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After touring the world you can come home again … and it’s shocking

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!

Welcome home to Los Angeles …

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.

… and to high prices for tropical fruit.

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.
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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.

5 thoughts on “After touring the world you can come home again … and it’s shocking

  1. An interesting read for someone like myself. I’ve lived in Ecuador 4 years and am considering my next move, whether to my cousin’s farm in Brazil, back to the US, or perhaps just downsizing the amount and purpose of farmland I have to stay in Ecuador, but closer to other gringos (none living within 25 miles that i know of).
    While I agree that the US is probably a very litigious society, I’ve had experiences here over which I truly wish it was easier to make a lawsuit, including what was essentially the murder of 3 of my imported, best trained, purebred horses and a foal by someone who intentionally sold me a product for cattle when I’d not only asked for the version for horses, but he’d confirmed twice. After their deaths, I spoke with him and he stated that was all he sold, but that should have been declared at the time of purchase. Not only did it lead to at least $50,000 of financial loss (not including my training time and future foal sales), but it’s been emotionally devastating because of the relationships developed with them. If he was one of the poorer people around here, I might be able to understand and forgive the desire to make the $3 to $6 profit he might have made, but he’s actually one of the richer people. Unfortunately, according to an Ecuadorian lawyer/friend from another area, it’s extremely difficult to win such a case.

    1. Great insights. I’m sorry to read of your situation. I’ve experienced similar, but not to the same degree. Although I learned long ago that litigation here———– especially for gringo expats———— is an exercise in futility, but I still do so on occasion. At least an exercise in futility is still exercise.

      A wise attorney of mine back in the old country, once told me that 99% of the time when a client would tell him “It’s not about the money, it’s about the principle of the matter…” he’d prove to them it was really about the money. All he had to do was tell them, “Yeah, I can win your case and you’ll win a 10 grand judgment, but it will cost you 20 grand in my fees and you’ll probably never collect on the judgment.” Just like that, there principles became less valuable than they had thought.

      I guess the wealthy man is the guy that can afford his own principles.

      1. Actually Truthteller, litigation is cheap in the USA. http://www.law.harvard.edu/programs/olin_center/papers/pdf/Ramseyer_681.pdf (scroll down for the tables you want to read)

        Admittedly, a predatory and/or lousy lawyer increases his client payout to no benefit and there are a LOT of those. The truly amazing thing about the USA is the amount of lawsuits per capita…almost 4 times more than its neighbor to the North. Is the incredible rate of litigation due to the difference in the number of lawyers? Canada has 1 lawyer (per capita) for every 15 lawyers in the USA. And I think there are far too many lawyers in Canada..compared to when I practiced 40+ years ago. No wonder US lawyers have to chase clients and invent claims.

        Much of it has to do with an antiquated law and legal structure and procedures that should have been totally reformed decades ago..(according to the ABA. It has not been able to adapt to a modern world. Note that the closest in litigation incidence to the USA is the UK..with the a similar system and problems.

        Were you aware that most Civil Code countries group together and set up permanent standing joint committees on law reform.? Their recommended amendments are adopted as a matter of course. On the francophone side, France, Quebec, Louisiana and others work constantly to keep their law smart and smooth.

        That all being said, I suspect there is a cultural factor in taking lawsuits.

        1. “The truly amazing thing about the USA is the amount of lawsuits per capita…almost 4 times more than its neighbor to the North.”

          Fake news. Everybody knows there is no life above the 49th Parallel. Nobody comes out of their homes up there in the winter and you can miss the summer if you get up late on July 9th. Nothing to sue about there. Move along.

  2. We moved to Ecuador in 2013. About a year later, we returned to our prior home (California) to attend college graduation of a niece.

    We felt like tourists in the town we had lived in for 26 years. And we were SO glad to get back home… to Cuenca…

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