We travelled in Mexico, Peru and Ecuador for five months, living out of a couple of backpacks and carry-ons whose plastic wheels now bear flat spots. Our layered strategy to the wide range of expected climates — from snowy mountains to tropics, translated to so many photos in the same “quick wash, fast dry” sport shirts that my sister asked if I wasn’t tired of wearing the same clothes all the time. The small selection of shirts didn’t bother me, but my socks eventually wore thin.
Travel opens the mind and inspiration was everywhere on our introspective encounter with some fairly extroverted parts of the world. A couple thousand photos. Hundreds of scribbled notes. Encounters with self and others that illuminated and imprinted.
And then in a few hops, home.
There was a deafening alarm blaring in the long immigration corridor of LAX. The fast and sleek, computerized terminals were bottle-necked by the understaffed entry stations. We over-nighted in a “cheap” hotel that cost double what we paid in the Galapagos two nights prior. Our window looked down onto a McDonalds. Welcome back!
Returning to our previously scheduled life was like slipping into a pair of comfortable old shoes. We were (and still are) happy to see family, friends and neighbors. But just as the Theory of Relativity states that you can’t measure motion within your own reference frame, it’s hard to get perspective from the comfort of one’s home. The travel-triggered introspection engine idles. Insight grows dim. One’s observer status fades and fogs with familiarity.
One conundrum about travelling near the speed of light is that when you return everyone will be much older than you. Somewhere, a corollary to the Theory of Relativity must suggest that travelling the world, war zones excluded, renders one less world-weary than those who stay put. While we weren’t moving anywhere near light speed, shades of gray have become more nuanced.
Nobody wants to hear the details, so we learn to summarize our travels in funny stories and soundbites. We try to withhold judgement on those who ask, “Where’s Ecuador? Is the Mexican food good in Peru?” Before this trip, I had never met a Peruvian.
Some wonder if I was worried about travelling in such “dangerous” parts of the world. I answer that the USA is a pretty dangerous place and parents in Ecuador don’t worry about school shootings. Or I mention that I’ve seen more cops with machine guns in France than Peru. Nobody really wants to hear that we have more homeless people camped under bridges and on-ramps in Seattle than I’ve seen in all my travels abroad.
The truth is that I did more to help refugees in Ecuador than I’ve done in my own country.
Rather than hitting directly, culture shock, that feeling of being a stranger in your own hometown, sneaks in around the edges. Why doesn’t Starbucks smell like coffee? I feel disorientated in a supermarket’s miles of aisles. Three avocados for five dollars? (Highway robbery!) Why do these six varieties of tomatoes all taste like plastic?
The answer is simple: the tomatoes taste terrible because they’re shipped hard and green, mostly from Mexico. Unlike lively, boisterous Mexico, the USA feels pasteurized, sensory-deprived, inoculated from the rich pageantry of life.
We’ve learned to ignore our senses.
A clerk in a clothing store asks my wife if she’s “trying to be noticed” by wearing a brightly colored blouse that would not have raised an eyebrow south of the border. “Trying to be noticed” becomes our expression to describe anyone not wearing hipster black.
An irate driver launches a parking lot lawsuit over a “collision” so minor that only an electron microscope could reveal the damage. She threatens an insurance escalation unless the other party, a young mother driven to tears, coughs up some cash. Welcome home to the land of lawyers, guns and money.
On the bright side, lilacs still smell exquisite. I can drink without worry from a water fountain in a public park. I can eat a salad in a restaurant without inquiring about how they washed the lettuce. Jaywalking is illegal. Stores accept returns and Amazon can deliver even the inanest item in a day. The USA is consumer paradise where the streets are clean, stray dogs are few and the crowing roosters have been replaced by the soothing din of a nearby freeway.
It’s good to be back, but within a week of being home, we began planning our trip to Patagonia.
R.S. Gompertz is a native of Southern California who currently lives and writes in Seattle. He recently completed a tour of Mexico and South America during which he spent several weeks in Cuenca. His most recent book, “Life’s Big Zoo,” is available on Amazon. For more information about his life, work and travels, click here.