. Despite Curtis’ instructions on how to make the horse turn, it appears that “Ashley” was content to make her own path.
“She might have trouble with my Arkansas dialect,” Curtis joked of the possible “lost in translation” instructions.
Her new friend Miranda took the next ride, and Vilja snapped several photos to add to her ever-growing collection.
When asked what she liked most about her visit to Texas, Vilja quickly replied, “I enjoy the weather and the people. They are so nice.”
One might think the heat would be a big shock. High temperatures in her hometown now are around 70 degrees, which is about as hot as the temperatures will get in summer. However, winters are long, she said, with temperatures regularly well below freezing.
She seemed to want to soak up as much of the 100-degree weather as she could.
“We were in San Antonio and headed for the shade, and she wanted to stay out in the sun,” Mike said.
The food is also quite different from what Vilja is used to. She said she is not used to all the fast food options. Her favorite of the bunch? Five Guys Hamburgers.
The cowboy hat was also a recent purchase, made on a trip to the Fort Worth Stockyards where she saw a rodeo.
“I knew people in Texas had the cowboy hat,” she said, her English framed with a Finnish accent.
Because she speaks English, she communicates well with her host family, some more than others. Mike said sometimes when he talks to Vilja, Miranda will repeat it and she’ll understand.
As for Miranda, she should also be able to communicate well with Vilja’s family, since they also speak English. Still, Miranda has been practicing her Finnish. So far, she said, she knows one phrase that translates to “Are you hungry?”
Mike and Christine admit they are a little nervous about sending their daughter across the Atlantic Ocean to a foreign country, but they are thankful that she will be accompanied by a new friend.
“She’s a really good kid,” Mike said of Vilja. “We’ve really enjoyed having her over here.”
In addition to visiting the state capitol, the Alamo, Six Flags (twice), local malls and even Southfork ranch, Vilja was to accompany the Neagles on one more trip before the exchange shifts back to Finland.
“We’re taking her camping and will introduce her to smores,” Christine said.
Before heading back to Chico, Vilja climbed back on the horse for another ride. This time, instead of being led where the horse wanted to go, Ashley responded to Vilja’s subtle commands.
“There you go. I told you you’d do it,” Creswell said with a smile.
It was just another Texas lesson learned during this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
And for Miranda, her international adventures and lessons began Friday.