I’ve been back in the US almost three months now – long enough to squander any excuse I had for not writing immediately about the experience of being home after six months of being away. See, here I am in one piece:
En serio (seriously), I needed some time to process. Actually, looking back on my 1996 year in Haiti at age 13, in a way, you had to be there. Yet, in another way, I didn’t realize many things that experience taught me until years later, and new lessons from that era still continue to dawn on me. So I’m still processing.
Coming home from Haiti, the culture shock was much more severe than going from the Salmon River to Haiti, I remember. It was the same with this trip, though I forgot (or simply didn’t think) to prepare myself for re-entry. On a trip like this one, you get used to the constant go of it. You postpone thinking too much and throw yourself in whatever direction makes sense next.
Transport from El Salvador to San Francisco (by way of Mexico City) was rough going. A few hours before my flight, my stomach muscles started twisting. Determined to get home, I said nothing to my gracious hosts, who I worried would prevent me from leaving if I told them I felt sick.
I did my best to ignore the waves of nausea and ask questions of the driver and passenger on the shuttle ride to the airport, if nothing else for a distraction from the heaving impulse. In that meandering conversation, I learned things like the distinction between vivero (nursery) and criadero (hatchery), which is an often blurred distinction I discovered while asking clarifying questions. Spanish, like English and all other languages, loves to break its own rules it seems. (The distinction often hinges on whether the facility raises things that crawl around or immobile things such as plants, but not always. Crabs live in viveros, though they are the definition of crawly. Plants also are raised in viveros. Goats, sheep and other farm animals come from criaderos, apparently. Ford, are you taking notes?)
I heaved a sigh of relief when my Salvadorian friends deposited me outside the little airport in San Salvador, even though standing up and moving around made things worse for me. I kept up my denial strategy and shepherded my bags inside to Avianca Airlines. There, they promised me multiple times that my bags would be checked straight through to San Francisco. I guess you have to learn somehow that your bags must pass through Customs with you when you leave any country and enter another, even if you’re there just long enough to catch a connecting flight. Apparently, according to a cousin who works for an airline, this is how people might smuggle things across borders, assuming they can fit in your suitcase. All I was smuggling home was dirty clothes, two hats and two hammocks, however.
Anyhow, when I arrived in the cavernous, swallow-you-whole Mexico City Airport, it was the middle of the night and I was preoccupied with surviving my seven hour layover, not the whereabouts of my bag, which I had no idea at that point was an issue. Amidst chaotic taped off areas, misleading signs and sometimes no signs at all, I managed to get myself on a bus to the other terminal of the airport (with the help of a few locals and no thanks to the driver who wanted to charge me two Mexican pesos I didn’t have and wasn’t willing to go back and get). Mexico City Airport is laid out like a pair of lungs, but with a lot more concrete and hard edges and less regular oxygen intake. When I arrived where the security line cued up for my gates, I was told I couldn’t pass through for four more hours. What was a passenger like me supposed to do, I implored. Sleep in the giant hall outside like everyone else, he gestured. Looking around, I didn’t lack for space – only for anything like bedding. I curled up on my Bolivian duffel bag (with its hats and hammocks inside) and slept with one eye open, trying not to flip over or stir up the contents of my stomach. All around me, a sea of similar sleepers were splayed out on the floor and broad concrete benches like some kind of homeless shelter.
Finally, I passed through my routine search and got most of the way to my gate. You can’t really say that international flights come and go from one terminal, while domestic flights are found in the other exclusively in the DF (Districto Federal) airport. What you can say is that there seems to be a noticeable difference in the level of comfort between the terminal where flights to and from wealthier and more powerful countries are and where flights to and from the majority of the world are found. I was delighted to see a TV with a Grizzlies-Heat matchup. I bought a cup of granola, fruit and yogurt from Starbucks, and forced myself to eat it. It was a purchase with a fixed and insanely inflated price, which made me feel all the more like vomiting. In fact, I couldn’t supress the urge much longer, and at a giant intersection with busy people rushing every which way, I lunged for the nearest chairs. My vision hazed, I leaned forward, trying in vain to visualize where I had seen the last bathroom. Bleh. Too late. But with minimal splatter at least. And a physical flood of relief followed instantly. All I needed was a little corporate coffee and overpriced food in absurd plastic packaging to trigger my gag reflex, it seemed.
I found a line of seats that allowed me to stretch out and waited for my ride back to a world more familiar. In San Francisco we divided ourselves into two groups, visitors and residents. In the resident line, I watched as each person ahead of me handed over papers, mouthed answers to questions, provided a digital thumbprint tied to their legal identity and waited to be waived through. When my turn finally came, I was dreading the thumbprint bit. It called to mind all the spying on citizens my country does, and it made me uncomfy, though the thought of saying so and turning that great eye in my direction deliberately made me even more uncomfy. Grudgingly, I prepared myself for pressing my thumb onto the screen provided. But when I got there, the immigration agent who looked at my passport said simply, without looking up, “Welcome Back.” I didn’t ask questions, but fled for the exit. The signs in San Francisco International Airport aren’t much more helpful than the ones in DF. Eventually, with the help of several flight attendants and swimming back against the flow of traffic, I located baggage claim. But my bag did not appear. This was the first time in my life that I would be separated from my checked bag. At least it was on the flight home, not the flight to Argentina, I told myself. Besides, I’d been living in the same clothes for months. What were a few more smelly days? And this was the world where everyone had their own washing machines and dryers and showers with hot water, anyway, I reminded myself.
My mom was predictably overjoyed to see me. So much so, tears streamed down her face. (It’s a Ring family thing, tears of joy that show up at the most inconvenient times. Fighting it makes the river of tears flow that much harder and faster, so we accept it.) It wasn’t the show of emotion that made me feel awkward, but the English speaking. The way the world just kept right on with its gas-powered determination to self-destruct, to define our happiness by how much we were able to consume. The way the past six months started to fade the moment I touched the ground and slipped back into my old self. The blogging had helped bring friends and family along as I was out satisfying my curiosity about Spanish speaking places, people and cultures. But I could tell immediately when I tried to talk about my time away that it would come out most authentically when I wasn’t trying to distill it down and spit it out. It would trickle out like a spring from a mountainside, at its own pace and along its own path. Still, it helps when talking about it to have a friend with the sense to ask specific questions, to hone in on a detail and start interviewing me about it. The rest will follow, opening up other details and experiences. Because they’re all linked together. Often in ways even I don’t realize until it’s coming out of my mouth. More difficult is when someone carelessly asks “So how was it?” and worse yet is the leading question, “So did you have a great trip?” It’s like saying, so South America happened. What else is new? There is nothing that will shut me down like those two poor framings.
We went first to the home of some family friends who I have known since birth. They live in the mountains outside of Santa Cruz. They are constants in my life. Their kids and I grew up going to the boardwalk, the redwoods and the wilderness together. This made for a nice, easy re-entry while I remembered that I could once again flush toilet paper without clogging the plumbing and that I would need to extract small anecdotes – punch lines if you will – to illustrate my greater experience without testing our infinitesimal and ever-shortenting attention spans. Condors, flamingos, roasted grasshoppers, Argentinian ice cream, termites as bug repellant, alcohol bans during Ecuadorian elections, things like that.
But really, the way I traveled was how I like to do it best. There’s nothing uninteresting in the world. Each place you go, there’s no wrong or right way to experience it. Be open and pay attention. You’ll pick up on the personality and politics of the place, the cultural dos and don’ts. And your experience of it without fully understanding the language allows you to tune in on other levels. It’s like watching a pantomime sometimes.
Sometimes your travels will take you to the kitchens of ex-pats and town halls to teach English, and to cemeteries to remember other peoples’ dead relatives in the pink-orange glow of candles, celosia and marigolds with papel picado waving in the shadows. Other times to watering holes, beach resorts, Belgian festivals, family birthday parties. Sometimes you’ll find yourself up a gravel road and a sunny embankment with a turquoise river snaking below and snowcapped peaks on all sides. Scoring imaginary goals with seven year olds at twilight. Other times you’ll be at a swimming pool with calaveras or quail eggs or swim teams. Sometimes you may be cooking Dia De Gracias (Thanksgiving) dinner, learning the meaning and pronunciation of slang, and speculating about why they call a hangover what they do. Sometimes you may be bouncing through streambeds in the desert, wondering when the spine rattling will stop and trying not to think about the damage you’re causing the ecosystem. Sharing raisins and peanuts while listening to sacred uses of the cocoa leaf and mentally gaping at taxidermied animals on the periphery. Other times you will be scaling mountains on steep staircases, inviting yourself to tea, haggling over cents on the dollar for a taxi ride. Shielding yourself from the exhaust you’re bound to suck in sitting at the back of a ferry. Ordering trout, pancakes, trying to find someone who understands the bizarro coffee preferences of Estado Unidenses. Lost in markeplaces, sick in bathrooms, fleeing fireworks in the street on New Years. Craving peanut butter. Watching the sun set on a game of women’s volleyball on a sandy street on the poor side of town. Wondering what to do about bloody noses and police brutality in bus stations and restaurants. Ditching tour guides. Discovering fava beans with cilantro and onions and lime and salt as an afternoon snack. Bedding down on a street in the middle of the night with backpacks as pillows, cold and unable to sleep, watching the workers of the tourism industry watch you as daylight creeps in and they make their way to wherever they’re going with bananas and sacks slung over shoulders and passengers standing in the backs of trucks. Stretch in parks. Asking for directions, again, and again and again.
It’s all a window into someone else’s reality. Because it’s new and different to you, it’s exciting. Something like buying a used car maybe, or a used anything. A way of recycling perspectives, or at least trading them. I wanted, even needed, to exchange realities for a while. I needed to expand my world, to meet people who also needed to expand their worlds and people into whose world I would fall for a minute, only to leave again. (As a tourist, sometimes you feel like the Coke bottle in the Gods Must Be Crazy movie. You have fallen out of the sky. People are scared of you, and then figure out how to make the most out of you. But in the end, you come from a country synonymous with a big, nasty corporation like Coke and you’re still exploiting the heck out of the world after using up its resources and getting it hooked on you like a bad habit.)
A few days after getting back into the states, I woke up and ran to the bathroom with the worst diarrhea I’ve ever had. I had gone and acclimated to water abroad, and now I had to acclimate back to the filtered, sterilized, floridated, chlorinated water of the US and that would turn out to be the hard part? Go figure.
Do I miss traveling, people sometimes ask me. It’s a fair question, but one that I haven’t yet figured out a good answer for. I am the opposite of rich by conventional standards, but I feel richer having sought out the experiences I did in other countries. I was privileged to be able to go and I am privileged to come home. Traveling is also a window into your own reality; my trip made me see things at home differently. I am glad to be back in this place with this community. I can feel immediately that it is home. To quote a hippie sweat song, “we are always at home, wherever we may roam.” A little woo woo, but also sort of true. I can also feel that I’m more at home on the road than I used to be, able to think about my life in a broader context. And even if we don’t stray too far from home, our culture puts us on the road a lot doesn’t it? Since coming home I’ve been to Redding, Tucson, Berkeley, Arcata, Ashland and Pittsburgh.
I’m nearly finished with a slide show of my travels. I’m staying busy gardening, cooking, hiking, swimming. The river is lower than I’ve ever seen it at this time of year. It’s already like late summer, and technically summer hasn’t even started yet. We can hardly even imagine the type of wildfire season and fish disease we’re about to witness. We are beginning to be forced to imagine the new reality we live in with climate change.
As my world is now expanded, I am left sorting out how to incorporate the many pieces into something that makes sense so I can keep moving forward in a good way. My current existence is a very one-step-at-a-time one. I have to admit that I don’t know what comes next. The more I’ve thought about it, the more I’ve realized that anyone who says they know what comes next is lying, to themselves and others. It’s a fine place to be, the most gorgeous river on earth, not knowing. I’m working on carving out a niche for myself as a consultant working for watershed restoration non-profits, whatever that means. Some days it’s disorienting to be in a place so familiar and yet have no idea where I am or what comes next. Other days, I have to appreciate that this is what I wanted, to free myself up to look at a wider world. In some strange and wonderful way, working for other people has enabled me to work more for myself and my community at the end of the day. So instead of saying I’m lost (which I am), let’s say I’m being strategic.