October 25, 2006


The Last Entry From Abroad...This Trip (one year + 28)

Before I head off into the rain kissed streets of Paris I figured it would be a good time to write the "fear of re-entry" post. I've been avoiding it for some time now, not necessarily to avoid the feelings it will evoke, but to avoid multiple entries on the same topic since lately that is the subject most often on my mind.

When I was on Semester @ Sea, the day before we returned to the States we had a lecture addressing the difficulties of "re-entry". Having not traveled outside of the country for extended periods of time, this concept can seem absurd and self-pitying. But if a person has ever left a place and come back later, it is possible to relate. In some ways it can be compared to when you return home from Freshman year of college. You see the familiar streets from new angles and old friends in new light. Sometimes this is exciting because things have changed or remained the same, but sometimes it's frightening for the same reasons. You have been gone a year and grown in so many ways and when you come back sometimes you find you have outgrown what once fit so comfortably.

Returning to the U.S. after a long trip is similar, yet there are whole new and more complicated dimensions. When I returned last time there were new tv shows and clothing trends. Grocery stores seemed over indulgent and over priced. I had missed 9/11 one of the most important events in the history of the world, let alone the country, and returned to a nation more partriotic and frightened than ever before. I could no longer understand our addiction to consumption and the average person's lack of concern for poverty. The conversatons and gossip I had so easily contributed to before now seemed frivilous and shallow. And that trip I was only gone 3 months.
In some ways I am excited to see the change and recognize that which has remained the same, but mostly I am afraid. Afraid to feel as if I don't fit in. Afraid to realize I now hate the things I used to love. Afraid to be annoyed by pop culture and American accents. Afraid to live a life where I'm not seeing something new everyday. Afraid to feel trapped or stagnant when I know I won't be leaving anytime soon. Afraid of the 9-5 (or should I say the 24/7?). But mostly I'm afraid of forgetting because if I forget I may become the things I hate.

I do not want to forget that $5 is a lot of money. I have seen how far it can go and how much it can buy. I want to remember that it can feed a family of 5 for 3 days or get me my own bungalow on a secluded tropical island. I don't want to forget the smiles on the faces of children playing in streets lined with plastic bags and sewage. I don't want to forget the way a girraff runs or the taste of nysima. I don't want to forget the crowded minibus rides or the sound of the Paris metro. I don't want to forget how to have whole conversations with a person who doesn't speak a lick of English or the late night debates with travellers in smokey common rooms. I don't want to forget my awe at the strength and balance of African women as they carry three baskets and their child down a narrow dirt path. I don't want to forget the taste of Pho at a plastic chair cafe, piled high with fresh bean sprouts, cilantro and chilli. I don't want to forget what it's like to look at Michealangelo's "David" from below or the taste of coconut shakes in Phenom Phen. I don't want to forget my frustration with Chinese hospitality, my amusement with Aussie humor or my disgust with some South African's apathy. I don't want to forget the fear and exhilaration that comes with whizzing down the road on the back of a motorbike in Vietnam. I don't want to forget all those little things that make a place different than home. I don't want to forget the change that needs to be made.

The scariest thing about returning is knowing that in some ways I may return to who I was. I know I will never be the person I was before I left, but it's so easy to fall back into the comfortable flow that is The United States. Already in the little time I've been back in the "western" world I've found myself thinking about shoes and clothing, nice dinners and expensive vacations. $5 is already starting to feel useless.

I have learned so much from the people I've met and things I've seen. A conversation can be mindblowing, a moment life changing. I'm smiling right now because I'm sitting in my hostel listening to some backpackers around the age of 19 discuss the bias of world maps. You can tell that for many it is the first time they have ever thought that maybe Europe and North America aren't at the "top" or "center" of the world. I can't help but smile because I can hear some of them learning, learning something that for me was life changing, opening a door to a whole new way of thinking about life, history and culture. I can only hope those who's eyes have begun to glaze over and hands to fidget will one day understand what the others are beginning to grasp.

When traveling, everyday life takes on a while new meaning. Politics is an unavoidable topic of conversation, your eyes develop the skill of noticing every little detail and your nose every little smell. You know that anything can happen at anytime and you will it to happen with your whole being every moment of the day. And sometimes, only as you're about to step on a return flight home do you realize that this has been your life.

Listening to them does remind me of what I'm continuously trying to remind myself. You never totally forget. You may forget the smells or tastes and particular moments of realization but you'll never forget the realization itself. Once you know it you never forget entirely. I guess what I'm afraid of is forgetting how important some of those realizations were to me at the time.

On multiple occassions I've written about how "lucky" I am and how I need to put that luck to use. There is so much hardship in the world and so much we can do but aren't. I don't want to forget how much I want to volunteer or my interest in U.N. projects. I cannot find myself a year from now regretting not being as active as I plan to be. I remember from the last trip how quickly the routine returned. Next thing you know, you're self-indulged again and the motivations to make change have slipped away. In some ways I feel that if I tell you, you will hold me to my promises, your presence reminding me not to be hypocritical.

The other day at the Pompidou Center I saw a photograph of an American grocery store. Inspite of the fact that it is from the early 90's (or perhaps the midwest) it scared the crap out of me. Consumerism is the modern day consumption, eating away at us until there is nothing left but the physical and sometimes not even that. Don't worry, this isn't a recent epiphany, I won't start dressing like a ragamuffin (as my mom would say) or boycotting deoderant. We have all known this for a long time, but I have a new found energy to avoid it's sticky grasp. This energy doesn't stem from a poorly thought out hate for capitalism or the fact that a year in wrinkly rags has resulted in my loss of style. No, my desire to consume less is because of those kids smiling in the face of poverty. It's because of the women in their beautiful sarongs matched in such a way that at first made me chuckle, but now I kinda understand. It's because of the quirky Vietnamese motorbike drivers who took me to museums, waited for me outside and then took me home for under $2. It's because of the market vendors who didn't try to screw me. It's because of the skilled crafts men selling their products on the side of the road. It's because of all of those who could only hear the "Lake of Stars Festival". It's because of the ones I didn't tip and the guesthouse workers who slept by the door and woke up to open it when I came back from a late night drinking. I know these people have asked nothing of me and I owe them nothing. It's not with pity that I think of them, pity is a selfish and insulting emotion. I think of them because it is because of them that I know the price of a pair of jeans can feed someone for a month. Does that mean I won't buy the jeans? No, but I will remember and appreciate them more, and maybe pass up a pair every now and then to give the money to charity. Life can still be good minus one pair of jeans. They take too long to hang dry anyway.

Good God I sound like I'm preaching! But believe me, this entry is more for me than it is for you. It's a release. A constant reminder.

So, next time you hear from me I'll be back in The States. The land of the free home of the brave. The capital of capitalism, consumerism and egotism. Self-proclaimed world peace keeper. Producer of the best cereals and burgers. The melting pot, tossed salad, multicultural hodgepodge of the world. The place where I can run down the road and not be followed by looks of confusion. Where I can achieve just about anything I desire. The place many of the people I've learned from along the way long to go. The home of hip hop. The entertainment capital of the world. The land of opportunity and a year ago the only place I thought I could spend the rest of my life.

As we both know at this point there's really no way to end this blog, so I won't. Travel never ends. Instead of finding a witty and touching way to end this entry I was going to finish with two lists, one with the good things about going home and the other about the things I loved about this trip, but at this point (as usual) I'm running a little late and I'm sure I'll think of a ton more on the plane, so I'll post them later. This isn't the end, just a new destination where I'm staying a bit longer. A ride on the metro during rush hour is a lot like a chappa ride. And to think you thought you were going to get rid of my rants that easily. Muhahhahahahahahahahah. Now I've gotta catch a plane...

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