Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Red Queen's Race

"It takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place.”
The Red Queen in Lewis Carrol’s, Through the Looking Glass

It is hard to believe that I have been back home for 7 months. That's as long as I lived in Australia. Returning to settled life has not been an easy process, the day to day takes more work to sustain than a transient nomadic life. Monetarily this is defiantly true. It costs more to live here, in one place, than it does to travel.If its wasn't for the overwhelming culture shock of coming home I would have shared more about the process with all of you.In fact I should have.

There is something quite surreal and abstract about reverse culture shock (yes here is such a thing). If you scan travel blogs, or magazines or websites you may see reference to it here and there, though it is often down-played and glossed over.

The psychological and long-term effects of travel are, sadly, rarely discussed. The transformations that happening while traveling, the experiences, the ups and downs, all those are looked into, taken apart bit by bit. But for many writers it can feel like the journey, the fun part, certainly the part people want to hear about, is over once you've come home. As a result, the emotions surrounding the decision to return home, the effect of travel on home life and the changes that travel makes in our lives is left under-represented.

For my own part I have not added much to the annuals in this regard. In fact I have fallen almost completely silent since I returned.

I thought the best way to stretch out the ol' fingers would be to start to fill in that gap. The Returning Gap, that space of time where you decompress from one trip and before you've planned the next one.  The space of time nobody talks about; the reintegration period.

Here it is, my top 5 hardest things about coming home have been:

1) Talking to non-travelers about travel

Even in my well educated, solidly middle class town the number of people who have spent time abroad is lower here than I have experienced in Europe or Australia. Being well traveled is not an essential ingredient to being an successful American. Desired, maybe, but certainly not required. The idea of taking six months or more out of the work force to ‘just travel’ is seen as a bit rash and, in these economic times, foolish.

Which is to say, there simply are not that many well traveled young Americans, as there are Australians or French or British. Which is sad. It’s sad not just because travel is fun and everyone should get to have fun, it sad because travel teaches essential lessons about one’s place in the world. Lessons that are impossible to replicate within the country because they are based on being outside the country. Travel builds feelings of international-interconnectedness. It strengthens cultural ties and expands your concept of what the human experience is.

I’m not saying that there aren’t ways to expand yourself, to experience new cultures, or even immerse yourself in another language without leaving the boarders. I am simply saying that you cannot experience what it is to be an American abroad without going abroad.

When you are on the road other travelers constantly surround you, and this makes for an easy community. There is always somebody to turn to who has shared or exceeded your experiences. At home it is easy to feel isolated, to feel like you’ve been to the moon and nobody knows what you mean. It’s easy to let this get you down.

Complicating this is that the traveler’s desire to talk about their travels invariably exceeds the listener’s desire to listen to travel tales. After the first debriefing upon return the interest level drops quickly.

I mean who wants to hear about endless tropical, exotic travel tales after working all week, week after week. After falling back into the salt mines myself I can see how hearing about it all would really lose its shine, especially if I had no context for it.

Ultimately you end up sounding like a pretentious ass if you go on about it too much. Yet, with so much to decompress, so much to hash over, you are craving a really attentive listener. There are some days where you daydream about meeting up with a fellow traveler just so you can feel like you’re speaking the same language.

2) Housework

I forgot how much effort housework was. It sucks, there are always dirty dishes, dirty laundry, things out of place. It is an endless stream of stuff to do. After a year of having one towel apiece and only the clothes we could carry the return to the consumer driven society of America has been an adjustment.

For weeks we couldn’t figure out why we seemed to always be cleaning until we realized: it’s because we have so much more stuff.  If you have one cup you only ever have to clean one cup.

Dust is my nemesis. No matter how often I wipe down the bathroom of bedroom, a couple days later there it is again. You don’t collect much dust on the road.

3) Routine

I can’t say I don’t like a good routine, but it’s a strange thing to get back into. For a year every day was different, week-to-week things changed. Now I get up at the same time every day, I eat at approximately the same times, I work, I sleep. Weeks seem to blur together, days are gone in a blink.

I think that routine is necessary when you are in one place. Otherwise it is hard to be effective, but they do tend to speed up time. When you know (roughly) what your week is going to look like you don’t pay as much attention to each moment. Its easy t go to sleep.

4) Feeling stuck/ fear of never traveling again
There is a feeling that haunts me, a fear that I won’t be able to travel again. It makes me feel claustrophobic and it comes when a trip ends, before I have energy and resources to start thinking about the next step.

Feeling like I may never travel again is one of the worst parts about coming home.

5) Changes in one's perception of normal.
It’s hard to describe how much travel can change you. It’s often in subtle ways and I think only the most conscious and observant among us can truly detect personal changes as they are happening. As such sometimes you have to wait to bump up against an old perception before you realize you have a new one.

After seeing the condition that people live in some of the harder parts of developing countries, it can be very hard to take the so called “ first world problems” seriously.
I recently bumped a car pulling out of parking space. It was the force of gravity, no acceleration; the car wasn’t damaged, although the owner seemed to think so.  She ran about freaking out about her paint job, pointing to old scratches and blaming me, demanding our insurance info.

 I just kept picturing this man I saw one, he had his abscess in his leg that was spreading own his calve. It was clearly septic. He was just lying on a piece of pavement, a little island in Delhi’s traffic. He didn’t ask for help or beg, he just lay there, breathing. I kept seeing this guy in my mind as this woman went on about her bumper. I found it hard to care.

This change of perception isn’t always traumatic it can be utilitarian too. I know much more about cars now after breaking down in Australia. I have no problem talking to strangers, asking for change or directions, or peeing in parking lots. I tend not to think twice about unclean public bathrooms (I mean at least they have toilet paper). It’s not just me either. A traveling friend who spent a year teaching English in Thailand has noticed this too. Recently she posted on Facebook

“The horrified way some of these cruise passengers are describing their experience leads me to believe that they've never been to a less developed/developing pooping in a bag really that traumatic?”

No. No its not. But I’m not sure many of my friends would agree.

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